In Monsters University, Pixar’s oddest odd couple, Mike and Sulley, meet for the first time in college as fierce rivals before becoming best buddies in Monsters, Inc. Co-stars Billy Crystal and John Goodman recently reminisced about their own college years and what it was like reuniting a decade later for Pixar’s first prequel.
“I have to admit, I was a little bit of a misfit,” Crystal recalls. “I was a film directing major at NYU. I’m still not sure why I became a directing major when I was really an actor and a comedian, but there was something that drew me to that.” He was in the same class with Oliver Stone, Christopher Guest, and Mike McKean, and none other than Martin Scorsese taught them film history as a grad student.
“He was very intimidating,” Crystal suggests, “which is why I called him Mr. Scorsese and still do. He gave me a C. Once I found a theater group then that became my fraternity house.”
Goodman, on the other hand, was a drifter for a while who desperately wanted to fit in with a group. “Really, I was lost, treading water, trying to find my way,” he admits. “I wanted to play football; it didn’t work out. I didn’t really know what I wanted until I found acting in a theater department and then everything fell into place and I had a passion about something. Then I started living my life.”
Monsters University is all about Mike wanting to become a Scarer and confronting disappointment. One door closes but another opens, which resonates with both Crystal and Goodman. “What I loved was I got to play him at a special time in his life,” Crystal enthuses. “I totally relate to his determination and don’t tell me I can’t. For me, Mike is fearless. He’s really the favorite character I’ve ever played. I really missed doing him until John Lasseter came up to me at his surprise 50th birthday party and said, ‘We have the idea: it’s a prequel. They’re in college.’ And he just walked away.”
For Crystal, it was great to be the protagonist and gain new insight into Mike. “It was such a brilliant idea to put them in that time period when they’re about to become who they’re gonna become. That’s what was so interesting to me. And playing it with John is phenomenal because we work together in the studio and we can act together.”
Back on Monsters, Inc., in fact, Crystal insisted that they record together. “I think that’s why their relationship on screen is really great because it’s the real thing.”
Goodman likes that Sulley is a lovable jerk in college before becoming top Scarer at Monsters, Inc. “I think the reason they work so well together is that they complete each other, in a way. I think Sulley, really, really needs Mike Wazowski, especially in this film, when they’re not completely formed monsters yet. They learn from each other, they learn how to adapt, how to let go of their preconceived notions of themselves and of the world. They’re good for each other.”
Getting back in the groove again was comfortable under “hipster” Dan Scanlon’s energetic direction. They didn’t even have to try and sound younger. “He’s a little trimmer and a little slimmer,” Crystal says of Sulley. “I’ve got this retainer but there’s a little more youth in his eye. They just carry themselves differently.”
Goodman, meanwhile, was pretty loose. “It’s a great way to revisit college because obviously I couldn’t do that in a non-animated way. It’s a good way to reflect back on how I was then and my wants and dreams and how you adapt to everything that changes you and which roads you take.”
They’re both impressed with Pixar’s evolution since the first Monsters. “But the imagination’s broader because they can do even more,” Crystal insists. “The art design on the first movie was astounding with the door sequence and the chase sequence. But the obstacle course [here] is a phenomenal segment.”
Crystal, who’s bringing his Tony Award-winning one-man show, 700 Sundays, back to New York in the fall, and has a witty memoir about growing old, Still Foolin’ Them, coming from Holt in September, helped shape the opening. He regaled Pixar with the story of his first Yankee game in 1956. Mickey Mantle signed his program and he instantly wanted to be a Yankee. “And that became the opening field trip when Mike sees the guys at Monsters, Inc., so they’re always listening.”
The first time Crystal saw the movie a month ago, he “loved the funny” but was impressed by a scene at a lake “when they stopped feeling like animated characters to me. They felt like real monsters with hearts and souls. I felt very moved by the bonding of the friendship and how he helps me through that. And John and I threw aside the script in that recording session and we really had to act the scene. I think the movie is very wise — it really surprises you.
“The other great thing is that the original came out in 2001 [after 9/11] and we were hosting screenings around the clock in theaters on 33rd Street in New York, and now those kids are college age. We recently screened the movie for 400 film students at USC. They went berserk because it’s them. They’re making decisions in their lives like Mike and Sulley are in this.”
Animation Scoop Contributing Editor Bill Desowitz is owner of Immersed in Movies and a regular contributor to Indiewire’s Thompson on Hollywood.