The usual routine for a junket is to assemble at some glitzy hotel, where rooms are cleared out and beds are replaced with tables. For Pixar’s Cars junket, though, we went to North Carolina, to the Loews Motor Speedway (for more on that, click here). The interviews were done in the skyboxes maybe five or six stories overlooking the incredibly monumental track – I spent a lot of time gazing out the windows (but not leaning on the glass. I was afraid of falling. I even got some vertigo). There were no races that day, but occasionally a car would fire up its engines and you would get a taste of what the sound must be like in that arena.
John Lasseter was our first interview – he had a great, sunny disposition and a big meaty handshake. I had seen Lasseter at the hotel bar the night before, and I had turned in before he did, but he was in much higher spirits than I was. He has a lot of reasons to be in high spirits – his fourth Pixar film as director is opening this weekend, and after months of will they/won’t they speculation, Disney and Pixar had joined together in a monumental deal that left Pixar pretty unchanged but may herald a new era for the House of Mouse.
Q: Can you tell us about your first car?
Lasseter: First of all, I grew up in Los Angeles. You grew up in a Ford family, a Dodge family, a Chevy family, whatever. My dad was a parts manager at a Chevy dealership, so of course we were a Chevy family. My car that I learned to drive in was a 1969 Chevelle station wagon, and my dad got the ‘towing package,’ because we had a trailer. It happened to be everything that SS396 muscle car had – huge 350 V8 with a huge 4 barrel carburetor. I could lay rubber the entire block in this station wagon. It was the hottest car in town. It was great. But it had the ‘towing package.’
So that was the first car. I had a Volkswagon squareback that broke down all the time, then I had a 1969 Toyota Corona. It was this funny little car, a 4 speed, but honestly the thing never broke down and when it did, I could fix it. It was great that way.
Q: Pixar films traditionally cross the gender lines, but this one feels more like a boy movie, with all the cars. Are you concerned about that?
Lasseter: Yes. Very good observation. When I started this – I mentioned that I grew up in LA, my dad was a parts manager, so I’ve always loved cars. I came up with this idea back during A Bug’s Life and I became really excited about this in a geeky way. I mean a deeply geeky way. I wanted real model cars, I started coming to this track researching NASCAR, racing, all this stuff. My wife, Nancy, bless her heart, she says, ‘You know, you’ve got to make this movie for me, for your nieces, for everybody in the world out there who doesn’t like racing and who doesn’t care much for cars.’ And she was right.
So throughout the whole making of the movie, Joe Ranft, my partner on this, always had what he called The Nancy Factor. It really was – it was something we consciously focused on, it was about the story and the characters. And we got on the show a number of people who were not into cars to help with the story. Kiel Murray was a woman, a writer at Pixar, who we brought on who wasn’t into cars in any way, and she was great.
While we were working on the story to make sure it worked for everybody we then went back and made sure all the car details were correct, because the geek in me will never be kept down. We wanted the racing to be authentic. I personally can’t stand to go see a movie about a subject I love and care about and see the filmmaker didn’t do their homework. The credibility of the whole film is shot, and I didn’t want that to happen. We worked with Paul Newman as a voice, and he was a racing consultant. Jerry Nadeau is a NASCAR driver that helped us out. Daryl Waltrip was a huge help. And the guy who directs all the Fox broadcasts of NASCAR is named Artie Kempner, and he was a big help for the authenticity. For the car world it was important to get the details right – Paul Newman’s character is a 1951 Hudson Hornet, and if you know Hudson Hornets, it’s a 51. All the details are there. It’s even a stock 51 color. Yes, I’m a geek.
Q: NASCAR is just getting bigger and bigger. Why do you think it’s so popular?
Lasseter: As Americans the sports that really take hold are ones that are just incredibly entertaining and fun to watch because they’re competitive. When you watch a sport you want to be on the edge of your seat. It’s like how I tell stories. I believe NASCAR is that kind of racing. You’re really on your edge of the seat. The races do take a long time, but there’s always some kind of competitive aspect going on. There are other types of racing out there where one guy gets in the lead and he leads the entire race. [snores] NASCAR is not like that. There are lead changes constantly, the pit stops are so exciting and interesting. I think Fox Sports has done a great job of bringing to audiences in this country that it’s a team sport. It used to be just about the driver but now you realize how much is about the crew chief, the team, stuff like that. That’s been a big thing.
I’m just talking about the things I really love in the sport. I think that’s part of why it’s been so successful. Also, there are a number of drivers that – in any race you’re going to have a handful of drivers that can win. Every season you have…
[interrupted by the sound of roaring race car engines from the track below]
Yeah, excuse me, but you can’t help but love that!
But I think NASCAR has done a fantastic job of keeping the top teams, the big money teams, their technology even, so that lots of teams can be competitive.
Q: Can you talk about Owen Wilson’s work in this film?
Lasseter: In casting of voices in Pixar films we want to get great actors, first of all. Actors whose voices fit the characters and whose personalities fit the characters. We never ask the actors to put on a voice, as a director I want everything to sound very natural. No one’s reading along or acting or something. It’s a world where cars are alive, there are no humans, so race cars are athletes. We were making Lightning McQueen into a character who was a young rookie that is extremely talented and becomes successful very fast and becomes a superstar because he’s a good looking car, but the success has gone to his head in the wrong way. He’s very self-centered and always thinking about himself. So then it became this thing where we needed an actor who could do that and still be appealing. I’ve always liked the work Owen’s done, and the thing I liked about what he’s done is that every character is so appealing. And he’s very funny.
Owen’s the hardest working actor I’ve ever worked with. It’s unbelievable; he’ll give us so much. And as you know he’s a very talented screenwriter as well, so he would give us a lot from a story standpoint. We would talk a lot about the story and his scenes and this stuff, and he helped out with the character. I encourage all my actors – and that’s why we cast people like Bonnie Hunt – to do ad-libbing. One of the things that’s so challenging, and we take four years to make these films, it’s like crafting this movie frame by frame by frame. It’s pixel by pixel by pixel, really. And spontaneity is not something you think about but spontaneity is very important to me in the recording session. I always want them to ad-lib. Owen was fantastic that way. And we work with our actors – we don’t just write the script and send them to record and never see them again. Owen I think we worked with ten times, and each of our sessions is about four hours long. This is stretched out over about a two and a half year period that I had been working with him, so he saw the evolution of the story. Pixar stories really start one way and then we evolve them and develop them. What we do is that he’ll redo a scene a few times and we’ll get inspired by something he did and it goes on. Early on in the session, when we finally settled on the name Lightning McQueen, I kept thinking to myself, every boy is born with his own set of sound effects. Your own gun, explosion, hand grenade, machine gun, lightning, thunder, race car sounds, shifting gears, motorcycle – very different from a car. We all have these sounds we’re just born with. So I went to him and said, ‘What’s your sound for lightning and thunder?’ I had the tape rolling and he did this great run of ‘Ka-Chow! Ka-Chow!’ and it was hilarious. I almost ruined the take because I was laughing so hard. So we listened to the tape and thought it would be really funny if the character would say that. Then we came up with the idea because of Owen’s doing it in this way, why doesn’t the character have a catch phrase, right? Then we created what we called his lucky sticker, it was that mylar thing where he thinks he’s so cool by reflecting light into a girl’s eyes; he thinks he’ll pick them up that way. So then we described it to Owen as almost a tattoo, and he started striking these poses. We always videotape our actors when we record them, and we get so much inspiration from it. That was when we put [the lightning bolt] on the front fender and had him striking the pose, and it all came from Owen’s funny ad-lib. As you can see it became the whole movie’s trademarked catchphrase – and one thing I’ve learned from NASCAR is that everything is trademarked.
Q: Speaking of trademarks, your cars all have sponsors, but they’re all made up products. Was that because you didn’t want to go the product placement route, or was it because you wanted to do satire?
Lasseter: We wanted real model cars for the movie, but we decided not to go with the real brand names, partly because we wanted to make up our own world. It was really, really fun making up our own brands. Also, everything in a Pixar film is done for a story reason; Lightning McQueen’s sponsor is Rust-Eeze Medicated Bumper Ointment and their new Rear-End Formula. We thought it would be great because it would be a real low budget team, an entry level low-rent sponsor. We thought it would be really fun because the best customers for this are the most rusted out cars you find in the East. [For Lightning] that’s like walking through a leper colony. But that all sets him up for meeting [Mater, the tow-truck], it sets him up for being his best friend in the most unlikely way. We had a lot of fun doing that. And of course you’ve seen the tire brand? [They’re Lightyear tires] Did you see the blimp? Goodyear changed their blimp for this race to be the Lightyear blimp.
Q: What’s the secret to getting actors to agree to do voices in the films?
Lasseter: Actually some actors aren’t as interested as others. I always think if they’ve got kids, we’ve got ‘em. It’s nice now because of the body of work that we’ve done and we’re dedicated to making quality movies that actors want to be a part of this. And we have so much fun working with them; all of the actors we’ve worked with have become some of our best friends.
Q: Can you talk about the new Disney/Pixar relationship, and your role in Disney now?
Lasseter: We’re excited about the new Pixar/Disney relationship. I’m excited because I have Disney blood running through my veins. It is why I do what I do, the films of Walt Disney, how those films have entertained me. When I was going to college at CalArts in the character animation program, being taught by these amazing Disney artists they pulled out of retirement to teach us. Even at the time I realized how special that was. And I lived only a half an hour from Disneyland in LA, and I worked there as a ride operator on the jungle cruise in the summer. I loved Disneyland, growing up down there. I always knew what it meant to me to be entertained by those films, and that’s why at Pixar our sole focus is entertaining our audience.
Now to be asked to come back – I’m very excited about this. The whole deal is structured so Pixar will stay Pixar in every way. It’s protected because it’s such a special culture up there. It’s such a special place. I’m excited about going back to Disney – the artists down there are really talented. I’m excited about working with them and making their films as great as can be. And part of my job is working with Imagineering too, working on theme park rides.
Q: How is that going to affect you at Pixar? The making of a film is so intensive and you’ll be splitting your time.
Lasseter: I have been, for a while, wearing two hats. I had two jobs at Pixar – directing movies, like Cars, and being the executive in charge of everything creative. I’ve been doing that since the beginning. I already went through a time when I sort of did somewhat of a break from directing to help Pete Docter make Monsters, Inc, to help Andrew Stanton make Finding Nemo, to help Brad Bird make The Incredibles. Pixar is a director-driven studio. So I was already going to take a break from directing to help the whole bunch of directors with movies lined up to be made. I had made that decision anyway. So I’ll be going two days a week down at Disney, three days a week at Pixar, occasionally three days a week at Disney. So I’ve already been planning on doing that.
And I never say never, and I hope to direct again some day, but I was already planning on taking a break from directing to help these other directors.
Q: Is Toy Story 3 going to be theatrical or direct to video?
Lasster: We’re not talking about Toy Story 3 yet. Sorry!