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.
Docter: Family or close associates and friends at work. And yet I think struggle is essential to life.
Docter: It sharpens you. I think the worst thing is to go into coasting mode, just moving along but not really living, without really looking around—just closing yourself off and going forward. As an artist, it seems that the more you bump into other people, even though you hate it, it makes for a better person and better art. On this film, every time I'd have to show it to John [Lasseter] or Andrew [Stanton], I would hate it because I just want to be left alone and make the movie. And yet when once I do show it to them, it made it so much better, especially hearing their comments. They're great filmmakers themselves, and we have this great system at Pixar where we show each other our work about every four or five months and get feedback from all those guys. They're such amazing filmmakers. To get comments from them is fantastic.
How nerve-racking is that?
Docter: Quite. At the time, you just want to say, Go away! Let me just make the movie, and I'll show you when I'm done. It's easy for me now to say, "It's fantastic to show these guys." But at the time it's really difficult, and I think ultimately makes for a better film.
Are those sessions ever painful?
Docter: Oh yeah! I've had sessions where people get red in the face and yell. I don't think it really comes down to calling people names or anything, but there is a sense of … I'll just say that everybody is so passionate about what we do. And for all of us, to see anything done less than where we think it could be, you just get worked up about it.
So everybody kind of owns it, even if their name isn't on it.
Because the Pixar name—the family name—is on it.
Docter: Yeah. It's pretty neat that way. In some ways, I've grown up with that. I started at Pixar when I was 21. I had never made a feature film, and neither had John or Andrew. So we all kind of grew up together, and we just got used to this environment that you don't realize—until you look around—how unique it is and how lucky we are.
When Monsters, Inc. came out, I read an interview where you talked about having your son and how that affected your creative process. You said, "As a Christian having my son has made me even more amazed by the whole creation." And of course Up really highlights creation.
Docter: Yeah, and it hopefully highlights the importance of relationship, because I think that's the heart of Christianity as well. We so easily lose track of that and become self-centered. It's something that I fall back into every day. Having kids is like forcing you to be less selfish, in a way, because you care so much about these other guys and you start to put their interests first. Watching them grow and become their own person is kind of mindboggling. They start out by doing the same things you do and looking at you like you're the cat's pajamas, and then they become themselves. It's pretty fantastic.
In that same interview you said you used to be nervous talking about your faith and your work because "it didn't really connect, but more and more it seems to be connecting for me." Can you flesh that out a little bit?
Docter: It's tricky. I don't think people in any way, shape or form like to be lectured to. When people go to a movie, they want to see some sort of experience of themselves on the screen. They don't come to be taught. So in that sense, and in terms of any sort of beliefs, I don't want to feel as though I'm ever lecturing or putting an agenda forth. It's more of just … It's like a search. I think of myself as struggling and just looking for answers, and sometimes what you think of as a big revelation one day, you start to grow and change and you look at things differently. I'm kind of rambling here, being really vague.
Yeah. I think you're saying something about having audiences read between the lines, rather than hit them over the head with Bible verses or something?
Docter: Exactly. And I think even sometimes people who are decidedly non-Christian have these very Christian things to say. You know what I mean? And I think most people that have a problem with Christianity actually have a problem with the church. That's an over simplification, but people are kind of messy and that gets in the way a lot.
What do you want people to walk out of the theater with after watching Up?
Docter: Basically, the message of the film is that the real adventure of life is the relationship we have with other people, and it's so easy to lose sight of the things we have and the people that are around us until they're gone. More often than not I don't really realize how lucky I was to have known someone until they're either moved or passed away. So if you can kind of wake up a little bit and go, Wow, I've got some really cool stuff around me every day, then that's what the movie's about.
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