Director Dan Scanlon Talks MONSTERS UNIVERSITY, Landing His Directorial Debut, Who He Went to for Advice and the Film’s Technological Advancements

     June 18, 2013


As a fan of many of their movies, I’ve been wanting to go to Pixar, for some time now.  And since you have to either work there, know someone who works there, or get an invite to go there, I jumped at the recent opportunity to make the trip to Emeryville, do interviews for their latest feature film, Monsters University, and had a great time while I was there.  The film follows Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal), who arrives at the campus with the dream of becoming a Scarer while James “Sulley” Sullivan (voiced by John Goodman) feels like he doesn’t have to put in the time or work to succeed because he was born with his talent.  When their journeys both prove to be a bit more complicated than they anticipated, they find help and friendship in the unlikeliest of places.

At the film’s press day, director Dan Scanlon talked about how this particular story idea came about, how he got the gig directing his first feature, who he went to for advice, the technological advancements made with the film, how close to completion they were still making tweaks and changes, making sure the film never got too scary, how the supporting characters grew bigger than they ever expected, and how they incorporated some of the familiar characters from Monsters, Inc.  Check out what he had to say after the jump. 

monsters-university-dan-scanlonQuestion: Why did this film take so long, after the success of Monsters, Inc.?

DAN SCANLON:  I know!  After the first movie, we went to work on other movies. We really didn’t think about the possibility of doing a sequel.  And then, in time, we realized that we miss these characters and love these characters.  We got together to think about, “Is there an idea there?”  We wouldn’t do it, just to poke around.  And pretty quickly, in that meeting, which was essentially John Lasseter, Pete Docter, the original director, and Andrew Stanton, the idea of doing a story that was a little more specific to Mike and Sulley’s relationship came up.  That’s where we got the idea of meeting them when they were young.  Along with the Monster College, it just seemed great.  But also, we liked the idea of doing a story about Mike and about dealing with failures in life, which we thought was not dealt with a lot in movies.  A lot of times, people say that if you work hard and never give up, it will always work out, which is a great message.  However, that’s not always the case.  We really wanted to make a movie for people who were dealing with that because it’s such a universal thing.  That was the genesis of the idea.

How did you get this gig?

SCANLON:  I don’t know.  They come to you.  I worked in the story department for years, on Cars and Toy Story 3.  I’d worked with a lot of them before, on these stories.  A director can come from anywhere, but having a story background, if you have nothing else, is probably a good thing to have because it’s really the one tool you need.  I don’t even know how computer animation works, honestly, and I don’t need to.  I don’t need to try to push everyone out of the way and say, “This is how you do it.  I actually like not knowing.  I trust every lead, in every department.  All of the teams are phenomenal artists.  All I need to tell them is why to do something, not how to do something.  I think that having that story background is maybe what made them feel that I could be the right person for the job.  I also directed and wrote my own live-action movie, on the weekends, over the course of six years of working at Pixar.  I could say, “Hey, I made a movie.  It’s really low-budget, but it’s still a story, hopefully with humor and heart.”  I think that helped.

Did you ever wake up regretting what you got yourself into?

SCANLON:  Yes, but probably every movie, and every Pixar movie, for sure, has a moment where you think, “I don’t think this is a movie.  I don’t think this is gonna work.”  I certainly had those moments.  There are certainly moments in the story room where you watch the movie die on the table.  You put A next to B, and suddenly none of it lines up anymore.  We feel that, all the time.  It’s a terrible feeling.  I’m not exactly sure that there was a moment where we were like, “This is definitely gonna work.”  You try a bunch of stuff, and then there’s a moment where you know that you’ve got the bones of it.  I really felt that when we realized this was Mike’s story, and not Sulley’s.  That was a big deal because we had our through-line and our heart.  When we added the Oozma Kappa team, and they started to really work with Mike and Sulley, that was a big moment of, ‘There’s something to this that’s really worth making, and it’s working.

How daunting was this, as your feature debut?

monsters university sully

SCANLON:  It causes some strikes against you, but it also gives you some money in the bank, in a way.  There are good reasons and bad reasons.  The good thing is that everybody loves the characters.  You feel like, as long as you’re true to the characters, hopefully people will come along for the ride.  But, the hard thing was that I’m a huge fan of the first movie, and it’s a great movie, but I didn’t work on it.  It’s a tricky challenge.  I was lucky to get people who’d worked on the first film, and some who hadn’t.  You get that familiarity, and then that new breath of fresh air.

Who did you go to for advice?

SCANLON:  Part of it is your own gut.  You’re always thinking that you want this to be a familiar world, but you don’t want to rehash.  Sometimes sequels fall into that camp, where they just rehash the old movie.  We really didn’t want to do that.  We wanted this to feel like its own story with its own message and theme.  Even if you had seen the first film, you can still enjoy this movie. That said, we wanted to bring back some of the fun of the first film.  I was lucky to have Pete Docter, who directed the first film, as an executive producer.  I would meet with him weekly and run ideas past him, show him artwork and character designs, and even have a personal lunch with him every week, just to talk about anything I wanted to talk about.  Sometimes that meant we talked about just being a director, which was great and really helpful.  What I loved was that, near the end, Pete started asking me questions, which I always think is such a great thing for a teacher to do.  Hopefully, those lunches will continue.

Were there any technological advancements made with this film?

SCANLON:  Backpacks, apparently.  The simulation department said that backpacks are really hard, especially on fur.  The other thing was just the size of the movie.  With the first Monsters, we couldn’t have that many monsters in the background of shots.  This was a college, so we had to fill it with different kinds of monsters, which was also difficult.  The scope of the movie was the trickiest part.  We also had great technological breakthroughs with the lighting.  This was a movie we did, for the first time, with global illumination, which is this software that allows the film to just look richer.  That was a big leap forward.

How close to completion were you still making tweaks and changes?

SCANLON:  We work on the story for years, and we take that up to the last minute.  We’re always making little tweaks and changes.  The scary thing is that sometimes you are wrapping up animation on a sequence and you don’t know how the movie ends or begins.  You just have to bluff and move forward.  I think that’s true with anybody doing any creative project.  You just keep moving forward.  Don’t get caught in a hole.  It’s never going to work the way you want it to work, so just keep working on it.  I can’t remember the last creative decisions we were making, but it was probably less than a year out.  Knowing when something is done is always tricky.  With a scene or a sequence, I would get it to a place that I felt good about it, and then John or Pete would approve it.

MONSTERS UNIVERSITY mikeHow did you make sure the film never got too scary that you would freak kids out?

SCANLON:  It’s always a fine line.  We make our movies just to entertain ourselves  because that’s the only audience we have.  But, we feel pretty strongly that, if you do that, people will connect with it.  We rarely say, “Oh, this is for kids.  We shouldn’t do this.”  However, when it comes to being scary, it’s probably one of the few times we go, “Oh, we can back off that a little bit.”  Even though this movie deals a lot with fear, you’re always with the monsters.  It’s always the monsters’ point of view.  Even if we let Sulley or the misfits get a little scary, it’s still your pal Sulley.  You’re still on their side.  I hope that that makes a big difference.  We’re definitely pushing the envelope, a little bit.  But, it’s been great to watch kids see the movie and have it not really be an issue.

Is there one supporting character that grew bigger than you expected?

SCANLON:  Yeah, that seems to happen sometimes.  There are characters that become more popular, as we fall in love with them.  What I love about this movie is that I feel like that was almost every main character, at some point.  There was a point where we were all in love with Squishy, and writing everything for Squishy.  And then, there was a point where it was Don, and everything was going to Don.  And then, it was Art.  And then, it was Terry and Terri.  And I think that’s great.  At some point, they all even out nicely.  But, we would certainly all fall in love with one, as that character blossomed.  Mrs. Squibbles is a good example.  We loved her, so we wrote a bunch of stuff for her, and then we cut it out for time.  We had an audience test screening, and people loved Mrs. Squibbles and Art.

Who will most likely get their own spin-off or short?

SCANLON:  Oh, I don’t know.  That’s a good question.  I have no idea.  We really haven’t thought beyond this movie, at all, because we’ve been so focused on it.

How was it to direct this voice talent, especially with Helen Mirren?

SCANLON:  Helen Mirren was just great.  We spent the whole first hour riffing on different takes on the character, with different accents and different affectations.  I realized it was gonna be a joy.  She really wanted to roll her sleeves up and try things.  It wasn’t like she was just rolling in and doing the voice and leaving.  She said, “When it’s done, if you don’t like any of that, I’m available on Thursday.  We can do it all again.”  I was like, “I’m not even available on Thursday!”  It was great.  I’m a big comedy fan, and a fan of films.  So, to be able to just sit there and have these hilarious performers was just great.  We were lucky that a lot of them were fans, not only Pixar, but of Monsters, Inc., and just wanted to be in the movie.  I think that that comes off in their performances.

monsters-university-campusBecause Charlie Day is so funny, were there times that you just let him go with improv for Art? 

SCANLON:   I think we wrote a lot of those lines, but sometimes Charlie would try some things, or he would have takes on it that were just so funny and so weird.  In some ways, Art is actually a terrible example of how to design a character.  We usually create a character with a lot of thought about their purpose in the movie.  But, Art was a character where we were like, “I don’t know what Art is.  He’s sort of nothing yet.”   And then, that’s what he became.  He was actually born out of our own laziness.  Even his design was like, “I don’t know what he is.”  Chris Sasaki just drew an A and put eyes and a mouth on it because he didn’t know anything about the character.  What was awesome was that that was the character.  You don’t know anything about him.  We all knew somebody like that in college.  But, I don’t think that can happen, every time.  I do think it’s important to find spontaneity in animation because it’s very hard.  Sometimes we can make everything a little too perfect.  I always was a fan of giving direction, but every now and then going, “I don’t know.  What do you think?  Let’s see what happens.”  And the stuff does start to just form.

Are there any characters that didn’t make it from the original, that you would have liked to include?

SCANLON:   That’s a good question.  I think we love all those characters, and we’d love to see them all, but I didn’t want to have a billion cameos, honestly.  I didn’t want it to feel like we all went to Monsters University.  We had the cameos come in when they were appropriate, and with who was appropriate.  I also like that a lot of them are at the very end of the movie because it makes you start thinking about Monsters, Inc.  I really want people to walk out of the theater going, “Oh, I’m gonna go watch Monsters, Inc.”  I didn’t want people to think about Monsters, Inc. at the beginning of the film because this is a prequel.  You don’t want people to go, “Oh, I know what’s gonna happen.”  We wanted it to be its own film.  We didn’t want to have a lot of characters that didn’t need to be there.  I love the cameos that are in the film, and they feel appropriate.  There were lots of characters that I love, in that film, that I would’ve wanted in, but it just didn’t feel right.

Are there any other Pixar films that you think should get a sequel?

SCANLON:  No, not really.  It’s really just about a desire to do it, or if an idea pops up.  I think a lot of that is really up to the original creators or directors.  I wasn’t a director of any of the movies, up until now.

Monsters University opens in theaters on June 21st.


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