Wall-E Director Andrew Stanton

<i>Wall-E</i> Director Andrew Stanton
Wall-E director Andrew Stanton is one of the key creative forces behind the Pixar studio. After founder John Lasseter, Stanton was the first animator ever hired by the studio, and has received co-writing credit on many Pixar features, including Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2 and Monsters Inc., as well as directing Finding Nemo and co-directing A Bug’s Life. Wall-E concerns the last trash compacting robot (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class) left on a garbage-infested Earth 700 years in the future. Lonely and a little eccentric, he wanders about collecting human detritus until a sleek new robot named EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) shows up. Wall-E follows EVE back to her mothership and sci-fi adventure ensues.

Andrew Stanton sat down for a "round table” style session with a number of Toronto journalists for this interview; questions are taken from a variety of assembled journalists, included here for the complete interview experience.

This is a very different kind of movie for Pixar.
In either a minor or major way, we’re trying to be different every movie. The way we feel that that’s going to happen is we truly are a director-driven studio. We’re just trying to encourage and support the vision of that director. We’re hoping that that, from the get-go, is going to mean that the film will be unique on its own and will have its own taste and slant. I always knew that this idea was more of an unconventional film, and even when we just had the character conceit in 1994 — and nothing else — right in that first sentence of saying "wouldn’t it be cool to have the last robot on Earth that just kept doing the same thing,” we said "oh, it should be like R2D2 — it should speak like [Pixar’s unofficial mascot, the lamp called] Luxo Jr, just like it’s built.” As artists, we thought that was the coolest thing. The very next sentence — because we hadn’t even finished Toy Story — was "man, no one is ever going to let us do that.” So we just put it away. I’m kinda glad that happened, because I think it took 14 years later for the technology to be better, for us to be better filmmakers, and for hopefully the audience to trust us enough that you can still have just as good a time with an animated picture or anything we’ve done, in a different way with animation. That was a big drive behind Toy Story - it wasn’t the CG, it was that it didn’t have to be musical and fairytales. It could be something else. We’re way more proud in Toy Storyof the type of movie that it is, the way the story is told, the manner in which it’s shot and all that stuff than the fact that we ever used computers. For me, it’s about time that we started pushing the envelope a little more and hopefully opening the audience’s experience to how many other stories to tell. I don’t say "oh, it’s a live action movie, that guarantees it’s going to have a cop chase or a long melodramatic scene” or whatever. I don’t think that way, and I don’t know why people do that when suddenly you’re doing it in the medium of animation. It’s still just a movie — what’s the story? What’s it about? What’s the best way to tell it? That’s the way we’ve always had with any of the movies, it’s just that we’re getting a little braver now.

We think, incorrectly, of animation as being for children.
Which no one ever did at Pixar from day one. Which is why I think it’s so good. I don’t mean this in a negative way, but I don’t think of the audience at all. I don’t go to see a movie and a filmmaker’s vision hoping he second-guessed what I want. I go to see what he wants — because I like his taste and style and I want to see what he’s going to do next. I’m like that with any artist. We’re no different. We’re exactly the same. The day we start thinking about what the audience wants, we’re going to start making bad choices. We’ve always just holed ourselves up in a building for four years and just ignored the rest of the world. No one is bigger movie geeks than we are — we are the biggest movie geeks and filmgoers there are. We speak movie language with each other. We know exactly what we want to see when we go to the movies, so we’re just trying to make that when we do it. We trust the audience members and ourselves.

One of the things I noticed — you’re saying that every film is different — is that both of your films, Finding Nemo and Wall-E, are quest films.
I think maybe there’s a certain element of the quest in any story. In my mind, Wall-E’s a love story. Nemo is a father-son love story but that’s as far as it goes. With this one, I tried to be as respectful as possible to the sci-fi genre. One, I’m just a huge fan, and two, when am I going to get an opportunity in animation to do a film like this? Genre is where I do expect certain things in, if I went to see a Western or a cop movie.

What sort of elements from sci-fi did you want to put in it?
When you come up with an initial conceit that it’s the last robot on Earth, you’ve got to come up with a reason why everyone left Earth. I had to come up with some excuse for that, which would amplify the bigger theme of what was going on with our two lovers. All sci-fi tends to have some sort of slant on society or mankind at some point; sometimes it deals with science or space.

How did you get Hello, Dolly! in the film? [Wall-E watches an ancient VHS copy while on Earth.]
Isn’t that the oddest choice ever? I’m going to get asked that for the rest of my life. When I first did it, I said "I’m going to get asked this for the rest of my life.” Only one other thing I had before that — as a stand in — I had French 1930s swing music. I just knew early on I wanted old against the new and I loved that juxtaposition; it had a very Woody Allen feel. Then The Triplets of Belleville came out — pantomime, all French, 30s swing music kinda style. I’m glad that happened, because it forced me to look harder. I started broadening the scope of not just swing music, but anything old, and started looking at Broadway musicals. I stumbled across Hello Dolly! — I had done musical theatre as a kid in high school and a lot of high schools do that one — and I heard that phrase "out there” in "Put On Your Sunday Clothes.” It was a complete guttural aesthetic choice. It just worked and I couldn’t explain it for the longest time, but I just kept it there. Then I started to realise why it worked for me. This song is about two young guys stuck in a small town who just want to sneak away for a day and have a life and kiss a girl. I thought "that’s Wall-E.” Then I started looking at other songs in the movie, and I found "It Only Takes A Moment.” When I saw the lovers holding hands, that was a big "ah ha” moment for me. Wow — I’ve got a character that can’t say I love you and here’s a way he can, by the visual of holding hands. When you get a gift like that, from an initial inspiration, you kind of take it as fate, like "I should be using this.” As odd as it is, I ran with it.

The whole idea of making contact recurs in the film.
That was my theme — "irrational love defeats life’s programming.” That’s what these two characters, who were literally programmed, and the irrationality of this character Wall-E suddenly being able to have a soul and love and care would have an effect on everything else. That’s a great metaphor for real life. We live in a society where you can distract yourself so quickly and easily with a million things, and fill your day with routine and habit, and not have to do the real tough but satisfying job of making contact with the person next to you, and pushing relationships that are messy and don’t go as planned, but that’s the real reason you’re on this planet. That was the best way to portray that thematically with anyone else going on in the background, because for me the main story was just these two characters.

You discussed being a fan of a individual filmmaker’s work. Can you talk about the tension between the individual directors’ work, as opposed to a Pixar picture?
It’s sort of the best of both worlds. It’s like working on a baseball team. You’re all on the same team, you’re all trying to win the game, but you’re all an individual player on the field or at the plate. You do, in the best sense of the word, push each other competitively to rise to the occasion because everyone wins if we all play the best. You’re inspired if you see someone do great work to try to do that yourself. Fortunately, we don’t have any of the negative things, where there’s a negative sense of competition. Because we’re very mixed together, the way that we’re dispersed around the building — we’re all mixed in together. There aren’t physical clubs. Anyone who has the same kind of job, regardless of what film they’re on, are in one hallway. Cross-pollination is very encouraged in the day-to-day. We try to straddle that, where the individual director can see his vision the way he wants, but they’ve got everyone else as back-up, sort of as second opinion doctors. We have built in check-ins about every three or four months, where we just screen what we have, to keep us on deadline and keep us well paced. That’s a chance for us to be together for two to four hours, give advice, share opinions. You definitely want to hear the opinions of people who are doing the same job that you do. Someone who’s going through exactly what you’re going through, how hard it is, what it is you’re trying to do. Suddenly we become ten times smarter when we’re all in the room together, and we’re able to solve problems that we’ve been trying to do ourselves for several months.

What about the environmental/commercial themes?
Most of that is just satire. I co-wrote with Jim Reardon, who comes from 12 years of directing on The Simpsons, and it’s hard not to be satirical about the world around you. We thought of trash 14 years ago — it has nothing to do with what’s going on now. I didn’t mean to be so prophetic — I didn’t want to be that prophetic. The reason why I picked trash was because it didn’t need any English or narration to explain; it’s detritus of humanity, and it allows our main character to show you that he’s curious about what we were all about by going through our stuff. I remember even before I had act two and act three, that I wanted him to find a plant. I loved the idea — like a dandelion pushing through a sidewalk; all this man-made material, something real was still pushing its way out. That’s like a cousin to Wall-E — Wall-E is this man-made thing encasing a soul, a real desire to live that no one else in the universe is grabbing on to anymore. In a weird way, that made more sense to me, and it was so iconic that I just ran with it. From a gut level, you just felt it. It makes me freaked that me of all people would be accused of having a message movie. All I do is recycle — that’s about it. Frankly, I did everything for the sincere reasons of that premise.

It seems like there could be a whole back-story to how we got here.
That didn’t interest me, frankly. Everything came through the back door of this character: the idea of a robot left alone doing the same thing every day. That to me was the definition of futility to me. I thought, "you can’t get a sadder character than that.” That was the seed that went into the ground. "How do I get to this spot? And how can I do it so I start the movie there, explained to you without words?” I have been asked "how did he get a character?” I don’t know, and I don’t really care.

What were some of the touchstones of Wall-E? The character feels really Chaplin-esque.
We knew we were going into much more pantomime territory. We’re always doing pantomime in any of our movies — I don’t care how talkie our movie is, if you go to any of our movies and turn the sound off, you’ll see us struggling very hard to be able to tell the story with the visuals, the actions and the posing. All this has done is take a layer off to allow you to appreciate that more, but it does create a little bit of a void where all the other aspects of filmmaking — the music, the lighting, the camera work — it all has to raise its game and help in the storytelling. It’s like if you take one sense away, all your other senses get enhanced. I kinda think the same thing happens with the viewer. Once you’re not in that mode of "I’ve gotta hang on to that dialogue,” you’re way more aware of when the music is doing something, when the camera is doing something, and when everything else is doing something.

How many tracks of sound are there?
Anywhere from one to 40. We had to keep stripping it down and simplifying it. If you just did what you’re trained to do for a live action film, is out of all this sound, the dialogue is key. Even when you’re picking your phone up, you’re having popcorn, you’re talking to your friend, you’re still listening for that line. We had to be very controlled and orchestrated, and it was possibly the hardest mixes I’ll ever do, to just make sure there was a guide to go along with.

You have a protagonist without English dialogue throughout the film. In the creative process, how do you separate "wow, that’s a real creative challenge” from "that’s actually a really bad idea.”
You just try it out. That’s the one nice thing about having four years to work on a film — you get to try out all your bad ideas. You spend most of the four years with your movie not working, broken, not looking right, not doing the thing you’d hoped, and racing to try and fix it all. My motto has always been "be wrong as fast as you can.” We know that the process involves messiness and risk-taking, because that’s what art is. Art is not doing the same thing twice, art is not playing it safe, art is taking risks. So hopefully you’ll discover a new fresh way to appreciate an old value or adage or inspiration or insight. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do. The only way you’re going to find that is if you take risks and you’re messy. The one thing I’m very proud of about Pixar, that I think does it make it a particularly unique place, is that it’s not a nirvana, Willy Wonka chocolate river place where everyone walks around with great ideas and we just make them. It’s a bunch of hard-working guys that know it’s all about getting on your bike and falling over as often as you can. What Pixar does really well that I do feel I can take credit for, is we really make it a supportive atmosphere to make mistakes, and we work really well at fixing our own mistakes. In many ways, the process is dependent on you making mistakes. That’s how we find a lot of freshness to things.

You had to spend a lot of time on the interaction between the two characters.
That’s the fun. I sat with an editor and I did it with drawings — it wasn’t even animated yet — I had a bunch of sounds that Ben [Burtt] had done. [Sound designer Burtt, who conceived of and "voiced” R2D2 did the "voice” work for the Wall-E character.] I sat for two days and said "okay, add six frames here, put ten frames here.” That’s the fun part. In a weird way, it’s a very godlike way of working with actors: you hold that pause a little bit longer, you look him in the eyes next time we do the next take.

When I worked with Fred Willard and a couple of the extras for that commercial bit, I definitely got the bug, but I think I was seduced simply because we shot it and finished it in the same day. Wow, that’s amazing. Everything we do takes weeks and months. Spontaneity has nothing to do with animation — there’s no spontaneity.

Was there any point where you felt like you were going off the rails?
All the time. You surround yourself with really talented, smart people who have the guts to tell you when you’re wrong, and also have the guts to say you’re right, when everyone else might think you’re wrong. You have to surround yourself with people that you creatively trust. So I fortunately had a lot of guys and gals that were willing to try a lot of bad ideas with me. I have a term for my group, the directors’ circle, my lieutenants, who are in charge of different departments: not animators, my cinematographer, my head of story, my head animators — these are guys that represent every branch of the movie making, and I get them together a lot. They’re very honest with me.

Is this the last unproduced idea from the famous lunch? [A lunch meeting in 1994 hatched ideas for Toy Story, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo and others.]
Yeah. But there were many lunches and breakfasts and dinners ever since then.