Toy Story 3 Q&A: I Didn’t Want to Be the Guy Who Made the Cruddy Sequel

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Sitting down to watch Toy Story 3 is like returning home after a long, long trip. It feels comfortable, familiar, and oh so effortless.

We’ve already posted photos from the new Toy Story family album – you can see our take on all the new characters here – but Disney was kind enough to let us sit down with Lee Unkrich, long-time Pixar staffer and Toy Story 3 director, to talk about just what it took to bring Buzz and Woody, and all our other faves, back to the big screen.

Be sure to come back later today for our full review – here’s our chat:

You know, I bet it had to be intimidating, to jump into this franchise after more than a decade – were there any moments where you felt like it was just too much?

Well we did wind up spending 2.5 years writing the movie, so there was certainly a level of worry about doing it right. From the very first moment I got involved, I had this fear that I didn’t want to be known as the guy who made the cruddy sequel. But that was always because of the characters and the world, not anything related to my ego. We wanted to do right by Woody and Buzz – they’re as beloved to us as they are all by the rest of the world.

So how did you make sure then that you weren’t the guy doing the crappy sequel?

Well there’s always a danger with sequels, and with any movie that has a 3 after the title, that you’re going to fall into a sense of repetition if you don’t have new ideas. So at the very beginning of this chapter we wanted to take a huge leap forward. Now in this story, Andy’s all grown up, which gives us something to work with, and we kind of knew where we wanted to take the end of the story. The real dilemma for us was how to deal with some of this story’s heavier and bigger issues, and building out all that connective tissue. (More at Techland: 10 Terrible Movies Adapted From Video Games)

I’m always surprised by Pixar films, how dark you’re willing to go. You don’t see this with many other family films right now – Pixar is willing to ask you to think about that robot on an abandoned planet Earth, or that rat in the kitchen. Or that wife dying at the beginning of Up. This is heavy stuff.

You know, I think the difference is that we’re making movies for ourselves first and foremost. I think people forget how dark some children’s fairy tales are – when you talk about Grimms’ Fairy Tales – those are about as dark as they come. Today, children’s entertainment has been so watered down and homogenized and made so safe that no one wants to watch it. I’ve always seen movies, whether they are made for adults or kids, as a safe place to feel strong emotions. Our day to day lives are not very intense, and when those feelings come they’re often very scary moments. But movies allow us to feel those sorts of emotions in a very safe environment and it’s that way for kids too. The world can be scary and movies help kids cope with the bad feelings and thoughts.

There’s one sequence near the end though where you definitely take these characters to the brink…

Yeah, but I think we’re being truthful to that moment and how our heroes react.

We don’t pull any punches. I know some audiences have been floored by the situations these toys find themselves in –  and that particularly the parents have some deep feelings near the end. But we knew from the beginning that we wanted to confront these issues of where do these toys go now that their owner is growing up – what’s their place in this world? But while there are lots of characters, this is really Woody’s story and the elephant in the room is that Andy’s growing up, and Woody’s life is going to change, and that he’s reached a point where he can’t just going forward as he has before.

You’ve worked as an editor on so many Pixar films – do you think that helped you with stepping up to the directing chair?

I went to USC film school and studied all aspects of filmmaking, but it’s true that I chose to specialize in editing when I came here to Pixar and have edited all the films we’ve made. But much of what’s special about our films comes through in the editing – the pacing and the structure. We’ve all seen movies that go on and on and on too long and don’t really come to a point. And one small job of an editor is to decide when to slow down the story and realize there’s something introspective there. And we do that a lot in Toy Story 3, deciding when to slow down the roller coaster. There are a lot of sweet moments. (More at Techland: Top 10 Spelling Bee Freakouts)

Did I notice a little shout-out to Hayao Miyazaki in the background of one of those scenes? There was a little stuffed creature from one of his films, yes?

Yeah, we put a little stuffed Totoro in the film almost as a joke, from My Neighbor Totoro. We had to invent a bunch of new toys for this one scene, and there’s been this long standing great relationship between Pixar and Miyazak’s Studio Ghibli. So we saw this as an opportunity to give a nod to that friendship and reached out to him, and he was open to it. So that’s not Totoro, it’s a stuffed version of Tortoro. Very important.

But I’ve heard this story, and I don’t know if it’s true, that Miyazaki won’t see anyone else’s animated film because it might make him too depressed over his own work. So I have no idea if he’s actually seen the film.

So you’ve got Totoro, and then there’s Ken – you really put him in the spotlight here.

Oh, we’ve all grown up with Ken. Everyone who had a sister had a Ken doll in the house. But at the same time, he’s a blank slate which makes him perfect for the film. He’s Barbie’s girlfriend, that’s about it. So we decided to create once and for all a personality.

He’s also one of the few toys here who doesn’t get mangled in the day care – all our other favorites are getting slobbered over and stuffed in noses…

We actually did a lot of research at day care centers, and hopefully there are no day cares quite as crazy as ours. But I actually defend those kids in that scene. They’re little toddlers, they don’t know how to play imaginatively yet. And their behavior in that sequence actually looks a whole lot worse than it really is, because we filmed that entire sequence from the perspective of the toys, so they seem like these towering figures.

Well there ya go: It seems kind of appropriate that a Pixar filmmaker would even have empathy for those little snotty villains…

They’re not really doing anything wrong. They’re just being kids!

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