Dan Scanlon & Kori Rae interview: Monsters University

We talked to Monsters University director and producer about prequels, audiences, and expanding the monster world...

Monsters University director Dan Scanlon is under no illusions about the perceptions of prequels and sequels; “people will turn their noses up”, he readily admits. Having worked on straight-to-video Disney sequels for The Little Mermaid and 101 Dalmatians, and a DreamWorks prequel to The Prince of Egypt in the years between graduating and coming to Pixar, he’s well placed to know.

To Scanlon, changing those perceptions is a challenge he’s happy to take on, and doing so at the studio that not only topped the $1 billion mark but also received a Best Feature Academy Award nomination and critical acclaim for the third film in an animated franchise, is the perfect place to start. Or at least it would have been, were it not for Cars 2.

Imagine what the story about Pixar and sequels would have been had Monsters University been the franchise film released immediately after Toy Story 3. In that Cars 2-free parallel world, it’s hard to see how any suspicion could be directed towards the idea of a Pixar sequel or prequel. Though the former unarguably trumps the latter, both Toy Story 3 and Monsters University are enormous fun, and a treat for anyone who loved the originals. Had Lightning McQueen not ridden again in the intervening years, Dan Scanlon wouldn’t even have had a fight on his hands.

We chatted to Scanlon and long-standing Pixar producer Kori Rae about making Monsters University, story changes, the sequel issue, and more…

Ad – content continues below

You come from a story background, Dan. What were the story sticking points and breakthrough moments with the various iterations of Monsters University over the years?

Dan Scanlon: Well, we had a meeting early on, at the very beginning, just to say is there a sequel for Monsters Inc. out there? We wouldn’t ever make a film if we weren’t excited about the idea, so it’s just a testing ground. That’s when we went with the idea of a prequel, because we knew we wanted to learn more about Mike and Sulley’s relationship. We thought that’d be a great way to do it.

I think from an entertainment point of view, we thought Monster College would be great, and more importantly, the Mike story came out of that. The idea with a prequel is to actually use the fact that everybody knows how it’s going to end to your advantage. You know his dream of becoming a Scarer is not going to work out for this little guy, but what we learn is how much it means to him, so now we’re telling a story about how you deal with failures in your life, which really excited us because it’s a rare story to tell. Usually we say, ‘everything will work out if you just try hard’ in movies, and that’s a great message too, but the truth is, it doesn’t always work out, so we wanted to make a movie for people to show them that sometimes you have to let go of the idea of what you thought defined you and find out what really defines you. So that was a huge moment.

As every Pixar movie does, we had our ups and downs throughout. In terms of certain areas that were key game-changing moments, for a while we thought the movie should be about Sulley because he was the star of the first movie. Then we realised that even though we were saying the movie was about Sulley, emotionally, Mike’s story was still beating him every time, so at some point we switched it and made it about Mike. That was a big move for us.

With both this and the short, Mater and the Ghost Light you were working within pre-existing parameters for the characters and worlds. Does that make your job easier, or present its own challenges?

DS: It’s funny, we always think ‘oh, sequels should be easier because all the characters already exist’. In a lot of ways, it might be true this much (pinches his thumb and forefinger together) but in a lot of ways it’s also more difficult because you have to take these characters that have already gone on a journey and take them on a new journey that’s different. They have experience and learn new things and so it can be tough to say wow, ‘these characters were designed essentially for this game, and now that game is done so I have to create a new game with these same characters, but they still have to be familiar’. So, it has its challenges.

Ad – content continues below

Is your approach with a sequel or prequel to try to improve upon the original film?

Kori Rae: Absolutely, sure. We both love Monsters Inc., it was a fantastic film and I worked on it, but yes, I think our goal is always to make our films better than the preceding one. It’s our own bar that we try to reach. I think that in this case we added a lot to the world and we expanded the world and that feels great. It feels great to have been able to take the monster world and make it so much broader and bigger and have all the fantastic new characters that they created.

It’s impressively populated. I wanted to freeze-frame the crowd scenes to spot all the details. On that note, can we expect to find any nods to forthcoming films, The Good Dinosaur and Inside Out in Monsters University?

DS: There is one in there for The Good Dinosaur. You’ll have to look very hard for it, but it’s in there. We did our homework!

And all the other Easter eggs, A113, the Pizza Planet truck etc. are all in there?

DS: They’re all there.

Ad – content continues below

As you’ve now done both, can you tell me what the day-to-day difference is between directing a short and directing a feature here at Pixar. Presumably it’s not just a case of getting a better parking space?

DS: I guess doing The Ghost Light was interesting because they were just finishing up Cars, so everyone working on it was such a well-oiled machine, they really knew those characters, they knew how to do everything. My job was really just to tell the story, but it was interesting how fast everybody was. Making a feature, it takes a while, you’re creating such a big world, there’s just so much more development that goes into it and development of the world visually.

KR: The level of scope and the fact that you have to come in and have whole meetings to talk about just a backpack, or a book. The whole scale is so much bigger than a short, so I think your days are just packed with one meeting after another looking at both broadly how the story’s doing, but then also at the minutiae of every frame, which in a ninety-plus minute film is a lot.

Dan, you must have a unique perspective having worked in with Dreamworks and Disney on straight-to-video sequels, then coming to Pixar Studios. How do those experiences compare?

DS: I actually worked for a small company in Ohio that sort of farmed out work from Disney and Dreamworks so I really only ever worked in two studios. The place I worked in Ohio was very small, but a great studio and a good lesson because it was twenty people trying to make a feature in half the time with half the money, so that was a great learning experience.

Sequels, especially the straight-to-video ones, don’t often have the same prestige as original features within the animation community though, do they?

Ad – content continues below

DS: Not just in the animation community. People will turn their noses up at a sequel or that type of thing, but Pixar really works hard – if they’re making a sequel – to make a sequel an original movie, to make it an original story. We want each one to be special, so I take it as… 

KR: Toy Story 3 is many people’s favourite of our films, and that’s hard to do.

DS: I kind of like it, I take it as like, fighting words.

KR: Right. As a challenge.

Historically, Pixar has kept continuity with directors or co-directors with sequels, but this is your first feature directing solo, Dan, and your first feature producing, Kori. Were you more or less left alone to make the movie you wanted to make?

DS: Surprisingly, yes. There was a lot of trust there. That said, at Pixar I think you always have the ear of anyone and there are great people here that made the original movie. Pete Docter (Monsters Inc. co-director) was very involved, I would have lunch with him once a week and just ask him questions about anything, so he was a supporter of the movie and such a big help along the whole process. It’s nice to be able to walk through the atrium and see one of the original creators of the film and say ‘I have a question, could this character do this?’ And also, we had brain trust meetings and we’re all involved in that, so they were very supportive and involved.

Ad – content continues below

That said, Pete [Docter] was one of the first people, and John Lasseter and all the original creators, to encourage us whenever we were changing the characters for the better of the story, and to not think that everything had to be precious. We all wanted to be as respectful of the first film, but sometimes in order to make a great second movie you have to change the characters, they have to grow.

The Monsters Inc. “You’ve been jealous of my good looks since the fourth grade” line for instance, you had to do away with.

DS: Yeah, exactly. They were really great about saying, you know what? I can’t let something like that hold back the story. You have to tell the right story.

Did you go for a U rating for this one from the off, or was there a PG version of the film at one point?

KR: It’s just what came out, and we weren’t sure if it would be G or PG-13.

DS: PG, not PG-13!

Ad – content continues below

I was about to say, what must be on that cutting room floor!

KR: Thank you, yes, PG! That was incorrect. PG. Mostly just because of the scary parts, we knew we wanted those in there and we wouldn’t have ever cut them just to make it a G.

You mean Dean Hardscrabble?

KR: Hardscrabble, and even Sulley’s scare at the end is pretty intense. But his scares in the first one were also pretty intense. No, we don’t set out thinking one or the other, we just make the movie and then we see what comes out.

There’s some talk of animation features missing out on a certain chunk of the potential audience, because animated films attract young kids and older adults, but not necessarily older teenagers and college kids. Does that chime with your experience?

KR: I think that can be true, but hopefully this film is going to get a lot of teenagers.

Ad – content continues below

DS: I’m hoping that the thing that works to our advantage – which we also didn’t do intentionally – but what I’ve heard from friends and Twitter is that a lot of kids who were little when Monsters Inc. came out are now teenagers in college. As this movie’s about college, it’s about a lot of the experiences they’re going through now, so I’ve been really happy to see college-aged kids who seem really excited to see this movie.

KR: Yeah. We’ve had some college screenings of the film and so far, the feedback has been really fantastic. They’re really relating to it, and again having that connection to Monsters Inc. has been huge.

There’s a college setting, and college archetypes, but – we’ve been talking about Animal House and Revenge of the Nerds downstairs – you’ve obviously packaged it for a child audience. Sulley plays beer pong without the beer, for instance…

DS: [jokingly] That’s not beer pong… I always think, as long as they’re just rambunctious and we’ve got monsters breaking stuff and falling out of things and eating garbage out of garbage cans and you can have that behaviour and think ‘this is insane!’ without having them drink beer. The parties still feel pretty party-like.

KR: But without having to go there.

Did you ever consider including a love-interest for either Mike or Sulley, as that’s often part of college life?

Ad – content continues below

DS: I think at one point when we were sort of shooting in the dark for stuff, but it really became kind of a love story about the two of them. It’s a friendship story so it really felt like it didn’t belong in that version, even though romance is a big part of college, it didn’t really fit in this particular story.

To make sure there was a major female character though, you changed the gender of Hardscrabble to even out the balance?

DS: I just felt like, when we were watching the first film, at every point we wanted to do something different and open up the world a little bit and I just thought, we never got to see a great female scarer in the first film, just because it wasn’t part of the story and so we made the change and I’m so glad we did because she’s so much more interesting and exciting.

And if you can get Helen Mirren…

KR: She’s amazing.

Pixar is synonymous with research, so what was the field trip for Monsters University?

Ad – content continues below

KR: We visited universities!

You went on a campus tour

KR: We went on a number of campus tours all over the East coast and here in California. A lot of the story artists and art department crew members hadn’t actually gone to a large university, many of them had gone to small art schools and so it was a whole new experience for them and really, really helpful and necessary for them to see a large university campus with 30,000 students and kind of see what it feel like, what it looks like, all of that. So, we went back to school.

DS: We even went to gross dormitories that were dirty…

Ugh, gross teenage boy bedrooms

KR: Yes!

Ad – content continues below

To get you into the college spirit. Actually, I heard all about the hazings (a variety of fraternity-style initiation tests that the Pixar teams took part in during the making of Monsters University) that you all did. That sounded fun.

[DS looks somewhat sheepish, KR laughs like a drain.]

Dan Scanlon and Kori Rae, thank you very much!

Monsters University is released in the UK on Friday the 12th of July.

Please, if you can, buy our charity horror stories ebook, Den Of Eek!, raising money for Geeks Vs Cancer. Details here.