'Up' Director On Striking A Balance

Filmmaker Pete Docter's new movie is Pixar Studio's animated film Up. Docter discusses how his team of writers and animators struck a balance between the very adult themes in the film and the colorful and buoyant adventure story for kids.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block. The new movie titled "Up" from Pixar Animation is about what happens if you tie 20,622 helium balloons to your house. "Up" features a grouchy old man...

(Soundbite of film, "Up")

Mr. ED ASNER (Actor): (As Carl Fredricksen) Ah, for the love of Pete.

BLOCK: ...a persistent eight-year-old Wilderness Explorer scout...

(Soundbite of film, "Up")

Mr. JORDAN NAGAI (Actor): (As Russell) Good afternoon. My name is Russell…

BLOCK: ...and an enormous tropical bird.

(Soundbite of film, "Up")

(Soundbite of bird)

BLOCK: "Up" is directed by long time Pixar animator Pete Docter, who also wrote the story and screenplay.

Pete Docter, welcome to the program.

Mr. PETE DOCTER (Director, "Up"): Hi, nice to be here.

BLOCK: And let's talk about the inspiration for this, this character of the grumpy old man, Carl Fredricksen. Where did he come from?

Mr. DOCTER: Yeah. Well, Bob Peterson and I - Bob is the co-writer and co-director on the film - we just all of a sudden - it would be fun to do something with a guy with a lot of attitude, you know, somebody who you really got a sense of who he was right away. And we kept drawing pictures, and I drew this really grumpy, grouchy guy with this happy, fun bunch of colorful balloons, and it just seemed like there was something interesting there, and we started playing with that, and that was the origins of the movie.

BLOCK: So you drew him originally holding balloons.

Mr. DOCTER: Yeah, there was something about - I guess balloons somehow seemed to be like a metaphor somehow for life, that there is something very temporal about them. You only have them for a short amount of time. They either - you accidentally let go, and they float away, or they shrivel, and they're gone, and there was something about that that seemed to relate to relationships and life that Bob and I started playing with. And we came up with this little relationship between this old man and this Wilderness Explorer who has every single badge that he needs except his assisting-the-elderly badge, and that's why he's been pestering Carl.

(Soundbite of film, "Up")

Mr. NAGAI: (As Russell) I could help you cross the street.

Mr. ASNER: (As Carl) No.

Mr. NAGAI: (As Russell) I could help you cross your yard.

Mr. ASNER: (As Carl) No.

Mr. NAGAI: (As Russell) I could help you cross your porch.

Mr. ASNER: (As Carl) No.

Mr. NAGAI: (As Russell) Well, I got to help you cross something.

Mr. ASNER: (As Carl) No, I'm doing fine.

(Soundbite of door closing)

BLOCK: And this is the character of Russell, this Wilderness Explorer, and he is voiced by, I gather, a newcomer, somebody who had not done work like this before.

Mr. DOCTER: Yeah. He was voiced by this kid named Jordan Nagai, who wasn't actually even going to try out initially. It was his brother who came in to answer the audition call. And they said, well, Jordan, why don't you step up here and say a few things, and just tell about something you did today.

And I think he was talking about his judo class or something and just had this very innocent, charming-sounding voice. So we cast him, and we had to work a little bit to get some of the acting things, but you know, so I would trick him into doing certain things, having to run around, jump up and down, or I'd have to hold his arms by his side and say, okay now - because we wanted some struggle kind of vocalization. So try and get your arms free as you're saying this line, sort of, I want to help, you know, or whatever the line was, so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Oh, you'd be physically restraining him so his voice would sound right.

Mr. DOCTER: Yeah. With his permission, of course.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Of course, and his mother.

Mr. DOCTER: Yes.

BLOCK: Well, Carl Fredricksen and Russell, the Wilderness Explorer, end up going on this grand adventure on this house lifted by balloons to South America, and they run across some incredible characters, all of whom are dogs. And it's clear when you watch this movie that somebody working on this, and I have a feeling it might be you, really knows dogs.

Mr. DOCTER: Well, yeah, a lot of us have dogs. I have had a couple dogs, and you know, what we always end up doing is doing dialogue for the dog. So as we're sitting eating dinner, the dog is sitting there and we make up, you know, are you going to eat that because I could help you eat that. If you need help, I'm right here.

I think the twist on it was we allowed the dogs to speak not by moving their lips but by having these collars, which translate their thoughts, right. So the dogs can sit there and act like real dogs, and the collars translate the thoughts, which you know, we try to focus on things that dogs would really find important like, you know, sniffing and food and squirrel, you know, things like that, and so...

BLOCK: Well, here's the first scene, when Carl and Russell meet the friendly dog. This is Dug the dog.

(Soundbite of film, "Up")

Mr. BOB PETERSON (Actor): (As Dug) My name is Dug. I have just met you, and I love you. My master made me this collar. He is a good and smart master, and he made me this collar so that I may talk - squirrel.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: And squirrel becomes just a recurring laugh line throughout the movie.

Mr. DOCTER: Yeah. Well, you know, dogs, they have a thing for squirrels for sure, at least mine do.

BLOCK: And the other leading character here is this gigantic, multi-colored, fabulous bird that they discover in South America who Russell promptly names Kevin. How did you come up with what Kevin the bird should look like?

Mr. DOCTER: Well, Kevin was a tricky character to design. And Ricky Nierva and the other design team, we studied tons of real-life birds, starting with these kind of cranes and herons and, you know, for the sort of anatomy. We actually brought in a live ostrich here to Pixar, which you know, just another day at work, having an ostrich running around on the lawn.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DOCTER: But - and then we studied this thing called a monal pheasant, which is I think, they said, the most iridescent bird on Earth, which is this beautiful, multi-colored - they're found in the highlands of China, I think.

And anyway, Kevin is kind of an amalgam of all these things, these elements that we liked from real birds, and we created this made-up one.

BLOCK: You know, the back story to all of this is this really quite incredible and very briefly told love story between this old man who, starting when he was quite young, as a kid, and the girl he meets, Ellie, and they become explorers together as children, and then there's this incredible montage where you see them getting married and taking picnics together, lying on the grass, looking at cloud shapes and also some very, very sad moments in their life.

Mr. DOCTER: Yeah. Yeah, we discovered early on that the story we were telling was basically about what real adventure in life is and, you know, how so often we think of adventure as travel to exotic places and seeing fantastic creatures and sights that no one else has seen. And really, what Carl comes to discover is that - the truth, the thing that adventure really is, is this wonderful relationship that he had with his wife. And so, even though he never got the former, he definitely had the latter, and we needed to show that in the movie.

BLOCK: How important is it to you to balance, you know, the obvious fun and excitement and pure joy of movies like this and sort of the darker and deeper underlying themes that are all over this movie? I mean, there's an absentee father, and there's the loss of a lifelong love. How do you make those two things mesh, and how important is it that there are both of those things in this movie?

Mr. DOCTER: Well, looking back on the films that I grew up on that I loved as a kid and still love today, they all seemed to have those elements, you know, that there is, say for example, "Dumbo."

There is a lot of fun. There's "Pink Elephants On Parade" and all the fun with flying with the storks, and yet you also have these very tender, sad scenes that as a parent now, you look, and you go, oh my gosh, they can't even see each other. They can only hold trunks through the cage, you know, those - the "Baby Mine" sequence is just so touching.

And to me that's what makes those movies stick with you. You know, they're a lot of fun, a lot of action and adventure, but unless you have that emotional kind of touchstone and foundation, it doesn't really stay with you as you leave the theater, and that's what we were trying for in this film.

BLOCK: Well, Pete Docter, it's been great talking with you. Thanks very much.

Mr. DOCTER: Oh thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: Pete Docter is the director of the new film "Up."

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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'Up' And Away With Pixar's Pete Docter

Pete Docter i i

hide captionScript Docter: Writer-director Pete Docter co-wrote Pixar's new movie Up and earned a story credit on 2008's enormously successful Wall-E.

Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images
Pete Docter

Script Docter: Writer-director Pete Docter co-wrote Pixar's new movie Up and earned a story credit on 2008's enormously successful Wall-E.

Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images
Russell, Kevin and Carl in 'Up' i i

hide captionUnlikely Allies: Eight-year-old Russell, septuagenarian Carl and 13-foot-tall Kevin find themselves exploring a South American jungle together in Up— despite Kevin's tendency to swallow Carl's walker.

Disney/Pixar
Russell, Kevin and Carl in 'Up'

Unlikely Allies: Eight-year-old Russell, septuagenarian Carl and 13-foot-tall Kevin find themselves exploring a South American jungle together in Up— despite Kevin's tendency to swallow Carl's walker.

Disney/Pixar

The animated 3-D movie Up — directed and co-written by Pixar veteran Pete Docter — became the first animated film to open the Cannes Film Festival earlier this month.

It's an adventure story featuring a grouchy old man, a chubby boy, a 13-foot flightless bird and a house borne aloft by balloons.

Docter, who directed the Pixar hit Monsters, Inc. and worked on last year's smash Wall-E, tells Fresh Air host Terry Gross that the tale's influences included everything from Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo to the animated work of Hayao Miyazaki.

Docter also confesses to doing a bit of undercover research to help flesh out the central character in Up: He and several instrumentalist colleagues — Docter plays bass, the others ukuleles — visited a retirement home as volunteer entertainers but took the opportunity to observe the tics and habits of the elderly men in residence.

"And so we were playing for these guys and secretly kind of taking little notes for ourselves," Docter says.

That kind of sub rosa observation is something of a habit for Docter, in fact — and invaluable for an animator.

"I love to go to the airports, and just put on dark glasses so nobody can tell I'm staring at them, and just draw people," Docter says. "It's a lot of fun, and endless hours of entertainment — just watching the way people do simple things, even like eat a meal or, you know, wipe their kid's face or whatever. Just great behavior stuff."

Docter joins Fresh Air for a wide-ranging conversation about the joys of revisiting classic animated movies, about traveling to South America on the Disney/Pixar credit card to do story research, and about why he turned to the Muppets — and to the silent comedians Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin — to figure out how to create a range of emotions for that 13-foot bird.

And he explains why Up, like other recent 3-D projects, doesn't try to use the process as a special effect.

"It's ... another tool like lighting, like color, cinematography," he says. "It's just another way of furthering the emotion that we're trying to communicate to the audience. ... We tried to use it a little more like a window that you look into, as opposed to — I dont know about you, whenever I see 3-D movies, it's going booga, booga, booga in your face, and I'm suddenly aware, oh, I'm sitting in the theater wearing dopey glasses, you know? So we tried to use it much more subtly."

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