Director Dan Scanlon Talks MONSTERS UNIVERSITY, Mike’s Central Story, Prequel vs Sequel, Introducing New Characters and Re-Inventing Old Ones

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During our recent set visit to Pixar Animation Studios, we were treated to an absolute deluge of behind-the-scenes information for the upcoming animated film, Monsters Unviersity.  Director Dan Scanlon kindly took some time out of his busy schedule for a roundtable interview in which he talked about making Mike’s story the central arc, re-imagining familiar characters as younger versions of themselves, introducing new characters into the universe, college movies as source materials, possible Blu-ray extras and a lot more.

Monsters University features the voices of Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Helen Mirren, John Krasinski, Nathan Fillion, Charlie Day and many more.  The film opens in 2D and 3D starting June 21st.  Hit the jump for the full interview.

monsters-university-dan-scanlonQuestion: What led to Mike becoming our entry point in the film?

Dan Scanlon: It’s a good question, we actually tried different versions.  We actually tried Sulley just because he was the main character in the other film. We sort of felt like that was the right thing to do.  We explored different versions, and it just kept coming up that Mike’s story was the emotional core of the film, that even when we had Sulley in the lead Mike just kept rising up above him.  His story had the most emotional connection in it and also just had the most relatability.  So we just made the switch at that point and have felt great about it ever since.  It’s still a film about both guys and about how they meet, but he’s kind of our emotional core.

Did you ever consider showing any of their parents or families?

Scanlon: Yeah, actually that’s a good question, we did.  At Pixar we do a million versions of the movie and every one of them goes through their awkward teenage phase where it’s terrible and doesn’t make sense, and we just keep working on it.  So as a result we have lots of different versions.  We actually did have versions where we saw Mike and Sulley’s family at one point, but a big part of the reason why we took it out was, the scene you guys saw where Mike arrives at school, we really wanted Mike to be the ultimate underdog and there was just something even psychologically about him showing with the support of his parents that wasn’t as satisfying.  You notice he showed up completely alone on a bus and he showed up with tons of luggage that he’s dragging, but he’s smiling.  Nothing gets him down.  He’s literally completely alone with the weight of the world on his shoulders and when we made that change it was like, “I like this guy a lot better than the guy whose parents are showing up.”

monsters-university-ID-card-james-p-sullivanWe were talking to the guys downstairs and talking about all the different ideas that they throw out there. I’m curious about that because Pixar is normally holding the line at 90 minutes.  You have so many ideas, how’s it work? Do you always have to look at it as something that has to be done in 90 minutes?

Scanlon: I don’t think there’s any hard fast rule, if the story really needed the extra time we would do it.  To me it’s just more of an entertainment thing.  I think the idea of keeping them wanting more, or not wanting to overstay our welcome.  I think it’s a good discipline to do that.  Especially with – not that our films are just straight comedies, but they are somewhat comedies and I think it’s just a good idea, a good practice to keep it down, but there is no hard and fast rule.

You talked about the likeability factor with how Mike’s story is elevated, but Sulley is a little bit of an arrogant jerk; talk about that balance.

Scanlon: So yeah, that was fun too.  As we dove into Sulley and thought, “Who was Sulley in the first film?” we realized wow when you take Boo away from his situation he’s just a nice guy.  There’s not a lot to him.  He’s a great nice guy that we love because of how he treats Boo, but we also felt like well if we just made him the guy from the first film, what is the journey?  What is the point of having met him when he was younger?  We talked about who he would be.  We said, “Maybe he’s a guy who’s not good at scaring and he’s shy.”  But look at him, that’s not even truthful to the design.   So at some point we thought, “If he looked like that at 18 he would probably be an arrogant jerk.”  We had concerns, we didn’t want to make him unlikeable, but we felt that this is Mike’s movie and Mike has dealt with arrogant jerks like that his whole life.  What better way to see Sulley than through Mike’s eye and let him be that guy.  We’re all 18 at one point, we were all slightly different, and some of us thought we knew how the whole world worked.  That’s what we wanted to capture, that sort of cocky 18 year old that needs to be woken up to how the world is and different people and that type of thing.  So we really embraced that, to let us see him through Mike’s eye. 

monsters-university-campusThen it was really when John Goodman came in and performed it that we felt like, “Okay, this is going to be fun.”  He totally knew what that type of character was and was like, “Oh yeah, I was 18 once.  I know what this is.  I know what it’s like to just think that you’ve got it all figured out.”  So listening to him play that role was like, okay this is going to be fun, hopefully this is going to be sort of a fun arrogant jerk that we’ll love to hate a little bit.  And all the more important to see him then change into the guy that we know in the next film, and to know that Mike changed him into that guy I think makes you appreciate Sulley in Monsters, Inc.  even more, to know why he became the guy he became.

Some of the set designers mentioned that you gave them a list of college movies that you wanted them to watch.

Scanlon: Yeah, I’m not really sure what the exact list was, I know that the majority of them were from the 80s, because for some reason the majority of every college film is from the 80s.  I think as a result we got kind of the classic paradigms of college films.  We always want the movies to be of any time period, nothing specific, but as a result we did say, “We have to do a little tip to the 80s in there,”  so you’ll notice a mullet or two every now and then and that sort of style to it.

The misfits are really great characters and we’re getting to see what Mike and Sulley were like when they were kids, is there maybe a little Animal House type thing where there’s a little line at the end of what happens to all these guys going on to Monsters, Inc.?

Scanlon: You’ll have to wait and see.

monsters-university-poster-mike-wazowskiI thought the idea of Can Design studies, since you apparently have hundreds of rejected drafts can you share some of the rejected majors?

Scanlon: Man, that’s a good question, I don’t know off the top of my head.  One joke that never got in the film that we always thought was funny, a monster class, was the idea of there being – it’s really weird when I think of it now, but a major that is just destroying buildings. [Laughs] And have the monsters just smash them and destroy them.  I could never quite figure out a way to get that way.  Like the first movie, it’s a monster world, but there’s also just these very human things.  Monsters, Inc.  presumably has English classes and Theatre classes, we had a whole thing with a theatre class at one point, but it’s always the monster take on theatre.  Yeah, that one never got in.

How set in stone is the 40 minutes we saw?  You’ve got two more months to go so will anything change?

Scanlon: Nothing visually will change.  We’re mixing right now so that’s sort of the early mix that you saw.  I think most of the music is in there.  It’s mainly just dialing in sound stuff.

I have an interesting parallel because I was like 8 or 9 when Monsters, Inc.  came out, and now you’re doing a prequel when I’m 21 and in college, it’s funny that it lines up that way and I think it does for a lot of people.  That being said, in your own words why is it more important that you tell a prequel and not a sequel?  This is Pixar’s first prequel, why is it more important?

monsters-university-dean-hardscrabbleScanlon: We had a meeting to see if there was even an idea for a Monsters thing and we threw out a lot of ideas, but the prequel as the thing we really got excited about because we wanted to do something about their relationship and we felt like the best way to learn more about these guys was to go back rather than go forward.  Then obviously on top of that just the entertainment value of college came up.  We felt like, “Oh, come on, Monster College.”  Then out of that we really got excited about the idea of Mike’s story.  That was the thing that made us realize “Oh, here’s the heart of the movie.”  So often movies tell the story of “you can be anything you want as long as you never give up”, which is a great theme and a great lesson, however sometimes that does not work out.  It’s just a fact of life, we’ve all been through it, and we felt like no one ever tells the story for those people. 

No one ever tells a story to help you figure out where to go when a door closes on you.  We knew that that could be kind of an awkward subject, but we just felt like all the more reason to do it and all the more reason to tell a prequel, because prequels are tough because people already know how the movie ends.  This worked out great because yeah, we all know how the movie ends, but now that we’ve met Mike and we know how much this dream means to him and know the stakes behind it we kind of don’t want the movie to end the way it’s going to end, and we don’t know what it’s going to look like when that happens.  We don’t know how Mike’s going to feel about it.  We don’t even know how that is going to affect how he feels in the next movie.  So that was the thing that made us think this is definitely the way we want to go.  It is interesting, I feel like I’m meeting a lot of people in your generation, and we didn’t plan that, but it works out pretty well.

monsters-university-posterIt seems like a lot of the main characters aren’t really properly introduced until about 35 minutes into the movie, can you talk a little bit about that.

Scanlon: It’s funny I never really thought about it that way, I think it’s mainly the new characters, the Oozma Kappa.  They’re sort of there on the periphery the whole while, but this was kind of the moment in the story where we need them.  We spend a lot of the story still with them, we get to know them pretty well throughout the course of it.   I think we really just needed to set up Mike and Sulley and get their relationship.  The movie is essentially about them and the misfit characters are supportive characters, so maybe that has something to do with why there wasn’t a need to bring them in earlier than we did.

Can you talk about Dean Hardscrabble and her role, because it’s not a straight villain role, it’s more of an authority … somewhat antagonistic role, college kids versus authority.  Can you talk about the creative process of that?

Scanlon: We wanted to be careful that she wasn’t just evil.  I mean, she’s the teacher, she’s the dean.  If she has one flaw it might be pride, as you guys saw, pride for her own trophies that made her react and be judgmental of the guys in an unfair way.  However, what I like about the story is that everything she’s saying about them is true.  All the harsh things she’s saying are essentially true.  So again, kind of dealing with the prequel of it, we’re going up against a truth we know, but it’s not a truth we want to believe.  She kind of subs in as the voice of reason, she’s also kind of the audience saying, “I know how this story ends.”  She’s sort of the hard and cold facts of it, but she’s certainly taking it to an unfair place and I think she’s probably someone who has gotten so in love with her own talents, or having taught for so many years she’s kind of stuck in one way to do it, I guess is what you would say about her.  So it would be interesting to see her learn a little bit about … there’s more than one way to teach someone.

When coming up with that character, I know it started as male and it kind of had a Waternoose look to it, but then dynamically the character is the exact opposite of Waternoose where he was nice, but was actually doing evil. Was that something that came into play when dealing with that character?

Scanlon: Yeah, the character was male originally and at some point I felt like we never got to see any great female scares in the first film, this would be a way to really open up the world, so we changed her character.  But yeah, again, I guess it is just the opposite, we wanted her to really be a force through the whole movie, not something that’s revealed later on like the first film.  We certainly didn’t want to do the same thing again.

When [producer] Kori Rae was here earlier she said pretty bluntly that college is not a universal experience, did that issue of universality give you guys a pause?  We think of high school movies as more universal than college, so…

Scanlon: She’s right, it isn’t.  It’s not something that everyone gets to do.  I like to feel like that’s why it’s more about that age when you’re in college; that sort of self-discovery age that you get to.  We kept that in mind throughout the film.  Even all the fun of college aside, we wanted to make sure that the story and just the experience was a little more universal to that age, being 18 or 19 and realizing that life isn’t going to be exactly what you thought it was going to be. 

monsters-university-imageDoes that mean that the core audience should be college students?

Scanlon: That it should be?  No, my hope is that it would be anybody who was ever 18, and obviously we make these movies with kids in mind, which I think is naturally our audience anyway.  We hope it’s for anyone that’s been through that experience in life, that sort of change and self-discovery experience.

Were there any ideas that didn’t make it into the first film that made it into this film?

Scanlon: That’s a good question, because that happens sometimes.  That definitely happened with Toy Story and, I think, Cars.  Even the college part of it, actually; I didn’t work on the first film, I showed up the month that it came out, but I did hear that there was mention of Mike and Sulley in college and their college in the first film.  I’m not exactly sure if it was a storyboarded scene or not, I think it might have been.  So I think that’s why when the idea came up everyone kind of latched on to it, because they felt like there was something there that they didn’t get to do in the first film.

Was it a storyboarded sequence of them in college?

Scanlon: I can’t remember, maybe not in college, but some mention of their college.  Again, I wasn’t there, but I remember hearing something along those lines.

With the way that the press is nowadays with blogs and everything, do you ever feel like your vision is being cheated a little bit by the amount of stuff you have to prep for early viewing and trailers that aren’t even going to be in the movie?

Scanlon: Well we always do the trailers that aren’t going to be in the movie, mainly because we don’t have anything and were still animating it, but I always like that about it.  You get something extra.  I like sharing stuff with people.  I feel like it’s kind of at their own discretion, you can see too much if you want to see too much, but we keep an eye on what we put out there.  It’s not going to hurt the movie experience for you.  I feel like sometimes people say, “You gave away so many jokes.”  There’s plenty of jokes, don’t worry about it, we got lots of jokes.  If you really feel like you’ve given away all your jokes then your movie probably doesn’t have many.  I feel like there’ll be plenty.  I think it’s okay, it’s just sort of what people want to take in.

monsters-universityOn the internet a while ago somebody posted that clip from the first movie where it says, “Mike and Sulley met in fourth grade.”  Do you guys have any plans to go back and redub that or take it out?  Is there any official explanation?

Scanlon: Oh yeah, absolutely.  That was a case where we came up with this idea and then we remembered, “Oh there’s that line in the film.”  So we did versions of the film where they did meet when they were young, when they were in fourth grade for a very long time.  The problem is we didn’t want to make the movie “Monster’s Elementary”, which if we were telling the story of how they met and became friends, it would have been that.  However then we thought we jump ahead to college, in which case you felt like you missed the whole relationship.  There was kind of no way around that and it kept bringing the story down.  In the end it was Pete Docter, the original director, and John Lasseter who said, “You really need to let it go.  You need to do what’s right for the movie.”  And as a result we need to see these guys have this relationship right when they meet in college.  So it was a tough decision, but in the long run I feel like it’s kind of best for both movies.  The only reason that line was in the first movie was to give you the feeling that these guys have known each other a long time and I feel like college still does that.  The spirit is still the same.  Sure the line is bizarre now, but as long as the spirit feels the same that’s what’s most important looking at these movies as a whole.  We’ve joked that, “That’s just an expression monsters say, ‘I’ve known him since the fourth grade.’”  And the teaser that goes into the fifth grade, is also wonderful.  Yeah, it was definitely a decision.

We’re kind of lucky in that we get to sit in on these presentations about lighting and shading and how it effects Mike’s story. For the general audience that doesn’t get to see things like this, is there a visual element that you’d love for them to pay attention to, something that you really worked hard on?

Scanlon: You know, first time through, no.  First time through I’d love people to feel those things, because that’s the fun of them is they just wash over you and you feel them emotionally.  However, I will say that we’re going to try to cover a lot of that stuff on the DVD, because I am really excited about it, but I want people to see it after the fact.  There’s all sorts of things like that, visual storytelling that was done that we’re really excited about.

monsters-university-ID-card-don-carltonWho’s your favorite character among the new characters?

Scanlon: Well, I love them all, but I love Don.  I’m from the Midwest and Don is kind of a classic Midwestern guy, he’s kind of every dad I ever met with the mustache, and the bald thing, and the polo shirt.  And I love his story.  I think his story kind of sums up the Oozmas and Mike; he has very much the story of “it’s never too late”.  Don, as we met him, is a guy who kind of sold himself short a little bit, who had a dream but then just figured, “You know, I’m going to go into this other thing.  Who am I to shoot for the stars?”  I’ve always loved the idea that it’s never too late to make a change and I feel like Don embodies that story of all of them almost as a group.  So I love Don with his weird business cards and all of that stuff.  Go to school and learn the computers!

Monsters University opens in 2D and 3D June 21st.  Click here for all our previous coverage.




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