The Badass Interview: MONSTERS UNIVERSITY Director Dan Scanlon

Devin grills the man behind Pixar's first prequel.

Let me tell you a secret: the Pixar campus is pretty much a nice version of an office campus, full stop. If there are magical areas of wonder and delight they were kept from me. Don't get me wrong - it's a really nice place, and there's a big swimming pool and a giant sized Luxo lamp, but you know, it's a tech campus. It's the sort of place where people will breathlessly tell you that Steve Jobs personally selected the color of the bricks in a certain building, making you think how insufferable working for him must have been, although they're all wide eyed about it. Which I guess also makes it a pretty standard tech campus.

That doesn't make it any less exciting to go there and see a movie in their screening room. When I was invited up to the Monsters University junket I immediately said yes and the fact that I got a one on one interview with director Dan Scanlon sweetened the pot. Scanlon was a storyboard artist and animator who joined Pixar in 2001, where he worked on Cars and Toy Story 3 as a story artist. He graduated to co-directing with Mater and the Ghostlight, a Cars short. Monsters University is his first directing gig... and Pixar's first prequel.

The film finds Mike and Sully meeting for the first time in college (a continuity error? Read on!) and joining a dork frat filled with misfit monsters. One of them is a guy named Arch, voiced by Charlie Day, who has a memorable line of dialogue during a chase scene: "I can't go back to prison!" Day himself mused that Arch might be the only Pixar character to serve time, so that's where I started with Scanlon.

Charlie Day has said that he can’t think of another Pixar character who has been incarcerated. In this movie there’s the scene at the rush where they’re drinking out of red Solo cups, and everybody knows what you drink out of red Solo cups at frat parties. This feels in some ways like the edgiest Pixar movie - was that a line you were trying to get up close to?

I don’t think so. We knew, in taking on a college movie, that there would be some of that. The thing I find more subversive than the red cups or the jail is that college movies are all about rebellion and not always doing things the way the system expects or society expects or even your parents expect, so it is interesting to me making a family college movie. We did still make it about rebellion - the way the story ends and some of the choices the main characters make, it’s not really going to be every parent’s dream of the way their kids will behave in college. My hope is that it inspires people to be more independent and not always have to follow ‘the path’ - ‘this is the way things are done for everybody’ - I think that the movie hopefully inspires people to say they can go down a different path.

But the Toy Story 3 characters were incarcerated. Technically. By Lotso.

It was previously established that Mike and Sully were friends since they were kids. You could have gone schlockier and made Monsters PreSchool or Monsters High, why did you go University?

Mike says in Monsters, Inc ‘You’ve been jealous of my good looks since the 4th grade.’ We did try versions honoring that line, but we ran into the problems you mentioned - you have to make it Monsters Elementary, which was not at all what we wanted to do. You couldn’t have a real relationship for them. We talked about doing a version where they met young and then they go to college and remeet, which was just bending over backwards to honor a line whose story purpose is to establish that they’ve known each other a long time. It was really John [Lasseter] and Pete [Docter] who said ‘You’ve got to ignore that line.’

To answer your question the main reason we set it in college is we wanted them to be old enough to have a major relationship change. College is a time - whether you went or not - where you really deal with self-discovery, with how much harder life is than you thought it would be. We wanted to make it adult enough.

We live in a world where people will go on the internet to complain about the continuity of that line.

WE DO?!?

Is there going to have to be some comic book tie-in to explain why he said that, or is it okay to just let it go?

I think it’s okay to let it go because the spirit is the same. But if it does bother you - and it bothers people here! There are some people like, ‘I know why we did it, but ARGH!’ - we always thought maybe it’s a monster expression. They just say ‘You’ve been jealous of my looks since the 4th grade!’ I’m going to start saying that to people I don’t know.

9 times out of 10 prequels suck because you have to hit beats that are referencing the other movie. They shove in scenes that recall story beats so you have the ‘That’s the first time he said that!’ or ‘That’s the first time he jumped that way!’ bits shoehorned in. Obviously the fact that you’re willing to ignore that line shows your approach to prequels.

We wanted this movie to stand on its own. We wanted it to be a movie where if you hadn’t seen the other film you don’t feel like you missed something. The few cameos we have are worked in at the end of the movie, and hopefully they still make sense. We didn’t want to get too wink-wink with it and we wanted to stay with the story as much as we could.

I hope people walk out of this movie going ‘I want to watch Monsters, Inc’ now.

When Monsters University was announced there was a collective sigh, where people were like “Oh it’s PREQUELS now?’ What do you say to people who are worried about Pixar heading into a phase where it’s the franchising of concepts that take precedence?

I would say... if you like us, trust us? We wouldn’t do anything we didn’t feel we had a strong idea behind. We honest to god love these characters and want to spend more time with them, and if we didn’t we wouldn’t. Honestly, we come out with more movies more often. We have a luxury of doing sequels that we never had before - we have the opportunity to make as many original movies as we want to make, but we also have the time to explore sequels and prequels. I get that people sometimes feel like it’s a rush of sequels, but there is the same amount of original films coming.

Following up on that is there the possibility of returning to these characters? Could Monsters Retirement Community bookend it all?

I really have no idea. We focused so much on this one that we just want to take a vacation.

Comments