Fourteen years ago, Pixar pioneers Andrew Stanton, John Lasseter, Pete Docter and the late Joe Ranft met for a now-famous lunch. Toy Story, the fledgling company's first movie, was nearing completion, and the thought suddenly hit them: We might get a chance to make another movie!
The ideas flowed—for A Bug's Life, Monsters Inc., and Finding Nemo. Stanton had a seed of an idea—but no story—of mankind departing Earth and leaving one little robot behind, continuing to do his job faithfully, because somebody forgot to turn him off.
Now, 14 years later, that idea hits theaters as WALL•E, the latest masterpiece from the animated masterminds at Pixar. Stanton, 42, has had a hand in most of Pixar's pictures, but this is only his second film at the helm as director. His first, 2003's Finding Nemo, won an Oscar for Best Animated Picture.
While Nemo was about the bonds of love between a father and son, WALL•E is also a love story—between two inanimate objects. The title character is the aforementioned "little robot left behind," whose daily task consists of picking up trash, compacting it, and putting it in neat piles. But in the rubbish, he learns something of the humans who, 700 years ago, left him behind and now are cruising the galaxy in a space station, waiting for the Earth to become habitable again. WALL•E finds all sorts of gizmos that give him hints about how humans think and feel, but his most telling prize is a VHS tape of Hello, Dolly, which he watches incessantly—and from which he learns something of love and loneliness.
Then along comes a "female" robot named, appropriately, EVE, whose mission is to find plant life in an effort to determine if the Earth is habitable again. Meanwhile, the humans on the space station have grown fat, languid, and disconnected, victims of their own consumerism and, indeed, "consumed" by the hi-tech machines around them. Will our robot hero save the day—and the humans—and get the "girl" all at the same time?
Stanton talked to CT Movies last week about the themes in the film, about how his Christian faith informs his work, and about the creative process at Pixar.
There seem to be some biblical themes in this film. WALL•E is sort of like Adam, the only "guy" on earth, lonely, longing for a companion &hellip?
Andrew Stanton: Yes, and that's certainly why I picked EVE as an appropriate title for the female robot. But "Adam" just didn't have the underdog ring to it as the main character. WALL•E was a little bit more sad sack—and I could find an acronym that could work for that. But definitely it had that first man, first female theme. But I wasn't trying to replace man in the bigger story. I just loved the poetic-ness that these two machines held more care for living and loving than humanity had anymore.
There's also a bit of Noah's Ark story here, with the humans on the space station, waiting for a chance to repopulate the earth—but having to wait till EVE comes back with plant life to indicate it's okay?
Stanton: I wasn't using the Noah's Ark story as a guide, but through circumstances, I loved the parallels of EVE almost being like this dove, of going down for proof that it's time to come back. It just worked in that allegory, so I ran with it.
And that wasn't planned?
Stanton: No, it always works backward. It's more like, Wow, look what this sort of feels like. So you run with those things, because they're very primal. In my mind they're very much in the core of our storytelling. So much of the Old Testament is sort of built into our DNA.
I've read other stories where you've talked about your Christian faith a bit. Can you tell me how your faith informs your creativity and your work?
Stanton: They tell you that as a storyteller, it's vital to just stick with and be honest with your values system. The last thing I want to do is go to a movie and feel like I'm being preached to or being told how to be, and I think it's more honest—and you're going to have more effect—to be truthful with the values of your characters, working off of your own values. That was the case with WALL•E. The greatest commandment is to love one another, and to me, that's the ultimate purpose of living. So that was the perfect goal for the loneliest robot on earth, to learn the greatest commandment, to learn to love.
Would you say that's also the same story in Finding Nemo?
Stanton: Actually, I wouldn't say that. I'm not saying that Nemo didn't touch on that, but to me, that movie was more about faith and about dealing with your fears.
Talk a bit about what it's like to work at Pixar. Do you and the others have sort of a friendly competition, trying to beat each other at the box office?
Stanton: Actually it's the opposite. We're always egging each other on to make best film possible. It's very supportive, although it's not always easy, because we're all very honest with each other with constructive criticism. It's like we're all on the same team, and if the whole team wins, then a place like Pixar will not have to go away.
We all get together every 4-6 months to look at each other's films. It's not some sort of tribunal or anything. It's almost like a writers' room kind of feel, where you get a chance for objectivity from others. If you work on something alone too long, it's like staring at yourself in the mirror—you stare too long, and you start seeing a million things wrong, and you start changing things just because you can. So you need your peers—somebody you can trust creatively—who can say, "I think this is great, don't change it," or, "This is not working as much as you think so change it."
WALL•E, like other Pixar movies, connects with all ages. Is that intentional?
Stanton: One thing that's a blessing at Pixar is that ever since Toy Story, we've made the films we wanted to make. When making Toy Story, we first started out by trying to please all these executives at Disney—and it failed. And in this last-ditch effort for fear of having the film shut down, we sort of locked ourselves in our room and just made what we would want to see. And that became the Toy Story that everybody knows.
So we've decided ever since then to just listen to the audience member in ourselves, and not worry about the demographics. I'm a family man, I have kids, and I go to the movies. And I'm just going to make the kind of movie I want to see. And if it doesn't match perfectly for somebody else, so be it, but at least it's an artist being pure with their vision.
Apparently the idea for WALL•E was first born in 1994?
Stanton: At the time, it wasn't a whole story. It was just the foundation of a great character—and it was literally born from the sentence, "What if humankind left earth and somebody left the last robot on, and it just kept doing the same futile thing forever?" And I thought that was the saddest, loneliest character I ever heard of in my life. [Co-writer] Pete Docter and I loved that idea, and thought we'd love to see a movie like that.
But since we hadn't even finished Toy Story yet, our next sentence was, "Nobody would ever let us make a movie like that." And we put it on the shelf and got caught up doing all these other things. But the idea stayed with me all these years, and when I was writing on Nemo, I started thinking about WALL•E again—and I couldn't stop. That's when I realized that I was attracted to the pure loneliness of this character, and the opposite of loneliness is love—so it should be a love story. From then on, suddenly the skies opened and I just couldn't stop writing.
It is a wonderful love story. But at the same time, it seemed to have heavier social commentary than most Pixar films. It seemed like a story about fat, lazy, American consumers who don't care about the environment and …
Stanton: That's your interpretation, but that's not where I was coming from. I certainly see the parallels, but honestly, all those factors came from very different places. All my choices in the film came from what I needed to amplify the main point, which was the love story between these robots. The theme that I was trying to tap into was that irrational love defeats life's programming—that it takes a random act of loving kindness to kick us out of our routines and habit.
You could blame consumerism as one thing that's happening in this film, but there's a million other things we do that distract us from connecting to the person next to us and from furthering relationships, which is truly the point of living. So I came up with the idea that as WALL•E was picking up trash, it would have all these signs of humanity for him to rifle through, to get him interested in what humans were all about. I loved the idea of WALL•E finding something real. He was fascinated with the idea of living. And what's the point of living? Something real. He was a manmade object with something real inside him. And he found something real while surrounded by manmade objects. That just was poetic for me.
OK, but why were the humans on the space station all fat and riding around in their hovering lounge chairs?
Stanton: I wasn't trying to make the humans into fat, lazy consumers, but to make humanity appear to be completely consumed by everything that can distract you—to the point where they lost connection with each other, even though they're right next to each other. The reason I made them look like big babies was because a NASA guy told me that they haven't yet simulated gravity perfectly for long-term residency in space. And if they don't get it just right, atrophy kicks in and you begin to lose your muscle tone—you just turn into a blob of goo. For a while, that's what I did with the humans in the movie; they were just big blobs of Jell-O. But it was so bizarre, we had to pull it back. So I said, well, let's just make them look like big babies. That's where all that came from.
I wasn't trying to make some sort of mean-spirited comment on consumerism or today's society. I was going with just the logic of what would happen if you were in a perpetual vacation with no real purpose in life. So I went with the idea that we'd become sort of big babies with no reason to grow up. I definitely saw humanity as victims of this system that they were in. They were just big babies that needed to stand on their own two feet.
The last thing I'm going to do is try to make a message movie!
Some Christians want more "message movies," and they want them to be movies where the gospel is preached loud and clear. But when movies get too driven by their agenda, you often end up with a crummy movie, and …
Stanton: Yeah, I'm right with you on that.
But guys like you and others at Pixar, and other Christians like Scott Derrickson and Ralph Winter, are bringing biblical themes into the movies without making them feel "preachy." Where are you on all of that thinking?
Stanton: I agree with what you said. Just because you're strong in your faith doesn't mean that you suddenly have to be dumb and pander to a certain audience. When did that become a rule? I think you were given a brain to use it, and I think you were given talents to use it. And so the same intoxicating, seducing talents and cleverness and wisdom that you see in what may be considered "secular" entertainment, there's no reason that those things should be held back for anything else, I like to think.
When The Passion of The Christ blew up at the box office, Hollywood took note and started targeting the Christian audience—and, in my opinion, some good things and some bad things came of that. How have you processed this whole new Hollywood mentality of trying to reach the faith-based audience?
Stanton: Well, it's always has been there. It's not like it's new. But I have a hard time with putting people in a demographic in a box. We've never done that with our movies. We've always done the opposite. We said if we try to second-guess what other people want, then we're not being true as artists, and we're not going to do the right thing for the movie. We're going to be doing it out of fear, and that's the worst way to make a movie.
We make the kind of movies we like. We make the kind of movies we like to take our families to. And if it matches what your requirements are for you, then great. I would just be sort of putting myself into vapor lock if I tried to second guess anything. So I'm very uncomfortable with being able to put people into a box and label them.
What are the main things you want people to take away from this movie?
Stanton: Well, my biggest thing is just that they really had a good time—that they really got transported and felt something, because to me, that's a great story and a great movie, that you made me care. And typically that's because you've tapped into some truth. Truth isn't always pretty, truth isn't always fair, and truth isn't always inviting. But when you tap into it the right way you can't ignore it, and it touches you to your core. That's what I'm a junkie for when I see a great movie or hear a great story told, and that's what I'm really trying to go for when I'm doing any kind of story.