After taking moviegoers magically into the realm of toys, bugs, monsters, fish, superheroes and cars, the masterful storytellers and technical wizards at Pixar Animation Studios and two-time Academy Award-winning director John Lasseter hit the road again with Cars 2. In this fast-paced comedy adventure sequel set inside the world of cars, star racecar Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson), accompanied by his best friend, the incomparable tow truck Mater (voice of Larry the Cable Guy), heads overseas with his hometown pit crew from Radiator Springs to compete in the first-ever World Grand Prix.
But when Mater is mistakenly caught up in a web of international intrigue and espionage with master British spy Finn McMissile (voice of Michael Caine) and the stunning rookie field spy Holley Shiftwell (voice of Emily Mortimer), he discovers that the road to the finish line is filled with plenty of potholes, detours and bombshells as his action-packed journey leads him on an explosive chase through the streets of Japan, Italy, France and England.
MoviesOnline sat down with director John Lasseter to talk about Cars 2. His new film is Pixar’s 12th full-length animated feature and marks the 25th anniversary of the celebrated studio. Lasseter, who oversees all films and associated projects from Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, explained to us why a great story is the key to every movie he makes. He also revealed to us why the character of Mater is so close to his heart, how he’s had a lifelong love of the spy genre, and what inspired him to cast veteran actor Michael Caine in the pivotal role of Finn McMissile.
Q: Every Pixar movie is beloved and well reviewed. How nice is it to be the head of a studio and say “I like cars. I want to do Cars 2”?
John: The first Cars has done something no other film in cinema history has done and that is, it’s grown dramatically in popularity after it’s been out of the theaters. A lot of people aren’t aware of this, but in all the regions, even internationally where it did just okay box office-wise, it has grown so dramatically in popularity due to the DVD and seeing it, and it has just caught on tremendously. All told, when you count the box office and then all of the product sales since the first movie, it’s made well over $10 billion.
Q: But product sales isn’t why you made the movie, right?
John: No, you make a movie to entertain audiences. That’s why you make a movie. The product sales is because people love the characters, and to me, that is a testament to how our movie has become so ingrained in family’s homes all around the world and that’s why I make movies. It’s so much fun. I think that the entertainment industry and the entertainment press tends to focus on opening weekend box office as a measure of the success of a film and I think the true success is out there in people’s homes and how much they absolutely love these characters. We are very fortunate at Pixar to have produced a number of movies – Toy Story movies, Nemo, Monsters, Inc., Incredibles, Wall-E, and Up – these sets of characters that people just love. I always say we strive to create these characters so that they’re loved beyond the boundary of the film, so that people want to be with them again and again. That, to me, is really the success of our films. I think Cars has turned into Disney’s third or fourth, depending on how you look at it, biggest franchise after one movie. Again, that’s not why we made the sequel. We made the sequel, as we do with all Pixar movies and all Pixar sequels, because we found a great story. All three Toy Story movies were made because we found great stories and those two sequels were really because we came up with ideas that were very different than the original. We don’t like to do sequels just to print money and rehash the same story all over again which most sequels in Hollywood are. The sequels at Pixar are all very, very different than the original.
You have to do three things really well to make a successful film. You have to tell a compelling story that has a story that is unpredictable, that keeps people on the edge of their seat where they can’t wait to see what happens next. You then populate that story with really memorable and appealing characters. And then, you put that story and those characters in a believable world, not realistic but believable for the story that you’re telling. For us, when we get done making a film and we feel like we’ve done that, then when you start thinking about a sequel, you’ve got the set of characters and you’ve got the world that you’ve created and now we concentrate on telling a different kind of story. So, it’s very important for us to tell a story that’s different. Cars 2 was so much fun for me because it’s a spy movie, they travel around the world, and Lightening McQueen races against all these other cool types of racecars, and that’s where the inspiration for this story came from. And then, of course, we focus on the heart of the story which is the friendship between Lightening McQueen and Mater.
Q: I can tell that this film is very close to your heart. Larry the Cable Guy was saying that Mater is close to your heart too and maybe a part of you. Can you talk a little about that?
John: Both my parents are from Arkansas. I grew up here in Los Angeles but there’s a connection. Being an animation geek, we were not the coolest cats in the school. I always felt a little bit like a little kid that’s never grown up in the world of adults. So I always felt a little out of place at times. On our first research trip for Cars 2, we went to Italy to attend the Italian Grand Prix to see a Formula One race. The Red Bull Formula One Team was so generous in opening up and showing us every aspect of their cars and their pits and their backstage and all that stuff. They invited us to the big party they were having which was in the Milan Museum of Modern Art. And this is Milan, this is the home of Armani, and this was the fanciest, glitziest, coolest, hippest party I’d ever been to. I got dressed up. I put my sportcoat on over my Hawaiian shirt and I went there and I felt like Mater. I felt totally out of place and I just kept thinking to myself we’ve got to have a scene like this in the movie with Mater because I totally feel like Mater. Mater really is a character that is near and dear to my heart. There is quite a bit of me in Mater. There is Joe Ranft who was my creative partner on Cars. He was Mater as well. And Larry the Cable Guy has been a big part of making Mater very special. It’s fun to have him in there. I just really enjoyed the story of the friendship between Lightening McQueen and Mater in these kinds of situations.
Q: Does directing a movie in 3D change the development of the story?
John: No, not really. The story is the story. It’s the most important thing. The way we do story is we’ll do treatments and scripts where you quickly get into storyboards and we will make a version of the movie using still storyboard drawings called the story reel. We will work and rework and rework that until we get it working right. When we feel like a sequence is ready to go into production, the first stage is what we call layout. While the story is being developed, we start building all the sets and the assets within the computer – characters, sets, props and so on. And then, a sequence comes up and we’ll talk with Jeremy Lasky, who was our Director of Photography for staging and the Head of Layout for our movie, and we’ll start talking about how we’re going to do the camerawork and that’s where a lot of discussion of 3D starts coming in – how to stage things so it looks cool. We now are so familiar with it and we’ve loved 3D for such a long time. I shot my wedding pictures in 1988 in 3D. I collect vintage 3D still cameras and in 1989 we did a short film in 3D. It was called Knick Knack but there are no theaters in the world to see it in. So we’ve been really looking forward to this. We’re really familiar with how perfect our medium of computer animation is for 3D because it’s a truly 3-dimensional world. It’s just being really knowledgeable about what works and what doesn’t work. Our technique at Pixar of 3D is not the gimmicky coming at you stuff, but it’s for kind of sucking you into the story a little more and the world kind of envelops around you. I don’t want people to think about the 3D. I don’t want people to think about anything but just what happens next in the story. But it’s all these subtle things that we did knowing it was going to be 3D, namely the Holley Shiftwell character and her cool holographic screen that comes up we did on purpose because it was kind of see-through and stuff and it was cool knowing how cool that would be in 3D and little things like that and the water being really clear and being able to see down into it. We love 3D but we don’t change the story. It’s all about telling great stories. We want the movie to play great in 2D as well as in 3D, but when you see it in 3D it’s really a fun adventure.
Q: You said the story drove your decision on this movie, but this is a big project. Given the technology that was available, could you have done this two years ago or did you have to wait for it?
John: No, we didn’t wait for it to get to this place but it’s this way with every Pixar film. Every Pixar film has something in the story that we don’t know how to do. Sometimes it’s little, sometimes it’s not glamorous, sometimes it’s something kind of cool, but we will set out to solve it for the movie. One of the big technical advances that’s really great looking is the water. In the Spy opening, if you noticed how amazing the water looked, it’s really unlike any computer-animated water to date because our guys found this new, really kind of heady mathematical algorithm that this guy developed in the mathematical circles on trying to think about the math of the ocean and the ocean waves and they implemented that into our system. It was a brand new way of looking at ocean waves and it really is amazing.
The other thing that was really dramatically different in this film is just the level of complexity, meaning the amount of things that are in this film. It’s vast. It’s ten times more complex than any [previous] Pixar film. We really pushed the edge of the envelope there. We have what we call our render farm, which is the computers that all the artists access to compute their daily work as they’re interacting with a computer, plus at night it’s doing all the high resolution rendering. We increased and tripled the size of our render farm for this production and for the future of Pixar just because we were able to do that and we said let’s just do that. One of the things for me since I’ve been working with computer animation since the early 1980s is always striving to do everything we can technically so that the artist doesn’t have to wait. As writers, you know. Can you imagine a word processor where you’re typing and it takes anywhere from 2 seconds to 5 minutes for your words to appear on the screen? Your creative thought process would be inhibited all the time. You’re probably so good at the word processor and at cutting and pasting and all that stuff and the speed at which you go, it’s like you don’t even think about the technology as you’re creating. Your creative mind is looking at the written word and you’re just going. That’s actually the dream at Pixar of this level of complexity. That’s what we finally started to achieve on this movie is something that big. Someone described it as like having a pitch black room and then turning on the light briefly, looking around, closing it, and then going and start arranging the furniture and painting the walls. And then go back and you think you got it good and you turn the light on again and see what you did right and what you did wrong and turn the light off and go do it again. That’s kind of what typically it’s been in the really high end, complex world of computer animation. It’s so complex. The increase in computer speed is starting to happen now more and more. Things are getting more interactive even at the highest complexity levels. And then, of course, we take it and run with it and create this world like this.
Q: Can you talk about some of the spy films that you were referencing and how you wove that into the world of Cars 2?
John: I love spy movies. Where this idea came from is from the story development in the first Cars. There was a scene where Lightening McQueen took Sally on a first date which eventually became the cruising scene with the neon lights turning on. Originally, it was in a drive-in movie theater and we developed a movie that was playing on the screen and it was a spy movie and this was where the Finn McMissile character first came up. I always loved the idea of a spy movie and part of it came from my personal love of spy movies. It started when I was growing up as a little kid in the 60s. In 1964, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. came on TV and it became my favorite TV show as a kid. I was Illya Kuryakin playing in the backyard. That was my character. I loved that so much. They had a really cool spy car in there, too. And then, just being in love with all the different spy movies, the whole genre. I have five sons and we have been really crazy about the three Bourne movies and how they elevated the genre with this energy and the way the filmmaking [was] and all that stuff, we just loved that. So I was very inspired by this and we started taking a look at the old and the new spy movies and the three Bourne movies – Bourne Identity, Bourne Supremacy and Bourne Ultimatum were very inspirational. The Harry Palmer movies in the 60s, the British spy movies that Michael Caine starred in were very cool. I was really into The Man from U.N.C.L.E. as I said. So we really took a look at all the different movies.
We looked at a lot of chase sequences out of these films. I think some of the great chase sequences are in the first Bourne Identity, the one where the little Mini goes through Paris. That’s awesome. One of the great chase sequences is in the film Ronin with Robert DeNiro. That one’s an awesome chase. Bullitt is another. Of course, that’s old school but it’s so cool. One of the things we did is we took a look at a lot of these chase sequences and we realized how often they cut inside to the character. It’s the storytelling of the character in the car driving. We said our character is the car. We don’t ever cut inside. So we recut a lot of these chase sequences taking out the cuts to the characters in the cars. It’s very interesting to sit and watch where it’s now just the cars. There are no humans involved in this chase sequence and we learned a lot from that. It was very inspiring for the chase sequences. We did that also for racing sequences too from Grand Prix, Le Mans, Days of Thunder, lots of different racing films to take a look at how to shoot the racing scenes as well. So the spy genre is something I loved.
It also extends to the bad guy because I think, to me, what I love the most about the spy genre is when you have a great bad guy. What makes a great bad guy, to me, is the logic. What he’s about has to make sense to me, that if I was in his shoes, yeah, right, that makes sense. There’s a term they use, that the great bad guy should be the center of good, meaning in his world, in his point of view, he is doing the right thing. He’s not sending out “I’m going to be a bad guy.” He says “No, I believe this is my world point of view and this is what I need to do.” But then it’s like oh, you’re a bad guy, because it’s the wrong thing to do. And so, we started taking a look at the car world and this is very typical. What I love about this and Cars 2 is just taking a look at things in our storytelling, and then take a look at the automotive world and find parallels that are truly out there, from little to big – you know, types of cars, things within cars. It’s like the notion of the lemons being the bad guys in this. What is it they’re about? I just started seeing out there in the world from The Inconvenient Truth on, of just big oil versus alternative fuels and that kind of thing out there. I think that’s kind of a cool thing that really is out there. This is not a message film. It doesn’t have any political message. But I thought this is kind of cool. It’s out there. It could be a good guy versus bad guy and it makes sense. It’s like if you had invested a huge amount of money to find this gigantic oil reserve that cost a lost of money to get to and you’ve just invested tremendous amounts of money to get to it, and you thought you were going to be sitting pretty, and just as you get there, you turn around and the world is turning their back on fossil fuel and oil and going to this alternative thing. It’s like “I’ve got to protect my interests. I’ve gotta do what I can to keep people addicted to oil.” That was the thinking behind the bad guy.
It’s trying to take a look at the genre, take a look at my love of these genres and the bad guys and then say “Let’s take a look at it from a car point of view.” What makes sense in a world where cars are alive and there are no humans and that’s where we come from, even to the minutest little thing like Mater being an idiot savant about car parts and knowing this thing called a Whitworth bolt. That exists. The Whitworth bolt is real and it is odd and it’s crazy and it was in between metric and imperial in inches and it didn’t make any sense and it’s a headache for mechanics. It’s real and that’s what’s sort of fun is to tap into this.
Q: Can you talk about the casting of Michael Caine and what inspired that?
John: The casting of Michael Caine for Finn McMissile really came from how Michael Caine is so often portrayed, especially with his Harry Palmer movies, as this suave, cool guy. He’s very cool and I’ve always loved that. He’s got a wit, a twinkle in his eye that I think is so special about him, and then, on top of that, he’s one of the most brilliant actors. He’s working like crazy. He’s so good at what he does and everything he touches. He was a joy to work with and he was such an inspiration for the character. So, we designed the car, it’s an original design. It’s based upon British sports cars of the early 60s and also the Italian auto design houses like Pininfarina that did these really innovative cars in the late 50s and early 60s. We just took a look at a lot of cars. We loved the name of Finn McMissile but we realized there weren’t very many British cars that had fins, but we did find one that was an inspiration for the little fins of his in the back. But also then, what’s fun thinking about the spy genre and with our thing, is that the spy and the spy car are one and the same. So then we started taking a look at [the gadgets]. I loved the gadgets in spy movies and I thought I wanted his gadgets to feel old school whereas Holley Shiftwell’s gadgets were more modern. I just wanted to have a lot of fun with the gadgets. But also, his skill is not a parody of a spy movie but I just wanted him to be really skilled at what he did and that’s what was really fun about working with Michael Caine and developing the car at the same time and then kind of going back and forth with him. We did a number of recording sessions with him. I think he loved the character, he loved the story. He kept saying “Oh I wish this was like live action with actors because I’d love to play this part.” It was very complimentary and it was great.
The same goes for getting Emily Mortimer to play Holley Shiftwell. It was so exciting because we wanted that sweet innocence but very smart and tough when she needs to be. The character of Holley, once Emily came aboard, really started to grow in importance and that was really due to a lot of working with her and how great she was. The same goes for the Francesco character with John Turturro. He was like comic gold working with him. We kept putting Francesco in more and more of the movie because we knew it would be hilarious.
But that’s part of what’s fun about the story development at Pixar is it’s a journey. You don’t just write a script and then that’s the movie you make. It’s just constant evolution and being open to that and that collaboration with the voice actors and with the artists and animators at Pixar. You start seeing things really coming together that work that you didn’t anticipate and then you find ways to use it more and more. And so, inevitably, when you see the idea or something that was first pitched for a Pixar film and the finished product, it is the same but it’s totally different as well because of the long evolution of the story development.
Q: I enjoyed Hawaiian Vacation, the Toy Story short that preceded the screening of Cars 2. Will there be more Toy Story shorts?
John: One of the things that we love to do is to really keep our characters alive. We did a series of shorts with the Cars characters called Mater’s Tall Tales in between Cars and Cars 2 and it was really fun to do. We’ve had all these great ideas for the Toy Story characters that were not meant to be features but these fun little short things. For us, the shorts are very important also at Pixar because we use them to help develop talent, to let some of the younger talent take a step up and do a story or be a directing animator or direct something that is an opportunity for them. It’s really fun. As you know, it’s a tradition at Pixar. We always have a Pixar short film on the front of every Pixar feature. Sometimes they’re based upon characters that you love and sometimes they’re original. So we go back and forth all the time.
Q: We’re excited we’re going to see Monsters University. How far away do you think you are from another Nemo or Incredibles?
John: I can’t say anything. Thank you.
Cars 2 opens in theaters on June 24th.