Director John Lasseter discusses Cars 2, voicing his own animated character, juggling his jobs as a director and executive, and much more.
A few months back, I was invited up to the amazing Pixar campus in Emeryville, California, to participate in the long lead day for the highly anticipated sequel Cars 2, which hits theaters nationwide on June 24. I had been up to Pixar once before, but it's such a cool facility that I never mind going back there. However, one thing I got to do this time, as opposed to the last event, was meet with Mr. Pixar himself: John Lasseter. The Cars 2 director is also the Chief Creative Officer at Pixar, whose work transformed this company into an animation powerhouse.
John Lasseter took time out of his busy scheduled to sit down for a roundtable interview session with part of the press corps at the event. Here's what he had to say about Cars 2, his own animated character in the movie, and much more.
How did you feel about having your own car in the film?
John Lasseter: Yes, there is a car called John Lassetire in the movie, and that was a bit of a surprise. Denise Ream, the producer, kept wanting me to do a voice. Some of the other directors put their own voices in before we go on and record the real actors, and sometimes it's in early development. We have so many great actors, we just have them do the voices. Denise just kept saying, 'You should do a voice in this!' She kept pushing, and pushing, and pushing, and finally I said, 'Fine, give me one line.' I've become good friends with Jeff Gordon, the NASCAR driver, so we needed a voice for his crew chief. I said, 'OK, I'll do his crew chief voice.' It's a pickup truck and it seemed to make sense. Without me knowing it, she went off and cleared John Lassetire as a name, because we have to get everything cleared in our films. So that's the origin of that. It wasn't my idea.
I was just wondering if there is any mention of Abbey Road in here, with the cars?
John Lasseter: The story guys did a funny drawing of the cars going across the crosswalk. It is pretty funny, a car in a crosswalk.
You have said that this was the most challenging movie for you to make. What were some of those challenges?
John Lasseter: It's interesting. It's not one thing. I know the press always says, 'Give me one thing that I can write about.' It's just the complexity of this world. The art direction of the film is there to support the story. If you think abou the first Cars, the art direction was about the age patina of Route 66, the buildings and stuff. It's a part of the arc of the main character, Lightning McQueen. He comes in out of the glitzy racing world, and he gets stuck here. At first, he feels its run down, but the more he learns about this way of life and these people and this town, he falls in love with it and it becomes stunningly beautiful. The visual history is seen in each object, and that took a lot of work to achieve that. This film is about McQueen and Mater, and how their friendship gets split apart by Mater kind of being himself when he shouldn't be. It's embarrassing, basically. He learns that the world is not laughing with him, but laughing at him, so that's where the emotion in the film comes from, and it splits their friendship apart. So, what we needed to do here, with this type of racing like Formula 1, Le Mans, European racing, which is very glitzy. McQueen gets polished up really nicely and he looks great, he fits in just fine. Mater fits with the patina of Route 66 in Radiator Springs. You take him in the middle of these glitzy parties, he just doesn't fit in, and it becomes embarrassing for McQueen. We realize the more we make it fancy and glitzy and shiny and gorgeous, the more Mater sticks out, and the art direction was all about that. The one time where McQueen does go to an older village, this Italian Tuscan village, Mater is not with him, and he misses his friend. It's all a part of the storytelling through the art direction. No one in the audience is going to say, 'Oh, I see what they're doing,' you just feel it, and it's all there to help support the story.
Do you consider yourself a filmmaker first, and an executive second?
John Lasseter: Pixar and Disney Animation, they are filmmaker-led studios, unlike an executive-led studio, because all of the ideas come from the filmmakers. Executive-led studios, you have executives and development executives, taking pitches, buying scripts, buying books, hiring writers, and all that stuff, without any directors or filmmakers involved, and then they assign them to come on at a certain point. I don't believe in that, It's not the way I want to make films. I want them to come up with the ideas, because you are what you direct. When you look at each of our films, it's coming from that director. That's just the way it is. As an executive, I'm sort of the protector of that way of life. The other thing is I lead by example. After being an executive for awhile, directing again rejuvenates my spirit, recharges my batteries, and I get to know all the new artists. There have been four films made here since I directed Cars, so I'm getting to know all these amazing new artists who have come in. Now, when I help the other directors, I am much better. Most of these executives, they have never made a movie, and if they have, it was years ago. You have to stay in touch with that.
It seems there are a number of other vehicles or transportation devices in Cars 2. How do they fit into the story?
John Lasseter: Yes. I tried so desperately to get a boat somewhere in Cars. In the beginning of the first movie, one of the biggest challenges was making the decision of making this world with no humans, where the cars are the living creatures. Then we had to take a look at how they do stuff, because they have no hands. It turned out to be a lot of work, but then it became a lot of fun. One of the ideas was coming up with the idea of a spy movie early on, which was fun because it was like, 'What are movies like in this world?' If you remember in Cars, there was this little gag we did at the end credits, where Mac, John Ratzenberger's character goes to a movie. He watches Toy Car Story, and the Hamm character has a car in it, and he says, 'Boy, that guy is a great actor.' Then there are all the other movies and he says, 'Hey, they're just using the same actor over and over again.' It was a fun gag, because it was fun to do these car versions of all of our movies. I thought, 'Wow, we could do a lot of stuff with this, doing different genres with the cars films.' Part of it, for me, is that vehicles in general are characters. When we started this, I wanted to expand the world to include anything we could possibly imagine. There are ships and and all sorts of stuff. I had to have a train in it.
So that part in Cars really opened it up for the sequel?
John Lasseter: The little gag we did at the end credits, which was one of the last things we did, really inspired us that we could really do different genres, different worlds and different things, which lead to doing the spy genre, going to these exotic locations and having fun with all these characters and expanding the world. I feel that the world of Cars is as big as ours. Wherever we can go, they can go. Whatever we can see, they can see. When they see it, it's car-ified, somehow, and that's what really fun. I keep using the word fun, but we really did have a blast making this movie. I love this genre. I grew up with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and espionage stuff. It drives my wife insane, but my kids and I have probably watched The Bourne Identity movies 15 to 20 times. I have studied all of those things. This movie, I was asking if we could get seatbelts installed in all the theaters, because you're going to need it for this film, trust me. No airbags, but hopefully we can get seatbelts.
John Lasseter's Cars 2 in theaters nationwide on June 24.
Cars 2 was released June 24th, 2011 and stars Larry The Cable Guy, Owen Wilson, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Eddie Izzard, John Turturro, Brent Musburger, Joe Mantegna. The film is directed by John Lasseter, Brad Lewis.