Interview: Wall-E's Writer and Director Andrew Stanton
by Alex Billington
June 23, 2008
I have always dreamed of stepping inside the walls of Pixar. A week ago that dream came true. Disney invited me out to San Francisco to interview Andrew Stanton, the writer and director of Wall-E, at Pixar Studios. I am a true dedicated Pixar fan, from Toy Story all the way to The Incredibles and it's breathtaking to be sitting inside of Pixar with the man who has been a part of some of the greatest films in history. Stanton worked with John Lasseter on A Bug's Life and eventually went on to bring us the wonderful Finding Nemo, easily one of my Pixar favorites (although it's impossible to truly rank them). And now it's a great honor to present my interview with the mind behind Pixar's latest film, Wall-E.
Being inside of Pixar was like being a kid in a candy store. Everywhere you turned, a Pixar memory could be found. There hand-drawn were sketches of Remy from Ratatouille and Wall-E on the walls inches from the ground; concept art, sculptures, and storyboards filled every open square inch in every hallway; life-size figures from Monsters Inc., The Incredibles, and even Finding Nemo welcomed you to the studio. It was a surreal experience but one where I finally got to see where it all happened. Talking with Andrew Stanton to me was much more of an opportunity to talk to someone who had, indirectly, changed my life and inspired me in so many ways - a true honor. It was one of the most unforgettable experiences I've ever had.
I decided to focus my interview not on the obvious questions, but on the more intricate details of Pixar and the development of Wall-E. If you're curious to hear about how Stanton was inspired by binoculars or the basics of the story, you can read our coverage from WonderCon. If you're already familiar with the background story of Wall-E and are curious to hear more, then read on and enjoy!
To start off, can you tell us the story of how Wall-E went from the idea in your mind with the binoculars to actually becoming a film here at Pixar?
Andrew Stanton: Well, actually, I'm sorry, there's no short answer to this, but in '94 we were having a lunch about what to do next because we were finishing up Toy Story and we realized we were already behind schedule-wise if we were going to make another movie soon. So we came up with A Bug's Life from that lunch, but before we got to that, we threw out a bunch of other sort of half-baked thoughts. Some of them just were settings, like an ocean, some of them were your fears, and that's – it's fascinating to see later that they became Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc. But then we just had a character we came up with. We came up with the last robot on Earth, this robot that just keeps doing the same thing, that got left on for whatever reason, and it's just doing the same job. And I just thought that was the saddest character I had ever heard of and I just loved that and I remember Pete Docter and I couldn't drop it for a couple of weeks. We said, wouldn't it be cool if it was sort of like R2D2, you sort of had to infer based on how it was engineered how it -- it would almost be a movie about Luxo Jr. through the whole thing.
And then the very next thing we said is nobody will ever let us do it, because we hadn't even proven ourselves as filmmakers, hadn't proven Toy Story yet and it just seemed so out there. But as filmgoers, as geeks, we were like, I would go see a movie like that! So that just stuck up there for a long time and we got completely swept up in all these other movies and so it wasn't until Finding Nemo that I was having to do rewrites, so about 2002, so we're jumping to eight years later, almost a decade later, and I couldn't stop -- so I started thinking about this little guy again, and I said, he's so lonely, it's such a great character, I don't even know what he's called, I don't why we've left Earth…
And I just started to answer all that. I found myself very quickly writing the first act of the movie, which is not that different then what you have here. Then I couldn't stop. Then, I was like, by the time Nemo came out, this is what I want to do next, and I was definitely emboldened by the idea that Nemo was so huge. I mean, I had gone with my gut on so many things on Nemo that seemed iffy and not so sure. The whole time I was working on them here that it kind of threw me for a loop that it went over so well and it gave me a lot of confidence to just stick with my gut. So I said, well, my gut is telling me to do this movie, so I'm going to do it. So it was in 2003 near the end of the year, Nemo was already out, that I was really thinking seriously about design and stuff like that. And I knew the design of him was going to be crucial to how engaging he was and how much you wanted to follow him and how much you wanted to infer personality on him and the big epiphany was definitely late 2003. I was at a baseball game and I got the binoculars and I think the rest is known. So it had a long gestation period, a long time sitting on the stove, simmering.
And were the higher ups here at Pixar receptive to the original idea?
Stanton: They were receptive to the concept, the idea, but like anybody else, they were a little like, how exactly is that going to work. So I had a lot of leeway because of Nemo. I definitely leveraged off that, because it was so huge, I was sort of like -- this is what I want to do next. And they were like okay. And so I could tell there would be a lot of debate going on about how to do it, not whether we should do it, but how to do it. I didn't want to waste time debating that, so the year that Nemo was out, 2004, people expected me to be on vacation and just slowly research what I may want to do next, so I knew I would be under the radar.
So I actually stayed at work, got three of my favorite board artists and an editor, so I was completely under the radar with nobody paying attention and was able to, without any pressure, just completely free associate how I would want a movie like this to be like. We boarded and put on reels, with scratch voices and stuff like that, the first act, the first 20 minutes of the movie. I figured that I will prove to myself, without any pressure, that I can do something like this and that something like this is possible. If I don't, then I'll just stop and nobody will know and it won't matter, but if I do feel like I've cracked it, then I can just show it to anybody that's skeptical and that will answer it. I won't have to debate it. And that's exactly what happened after about four hard months, we got something that feels very much like what we've watched here and I showed it to John Lasseter and Steve Jobs at the time, who were the biggest guns then, and they said, 'oh, I get it!' And I could tell that when they walked in, they were skeptical. And when they walked out, they weren't, so it worked.
Is technology a limitation at Pixar in terms of building story ideas?
Stanton: No, not at all. Honestly, I've gotten asked that by some people like, where is technology going? I honestly sit there and go, you know what, I kind of think it's here, I think it's been here since Lord of the Rings, I kind of feel like – all the paint and brushes and canvas that you need to realize what you've been imagining are there, now it's just more of a reflection of how good you are with the technology and how good of an artist and visionary are you to use it. But there's the paint, there's the brush, there's the canvas. You can paint whatever you want and I think that's been possible for at least the last five or six years.
To come back to Wall-E, how did you come up with Hello, Dolly! as the film Wall-E watches in his truck?
Stanton: I know, it's bizarre isn't it?
Yeah! I mean, I love the choice--
Stanton: I know, and I love the choice, too, and I couldn't explain it at first. I just knew I wanted an old-fashioned song against space, and I just loved the future against the past, but I thought that's millions of songs. Which one do I pick? And so I started going into standards and a lot of standards come from musicals, and that sort of led me to musicals, and I did musical theater as a kid, so I knew a lot of them. I got to Hello, Dolly!, and I was just hittin' songs on iTunes, and you're just hearing the beginnings and I hear 'Out there…' and I loved it! I was like, that just works, I can't even explain, it just works, with the stars and what a great way to kick off the movie. It kind of propels you into it and it was a great juxtaposition to such a dire background. I loved the two together. I thought it really balanced the movie and it really, in a weird way, helped you meet Wall-E before you meet him.
Then when I thought about the song, I said, why do I like this so much and then I realized not only is it catchy and it has this sort of naiveté to it, but it's about these two guys that have never left their small town and they want to go out into the big world and kiss a girl. And I thought -- that's Wall-E, that's it! So I started looking at other songs, just to see if there would be any other epiphanies, and I got this huge one from watching the movie and seeing 'It Only Takes a Moment' with the two lovers and when I saw them hold hands, it was like, that's exactly it, that's how we will convey that the phrase 'I love you.' When you get that much back from research, you just take it as fate, you just go -- I know and I'm running with it. I know I will be answering this question for the rest of my life, but it's a price I'm willing to pay because it just works.
Did you have any trouble getting the rights to it?
Stanton: No, fortunately we got a lot of cooperation from Fox. We knew enough people that knew each other, we could get past all the red tape, talk to the right people.
How do you go about developing a story, like in Wall-E, that really doesn't have a lot of dialogue. How do you go about writing that?
Stanton: Here's my argument. There's dialogue from frame one. Each of those beeps and those squawks and those whirrs mean something and they're trying to convey a specific thing, so I actually wrote the script with dialogue – wrote it just like a regular script. I would just put the dialogue in brackets. So if he says 'hey, come over here,' I wrote 'hey, come over here' and I put it in brackets. Now it was a map for me and for anybody else, for Ben Burtt, whoever. When you put in a sound, it's got to convey that. And so it was actually very conventional how I wrote it.
The only thing I did that was a little unconventional, is the manner in which I formatted the script. I was very inspired by Dan O'Bannon's script for Alien. His description paragraphs were not your typical paragraphs, they were actually small phrases that were all left justified, almost like a haiku, and they created this rhythm of just being in the moment of quiet and visual. And you found yourself reading the descriptions much more than you normally do a script because of that form, instead of just skipping to the dialogue. It really kind of paced you as a reader and gave you the much more visceral feel of what it will be like to watch that movie. So I used that for Wall-E -- it really helped.
I was very curious about that. And talking about Ben Burtt, I also recently heard that Roger Deakins was involved as a visual consultant on this as well.
Stanton: For a short while, yeah.
Which to me – both of those people are incredible to have on a film like this.
Stanton: And Dennis Muren we had for a couple of months, which was huge. Those three really, really – well Ben, he was the actor. I was casting the character and I was casting all these other characters, so to me that was like two-thirds of my casting. Dennis and Roger were, for more similar reasons, that we wanted to crack the conventionalities of integration, like how to make you truly feel like you're really there. Dennis Muren is the master, and has been for decades now, of integrating the latest in effects into live action and how to make it just feel seamless. Roger Deakins is one of the best cinematographers and so he has a real association with how to light and how to use the camera. And we really wanted both the sense of believability, it wasn't – even though I know it really dips into photorealism, I wasn't trying to trick you into thinking you were there, I just wanted you to believe you were there as much as possible. So much of that was what you were truly seeing in the background, which Dennis was a help on, and what the camera was doing, which Roger was a help with.
We actually had a lot of stuff that wasn't correct in our software. The math wasn't doing the right thing, so all the subtle imperfections that you're used to, that you don't pay attention to that happen with the camera lens -- the way things go distorted in the background, when they do it, how the plane of focus works, what things do in the foreground -- all that was either slightly or majorly incorrect with our software, and had always been. I wanted to use the camera much more directly as a tool for intimacy in the film. I mean, I got a metal box falling in love with a metal box and a dystopian background, where am I going to get the intimacy? I'm going to use it with the camera by how shallow of a lens we use and how shallow the focus is, how narrow the lens is. So fixing all that and having Roger there to sort of confirm that we were in the right ballpark with it visually was just key to getting a lot of what comes, I think, unconsciously when you're watching the film.
You were one of the first hired at Pixar in the animation department and I'm interested in how you've seen Pixar grow over the years.
Stanton: What's fascinating about it is that in a weird way it's never been the same place for more than a year and a half, it's always changed. It's interesting for me to see people panic when we get to a certain size or Disney bought us or whatever and then they all have legitimate concerns but the sense of the act of just the fact that we're changing has never worried me because that's all I've ever known. It's almost this consistent rhythm of change. The thing that's never changed that amazes me, is that if you were to go back and sort of gauge the atmosphere and the sensibility of the ten of us when I was first on, and then gauge it now with a thousand, it's no different. It's fascinating, it's a real experiment.
When we were really small, no matter what the job was, you got interviewed by everybody that was in the group because we cared more about what it was like to work with you late into the night than whether you were qualified for the job. So almost who you were mattered more than what your skills were and that in a weird way has not changed. It's almost like, if you get enough good apples in a barrel, the bad apples just can't stay and they just outnumber the bad apples. So it's sort of this positive form of attrition that's just sort of happened over the years and it's not a perfect place and nobody's perfect, but the reason everybody works so hard-- Somebody had an interesting point the other day, they said, we never get any leaks out of Pixar and yet we do nothing to be tight with our security about it and I think it's because everybody's happy and everybody loves this place and nobody wants to see it go away or falter. They don't want to contribute to putting a chink in the wall, so everybody keeps their mouth shut, which I think is more of a testament than anything to how happy people are working here.
I actually read a quote of yours recently that said, "the day we start thinking about what the audience wants we're going to make bad choices." I love that quote and I wanted you to elaborate more on that and how it plays into the way films get made here.
Stanton: Yeah. I've been saying that since Toy Story. Honestly, we were so driven on Toy Story, we just knew we wanted to make this kind of a movie and nothing was going to stop us no matter what anybody said. When the dust settled and the film came out and it was so well received, we realized so much of that was because we listened to our gut, and I would say the filmgoer part of our gut, not just the filmmaker.
We're all film geeks, we all go and see more movies than you guys ever could and we're all out-geeking each other and out-quoting each other. We love the movies and we are just as disappointed, just as frustrated, just as excited by all the same things. So we feel like that's the part of the film audience to trust -- the audience in ourselves. We don't need to guess what other people want. I don't go to see another filmmaker's movie hoping he's guessed what I want. I go to see it because I like his sensibility and I want to see what he wants to do next, or she wants to do next. Because that was such a direct reason Toy Story worked, because we just finally got to this point of crisis and said, let's just go with what we want, we've been trying to please people for all this time, that we just know that that is the way to stay from here on out, no matter what people say or do.
I think even if we had a film that didn't do well, that wouldn't stop us. I don't see any good from trying to second guess – that just feels like you'll be spinning in a circle for the rest of your life because there'll always be somebody that likes something that you don't or doesn't like something that you do. You'll always find something to derail yourself so why listen to that. You can't please everybody.
That makes a lot of sense… You're writing John Carter of Mars, right?
Stanton: I am. Me and Mark Andrews.
Is it going to be CGI or live action or a mix?
Stanton: We don't know. We honestly don't know, because it's clearly got to be a hybrid of some sort and we're going to basically spend the first -- this year for sure -- just worrying about the story. That's one thing I've learned working on all these movies, is there's plenty of time and very quick ways to answer what way you're going to make something look and you can use it as a crutch to distract yourself from the hard work of making your story work. So we're just completely not even thinking about that stuff. This year is just about writing the script to make it as good as it can possibly be.
And are you worried about the violence in the books?
Stanton: No, no. We'll find the proper venue to put the movie out.
So is this still going to be in the Pixar vein?
Stanton: Who knows? Honestly, this is the pollyanna year where you're just like, let's just make it the movie it should be and then everybody can wring their hands and figure out how the best way is to show it, rate it, distribute it, all that stuff. That should all be decided on based on the story, so it's just about the story now.
Last question: What are your five favorite films? Not to put you on the spot…
Stanton: Really? Films in general?
Those are two you can't compare!
Stanton: I know!
Thanks to both Andrew Stanton at everyone at Disney for one of the most amazing interviews I've ever had. It has always been a dream of mine to interview one of the brilliant minds from Pixar and it was an honor to see it come true. Wall-E arrives in theaters this coming weekend and is definitely a film you do not want to miss!