A chat with Lee Unkrich, Lee Unkrich interview, Toy Story 3, Pixar
Lee Ukrich

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Imagine that you’ve finally gotten your chance to direct a movie, after years of working various jobs on the moviemaking food chain. Now imagine that the first movie you get a chance to direct is the third installment of one of the most beloved film series of all time for a studio that has never had a flop. Welcome to the world of Lee Unkrich, who becomes only the fifth person to direct a Pixar movie and makes his debut with “Toy Story 3.” Bullz-Eye chatted with Unkrich about the pressures of not just making an animated feature but a sequel to Pixar’s flagship property. Not bad for a guy that was only brought in as a short-term freelancer.  

Lee Unkrich: Hi, David.

Bullz-Eye: Hi, Lee. How are you?

LU: Good.

BE: That is fantastic hold music you guys have, by the way.

LU: Ah, what is it?

BE: It sounded like “Bonanza.”

LU: It’s probably “Toy Story 3.”

BE: This movie has an interesting back story, since it was originally going to be made by Disney without Pixar’s involvement. You had to have felt like someone was stealing your children when you first heard that.

"Some people might say, ‘My three-year-old is going to be too scared,’ and I would argue, ‘I don’t know that a three-year-old should be going to see a movie in a theater.’"

LU: Well, yeah, it was a darker time in the history of Pixar. We wanted to make a “Toy Story 3” right after “Toy Story 2,” but there were a couple of complicated, boring, contractual reasons why we couldn’t, so the idea of making a third [“Toy Story”] kind of sat on the shelf for years. And unfortunately, we hit a point where there was a lot of friction between the studios, and “Toy Story 3” was used as a big, expensive bargaining chip. And yes, for a brief period of time, Disney was going to be producing their own sequel without our involvement, but luckily that alternate version of the future never came to pass. When Disney bought us just over four years ago, all those roadblocks went away, and we shut down that other version of the film, and started over completely from scratch.

BE: You are now the fifth person to direct a full-length Pixar movie. What’s it like, after serving as a co-director for over a decade, to finally be invited to the grown-up table?

LU: (Laughs) Well, to be honest, I’ve always felt like I’ve been at the grown-up table, luckily. I just finally got the chance to have all of the stress and heartache my colleagues have had all these years. I’ve been making these films alongside several of the directors since the beginning, and now I’ve just had the opportunity to not have the joy of someone be alongside me and lead the creative team all by myself. It was a huge responsibility to make this film, not only because it’s the 11th Pixar film after a string of ten big hits – none of us wants to be the director of the first Pixar dud – but that was compounded by the pressure to make a good “Toy Story” sequel. I know full well how beloved “Toy Story” and Toy Story 2” are, and I really wanted to do anything I could to create a film worthy of sitting alongside those films.

BE: And not only were you taking the helm of a Pixar movie, you were directing some of the most complicated things Pixar’s ever done, namely the Mr. Tortilla Head sequence and the scene at the junkyard.

LU: Yeah, Mr. Tortilla Head was very complicated. There were three different animators who did all the shots, and they were definitely back breakers, but we always knew how funny they would be and how much the audience would enjoy them, so they were worth doing. The sequence at the end, in the climax, definitely was one of the more complicated things we’ve ever done. There was over a year and a half of research and development just to create all of the different simulation systems that we needed to create all of the chaos that you see at the end of the movie.

BE: I imagine that directing an animated movie is a lot like being a bride on her wedding day every day for four years, where you have about 60 people calling your name at any given moment. Tell us about the day-to-day trials of making a movie like “Toy Story 3.”

Lee UkrichLU: Well, it changes over the course of the film, but by and large, every day I’m surrounded, fortunately, by a lot of very talented people who are throwing ideas at me all day long. Part of my job as director is to sift through all those ideas and pick the best ones, the ones that are best for the movie, and always keep a 30,000-foot view of the film and what’s important to the story we’re trying to tell. I have to oversee every tiny aspect of the film from a creative standpoint, from working with the actors to directing the animators to picking patterns that are going to go on people’s clothing in the film. Anything you see in the finished film is there because I made a decision to put it there. It’s a culmination of I don’t even know how many decisions. When I would get the most burned out, I would want nothing more in the world than to sit and not have to make a decision about anything. My life was all about making decisions and making choices, and worrying about whether I was making the best choice.

BE: Last year I told Pete Docter that he was a bastard for making me cry during the ‘married life’ sequence of “Up.”

LU: Uh huh.

BE: You, sir, are a super-mondo-mega-bastard.

LU: (Laughs hard)

BE: No movie has ever made me cry like this one did.

LU: Should I apologize?

BE: No, not at all.

LU: I think the best films in the world, the ones we remember for the rest of our lives, are the ones that made us feel particularly strong feelings in one way or another, whether it’s feeling sad, or being frightened…that’s what we want, movies are a fun, safe place to have strong feelings that you don’t normally want to have in real life. If people have strong feelings watching this film, then I feel like I’ve succeeded in giving them a memorable experience.

BE: This is also arguably the scariest movie Pixar’s ever made. Have you gotten any grief about the monkey or the climax to the junkyard scene?

"On nearly every film that we’ve made, there’s been some point in the story development process where the movie was the biggest piece of garbage you can imagine."

LU: Uh, no. People have asked about it, but we got a G rating from the MPAA, and on top of that, I’ve shown the film to a lot of audiences; we had a lot of test screenings early on, and a lot of kids and families have seen it, and I think people like to be scared a little bit. I think that’s part of the fun of going to a movie. There are some scary bits in “Toy Story 3,” for sure, but we also have scary bits in all of our films. There were scary bits in “Toy Story” with Sid’s toys. We were worried about that, whether Sid’s mutant toys were going to be too frightening for kids. At the end of the day, kids like being scared a little bit, and everything works out. Again, it’s all about being in that safe environment of everything working out, and being safe in a movie theater.

BE: I’m not passing judgment, by the way. I like being scared too, but I know how overprotective some parents can be with their kids.

LU: Some people might say, “My three-year-old is going to be too scared,” and I would argue, “I don’t know that a three-year-old should be going to see a movie in a theater,” because it’s already an overwhelming situation to be in a room with a giant screen and Surround Sound coming at you from every direction. That’s part of parenting; you have to know your kid, and what kind of situations are going to be too overwhelming for them. But I don’t think there’s anything in the film that’s too over the top, and kids these days are certainly exposed to things that are far worse than anything in “Toy Story 3.”

BE: That’s funny you mention three-year-olds. I have a three-year-old. He’s dying to see this movie, but I think I’m going to wait until it comes out on video. Smaller screen, lower volume…

LU: Again, that’s what parenting is all about, right? Making informed choices. I’ve had people on Twitter ask me if they can take their little kids [to see the movie], and I always say the same thing, which is, “Go see the movie first by yourself, and decide if you think it’s right for your kid.”

BE: How many prison movies did you watch while you were putting this together?

LU: A lot. (Chuckles) I think we watched every one that we were aware of, and certainly you see references to those films in the movie, particularly “Cool Hand Luke.” But yeah, we watched “The Great Escape,” “The Shawshank Redemption,” and a lot of older films, and foreign films as well.

BE: Is Bonnie [a character who attends the day care center in the movie] modeled after one of the so-called Pixar babies?

LU: You know, she’s not, actually. Design-wise, she’s modeled after a friend of our family. We have some family friends who have a little girl, and when we were in the early stages of making this film, we were over at their house, and I just thought, “Oh my God, it’s Bonnie.” She was very helpful, she and her family, in allowing us to study her and take photos. We didn’t make Bonnie look just like her, but she certainly inspired Bonnie’s character.

Lee Ukrich

BE: I’m going to go off-topic for a second. What’s the status of “Newt”?

LU: What is the status of “Newt”? Well, we’re here to talk about “Toy Story 3” today, but I will tell you that we pulled the resources from “Newt” and put it back on the shelf for now. Everyone that was working on that is now working on other projects. We sometimes hit that point on some ideas, where we’re just not able to crack the story. The storytelling is very hard on our movies, and it’s kind of a miracle that as many [of Pixar’s movies] come together as they do. In the case of “Newt,” I think it just needs to gestate for a while longer, and hopefully someone will come back to it.

BE: So it’s not dead; it’s just on hold.

LU: It’s hibernating. Newt is hibernating.

BE: That’s interesting that you mention cracking the story, because there are some famous stories about certain Pixar movies hitting the wall, so to speak.

LU: It’s happened on nearly every film that we’ve made. There’s been some point in the story development process where the movie was the biggest piece of garbage you can imagine, unwatchable. But we don’t see that as a failure; we just see it as an important part of the story development process. Sometimes you have to get bad before you can get good.

BE: So what was the piece of “Toy Story 3” that…

LU: With all that being said, somehow we were very, very fortunate on “Toy Story 3” in that it’s one of the few films that didn’t have an implosion. We knew from the very beginning the basic story that we wanted to tell, and we never wavered from that. There were a lot of structural changes and detail changes that we made along the way – there was two and a half years of story development and screenwriting on this – but the film never exploded. We had a solid idea from the beginning, and stuck with that until the end.

BE: What are you working on next?

LU: I’m working on my vacation next. I’ve been at it so long. And then I’ll figure out what I’ll do next, but I’m planning on making another film for Pixar.

BE: One of our editors wants to know why there wasn’t an animated TV series based on “The Incredibles.”

LU: I don’t know if anyone’s ever talked about that. This is the first time anyone’s asked me about it. We had this experience doing the “Buzz Lightyear Star Command,” which we didn’t do, it was done by somebody else, and we only had marginal involvement in it. I think at the end of the day, we decided we’re happiest when anything that we put out into the world with our name on it, we have complete control over. So we are, for now, sticking to movies.

BE: I read that you started at Pixar as a temp. Is that right?

LU: I wouldn’t call it a temp. I was a freelance film editor, and I was hired for a short-term gig. I was only supposed to work for about four to six weeks, helping on the original “Toy Story,” and here I am, 16 years later.

BE: That’s a pretty awesome story, if you ask me.

LU: (Laughs) Yeah, things worked out okay.

BE: That’s all I’ve got, so thanks for taking the time to talk with us and best of luck with the movie.

LU: Okay, thanks!

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