On the 'Monsters U.' campus, every day is family day
05:00 AM, Apr 24, 2013
LAS VEGAS When Dan Scanlon joined Pixar in 2001, he came on board as the company was putting the finishing touches on the animated tale Monsters, Inc.
The film was just the fourth from the fledgling studio, and the first not directed by chief creative officer John Lasseter.
Still, Scanlon recalls, the studio knew it was onto something special, and he remembers how emotional the cast got as the film neared wrapping: “It was like a family was saying goodbye to each other. And they didn’t want to.”
Now, Scanlon is in charge of the reunion.
He directs Monsters University, out June 21. The prequel reunites good-natured spook specialists Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and James P. “Sulley” Sullivan (John Goodman) and imagines their days as college buds and rivals.
The movie shoulders its share of expectations heading into a summer that needs to outshine 2012’s to get the film industry back on track financially. The box office, down 12% from last year, needs a hit. And The Croods marks the only animated film this year to crack $100 million.
In addition, University marks Pixar’s first prequel, and already, forecasters expect it to eclipse the 2001 original, which amassed $290 million domestically and $563 million worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo.
And then there’s the streak. Pixar has made only 13 movies, starting with 1995’s Toy Story, and each one has opened at No. 1, a streak no filmmaker wants to break.
Still, Scanlon says, the pressure comes from not wanting to disappoint family. In this case, his professional one.
“Really, the strategy at Pixar is to make the movies we’d like to see, that our families would like to see,” he says during a break after University’s first screening, for an auditorium full of theater owners at last week’s CinemaCon.
“Everybody is a part of making a Pixar movie,” he says. “Our first screenings are with employees and their families, and they all give feedback. Those are the people you don’t want to disappoint, and the rest falls into place.”
Indeed, little has gone astray in Pixar’s history. From Toy Story to Finding Nemo to Up, the studio has moved at a glacial pace one movie per year. But none of the entries has done less than $163 million (1998’s A Bug’s Life). The 13 movies have taken in $3.3 billion domestically, an average of $251 million per movie.
“We may eventually want to get up to three movies every two years, as opposed to one every year,” says Kori Rae, a producer on both Monsters films. “But we’re not trying to make a lot more movies. This keeps every movie special and demands we pay attention to the story. Especially something like this, where you want to update the characters but still keep them familiar.”
Scanlon and his Pixar colleagues had been discussing a Monsters sequel for years. Crystal recalls attending Goodman’s surprise 50th birthday party, where he bumped into Lasseter.
“John said they were bouncing around a few ideas for a sequel, but they just had to find the right story,” Crystal recalls. “I said, ‘Call me when you do, because I’m in.’ “
That was in 2002.
“They are not going to use a story until it’s written and rewritten until it’s perfect,” Crystal says.
In University’s case, that story meant taking Mike and Sulley to the days of their wild youth, when they weren’t such good friends.
“We wanted to capture those days in college, when you arrive and you think you’re all that, and you realize there’s a lot of competition on campus,” Scanlon says. “We wanted a story everyone could relate to, not just kids.”
Scanlon says that while the film takes its heart from the relationship between Mike and Sulley, the narrative concentrates on Mike.
“If there’s a message, I think it’s that sometimes you have to discover who you really are, instead of what you’re expected to be,” Scanlon says. “It might be a slightly heavier theme than the first movie, but I think kids are more aware than we sometimes give them credit for.”
Pixar has found success with “heavier” subject matter. Last year’s Brave was unabashedly influenced by cautionary Eastern European fairy tales. It also collected $244 million and an Oscar statue for best animated picture.
University, too, cloaks its emotional messages this time in a frat house. Scanlon and crew spent weeks visiting campuses to get a feel for contemporary college life.
Some things, says Scanlon, 36, haven’t changed from his college days. The kids still sleep off all-nighters during the day and want for a direction in life.
“It’s still the most important time for self-discovery,” he says. “To discover what you want to be, figure out how much friends matter. That theme is pretty powerful, in a family movie or any other.”
Of course, if it’s in a Pixar movie, it needs to look pretty, too. Rae estimates that the first Monsters film featured fewer than 50 monsters. The new movie has more than 300.
“What we can do now with technology is incredible, but you still have to make it consistent with the world people remember,” she says.
For the actors, it meant finding the energy they had for the original, and then some.
“I wanted to pitch my voice a little higher, give it just a little more energy,” Goodman says. “You’re trying to recall that youthful energy you had in school.”
For Scanlon, it’s about recalling the energy he saw at the wrap party of the first film.
“I think that what makes this special is that the message of the movie is the same message we had making the movie,” he says. “It’s all about the relationships you create.”