Monsters University is set to hit the big screen this week as we discover just how Mike and Sulley met and how they might not have always been the good friends that we know them to be.
Dan Scanlon is in the director’s chair for the film while Dame Helen Mirren is one of the new additions to the cast list; the Oscar winner will take on the role of Dean Hardscrabble in the movie.
Dan Scanlon, Helen Mirren and producer Kori Rae were in London to talk about the new Pixar movie.
- You wanted to go back to the origins of Mike and Sulley. Why go back instead of forward?
Dan: We knew when we sat down that we wanted to do something that explored the relationship between Mike and Sulley further.
And we thought the best way to do that would be to go back, to see the moment that they actually met - and then we quickly realised that that would be at Monster College.
- Cori how many iterations of the story did you get through before you got to this stage?
Cori: Probably hundreds. We focus on the story, we put it up in storyboard form, we edit and cut it together and then we look at it with other directors at the studio and then we tear it down.
We take notes, we put it back up and then a few months later we show it again and get everyone’s notes down. So we were working on it constantly. It really has been fiddled with.
- And Helen, Dean Hardscrabble is quite an intimidating teacher. Did you base her on anyone from your past?
Helen: Not really, although funnily enough today I suddenly remembered my first interview with my headmistress when I was about 10, for my interview to grammar school. I was terrified; she was a nun as well. I was so frightened of her and she gave me the best advice that I’ve ever had.
She said, “The worst thing about fear is fear itself.” So she was scary but wise and I like to think Dean Hardscrabble is like that. She’s not just scary but she has got a wisdom about her.
- We love Dean Hardscrabble, was it difficult to get into character?
Helen: Well, I was helped to get into character by Dan. It’s always great to have a wonderful director as they guide you and they allow you to experiment and do different things.
Eventually the way that the character finally appears is ultimately a combination of working with the director and of course the other actors who are incredibly creative.
It’s really about finding the voice, the right voice. Once you’ve found the voice, then the character follows on quite naturally.
- This is a film about passion and dreams and how they don’t always quite work out: how far could you identify with that? Was there ever a dream that didn’t work out?
Helen: It is very annoying going through life - we all experience this - watching people who never seem to be challenged and get everything that they want without having to work for it. It is really annoying (laughs).
And the rest of us do have to struggle and work hard and get knocked back and come forward again. And I think that that is why we identify with these two characters so strongly because most of us have had to go through that; there aren’t very many privileged few that waft through life without ever meeting any adversity or difficulty.
I think that is what is so incredibly endearing about these two characters. 99.9% of professional people have had to struggle to get where they are - including all of you in this room.
- This is a 5/5 or a 10/10 film and so if feels that there was an uncompromising where only the best was good enough. So I was wondering what you reluctantly parted with in the final edit, what characters of scenes you had to let go?
Dan: Thank you. I think that what’s nice about Pixar and the animation process is that it takes a long time. So you have a lot of opportunity to fix things you don’t like.
Also Pixar’s very supportive – I felt that Kori gave me an opportunity to make sure we were dotting every I and crossing every T.
So there isn’t a lot that I feel like ‘oh I wish we could have done that’. I’m very proud of the crew and the whole movie and how it came out. We threw a ton out – but I’m glad it’s gone!
- Who is your favourite monster of all time?
Helen: Well, Godzilla’s great. The very first Godzilla, that’s fantastic. Jason and the Argonauts, the Harryhausen film.
But I think the all-time scary, terrifying uber-monster - that Dean Hardscrabble would be very appreciative of - was The Alien.
Dan: King Kong — especially Ray Harryhausen‘s stop-motion version, he’s really creepy. Just the way that stop motion characters move is scary.
- Dame Helen, do you feel like you’re developing in your career by trying new things like this? Doing comedy and voice acting in this and dabbling in action here and there?
Helen: Yes, I’m very lucky and it’s incredibly fun. But I have to say that every stage of my career has been a little bit different but there’s always been, from my perspective, a range of interesting things to be doing.
You make choices in your career and sometimes everyone’s looking at you thinking, ‘What are you doing that for!?’ - But you have to make those bold choices.
But it’s quite a privilege just to be able to make choices. Sometimes you just have to jump into the deep end and do something you’re not familiar with, even if you feel like you’ll fail horribly.
- One of the messages in this movie is for Mike and Sulley to let their inner monster go, so how do you control your fear?
Dan: With regards to working with the movie it was all about focusing on the story. There are a lot of distractions and comparisons to this movie and that movie, but we try not to focus on any of that.
Our job is to focus on the story and make sure that that is taken care of - that puts the feat at the back of your head.
Helen: I think that that is exactly what you do; you just get on with it. You go ‘ok, I am frightened. But that is not the end of the world and I am going to do what I have to do. My fear is my business and I am just going to get on with it.’
So it is really about being practical. The other thing is to pretend that you are not frightened; someone gave me that advice.
- Helen, when you are on screen acting you always have such a strong screen presence and that gives your characters a great deal of authority. In this you have the authority without a physical presence on screen. How did you achieve that just through your voice?
I’m not actually very good… (turns to Dan) Thanks for giving me the opportunity — but I’m hopeless at voiceovers. I would have loved to have been in the room with Billy and John and seen the masters at work and learned from them.
I think Americans are brilliant at voiceover work — I don’t think us Brits are very good at it really… and I have my theories about that…
But you learn and, as I said, I had Dan helping me, guiding me, telling me what worked and what didn’t work. It’s a learning process and I do like to have a presence — just to put it in the voice is quite difficult, but the Americans are brilliant at it.
- Just to pick up what you said before, who are the real-life monsters that scared the bejesus out of you?
Helen: Hmm… Well there were certainly actors when I was younger who were quite intimidating; they probably didn’t mean to be intimidating.
Maybe younger people look at me now and think ‘she is so scary’ but I really don’t want to be as that is not what you are tying to be.
But when I went into the acting profession is was very hierarchical. You didn’t go and sit at the same table as the leading actors.
- Do you think that being made a Dame puts up a certain barrier to some people?
Helen: Yes, probably it does and I was quite worried about that. You don’t want to be set apart… I don’t want to be set apart.
- There’s been a lot of talk about scariness. When you’re designing the characters, how did you tread that fine line in a kid’s film like this between scary and funny?
Kori Rae: Dan and the production team and the artists work with each character individually to work out what they mean to the story and how that character fits into the whole scope of the film.
So it’s a cool thing to watch, because they’ll start out with something, then a week or two later they’ll have something else.
But they’re always trying to get the right balance of what they bring to the story, how they look and whether they’re too scary or not.
- Do you ever stop learning as an actor?
Helen: No, absolutely not! Absolutely not. I’m always overwhelmed by other people’s abilities and I always want to learn from them.
As I said, I would have loved to have been in the room with Billy and John to learn how they did it so brilliantly. I also love working with young actors, because you can sometimes learn the most from them. It is an ongoing process.
Monsters University is released 12th July.