Lee Unkrich interview: Pixar, Toy Story 3, sequels and scary characters

Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich talks about Disney's aborted attempt to make Toy Story 3, tackling sequels, colour and creepy toys...

Toy Story 3 is out now, and judging by our reviews, you’d be foolish to miss out on it. Last week, we managed to score an interview with the film’s director, Lee Unkrich (editor on Toy Story, co-director of Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo), when he wasn’t taking pictures of a small Big Baby figurine in front of London tourist hotspots, and posting them on Twitter under the hashtag #BigBabyWorldTour.

We used our time wisely, asking about the aborted Disney-helmed Toy Story sequel from 2004, how Unkrich crafted this dark end for the trilogy, and whether he has any live-action ambitions.

This isn’t the first sequel that Pixar has made, but it is a sequel nonetheless. How did you approach Toy Story 3? Were there any concerns going into the project?

There certainly were concerns, just as we would enter into any new film. We want everything that we make to be great, whether it is a sequel or not. So, we applied the same rigour and attention to the two sequels as we do to any  film that we make. They’re just as important in our minds.

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I knew that making a third film was going to be a huge challenge. Every time you see a film with three in the title, it means, typically, it’s a bad film. So, we knew that full well, and we knew that the cards were stacked against us to pull this off. But I guess we’re masochists, and we wanted to do everything we could do to break the curse, and make a third film that was as good as the first two films.

There was a Toy Story 3 in production a few years ago, before Disney bought out Pixar. Were you at all tempted to have a look at the work on that sequel, and maybe use some of the ideas?

No, not at all. That was happening, unfortunately. Disney was making a sequel without us, and we were aware of it, of course, and we were very unhappy about it. It was the darkest time in Pixar’s history.

But, luckily, that never came to pass, and when Disney bought Pixar, we were able to shut down that version of Toy Story 3 and start from scratch. And we never wanted to look at it at all. We just wanted to pretend it never happened, and start fresh, and create our own story.

This film is a little darker in its tone than the previous two Toy Story movies. And, while Pixar doesn’t go for traditionally broad villains, there are some creepy characters in Toy Story 3, the Monkey and Big Baby especially. Were you consciously trying to make this a scarier film?

No, I don’t think we ever thought of it that way. There are some characters that are more sinister in the film, but we always tried to do that in a fun way. It’s a kind of fun scary.

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Kids like getting scared, and adults like getting scared, for that matter. And I was trying to stay truthful to toys and the world of toys. There are some toys that, in reality, are kind of scary. And that monkey…I was afraid of that toy when I was a kid, and I always thought it was so strange that someone would make such a horrific toy for kids. And the middle part of the film was going to be a prison movie, so we had to populate that prison with shady, sinister characters, so we had fun doing that.

And this shift in tone is also there in the colours. At the beginning, it is very much harking back to the bright colours of the original films, but then the world becomes darker. It’s even there on the poster. Is that a way to keep the film fresh for you?

It wasn’t so much keeping it fresh, it was being truthful to the story we were telling. Any time you design the colours and the lighting for a film, it’s always in the service of the story. And when the rug gets pulled out from under the toys, and they realise they’re in a bad fix at Sunnyside, and it’s become more like a prison, we needed to stay truthful to that, and make it feel a bit more grim for them.

Some of your associates, like Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird, have made a move into live action directing. Is that something you’d consider in the future?

I probably will at some point. That’s where I started, before I came to Pixar. I’m not planning on doing it any time soon. I think I’ve got a really good thing going at Pixar, and I love making films with Pixar, and I don’t think I would have the same creative freedom anywhere else.

The projects would take less time, though…

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They would take less time, but the one thing about having so much time to make the films is that we can perfect them. And with live action, you almost never get that luxury.

Lee Unkrich, thank you for your time.

Toy Story 3 is out now.