Interview: Class is in Session at “Monsters University”

Courtesy of Walt Disney Media
Courtesy of Walt Disney Media

Way back in 2001, Pixar’s “Monsters, Inc.” caught us by surprise with its breathtaking animation, original storyline and heart-wrenching appeal. Twelve years later, the next story in the “Monsters” timeline takes its audience to college with Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman) in “Monsters University.” I had a chance to participate in a conference call with director Dan Scanlon and producer Kori Rae, who discussed their audience, their experiences and their motivations for a prequel.

Q: How did the idea of a prequel for “Monsters Inc.” come about?

Dan: Well, early on we loved the characters of Mike and Sulley and we loved their relationship, and we always wanted to do something with them again. We kind of got together and talked about what that might be. And as I said before, we love their relationship. And that’s where we started thinking about how these guys met and learning a little bit more about that, which led naturally to the college idea, and we loved the idea of doing something in a university. And just the opportunity for sort of fun monster antics that could come out of that [laughter]. That led us to the story of Mike and the difficulty when you arrive at college thinking you’re the best of the best.  And then you come up against some pretty stiff competition. That was really the germ of the idea, and the idea behind doing something that took place before, rather than after.

Q: Why a university?  Did you hope to appeal to an older audience with this choice?

Dan: I think we just knew that we wanted the characters to be somewhat familiar adults. We wanted this to be a story about how they became friends, and so we wanted to make sure that we could just tell a more — well, say for example if we went back too far, and did Monsters Elementary, [laughter] we didn’t feel like that would be the Mike and Sulley that we remember and love.

Kori: I think we thought that it’s kind of a coming-of-age. That age between 18 and 22 is so crucial in all of our lives, whether you went to college or not. And so we just think, you know, that’s kind of where you first are out on your own. You just figure out who you are, who you want to be. You can reinvent yourself, all of that kind of stuff. That was also really appealing, kind of choosing that age group and that time that’s so important in all of our lives.

Q: Kori, how have your previous film experiences prepared you for the production of this film?

Kori: Ah, good question. I was associate producer on Monsters Inc. and just had such a great experience working with [Pete Docter] on that film.  When I heard that “Monsters University” was in the works, I knew that I wanted to work on it. You know, here we learn so much on every single film, but I think you learn something different from each one, because you’re working with different people and different directors. What I try to do is really to learn from all of the different people on every film, and pay attention to the small stuff so that I can use it later.  I used a ton of stuff on this film that I had learned on “The Incredibles,” in addition to “Monsters, Inc.” and even as far back as “A Bug’s Life,” when I managed the animation department.  So, it’s just all of that experience that rounded me out and gave me a good base to produce this one.

Q: How did you go about presenting a realistic relatable view of college while staying family friendly?

Dan: What are you talking about? [laughter] What’s going on in college? Yeah, we had to be careful about it. The good thing is we were able to get a lot of wild fun behavior that still reads as sort of fun party college, but is probably no different than the wild crazy stuff that goes on in an eight-year-old birthday party with knocking over tables and [laughter] eating too much food and smashing things and screaming. It was a challenge, but luckily they’re monsters so they can do pretty well.

Kori: Yeah, right.

Q: What were some inspirations for the personalities and looks of other characters in the film?

Dan: Yeah, I think we wanted to make sure that since we were doing a university movie that we had sort of the great university archetypes and characters that felt like people that we went to school with,  or certainly reminded us of people we went to school with.  We have new characters in the film called that are part of a fraternity called the Oozma Kappa fraternity. And they’re kind of a less popular fraternity of scarers that didn’t quite –– they were kind of scare rejects, if you will. They didn’t get into the scaring program.  And we have a character, Scott Squishy Squibbles, who is kinda your classic 18-year-old college student that hasn’t decided what they want to be. They show up at school, unaware of what exactly they want to become and then they’re sort of a ball of clay waiting to be molded and then in his case, he’s literally a mushy tiny ball of amorphous clay. And we have a character, Art, who we always think of as sort of just that weird guy at college that you don’t know anything about, who’s sort of mysterious and you don’t know anything about his family or where he comes from. We’ve had a lot of fun with him just because we don’t know much about him.

Kori: Right. Right.

Dan: But yeah, those are some of the new characters.

Q: What was your favorite part of directing or producing, thus far along the production process, on this movie?

Dan: As I’m concerned my favorite part was probably just getting to sit in this seat and really see what everyone does at Pixar. I came from the Story Department and we are usually involved in the movie for the most part at the beginning throughout most of the movie.  But we don’t usually get to stay on to the end and watch the animation and the lighting, and being a director, I got the rare opportunity to see everything –– to see what everyone does, and to see what everyone does to contribute to the film and make the film better.  It was pretty amazing.  It was a lot of people I’ve worked with for years and eaten lunch with, but [laughter] really had no idea what they did [laughter] and I’d be in a meeting with them and think, oh wow.  You’re a genius, [laughter] like you’re the best person who does this, so it was just a really rare and amazing opportunity to be in kind of the driver’s seat of this particular vehicle. [laughter]

Kori: For me I would have to say actually that being involved in the story up front, as producer, you’re kind of more involved in that stage as opposed to the other production roles.  And I just –– as painful as it was, I tried ––

Dan: Yeah.

Kori: –– early on as we were developing this story. I learned so much about how difficult this is and, it made me even more aware and surprised that we ever pull one of these things off.

Dan: Mm-hmm.

Kori: Because it’s so hard and, so I really enjoyed my time in Story that first couple years and going through all the iteration.

Q: What would either of you say was the most challenging part of putting together a production like this?

Dan: We probably both agree that it is a story. It takes the most time in a lot of ways. Every Pixar film goes through a number of iterations. We’re always trying different versions of the movie to find our way toward the right version.

Kori: Right.

Dan: And it can be maddening at times, and like Kori mentioned, every Pixar movie goes through an awkward teenage phase where it doesn’t make sense, or it’s bizarre, or it’s not quite working right.  And you can get terrified that you’re never going to crack it. It’s just this relentless journey to keep trying new things. But again, I think we’re both amazed at the fact that our Story Team, that’s what they’re there for.  And they love to crack a puzzle, and so even when you think you’re never going to come up with it, they were just always pitching out new ideas.  We were always game to try new things.

Kori: Right, yeah, for sure.  On the production side, I would say probably one of the challenges –– there were a number of them.  But one of the challenges on this film was just the characters. And the sheer number of characters and the variety of characters that we had to have in this film to populate the university. It was a lot for the Character Department, and it was also a lot for the Animation Department, who had to animate scene after scene of anywhere from six to 10, 12 characters in the foreground.

Dan: Yeah.

Kori: And then [we] have hundreds of characters in the background.  So just the scope of the film from a character standpoint was definitely a challenge.

Dan: And all those characters are totally different.

Kori: Yeah.

Dan: Some have two legs, some are slugs, some are flying, so, you know, it’s––

Kori: Yeah.

Dan: It’s tough work, they’re so individual.

Kori: Yeah.

Q: When “Monsters, Inc.” was first released, the animation to create Sulley’s hair was the revolutionary focus.  Are there new techniques that were made specifically for “Monsters University?”

Kori: I think some, yeah, I mean the –– one thing, we were even looking at a piece this morning that was kind of talking about the difference in hair simulation from “Monsters, Inc.” to “Monsters University.”  And it is uncanny.

Dan: Yeah.

Kori: Kind of how we’re using similar technology that we’ve built on since “Monsters, Inc.”  But what we can do now is pretty staggering.

Dan: And also with lighting.

Kori: Yeah.

Dan: We have a sort of a new system of lighting our movies, which has been great. We love it, it’s just it created a much richer look to the film than what we’ve had before, and so we’re very excited about that.

Q: What research went into creating this, to make the university aspect feel relatable and familiar?

Kori: Yeah, we had to go visit schools. [laughs]

Dan: Mm-hmm, we went back to college and a lot of us went to art school, which is apparently nothing like real college [laughter].  And so we  wanted to just walk around and soak it up and see, you know, the buildings and the fraternities and sororities, and just kind of get our heads set back into the college student headset. Mindset.  But we went everywhere…it was great.

Kori: Fraternities with sleeping students. [laughs]

Dan: Yeah, [laughs] who are these old people in my room? But it was great. It was a really good opportunity and the artists came and actually, you know, drew buildings and drew sort of campuses and in the end, put them all together to create a campus that –– although it’s original to Monsters University –– hopefully it feels familiar to everyone.  I would hope that everyone kind of feels like, hey, that’s my school.

Q: How difficult was it to get the original voices back for this and to make it seem like they were younger?

Dan: No, it was great getting everybody back.

Kori:  Yeah, Billy and John definitely were, I mean they were super excited about the movie, and Billy in fact I think had been waiting and waiting ––

Dan: Yeah.

Kori: –– for some other installment of “Monsters, Inc.” He loves this character Mike Wazowski so much.  And so he was thrilled to come back.  But in terms of youngifying them, I don’t think I mean ––

Dan: No, I think they were just, more energetic.

Kori: Energetic, yeah. [laughs] Did a little more yelling, maybe.

Dan: [laughs] Yeah, a lot more yelling, a lot more to their dismay, but it was really more in the way the characters were written. But the guys definitely had to sort of find a new take on the character that was still familiar, but felt a little younger.  I think it was more in the energy. And then amazingly, you know, the animation, helps that illusion as well. These characters look younger, they move, younger and they’re it. It’s amazing how the two go together in a really nice way.

Q: What would you like audience members, specifically college students, to take away from this film?

Dan: We want it to be a really fun college movie, but we also want to, you know, we always want to touch something in people  emotionally with our films.  And we feel like this film is very much about what happens when you come up –– where you come up to a kind of a closed door and how you get around that.  And how you let go of the thing that you think you absolutely have to be, to be happy in order to find out who you truly are. And I think that’s definitely something I experienced in college, that feeling of realizing this is going to be a lot harder than I thought.  Or maybe I’m not the person that I thought I was.  And rather than giving up completely, really finding out who you are, that sense of self discovery.

Kori: Yeah exactly, self discovery and friendship, and what that means as you go along that path of figuring out who you are and how important friendship is.

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