"It's Toy Hell," Says Toy Story 3 Director
Lee Unkrich on the precarious journey from idea to Pixar's most anticipated sequel
It's a credit to this film that it makes Toy Story 2 feel like the middle part of a trilogy.
Well thank god. [Laughs] We could also have gone completely off the rails and made a movie that nobody thought should have been made.
Part threes are traditionally where things can fall apart, because you're piling on additional characters and plots---
Where you lose sight of what was special and why you made the first one in the first place.
Right, and yet you do add a lot of new story arcs and characters, and the action in this one is bigger and more spectacular. How do you balance all of that and not fall into the traps of the threequel?
I think, at its core, we had a strong emotional storyline. The movie had a reason for being. We weren't just inventing a new adventure for the toys to go on. We were challenging everybody. Everybody in the film is faced with great change, and we wanted to have all of those characters truthfully deal with that change. I think the other thing that we had going for us is that we had the right ending. Very often coming up with the ending for a film is one of the hardest things to do; the beginning and the ending. In this case we had the ending right away, from day one; we knew how the film was going to end. Not only did we have the ending but we knew that we had an ending that had the potential to be really emotional and really powerful.
Was the ending, as it plays out now, always the ending?
No, that came about from two-and-a-half years of story development. We always knew it was going to be a "prison break" film, but at one point we had the toys just break out and make their way back to Andy's house in lots of different adventurous ways. It was in developing Lotso's backstory, in figuring out what made him tick and why he was the way he was -- at one point we had him getting thrown away and ending up on a truck and going to the dump; and at that time that didn't really work for us, it didn't really explain why he was the way he was. But I couldn't get this idea of the dump out of my head: Toys are afraid of one thing, and that's not being played with by kids. Anything that keeps them from getting played with by kids gives them anxiety, whether it's getting broken or getting lost or getting thrown away or getting relegated to the attic. In my mind, I thought we really needed to take the toys to their endgame. If we were going to be wrapping up the story in this film I thought that we needed to take them to the brink; we needed to do to them what they are most afraid of, which is getting thrown away and ending up at the dump.
It's like toy Inferno.
Right, it's toy Hell at the end of the film. And we committed to it fully. It is emotionally intense at the end of the film, but I think it was the right thing to do. I think if we had done any less than what we did, we would have been pussyfooting around what was a very dramatic situation.
Lotso is a great addition to the character cast. Who came up with him?
He was an old idea, back before there was even a Toy Story. John and Pete and Andrew and Joe had been kicking around ideas for what would be Pixar's first feature. They knew they wanted it set in the world of toys, but this was pre Woody and Buzz. They had an idea for a film that would be set entirely in a big toy store, like a big Toys"R"Us, and they had a character named Lotso who was part of that story. That ended up not coming to be but, like I mentioned, some of these ideas just go into hibernation. So when we started talking about the toys going into daycare, we knew that daycare was gonna have to be populated by a lot of toys -- and we knew there was probably gonna have to be a leader. So we resurrected the idea of Lotso, which we always thought was a fun idea; there just hadn't been a place for him until now.
You also went to Alcatraz to do some research for the "Sunnyside" daycare -- that might be odd to hear for some, as research for a Pixar film.
[Laughs] Yeah. But when you see the movie it makes perfect sense. We knew we had to see daycares and how they worked, so we visited lots of daycares and took a lot of photographs and were very inspired by them. We were practically spoon fed the inspiration, because daycares are only a breath away from being prisons for kids. You've got these walled-in exercise areas in the back, security cameras everywhere, bins that look like jail cells... there are just so many similarities between the two, so we fully embraced them. Then we visited Alcatraz just to look at a real prison, take a lot of photo references and find the corrollaries between the two. I wish we had more exotic, exciting research on this movie -- I would have preferred to go to Paris and have five-star meals like Brad [Bird] did on Ratatouille or go into Venezuela and into the jungles like Pete did [for Up]. We had this, and we went to the dump -- which required a long hot shower afterward [laughs].