Beginnings are often difficult. This was certainly true of Pixar’s first prequel, Monsters University, which finds Mike and Sulley meeting for the first time as college rivals and dealing with primal screams. But it’s not often that you find a film about failure, and that’s the theme that makes their story so satisfying as a bridge to Monsters, Inc. During a recent visit to Pixar, I sat down with first-time director Dan Scanlon, a story artist on Cars and Toy Story 3, who Billy Crystal calls a “hipster,” and discussed both his and Mike’s rite of passage.
At first, they went for a funny ha-ha opening in which Mike gets dropped off at college by his parents. Crystal voiced the entire family. It was amusing but not good enough. Crystal regaled them with how he met Mickey Mantle at his first Yankees game and got him to autograph his program. That led to a brilliant prologue in which Mike goes to Monsters Inc. on a field trip and sneaks into the human world to get his first taste of scaring. He’s not only hooked but also fearless. And that became the through-line.
But there was an early note from the brain trust about making Mike an underdog that proved helpful. “And the suggestion was just have him on the bus and give him the biggest luggage that he’s draggin’ but make him the happiest guy there,” Scanlon explains. “You don’t even question where his parents are — he’s alone. Like he’s got the weight of the world on his shoulders and he’s showing up for college. I love that note. And as painful as it was to lose the entertainment value of the family, it made you root for him.”
Scanlon also got a lot of early notes pertaining to prequels: Since they’re predictable because you already know the outcome, don’t fight it — use it to your advantage. “We know that Mike is headed toward a disaster so let’s show how much he loves this thing and create tension. About Mike and Sulley dealing with failures in life, a lot of times, people say if you work hard enough, it’ll work hard, which is a great message. However, it’s not always the case and we really wanted to make a movie for people who were dealing with that, which is such a universal thing.”
Speaking of the vaunted Pixar brain trust (which includes John Lasseter, Monsters, Inc. director Pete Docter, and Andrew Stanton), Scanlon says for him the strategy was “to put togther screenings that you think or hope are working. You’re not always going for an A. Sometimes you’re going for a passing grade just so you can discuss further and get it to a better place.”
Scanlon would separately meet for lunch with Docter once a week, just picking his brain about what it’s like to direct and problem solve. He shared concept art and character designs to make sure they were still occupying the same world that Docter created. Toward the end, Docter even had his own questions: “‘Those Oozma Kappa guys: How’d you figure them out? They’re a great team,'” Scanlon relates.
In the very beginning they even toyed with the idea of making Sulley the protagonist again. The problem was, before Boo came into the story in the original movie, the Scare champ was just too nice and laid back. So they decided to make him a likable jerk, which gave him an arc as well.
“It was tough to figure out what his role would be and how he would affect Mike,” he adds.
Scanlon is by no means a techie so when the newbie director was first shown the wonders of a more visceral naturalism as a result of Pixar’s new breakthrough in global illumination, it changed the visual approach and introduced a new choreography in which Mike and Sulley step in and of the light, depending on their mood.
“It was more dramatic and I credit [producer] Kori [Rae] for creating new relationships between the art department and lighting. It’s hard to choreograph when you’re not working together. A big part of my job was to be the liaison. I know we’re setting up this shot, but there’s going to be this lighting theory, so we can’t do it from that angle; we’ve got to do it from this angle.”
While it was important to emphasize the frat house fun at Monsters U during the set-up, it was more important to deliver an emotional payoff that could stand alongside Sulley and Boo’s poignant goodbye at the end of Monsters, Inc. A memorable lakeside chat and a twist that foreshadows their future give it that extra lift.
“We knew we wanted these guys to end up in physical danger,” Scanlon
continues. “More importantly, I needed to level them out so they could
build a relationship again after their failures. We tried so many
versions and it takes a long time to come up with the least amount of
words to express how these guys feel.”
Pathos still remains Pixar’s greatest storytelling gift.