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Pixar’s Lee Unkrich and Darla K. Anderson on Toy Story 3’s Reviews, Oscar Campaign, and Sequel Chances

Pixar’s Toy Story 3 is already 2010’s top-grossing movie, and one of its best-reviewed. Today, in advance of a mighty, Disney-backed awards campaign, the film arrives on handsomely packaged, bonus-material-filled Blu-ray and DVD. To celebrate, director Lee Unkrich and producer Darla K. Anderson dropped by the New York Magazine offices recently to discuss why Disney asked Pixar to help polish Tron: Legacy, their movie’s Oscar chances, and the one thing they’d change about it if they could.

There was a story in the New York Times last month in which Robert Iger was said to have decided that Toy Story 3 would be the first animated movie to win Best Picture. Does that mean we’ll see more of an Oscar campaign this year than for previous Pixar movies?
Unkrich: I don’t know. I mean, I’m obviously not running the campaign, but we just feel lucky to even be in this position, that people are even talking about it. Especially with a sequel. We tried to make the best movie that we could. We didn’t even think about awards season, because we felt like chances are, with a “3” after the title, we’re not going to get that kind of attention.
Anderson: Some people were saying that maybe because it’s a trilogy, they’ll be considering the work as a whole, so maybe it’ll have more of a chance.
Unkrich: When we made Toy Story and Toy Story 2, there was no animated-film category. So we held out some hope back on Toy Story 2 that we would get Best Picture nomination just because we had such incredible reviews. But that ended up not happening. There’s something of a bias against animation and the films that we make.

What do you think the bias comes from? Is it really that actors, the Academy’s largest branch, are worried about being replaced by computers?
Unkrich: Yeah, which is silly because the actors are such a big part of our movies. We created Woody and Buzz, but it’s Tom Hanks and Tim Allen who give voice to them. I think because the faces aren’t up there, a lot of people just don’t … the actors kind of fall away and they don’t think about them. They are a really big part of the movie.

Toy Story 3 is the highest-grossing movie of 2010, and one of the most critically acclaimed. Do you even care about winning awards at this point?
Unkrich: Well, we don’t think about it while we’re making the movie, of course. But it’s always nice to be recognized, right? And especially in the film business for us to be recognized alongside live action. I’ve struggled in my own way over the years to try to educate people about what we do. I think people really respect us, but some just don’t understand it.

Did you read the reviews for the movie?
Unkrich: I used to always read them. But on this film, I poured so much of my heart and soul into it for over four years. I told people for a long time I wasn’t going to read any reviews because I couldn’t bear to read anything that wasn’t positive. I was going to have my wife weed out the negative reviews so that I could just read the positive ones. But that lasted for about eight seconds. The problem with Rotten Tomatoes is it’s just too easy to kind of like let your eye flit around.

But did anyone besides Armond White not like it?
Unkrich: Well, we knew Armond White wasn’t going to like it. There was one review right at the very beginning that was not the most glowing review and it just happened to be the very first one I read, and it was very disheartening for me initially. But then, immediately, just came the floods of good reviews. Once I read enough good ones, I had the fortitude to read any ones that were less than glowing.

As you were making it, did you know how much the movie was going to make people cry?
Unkrich: Honestly, we didn’t. We knew there was potential for a lot of emotion in the film, but it was never like a goal to get people walking out of the theater crying. At some of our early screenings, when we were showing the storyboard version, we would have people in our audience cry, but at Pixar many of us have had sixteen-year journeys with these characters and it was bittersweet to say good-bye at the end of the film. But then we had a screening at ShoWest in front of 5,000 people, and, man, everybody was crying.
Anderson: We were told that that audience is tough because they’re theater owners and they don’t really display how they feel.

Pixar cranks out masterpieces on deadline year after year. When you finish a movie like Toy Story 3, does it really feel done to you? Or could you have kept tinkering?
Unkrich: It’s called fear-based filmmaking. The release date looms and our reputation precedes us, and so we’re kind of frightened of screwing up. But we joke that our films are never finished, they’re just released. They’re kind of taken out of our hands as they drive out the door. But there’s really only a couple things in Toy Story 3 that, if I could change, I would.

Like what?
Unkrich: We made this decision to not have Bo Peep in the movie, because we took a main character and had her be gone and kind of emblematic of the fact that times have changed and they don’t have everyone in their lives that they used to, and it presents an aura of danger for the other toys — they can be out the door or donated or thrown away. But we also knew we wanted to open the film with that crazy kind of Western opening. And originally when we came out of the fantasy of the opening, we’d find ourselves in modern times with Andy grown up. At a certain point we realized that wasn’t quite the right way to go, and so we came up with this notion of the whole video montage of Andy kind of growing, so you could see the glory days of his time with the toys. But that decision didn’t come until later, and as a result we didn’t have any plans to resurrect Bo Peep and have her be a character in the film. So in retrospect — sorry, long answer — but if I could go back and redo the movie, I would have had Bo Peep as character in the opening and I think it would have made her absence moments later even more powerful.

I’m not sure how much you can talk about this, but there was a report over the summer that Pixar had helped punch up the script for Disney’s upcoming Muppet movie, and that you gave some pre-reshoot feedback on Tron: Legacy. This isn’t really a question, but I think this is a fantastic idea. I’d actually like to see Pixar fix everybody’s movies, since clearly you guys know what you’re doing.
Unkrich: Well, here’s the deal. The secret to our success is we have a lot of different filmmakers who regularly look at each other’s work, and we give comments. The sum of us is better than any of us individually. I think that’s why they brought Tron to us. It’s not so much that we know what we’re doing. It’s more that the mix of us has helped unblock problems and solve things. Studios don’t have directors under contract like they used to in the golden age; you used to have stables of writers and directors that you could get together to talk about each other’s work, but that’s not how the industry works anymore. Now, if you’re getting notes, they’re from studio execs and development people.

Wall Street didn’t know quite what to make of Up before its release, Newt was recently canceled, and Disney is now reportedly only interested in franchises that can sell toys. Does this mean we’ve seen the last of the unlikely Pixar protagonist? No more elderly people, robots, or insects?
Unkrich: Like, we’re only going to do safe things now? It’s a director-driven studio. We’ve never let commercial concerns dictate what our subject matter is going to be. I think Up is testament to that. Who the hell would have thought a film about an old man, a dog, and a Korean cub scout would do so well, and be so well-reviewed?

And, really, couldn’t it have also sold toys? Surely kids would have played with a stuffed Russell.
Anderson: I think, you know, yeah. I think there’s regret about that.
Unkrich: People in the toy industry, they like properties that are safe and that they know are going to do well. And it’s scary for anybody to get behind something that’s an unknown. Even with Pixar’s track record. We have the name, we’ve made these great films, and as you saw with Up, it’s still sometimes challenging to get people to be behind it. We know that’s going on, but we would never let that dictate what we’re doing or the kind of subject matter we choose.
Anderson: It’s the ethos of our company to trust that the audience will show up if we’re telling a good story, regardless of the subject matter, if it’s true to the creators of the film. That’s not for the faint of heart. It’s really a hard thing to do. But if there’s a spark and the director, filmmaker is really excited about it, there’s this innate feeling that audiences will show up. All of it’s like walking on a tight wire.

Is there any chance of a Toy Story 4?
Unkrich: Well, we don’t have any plans to make a fourth one, and I’m speaking for both of us. I know that we worked very, very hard to end the story of Andy and his toys. We really wanted to bring that to a lovely conclusion. We want to keep the characters alive and we’re doing that in different ways with short films. But in terms of the movies, we really just tried to make a really awesome trilogy.

Pixar’s Lee Unkrich and Darla K. Anderson on Toy Story 3’s Reviews, Oscar Campaign, and Sequel Chances