Andrew Stanton is one of the stalwarts of Pixar: trained at CalArts like most of the movers and shakers at that company, and cutting his teeth on screenwriting for many of its early feature films: Toy Story, A Bug’s Life and Monsters Inc. among others. He followed that up by directing Finding Nemo, one of the high-water marks of the studio that scored him an Academy Award, then repeated the feat with WALL-E, another Pixar triumph. His lone foray into live-action filmmaking, John Carter, has become something of a legendary disaster, but it’s far better than its early reputation suggests and a cult following has sprung up around it. In any case, he returned home to Pixar after that to direct Finding Dory, a sequel to Nemo that hits many of the same high notes that his earlier efforts have. He spoke about the project at a recent press day for the film.
Question: Why the impetus to come back to this undersea world thirteen years after Nemo?
Andrew Stanton: Initially, we didn’t think that there was a second act there. Four years is a long time to work on a movie, and I thought that Nemo was a closed circuit. A nice closed little picture. We finished it and moved on. Then I watched the movie again a few years ago, for the first time in a while, and I came out very worried about Dory. What’s going to happen to her now? I took it to the brain trust and they liked it as the basis for another film.
Q: How did the story develop from there?
AS: We always knew the story was going to be about Dory accepting herself. The specificity of that took a long time to nail down. It’s really about not being at peace until you can accept who you are. She was always going to be unsettled until she experienced what it was like to succeed on her own. I don’t think she’d ever done that before. She had learned to survive by being the best copilot ever, but she’s always depended on someone else to be successful. But the only way she was going to feel successful – like all of us do as we’re growing up – was to succeed at something all by herself.
“Just keep swimming” was her mantra in the first film, and we had to figure out that it was more than a mantra for her. It was something personal to her. It was something taught, that she remembers. Once we had that, we knew where the story was going to go.
Q: How did you decide which characters to bring back and which ones to leave behind? Marlin and Nemo were a given, but what about the other supporting characters?
AS: Mr. Ray shows up briefly as a means of normality, of showing life on the reef continuing. Crush the turtle shows up too, and I avoided putting him in for a long time. I do the voice of Crush, and I didn’t want it to be… self-indulgent. It felt like a vanity move. But we needed to get Dory from Australia to Monterey, and Crush was the easiest and most expedient way to do that.
We talked about a lot of them. Everyone has their favorites and we would have loved to have put them all in. The sharks, for example. But as always, they needed to serve the story we were telling now. And since everyone had their favorites, it became a sort of even playing field, and it let us find who we needed for this story, without the pressure of including a curtain call. That’s one of the benefits of our way of making films. We had four years to figure everything out, and if something isn’t working, we can change it.
Q: Did that time frame help with new characters?
AS: Absolutely. Hank the octopus was tough. We knew we wanted to have a character like that – the aquariums we visited during our research all had these great stories about their octopi – but they were tough to animate. They have no bones and computer animation makes traditional squash and stretch difficult. It took us two years to crack Hank and for most characters, it only takes about six months.
Q: How important was it to throw back to the first film in general?
AS: We actually tried to avoid the feeling of a sequel as much as we could. Some of it is inevitable, because Finding Nemo informs these characters and we need to know where they’re coming from. But it’s been thirteen years. The people who saw Finding Nemo as little kids are in college now, and there’s a whole new generation of children who are going to see this without necessarily having seen Finding Nemo. We wanted it to stand on its own as much as possible, and when you have it on the Blu-ray shelf with Finding Nemo, you could pop in either one and have a good movie without having to worry about what happened in the other film.