Lee Unkrich

Lee Unkrich film still

The Toy Story 3 director talks about reuniting Woody and Buzz and what it's like working at Pixar HQ.

As a key player at Pixar studios for the past 16 years, Lee Unkrich has overseen some of the most cherished animated films in recent years, including Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo, all of which he co-directed. Unkrich spoke to LWLies recently about being given the opportunity to create a new chapter of Pixar history in the hotly anticipated form of Toy Story 3.

LWLies: As a director approaching a project creatively, how hard is it to be confronted with a franchise like Toy Story, something that is so established and well loved? How do you go about first of all keeping it fresh, but also making your own mark on it?

Unkrich: It was a huge responsibility from day one, and one that I didn’t take lightly. In fact when John Lasseter first asked me to direct the film I was very excited and flattered that he was going to trust me with it, but then I very quickly sank into a depression at the thought of this formidable task that I had ahead of me – not only to make a new Pixar film, but to make a sequel to two of the most beloved films of all time. There were a lot of mornings that I woke up feeling that this was impossible, thinking 'how can I make everybody happy? How can I make a film that people are going to like after loving the first two films so much?' But at a certain point I had to just put all that aside, because it would have been crippling, so I just set about making the best film that I could. I was a big part of making the first two Toy Story films, so I had to just hang on to that and trust that at least these characters were in my DNA. Since I was such a big part of the first two films, I was probably armed pretty well to pull it off.

Was it a big transition for you to be credited as full director on this film, after having worked in different capacities on earlier Pixar titles?

I had co-directed three of our films at the studio, so I had done a lot of the job already and I had been a close observer to everything that it took to make a movie like this. So I felt pretty ready. The difference was, when I was co-directing I had all the joy and fun of being a filmmaker but I didn’t have all the responsibility crushing down on my shoulders. I could always point to the director and say 'it’s his fault', whereas in this case it was all me, I had to do it myself. But in the areas where I didn’t have as much experience, I just surrounded myself with really fantastic people and they really helped shore me up.

Is the creative process a more collaborative process than writing a feature script might normally be; much more like writing for TV?

Yes, in some regards. I have some friends who work in TV and we visited their writer’s room and they very much have the same vibe as we do. I had a great screenwriter on this film; Mike Arndt, who wrote Little Miss Sunshine, and he was very used to working by himself. For years he just toiled out of his little apartment in Brooklyn, so coming to Pixar was his first experience working collaboratively in this way and he loved it, it was intoxicating for him to be able to spend some time writing alone then to come into a room and share what he’d been working on with a group of people who would pick it apart and help make it better. It took us four years to make Toy Story 3, but two and a half years of those were just working out the story – writing and story-boarding.

What do you think it is about the franchise that has made it so consistently successful and so enduringly popular? What has given Toy Story this incredible momentum?

It’s hard to say. I think one of the big successes of the film was that we found this universal thing that people could relate to – having toys. You know, we were all kids once, we all had toys, we all imparted personalities onto our toys and had emotional connections with our toys. So on that level I think everybody the world over can relate to Toy Story. I think we also managed to come up with a really great cast of characters, which is tough to do. I mean, there are hundreds of sitcoms on TV but only a few work because they have the right chemistry. We were very lucky to have found a great chemistry between Woody and Buzz and the rest of the toys, which makes people want to see more of them – they work from film to film in the same way that good sitcoms can run for years and people don’t grow tired of watching those characters. I think probably the overall thing is that Toy Story films, maybe even more than the other films we’ve made, speak to more universal truths about life. There are things in every one of the three films that people can relate to: in Toy Story the idea of sibling rivalry and jealousy; in Toy Story 2 issues of mortality; and in Toy Story 3 the idea of growing up, leaving childhood and facing great change in life, knowing that ultimately your family and friends are the most important thing to you in a moment of crisis. These are all really universal ideas, and though all the Pixar films have had these ideas, some of them have been more specific. I think because of the fact that we’ve made three Toy Story films we’ve been able to explore a wider breadth of ideas.

On the other hand, do you think that returning to these characters and re-telling their stories rubs against Pixar’s core values?

No, because we don’t feel like we’re just treading water, we don’t feel like we’re doing the same thing again and again. In this case, each time that we’ve returned to the Toy Story world we’ve worked very hard to not repeat ourselves, to be innovative and to find stories to tell. But we wanted to stay in the Toy Story world because we felt that there were more stories to tell and we didn’t want to say goodbye to the toys, we wanted to see more of them in the world. What we’ve ended up doing by the end of these three films is crafting what I think is one big story, which has been told over the course of the three films. It wasn’t something we set out to do, we didn’t know when we made the first Toy Story that we were going to make two more films, but we did everything in our power to ultimately craft something that feels organic, that feels like we intended to do it all along.

It seems that this film is darker than its predecessors – would you agree?

I think the first two had dark elements in them – certainly Sid’s room with his crazy mutant toys were pretty dark, so there’s always been some darkness in the world, but we’ve always tried to find a balance between the two. I’ve heard people describe this film as darker, but I personally always bristle at that word, because it sounds like it’s somehow inappropriate for kids and we don’t feel that the film is at all inappropriate. In my mind I feel like the film is more intense and definitely more emotional that the other films. I feel like we’ve taken a lot of things that we had done in the other films and we’ve just ratcheted them up a few notches. When I look at the movies that I love, the movies that I most remember, they’re the ones that made me have the strongest feelings – either they made me cry, frightened me, or made me laugh a lot. And the best ones are the ones that can do all of those things, so we tried very much to create a film that would give people everything: that would make them laugh harder than they’d laughed in a long time; that would give them a fright; and that would maybe make them cry a bit.

But it doesn’t patronize children, and in a sense it seems like it wants to scare them...

Yeah, but they like to be scared. We know that the kids are going to be a part of our audience, so we would never put anything wildly inappropriate in the film but I personally feel that children's entertainment has been homogonised and watered-down in the last few decades. Most of children’s entertainment in the world is just awful; I don’t even think kids really like it, but they don’t have anything else to choose from so its what they’re fed and they eat it. In the inception of children’s literature there was a lot of darkness – Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Little Red Riding Hood, for example – bad things happened in those stories, they tried to teach kids that bad things can happen in the world and how to deal with that. We’re not actively trying to teach children anything here, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all to have a character who seems like a nice guy turn out to not be such a nice guy, because that’s something we all have to deal with at some point in life. I don’t think we’ve done anything new with darkness in this film, maybe we’re just doing it more effectively!

You’ve been at Pixar for a number of years – what’s it like to work there?

It’s great. There’s a reason I’m still there after 16 years and almost everyone who works at Pixar, especially the people who were there in the early days, are still there. It’s not a place that you want to leave. Its enormously creatively satisfying to work at Pixar and it’s not a stuffy place at all – people show up wearing shorts and t-shirts all year round. It’s a very free, creative environment, because it’s a company that’s run from the top down by creative people so that spirit is fostered. And that’s survived throughout the years – even after Disney bought us four years ago, nothing has really changed. The way that we actually make our movies and the creative process of developing things hasn’t changed at all.

There's stories of it being quite a cut-throat environment too, in the sense that you have to be constantly trying to come up with new ideas.

Well cut-throat makes it sound like people are out for each other, and it’s definitely not like that at all, but it can be cut-throat in the sense that everyone is so good there that you don’t want to slip behind – you don’t want to be seen as not working as hard as somebody else or not contributing as much as somebody else. There’s definitely a healthy competition between people, especially the animators – they’re always trying to do shots that will blow everyone else away, to raise the bar. Pixar is filled with people who have incredibly high standards for themselves, so high that we can’t even meet our own standards, so if there’s any common denominator it’s that – when you fill a company with people like that you can create some amazing things.

Do you think that every success that you have makes it harder to move forward?

Totally, it makes it unbearably hard, because nobody wants to be the first to fail. As I said I had so much stress about going down in history as the guy who screwed up the Toy Story movies. And it gets worse – the fact that we’ve now made 11 films that are huge hits and that are critically acclaimed makes it that much harder for the next person.

What do you think will happen if you ever have a flop?

I don’t know, it’s likely to happen, right? It’s abnormal that we’ve had 11 hits in a row so the odds are that it will happen at some point. Obviously we don’t want it to happen, but I’m sure it will be a relief in some ways too, because when you keep raising that bar higher and higher, at some point it becomes impossible to surpass.

What’s next for you?

I’m going to take a long vacation, because I haven’t had much of a vacation for the last four years, and then Darla [Anderson, Toy Story 3 producer and long-time collaborator with Unkrich] and I are going to be collaborating on a new film. But I can’t talk about it.

You’ve got young children – have they seen the film and what did they think of it?

Absolutely, they loved it and they were a part of making it. They were at my side quite often when I was editing at home and they saw it take shape over the years and they actually contributed in some small ways. For instance in Bonnie’s bedroom the walls are covered with drawings that she’s done of all the different toys in her room and my daughters drew all of those. There are other little things like that peppered throughout the film.

Is Bonnie based on your own daughters at all?

She is like my daughters when they were very little, like most little girls would often dress themselves and pull on layers of crazy things that don’t really go together – the tutu and the rain boots for example. I think most little girls put together outfits like that, and my daughters certainly did.

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