As I sat braced for my ten-minute conversation with Andrew Stanton, the writer and director of my favorite Pixar movie, Finding Nemo, I tried to imagine how I might make something useful out of such a short span of time. I was a bit anxious about meeting one of my heroes. There was so much I wanted to say to thank him. Not many entertainers can cast a spell over audiences of children and adults the way Stanton can — only a few other names come to mind: Jim Henson, Brad Bird, and once upon a time Steven Spielberg. I wanted to make these fleeting seconds count.
For the record, I’d arranged the interview through Grace Hill Media in order to gain some quotes from Stanton for a larger article on WALL•E for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, with intent to share a transcription of the interview here at Looking Closer.
So, poised with my questions, I prepared to get right to business. But when Stanton joined me on the line, he struck me speechless with something completely unexpected. He told me that he recently finished reading my “memoir of dangerous moviegoing,” Through a Screen Darkly. As I tried to collect my wits, he shared a few thoughts on the book. I’m keeping those words offline, as they weren’t the point of the interview, but let me just say that Stanton is a gracious and generous man. What a strange, small world we live in. I’m shaken at the idea of a magician like Stanton reading my fumbling attempts to express my appreciation for excellence and artistry like his. I’ll cherish that surprise for the rest of my life.
Alas, the clock was ticking. So, as much as I wanted to discuss his experience with the book, I went scrambling back to my short list of questions about his newest film, an extraordinary science fiction adventure called WALL•E, which is about so much more than the cute little robot that we’ve seen in the teasers.
I stammered through those questions, but here are some highlights from our conversation:
Overstreet: I know I’m not the only one who’s been charmed by the teasers and trailers for WALL•E. But I was not prepared for this film. It caught me by surprise. You really took the audience out of the Pixar “comfort zone,” so to speak, and into some new territory, and a vision of the future that was saddening and bleak.
Stanton: Well… it’s sci-fi. I don’t know any great sci-fi movies that aren’t bleak in their backdrop. The initial conceit that I had in 1994 was “the last robot on earth” — just that sentence — and there’s just nothing optimistic about that sentence.
And yet, in a weird way, I think that backdrop of bleakness is a major factor in why you like WALL•E. He’s this light that shines in the middle of all this sort of gloom.
Overstreet: To tell that kind of story on a platform the size of Pixar’s seems risky. As a storyteller, you’re looking for what will reach our minds and hearts. But most movie producers, on the other hand, are focused on the bottom line. This movie was a gamble. Did anybody push back, or get uncomfortable, at any point along the way, when they saw where you wanted that little robot to lead us?
Stanton: I am so proud to say, Nope! That’s what’s wonderful about Pixar. It’s an artist that runs the studio, and Steve Jobs is practically an artist himself in a CEO’s clothing. They completely saw how great of a film this could be if done right. And the only question was, Can we pull it off? Do we have enough chops and enough know-how after all these years to do something that would be more challenging to execute? Nobody was put off by it. They were all engaged by it.
Overstreet: There’s some debate online as to whether WALL•E is one giant contradiction… whether it’s fair for Disney, the great empire of merchandising, to put out a movie that asks if we’ve gone too far in answering our consumer impulses.
Stanton: I do think it’s a cautionary tale about taking anything too far. I wasn’t necessarily pushing “anti-consumerism,” I was just pushing against something that has gone to an extreme.
It’s fine if it brings a little bit of conscience to a large corporation, even if it’s us.
I know that [people at Disney] have tried to be a little bit more “green-friendly,” and it’s made them more conscientious in the making of a lot of this stuff over the duration of it. But again, I’m not wagging fingers.
To be honest, I reverse-engineered the whole idea. My first idea was “the last robot on earth.” I knew I wanted him to be a trash robot because that would allow him to be able to go through the evidence of humanity and be able to convey that without having to use dialogue. Trash is very visual. I was raised in the 70s where I was told not to litter every ten minutes on TV. So I went backwards from that and I had to go “Okay, I still can’t talk about it. I still have to just get it in the first fifteen minutes going through this movie, so how would you explain so much stuff?” And I decided, “Well, we just bought too much.” So I reverse-engineered it. It wasn’t that I had an agenda of any sort.
Overstreet: Entertainment and storytelling — and I’m thinking especially of entertainment crafted for kids these days — seems to be so frantic, so desperate to hold our attention.
Stanton: Yeah, I think they completely underestimate kids all the time.
Overstreet: One of the things that I admire about Pixar and also the work of Hayao Miyazaki, is your willingness to allow some quiet, meditative moments in the middle of all the action. Is it hard for you as a storyteller when you know that the expectation now is for non-stop stimulation?
Stanton: No, because that’s an outside expectation. That may be true for other entities, but I’ve never felt that in-house. It’s a philosophy we’ve never agreed with. Fortunately, I’m surrounded by other filmmakers who look at the world the same way I do. We just are still very in tune with ourselves as kids and what kind of movies we loved, and they’re the kinds of movies we’re making.
Overstreet: How do you approach the challenge of being meaningful in entertainment without preaching?
Stanton: I knew I was playing with fire by having elements that could [make people] accuse me of preaching, but frankly I figured that if I was always doing it from an honest place, that I was only using things in order to make the story clear and make the love story and the theme of the movie as rock-solid as I could, then the smart people would get it. So… that’s my only defense. I hate going to a movie and being preached to. If it emotionally gets to somebody, then I’ll take credit for it, because I was trying to go for as much emotional punch as possible.
Overstreet: If you were going to address a conference of storytellers about making great family entertainment, what habits would you encourage them to develop, or to break?
Stanton: I think it’s much easier to go to an honest place and make the kind of movie you want to see yourself. Listen to the audience member in yourself. What is it that you want to see? What is it that you’re not getting? Then go and make that the best film you can. Then, it’s much easier to weed through it, or to refine it, if you find that there are things missing or there are things that might be offensive. But the minute you go backwards from that and you start trying to second-guess what everybody wants or should do, then you’re guaranteeing and ensuring that you’re going to make something that’s inferior.
Overstreet: Thank you, Andrew, for your time, and for WALL•E. It’s such a brave film, and I wish you the best with it. I’m off to see it again.
My full review of the movie will be up this weekend.
But in the meantime… what are other people saying about WALL•E?
Many will attempt to describe WALL-E with a one-liner. It’s R2-D2 in love. 2001: A Space Odyssey starring The Little Tramp. An Inconvenient Truth meets Idiocracy on its way to Toy Story. But none of these do justice to a film that’s both breathtakingly majestic and heartbreakingly intimate—and, for a good long while, absolutely bereft of dialogue save the squeals, beeps, and chirps of a sweet, lonely robot who, aside from his cockroach pet, is the closest thing to the last living being on earth.
It’s more than a little ironic, then, that the studio’s greatest achievement to date is a movie that is, on one level, about technology—and that the picture it paints is not a pretty one. WALL•E, from director Andrew Stanton of Finding Nemo, is arguably the purest work of hard science fiction to appear on the big screen in ten or fifteen years, and the world that it creates is bleaker and more dystopian than in any American animated film you care to name.
This is science fiction the way science fiction is meant to be. It creates a world that’s clearly not our own, but it’s totally believable as the place we’re headed, maybe a hundred years down the line. But it’s not cynical or misanthropic; like the best sci-fi, it uses these imaginative conceits to ask big questions about our world and our humanity. It’s a movie about love amidst chaos, about the dangers of unchecked greed and the forces that overcome it.
And it is absolutely not a political movie, no matter how hard a small faction of political bloggers might try to pin it as one. Yes, it has a message about the environment—take care of it. And yes, it has a message about capitalism—too much of it can be sinful. These aren’t political points; they’re very basic moral ones, and no rational Christian has any grounds on which to object to them.
But even more than a great work of sci-fi, this is a great work of cinema. WALL•E is Pixar’s boldest, bravest film yet, opening with half an hour in which no dialogue occurs. Much of the story is told, then, only through images, and in this regard, it’s the most sophisticated and subtle film Pixar has yet made. There are moments of inspired visual humor, and of poignant visual metaphors. There are small gestures and little moments that say more than a script ever could. It’s so gloriously evocative, surely it deserves to be called poetry.
The movie is more fundamentally about what it is to exist and believe in hope. Every science fiction film with a desolate Earth as a backdrop does not make that its main focus, and neither does WALL*E. I’ve let WALL*E roll around in my head for around a week and a half since seeing it, and I can’t shake it (a good thing). It would be one thing if I were exploding with praise the day after seeing it, but the fact that it’s still as captivating almost two weeks later, to me, means the movie has to be the real deal. This movie falls under the Important Cinema banner regardless of what piece of its narrative you fall in love with. This really could be one of the movies people will still argue about in 25, 50, or 100 years.
The plot, when it finally arrives, has a few unforgivable holes, but the thing never stops being a marvel to behold, and the concept holds steady. When it comes to moral convictions, Pixar’s screenplays always score where most mainstream family stories fail. “Change is nature” formed the heart of Ratatouille. “They keep creating new standards to celebrate mediocrity,”‘ fumed The Incredibles. There’s a darker contemporary hook in Wall*E when a former Earth leader (Fred Willard) encourages his minions to “‘stay the course,” but that was Pixar’s rhetoric before it belong to the Bush administration. Thirteen years after Toy Story, Pixar has stayed its own unique course.
When Jeffrey Wells decided to make a fuss about Andrew Stanton talking to Christianity Today‘s Mark Moring, I joined a few others in responding appropriately. And there was eventually a sharp reply from Mark Moring himself.
More reviews of the film are piling up at GreenCine Daily.
Hancock, meanwhile, ain’t lookin’ so good.