Toy Story 4 interview: filmmakers on new toys, high hopes and Keanu Reeves

We catch up with director Josh Cooley and producers Jonas Rivera and Mark Nielsen to talk about bringing the fourquel to life

Whenever a new Toy Story film comes out, it’s not just the prospect of catching up with the original gang that gets us all excited; it’s meeting the inevitable batch of quirky new characters that the filmmakers at Pixar have dreamt up this time around.

Toy Story 4 is no different: not only does it feature some hilarious new play-things such as Keanu Reeves’ tortured Canadian daredevil Duke Caboom and spork-turned-toy Forky (Tony Hale), but the film also re-introduces us to a major character absent from Toy Story 3 – the now more-worldly wise Bo Peep (Annie Potts).

Getting a balance of old and new characters was a big challenge for the team behind Toy Story 4. But luckily, there was always one major focus: cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks), who’s starting to question his role in the world now that Andy is all grown-up and new owner Bonnie no longer sees him as the sheriff.

Perhaps the bigger challenge for the folks at Pixar was conceiving the film in the first place – after all, many people consider the third Toy Story to be something of an animated masterpiece; the perfect end to a perfect trilogy. “I felt the same way too,” says Josh Cooley, a Pixar regular who’s finally making his feature directorial debut. “But the thing that made me get excited about it was when we realised the end of Toy Story 3 is the end of Woody’s time with Andy, but it’s not the end of Woody’s story…”

Ad – content continues below

Den Of Geek sat down with Cooley and producers Jonas Rivera and Mark Nielsen to chat about the new characters, working with Keanu and the challenges of bringing Toy Story 4 to life.

You’re not only making a Toy Story sequel, but you’re making a sequel to a film many people saw as a perfect ending. How did you go about that?

Jonas Rivera: We saw it as an opportunity to complete Woody’s arc. Toy Story 3 was a really powerful ending in our opinion, and people seem to have really liked it – in fact, they tell, “Don’t mess it up!” And so our thought was how do you use that as a beginning to something else as opposed to an ending. So we thought it was the ending of Andy and Woody, but the beginning of Woody’s new life. And that gave us the opportunity to take him somewhere that we thought we could really have him question his own purpose.

Josh Cooley: If you think about it that way, now he’s in a new location, a new kid’s room with new toys and a new owner and it’s not going to be the same as before. It can’t be. And all of a sudden it was like, “Okay, now this feels new and different and worth trying.”

One of the most important new characters is Forky – he’s sort of integral to Woody’s arc. Where did you get the idea for him and how did you guys go about bringing him to life?

Ad – content continues below

JC: Well he’s a toy that is made up out of a spork and pipe cleaners and popsicle sticks. So he’s a craft project. He’s something that Bonnie makes in school. The idea literally came from sitting around in the story room, joking around and talking about our own kids and how they’ll grab a bottle or a sock or and just start playing with it. And then we thought, what would that mean in the toy world? Would that mean that that sock is alive? And if it did, what would that be like? And so we realised if we have a character that’s a toy that wasn’t meant to be a toy come to life, and he doesn’t understand any of the rules of the world, there’s so much fun to be had there. The comedy of that was great, but then also the fact that it forces Woody to explain what it means to be a toy. So it’s a way to get deeper into Woody’s psyche.

Mark Nielsen: Woody’s in this new place and he’s not really fitting in. And Forky is a great way to just throw a monkey wrench into all of that. Bonnie has this deep love for Forky, this immediate connection and that becomes a real problem for Woody. Because of his own love for Bonnie, he has to go to any lengths now to look out for Forky and make sure that he’s understanding his purpose and is there for Bonnie whenever he needs to be – and then that kind of sends us on a journey.

Probably the new toy that comes closest to stealing the show is Duke Caboom. Keanu is having a great year so far with John Wick, filming Bill & Ted and now this. How did he come on board and what did he bring to it?

MN: It’s funny, when we have casting sessions for choosing our actors, we’ve been doing it blind recently: where we don’t know who we’re listening to. The casting director will bring 25 different actors where we just listen to clips while we’re looking at an image of the character. They were all Canadian in this case because we knew we wanted to cast a Canadian actor. And then when we heard his voice, we didn’t identify it at first but we were like, “That sounds like such a great voice for this character. Who is that?” The clip was pulled from something we hadn’t seen. He came to the studio and talked to us about the role and really kind of embodied the character pretty much straight away.

JC: At that point, all we had was the design of Duke. We didn’t know much more about him. We had some ideas but Keanu came up and had lunch with us just by himself. I pitched him the idea of this character and he started asking these great questions that were like really deep character questions – like, [adopts Keanu voice] “What is he afraid of?” “What drives him?” And all of a sudden, I realised this character could not just be hilarious but much deeper than I ever thought. And I think you can feel that in his performance – he really is kind of a tortured soul.

JR: I don’t know if I’ve known or worked with a more thoughtful actor. I mean he put so much thought and care into the character and he just cracked us up in a real sincere way.

Ad – content continues below

We also see the return of Bo in this movie – was the decision to bring her back made quite early on in the process?

JR: We called the movie internally at Pixar Peep when it was just under development because we knew she was always a big part of it and had to be. Reuniting her with Woody we felt would be an interesting way to kind of go back into his story. He’s always cared deeply for her, and she has for him as well. I mean she was always there in the first film, although only for a few short scenes. She was always this kind of rock to him. She would say “look under your boot”, “remember who you are”, “Andy loves you” and so forth. So she has always been a very strong character but just kind of in the ensemble background – we wanted to bring her to the front and really introduce her in an interesting way. And so that was kind of what was behind it.

Was there a point where you were struggling to fit the new characters with the old characters and to find that balance?

MN: Yeah. That was a constant struggle. There are so many characters in this movie. That’s a lot of characters to juggle and we knew we wanted to include the classic characters. We loved them, and we knew people were going to want to spend time with them. But we had these ideas for new characters that were also bringing so much to the story. So it really was a constant struggle of do we have enough Buzz over here? Is he falling out of the story too much? Is there too much of the new characters? Are we spending enough time with Mr Potato Head? It was a struggle for years actually to try to find that balance.

There are actually quite a few grown-up themes in this movie – Forky’s existential crisis, for example, among other spoilery things. How do you go about presenting those themes for a younger audience and how far can you push them?

Ad – content continues below

JR: Yeah. Forky is a good example of that balance, you’re right, I mean he is having an existential crisis. Forky doesn’t think he belongs anywhere. He questions everything. He questions the whole concept of Toy Story – he doesn’t know to play dead when mom walks in the room and so forth. But we want to marry that with the fact he’s just really funny and has googly eyes. I think we just balance it by iterating over and over until we find the right one. There might be versions of it where it got a little too silly and then somewhere it would get a little too esoteric and we try to find the truth in the middle. We want these films to play for everybody. When I was a kid, I saw the movie Bambi very differently than I see it now. And when we were working on Inside Out we had that same conversation. This is no different. We want kids to just get it and have a good time and it’s a movie about toys getting lost and getting found. But then as they grow up they might see it in a little bit of a different light. We try to make it play generationally.

JC: We always make movies at Pixar for everybody and our gauge is kind of like we look at the movies ourself and go would we want to watch this. And Toy Story has always had this duality of them being physical toys but they have real adult emotions and struggles. I mean the first Toy Story is basically a movie story about a guy who doesn’t wanna lose his job, if you think about it. So there’s always kind of a broader theme that everybody can relate to in there.

How does this project differ from your other Pixar projects, like Up and Inside Out? You’ve got a fanbase here that’s basically grown up with these films over the last 25 years and then you’ve got the new fans as well. How different is it taking on something like this as opposed to a new project?

MN: You know, there’s a little bit more pressure. I think the stakes are a little bit higher on something like this. The love for these characters runs so deep within the walls of Pixar that anybody who came onto this project was like, “OK, we have to give this everything we can.” You don’t want to mess this up because the company was built on this – two of the first three films Pixar made were Toy Story films. So there is a deeper meaning and a deeper commitment that I saw in the crew on this one than I’ve ever seen. It’s a little intergenerational in that we have people who worked on the first one, and then people who were kids and saw Toy Story and it inspired them to get into animation and now they’re actually working on those characters, which is unique to having such a long run.

JR: There’s a lot of pressure. On both Up and Inside Out, there was no expectation – hopefully people like Pixar movies and Pete Docter, so the audience comes to it with a little like “Oh I don’t know what I’m getting but I can’t wait to see it.” With this, people are like, “Don’t mess up our childhood! We grew up with these films.” So there’s a different pressure and expectation that we had to understand and, ultimately, own.

Toy Story 4 is in cinemas from 21 June.

Ad – content continues below