Getting Direct With Directors...
Finding Nemo directors Lee Unkrich, left, and Andrew Stanton
No.4: Lee Unkrich and Andrew Stanton

We continue our series of interviews with major filmmakers by chatting to the two men behind ace aquatic animation Finding Nemo. Andrew Stanton has been a writer on every Pixar feature and co-director of A Bug's Life, while co-director Lee Unkrich previously worked on Monsters, Inc.. The pair discuss The Shining, dumb questions, and which movies make them want to spit...

Why did you become directors?

Andrew Stanton: Oh, it seemed like a good idea at the time. I don't know, I don't know if you can decide to become one. I feel like I got the opportunity to do it. I loved going to films, I loved theatre, I loved all the arts, but I was always the kid who could draw so I ended up being drawn towards animation. It was just luck that we ended up at Pixar, with [Toy Story director and Pixar honcho] John Lasseter.

We had to build up a crew, and really, it was sitting around going, "What job do you want?" And John had the director job, so that wasn't an option, but I remember loving the idea of being part of the story process; I loved the creation of the whole idea. And then during the making of Toy Story I found myself very unsettled to just stay in that department. I loved seeing the idea go from concept all the way to the screen, so I just started hanging around and found myself always advising and working with John, since he and I worked well together. When it was all over, he asked me to co-direct A Bug's Life and I realised, "I like everything about the moviemaking process." That drove me into the director's seat. Sorry that's a long answer.

Lee Unkrich: For me it came first and foremost out of a love of movies. I grew up loving watching movies and at a certain point I started to become fascinated with making movies. Then I went to film school and I got to dabble with different aspects of moviemaking, and I ended up settling heavily into editing - editing was what I was really adept at, had a passion for. And I think the directing came mostly out of having to edit a lot of really bad material. I had worked for a lot of directors whose work I didn't respect, and as I was editing material I was thinking about how I would have shot the scenes and what I would have done to make the scenes better. After several years of that, I got to the point that I was pretty confident I could sit in the director's chair.

What do you think you would be if you weren't filmmakers?

AS: Dishwasher.

LU: Organ-grinder.

AS: We are constantly talking like, "Thank God I don't have a real job, I don't know what I'd be able to do." It is an odd thing we do and it definitely feels like that's what we were wired up to do.

LU: We just feel incredibly lucky because we know there are lot of people who feel the same way that we do who don't have the opportunities that we do.

AS: I don't know what I would do. Geez. That's like the scariest question in the world. I mean, the lame answer is I would fall back and I would do screenwriting, I love writing. But if I couldn't have a job inside the sanctum of making a movie, I think I'd be a househusband: make dinner, take the kids to school.

What other director would you like to see at work?

LU: Oh for me Stanley Kubrick, but that's not going to happen!

AS: If you could go back in time, for me it would be David Lean, hands down. But living director? Gosh. It's an obvious answer but I'd be so fascinated to see how Spielberg works.

LU: I'd really love to watch David Lynch work, to be a fly on the wall.

The "superb" Whale Rider

What was the last movie that you paid to see?

AS: Just the other day I saw Whale Rider. Loved it. It's superb.

LU: Pirates Of The Caribbean. I thought it was a little long, but I enjoyed it. I thought someone finally did a pirate movie right.

AS: I thought Johnny Depp doing Keith Richards as a pirate was inspired.

What was the last movie you walked out of?

AS: Oooh. That's a good one.

LU: I haven't walked out of a movie since I was in about 10th grade, I think.

AS: Lee and I almost walked out of Alien 4 [Alien: Resurrection].

LU: We should have walked out.

AS: We basically debated it about three times. I think that's the last time we truly, honestly considered walking out.

Do you believe in God?

AS: Yes.

LU: Um, no comment [laughs]. I change from day to day.

Who's the most famous person you have in your contacts book?

AS: Wow! That's a good one. Um... I don't know, do you think Steve Jobs is famous?

LU: I think Steve's the most famous.

AS: I'd have to say Steve Jobs [co-founder and CEO of Apple and Pixar].

What's your favourite movie quote?

LU: Mine would have to be from The Shining.

AS: I know what it is, it's from The Shining. [Does pretty good Jack Nicholson impersonation] "It's a momentary loss of muscular coordination."

Peter O'Toole in Lawrence Of Arabia

LU: There are so many great lines in that movie: "Wendy, give me the bat."

AS: I'm always quoting Lawrence Of Arabia: "I don't want to be part of your big push."

Which filmmaker do you consider the most underrated?

AS: Um, I'm cheating. I'm going over to my DVD collection. Underrated? I know there's somebody. Oh, you know who I love? I love Giuseppe Tornatore, the guy that did Cinema Paradiso. I'm just thinking about popularity, because respect wise, they all have respect.

LU: It's like David Lynch. Some people say he's overrated, some people say he's underrated.

AS: You know what? I'm changing mine. Can I change mine? It's Krzysztof Kieslowski, that's for sure [director of the Three Colours trilogy]. He is by far one of the greatest modern directors that nobody knows of.

LU: I'm drawing a blank but I know there's someone out there.

Which filmmaker do you consider the most overrated?

AS: They better be not living or else we're going to get creamed.

LU: I don't rag on anyone, because you never know... There are people that have got more acclaim than maybe they deserve, but it's a taste issue.

AS: This is a nasty question! It could really screw us over at a cocktail party... overrated, nah.

What's the dumbest question you've ever been asked?

AS: Oh [laughs], we do know. Tell 'em, Lee.

LU: First I should set it up. We've often been asked, "If you could be any fish, what kind of fish would you be?"

AS: Which we thought was the dumbest question, until this one...

LU: ...when a journalist asked, "If you could be a fish in a fish tank in anyone's home, whose home would it be?"

AS: My reply is, "There's no way you can answer that and not be a pervert."

Do you believe in test screenings?

AS: Yes and no. I think yes in a limited way. The way we do them they're under our control, but I think in the wrong hands more evil can be done than good.

LU: The thing is, we do the traditional test screenings where they fill out the cards, and we take the results with a grain of salt. The thing that we really watch is the audience while it's watching the film. You can tell if a section of the film is playing slowly. The audience is the most important thing to be paying attention to.

AS: The whole questionnaire thing is pretty bogus, but the watching of an audience while they're seeing a movie is very important.

How seriously do you take reviews?

LU: Depends on the review - whether it's good or not! [Laughs] Well, the internet has allowed us to see a lot more reviews of our films than we used to be able to.

AS: It also allows a lot of people who shouldn't be reviewing to be reviewing.

LU: I know Andrew and I focus on the big ones, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal...

AS: I take the reviews of the people who I depend on for my moviegoing experiences seriously.

What's your biggest regret?

AS: Probably that I spent too much time worrying during the making of Nemo.

LU: He did. You know, I was constantly having to talk him down off the ledge, he spent so much time worrying about it.

AS: I said, "I feel bad that I'm making the first Pixar film that's not going to be a huge hit."

LU: Which is so crazy now when you look at what it's done.

AS: I was a wreck.

And Lee, what's your biggest regret?

LU: You know, I don't think I have any big regrets, I'm happy to say. I honestly can say that. I just feel really lucky that I've gotten to do the things that I've done. I've ended up on a path that I wasn't expecting, but it's been great. If I have any minor regret it's that my role at Pixar has been to leapfrog from movie to movie and I haven't had the satisfaction of working on any of our films from day one all the way through to the end. I wasn't involved in the early stages of Finding Nemo because I was co-directing Monsters, Inc. with Peter Doctor. I don't quite have that satisfaction of coming in on day one, but that'll happen next.

There are five minutes left till the end of the world - what do you do?

AS: Ha, ha!

LU: Wow. Why can't all interviews be like this, this is fun! Like taking a personality test.

AS: I know, but I wish they'd give you some lead time, so you could be clever with your answers. Um... eat as much chocolate as you can. I don't know. For me, I'd just want to spend time with my family. I know that's a dorky, lame answer, but that is what I would want to do.

LU: That would be my answer too, I just don't know what we would do.

AS: I'm trying to think of something witty.

What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given?

LU: For me it's from John [Lasseter], from what I've learned from being at Pixar. It's our mantra now to talk about story. If anything gets compromised, it can't be story. I don't know that I had that attitude before I came to Pixar, because I didn't have the experience. I think the thing that I learned is to value the story and the characters above everything else.

AS: Probably give 200% in everything you do.

And what's the worst piece of advice you've ever been given?

AS: The Diaper Genie. That was definitely the worst piece of advice I've ever been given. [Lee laughs uproariously]

The Diaper Genie?

AS: That the Diaper Genie would improve the diaper changing experience of my children.

What is the Diaper Genie?

AS: Lee has one so he knows what I'm taking about. They're like this little device, like a small trash can. You wadded up the used diaper, you flipped the top, and you stuck it into this long tubed trash liner that would then immediately twist it and seal it so that it would never stink. And it created this line of sausages of used diapers that was supposed to keep the stench away.

LU: But it didn't.

AS: You had to have a PHd to be able to empty the darn thing and set it all up again.

LU: Mine is kind of in the same vein. It's the automatic, self-cleaning cat box.

Which performer would you love to work with?

LU: I've always wanted to work with Crispin Glover. I think it'd be great to work with him someday.

AS: Peter Gabriel.

What film makes you want to spit?

AS: Spit [laughs]. This is like that other one, the overrated director question.

LU: Which film makes you want to spit?

AS: I mean, I know which film makes me want to spit, but do I want to say? You know, we meet these people.

LU: You mean that in the sense that I'm so disgusted that I want to spit...


AS: Lee's going to completely disagree with me, but I'm not a fan of Eraserhead.

Lee Unkrich had great expectorations for M Night Shyamalan's Signs

LU: OK, as you said it I'll say mine. I cannot think of any other film in recent memory that makes me want to spit more than Signs [laughs]. Once in a while a film comes along that seems to capture everybody in the world except for me. That was that film.

What are your three favourite films and why?

AS: I know mine. It's an obvious one but Lawrence Of Arabia is my favourite film. Everything about that movie, it's so epic, it's so captivating. He was at the top of his craft. It's deceivingly simple how direct he makes his movies and in particular that movie. Nobody's been able to match it, I think. I just feel like I've learned something every time I've watched that movie and I've seen that movie so many times.

The next one, this is kind of an odd one, is The Lion In Winter - Katharine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole. It's not the most cinematically engaging movie, but from a character standpoint and from a dialogue standpoint, it is unmatched.

Where I waffle is what's always my third. But, er, this may seem odd but I am a huge fan of Spielberg's work. It's always tough to pick the one you like the most, but the one that I always keep finding myself going back to and watching again and again is Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. I just think that movie captures wonder, not only in life but just the act of being a moviegoer and moviemaking, so much. And it's slightly dark, so I think it's a great movie.

LU: I have complete confidence with my number one. I never go beyond that. My number one film is absolutely The Shining, for a number of reasons. One is it was the first film that made me think about the power that a director had to manipulate an audience. Also, despite the fact that it influenced me to make films, it's the film that most has remained a film to me. I don't think about the art of it as I'm watching it, I'm able to be completely engaged in the story. I just think it's a perfect example of a director being in complete control of every last minute aspect of filming a story and doing it really well.

Beyond that I'll just pluck a couple at random, movies that I really love. I'd put Blue Velvet on that list because it was the first film that I had seen that totally subverted the whole nice quiet Americana theme and went for the darkness underneath. Even though I know that it had been done before, I think Lynch did it in a really visceral way that had never been done before, that was really effective. And it really showed how powerful silence can be in a film. There are a lot of moments in the film when there's nothing going on, but they're incredibly unsettling. Lynch is a master of doing that.

Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love

Then, I don't know. The third one is tough. There was a film that was out last year that I really loved and I've seen again and again and again and I can't seem to get it out of my head, and that's Punch-Drunk Love, the Paul Thomas Anderson film. I was just really, really impressed by how well he cinematically was able to get into the mindset of the character. The entire style of photography, editing, sound design, every last aspect of the film felt like it grew out of the mindset of the Adam Sandler character.

And finally, what do you think of Norman Wisdom?

LU: Norman Wisdom?

He's a British comic from the 50s...

AS: Oh, unfortunately we don't know of him, so I guess we don't think much.

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