This interview contains a few spoilers…
Den Of Geek attended a press conference for WALL-E today where the stupefyingly glamorous Sigourney Weaver was joined by WALL-E director Andrew Stanton and producer Jim Morris. Also present was Ben Burtt, the man behind not only the voice of WALL-E and the sound design of the film, but most famously all the sound design of the Star Wars films. As the three took their seats, Weaver – who plays a small role as the voice of the ship’s computer in WALL-E – hesitated to occupy the place of honour in the centre…
“I don’t think I should sit in the middle – I have such a small part!”
First question was to producer Jim Morris, regarding the feted realism and integrity of WALL-E’s visual styling…
“One of the things that we were trying to do in the film was have a ‘filmed’ look instead of a ‘recorded’ look, which a lot of computer-graphics work has. One of Andrew’s reasons for wanting to do that was to give it a heightened sense of reality and believability…so that the audience felt like they were watching a real movie and that there was a cameraman in some place shooting this; not to make it look photorealistic per se, but to kind of go in that direction and add to the overall believability of it.”
Next director Stanton talked of how the project initially came about…
“WALL-E did have a long journey. It was this one sentence said at a lunch in “94; we were in the middle of making Toy Story – we said ‘What if mankind left Earth and somebody forgot to turn the last robot off?’. To me the idea of something doing the same thing forever was the ultimate definition of futility. I just thought it was the saddest character I’d ever heard of. And we immediately said that it should speak in the manner in which it was built, much like R2-D2 did, and wouldn’t it be cool to see a whole movie with a character like that?
“For us as film-goers we thought that would be great, but we immediately said that no-one would ever give us money to do something like that. We hadn’t even finished Toy Story; we hadn’t even proved that we could make a movie. So that’s where it sort of lived and died.
“It took for us to make five or six more movies, for me to get more confident as a film-maker and for the technology to improve. So about seven years later I’m in the middle of Nemo and I find my brain drifting to this little lonely robot, wondering who he is, what the story should be, what it should be about; by then I knew a lot more and I realised that it was the loneliness that appealed to me, and that the opposite of loneliness is love, and so it should be a love story. Not only, but the idea of a love story combined with a sci-fi genre…then I was just hooked.
“I found myself even at my busiest schedules hiding in my office starting to write this, and that’s always a good sign. I was pretty much hooked after that. By then I had more confidence that the audience trusted Pixar and that we could go a little bit more out on a limb and people might follow us there. “
Ben Burtt was asked if it’s true that he relentlessly records and uses sounds from the real world in his movies – even including his wife in child-birth!
“I’ve always found that when you’re trying to create illusions with sound, especially in science-fiction movies, that pulling sounds from the world around us is a great way to cement that illusion. You can go out and record an elevator in George Lucas’s house, or something, and it’ll have that motor sound in the elevator and you might associate it with that; but if you use it in a movie people will believe that maybe that’s a force-field or something else, like a spaceship door opening.
“The birth story…yes, that was on Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, a long time ago. We went to listen to a sonogram of my daughter Alice, who’s now grown-up and has her own child, and it was this great throbbing sound! I was looking for some sounds of alien pods germinating, and it sounded exactly like that. Why not? But it did work, because it was a heartbeat, and there was something from the womb, and [the film] was about these alien characters coming alive…so there’s probably some connection there that worked emotionally, since we were all in the room at that time.
“It’s forging those connections between familiar sound and illusionary sound, that is the basis of the success of a lot of the sounds that sound designers have put into these movies. “
Weaver was then asked about her late enrolment into the cast of the film…
“Better late than never! I was absolutely delighted. I was a stalwart and enthusiastic fan of Pixar.. I remember the sound, by the way, of that horrible pod! [Burtt laughs] I was delighted, even when I found out why I was cast, which was not for my talent but because I was in Alien…[laughs]”
Weaver: “Anyway [laughing]…it’s funny, because I was sent a little film of WALL-E, very endearing, and the script, and the ship’s computer has a limited number of lines. But then I met Andrew and I said that all of the electronic entities in this movie have so much character and soul and heart, and so…
“Being the computer, I also think that I start as the voice of this rather evil corporation that’s gotten us into this mess, and by the end I too want to go back to Earth and find out what a hoedown is. So it was a wonderful world to enter, even as a computer, and I really thoroughly enjoyed it.
“They also really let you play around; I told Andrew that I wanted to have an arc as my character, and levels etc [laughing], and he was very indulgent.
“I think [WALL-E] is a perfect movie. To me, a movie that succeeds at its best is a movie that’s about much more than just the characters in it, which this certainly is from the first second. What I admire so much is that it has this totally endearing, captivating story and adventure and romance, but within such a striking context; and to show Earth as it might be if we don’t take care of it and not to pull its punches…that’s how the movie starts, and I just have so much admiration for the way they’ve taken this on, and how they’ve gone for it. That’s why it’s such a pleasure to talk about – there’s just nothing negative that you can say about this picture.”
Stanton was asked about the inclusion in WALL-E of the obesity crisis and environmental issues…
“I knew all of those were hot-button issues, but I don’t think issues can make a story. I firmly believe that if you as a storyteller truly understand your premise and come to all of the elements that you’re going to use in the story honestly, for a singular purpose, then they’ll all fit into place regardless of how political they might be.
“I’m the least political guy, and the last thing I want to do is be preached to when I see something, so all the things I used…I knew they had parallel issues. I started it so early that I couldn’t have guessed that the headlines would be so prescient. But they were all for the larger issue of the large story, which was ‘What’s the purpose of living?’. You say something like that, it incorporates everything.
“So I figured that I’m not going to let fear make me take something out of the picture just because it happens to be matching hot-button issues; I’m going to do what’s right for the movie. So I stuck to my guns and kept all these elements in. I have been accused of making certain statements and at the same time I’ve been accused of the opposite, so it’s almost more of a reflection of the beholder than anything else.
“What I’ll stand behind is that I picked everything in order to reinforce the statement, the premise that I had, which was that irrational love defeats life’s programming. It takes a random act of kindness and love to get you out of your habits and your routines; you can put anything in there – I happen to use retail therapy – as the habits and routines that distract you from the real point of living, which is relationships and things. And that’s why I used everything.
“I initially started with a plan, not because I had an environmental slant, even though I knew I’d end up going there; it was because it was something real. I loved the idea that WALL-E was this man-made machine that had something real inside him that had been lost on the rest of the world and in the universe. And I wanted him to meet something that was real also surrounded by man-made stuff, which was this organic plant; so the fact that it came from an honest place, I took comfort in.”
A little teasing proceeded on the use of music from the musical Hello Dolly in WALL-E. Did it reveal his love of the piece…?
“ [laughing] No, but it does reveal my background in high school theatre. I’m not saying I’m a Hello Dolly fan…WALL-E has bad taste in musicals, I can’t do anything about that [laughing]. I was in the show [at high school]. I played Barnaby [Weaver laughing]…yeah, isn’t that funny! Thank you so much! [general laughter] But I must tell you, Burt, there’s a guy in high school I grew up with – we used to make movies together. He took me up on a hill with a hammer and hit it on a water pipe to show me how some guy from Star Wars had made the laser-gun sound! He and I did theatre together – he played Cornelius and I played Barnaby.
“So I invited him to the premiere that we had in L.A., because I knew he would know the roots of all this way better than anyone else in my life, and he was weeping when this thing was over, just because there was so much connectivity to it all. Yeah, I did my share of high school theatre and Hello Dolly was one of the many plays that I did [laughs].”
Jim Morris returned then to the original question…
“We didn’t set out to tell a story about anything other than WALL-E and the love story, and the other stuff kind of grew out of it organically. Why would everybody leave Earth? What would cause something like that? What would a robot be left on Earth doing? And those types of things kind of found a place in it. It’s been interesting to see, because when we started it these issues weren’t in the news as much. I had a little concern about it, wondering ‘How’s this going to land?’, but I think it came out of an honest place, the story behind the characters.
“Actually, if you think about it, it’s kind of the story of most science-fiction genre material; there’s always something a little post-apocalyptic and that’s the fuel for science-fiction as a genre. “
Stanton: “Yeah – science-fiction is rarely a happy village situation where everybody did everything right.”
Weaver: “I’m fascinated to hear that some of these issues which are the larger context have grown in importance. I guess I find that last shot where you pull back and the grass is growing over the next hill…really that’s what brings tears to my eyes, that the Earth is also trying to get back.
“I guess, in a way, it’s perfect that the film is coming out now. First of all we need something very loving to humankind and very entertaining, and I think – regarding what Andrew said about answering the question ‘What’s the purpose of living?’ – the idea that none of these people who have made these choices or gone along with these choices are castigated or demonised for being lazy or fat, or whatever; they’re just these big children, and no-one has ever asked anything more of them.
“All of these issues are introduced with not only compassion and lack of judgement, but also with this feeling that WALL-E doesn’t give up, and WALL-E doesn’t sit around feeling sorry for himself; WALL-E is dogged and devoted and whatever he does, he tries to do well. He brings his self to whatever the situation is, as we see the humans doing. So whatever is happening in the environment, I think that one of the reasons I’m so happy that the movie is coming out now is that all the news is so dire…? This is actually such an encouraging movie to watch about the environment…”
Burtt:“I think kind of, in the way that Sigourney just expressed. I accepted from the start the premise of the story, and – like Andrew was saying – science-fiction rarely starts with the ‘happy village’. We start out with this lonely robot in a toxic wasteland…I suppose my first concern is ‘What does a toxic wasteland sound like?’ [laughs] It’s not smell-o-vision, so we can’t do it that way. I did try to compose sounds that were like very lonely and isolating kinds of tones that reflected WALL-E’s isolation.
“But that agenda was not really in the forefront. I accepted it as the setting of the story, but obviously, as we see reaction to the film coming at this time, you see it as an echo of the coincidence of good timing. Often issues in a film that are there for a legitimate reason come at a time when the film gets its attention, and it’s one of those fortuitous moments. That element is something that gives you a point of discussion about it. It gives it that much more value, which to us as entertainers is fantastic to have. An added dimension.”
Weaver [to Burtt]:“Can I ask you a question?”
Weaver: “Can I ask how you came up with WALL-E’s voice? It’s so sweet and there’s something like a little baby calf about it when you hear it, it imprints on your heart like you’re its mother or something. [laughs]”
Burtt: “Obviously, of course, I’m guided by Andrew being the director. I would audition for him sets of sounds that might have just initially been motors and beeps and tones. Something I’ve never told him, I’ll say, in fact: [Stanton] first showed me the ten minutes of storyboards he had cut together for the beginning of the movie; it had some music and it had some sound effects in it, and it was kind of a way of enticing me into understanding the project…
“It was that opening song! The voice in that Hello Dolly that appealed to me in a way that I sort of connected it to the WALL-E character. So there’s a feeling about that. To some extent, maybe the pitch of the voice started out like that, an innocent ‘there’s something out there’ kind of feeling. And there was a thread I picked up on in that. As you know, we went through lots of experiments trying WALL-E as motor sounds only, and some of it was more beeps and whistles and a little bit more of the Artoo realm…
“Although we extracted bits from all of those experiments, when it came down to some of the more expressive vocals, it was a little bit that tone…from that singing voice. I’m not sure why; there was obviously something very charming and appealing about that song, that I couldn’t quite put it down.”
Weaver: “You couldn’t forget it either, could you? [general laughter]”
Burtt: “That’s true. Anytime you’re asked to come on board a project like this, you try to pick up right away from the visuals, from the script, from Andrew’s description of what he wants and what’s in his heart…you just gather those threads together and start weaving it, and that was just one of them. “
Weaver was then asked if her enjoyment of WALL-E was enhanced by the fact that she need not worry about carrying the film…
“Yes, I’m like this really happy hitch-hiker! [laughs] That’s why it’s so easy for me to talk about the movie, because I don’t have any stake in it. I can just actively say as someone that’s seen it twice and fell in love with every element as I saw it, that it’s just such a wonderful, wonderful story to present to everybody. “
Stanton was then asked about studio pressure from ‘Men In Suits’ to anthropmorphicise WALL-E and Eve…
“We don’t have any ‘men in suits’ in-house at Pixar, and fortunately when I came up with this idea, it was during the ‘near-divorce’ years between Disney and Pixar, so there was nobody checking in and I was pretty much a free-range chicken. I was allowed to go with what I wanted. To be honest, a lot of those design decisions I did in the year when you’re most under the radar, the year right after you finish your picture.
“At Pixar they’re pretty much right on to the next film and wondering what’s going to happen next, and they expect you to go and take a vacation and slowly ponder what you might do next. I decided to just jump right into developing this idea. There was literally nobody watch-dogging me, so I got almost all the first act up – the designs of the character, all that stuff – done in private.
“So those are all just pure artistic decisions from me about the look of them. “
It was then noted that WALL-E has given Michael Crawford – whose Hello Dolly clips feature extensively in the movie – the biggest hit of his career…
Stanton: “[laughs] There’s been a lot in the news about Jerry Herman who wrote [Hello Dolly]. Everybody kept calling him saying ‘You’ve got to go and see this film’. And apparently he was just moved to tears.”
Morris: “He knew that the songs were going to be used because we had to clear them with Twentieth Century Fox, and he was kind enough to let us use them. So he was aware of it, but he didn’t really know. He probably thought it was just a little snippet here and there. He was very satisfied, and very good about it.”
Stanton: “Those kind of things make me feel like a million bucks, because to me, getting to work with Ben or Sigourney, or hearing things about Jerry Herman…I just feel like I can’t give back enough what it did to me to go to the movies, what I got out of it growing up and still do. Anytime I work with somebody who’s had any history ahead of me, I can’t thank them enough. I can’t put them in the movies enough. I can’t leverage off that enough. Because for me, it was my whole life. “
Weaver was then asked, having now played a computer, what disembodied voices drive her mad in real-life technology…
“I think it’s always those voices that you hear on the phone who are very polite but never actually hear what you’re trying to do because there’s no correct button to push. I think it’s interesting how people think they come up with the right voice that they think won’t drive you crazy when you can’t get through to someone [laughs]. It’s always a woman’s voice, and it’s always very pleasant and very polite. That would be the one. The one that never gives you the button you need to press.”
Stanton: “I don’t like when my GPS thinks that I’ve taken the wrong route and I’ve taken the shorter route. It’s just ‘keep turning left, turn left…’ [laughs]. I don’t like when it can’t update and smarten itself when I’m showing it a smarter route! “
Burtt: “I’m too much of a madhouse of voices day and night to pick out one. I go home and have nightmares, I’ll hear Darth Vader breathing [laughs]. So that’s a tough one. I think it might be the opening line to the song in our movie [all laugh]. Much as I love it, it won’t go away!”
Morris: “I’d like to do a spin on Andrew’s response. If anybody knows where you can get that John Cleese GPS thing, that I’ve heard about but never actually heard, where it calls you an imbecile when you take the wrong turn…that would be a fun way to experience an annoying voice… “
The Screen Robots Ready ReckonerCheck out WALL-E’s predecessors in arguably the most exhaustive rundown of screen robots on the web.