Interview: Pixar’s Kori Rae
Monster University is the latest film from Pixar Animation Studios. It serves as a prequel to the beloved Monsters Inc. The film came out in June and was Pixar’s fourth highest grossing film ever. The story follows a younger Mike as he goes to Monsters University to study and train to become a “scarer.” In the new collectors edition, blue ray and DVD combo pack, there will be tunes of bonus features and deleted scenes for all to enjoy. In a round table interview I sat down with Kori Rae, one of the head producers of Pixar and of Monsters University. Kori has been with Pixar right from the beginning when Pixar created Toy Story.
PRESS: Why Monsters University? Why a prequel, and why so dark?
A: We got together like 5 or 6 years ago, just to see if there was an idea that was good enough to go back and into the monster world with mike and sully. Cause we were busy making other films for 5 years or so and it wasn’t until then that we thought that well maybe there’s another story in there we got together with peter doctor and Dan Scanlon the director of MU and John and Andrew couple other of the trust members at Pixar and just batted around ideas and what came to the surface quickly is that we knew we wanted to kind delve into the relation of Mike and Sully. They’re such great characters and we know them in that mind but everything is already establish and so we thought it would be really awesome to go backwards and to discover who they both were individually and watch them meet and how did they help each become. So that obviously then lead to wow we could place this into a university, that could be so much fun. Then lastly it was we hit upon the fact it would be Mike’s story and that because doing a prequel is difficult in it of its self and telling mikes story it’s kind of good. Prequels are difficult because you know how the ending is going to be. But in this case it actually works in our favor because we wanted to tell a story of Mike, a character who doesn’t necessarily get what they want. So in this instance you know that kind of from the beginning but it was our job to get the audience invested enough that you want to know “well we know he’s not going to and what’s that going to look like when he doesn’t get what he wants” and so it actually added to the tension of the film so that all really worked in our favor. But mostly we loved that idea, because so often for most of us and most of the people we know it’s not that simple as going after you’re goal and working hard and getting what you want. Often it doesn’t work out, and you have to figure out a new direction or new path or a new way to get there. So we just thought it was really compelling and we have seen that much in film and especially family films.
PRESS: Was this an idea from the beginning or did you guys discovered as you stared making the film.
A: No it was pretty early on. It was something the we kept coming back to it… We tried a few versions with Sully being the main character but it never ever worked. It was so obvious that this movie was supposed to be about mike and about his dream.
SUFFOLK VOICE: How much of your own college experience did you put into the making of this film?
A: Mine was when we first started talking about the path that mike ends up taking to get to his goal as being apart of the scare team at MI. The same thing happened to me I ended up at Pixar in a really roundabout way. I had one dream I was – it seems crazy know but I was going to play basket ball and I was going to be either professional player or in the Olympics was kind of my goal from childhood. That really all I focused on 24/7 eat drink and slept basket ball so then an injury in college change that and I kind of had to figure out what to do and where to go from there. Cause my plan was to teach and couch and in many I kind of am doing that because producing is a lot like couching except your working with a much larger team. There a piece on the DVD that’s called paths to Pixar and it just kind of points out how many people at Pixar never intended to end up at where they were. We had animators who were doctors, a production designer who wanted to play baseball player in Japan. And that’s what we kind of feel this movie is about it’s when that one thing you think you’re supposed to do or think you’re supposed to be and something gets in your way, just remain open and see what’s around the corner and usually in most cases it ends up being better than what you ever imagined.
SUFFOLK VOICE: Going back to the party scene and the social aspects in college, you know social roles are kind of very big in college and high school. With that whole theme of self finding and not always getting what you want and that really cruel reality that we’re now starting to feel. But when you’re a child you realize that that reality is there. Why such a big and dark theme for a movie that is mostly targeted for a young audience.
A: Well certainly we that the beauty of it is that Monsters Inc. came out when a lot of you were more of that age, and it just so happened and we didn’t realize it until half way making the movie that a lot of the audience will be going into college. That’s the thing we have a university setting but really the film, what we wanted it to be is about that time in your life where you have to make those decisions or when you’re going through that or when you’re going through trying to figure out who you’re supposed to be or who your friends are going to be who you’re going to associate you’re self with and who you’re going to learn from and what friends you’re going to keep and what ones are you going to not keep. I think thank that the beauty of Pixar films is that we can tell those stories that seem adult but we can still do them in a way that appeals to kids and I think that that they will get a slightly different message but it will be the same thing and it might stick with them. You know they’ll look at the friendship part of it and the conflict between Mike and Sully and understand all that and they’ll understand the humor. But I don’t know we make these movies for ourselves too and general audiences we don’t want to make them just for kids.
PRESS: How do you find that balance? Between kids and adult watchers?
A: I think it’s just part of our DNA. A lot of us have been at Pixar for a long time and it’s also when John started the company and started even on Toy Story. We want to make films that we ourselves would want to watch and we’re our only audience for four years or more before it’s released to the world. So they have to be movies that we’re interested in to other wise it’s a abysmal making something for four year that you’re not interested in for four years. So we really make the films for ourselves too and they have to work on all levels and so we just kind of do it. The whole thing is trial and error. We want humor and sometimes slapstick humor is fun but we don’t want it to only be that, it has to earn it’s self into the movie.
PRESS: What’s a typical creative process for a Pixar film?
A: So Dan Scanlon was a first time director on this film. He has a story back ground and he work on Cars and Toy Story 3 in the the story department. It was very critical for him to have that deep story knowable to direct because the director’s job is to make sure that the entire crew has the story context the whole way through. But it doesn’t mean that he has to know how to work the camera in the 3D space he doesn’t have to know how to animate, it just means he needs to tell the people how to do all it really well what the intention is and what the film needs and wants and with that being said. Say we go to an art review and we’ll be figuring out who the oozma captcha cap characters and we’ll go to an art room and all the artist will have pinned up hundreds and hundreds of different drawings for the four characters. One wall will be whole things about Squishy, what will Squishy look like? Well he’s already talked to them and said this is who Squishy is and the character is already defined on the page and in the director’s mind. So then the artists come back and give him their interpretation of what that is. The cool thing is nothing is too far, you want to try everything, every end of the spectrum. Then everyone chimes in and obviously the director has a say… So that like one review and then there’s a next one and a next one, and we talk about his eyes, and his clothing. But everybody else is very contributing and putting things in front of the director, and he’s just guiding the ship.
PRESS: Can you explain what your day to day is?
A: I’m a partner with the director and a really strong partner. We start each others day with kind of checking in and looking at the day and what’s happening. But it’s by job to make sure that the vision of the director ends up onto the screen. That means a lot of things. Sometimes they know exactly what they want, sometimes they don’t, and it’s up to the producer to get them what they need… So it’s kind of like I’m looking at problems and trying to look ahead and catch problems before they happen. But also on a daily basis I’m just solving problems and they’re often creative problems but its always in support of the film and always in support of the director. In terms of the production I go to director reviews, I sit in, I see how things are going, and then I also meet with the production team separately and talk about how the production work is going and obviously we have to talk about schedules we have to talk about what they’re struggling with and try to find solution to help. And again that’s all collaboration, because again we have really good production staff, we have really great leads in each department that support the director. So that’s part of the everyday work, and I mostly sit in meetings all day. But mostly meeting with entire crews and helping them get to the next step.