the church of animation

Andrew Stanton Remembers When ‘Nobody Wanted to Make’ Wall-E

Photo: Pixar via YouTube

Sorry if this offends, but WALL-E is the best film Pixar has made, and it might not even be close. Now, Andrew Stanton’s 2008 masterpiece — an adorable robot romance that also happens to be a scarring dystopian drama about human negligence and environmental destruction — has joined the Criterion Collection. The boutique home-video company has certainly distributed its share of popular, family-friendly classics over the years, but this is the first Disney feature it’s put out. It’s a good one to start with. WALL-E fits right in alongside the other classics in Criterion’s lineup. With its mostly wordless first half, the film is perhaps the most artfully put together of Pixar’s original classics, full of expert visual storytelling and moments of disarming subtlety. (Stanton himself likens it to “slow cinema.”) Its second-half portrait of a human race that has sacrificed any sense of responsibility at the altar of convenience stings even more today than it did at the time of release. Stanton followed this animated hit with his first live-action feature: the ill-fated megabudget action-adventure John Carter, which was a monumental disaster at the time but has since entered a period of reappreciation. We talked about all these things and more.

How did the decision to release WALL-E on the Criterion Collection come about?
It’s like a filmmaker’s bucket list, isn’t it? I actually made the first overture. I had been out in the field for the last seven years making a lot of TV. It was like going to film summer camp every four or five months with another group of people. And WALL-E just kept coming up. So many other filmmakers, whether they were established or up-and-coming, said it was one of these key movies for them. That was such a punch in the arm, because WALL-E was made with such sincere, undiluted love of the cinema from my youth. So it felt like it had found its target audience: other filmmakers! [Laughs] I’m biased, of course, but I thought, God, I think it’s kind of Criterion-worthy. Is it too crazy to see if they’d be interested? I knew that there would be a phalanx of precedents being broken and studio lawyers and all that kind of stuff. So God bless Alan Bergman, president of Walt Disney Studios, who championed it.

When a Criterion WALL-E was announced, I thought back to whether any Disney movies had been released by Criterion on laser disc back in the day. I felt like they must have. But nope. 
My brain always does the same thing. ’Cause I’m an early adopter from the late ’80s as well. You know what it is? I remember Wizard of Oz and Singin’ in the Rain coming out on Criterion laser disc, and those movies feel like they’d fit the canon of Disney live-action movies, from Mary Poppins and stuff. Criterion was just so ahead of the curve on releasing things on laser disc. I remember it took almost into the ’90s for Disney to catch up and start restoring and releasing their stuff. So I think that’s where the memory comes from.

How did it feel to revisit the film for this release?
Part of the blessing and the curse of working on an animated movie is it’s typically, at a minimum, four years of your life. So it’s like college, and you never forget college — you feel like you can go back to large chunks of it like it was yesterday. So, the recall is insane, and it gives you the illusion that it was not long ago. But then, going back into the actual archives, I realized I had forgotten so much. And it was sobering to realize just how long ago it was. It made me think about how much I am forgetting in life overall.

Watching WALL-E today, the visual storytelling still jumps out as quite novel for this type of movie. I know that the process at Pixar and Disney involves constant screening, constant rewriting, constant notes, constant feedback. How do you preserve the uniqueness of a film like this during such a process?
I always say that it was like trying to invent a new color. The hardest part is trying to get everybody to see this new color that you see. I don’t believe in the auteur theory, but I do believe that you need to get a singular vision, even if it’s a collective vision. There needs to be a singular color that we all agree on that we’re making, and then we follow it and we’re discovering it as we go.

Also, I had come off of Finding Nemo, and I’m enough of a film geek to recognize that the more power you get, the more you can fend off the unwanted influences and invite the necessary influences. WALL-E was a very conscious dive into risk. I knew nobody really wanted to make it. But I also knew nobody could say no to me because Nemo was just so big. So if I said I wanted to be left alone, I got left alone. If I said I wanted everybody out of the editorial room and I needed to think, I didn’t get any pushback. And I like to think I never used that card in any sort of abusive or bully-ish way. I’m very blessed that I work still in an environment of nothing but encouragement for making the best film possible. So it’s a lot of positive input, and you want that. Our ethos at Pixar has always been that we’re making these movies for our grandkids — not for the box office now, not for the critics now, not for the investors. We survive all that, and that gets us another chance, but we just want to be in that club where someone pulls out that film after it’s lost all its associations and they want to just watch it. But also, we’d been so successful at that point that we could afford the hiccup. If we called it wrong economically or critically, we’d survive it.

What were the biggest changes that happened to WALL-E during this period?
Well, I called it really wrong on the second act. I was so enamored with the intellectual conceit of telling “a foreign film without the subtitles” that I thought, What if the alien race we met or we perceived as alien spoke in a language we didn’t understand? And we were still basically forced to live in that space of interpretation like we were for the first act, which led to audience fatigue: There was clearly a limit to learning something new that deep into the film.

I also had sort of a Planet of the Apes conceit, where we thought they were aliens only to find it was us that devolved. The aliens were jello people with fruit for eyes, that kind of thing, and we discovered that was us coming home. So it was still about humanity coming home, but it was a little bit more removed. Then we got a bunch of research about actual long-term residency in space. This was in 2006. They were literally having debates at the time about long-distance travel to Mars. They said, “If we don’t do this right, everybody’s going to be gelatinous blobs by the time they get there because osteoporosis will kick in and the bones will atrophy and nobody will be able to move again.” We were like, That’s it! That totally fell in sync with the lethargy that we were starting to see with everybody stuck on their home screens.

I remember at the time the film came out, a lot of people felt its vision of humanity was a little too dark, a little too intense. Now, rewatching it, I feel like I know so many people for whom what’s depicted in the film would basically be an ideal lifestyle.
Sci-fi is never about “I hope everything turns out okay.” Sci-fi is always about what’s going to go wrong and how are we going survive it. We were leaning into a truth about ourselves that we didn’t want to know at the time. That’s the one thing I know to do in any story, because that’s where the drama is.

The iPhone came about halfway through our production. And we got iPhones before anybody else, except for people that were working at Apple. When I first held an iPhone in my hand, after one day of using it, I was like, This is the future. This is a flying jet-pack car in my hand. So why does it feel so familiar? I realized it reminded me of when I used to smoke. You would smoke just to pass the time and have something to do while you waited sitting on a bench. I realized right away, Oh, this is going to be so addictive.

Photo: Pixar via YouTube

You’re still heavily involved with Pixar. How would you say the Pixar of today is different from the Pixar of WALL-E?
It’s literally a product of the next generation because we’ve been working with a different bench of artists for the last 10 to 15 years. A lot of them have finally come up, and you’re starting to see their films. There’s a different cultural sensibility. And you let them tell you what’s interesting, not only to them personally as a filmmaker, but the way they see the world. It’s kind of like the luxury of being a teacher in a university. The times just change, whether you like it or not, and they don’t change the way you think they will, or when you think they will.

I’ve always wanted to believe that Pixar could never be pegged for anything beyond the fact that it’s quality-based and it’s cinematic fulfillment–based. When you go back to any of our initial PR interviews and stuff in the first ten years of Pixar, we always said we’re filmgoers first and filmmakers second, and we still are. But there’s a whole other generation of filmgoers now, and they just have a different experience of filmgoing — but with the same amount of love, if not greater. It’s also a bit like a snake eating its tail, in the sense that their influences are our early films. I don’t even know if it’s a problem, but it’s a weird situation to be in. Here’s another way to think about it: I grew up with Sesame Street, I grew up with the Muppet Show, and then I completely was put off by the Muppet Babies. But the Muppet Babies was made by fans of the Muppet Show. And you want to avoid regurgitation and xeroxing. So we work hard at making people not just try to relive their fandom, but to give us something new and surprise us.

After WALL-E, you famously made a foray into big-budget live-action movies with John Carter, which was a huge dream project for you but was regarded as a big disappointment at the time. Now I feel like it’s being reclaimed. Do you get that sense at all?
This sounds like a joke, but it’s true: On every shoot I’ve done in the last seven years, there’ll be a moment we’re about to roll and a grip will be pushing the dolly cart or something and he’ll pass me and whisper, “I really like John Carter.” And I’ll say, “You don’t have to whisper anymore. It’s not as much of a stigma.”

With John Carter, I definitely got accused of pooping my pants in the schoolyard, and there’s no way I’ll ever get to take that away. At the time, I went to a level of depression that you would expect somebody to go. I had my lost weekend, and then I picked myself up and then I powered through.
I watch John Carter once a year just to ask myself, “Was I off on something?” But no — that’s the movie I wanted to make. Where I was off was I thought there was a larger audience worthy of the budget who’d want to see that film. It was a smaller group, but it existed nonetheless. It’ll always hurt that I couldn’t finish the trilogy, that I couldn’t see all these other crew members and cast members who were planning on doing the other two. Other than that, I’m very happy that it’s kind of unsullied.

The knock on John Carter at the time was that even though it was based on a far older series of novels, elements of it had made their way into Avatar and Star Wars and so many other big films that it just felt too derivative in 2012. But what struck me about the film was that it was so unlike those other movies. I mean, to have a sci-fi action movie where the character just leaps great distances — I remember watching that and thinking, Oh, this is delightful, but audiences who are into the badass mode of action stars aren’t going to know what to do with that. The film had a sense of goofiness and visual humor that probably turned off some people. I wonder if some of that comes from the fact that you came out of Pixar. 
Yeah, I mean, I’m one of the OGs of Pixar. If there’s a Pixar goofiness, that’s because that’s me and that’s Pete [Docter], and that’s Joe [Ranft] and that was John [Lasseter]. It’s a product of us and a product of the garage band we were. Then we found other people who liked those same tastes. So, it doesn’t surprise me to suddenly be taken out of that and find out how much of that sound still comes out with me alone.

But to bring it back to WALL-E, I had discovered this idea of expanding moments, of taking these small micro moments that you might either edit out or pass over — discovering a laser dot on the ground, or taking the time to pause and inspect something — and turning them into whole scenes. I realized the power of that on WALL-E. It’s like slow cinema, and those were my nascent baby steps into that. I’ve certainly indulged in that even more since. On John Carter, I took this simple idea that we take for granted of jumping, and went, What if we treated it as odd as it could be, and how long could we indulge in it? 

Would you like to do another live-action feature?
I am right now. With Searchlight. It’s called In the Blink of an Eye. I’m about to location-scout next week and we start shooting at the beginning of next year. It’s a very art-house, quiet, slow-cinema kind of movie, which I never thought I’d get a chance to do.

Over the years, what have you learned about yourself as a live-action filmmaker?
Well, I think I’ve always been a filmmaker and a film lover first. Animation was the medium that I took to very easily because I could draw and you could control it. You could start making a movie without anybody else around; you could just start drawing. And so there was a certain level of intuitive joy. I was always a frustrated actor, too. So it kind of got that part of me fed, just to be able to control the performance and create another character. But I found myself getting a little fatigued after a while with just the long-term investment it took to get results. And there are other stories that I want to tell that just aren’t meant to be in animation. I never did go to the Church of Animation. I went to the Church of Movies.

Andrew Stanton Remembers When ‘Nobody Wanted to Make’ Wall-E