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Monsters University’s Scanlon & Rae on Embracing Theme of Failure

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Although Pixar’s Toy Story 2 and 3 set a gold standard for sequels that seems impossible to follow, Monsters University carries with it a unique weight of expectation. More than just the follow-up to one of the studio’s most successful efforts, it’s a film longtime fans hope will not only offer a rejoinder to the perception that sequels are less imaginative than original projects, but also a response to recent criticisms that Pixar has lost the spark that made it an industry standard-bearer. And the sequel accomplishes both those dubious tasks as it revisits Mike and Sully, examining the events that not only led them to become “scarers,” but the circumstances under which their iconic friendship first started.

Spinoff Online recently spoke with Monsters University director Dan Scanlon and producer Kori Rae about the process of assembling this prequel to Monsters, Inc. In addition to discussing the development of a story that would both strengthen its predecessor and stand on its own, Scanlon and Rae talked about the movie’s themes of, remarkably, failing to accomplish one’s dreams, even as they examined the past (and present) of Pixar as a creative force.

Spinoff Online: For a long time, Pixar has been held up as a beacon of quality and consistency. But in the past few years, fairly or unfairly, the perception has been that in making more sequels, the studio is a little more fallible. Does that relieve a certain amount of pressure, or does it challenge you more to reconnect with all of the things people associate with Pixar’s greatness?

Dan Scanlon: You know, we try as much as we can not to compare ourselves to other movies or that sort of thing, and more or less focus on our film.

Kori Rae: We actually have a luxury at this time when we are able to make films that go back and revisit characters from previous films — and also make original films. And we want to do that — we want to do both, and we have the ability, and the capability to do that. We’re strong, we have a good group of directors coming up, and we want to just continue making great original films, as well as going back when the story is right and telling stories with existing worlds that we worked really hard to create. So the hope is that we just continue doing that.

monsters university1Pixar obviously prides itself on being incredibly collaborative, but what kind of ownership can and do you want to take when you’re coming onto a prequel? Is this to you a separate film, or how reliant do you feel like this film is upon its predecessor?

Scanlon: I think we want to be really respectful of the first film. I was a fan of the first movie, and luckily, Pete Docter was an executive producer on the film, so I could really check in with him and get his thoughts on things. But he actually really encouraged us more than anyone to shake things up a little bit — to not be overly beholden to the film. To have his sort of OK on that allowed us to really feel like we could make some big changes. I think to really make a good movie, those characters have to change, so you really have to take some liberties.

How did you come up with the themes explored in Monsters University? Prequels often explore a more rudimentary version of the theme of the original film, but this goes in a dramatically different direction.

Scanlon: That was really what we were kind of going for — we wanted this to be its own film, a film you could see even if you hadn’t seen the first one. At Pixar, if we’re going to do a sequel or prequel, we really want to make it a real movie, and make it feel like an original movie. We don’t want to just tread water and repeat what we’d done in the other film. So we put a lot of effort into that, and we were very excited from the very beginning about Mike’s story. Because it seemed like something we hadn’t seen in a lot of movies: most movies tell you if you work hard and never give up, everything will always work out for the best. And even though that is a great, inspiring message, it’s just not always true — so we wanted to make a movie for people who had a dream fall apart, and just to remind them that sometimes that leads to better things. Sometimes you kind of have to let go of what you thought was going to make you great in order to understand what truly makes you great. So that was really the reason behind making this film.

Obviously, in order for him to figure out what his true strengths are, Mike had to fail. How careful did you have to be to find a way for him to fail that was ambitious or noble enough that it wasn’t debilitating for him and the audience?

Scanlon: We do a bunch of different versions on every Pixar movie — we iterate like crazy, and it always is about trying to find that fine line. And we thought, and certainly this could still happen, that some people might see this as negative, or, oh, you’re telling people to give up on their dreams. But I’ve been so happy that has not been the case so far — that people have really understood the message of the film and enjoy it and find it inspiring. Because if we weren’t careful, we could have made it accidentally come off that way. So it was a lot of work to make sure this all felt like the right way to go.

monsters university2Talk about reverse-engineering these character’s personalities. Mike always seems sort of cranky and sort of unreasonably optimistic, even when it seems like the joke’s on him. What went into creating characters that worked for this film but also paved the way for their behavior in Monsters, Inc.?

Scanlon: Well, that was one of the tough but fun things. These characters are different in this movie. They’re 17, they’re 18, and we were all different at that age. We wanted to find a nice balance of keeping them familiar — Mike is still an optimist, Mike is still funny — but giving them somewhere to grow from. Mike in this film, we knew for sure that in order for the audience to fall in love with his dream, he had to be a little more sincere. He couldn’t just be a joke a minute, he really had to have some heart to him so that you would get behind him. And then Sully, we changed a lot as well; he’s kind of this loveably arrogant guy in this movie. He’s the 18-year-old that thinks he’s got the whole world figured out. But it is kind of a risky thing to do, too, because everybody loves sweet Sully from the first movie because he’s such a nice guy. But we thought it would be far more interesting to see how he became a nice guy — to see how Mike helped him become who he is. Because that’s what great friends do — they kind of help you figure out who you are, and they change you, in hopefully good ways.

How did you come up with the structure of the film, since the film has the backbone of this college competition, but you pull it off in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s “just” about that.

Rae: That was tricky. There were moments when the whole movie did feel like a competition, and it was really hard to turn that around.

Scanlon: But I think part of it is Mike’s story — and that’s a thing that I think is always helpful. Because you’ve got your plot, your “engine,” as Andrew [Stanton] calls it, that’s moving you forward, but we’re constantly asking ourselves, what does this have to do with Mike’s story? Where’s Mike’s head? And again, we had a great story team, and they were always great about reminding me of that too, and just saying, this is entertaining, this is fun, but is it moving Mike’s story forward? Is it moving Mike and Sully’s relationship forward? And I think that if you constantly keep that focus, that spine, I think that’s what kind of helps it all kind of tie in together.

One of the great things about the climax of the film is that it uses most of the tropes of horror movies but executes them in a funny way. How did you assemble those ideas and then design them in a way that doesn’t create suspense but humor?

MONSTERS UNIVERSITYScanlon: We had a great story team. That scene was boarded by Dean Kelly, who is a really talented story artist, and we just let him go crazy. It was, “Think of every horror cliche, think of stuff that is legitimately scary,” and he really studied horror movies and angles. And then the layout department took it even further and made it more terrifying. But because you know it’s Mike and Sully doing it, it becomes ridiculous and kind of funny because they’re pushing these guys over the edge. At some point they should have thrown a cat at them, I’m realizing now. That would have made sense, because that always happens in every horror movie (laughs).

In terms of the sort of Easter eggs the film included — lines or details or even seedlings of things that took place in Monsters, Inc. — what was your favorite of those?

Scanlon: There’s tons of stuff like that. I love Randall’s change — he takes his glasses off and he gets the squinty eyes. I love that we see Roz as an agent, which is her job, and suggesting that she’s going to be keeping an eye on them. There’s even a tiny little detail in Mike and Randall’s dorm. The poster in their room says “the winds of change,” which was a line from the first film. But it was just fun putting all of that kind of stuff in there, all of those behaviors and mannerisms that develop into who these characters are.

What ultimately was the thing from the first film that you maybe liked the most that you wanted to discover an origin point for, and what did you love that you knew you were not going to be able to revisit or work into this film?

Scanlon: I don’t know — that’s a good question.

Rae: Really, that relationship was the thing we focused on the most, Mike and Sully’s relationship. It had the most to offer. That is where we wanted to spend most of our time, in figuring that out. But it’s so well-established in the first one — you meet them and they’re best friends and they’re coworkers and they have this life already figured out, and so it was kind of fun to go in and kind of deconstruct that.

Scanlon: And even like the fun cameos and stuff, we love all of those characters, but we tried to make sure that the cameos we had were appropriate to the story — that they weren’t too gratuitous. And as a result we limited the amount of them — we didn’t want it to feel like everybody went to Monsters University. That can sometimes be a temptation.

Monsters University opens today nationwide.

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