Dan Scanlon made his feature film directorial debut earlier this year with Monsters University: a movie that went on to achieve huge box office success.
We caught up with the director ahead of the film’s DVD and Blu-Ray release to chat about the film and the challenge that he faced.
- Monsters University is about to be released on DVD here in the UK so for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie yet, can you tell me a little bit about it?
Monsters University is a prequel to Monsters Inc, and takes place ten or fifteen years before the first film. It is the story of how Mike and Sulley met: they met while attending a school where they were learning how to scare. Therefore, it is the history of their relationship.
- You have worked on the story as well as being in the director’s chair so where did this project start for you? In addition, why did you decide to take these characters back instead of forward?
Early on a bunch of sat down at Pixar, including Pete Docter and Andrew Lasseter, and we just talked about what type of story we wanted to tell with these characters. That is when the idea of going back in time came up. We knew that we wanted to do something that go into the relationship of these characters a bit more, and something that told us a little bit more about their relationship.
We thought that the best way to do that would be to see it form. I think that led us to the fun of monster college and how funny it would be to do monster college gags. In thinking about that, we stumbled upon the idea of telling the story of Mike Wazowski, and telling the story of a character that didn’t get everything that he wanted in the end the way he had planned.
That seemed something that was very true to us, and very original. It was something that we hadn’t seen much in movie, and yet so many of us had experienced those types of missteps and failures in life: they often lead us to better things. We really wanted to tell a story for people who were experiencing that, as an encouragement. That is where the whole genesis of the idea came from.
- The first film set up these characters and the world in where the story is set, and yet the new film undoes quite a lot of that. Mike and Sulley are yet to become the characters that we saw in the first movie so what challenges did that pose?
I think part of the fun and challenge of a prequel is that we were all different twenty years ago, and so while we wanted to keep these characters familiar we wanted to make sure that they were different and had somewhere to go.
We also wanted to be able to watch them change each other into the characters that we know them as. That is what is so great about having old friends as they really helped you become the person that you are now. The challenge was that we had to change the characters and that is always a little risky.
When we meet Sulley at the beginning he is a bit of a jerk (laughs), and we wanted to embrace that. Mike is also very different as he is very studious and serious. So that was part of the challenge and the risk, but it ended up being part of the fun as we got to see them change.
- Monsters University marks your feature film directorial debut, so how have you found the transition into the director’s chair? This is a huge project to kick off with.
Yeah. I have been very lucky to work with John Lasseter and other great directors and producers over the years as a story artist: I felt like I had had a good education just being around them and watching how they work. However, it is certainly different when you are in the director’s chair yourself. Luckily, I had Kori Rae as my producer, and she is an amazing teacher and an amazing manger of all people.
She set me up with really great leads in each department, and I was able to look to those leads for help. That allowed me to focus on the story - which it the most important thing for the director to focus on - and making sure that is tracking and making sense.
I felt really supported in general by Kori and all of the people at Pixar to take risks: that is always important when you are trying to make something that is original and hopefully connects with people.
- You have mentioned already about how exciting it was to go into the world of ‘Monsters University’ by doing so you have created hundreds of new characters, so how challenging was that? The scope of this film is just huge.
Technically, it was one of the hardest things that we had done at Pixar to date: to have a film with that many characters in it and taking place on a university campus, as almost every single scene is filled with characters. These are not just your normal two legged people; each character has a different rig: there are slugs and things with four legs, so you are dealing with complexity.
A big part of my job was to make sure that the monster in the background wasn’t too distracting, as sometimes that background can become too interesting. Part of your job becomes the choreography of making sure that your eyes still lead to the lead characters.
What is so great about the Blu-Ray coming out is that you can take the time to look at those background characters and the look at all the fun pieces of business that the animators gave them to do.
- So were any technological advancements made to cope with or achieve the creations that you have had to make?
Some things are probably more technical than I even understand. I think that the department that handles crowds on the movie really had a good pipeline this time around. I was able to look at the scenes with crowds in them earlier in the layout stage: that was something that we had never done before. It allowed me to be able to think of the choreography that I mentioned.
Unrelated to crowds we had a new lighting software this time around - Global Illumination - which really adds a richer quality to the light and the reflection in the light. I think that people will notice just has more of a naturalistic quality than we had been able to achieve until now.
- Billy Crystal and John Goodman are back as Mike and Sulley, so how did you find working with them?
They are great. Whenever we could, we would try to record the two of them together - which is somewhat uncommon for animation. But they get along and they make each other laugh, so it really made a big difference when they were together in the room, as they would just riff and joke with each other. It also made a difference in the emotional scenes as they had each other to play off.
For me as a director it was a joy to be limited in the amount of direction that I could give. When you have two people like that in the room, you just give them a playable scene and then you just stand back and watch them go. If anything, the hardest thing is getting them back on track as they are goofing and making jokes. But it was really great.
- Helen Mirren, Alfred Molina and Nathan Fillion are some of the big new additions to the cast list, so can you tell me a bit about the casting process and what you were looking for?
We like to write the character on the age first without having an actor or an actress in mind; we really want to make these character some off the page and off the storyboards: even some of the character design starts before we know who the actor is.
We sit down with out casting department and start throwing out ideas of performers who we think will really capture the character, the quality of the character and will then bring something more to it.
I think in the case of Helen Mirren, we wanted a character that has an authority and is someone who you respected but also feared a little bit. Helen certainly has this quality of respect. What I also liked about her was that she had this fun and dry sense of humour: she would be the teacher that you couldn’t help but like, even when they were tearing you to shreds.
You admired the fact that they were very intelligent and so you couldn’t really ignore what they were saying: Helen really brought that to this character.
- The movie has been a box office smash this summer, but how have you personally been finding the response to the film? And how have you found that fans are embracing these brand new characters?
I have been so happy with how the film has been received. I am just really proud of the crew that worked so hard: as a director, you see their work in every detail and you look at shots and know who animated it, lit it and built that character. To see that people are now connecting with the film, it makes me really happy for everyone’s hard work.
Also, when I see people who have told me that they have had a failure or a misstep and that they related to Mike’s story and were inspired to find a new direction or quality to themselves. That is really what it is all about, and it has meant so much to me to have people come up and say those things.
- The DVD and Blu-Ray is about to be released, as I said, so what special features are we going to be seeing on the release?
It is great. We have all sorts of documentaries on there: documentaries that were shot as we were making the movie. We have one that is just a single day in making the movie: so they followed me and the other artists from the minute I get to work until I leave. It is just following everything that happens in a day.
I find myself watching it going ’wow that looks much harder than it was at the time’ and I am also thinking ’that looks more fun than it felt at the time’. There are also a lot of deleted scenes, and I am excited for people to see those as I think it is a great learning experience as we talk about why we didn’t put them in.
- Finally, what’s next for you?
I don’t really know. I am just wrapping up things on this movie. My hope is to start thinking about another idea for a movie and maybe go on from there, but we will see.
Monsters University is released on 3D Blu-Ray™ , Blu-ray™ and DVD on November 11th 2013.
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