John Lasseter interview: Cars 2, Pixar, Disney, The Muppets, Frankenweenie and more

Disney Animation Studios and Pixar chief creative officer, John Lasseter, chats to us about animation, making Cars 2, and the British rain…

John Lasseter is tired. He’s been doing interviews all day for Cars 2 by the time we turn up in the graveyard slot. A spent cup of coffee by his side, at one point he looks like he might nod off on us. He wouldn’t be the first.

But then we start talking animation and it’s as if fresh jolts of energy are rippling through his body. His infectious enthusiasm for the art comes forth, and we settle down for a chat about it, and his new film, Cars 2

The last film director that I can remember was so senior in a movie studio was Joe Roth, who was heading up Disney in the 1990s.

That’s interesting, yeah.

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And Joe Roth couldn’t make films himself while he was heading up Fox, then Disney. He made Coupe De Ville at the start of the 90s, and then, as soon as he finished heading up Disney, only then he went off and directed America’s Sweethearts.

You, however, seem to have a position where you can run a fascinating, complex organisation, and still find in there the systems to direct a film yourself. How does that work, and what are the ramifications for the rest of your job?

It’s difficult. I’m not going to lie. It’s a challenging thing in my job.

I love both sides of my job. I love being Chief Creative Officer, because Pixar and now the Walt Disney Animation Studios are both filmmaker-driven studios. The ideas come from the filmmakers, and I love working with them, and their creative teams. The heads of story, the writers, the directors, the art directors, the production designers. All the people involved, to help them make their movie the best it can be.

We take all the other directors and form a kind of creative brain trust around them. So, every three or four months, everybody has to show their movie to the studio. And we give notes and help them, what’s working, what’s not working, things like that. I love that part of my job.

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But I’m also a storyteller. And I just love crafting the story. Especially the Cars world, which is very personal for me. I love cars. My father was a parts manager at a Chevrolet dealership, in the small town outside of Los Angeles where I grew up. And I just love these characters. I love the world, the whole notion of the world of cars being alive.

The little boy in me comes out in these things, having fun with it. And therefore, I love to have the opportunity to do that.

I believe that, by directing, it makes me a better executive as well. When you are responsible for a story, it’s like, when everybody gives you notes after a screening, and everyone’s telling you this, this and this, and they then leave the room, and you’re left with a pile of notes and a story that’s not quite working, it’s on your shoulders to fix it. It’s important for me to be able to be in those shoes. Because now when I work with each director, they know I’ve been in their shoes.

Especially the first time directors, the young directors. I can really help mentor them. But I want it to be their movie, and I want them to take ownership of it.

From the outside looking in, what must be the challenge is when you go into whatever the modern equivalent of the Disney sweatbox is, where you’re showing the film and everyone has to critique it. In your case they’re critiquing the boss. So, the challenge from your point of view must surely be that they have to feel they can be utterly open with the boss.

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Yes. Absolutely. I make sure of that.

But what’s nice is that I have around me Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, Brad Bird, Lee Unkirch, Bob Petersen, these guys. They’re tough. They knew me long before I was ever that big boss. To them, I’m their best friend, John, who is a film director that loves to make movies great, and wants to solicit as much help as he can from everybody. That’s who I am to them. And that’s who I always will be.

I’ve seen it time and time again, in Hollywood, when a director makes a successful film, they’re sanctified. And next thing you know, you’re surrounded by people who are- [pulls open mouthed in awe face]. And whatever you do, you can’t do anything wrong. It’s like that’s a recipe for disaster.

You want people to be honest with you. “No, it’s not working. It’s not working yet, and for these reasons.” That’s great.

At Pixar, there are a few ground rules, and I live by those rules. One, it doesn’t matter whose idea it is. The best idea that’s going to make the movie better is used, whether it’s mine or the receptionist’s.

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Number two, there’s no hierarchy of ideas. My ideas aren’t any more important than an animator, a receptionist, or the person who works in the café. It’s really important that we establish that.

The last rule is that there are no mandatory notes. In a studio executive driven studio, you have the head of the studio, the head of development, all these development executives, and then down the line is the director. These executives develop the story, take pitches, have meetings, talk to screenwriters, and make big deals. Then they come up with a script, and at some point in time, they assign a director to it. It’s not really the director’s movie then, because he’s assigned to it.

And then, everybody up the chain gives mandatory notes to the guy. Most of those people, they didn’t grow up wanting to work in animation, where all their life that’s all they ever wanted to do. And it’s like they just happened to get a job in this thing, and they were answering phones the week before, and now they’re a development executive. That’s the way Hollywood is.

This is the way Disney used to be before we stepped in. And there was a great term that was used, that directors have lost their compass. Because they had to be answerable to so many masters, and they spend most of their time dealing with notes.

Instead, in a filmmaker-driven studio, it’s their movie. So, take away the mandatory note, and if I say something and you don’t agree with it, then don’t do the note. Then, you get everybody, Brad Bird, Lee Unkrich, Andrew Stanton, myself, giving you suggestions, saying this wasn’t working, this was working, and you’re all ears. Because now it’s on your shoulder.

But then you also know that everybody is there to make your film, your creative vision, the best it can be. And that is unique in the industry.

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One of the most refreshing things I’ve seen about Disney of late was talking to the directors of Tangled last year. They were working with what I’d consider to be Disney royalty on that film, and they could say no to them. It almost evoked Disney in the late 80s and early 90s to me, back when first time directors such as Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale were making very bold decisions, considering they’d not been in that position before.

[Suddenly, it starts raining heavily outside.]

Welcome to Britain!

I know! Actually, I like this. I was born and raised in California, and summertime there is just hot and sunny the whole time. And now it’s like, it’s sunny, then just as we were talking it gets super dark, and the rain comes!

Even with [Byron Howard and Nathan Greno, Tangled directors], it was a collaborative effort. It’s interesting how, when you start building this culture and they start relying on each other, they get groups together, and push it and discuss it. Everyone loves it. Because if you choose a creative profession like I have, I kept thinking about myself, and what drives me so much is to do something I’m creatively really, really proud of. And proud of for the rest of my life. Something I can just show to people, and when people like it, I feel good.

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That’s almost more important than a paycheque. Doing what you love to do, and then being creatively satisfied. And I realised that if I feel that way, everybody that I work with at the studio, no matter what level, that’s what drives them, too. So, I tend to figure out a way to give everybody a little bit of creative ownership over what they did.

And I’m the kind of director that I feed off that collaboration. I couldn’t have come up with some of those ideas or animations. I try and get across what the story needs from an emotional standpoint, but I don’t tell people how to do it. And the next thing you know, they come up with the most brilliant animation that I could have thought of, and I’d never have come up with some of the ideas. That’s the true beauty of collaboration.

The nice side effect for you of directing a film, presumably, is that you really get a top to bottom audit of just who you’ve got hiding in the nooks and crannies of the company.

Yeah. And that’s what I love. I finished directing Cars in 2006, so think about it. Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up and Toy Story 3 were all created at the studio, and then I did Cars 2. So, a lot of new, fresh amazing talent came in. Animators, art department, you name it, they came in.

So, for me to get to know those individual artists, and that’s something I don’t get to do in my Chief Creative Officer-slash-Executive Producer role. Directing, I can do that.

Appreciating you’re not going to tell me about sequels, would it be your intention to direct a film every five to six years?

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Yeah, I think that’s probably a good cycle that I’ll continue doing. I’ve got to convince my wife. When you’re a director, you really live whatever you do.

One of things I’m really excited about is the breadth of animated films, and revival of puppetry, too. Frankweenie is looking lovely, you brought hand-drawn animation back to Disney, and then you’ve got something as brilliant as The Muppets coming back to the big screen, too. What’s fascinating is that animation itself is splintering like this, and that there’s an environment too, possibly as a result of that, where The Muppets can return.

It’s interesting to be able to have that kind of thing. I’m not really involved in Frankenweenie or The Muppets stuff, but I’m a big supporter of it, though. I just love puppet animation. I love The Muppets, who doesn’t love The Muppets. And to do it really well, and to bring that back, I think it’s going to be great.

I think that something happened after Toy Story, where Hollywood abandoned all the other mediums of animation and focused on computer animation. They were thinking that’s all that the world wanted to see. And it was so wrong, because it’s not about the technology or the technique. It’s what you do with it, the stories you tell.

Tim [Burton] is an old friend of mine, and I just love that he’s kept being the spirit behind puppet animation. I just love that, and I love the films he’s made. Corpse Bride, The Nightmare Before Christmas. Frankenweenie was a great short he made back at Disney when we were there. And it was so great to bring that back. Then there’s Henry Selick’s Coraline, and it’s just magnificent to see this sort of film.

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And I think in a very different way, even though it’s not animation, but The Muppets, the puppetry is so special.

I love the Aardman guys. Nick Park, Peter Lord, David Sproxton. All the clay animation they’re doing is so exciting to see. I love hand-drawn, too, with The Princess And The Frog, and Winnie The Pooh, and what’s nice is that everyone who is doing these different styles is passionate about their technique. And they know their technique.

This is filmmaker-driven projects again. It’s different from studio-driven projects, where they say, “This is popular. Let’s do a story with that.” And you’re going, “Wait a minute. That doesn’t really fit.” Whereas people who are passionate about their technique, they then manage to find a subject matter and a story that really lends itself to that medium. That’s what’s so special.

So, when you see these films, you go back in time to when something is glorious. You get something like Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant. It’s one of my favourite animated films. Henry Selick’s Coraline, too. And definitely the work of Nick Park, and Tim Burton. It’s just so fun.

I love being a part of a healthy industry, where lots of talented people from all around the world are being employed, being able to buy houses, having families, putting the kids through school and all of that, while doing what they love.

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It’s so funny, because everybody just assumes that to work in this industry, you have to be competitive and hate the other guy. It’s such a Hollywood way of thinking, when it’s the other way, the way I am. I love animation, and I love that there are so many studios doing it. And I just want them all to be great, because it benefits me.

If someone, six weeks before, sees an animated film and had such a great time with their family there, then the next time a film comes along, it’s like, “I’m going to see that.” And that’s why I want every Pixar film to be great, because Steve Jobs always told me that the way that people feel about your brand is like a bank account. You can make deposits and you can make withdrawals. If you make too many withdrawals, you’re bankrupt. How the audience feels about your studio, your name, your brand, would be worthless.

That’s why I’m devoted to making deposits. To making every film we make at Pixar be great. And that’s what I hope people feel about Cars 2.

John Lasseter, thank you very much.

Cars 2 is released in the UK on 22nd July.

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