Andrew Stanton Interview, Wall-E

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

MoviesOnline sat down with Academy Award-winning writer/director Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo”) at the Los Angeles press day for his new computer-animated comedy, “WALL-E,” which is filled with surprises, action, humor and heart brought to you by the inventive storytellers and technical geniuses at Pixar Animation Studios. The ninth feature from Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, “WALL-E” follows the studio’s most recent triumph, “Ratatouille,” which won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, garnered the best reviews for any 2007 release, and was a box office hit all over the globe.

Set in a galaxy not so very far away, “WALL-E” is an original and exciting comedy about a determined robot. After hundreds of lonely years doing what he was built for, WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class) discovers a new purpose in life (besides collecting knickknacks) when he meets a sleek search robot named EVE (Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator). EVE comes to realize that WALL-E has inadvertently stumbled upon the key to the planet’s future and races back to space to report her findings to the humans who have been eagerly waiting aboard the luxury spaceship Axiom for news that it is safe to return home.

Meanwhile, WALL-E chases EVE across the galaxy and sets into motion one of the most incredible comedy adventures ever brought to the big screen. Joining WALL-E on his fantastic journey across the universe 800 years into the future is a hilarious cast of characters, including a pet cockroach and a heroic team of malfunctioning misfit robots.

Andrew Stanton has been a major creative force at Pixar Animation Studios since 1990, when he became the second animator and ninth employee to join the company’s elite group of computer-animation pioneers. As Vice President, Creative, he currently leads the initiatives and oversees all features and shorts development for the studio.

Stanton made his directorial debut with the record-shattering “Finding Nemo,” an original story of his that he also co-wrote. The film garnered Stanton two Academy Award nominations (Best Original Screenplay and Best Animated Film), and “Finding Nemo” was awarded an Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film of 2003, the first such honor Pixar Animation Studios has received for a full-length feature.

Stanton was one of the four screenwriters to receive an Oscar nomination in 1996 for his contribution to “Toy Story” and went on to receive credit as a screenwriter on every subsequent Pixar film – “A Bug’s Life,” “Toy Story 2,” “Monsters, Inc.,” and “Finding Nemo.” Additionally, he served as co-director on “A Bug’s Life” and was the executive producer of “Monsters,Inc.” and the 2006 Academy Award-winning “Ratatouille.”

Andrew Stanton is a fabulous guy and we really appreciated his time. Here’s what he had to tell us about his latest movie:

MoviesOnline: So were you looking at your trash compactor one day and just said “Oh that would be a cute robot in a movie?”

ANDREW STANTON: No. Actually there was this lunch we had during “Toy Story” around ’94 and we were batting around just any idea we could think of to try and come up with what the next movie would be. One of the sort of half brained sentences was “Hey, we could do a sci-fi. What if we did the last robot on Earth? Everybody’s left and this machine just doesn’t know it can stop and it keeps doing it forever.” And that’s really where it started. All the details weren’t there. There wasn’t even a name of the character. We didn’t even know what it would look like. It was just the loneliest scenario I’d ever heard and I just loved it. And I think that’s why it sort of stayed in the ether for so long.

MoviesOnline: There was another animation movie about robots but they were more humanoid and they spoke English. Is that cheating?

ANDREW STANTON: What is?

MoviesOnline: They made humanistic style robots. You actually have functional robots that had to communicate that way. They weren’t like people.

ANDREW STANTON: Right. Well it’s funny, being a sci-fi geek myself going to the movies all my life, I’d come to my own conclusion that there were really kind of two camps of how robots have been designed. It’s either the Tin Man which is a human with metal skin or it’s like R2D2. It’s a machine that has a function and it’s designed based on that and you read a character into it. And 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, or even all of us, to want to see a film like this is that John (Lasseter) 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 thing is powerful. I’ve had to watch that thing about a thousand times and I’m always like…just before we put it on I go, “Oh geez, I gotta watch this again.” And I get caught up every time. And 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 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 does – I’m getting really geeky here but this is really where my head was at for a long time – is that 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 and that other person walks across the room and you go racing back to when it happened to you and 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 a half to two minutes on the short? And 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.

MoviesOnline: Can you talk about putting facial expressions on a creation that doesn’t have a face and the process associated with that?

ANDREW STANTON: That’s sort of what I’m coming into. It’s not that you put anything on it. It’s like you’ve got to go find a design that already makes you do it to it. That’s what happened with John with the Luxo lamp. He never designed that. He just happened to see a lamp and said, “I can’t help myself. I see a face on it.” So that’s what we did. I was at a baseball game. 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 he was going to collapse to possibly show that he’s shy and that’s all I had. 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 simplity 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 and I started staring at it and I started making it go sad and then happy and then mad and then sad and I remembered doing that as a kid with my dad’s binoculars and 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 and I said, “That’s it!” I can’t improve upon that. So that’s why I ran with that.

MoviesOnline: Can you talk about the de-evolution of the humans on the floating cruise ship, the Axiom?

ANDREW STANTON: Honestly I just wanted to go with… I knew what I wanted humanity to be and I didn’t know exactly how to express it at first. It was something to amplify what was going on with the main point of the story of the movie, of the love story. I’m not one of those people that comes up with a theme and then writes to it. I like to go sort of with natural things that seem to be firing and then somewhere half way I realize what the theme is. I realized that what I was pushing with these two programmed robots was their desire to try and figure out what the point of living was and it took these really irrational acts of love to sort of discover them against how they were built. And I said, “That’s it, that’s my theme, ‘irrational love defeats life’s programming.’” I realized that’s a perfect metaphor for real life. We all fall into our habits, our routines, our ruts, and they’re actually used quite often, consciously or unconsciously, to avoid living, to avoid having to do the messy part of having relationships with other people, of dealing with the person next to us. That’s why we can all be in a room and on our cell phones and not have to deal with one another. I thought that’s a perfect amplification of the whole point of the movie so I just wanted to run with science in a way that would sort of logically project that. And when I found out by talking to John Hicks who was an advisor 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 with 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 – 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 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 a little bit at the end.

MoviesOnline: How did they reproduce?

ANDREW STANTON: [Laughs] 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.

MoviesOnline: Can you tell us a little bit about the voice of Eve? I understand she was an employee?

ANDREW STANTON: 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 Pixar players for lack of a better term. Because 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.

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

ANDREW STANTON: 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 and 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.

MoviesOnline: If you’re not coming with a political or ecological message, you do have stuff about consumerism and upstairs we have a whole product suite. Is there…?

ANDREW STANTON: 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.

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

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

MoviesOnline: More than just a love story, it also had a theme of moral responsibility, especially towards the end where he decided to take the plant over the love. Was it difficult making a movie that has a more layered moral dilemma?

ANDREW STANTON: No. It’s actually much easier when you know what you’re … If you’re trying to do multiple agendas, then yeah, it’s going to be difficult. You’re going to confuse yourself as a storyteller. But if you always know it’s just about this one theme, it’s all to do that, and fine if it happens to parallel other things, if it happens to touch other subjects fine, but as long as I’m picking it for the right reason, this one singular purpose, then everything else will fall into place. I’ve had that sort of discipline since the first movie, so that plant, him giving it back to her, was a relationship choice. It was to personify “I care more.” He’d finally learned what the ultimate place to get to somebody else in a relationship was. It’s caring more about their needs than your own needs and that’s what that represented.

MoviesOnline: The Hello Dolly worked so well. Why did you choose that?

ANDREW STANTON: 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, 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 thought “Wow! That just kicks in. That just works.” And out of context, it works. And then it starts talking about 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 songs 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.”

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

ANDREW STANTON: Well 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.

MoviesOnline: Did you have to go to Michael Crawford?

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

MoviesOnline: When John and Mary unplug from their chairs, they change from blue to red. It just seems a little…

ANDREW STANTON: Everybody’s like “Well this was a political year, were you thinking…?” I’m like, “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 default settings. So, to me, red was the default setting and 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.

MoviesOnline: Why the choice to use Fred Willard?

ANDREW STANTON: 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 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/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.

MoviesOnline: Can you tell us anything about “John Carter of Mars”?

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

MoviesOnline: Is it live action?

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

MoviesOnline: Were there more Macintosh references in this than in previous Pixar pictures?

ANDREW STANTON: 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.

MoviesOnline: The relationship has always been there but I don’t think I’ve seen quite as many references as there were in this film?

ANDREW STANTON: Well it just kind of lent itself because you’re dealing with machines and they do the best designs of machines currently today.

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

ANDREW STANTON: 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.

MoviesOnline: Is that [inaudible] in the end titles?

ANDREW STANTON: No, although I did wonder why they did that. Actually Jim Capobianco did the end titles. He’d done the short.

MoviesOnline: Any Pixar characters we should look out for?

ANDREW STANTON: Inside the movie? Oh yeah! I’m not going to give it away! You’re going to have to go see it again.

MoviesOnline: In the very beginning, in WALL-E’s truck, you’ll find the T-Rex on the shelf.

ANDREW STANTON: Mike Wazowski’s in there too if you look hard enough.

MoviesOnline: Was Sigourney Weaver game to be the voice of mother this time?

ANDREW STANTON: Yes. I waited until the movie was kind of done to make sure she wouldn’t think I was crazy when she saw the movie but she was a huge fan. I really lucked out and she loved doing it. She got the in joke.

MoviesOnline: What did you record?

ANDREW STANTON: I did nothing. I have one human voice that I put in there. It’s in the background.

MoviesOnline: Did you get any ideas or moral issues or influence from Miyazaki?

ANDREW STANTON: No, we haven’t. We’re very good friends but no, we hadn’t talked. I love all his movies so maybe indirectly but nothing directly.

“WALL-E” opens in theaters on June 27th

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