Pete Docter admits he wasn't the most socially proficient kid, and says that even today, he prefers to work alone and has to remind himself to connect with others.
Docter, director of the new Pixar film Up, gets those connections in his own family—he and wife Amanda have two children, Nicolas (12) and Elie (10)—and at the office, where the Pixar team considers itself very much a family. One of Pixar's originals, Docter helped create the characters and script for the Toy Story films, and wrote and directed Monsters Inc.
Up is the story of a lonely, curmudgeonly widower, Carl Fredricksen, who decides to escape the world's chaos by tying thousands of helium balloons to his home and floating away to paradise—all alone. But shortly into his trip, Carl learns he's not alone—a stowaway, a young boy named Russell, has unwittingly come along for the adventure. And along the way, both Carl and Russell learn some poignant lessons about life—and about the importance of relationships.
CT Movies caught up with Docter recently for a conversation about the film.
I hear the idea for Up partly sprung from a notion that it would be nice to be shipwrecked on a desert island and to escape the chaos of the world.
Docter: The genesis of it was that I'm not an extroverted guy. By the end of the day, a lot of times I just want to escape or get away from everything. So the idea of floating off into the sky seemed really intriguing. I think everybody can relate to that, and yet one of the most important things we can do is to connect with other people—and it's easy to lose track of that. And that's the message of the film, that Carl thinks he missed the real adventure in life by not going to these exotic places and seeing these fantastic sights. But in the end he learns that he had the best adventure of all—the adventure of the relationship that he had with his wife.
Why did you want Carl and Ellie to be a childless couple?
Docter: We needed it story-wise. The initial impetus was that by the time his wife dies, we wanted him utterly alone in his house, on his block. Then the outside world pushes in, and he repels them and floats away. As we developed the story and came up with the idea of Russell, it ended up doing a double service—they wanted to have kids but never were able to, and then this kid comes along and Carl becomes a kind of a father figure.
Is any of this autobiographical? Were you the adventurous scout type?
Docter: There was a creek not far from our house, and I pretended I was Indiana Jones or whatever, looking for treasure and things like that. Everybody has a little bit of that. But all this stuff ends up being somewhat autobiographical—whether the movies are about animals or bugs or fantastic beasts, we're always looking to find some humanity in them. We just kind of hunt around until we find something that resonates, that feels like, Yeah, I can relate to that. In Monsters Inc., Sulley was all about work—and I'm into my work. And then this kid comes along and really threw Sulley for a loop—and my son arrived right as I was starting on that film. [Docter's children are Nicolas, 12, and Ellie, 10.]
In Up, life had a way of hardening Carl. In what ways has life hardened you?
Docter: I don't know. I've led a pretty blessed life. There have certainly been setbacks along the way, but I can't really think of anything major. The closest thing I can come up with is just the idea of getting tired of people, which is really easy to do, especially those people we are so close with. Those are the ones you end up struggling with.