This spring, Wall Street was fretting over the uncertain commercial prospects of Pete Docter’s Up. But six months and $646 million after its release, it’s Pixar’s second-highest-grossing film ever and, thanks to the Academy’s expansion of the Best Picture category, it stands a good chance of being the studio’s first movie to compete for Oscar’s top award. Given Up’s release on Blu-Ray and DVD tomorrow, we spoke to Docter by phone about the movie’s first four minutes, its awards chances, and what little he could tell us about his next project (which isn’t Monsters, Inc. 2!).
Up was Pixar’s first movie made especially for 3-D. On a practical level, how much more difficult did that make your job?
We worked about three years on the film without even thinking 3-D. Then John [Lasseter] came to us and said, “Hey, you know, there’s this new technology, it would be great.” For me, whenever I watch 3-D movies and things are poking at me in the face, it sort of pops me out of the spell of the film. So I didn’t wanna do gimmicky stuff. So we set up the screen like a window that you look into, rather than things coming out at you. But aside from those sort of basic rules and trying to use it as a storytelling device, it really didn’t affect the way we approached the film at all.
Does it bother you that people watching the film at home on DVD and Blu-Ray will miss out on that extra dimension?
Not at all. In fact, that’s the way I purposefully designed it, knowing that. 3-D is cool, but 90 percent of viewers are going to see it in the traditional 2-D, so that’s really the way we designed it.
How long did those first four minutes take to get right? Obviously you were going for maximum tear-jerking …
We constructed it like a term paper, where you throw in everything, and then you slowly whittle down and pare out anything that’s not essential. I don’t know whether you notice it upon first viewing, but every shot in there is either a setup to something that’s coming or a connection back to something that’s happened already. There’s really no fat in that sequence, and it was just the process of whittling and reducing and cutting anything that’s non-essential, including dialogue. When we started with that sequence, it was a series of short little scenes with dialogue and sound effects and whatnot, and, in the end, we pared it down to something that was just images with the music.
The level of detail you can see on the Blu-Ray is incredible. Can you tell me something that you fussed over that maybe the casual viewer might not notice?
The one thing that springs to mind is the nurses who come to pick up Carl because his house was taken away. We really talked about each one of those guys, about their background, where they came from, the types of people they were. You’ll notice there’s a larger nurse who we called A.J. He has a mullet, his scrubs are all kind of wrinkly and messy, and his name tag, if you look close — and you can see this on Blu-Ray — it says “Nancy.” Like he just grabbed some random name tag. His tag in the back is sticking up. Meanwhile, the guy he’s with, George, is very neatly pressed. He has crisp seams and he’s got clean white sneakers. But that’s just an example. Almost everything in the film has been thought through like that.
How much are awards on your mind right now? Will you be disappointed if Up is not one of the ten Oscar nominees for Best Picture?
Well, I’m trying not to think about it too much, because I really can’t affect anything one way or another. My work is done, the film is completed. I mean, it’s been really gratifying to see it play so well all around the world, so I’m mostly focused on the next film that I have in development already.
How far into the next project are you?
That one I just started. We finished Up, I took some time off, spent some time in Europe and Japan doing publicity over there, so I’ve only been on this for like a couple weeks.
Is that the Monsters Inc. sequel?
I’m not working on … I’m working on something else, but I cannot announce what it is.
When will it be released?
Well, if the past is any guide, it generally takes at least four years, if not five, to do these. So I don’t know … What is that? I’m bad with math.
A month before Up’s release, there was that New York Times piece worrying about its commercial prospects. Given that Up is now Pixar’s second-highest-grossing movie ever, do you just look back on that and laugh?
With that New York Times piece, I wasn’t sure whether I should be happy or upset. On the one hand, I go, “What don’t you see?” If you’re trying to judge the feature from the past, I understand why you’d get a piece like that, because a 78-year-old man just doesn’t add up to dollar signs, but that’s not really the way we approach things. We’re just thinking about how can we tell a good story. We knew from the beginning — though it was sort of a battle in many ways, getting the film done — that we had something interesting that we hadn’t seen before with an older protagonist.
It was weird that after Pixar had been successful with movies about rats and garbage-disposal robots that anyone would doubt your ability to make money with an elderly human hero …
Well, it’s always interesting to talk to people and to read stuff like that. For me, I just can’t imagine approaching filmmaking trying to second-guess what people are going to buy in merchandise. You know where that leads.
The one thing critics tend to fault Pixar films for is that — though they always have these un-Hollywood setups — they always end with a conventional chase scene. Will Pixar ever end a film without one of those?
Yeah, it’s definitely something you think about: “This time, we want to make sure we don’t fall into these habits that we do.” But just from a storytelling standpoint, you want to have a sense of acceleration, that things are getting faster and deeper and more intense, so that’s why you inevitably get to some physical thing, which really viscerally gets the audience going. But it’s always something that we’re aware of. And it’s always frustrating when there’s a couple of things in this film where you go, “Ugh, I wish we could have found a better answer than this.” But you just try to make it as good as you can.