Interviews · Movies

Interview: ‘Toy Story 3’ Director Lee Unkrich

Toy Story
By  · Published on June 14th, 2010

Without a doubt, one of the most anticipated movies of the year comes out this weekend. It’s become an annual event to witness the newest Pixar film make its way to theaters, and Toy Story 3 has all of that with the added pressure and excitement of seeing some familiar character return (and to introduce themselves to a new generation.

Toy Story launched everything, and after millions of fans, billions of dollars in box office, and a shelf full of Academy Awards that might as well be labeled “Reserved for Pixar,” we find ourselves on board a train that refuses to slow down and seems to keep getting better with every new stop along the tracks.

I was fortunate enough to speak with Lee Unkrich, the director behind Toy Story 3, and we discussed what makes toys upset, the personal tragedies in life that helped him tell the story, and what Pixar’s goals are for the future.

Considering that you’ve worked with Pixar so long and were co-director on Toy Story 2 with John Lasseter, how important was it to maintain his legacy for Toy Story 3?

Well, I guess when you say, “maintain his legacy,” it’s really a matter of maintaining our legacy. John is awesome, and we all love working with him, but the truth is that there was a group of people that collaborated on those early films ‐ myself included. The films were born out of a lot of different people’s ideas and sensibilities. Obviously John was the director and had final say over everything and he guided the project, but the thing that made me directing the third film more comfortable was that I was at John’s side making Toy Story and Toy Story 2.

So my allegiances weren’t to his specific vision per se but to the world we created, the characters, and the vibe we created.

It’s interesting that people make a big deal about Pixar shying away from sequels, and now you’re heading more into that territory. Do you ever give credence to that feeling or do you wonder why that’s a big deal to some?

Oh, no. We get it. The world’s pretty divided. I see all the sentiment out there ‐ I’m out on the ‘net, and I know that there are a lot of people that say, “Oh, God. Pixar’s gone off the rails. They’re doing all these sequels all of the sudden.”


But I know there are an equal number of people that are excited that we’re doing sequels because they love the characters we’ve made and they want to see more in those worlds. So we have to keep everybody happy, and the only way to really do that is to stick to our guns and tell great stories whether it’s a sequel or not. We apply the same rigor to a sequel ‐ I know from experience having just finished this film ‐ that we apply to an original film. And, really, they’re no easier. They’re just as difficult in their own ways.

If not more so sometimes.

If not more so because you want to keep it fresh. You don’t want to feel like you’re repeating yourself, and you don’t want to feel like you’re making a film that’s redundant and doesn’t need to be made. You know, at the end of the day, we’re in a business. We’re not creating art for the world. It’s a business, and luckily we get to create art as a part of that business. Sequels can be beneficial to us being able to create original films. You kind of need both in the world, so we embrace both.

That being said, we’re never going to make a sequel just for the sake of making a sequel. We’ll make a sequel when we have a really good story for one. I know that everybody wants an Incredibles sequel, but we haven’t made one for a couple of reasons. I know Brad [Bird] has an idea, but nobody wants to do that until we feel like the idea is ready to go.

I imagine there’s a decent amount of people in the group that want to see those sequels come out that work at Pixar.

Some of them. It’s mixed. There’s some people who want to keep doing original stuff for the challenge, and you know, there’s room for both in the world. We’re lucky. We’re at a place with the studio where we’re big enough and we have enough projects in different stages of development that it gives us some flexibility to move stuff around if we need to. The world does not want to see a Pixar film that’s not great. If we’re working on a film, and it’s just not coming together ‐ which happens in nearly every case, in every film we’ve made there’s a point where it’s just not working ‐ I think people would appreciate that we delay a film to make sure it’s great rather than putting something out that’s mediocre.

For Toy Story 3, how much of the plot thematically is derived from Jessie’s backstory from Toy Story 2?

I don’t think we were ever specifically looking to her backstory to guide the film, but just the idea, definitely. At their core, toys were put on this earth to be played with by a kid, and anything that keeps them from being played with gives them stress and makes them upset. Whether that’s being broken or being lost, but of course the worst thing that can happen to a toy is being outgrown.

We explored that idea with Jessie, and then we end Toy Story 2 with Woody seemingly having made peace with the fact that Andy is going to grow up someday, but he’s just going to live out the time he has left and enjoy it. It’s a nice, satisfying ending, but we came to realize that in our lives, there’s a lot of times that we think we’re going to be okay and be able to deal with something we know is going to happen someday ‐ be it the death of our parents or any number of events ‐ but when you finally get to that point, who knows how you’re going to react? We thought it would be really interesting to have Woody, firsthand, confront that situation of being outgrown and being potentially abandoned and forgotten.

It’s a really rich theme. I’ve read some reviews already, and they all mention that the film is darker than the others. Do you agree with that or do you see it as simply dealing realistically with life events?

I see that word being used a lot, and I don’t know that it’s entirely accurate. I think they’re using that word to encompass a lot of things. I think the film is more emotional, the film gets more intense at times, and the film is more mature in some ways. When we made the first Toy Story, many of us were in our early to mid 20s, and we’re older now. We’ve lived life more. We’ve raised kids. We’ve lost friends. To us, the toys, Woody and Buzz and the rest of the gang, they’re people. They’re not humans, but they’re adults with real problems, and our own living of life has infused its way into the film. Yes, Toy Story 3 is more emotional and more mature than the others, but you could argue that all of our films have been moving in that direction as a result.

Is there anything specific that you’ve dealt with in your life that you felt fed directly into this story?

Yeah, there is something that’s very personal. It’s hard to talk about not because it’s personal, but because it relates to something right at the end of the movie that we don’t necessarily want to have you talk about just yet.

Of course.

When we were making Toy Story, my grandmother was very ill, and she knew she was not going to make it. I went back to visit her, and there was a moment during that visit that I had to say goodbye, and I knew I’d never be seeing her again. I looked at her and knew that I was looking at her for the last time. Taking that in before I turned away and left. Of course, that’s something that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

That’s very much reflected in the film. There’s a scene, without giving too many details, toward the end of the film where a character’s having to say goodbye and move on into life. I very much used that experience that I had for the touchstone for that moment.

Well, it’s a very universal idea. People are looking to Pixar for films that aren’t just geared toward children, but are geared toward everyone, and I think it’s surprising for some to see those kinds of elements included in what, on the surface, looks like a children’s movie.

Well, you know, there’s this weird bias ‐ in the United States especially ‐ that animation is somehow just for kids. We’ve done our best over the years to try to break that. I think we’ve made slow progress, but we’ve made progress. From the beginning, we tried to make movies for everybody. They’ve never been targeted to kids. I think the moment you try to make something for kids, you are making something really cruddy that even kids don’t want to watch most of the time.

The movies are for everybody, and we want everybody to relate to them on different levels. There are mature ideas and themes and feelings in this film that I think are going to affect many grownups, but kids are at a different stage in their life. They don’t experience things the same way adults do. They don’t have the same feelings, and they’re going to have a very different experience of the film. Hopefully they’re still entertained, but it’ll be in a very different way from adults.

Pixar is at a level now where you are delivering a movie a year with some great shorts alongside of them. Are we going to get to a point where we’re seeing 2, maybe 3 a year? Maybe 4? One for each season?

[Laughs] I don’t think we’re going to get to that point.

Our goal was always to get to a movie a year, and when we can we want to try to have one every 18 months or so, but I don’t know if that’ll be with any consistency. We’ve never wanted the schedule to dictate our movie output. We really just want to make sure that every film we make is great. That’s what will ultimately dictate our schedule.

We know the world would like more, but if we made more, I don’t think we could maintain the level of quality and care and attention we give the films.

Let’s push for five or six a year, and I think the fans will be happy.


When’s the last time you sat down to watch Tin Toy and what did you feel watching it?

Tin Toy? I’m sure I watched Tin Toy early in the making of this one. We took the toys that are under the couch in Tin Toy and put them in the movie. They’re in Toy Story 3. I probably looked at it for that. You know, Tin Toy is really entertaining. It’s crude by today’s standards in a lot of ways, but in a lot of ways it’s as ground-breaking today as it was back then in its look.

I remember back to when I first saw it. I was completely blown away by it. People just hadn’t seen anything like that before. It was crazy seeing photo-realistic computer animation.

A very similar reaction to Toy Story as well.

Right, but the thing that…John’s success in the early days was in not letting it be all about the computer graphics. He knew that nobody would care just watching a bunch of flashy computer graphics. He had to fill those movies with characters that people would care about.

He tells a great story from when he made Luxo Jr. ‐ you know, the first one. He presented it at SIGGRAPH, this computer graphics conference, and all these brilliant minds from all over the world were there. This one guy who was a luminary in the computer graphics field ‐ just a genius ‐ came up to John afterward and said he had a question for him. John got really nervous because he thought he was going to ask some technical question he couldn’t even begin to answer, and the guy came up to him and said, “John, I was hoping you could answer this one question I have: is the lamp a dad or a mom?”


And he knew at that moment that he’d pulled off what he’d set out to do. Nobody cared about the graphics. It was all about him infusing a lamp with a character that people cared about.

Does it break your heart at all to see a swath of films that use the technology but forget the characters?

I’m just happy the attention is on the storytelling. When we made Toy Story, journalists were more interested in talking about the technique because it was so new and unknown, and we just wanted to talk about the story. We’re just happy to be at a time when that’s what people care about and are talking about. The technology is just taken for granted at this point. That’s all we’ve ever wanted to do ‐ make good movies and tell good stories.

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