Interview: Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich

Expectations don’t come much higher than those surrounding this week’s Toy Story 3. Arriving 11 years after 1999′s Toy Story 2 upped both the box office and creative ante of the 1995 original, Pixar’s threequel faces the daunting challenge of matching two predecessors that have a combined worldwide gross of $847 million and virtually unparalleled critical praise. More importantly, the films endure as part of audiences’ collective experiences; people love this franchise, and it seems only the foolhardy would try and revisit it so many years later. Then again, this is Pixar we’re talking about — if anyone’s going to break the curse of the part three, these guys have the best shot. We spent some time with Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich — stepping into the hot seat having co-directed part two — and asked him what it was like to return to the series.

Recently you said that you’d thought about making this film straight after Toy Story 2. At what point did you think, “Let’s do it — this is a really good idea”?

LU: We went about this one a little backwards, in that we had an idea for a Toy Story 3 right after we made Toy Story 2. There was an idea that we were kicking around and [Toy Story writer] Joe Ranft developed a little bit, but because of the political problems between Disney and Pixar at the time we weren’t able to make it. Everything was kind of stagnant for a number of years. We went on making our other films and this idea for Toy Story just sat on the shelf. It wasn’t until Disney bought us, finally, that all those problems went away and we were able to shut down the version of Toy Story 3 that Disney was doing on their own without us.

Was that going to be straight to video?

It wasn’t straight to video. A lot of people have this impression that it was straight to video but it wasn’t. It was meant to be theatrical. The straight to video was Toy Story 2 — that was originally going to be our plan, but at a certain point we decided it was good enough to be theatrical.

People mix those stories up.

Yeah, I think that’s what’s happening, ’cause Disney’s was full-on meant to be a theatrical release.

Were you guys worried about that?

Oh it was terrible. It was the darkest time in the history of our studio. I know they had a script and were doing storyboarding; they were getting ready to make it.

Did you ever look at it?

No. Never. We were very worried about it. It felt like our children had been taken away, like they’d been forcibly taken from us and raised by someone else. Luckily that future didn’t come to pass, and Disney bought us and we shut down that version of the movie and we started from scratch. So it was really just over four years ago that we decided to make Toy Story 3. But the interesting thing was, we went away on this two day offsite — me and John [Lasseter] and Andrew [Stanton] and Pete [Docter] and a few other folks — to kind of hash out this idea that we had all these years; and within about 20 minutes of starting we shut down the idea completely.

What was the original idea?

You know, I’m sure everyone’s interested in what it was, but we’re not talking about it because we found that over the years there have been a lot of ideas that aren’t the right ideas at the moment , for one reason or another, but they oftentimes show up in another form later. Like, we had a movie called Trash Planet that we wanted to make for a long time, and it kind of never went anywhere.

It became WALL-E?

It became WALL-E, ultimately. So this other idea that we shut down, there’s probably something in there, because there’s a reason we were excited about it.

Are there any remnants of the idea in the Toy Story 3 we see today?

No, really not at all. The only idea is that there was a vague thought that we would have Andy be grown up, in that idea. But once we shut that down, we were kind of left with nothing. And that was a perilous place to find ourselves, because we’d always told ourselves that we’d never make a movie unless we had a great idea first; and here we wanted to make a movie, we wanted to revisit the world of Toy Story, but we didn’t have an idea. So we were in a bit of a panic. What we ended up doing was watching Toy Story and Toy Story 2 again. We had no TV there, so we all gathered around a laptop and watched the first two films and felt kind of depressed — because we thought, “How can we top these two movies?”

When you watched them, did they feel complete to you, as a piece?

They did, completely. And that’s an interesting thing to me now. I liken it to sometimes in a family you’ll have a couple of kids and you’ll think, “This is it; this is the family — how can it be any different? This is what’s meant to be.” And then, for one reason or another, you end up having another child, whether accidentally or by choice, and of course once that child’s in your life you can’t imagine life without that third child.

It was kind of like that with the films. When we finished Toy Story 2, we tried to end that story. I mean, the toys knew that Andy was going to grow up some day and they’d made peace with that fact; they were totally confident that they were going to enjoy the time they had left with Andy. Someday it’s going to come to an end, but at least they have each other by their side. Satisfying ending. Now, in retrospect — now that we’ve made 3 — we can see that they don’t know what’s coming. It’s one thing to make peace with something that’s gonna happen in the future and it’s another thing to actually be there directly confronting it. So, we thought we need to put the toys in that situation; we need to have Andy grown up and leaving for college and the toys not knowing what the future holds for them. It just felt like the most emotionally resonant point at which to tell the story.

It’s a credit to this film that it makes Toy Story 2 feel like the middle part of a trilogy.

Well thank god. [Laughs] We could also have gone completely off the rails and made a movie that nobody thought should have been made.

Part threes are traditionally where things can fall apart, because you’re piling on additional characters and plots—

Where you lose sight of what was special and why you made the first one in the first place.

Right, and yet you do add a lot of new story arcs and characters, and the action in this one is bigger and more spectacular. How do you balance all of that and not fall into the traps of the threequel?

I think, at its core, we had a strong emotional storyline. The movie had a reason for being. We weren’t just inventing a new adventure for the toys to go on. We were challenging everybody. Everybody in the film is faced with great change, and we wanted to have all of those characters truthfully deal with that change. I think the other thing that we had going for us is that we had the right ending. Very often coming up with the ending for a film is one of the hardest things to do; the beginning and the ending. In this case we had the ending right away, from day one; we knew how the film was going to end. Not only did we have the ending but we knew that we had an ending that had the potential to be really emotional and really powerful.

Was the ending, as it plays out now, always the ending?

No, that came about from two-and-a-half years of story development. We always knew it was going to be a “prison break” film, but at one point we had the toys just break out and make their way back to Andy’s house in lots of different adventurous ways. It was in developing Lotso’s backstory, in figuring out what made him tick and why he was the way he was — at one point we had him getting thrown away and ending up on a truck and going to the dump; and at that time that didn’t really work for us, it didn’t really explain why he was the way he was. But I couldn’t get this idea of the dump out of my head: Toys are afraid of one thing, and that’s not being played with by kids. Anything that keeps them from getting played with by kids gives them anxiety, whether it’s getting broken or getting lost or getting thrown away or getting relegated to the attic. In my mind, I thought we really needed to take the toys to their endgame. If we were going to be wrapping up the story in this film I thought that we needed to take them to the brink; we needed to do to them what they are most afraid of, which is getting thrown away and ending up at the dump.

It’s like toy Inferno.

Right, it’s toy Hell at the end of the film. And we committed to it fully. It is emotionally intense at the end of the film, but I think it was the right thing to do. I think if we had done any less than what we did, we would have been pussyfooting around what was a very dramatic situation.

Lotso is a great addition to the character cast. Who came up with him?

He was an old idea, back before there was even a Toy Story. John and Pete and Andrew and Joe had been kicking around ideas for what would be Pixar’s first feature. They knew they wanted it set in the world of toys, but this was pre Woody and Buzz. They had an idea for a film that would be set entirely in a big toy store, like a big Toys”R”Us, and they had a character named Lotso who was part of that story. That ended up not coming to be but, like I mentioned, some of these ideas just go into hibernation. So when we started talking about the toys going into daycare, we knew that daycare was gonna have to be populated by a lot of toys — and we knew there was probably gonna have to be a leader. So we resurrected the idea of Lotso, which we always thought was a fun idea; there just hadn’t been a place for him until now.

You also went to Alcatraz to do some research for the “Sunnyside” daycare — that might be odd to hear for some, as research for a Pixar film.

[laughs] Yeah. But when you see the movie it makes perfect sense. We knew we had to see daycares and how they worked, so we visited lots of daycares and took a lot of photographs and were very inspired by them. We were practically spoon fed the inspiration, because daycares are only a breath away from being prisons for kids. You’ve got these walled-in exercise areas in the back, security cameras everywhere, bins that look like jail cells… there are just so many similarities between the two, so we fully embraced them. Then we visited Alcatraz just to look at a real prison, take a lot of photo references and find the corrollaries between the two. I wish we had more exotic, exciting research on this movie — I would have preferred to go to Paris and have five-star meals like Brad [Bird] did on Ratatouille or go into Venezuela and into the jungles like Pete did [for Up]. We had this, and we went to the dump — which required a long hot shower afterward [laughs].

Originally published on Rotten Tomatoes, June 2010

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