We’re almost a month into the 2008 summer movie derby, and, even with the runaway success of Iron Man and the obliging box office of Indy 4, I’m still quite confident that Andrew Stanton’s Wall-E is going to wipe the linoleum with all comers from here ’til Labor Day.

“But Pixar’s stuck on a downward trajectory! Their last two films are their lowest grossers since A Bug’s Life, which is universally regarded as the worst movie of all time, no take-backs!”

First off, A Bug’s Life is better than anyone remembers (watched it with my nephew last November, and, aside from a slow-ish set-up, it’s inventive and genuinely funny in all the way the diseased Shrek movies aren’t). Secondly, it’s a testament to the marketing expertise of Pixar that they piled up over $200 million domestic with a family film that has a French title, a third act that hinges on a Proust-ian plot contrivance, and a main character voiced by a comic who once regaled audiences with the delightful tale of Gil Gerard getting fisted on Robert Evans’s cigarette boat by Tom Wopat. Oh, and the “underperforming” Cars recently surpassed Toy Story as the company’s top mover of film-related merchandise. Pixar is “stuck on a downward trajectory” like the New England Patriots are “mired in a slump”. 

But I would agree that the studio could do with a fat pitch down the middle. Fortunately, that’s precisely what Andrew Stanton (director of the semi-successful Finding Nemo) is serving up in WALL-E.

This was clear from the debut of the first teaser trailer over a year ago, but the simple brilliance of the premise wasn’t completely apparent to me until I got worked over by the film’s first act last February on the Pixar campus (in lovely Emeryville, California!). Aside from a shot or two, this portion of Wall-E was finished, and while everyone who’s seen this footage is going out of their way to paint the film as “risky” for its relative absence of dialogue or “shocking” for its integration of human actors into the CG universe (Fred Willard pops up on video billboards as the CEO of the Buy ‘n Large corporation), these caveats disappear the minute the titular little fella rolls into frame to “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” from Jerry Herman’s regrettable Hello, Dolly!

If there’s any artistic daring on display, it’s in Stanton’s decision to score the opening credits to such a terribly corny tune. Though most audiences probably won’t be able to identify the source of the ditty (thus proving that humanity has made some progress since 1964), the very invocation of Herman risks mule-kicking this precious endeavor straight into high camp. But, as Stanton pointed out in the post-viewing Q&A (posted below), Wall-E’s bad taste in musicals is sort of endearing. Besides, he only likes what he likes because he’s limited access to playable VHS tapes; had he stumbled upon My Fair Lady, I’m sure he’d be emulating the choreography to “Ascot Gavotte” instead. 

Regardless of taste, Wall-E is a captivating protagonist because he is a dreamer marooned on the desolate remnants of Earth; though he has a plucky cockroach to keep him company, he yearns to make contact with one of his own – the rest of his kind having seemingly burned out years ago. As in E.T., which is one of the film’s unmistakable inspirations (the others being a loving mishmash of R2-D2, Johnny Five and Huey, Dewey and Louie from Doug Trumbull’s Silent Running), there’s an undercurrent of sadness that allows the film to connect on a deeper level than most popular entertainments. It’s not that the basic action of Wall-E‘s first act is revolutionary (the trailer gets it across pretty well: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy hitches intergalactic ride on massive spaceship to get girl back); it’s just that Stanton has imbued it with equal amounts of heart and invention. Oftentimes, one gets shortchanged in favor of the other (think of the many sci-fi/fantasy/comic book films with fully realized worlds and inert characters), which is strange since connection has everything to do with recognizable human behavior. You’d think a day’s brainstorming session would be sufficient to come up with a handful of not-too-trite character quirks; unfortunately, the edict generally seems to be “wow ’em into an unfeeling stupor”.

The genius aspect of Wall-E‘s setup is the introduction of Eve, the Heaven/Apple-sent diva who’s been deposited on Earth to survey the landscape for… something. We observe Eve’s actions from Wall-E’s deeply enamored perspective (our boy’s got it bad, y’all), and admire his persistence even after she nearly incinerates him with a rather substantial laser blast. Dangerous is sexy, so Wall-E persists, which ultimately leads to that great shopping cart gag you’ve seen in the trailers. Once Eve realizes Wall-E is harmless, she accompanies him back to his junky little hovel (he ekes out a Sanford-like existence), where he shows her his most favorite thing in the world: Hello, Dolly (total film geek behavior). It’s all pretty innocuous until Wall-E retrieves his latest discovery, a sliver of live vegetation. Suddenly, Eve freaks out, “ingests” the plant, and retreats into a state of hibernation. At first, Wall-E is stunned, then heartbroken; after a few wonderful hours of bot-to-bot interaction, he’s alone again. It’s absolutely devastating.

But when Eve’s ride descends to take her back to wherever, those few hours compel Wall-E to risk his meager existence on a cross-galactic jaunt; being is meaningless if he can’t have his Eve back. It’s the cleanest, most irresistible hook Pixar’s had since its inception, and if the payoff is up to the magic of the first thirty minutes, Pixar’s got a family classic on par with The Wizard of Oz. No film has impacted me like this in a long, long time; for those of you desperate for a throwback to the escapist aesthetic of the 1980s, this is your movie.

Following the presentation in Pixar’s gorgeous screening room (where there’s always a chair reserved for the late Joe Ranft), Andrew Stanton sauntered down the aisle and fielded questions for twenty minutes. Here’s a fairly complete transcript of that back-and-forth:

Q: Was it your intent to make Eve look like an Apple product?

Andrew Stanton: We were certainly influenced by the design. The biggest thing was, what’s the sexiest other end of the spectrum. We kept saying Wall-E is a tractor and she’s a Mercedes. So in the world of technology, what’s the sleekest, most seamless, where the moving parts are hidden. So we sort of riffed off of anything of that ilk. Although, after we had her designed, we had Johnny Ive, who does all of the design at Apple, we invited him over and he was very seduced by it. Who knows if a weird chicken and egg thing will happen based on that. He approved highly.

Q: What kind of reaction were you getting because in the first 30 minutes there was no dialogue in the film?

Stanton: First of all, I think that that’s a misnomer. There is dialog all through it. All I am saying is that they are not necessarily saying words in a language that you know. What I wanted was integrity. It all comes down to [the fact that] I believe that Luxo is a lamp, and that it has a life in it, and it thinks like a lamp and acts like a lamp. I don’t have to be told that; it doesn’t have to be spelled out to me, I just get it right away.

I wanted the same thing with the robots. I wanted you to believe that that’s a machine and it’s been there for hundreds of years; it’s been weathered, and it has a thought process on its own. It was designed a certain way so, therefore, it would have a certain way that it spoke electronically. And Eve was designed a certain way and would speak a certain way electronically. I just wanted things to be sort of, logic-based, and it was all to service the integrity of the world, because I just want to believe that I am there. I want to believe it’s really happening. So that shows the look of the film, the lens choice, some of the technological advances we made so that you’ll get more of a sense of the three dimensional atmosphere. Anything we did was just to enhance the experience of believability.

Q: You’re clearly playing on sort of the cues in the film that trigger people’s collective memory of what it is to be a robot in outer space, with the spaceships and stuff. I may be wrong but it seemed like there was some R2-D2 in Wall-E.

Stanton: We certainly make blatant homages every once in a while. You try and make everything as original as you can make it, but everything probably comes from the collective unconscious and things that influenced you. It’s all subconsciously quite incestuous.

Q: Were there conscious things that you were going for?

Stanton: No. Everything tends to be just an accident. I have had a million things in other movies that I have worked on and people will go “you know, that’s just like this” and you go “oh really?” (Laughs) I want everything to come from a sincere place, from a truthful place. Whether that ends up being a choice that seven other films made, I don’t care, as long as that choice came for the right reasons.

Q: The retrieving of live vegetation reminded me of Huey, Dewey, and Louie from Silent Running.

Stanton: You know, all of those 70s films. Huey, Dewey, and Louie, definitely from the perspective of imbuing a personality on a machine… that affected me big when I was a kid, almost in the same way that The Red Balloon did in terms of imbuing something on a red balloon. It’s all from that same family. It’s a very small pool to pull from. If you think, cinematically, how often that’s been done, then you cull that down to how often that’s been done in sci-fi, it’s a small pool.

Q: Children don’t need to be talked down to.

Stanton: I argue that kids are smarter than you think. Kids are wired up for the first ten to fifteen years of their life to figure everything out. They’re watching you all the time; maybe they don’t understand what you and Mom just talked about, but they’re trying to glean anything out of the inflection, out of the timing, out of when it’s happening, what peoples’ faces look like. They’re way more receptive to translate than our jaded adult selves.

Q: You said you got the idea for Finding Nemo from your own child. Was there something from your life that gave rise to this idea?

Stanton: No. Like I said, things came from different things from different movies, and this one was just coming up with a situation of a robot left alone on a sort of Robinson Crusoe kind of situation, and that just evolved a ton. And the funny thing is that immediately, almost in the next sentence – I remember Pete Docter and I continued to talk about it after our lunch – was that without even any debate, we said, “Oh, you’d never want to have it speak. You’d want it be a real robot. You’d want it to have to speak with how it was built.” That’s the excitement about it.

Q: Where did the use of live action come from?

Stanton: To be honest, it just came out of a logistical conceit that I knew I wanted to use footage from a musical, from a live-action movie. I felt I had the luxury of evolution on my side, that we made up the future for humans, so that we don’t have to worry about matching. But any retro footage, I just felt you wouldn’t be in the same world if you didn’t [use humans], since we knew we were going to use footage from Hello, Dolly!

Q: Was it always Hello, Dolly!?

Stanton: I know this is the question I know I’m gonna get asked for the rest of my life is, “Why Hello, Dolly!?” And the one thing I want to dispel is I’m a fan of the movie. I just like to think that Wall-E has bad taste in musicals. But he’s a romantic at heart, you know. He’s not that discerning.

You know, every once in a while you do change something because somebody got there first. It was frustrating to be in the same year as Triplets of Belleville, because I loved that film when Finding Nemo came out. I was already working on Wall-E, and… Wall-E originally had French 30s swing music at the beginning over stars; I just loved the juxtaposition of that, the old and the new. I hadn’t seen that. And then I saw Triplets of Belleville, which had French swing music over not a lot of speaking, and… the last thing I wanted to be accused of was stealing from something. It wasn’t set in stone that it had to be that piece of music, so I started opening my mind to other old-fashioned things, and to be honest the story wasn’t fully complete at the time – just parts of the story were. I had been in Hello, Dolly! the musical, and a lot of other musicals growing up in high school, and for some ironic reason – I don’t know if you guys do this, I troll iTunes every once in a while because it has become Tower [Records], and you can’t go to Tower anymore – and I remember stumbling through and going, “I remember this!”, and trying to remember the songs. I remember immediately going, “This is the most bizarre idea I’ve ever had, but it just might work.” And I juxtaposed it against the opening, and it worked. It led to me figuring out more about what other songs were in the movie and stuff, and it really opened doors for me for other arrows in the quiver for how to tell the story without having to rely on dialogue, without giving plot away.

Q: There is a part where Eve is flying through the air, freed from the ship. It was interesting and suggested that he feels a connection to her.

Stanton: Yeah, there’s like an inkling of, however he evolved, there’s something in her for him to be attracted to. Also, frankly, she just needs to be there; I mean he’s never seen another robot. It’s impossible not to immediately make a very primal analogy to “love at first sight,” and being able to use the sci-fi means at hand to express that. That’s really all it was. That’s pretty much been the road map for the whole movie.

Q: It looks very distinctive and feels very real. What was your guiding principle in coming up with the look of the film?

Stanton: That’s the bane of these kinds of movies. First of all, just a CG movie, you get nothing for free. If you see it in there, somebody had to plan it, somebody had to draw it, somebody had to paint it, somebody had to model it, or matte paint it or something. Nothing came by accident. Nobody was able to go to a thrift store, a prop shop, take a photo outside… so that’s just overwhelming. It’s daunting. You add on top of that a fantasy world where those no rules and you get to make up what you think the future looks like? You almost want to give up right away because it’s just too many decisions to make. So you surround yourself with really talented people that have really strong opinions about how they like things to look, and you just start chipping away a day at a time until it doesn’t seem so overwhelming. It’s like that on every movie, but I gotta say, this movie and Monsters, Inc. were probably the most burdensome on the art department here just because of the fantasy world aspect. There’s just that much more to have to come up with. You can’t just go, “Oh, it’s a dentist’s office.” So, the end result is very satisfying, but to get there iis truly daunting.

Q: Was there a guiding principle, or was it for whatever worked with the story?

Stanton: You know, if there was, I knew that I had to tell the story with the Earth. I had to tell a lot of history. I had to tell what’s happened over 1,000 years. That almost dictated what everything was. You wanted a city that felt sort like, sort of what Shanghai’s starting to feel like now. Or Dubai. And then you had to have trash towers that were amongst that because you’re telling a history that you haven’t seen yet. And now you’re also telling the demise of that history, and then the way to try to solve the problem of that past history, and now the sort of dystopian result of that… it’s so layered. It was a real brain-tease. Every shot counted. It was thrilling to solve it because every part of the buffalo is used on that. But that’s really what drove everything. Just telling the story of that. But then we knew again we wanted the future to be cool.

We all are probably very similar because of our backgrounds here, that we all miss the Tomorrowland that was promised us from Tomorrowland from the heyday of Disneyland – and that really said, “Well, that’s the future I want to have seen us get to.” You see it now. It’s like, this may be adding more burden to my life, but it’s so cool I can’t resist. It’s the seduction factor. It’s too convenient, it’s too cool, it’s too whatever. And to me, all of Tomorrowland at Disneyland in the late 50s-60s design was like that, anything they promised of that look was so…. “Yes! Give it to me!” We [kept using] the phrase of, “I want it to have that, ‘Where’s my jetpack?’ feel.” So “Where’s my jetpack?” became sort of the touchstone of any art direction for anything that was truly trying to tack on to the futuristic design of stuff.

Q: One of your colleagues here [at Pixar] said that in five years we won’t be able to tell the difference between live action and CG.

Stanton: That’s a bold statement. (Laughs)

Q: I think we’re seeing an indication here of that here though…

Stanton: But there isn’t a desire to be photo realistic. There’s a desire to just indulge and believe that you are where you are.

Q: You mentioned at Comic-Con in being able to push the virtual camera department. How were you able to capture the essences of many of those sci-fi films?

Stanton: You know, we’ve all been to film school since Toy Story. It’s not like we came in as really, really knowledgeable filmmakers; we were too stupid to know we couldn’t do it. So we just kept working on it. We’ve gotten smarter as we go… and I remember getting to a point at the end of Nemo, I got so seduced by the underwater feel we managed to get with it – this extra dimensional sense – and I said, “Can we do that in the air?” And then with a little more smarts, we started to look at what other cameras were doing whenever I watched one of my favorite films – whenever they were racking focus, the barrel distortion, and the little ovals on the lights. And I would notice our stuff wasn’t doing that exactly, or not at all on some things. Invariably, you would reach some guy who did the programming who would say, “No, the math’s all right.” And you’d go, “That doesn’t answer it for me. I don’t care if the math’s right. It’s not doing what it’s supposed to be doing.”

We actually hired Roger Deakins, the famous cinematographer, to give us a crash course on cinematography, and then liked him so much we asked him to stay another week or two. Because what we do is so foreign to how we approach it, we’re trying to get the same end result. It happened to coincide with us deciding that we were going to rent actual Arriflex 70mm cameras and shoot a stand-in Wall-E, three-dimensional, with the grid on the atrium in here, and do all the things with the camera we wanted to do – expecting it to do like lens flare and all that stuff – and then we would make a virtual set of exactly the same thing in our computer. And sure enough, they didn’t match. That’s all our computer engineers needed to see to get challenged and frustrated. [Then they] started to fix things. We’ve been able to now play in a much more accurate grammar of what we’ve all sort of been unconsciously used to seeing in a lot of our favorite sci-fi films.

Q: Give us an example of what that does to the image.

Stanton: Well there’s a scene where you see Wall-E looking at Eve while she’s got the lighter, and all the Christmas lights turn into nice bright transparent circles over one another. That’s achieved by a very narrow shallow lens that blows everything else into a distortion and blur – but the way it does becomes very magical and very romantic. And we weren’t getting those kind of looks when we would rack focus at all. I was looking at a lot of Gus Van Sant movies, particularly things like Finding Forrester and Good Will Hunting, and he likes to direct your eye with focus. There is an air of intimacy that you achieve by using that as part of your storytelling that I want to use. I want to use that in this film because it’s such a cold, clinical, mechanical world. “Where do I get my intimacy from? How can I get it?”

Q: Can you talk about the sound design a little bit?

Stanton: Yes. Ben Burtt. Because I knew that, again, the dialogue from many characters generated their own kind of style, I had to spend a lot of time with Ben Burtt just auditioning stuff. I’d talk about a character, show him the drawings, and he’d go off and come up with just a bevy of ideas of what that machine, that robot, that person would sound like. It’s this huge buffet, and I would sit there and sort of cull it down. Even after that, you would come away from something like 100 sounds that are in this sort of camp. My editor and I would find that, as we worked, we would even want to limit the vocabulary down from that. It was sort of this natural process over two years.

Q: The movie suggests that we might not have learned our lesson.

Stanton: Your hunches would be in the right direction. To be honest, for all the grandeur in the backdrop and all the fantastical things that’ll continue to happen in the movie, it’s a simple love story, and we try to keep it very much small on the massive backdrop.

Wall-E. June 27th. See you there.