Pixar director Pete Docter proves that Up is not full of hot air

by Beacon Staff • April 29, 2009

The appearance of a floating house attached to thousands of colorful balloons is worth the price of admission alone, but Pixar's newest film, iUp/i has more to offer than dazzling imagery. In a round table interview with one of the film's two directors, Pete Docter (the film was also directed by Bob Peterson), iThe Beacon/i and other college newspapers had a chance to pick the brain of one of Pixar's most prized artists and storytellers. After all, this was the guy who directed iMonster's Inc./i, the cutest monster movie ever made.

Having already seen a screening of the film (alas, not in its completed 3-D version), I was anxious to meet the man responsible for what will surely be another classic in the Pixar lineup.

When Docter showed up to the interview at the Four Seasons on Boylston, he was wearing a pair of jeans and a comfortable green shirt, Docter looked more like a soccer dad then a four-time Academy Award-nominated artist.

When he sat down at the table and saw a pre-placed plate of oatmeal cookies, presumably set up by the hotel staff, he smiled and asked with child-like excitement, "Are these for me? Cool."

Docter's lack of ego toward his work and his past successes at Pixar makes it clear why this animation company has had such a remarkable run since its 1995 release of iToy Story/i. For Docter, making a movie isn't about the paycheck or the glitz and glamour. It's about one fundamental thing: relatability. "We base our stories and characters off of relatability," he said, while chewing ravenously on his cookie. "I need to see something that I can relate too."

His films range from a trash compacting robot to a rat that loves to cook cuisine, and the Pixar filmmaker said understanding the character is the most important part of any project.

"The more specific you get with characters, the more general it can become for the audience. This is what we're looking for," he said. "We try to create layers. One is for adults. It has deep thematic elements. The other is for kids."

When asked if iUp/i, which grapples with issues involving death and old age, might be too intense and complex for children, Docter responded with, "I don't think so. We liked having it be about a cranky old man. He comes with a lot of humor and emotion. Carl [the protagonist] can be a jerk and a likeable person at the same time. Kids also have a connection with grandparents. They can click into that [with Carl]."

iUp/i is one of only two Pixar films to use human beings as the central characters (the other being Brad Bird's The Incredibles). As such is the case, Docter wanted to make sure that during the making of the movie, the cast remained as small and intimate as possible.

"A big cast complicates the plot," he said. "We intentionally kept the cast small so that you can relate to them."

A good 15-20 minutes of the film's first half focuses on the daily routines of the 78-year old-Carl. Like Andrew Stanton's iWall-E/i, iUp/i is a movie that doesn't shy away from patient observation.

The film is as much about entertainment to Docter, as it is about the fundamental importance of storytelling.

"Out of the five years we work on a film, three-and-a-half to four years is spent on story," he said. That may seem like a lot of time to spend on a children's movie, but then again Pixar has never made a film that qualifies as "just a children's movie."

When asked how he and his colleagues feel about the fact that Pixar hasn't made a bad movie to date, Docter laughed and then blushed, as if taken aback by his own success.

"Yeah, I half-take the compliment, half don't," he said. "I usually walk away and become self-critical. All of our films are failures at one point in the process."

These are humble words, especially coming from the guy whose last film grossed more than $525 million world-wide. Whether or not Up will find the same massive audience that his iMonster's Inc./i found, is irrelevant at this point.

The artists of Pixar have bigger fish to fry, like figuring out how to tell a great, relatable story over and over and over again.

iUp/i, a film that begins in a bustling urban city and winds up touring around the beautiful mountains of South America, opens on May 29. Docter can rest assured that his newest entry into Pixar canon will delight many, from the youngest of children, to the crankiest of old men.