Interview with Dan Scanlon, Director of Monsters University…
It was really a treat to hear about the vision of Monsters University straight from the movie’s director himself, Dan Scanlon. Again, I’m including the whole interview (good thing I recorded it) so you can get all the yummy MU deets!
Q: How challenging was it to abandon some things that may have been touched upon on Monster’s, Inc. to make this story work?
Dan Scanlon: So, the specific thing you’re talking about is, in the first film, Mike says to Sulley, “You’ve been jealous of my good looks since the fourth grade”. It’s a thing that a lot of people have brought up, and we certainly noticed it right away when we started developing the idea. It can be really tough when you have a moment like that. We really explored it a lot.
We did several versions of the film where we actually showed the guys meeting when they were younger and one of the things that ended up happening is we ended up realizing that, in order to service that particular line, we were hurting the story. We were hurting the story that we wanted to tell, which was the story of how these guys met, and how they became friends. It became clear that in order to respect that line, we would had to have made Monsters, Elementary, which was not a story we wanted to tell.
So it was really Pete Doctor and John Lassiter who kind of came to me and said you kind of have to let that go. In the long run, it’s going to hurt both movies if you don’t tell this right. And the spirit of that line in the first film was to say, these two guys have known each other a long time. So we felt like it still supports that idea to have them meet in college. So, let’s just imagine that “you’ve been jealous of my good looks since fourth grade” is just a monster expression.
Q: Did any of the designs for the main groups evolve from background characters?
Dan Scanlon: It’s a good question because, as Kori probably mentioned, we did develop all these characters and then started bringing some of them up to the forefront. I don’t know about the actual misfits. The Oozma Kappa characters were designed specifically to be them.
Q: When it comes to fear in kids’ movies, how do you decide how much is too much?
Dan Scanlon: I think initially we always sort of make these movies for ourselves, and our own families in mind as the gauge. But then we do test screenings and things to kind of get a feeling that type of stuff. It is a tricky movie when you’re dealing with the issue of fear. The good thing is, the kids are still with the monsters. The monsters are still these sort of fun characters and, even when there’s intimidating monsters like her (Dean), I think you’re still kind of with your main characters.
It is always a tough line. You want to make sure there’s a story that’s fear we remember from being kids ourselves. It’s thrilling too. It’s those great characters and villains in films we remember from our childhood. They’re pretty scary. You just always want to make sure you’re not hurting the experience by taking too much.
Q: Even though it’s set in college, were you trying to make it an all-around good movie for everyone?
Dan Scanlon: We’re always trying to do that for the most part. But it is tricky. You want it to feel like college, and college is pretty wild, but we want it to be tasteful. I feel like the good thing is they’re monsters, so they can be wild. It felt like we just replaced ‘whatever’ with what you would think of a little kid’s party. They’re running around and hanging from things. And that still works – guys hanging from the ceiling and throwing things around. That became college party, and it still kind of works, even if you took out everything else.
Q: How long did it take for you to get to the college scenario?
Dan Scanlon: I think the reason college came up was, in the first film, in the early stages of the movie, they had actually talked about them being in college. They had versions of the story that they talked about their old college days. And so I think when the idea of going back came up, everyone was, like, oh, of course they went to college. It also gives you an opportunity to just get to see another place for monsters to go that seemed classic and we’d never done a college movie. No one had ever really tried that, so I think that was where the idea came from.
Q: I know that you went to an art college. Is any of the storyline from any of your experiences?
Dan Scanlon: I feel like, when I was in school, I was probably more like Mike. I was pretty focused on trying to get good grades. Or, more like squishy where I just didn’t really have a lot of friends for a while, which I didn’t even realize until someone asked that question. I realized, that sounds so sad.
But I didn’t have a lot of wild, crazy college stuff going on. I saw plenty of it. I guess I feel like that’s what I connect with the movie is more on an emotional level. That feeling of showing up at an art school, and realizing that, though your mom puts your drawings on the refrigerator, you’re actually not the greatest artist in the world. It’s horrifying and t’s humbling, and I think that people have that experience a lot.
That idea of Mike being up against that was what I felt would be the heart of the story, and what I felt connected to me personally. Boy, what do we do when things don’t work out inevitably? It’s so wonderful that we tell people you can be anything you want if you never give up. But sometimes it happens, and are we there for people to kind of help them go, no, maybe you’re not this, but you’re this. And that’s what I love about this story.
Q: When you were researching for the movie, did you look for inspiration from any classic college-type movies?
Dan Scanlon: I don’t know a specific one so much as that, for some reason, we noticed all the classic ones seem to be in the ‘80s. And I don’t know what it was about ‘80s. Our movies, we always try to keep them sort of any time for the most part, or a vague time period. But, we just thought, we just have to put a touch of ‘80s in there. Ever so slightly, when you watch the film you’ll notice these little homages to that.
Q: Why was the dean changed to a female at the last minute and who came up with her name?
Dan Scanlon: I felt like we were missing an opportunity. In the first film, we didn’t get to meet a lot of the scarers, and so we didn’t get to really meet any female scarers. It was an opportunity to open up the world. I just felt really strongly that it would just be great. And so we redesigned her character completely, and it was a lot of work to find her character physically. Helen and I kind of working together, she really found the character.
Her name, uh, I have no idea. One of the writers came up with it, and it just stuck. That’s a good question!
Q: How far along were you when you changed?
Dan Scanlon: I feel like it was maybe a year and a half or two years ago – we were far down the line. You guys met Kori, our producer. On the film, she was always open to a decision that was best for the movie, and that type of decision can seem arbitrary. I love that she was very supportive of me and all of us in feeling like we want to do it even though it’s tough, it’s a lot of work at that stage. But she was always open for changes, as long as they felt like they were right for the story.
Q: How close did the movie end up aligning to your original vision for it?
Dan Scanlon: At Pixar our movies change a lot, and I think that’s a good thing sometimes. We use the time to really make sure we’re telling the best story. In some ways, it was very different. It’s interesting to look back now but the key emotional things didn’t really change that much. I think there’s always something that hooks you into the idea of doing the movie in the first place, and then it feels like the stuff that changes are usually the plot elements around it. They can be much bigger than that, too, but the general feeling you want to get is similar.
But it was very different. It went through a lot of very different changes, and we went through times where we thought maybe it should be Sulley’s story and not Mike’s. Mike’s story kept rising up to the top as the one that was the most important. They tend to change a lot and I think that’s good. I think we want to make sure we’re telling the right story. We don’t want to fall in love with anything but always willing to scrap any idea.
Q: How and why have you decided to market it as creatively as you have?
Dan Scanlon: The sort of college marketing? That was really one of our story artists. She at one point just pitched this idea of, as a teaser, just doing a college commercial. We thought it was such a great idea but, at the time, thought “I don’t think we can do that” or “it would have cost too much money” or something.
The idea kind of went dormant for a while, but we brought it up again to John Lassiter and he loved that idea. John’s always looking for a different way to do things. He really just championed the idea of, “We should do a college commercial, and then we should do a website. We should treat it like it’s a real university.” We all just got so excited about that. John was really adamant about “I don’t want there to be any links to the movie. I want this to just seem real. And don’t talk about when the movie comes out on there.”
That got a lot of people scared, like, “Whoa-what are you talking about? How will anyone know?” He’s like, “Don’t worry about that. That’ll come later. For now, just make this real.” I think it’s a big part of what John is always trying to do, which is make these worlds seem totally real. But we had a blast doing all that stuff.
Q: So are those real? Can we really buy a six-armed sweatshirt?
Dan Scanlon: Yes, you can. It was meant to be a joke at first, the four armed sweatshirts, and they were always going be sold out. Then at one point, John was like, “Can we really make these?” And, they’re like, “All right! We’ll make them for real.” But again, it’s very John to, “Let’s just make ‘em! Who knows? Who cares if no one buys them? They’ll just be real.” So, it’s been great to see people wearing them.
Q: From a merchandising aspect, this is going to be huge. When you’re making a movie like this, how much of those outside factors come into your decisions?
Dan Scanlon: You know, as far as making the movie, really non. It’s sort of something that dawns on you as you start going but it’s never the deciding idea. It’s something that, as we opened up our world, we realized, “Wow, you could really make this stuff. People could be included in that.” That’s what I love about the ads and all the sweatshirts and stuff is people get to be kind of included in the world as if it were real.
Q: What was the process of coming up with the fraternities and sororities names, like Ooma Kappa is OK?
Dan Scanlon: It was actually really weirdly hard. We wanted them to be monsterized, but we just knew we wanted all those (EEK, ROAR) to sound really scary but then theirs (OK) to sound, sort of, small and to be this little extra badge of frustration for them. Strangely difficult to come up with fun. It was fun to just come up with names that also described the fraternities and sororities. You tend to get into kind of a clique and so we wanted them to describe the type of group that they were.
Monsters University will be in theaters on June 21st! For more info check the social links below:
All-expense paid press trip provided by Disney/Pixar. No other compensation is being/was provided. All opinions are 100% my own.