WALL-E Q & A with Writer/Director Andrew Stanton

     June 23, 2008

Written by Cal Kemp

Andrew Stanton has the amazingly pleasant mannerisms that you sort of expect from someone hailing from Pixar. He’s friendly and courteous and seems to truly care about the characters that he’s created.

At the WALL-E press conference, I found myself feeling more than a little bad for him after a barrage of questions about the eco-political message behind the film, one that that has already made it to a number of sites with a label of hypocrisy (some giving it a lot more thought than others).

There is a point there and something that’s fascinating to examine from a media crit perspective but I’d caution that rushing into doing so, you run the risk of missing out on something truly special.

Andrew Stanton (and the Pixar team) have created something brilliant and unique with “WALL-E”, a film that stands as my favorite of the summer so far. I thought a direct transcript might be the best route to go for so that everyone get straightforward sense of Stanton‘s responses.

If you are looking for some deconstruction, though, head over to CHUD, where Devin has one of the more intelligent and even-handed looks at the issue.

It’s definitely worth a read, but I’d recommend setting it aside for now and checking out the film at face value first.

Because at it’s core, “WALL-E” is something really special.

Q: So were you looking at your trash compactor one day and thinking, “that would be a cute robot for a movie,”?

Andrew: No — and I’m sorry if you guys already know all of this — but there was this lunch we had about ’94 and we were batting around just any idea we could think of for what the next movie should be. One of the sort of half-brained sentences was, “Hey! We could do a sci fi! What about the last robot on Earth? Everyone’s left and this machine just doesn’t know that it can stop and it keeps doing it forever.” That’s really where it started. All the details weren’t there. There wasn’t a name of the character. We didn’t even know what it would look like. But it was the lonliest scenario I had ever heard and I just sort of loved it. I think that’s why it stayed in the ether for so long.

Q: What made you go with the design for Wall-E over a more human-looking robot?

Andrew: It’s funny; Being a sci-fi geek myself and going to the movies all my life, I had come to my own conclusion that there were really kind of two camps of how robots had been designed. It’s either the Tin Man — which is a human with metal skin — or it’s R2-D2. It’s a machine that has a function and it’s designed based on that and you read a character into it. I was very interested in going with the machine side because to me that was what was fascinating. The other thing that I think really motivated me to want to — or even all of us to see a film like this — is that we had– you know, John had made “Luxo Jr.”, this little short about a lamp that hops around that’s just an appliance. It’s not even made to look like a character. It just happened to be an appliance that you could easily, by its own natural design, throw a character onto it. And that is powerful. I’ve had to watch that thing about a thousand times and I always am like, just before we put it on, I go, “Oh, Jeez, I gotta watch this again!” And I get caught up every time. I said, “There is some unique power to that type of bringing a machine to life than other kinds of machines that are designed to look like a character.” There’s something unique about that and I started to put it into the category of why we are so attracted to pets and infants. Because I think there’s something about something that’s already appealing where you’re kind of charmed by it, but it can’t communicate fully. And you want — you’re compelled — you almost can’t stop yourself from finishing the sentence. “Oh, I think it likes me! I think it’s hungry! I think it wants to go for a walk!” And I think what it was — I’m getting really geeky here but this is really where my head was at for a long time — was I think you pull from your own emotional experiences to finish the sentence. So it becomes twice as powerful. I think that’s why love at first sight works in movies. Nobody says anything. The guy or the girl stares at the other person. That other person walks across the room, and you go racing back to when it happened to you. You’re using that personal emotional experience to fuel that moment in the movie. And I said, “Wow, what if you could get a character that did that to you through a whole movie, just like Luxo does for about a minute and half to two minutes on the short?” I think that’s really what made us from day one go, “That would be a really powerful movie.” I don’t know how hard that would be to achieve, but I know that if you achieved it, it would be really powerful. So, in a weird way, we never questioned that you could succeed at it. It was just, did we have the knowledge and the ability to be the ones that did it?

Q: How hard was it to put facial expressions on something that doesn’t have a face?

Andrew: Well, that’s what I’m coming into. It’s not that you put anything on it. You have to find a design that already makes you do it to it. That’s what happened with John and the Luxo lamp. He just happened to see a lamp and I can’t help myself; I see a face on it. That’s what we did. I was at a baseball game and somebody handed me their binoculars. I hadn’t designed WALL-E yet. I knew he had to compact trash so I knew he was going to be a box at the most basic thing. I knew that he was going to collapse to possibly show that he’s shy. That’s all I had and I honestly was thinking of putting just a single cone lamp on there because I loved how much you just read a face into the simplicity of Luxo. But I thought, “I don’t know if that’s going to hold for 90 minutes.” And then when I got handed these binoculars at a baseball game, I missed the entire inning. I just turned the thing around. I started staring at it. I started making it go sad and happy and then mad and then sad. I remember doing that as a kid with my dad’s binoculars. I said, “It’s all there. There’s no nose, there’s no mouth. There’s nothing.” And it’s not trying to be a face. It just happens to ask that of me when I look at it. I said, “That’s it. I can’t improve upon that.”

Q: How did you come up with the designs for the humans?

Andrew: Honestly, I just went with knowing what I wanted humanity to be and I wasn’t sure how to express it at first. Something to amplify what was going on with the main point of the love story. I’m not one of those people who comes up with a theme and then writes to it. I like sort of to find the natural things that seem to be firing and somewhere halfway I realize what the theme is. I realized that the point I was trying to push with these two programmed robots was the desire for them to try and figure out what the point of living was. It took these really irrational acts of love to sort of discover them against how they were built. I said, “That’s it! That’s my theme: Irrational love defeats life’s programming.” I realized that that’s a perfect metaphor for real life. We all fall into our habits, our routines and our ruts, consciously or unconsciously to avoid living. To avoid having to do the messy part. To avoid having relationships with other people. of dealing with the person next to us. That’s why we can all get on our cellphones and not have to deal with one another. I thought, “That’s a perfect amplification of the whole point of the movie.” I wanted to run with science in a way that would sort of logically project that. And when I found out by talking to — I think his name is John Hicks who was an adviser to NASA about long term residency in space, he told me this fact of they still are arguing about how exactly to correctly set it up so that when a human does go all the way to Mars and back, they won’t start losing their bones. Because disuse atrophy kicks in if you don’t simulate gravity just right the entire time. And that’s sort of a form of osteoporosis and you won’t get that back. And they actually said they’ve had arguments where they go, “If we don’t get this right, they’re just going to be a big blob.” And I said, “Oh my gosh, that’s perfect! That’s perfect!” I didn’t want it to be off-putting. To be honest, in a very early version, I actually went so weird I made them like big blobs of jello because I thought jello was funny and they would just sort of wiggle and stuff. And there was sort of a “Planet of the Apes” conceit where they didn’t even know they were humans anymore and they found that out, but it was so bizarre I had to sort of pull back. I needed some more grounding. So as I pulled back, I go, “Look, I don’t want it to be offensive but I do think that if you had no reason to do anything anymore — if everything had been figured out — you know, health, regenerative food, all the other needs to get up and technology made it that easy to never have to get up — it’s kind of happening just with my remote in my living room, you know -– then I guess this would sort of set in. So I thought alright, I’ll make them big babies. There’s actually a scientific term that Peter Gabriel, actually, told me about. It’s called neoteny where there’s this belief that nature kind of figures out that you don’t have to use these parts of yourself anymore to survive so why give it to you? Why let you grow any farther? And I thought that’s perfect. It was almost again sort of a metaphor for “It’s time to get up and grow up!”

Q: How did they reproduce?

ANDREW: I leave that to your imagination but I did sort of go with Aldous Huxley’s view of the future. That’ll make you all have to go read! That’ll make you all have to go read!

Q: Can you talk about the voice of EVE? I understand she was an employee of Pixar.

Andrew: Yes. The one thing Ben Burtt couldn’t simulate was a female voice himself. So if it needed to be neutral or male, it was easy for him to be the source of anything that had to have a human element to it or an inflection. But because we wanted a very obvious feminine source, fortunately Elissa Knight, was one of our in-house sort of Pixar players (for lack of a better term). We’re in San Francisco and we’re always rewriting our stuff every day, we don’t have access to actors that quickly. So we use people in-house to do stand-in vocal stuff and she had been a stand-in for many movies and was a pretty decent actress. So I called her in to just do all the female stuff and it worked so well and when Ben started effecting it, I said, “That is so good. I’m sorry, I’m not going to look for another actress and re-do all this. She’s great.” So, that’s why. And that’s frankly the methodology Pixar has had in all their movies. If you look back at our casting, it’s all over the map whether we use A-list, B-list, or employees. What’s consistent if you look at it is, is that the best voice for the character? And that’s why we choose who we do.

Q: Can you talk about the environmental message and also the political message in it?

Andrew: Well, I hate to not be able to fuel where you want to go, but that was not where I was coming from when I did that stuff. I knew I was going into territory that was basically the same stuff but I don’t have a political bent. I don’t have an ecological message to push. I don’t mind that it supports that kind of view. It’s certainly a good citizen way to be but everything I wanted to do was based on the love story. I wanted the last robot on earth. That was the sentence that we came up with in ’94. I have to get everybody off the planet. I have to do it in a way that you get it without any dialogue. You have to be able to get it visually in less than a minute. So trash did that. You look at it, you get it. It’s a dump and you gotta move it. Even a little kid understands that. And that makes WALL-E at the lowest of the totem pole and allowed him to sift through everything that we’ve left on the planet to show you that he’s interested in us. So I had to look at everything from the point of view of what will you get visually without having dialogue describe stuff to you. I actually had him find a plant way before I knew where the movie was going, and I realized the reason why I loved that idea was because it reminded me of those dandelions that push through the sidewalk. It’s just reality is forcing itself through all this man-made material to exist and I thought, “That’s WALL-E!” He’s this man-made object but somehow he’s got more of a desire to live than the rest of the universe. I felt like he was meeting himself. It was almost looking at himself, so for some reason I couldn’t get rid of this even though I didn’t know where to go with it and it ended up being a great symbol of hope. The most I do is recycle and sometimes I’m pretty bad at that if you talk to my wife, so that’s about where I push it.

continued on page 2 ——->


Q: So you’re not coming with a political or ecological message, you do have stuff about consumerism and upstairs we have a whole product suite.

Andrew: I wasn’t trying to be anti-anything. I think I was just trying to go “Look, too much of a good thing of anything is a cautionary tale.” Honestly, everything I did was in reverse. It was like I’ve gotta go with trash because I love what it does to my main character and it’s very clear, and then I went backwards from that. I said “Why would there be too much trash?” Well it’d be really easy for me to show we’d bought too much stuff and it’d be really easy to show that without having to have it explained and it’s kind of fun. It’s fun to be satirical like that. You know we all have that sort of “Simpsons” bent, you know. So I just went with what felt somewhat true. I mean, I think we’ve always felt that we have to be sort of disciplined in that area.

Q: You do use the phrase “Stay the course” in the movie. That’s a pretty overt political statement.

Andrew: It just was such a natural thing to say at the time. I said “Screw it! It’s funny.”

Q: Was it harder to have WALL-E deal with moral questions than a human character?

Andrew: No, it’s actually much easier. If you’re trying to do multiple agendas, it’s going to be difficult. You’re going to confuse yourself as a storyteller. If you’re going to just do this one theme, it’s fine if it happens to parallel other things or brush against other subjects. As long as I’m doing it for the right reason — this one, singular purpose — then everything else will fall into place. I’ve had that sort of since the first movie… The ultimate place to get to in a relationship is caring more about their needs than your own.

Q: The “Hello Dolly” connection worked so well. Why did you choose that?

Andrew: I know. Why? The weirdest choice I’ll ever make in a film I make in my life. I am not lying, when I had that weird idea of putting that song on at the beginning, I turned to my wife and said, “This is the weirdest idea I’ve ever had and I will be asked why I chose this for the rest of my life.” Honestly, she’ll tell you I said that. But by the time I’d sort of come to terms on the analyst couch why I had done it, I realized okay, I’m willing to put up with answering this for the rest of my life because I really do think it’s the best choice. One thing I always wanted early, early on — and it’s even in the very first script where by then I’d chosen that song. I knew I wanted old fashioned music against space. I knew I loved the idea of future and past juxtaposed and that on the first frame that would not seem familiar. It would seem sort of fresh, like this isn’t exactly where I’m used to a movie being, let alone an animated movie. I just liked that it was almost like a firm footing that I wouldn’t be conventional. So then I started looking through stuff and I said, “Well, there’s so many old fashioned songs. What do I pick?” And I started going down to like standards at some point and standards come from a lot of musicals and I’d done enough musical theater to know what the staples are, you know – “Fiddler on the Roof”, “Guys and Dolls”, “Annie”, “Westside Story”, and “Hello Dolly”. So I got to “Hello Dolly” and I played the beginning of “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” and when that phrase “out there” came on, just viscerally, just “out there against stars,” I’m like, “Wow! That just kicks in. That just works.” And out of context, it works. And then it starts talking about, you know, weird stuff, but then I was like, “I don’t know, I can’t drop it.” And so I kept putting it in and slowly showing it to a slightly larger circle of intimate creative friends and saying “What do you think?” It kind of worked and then I finally realized why. I realized it’s because the song’s about two nerdy guys that have never left their small town and they just want to go out to the big city for one night, feel what life’s all about, and kiss a girl. And I said, “That’s my main character!” So then my co-writer, Jim Reardon, said “You know, he should just find the movie and that’s what’ll explain why he knows this.” And so we looked at the movie and when I found that second song and I saw the two lovers holding hands, it’s like this light bulb went off and I said “That’s exactly how he can express the phrase ‘I love you; without being able to say it.” And when you get that kind of gift falling on your lap when you’re doing your research, you don’t run away from it, you just embrace it. So I embraced the odd choice and just said “I think this is meant to be.”

Q: How hard was it to get the rights to that?

Andrew: I worried. Fortunately, it was really early on. I mean we’re talking in 2004 I had this idea. So right then I started working on my producers to talk to FOX and say “I don’t want to push this idea too far and find out I can’t use it.” Fortunately, there were a lot of close connections between people that knew each other and we could get through the red tape and they were very, very accommodating.

Q: Did you have to go to Michael Crawford?

Andrew: I think they had to go to all the people involved and get everybody’s OK. No, it was all properly done.

Q: There were a couple of references I wanted to ask you about. When John and Mary unplug from their chairs, they change from blue to red. It just seems a little…

Andrew: Everybody’s like “Well this was a political year, were you thinking…?” “What the heck!?” To me, it was like Mac preferences. It’s like on your computer, you can slowly set all your preferences until it’s the way you like it, but if it goes back to its default state, it goes back to its reset sort of default settings. So, to me, red was the default setting and so everybody’s in their own little choices but everybody was starting to like the same choices that were sort of dictated by consumerism. I just liked the idea. Again, everything is also driven by “Will you get it without much dialogue?” It’s like they’ll be the only two red people in a sea of blue and so that’s why I picked it.

Q: I was curious about the decision to use Fred Willard?

Andrew: Well, he’s the most friendly and insincere car salesman I could think of. It’s funny, I thought it would be a little more obvious and I hope I succeeded in it in the sense that once I chose an old movie for sombody, WALL-E to watch, that I knew would be showing footage of real human beings, I said “Well, that sets a precedent. That means anytime you look at old footage, it should be real human beings.” I can get away with being CG with where humanity has changed in the present slash future, but I thought it would be even weirder if I was sort of all over the map with how I portrayed humans in old footage. I said I should just be consistent with that so that’s why I picked it. It was just because I set a precedent.

Q: Can you talk about “John Carter of Mars”?

Andrew: Pretty much it’s already out there. I’m definitely writing it with Mark Andrews and that’s all we’re doing right now is just writing it.

Q: Is it going to be live action?

Andrew: Everybody is asking that and we’re not going to make that decision for about a year.

Q: Were there more Macintosh references in this than in previous Pixar films?

Andrew: Well certainly because we’re bedfellows we can get away with it, so we ran with it. And we’re huge fans. We’re all pro-Apple at Pixar.

Q: Have there been any thoughts towards a “Nemo 2”?

Andrew: No, not yet. Again, and it’s not a party line, if we come up with a great story, then it may get made, but so far we haven’t heard anything that sounds as good as the first movie.

Latest News