Recently, I got the chance to visit Pixar in anticipation of their upcoming summer release Cars 2. As part of the press day, I sat down for interviews with Pixar staples like John Lassetter and composer Michael Giacchino, the stars of Cars 2 Emily Mortimer and Larry the Cable Guy, as well some of the people that create the Pixar flicks we know and love (producers, story supervisors, supervising animators, and more). Every Sunday, up until the release of Cars 2 on June 24th, we’ll be running a new interview. If you’re a fan of Pixar and are interested in learning how they generate incredible films year after year, you’re going to want to check back here each week.
First up is my interview with producer Denise Ream. She’s the producer on Cars 2 and was the associate producer on Up. Before joining Pixar five years ago, she worked with Lucasfilm’s ILM on flicks like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. In our interview, she talked about what being a producer at Pixar entails, the challenges she faced during the making of Cars 2, her transition from Lucasfilm to Pixar and more. Hit the jump to check it out.
Throughout the course of our interview, Denise Ream was more than happy to talk about all things Pixar. It’s easy to see why people call the studio the ideal workplace; the enthusiasm these people have for their jobs is absolutely infectious. Before we get into the interview, a little background: in one of the many presentations that we were given relating to Cars 2, we were told that the character of Finn McMissile (voiced by Michael Caine), was originally set to appear in the first Cars. The character was going to pop-up in a drive-in movie (a spy movie, no less), but that was eventually shelved. Ream brings this up in the interview, pointing out how the creative process works at Pixar.
In case you don’t get the chance to read the full interview, here are a few highlights:
- As a producer at Pixar, her job is to help the director and his team create the best film possible.
- Ideally, producers are on a project from inception. She hasn’t produced a Pixar film that way yet, but after Cars 2 is finished she plans on going into development to find a director/story to foster through production.
- Sometimes directors have an actor in their head when they’re creating characters, but Pixar also has a casting department that takes a lot of time and consideration into choosing a voice cast. Everyone brainstorms who would be best for each role.
- The biggest challenge for her on Cars 2 was making sure that they were telling the best story possible.
- Cars 2 is one of the biggest films Pixar has ever done. More locations, more sets, and more characters than the other films. It’s the biggest effects-film Pixar has done to date.
- The heart of Cars 2 is the friendship between Lightning McQueen and Mater, and how that friendship is tested. The film is about people being free to be themselves and being accepted for who they are.
- Her background at ILM helped her bring an objective point of view to Pixar in figuring out how things work and asking why they do the things they do at Pixar, to see if she could bring a different perspective in solving a problem.
- At Pixar, everything in the scene is created from scratch. She recounts working on Up and seeing the director weigh his options over which of three water bottles to use as the template for the water bottle in Russell’s backpack in the film, which would never even be seen throughout the course of the movie.
- Originally Cars 2 was going to take place in five countries, instead of four. There was a DTM-style rally race that was to take place in the Black Forest of Germany, but they didn’t have the time to do it. Also, the race in Paris was going to be a 24-hour Le Mans-style race and the film was going to open in Prague, but director John Lasseter switched it to the ocean to throw audiences off their feet.
Denise Ream: Definitely. Ideally you’re on at the very beginning of a project, and the primary goal is to help the director and work with the director and his story team to create really the best story that we can. So it’s figuring out the resources and getting people and figuring out talent, and basically helping everyone to do the best job that they can. Getting the resources that people need to do their jobs. And like partnering with John [Lasseter], we strategize and I’m constantly trying to creatively solve problems to make the best movie that we can, that is at the end of the day what we’re all doing here at Pixar. I’m fortunate that, you know we’re funded by Disney, and live-action producers have to go out and seek funding I fortunately don’t have to do that, but I have to work within prescribed parameters with the resources that I’m given. So it’s negotiation with my team and with John, and it changes every single day. It’s fun, it’s a great job I love it.
So are you on the project from inception or do they come up with the idea and say “Okay we wanna go with this film, we need a producer?”
Ream: Pixar has done both. In my case, I was brought on after—I mean John came up with the idea almost instantly. Seeds of the idea were actually, I mean the spy aspect of the film he came up with on the first movie. That was the first sequence that they boarded [on Cars] was Finn McMissile. So in my case I came on after the idea was pretty well along, but there are instances here where a producer-director team starts together from the beginning and the producer helps the director foster an idea. I’ve not done that yet, that’s what I’m hoping to do after I finish this film, after I take a break, that I would kind of go into development and help develop an idea.
Ream: Nope. I’m gonna go into development and see what some of those directors have in mind. I myself, I’m a producer. I definitely consider myself a creative partner, but I love bringing someone’s vision to the film. That’s what I like doing. A couple of the producers and I here, we always joke it’s like we actually don’t wanna be directors (laughs). We like being producers, we’re gonna have autobiographies that basically say that.
So are you involved in creative decisions and stuff, like voice-casting? How do you figure out who’s the right person, is there a think-tank?
Ream: Yeah, I mean sometimes a director will have a voice in his head when they’re creating characters. But we have a casting department here, and once we get far enough along with a story idea and some of the characters, and we start looking at some artwork, we’ll just start brainstorming who we think would be right for the job. There’s a lot of time and consideration given to the casting of the characters, I think that we really do work to find people that are gonna bring authenticity and intelligence to the roles. I think Emily Mortimer, in the case of Cars 2, has done a phenomenal job with Holly Shiftwell. She’s smart and she’s just a fantastic character. John Turturro just really brought life to this Formula racecar that has just exceeded my expectations. So that’s really fun, I love that part.
Ream: You know it’s funny, I mean technically speaking we didn’t have—I’ve been on films where there’s big technical hurdles. This one, making sure that we were telling the best story possible I think in my mind was the biggest challenge, making it as good as it could be. This movie is bigger than Pixar’s ever done. We go to way more locations, we have way more sets, way more characters, it’s the biggest effects film we’ve ever done. So there’s a pretty big scope to the film that I don’t think we’ve seen before. But I think probably every producer here is just wanting to make sure that they’re helping the director tell the greatest story. So that, for me, is always a challenge. I was pretty well convinced that we had the right team to get the movie done, this company has incredibly talented people. The animation department is unrivaled, those guys are just incredible. I mean I’m dazzled every day when we go to dailies, things you wouldn’t imagine, just subtleties they put into those performances. It’s pretty fun to watch.
From the footage we saw today, it seems like Cars 2 is very much a spy-thriller, but there’s also the Lightning McQueen story. Is there a throughline with his character? Is it two different genres or is Lightning’s story interwoven through the rest of the film?
Ream: Yeah primarily I would say, at the heart of the film it is really about Lightning McQueen and Mater’s friendship, and how it is tested. Mater is really put in the position throughout the film, he’s deciding whether he helps his friend or helps these spies solve what appears to be a pretty big conspiracy. So I feel like, at the heart of the story that is what the film is about, and how the friendship is tested. And really McQueen doubting Mater, and wanting him to be something that he’s not. So I think that ultimately it is about that friendship and it’s about people being free to be themselves and accepting who they are, and accepting each other. So the spy aspect is a cool setting, it’s a fun movie, there’s humor there, there’s adventure. I think it’s really great that we’re taking these characters out of Radiator Springs and taking them someplace new, that you wouldn’t expect to see them. It’s a great setting for that.
Ream: You know this company sort of evolved out of, was a division of Lucasfilm. The founders of the company originally worked at ILM, but like any place there is a different culture. So for me the biggest challenge was kind of figuring out, “Okay, how does this place work?” I worked at ILM for many many years, and it was always really irritating to have people come in thinking that they know how to do it better, and question everything you’re doing. But that’s sort of how you learn. So I do feel like I was able to bring a sort of objective—I could question things, hopefully in a polite way, of why things were done the way they were. And most of the time there were answers, like “Well we do that because of X, Y and Z.” But there were times when literally people would turn to me and say, “Well I don’t know why we do that.” So I think that that was helpful. You know, an animated film is different. I would say just fundamentally, the difference between the animated—and even from Star Wars, cause it was halfway through Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith that I decided that I wanted to work in animation, cause you’re almost creating the whole movie, it’s a computer-generated film let’s be honest. But there’s still a lot of things you get for free, from those sets, even with George [Lucas] who doesn’t want to build sets, he wants to generate it all in the computer. You do get a lot for free. And here, even though I knew it, it was really shocking to see that you have to design and build and paint and light every single thing you touch. That was a daunting prospect. Like on Up, Russell’s backpack has all of this stuff in there that never comes out of the backpack! And so you have the director looking at three water bottles [saying] “Which one should we have?” it’s like “Well let’s combine these two.” And you’re like, “Oh my gosh, it’s just the water bottle in the backpack, no one’s ever gonna see it!” So think that’s the thing that was shocking, but I’ve worked on a lot of films and I think my production sense of getting the work done helped me, but being respectful of what Pixar’s process was. I mean I feel really lucky, I worked [at ILM] for 13 years, I’ve been here almost 5, that’s pretty unusual in the film business, to be at only two places in the span of that many years. So I feel really lucky.
Ream: We were originally gonna go to Germany. There was going to be a sort of DTM-style rally race in the Black Forest, which would’ve been really cool but we just did not have enough time for that. And originally Paris was gonna be a Le Mans-style 24-hour race, which again I think would’ve been really cool but there was just so much story to tell. And then very very early on, we didn’t get that far, the movie was gonna open in Prague. And then they switched, John thought, “No we need to start out in the ocean. Because people are not gonna know what this movie’s about, like why are we out in the ocean? A ship out in the ocean?” So you know there’s a lot thrown away. But really Finn McMissile, that was the first sequence that was drawn in the first Cars film. The very first thing was gonna be a movie within a movie. And so I think it’s just amazing that here’s like a major concept of the film, that was something that was kind of “Eh no, we’re not gonna do that.” So I love that.