Today: April 17, 2024

Toy Story Interview Lee Unkrich

Woody’s third outing after his debut 11 years ago, Chris Patmore talks to director Lee Unkrich

You began at Pixar as a film editor, how does it feel to be part of what could be described as movie history?

I’ve been very lucky to have been part of the three Toy Story films and I remember back to when we were making the first Toy Story film, we knew we were making something special and it was unlike anything the world had ever seen up to that point. We certainly didn’t think we were making something that would become part of pop culture.

We were just hoping we’d make a half-way decent movie that people would want to see, and maybe we’d be lucky enough to make another movie after that one. That’s as grand as our plans were at the time. Of course, Toy Story did go on to be a huge hit and people loved it. A few years later we made Toy Story 2, which, too, against all odds, did well and was well received critically. A lot of years went by before Toy Story 3, and when John Lasseter asked me to direct the film, I was very excited but was also completely freaked out at the idea of having to take the helm of a story that was so beloved to so many people all over the world. I certainly didn’t want to be seen as the person responsible for screwing it up, in any way.

Did you spend a lot of time on getting the script right so that wouldn’t happen?
Yes, and that is the case on all of our films. We started this film by going away for two days to a cabin – me and Darla [K Anderson], John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and a few others and we spent two days hashing out the beginnings of Toy Story 3. We then spent the next two-and-a-half years working with Michael Arndt, the screenwriter, and all of my story crew to flesh out all the details of the story. That’s pretty typical for all of our films, we spend several years really working away on the story and trying every possible angle to end up at the best way of telling the story. We often don’t remember who came up with what ideas. I recently went back and looked at the notes from that first meeting, just to remind myself what the conversation was and I was surprised because I’d completely forgotten most of it. We end up collectively taking credit for everything.

By writing the script so tightly does that mean there are no “deleted scenes”, or do the animators make stuff that doesn’t go in the film, just for fun?
Animators have fun here and there. There are some funny ‘gag’ moments that have appeared over the years. The animation is so expensive and time consuming. The animators will spend weeks on just a few seconds of animation, so we really try to finger out what needs to be in the film and be very sure about it before we start animation. Invariably, on every film, there are moments or parts of scenes, when it turns out a scene is too long in the context of the whole film, and it needs to be shortened, so we’ve lost stuff like that over the years. We’re very lucky that on Toy Story 3 we didn’t cut anything. There were frames trimmed to tighten up the movie but what we set out to animate ended up in the film.

How hard is it to create new villainous characters, compared to the original one, that won’t upset toy manufacturers, given that licensing and merchandise are a big part of these films?
We had some dark elements and spooky characters in the original Toy Story, and the toy company were still happy to make the toys. You need a full range of characters in any movie, and you need characters that are antithetical to the main characters, and in this case Lotso was just that. We had a lot of fun coming up with a character that is seemingly very trustworthy, but then, of course, has another side to him. He’s talked about a lot in the press, which disappoints me because it kind of ruins the twist for people. All of the early audiences who saw the film, without knowing what is going to happen were thrilled because they had no idea he was going to turn that corner.

What about your interpretation of Ken, is that going to help his sales?

I hope so. Here’s the funny thing about Ken; we approached Mattel and pitched our whole conceit of Ken and what we wanted to do with him, and how we were going to make fun of him. They were completely on board and were happy to have him be in the film, and they trusted us to do right by him. Because everything was on the record, we had a lot of conversations with Mattel and met their designers, met with their historians and we found out one of the funny things about Ken was that for years Mattel tried to find a special feature for Ken, to try and boost sales.

For the longest time he was priced at 4.99 and they wanted to give him some special feature to price him above 4.99, and they finally realised that the fact that he was 4.99 was his special feature. To us, that was just perfect because that already fed into what we were already thinking about Ken, which was that he was a really insecure guy. He’s a guy who’s a girl’s toy and only played with by little girls; he’s ostensively an accessory for Barbie; he’s no more important than shoes or a purse or handbag. We figured he would be a completely insecure wreck and overcompensating in many ways, and that’s where his character came from.

Who had the brilliant idea of creating Big Baby, who is possibly the scariest character in the film?
We did a lot of research into day cares and everywhere that we went we see lots of these Baby Dolls. There’s often be cribs filled with five or ten of these naked Baby Dolls, with their cloth bodies and covered in pen marks, and they were just a hallmark of day care, so we wanted to stay true to that. Of course, we were making a prison break film and we needed to have some baddies in place, and that seemed like a logical thing to do. The thing I like about Big Baby, personally, is yes he is scary at times, because I filmed him in a scary way, but he’s an innocent. He’s a very tragic character in the film and I love that we can have a moment like that on the swing that is frightening, in a fun way, but moments later you feel such a deep empathy for the character.

How difficult is it casting the voice talent for the roles, especially the new characters?
We spend a lot of time because you want to find the perfect person. We have a guy we work with at Pixar, Kevin Reher, who is our casting director, and for a character like Lotso it was very important to find an actor who could play comedy and be very trustworthy and warm but could also carry the darker material. It was a very tricky thing because I didn’t want to tip our hand at all. I looked at some actor who I knew could do the intense stuff that Lotso needed to do but I didn’t think anyone would buy them as a warm, grandfatherly kind of guy. That was the most difficult character in the film to cast, and it took time until Ned Beatty’s name turned up on a list, and the moment I saw it I thought it was perfect because he’s done a lot of comedy in his career, he is this big, warm, genial kind of a guy, but he’s done some intense stuff in his career as well. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Network, and it is a very intense character that he plays in that film. So he came on board and ended up being the perfect person to play the character.

And yet you never go star casting, or using pop stars?
I think there is only one case when we’ve put the actors’ names on the poster and that was for Toy Story 2 – Tom Hanks and Tim Allen – otherwise we’ve never done that. We’ve never used the actors as being part of our marketing campaign.

It was reported that Tom Hanks and Tim Allen were really pushing to get Toy Story 3 made even before it was considered by the studio.
I don’t know that they were pushing so hard to get it made, but Tim, especially, was very interested in being in a Toy Story 3. He would call us regularly over the years asking when it was going to happen, just because he loves playing Buzz Lightyear. When we’d bump into Tom, he would ask about it as well. There was never any organised effort on their part to get a movie made. They were just happy when we finally called them and said it was a go.

How easy was it to all the original voice cast back together?
Everyone came back, with the exception of Jim Barney, who, unfortunately, passed away after Toy Story 2 – he played Slinky Dog – but we spent a long time trying to find a suitable replacement for him. We found this guy called Blake Clark, who is a character actor, and as it turned out was friends with Jim and knew him, so he took it upon himself to do right by the role. It always felt like we were channelling Jim a bit every time we did a recording session.

When we were all done, and I showed the film to many of the actors, I told Blake that I thought Jim would be proud he unexpectedly broke down sobbing at that moment because I think it was so important for him to get it right, that he felt it was a big deal that he had the responsibility of stepping up and being part of this big film, which was a big part of the big history of the Toy Story films and he was very relieved to see that he had done right by the part.

What attracts these big name actors to doing voiceover work, and do you find that their voices have changed over the 15 years?
In terms of the voices changing, very few changed. Pretty much everyone sounded exactly the same. The testament to that is I went back into recordings of both Tom Hanks and Tim Allen from the original Toy Story, and I used bits them, sometimes when I needed a line said in a different way than what we had, or I needed a word, and I was able to seamlessly intercut between them, so they didn’t really change.

In terms of actors being interested in doing the films; it used to be more difficult to convince actors to do our films before we were a name and people could trust that a Pixar film was going to be of a certain quality. Now, pretty much anyone we approach wants to be in our films. The actors like it because it is relatively easy. They don’t have to go on location, they don’t have to wear costumes, they don’t have to wear make up. They can just show up, but it is difficult because they don’t have those things around them.

It must be an interesting challenge for them.

It is a challenge because most of the time they have to act in a void. They have me. I’m reading lines off them, and I’m doing my best but I’m not an actor. I have to somehow paint a picture for them so that they can go internal standing in a dark room in front of a microphone and put themselves in the scene. It’s gruelling. Tom will do five hours at a time of just doing line readings. It’s not like that in live action.

The film is getting a reputation for making grown men cry. Does this give you satisfaction in being able to reduce men to tears?

Satisfaction? I’m proud that people find the movie affecting. We all find it very interesting that there is so much talk about men crying in this film. We certainly never set out to make men cry. It wasn’t a goal while making the film, but we do find it interesting that so many people are affected by it. We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why that is happening.

At what point did you know how the film would end?

On the second day of working out the story. The two-day offsite, where we went away and cooked up the idea for the movie, we emerged from that with a few fundamental things: we knew that Andy was grown up and going to college, we knew that the toys were going to end up at day care and the day care was going to end up being not such a nice place and it was going to end up being a kind of prison break movie; and we knew the ending.

We didn’t know the specifics of what was going to be said, or the machinations that would lead to that ending, but we knew at the end of the film Andy was going to pass on his toys. It was a good thing to have that ending because endings are often the hardest thing to come up with in a film. We’ve all seen perfectly enjoyable films that have disappointing endings. We were lucky we had that ending, so a lot of our work had to do with figuring out the best way to navigate to that ending.

Pixar does address things like extinction, abandonment, aging and so on that other mainstream animation studios wouldn’t really touch upon.
A lot of those themes kind of emerge as we’re making the films. We didn’t start out with a laundry list of things we wanted to explore in the film, they came about organically. Once they did start to emerge and we realised the film was about those things in many ways then we would continue the writing to support them. But, at the end of the day, we want to make a very funny movie, so part of the game is to find the balance between the more meaningful moments in the film and make sure it is really fun and entertaining on top of that.

Do you have a checklist of things to include in your films?
There are some ideas that are there from the get-go with the first Toy Story that we knew were part of the series. They’ve always been about free, unbridled play – the innocence of childhood and the importance of imaginative play, and we’ve continued to embrace that through the three films. That’s something we have always been aware of that the films are about.

For a multi-billion dollar company, Pixar seems to be run by a bunch of overgrown kids who do silly stunts, such as everyone shaving their heads at the beginning of production for this film.

So much of the fun of Pixar comes down from John Lasseter, he’s definitely set the tone of the company and in the early days surrounded himself with big kids, like him. That spirit of fun has never gone away. We’ve gotten a lot bigger, and Disney owns us now, but in many ways Pixar is still very much the same place.

The animators especially, there is very much a frat house mentality down there. It’s like anything goes and there’s a lot of craziness and debauchery at times, of all kinds. In that case, we had just finished Up. It was all done and the spotlight was swinging onto us – we were the next film up at bat – and my supervising animators, Bobby Podesta and Mike Venturini, decided we needed to have a clean start, to clean the deck and say, now it’s us and we’re making the next film. So they thought, let’s just shave our heads and beards, and then see who could go the longest without getting a haircut or shaving their beard. Before that day I had long, shaggy hair and I’d never worn a beard in my life – now look at me. We knew it would build moral. Everyone would get excited about it, especially if I did it.

How do you maintain that boyish enthusiasm, as you grow older?
Well, we act very immaturely when we get together. A lot of us were in our twenties when we made Toy Story, and when we get back together, we kid in much the same way, and our children keep us young in a lot of ways.

Marcia Degia - Publisher

Marcia Degia, who has worked in the media industry for more than 20 years, is the Publishing Editor of KOL Social Magazine. See website:

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