"It's Toy Hell," Says Toy Story 3 Director

Lee Unkrich on the precarious journey from idea to Pixar's most anticipated sequel

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Expectations don't come much higher than those surrounding this week's Toy Story 3. Arriving 11 years after 1999's Toy Story 2 upped both the box office and creative ante of the 1995 original, Pixar's threequel faces the daunting challenge of matching two predecessors that have a combined worldwide gross of $847 million and unparalleled critical praise (parts one and two currently sit at 100% "Fresh" on Rotten Tomatoes). More importantly, the films endure as part of audiences' collective experiences; people love this franchise, and it seems only the foolhardy would try and revisit it so many years later. Then again, this is Pixar we're talking about -- if anyone's going to break the curse of the part three, these guys have the best shot. RT spent some time with Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich -- stepping into the hot seat having co-directed part two -- and asked him what it was like to return to the series.

RT: Recently you said that you'd thought about making this film straight after Toy Story 2. At what point did you think, "Let's do it -- this is a really good idea"?

LU: We went about this one a little backwards, in that we had an idea for a Toy Story 3 right after we made Toy Story 2. There was an idea that we were kicking around and [Toy Story writer] Joe Ranft developed a little bit, but because of the political problems between Disney and Pixar at the time we weren't able to make it. Everything was kind of stagnant for a number of years. We went on making our other films and this idea for Toy Story just sat on the shelf. It wasn't until Disney bought us, finally, that all those problems went away and we were able to shut down the version of Toy Story 3 that Disney was doing on their own without us.

Was that going to be straight to video?

It wasn't straight to video. A lot of people have this impression that it was straight to video but it wasn't. It was meant to be theatrical. The straight to video was Toy Story 2 -- that was originally going to be our plan, but at a certain point we decided it was good enough to be theatrical.

People mix those stories up.

Yeah, I think that's what's happening, 'cause Disney's was full-on meant to be a theatrical release.

Were you guys worried about that?

Oh it was terrible. It was the darkest time in the history of our studio. I know they had a script and were doing storyboarding; they were getting ready to make it.

Did you ever look at it?

No. Never. We were very worried about it. It felt like our children had been taken away, like they'd been forcibly taken from us and raised by someone else. Luckily that future didn't come to pass, and Disney bought us and we shut down that version of the movie and we started from scratch. So it was really just over four years ago that we decided to make Toy Story 3. But the interesting thing was, we went away on this two day offsite -- me and John [Lasseter] and Andrew [Stanton] and Pete [Docter] and a few other folks -- to kind of hash out this idea that we had all these years; and within about 20 minutes of starting we shut down the idea completely.

What was the original idea?

You know, I'm sure everyone's interested in what it was, but we're not talking about it because we found that over the years there have been a lot of ideas that aren't the right ideas at the moment , for one reason or another, but they oftentimes show up in another form later. Like, we had a movie called Trash Planet that we wanted to make for a long time, and it kind of never went anywhere.

It became WALL-E?

It became WALL-E, ultimately. So this other idea that we shut down, there's probably something in there, because there's a reason we were excited about it.

Are there any remnants of the idea in the Toy Story 3 we see today?

No, really not at all. The only idea is that there was a vague thought that we would have Andy be grown up, in that idea. But once we shut that down, we were kind of left with nothing. And that was a perilous place to find ourselves, because we'd always told ourselves that we'd never make a movie unless we had a great idea first; and here we wanted to make a movie, we wanted to revisit the world of Toy Story, but we didn't have an idea. So we were in a bit of a panic. What we ended up doing was watching Toy Story and Toy Story 2 again. We had no TV there, so we all gathered around a laptop and watched the first two films and felt kind of depressed -- because we thought, "How can we top these two movies?"

When you watched them, did they feel complete to you, as a piece?

They did, completely. And that's an interesting thing to me now. I liken it to sometimes in a family you'll have a couple of kids and you'll think, "This is it; this is the family -- how can it be any different? This is what's meant to be." And then, for one reason or another, you end up having another child, whether accidentally or by choice, and of course once that child's in your life you can't imagine life without that third child.

It was kind of like that with the films. When we finished Toy Story 2, we tried to end that story. I mean, the toys knew that Andy was going to grow up some day and they'd made peace with that fact; they were totally confident that they were going to enjoy the time they had left with Andy. Someday it's going to come to an end, but at least they have each other by their side. Satisfying ending. Now, in retrospect -- now that we've made 3 -- we can see that they don't know what's coming. It's one thing to make peace with something that's gonna happen in the future and it's another thing to actually be there directly confronting it. So, we thought we need to put the toys in that situation; we need to have Andy grown up and leaving for college and the toys not knowing what the future holds for them. It just felt like the most emotionally resonant point at which to tell the story.