A Good Ride
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Director John Lasseter on Cars 2 From Disney/Pixar
JOHN LASSETER (director) is a two-time Academy Award-winning director and creatively oversees all films and associated projects from Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios. Lasseter wrote, directed and animated Pixar’s first short films, including “Luxo Jr.,” “Red’s Dream,” “Tin Toy” and “Knick Knack.” He executive-produced all of the studio’s subsequent shorts, including “Boundin’,” “One Man Band,” “Lifted,” “Presto,” “Partly Cloudy,” “Day & Night,” and the Academy Award-winning “Geri’s Game” (1997) and “For the Birds” (2000).
Lasseter made his feature directorial debut in 1995 with “Toy Story,” for which he received a Special Achievement Oscar. He went on to direct “A Bug’s Life,” “Toy Story 2” and “Cars.” His executive-producing credits for Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios include “Monsters, Inc.,” “Finding Nemo,” “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille,” “WALL•E,” “Bolt,” “Up,” “The Princess and the Frog” and “Tangled,” as well as Pixar’s most recent Academy Award winner for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song, “Toy Story 3.” He is also executive producer of this summer’s “Winnie the Pooh” from Walt Disney Animation Studios.
“Cars 2” marks his highly anticipated return to the director’s chair.
In 2009, Lasseter was honored at the 66th Venice International Film Festival with the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. In 2010, he became the first producer of animated films to receive the Producers Guild of America’s David O. Selznick Achievement Award in Motion Pictures. Lasseter’s other recognitions include the 2004 Outstanding Contribution to Cinematic Imagery award from the Art Directors Guild, an honorary degree from the American Film Institute, the 2008 Winsor McCay Award from ASIFA-Hollywood for career achievement and contribution to the art of animation, and $15 from the Model Grocery Market in Whittier, Calif., in 1961 for a drawing of the Headless Horseman.
Lasseter was part of the inaugural class of the Character Animation program at California Institute of the Arts and received his B.F.A. in film in 1979.
John Lasseter. Photo by Deborah Coleman. ©2011 Disney/Pixar
THE WORLD OF “CARS 2”
How did it feel revisiting the world of “Cars”?
JL: Making “Cars 2” has been a blast. “Cars” and “Cars 2” are extremely personal for me. My father was a parts manager at a Chevrolet dealership. I’m a car guy.
You know, I read every car magazine every month. I love that. I loved the characters and the world that we created in “Cars.” They are near and dear to my heart. I always say that I have the greatest job in the world, and directing “Cars 2” made it even more fun. I didn’t think my job could get more fun, but it did. Pixar is a filmmaker-led studio and all the films and story ideas come from each director and each group of filmmakers and they’re very personal in the way that it comes from your own life. We make the kind of movies we like to watch. And I’m a big kid. I wear Hawaiian shirts all the time and I’ve discovered I don’t have to grow up. I like to put that in the movies, too. We’ve had so much fun making this film.
What prompted you to make a sequel?
JL: At Pixar, we will only do a sequel if we have a great story idea and we always strive to be different than the original. If you look at all three “Toy Story” movies, they’re completely different in theme from one another, but they all take place in Andy’s room and around the world of the toys. What’s so different about this movie is that the world of “Cars 2” is as big as the world that you and I live in.
This movie is vastly different than “Cars” in nearly every way, yet it’s still a part of the world of “Cars.” That’s what made it so much fun. The settings all over the world, the glitz, the glamour, the cool hipness of the European cities and Japan, the whole spy genre, the type of racing that they do, the type of race cars that are there. Everything about it was cool.
TELLING THE STORY
How did you come up with the story of “Cars 2”?
Taking Mater Overseas
JL: The story of “Cars 2” was sparked by the idea of taking Lightning McQueen and Mater overseas. As I was traveling around the world doing publicity for “Cars,” I had cars as characters on the brain. I was constantly laughing to myself when I was in all these different countries, imagining what Mater would do in these different and foreign situations. When I was in Paris, I’d imagine, how would Mater maneuver around the giant roundabouts around the Arc de Triomphe? No signals and no lane lines. How would Mater handle driving on the wrong side of the road in London? What would Mater do being lost in the maze of streets in Tokyo, with no street signs in English? How would Mater handle Italy, where the traffic signals there are just a mere suggestion? I just kept thinking about all these things and kept laughing to myself. It was fun imagining these characters in these new situations.
This experience served as one of the inspirations for “Cars 2.” Lighting McQueen is invited to compete in the World Grand Prix to race against the fastest cars in the world in three fantastic locations: Japan, Italy and the U.K. Of course Mater, who has never left Radiator Springs, is completely out of place in these iconic international cultures, which leads to hilarious comedic moments.
But the World Grand Prix is just the setting for our real story: Mater is unknowingly embroiled in a case of international espionage! “Cars 2” is also a real spy movie with state-of-the-art gadgets, thrilling action and a cast of new and exciting characters like British agents Finn McMissile and Holley Shiftwell, and great car villains. It's totally different and so much fun.
Finn McMissile: Secret Agent
JL: During “Cars,” we were developing a sequence in which Lightning McQueen was going to take Sally, the Porsche, on a first date. And it was going to be at a drive-in movie, because that’s very car oriented. Then we thought, ‘what movie is playing?’ I love spy movies and I thought it would be so much fun to see what a spy movie would be in the car world. We came up with this character named Finn McMissile who was going to be starring in this little movie-within-a-movie. And so even though the sequence changed and Lightning and Sally went cruising on their first date instead, I never forgot the idea of Finn McMissile and the spy movie. I thought, ‘There’s a lot of potential there.’
This is not a parody of a spy movie. This is a spy movie, but with cars as characters. It’s a different genre that gives us an opportunity to play with so many gadgets. The little boy in me came out in this movie more than any other movie. Let’s have fun with this world. Let’s have fun with these gadgets.
How does the friendship between Lightning McQueen and Mater evolve in “Cars 2”?
JL: Lightning McQueen and Mater have this deep friendship and it’s the emotional core of this movie. This special friendship gets tested in a very different and interesting way. It’s about how the strength of a friendship can be tested. What may be solid in one place can appear much different in another. Put a friendship to the test under a different set of circumstances and in a different setting—how true and deep is this friendship, really?
Mater is such a special character; he’s honest and completely straightforward and tells it exactly like it is. He’s just fun and loveable. When a character as innocent as that discovers that people are not laughing with him, like he’s always thought his entire life, but laughing at him, it’s absolutely heartbreaking to see him become immediately and more realistically aware, and learn the truth about himself—or what he thinks is the truth about himself. It’s very touching because through his own journey, his friendship with Lightning McQueen is eventually made even stronger. They both realize that, you know what? Mater is who he is, and it’s not Mater who has to change, it’s the world that should change.
How does 3D elevate “Cars 2”?
I love 3D probably more than any other director. I took my wedding pictures in 3D! Our short film “Knick Knack” that we made in 1989 was made in 3D before there were any 3D theaters out there. And I always felt our medium of computer animation is perfectly matched to it.
“Cars 2,” it’s really made with 3D in mind. And 3D for a Pixar film is not about all the coming-at-you stuff, it’s just about making the world that much more believable and immersive, like a window into that world. You get invested in it. And I think that when you see “Cars 2” in 3D, there is so much thought put into the elements – things are very reflective, to make it very glitzy and glamorous and sexy and cool. But it’s also thought out, because the lighting adds a tremendous amount of depth in 3D. Wet streets, shiny cars, shiny buildings. It’s like, wow!
How do you relate to the “Cars 2” characters?
JL: There’s a little bit of me in the “Cars” characters like Lightning McQueen—the first story was really about me discovering that the journey in life is the reward. Working, working, working, working and meanwhile, I have five sons—so I learned to slow down and enjoy living every day to its fullest.
On this movie, I relate to Mater. During our first research trip for “Cars 2,” Brad Lewis and I went over to the Italian Grand Prix in Milan. The Red Bull Formula 1 racing team was so generous and showed us everything. We were invited to the Red Bull party at the Milan Museum of Modern Art. I thought, ‘this will be fun.’ So I got dressed up like I normally do [in a Hawaiian shirt], and I walk in and it’s Milan. It’s the home of Armani. It’s like modern art and I walked in and I felt like Mater. Both of my parents are from Arkansas and my dad still speaks with a pretty thick accent—so I could kind of relate.
Who is Finn McMissile’s counterpart?
JL: Finn has a new partner—an analyst on her first field assignment, secret agent car Holley Shiftwell, and she is voiced by the amazing Emily Mortimer. Holley is one of the most beautiful cars you've ever seen. She, where Finn is old school, is very high-tech, sleek, sophisticated and state-of-the-art.
Who is Francesco Bernoulli?
JL: He’s not just any formula car. He’s the star from Italy, Francesco Bernoulli. He is so full of himself—he’s an open-wheel car and in the car world, an open-wheel car is like those guys who barely button their shirts. He talks about himself in the third person. Voicing Francesco Bernoulli is John Turturro and he hit it out of the park. It’s one of the most entertaining characters we’ve ever created.
What are your car credentials?
JL: My father, Paul Lasseter, was a parts manager at a Chevrolet dealership all of my life. When I was a little kid, I would go help them count parts for inventory. In high school, I would work summers and weekends—I became a parts delivery boy. That was the muscle-car era and I was a fanatic for them during the early ’70s.
My dad got a ’69 Chevelle station wagon with the towing package. You could tow a trailer, but you could also burn rubber—even with an automatic transmission—down an entire block with this thing. My parents had no idea that they had just handed the keys to one of the hottest cars in Whittier, California, to their boy. Whittier Boulevard was one of the cruising capitals of Southern California with a great Bob’s Big Boy—with the roller-skating waitresses and all that stuff. My very first ticket was actually in the Bob’s Big Boy parking lot for unnecessary use of the horn. Hand to God, that’s what the ticket was for, ‘cause my girlfriend was honking to our friends in the car next to us. I cherish those memories.
What’s your favorite car of all time?
JL: Well, I was born in 1957 and we were a Chevy family, so I would say my favorite car—I don’t have one yet; I’m hoping one day to get one—is a 1957 Corvette. I think it’s great. I do own, I think, the most beautiful car ever designed, which is a 1952 Jaguar XK120, which is gorgeous.
PIXAR’S 25TH ANNIVERSARY
How do you feel about Pixar’s 25-year milestone this year?
JL: Well, I just can’t believe it’s been 25 years and we’ve completed our 12th movie. It’s kind of neat—“Cars” came out on the 20th anniversary, and “Cars 2” is coming out on the 25th. But I’m very, very proud of Pixar—very proud of all our films and all the characters. What means the most to me are the people—all the families, all the moviegoers that we’ve entertained. That is why we do what we do, pure and simple. It’s about making the highest-quality films. Not just animated films, but films that truly, deeply entertain audiences of all ages, of all genders, of all nationalities. That’s what we set out to do. We just make movies, the kind of movies we like to watch.
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