Interview: Director Dan Scanlon Explains How He Left His Mark on ‘Monsters University’

By  · Published on July 1st, 2013

For writer/director Dan Scanlon, Monsters University does not necessarily mark his directorial debut. He wrote, directed, shot, and starring in an independent comedy called Tracy in 2009. But to compare making an independent live-action comedy to being in control of a $100-million plus budgeted animated tentpole film at Pixar – based on an existing and beloved Pixar property, no less – seems like an unfair need to do. In this context, Scanlon is the rookie. Charged with bringing characters like Mike and Sully back to the big screen, the director seemed very aware of the prestige that goes along with directing at one of the film world’s most innovative houses.

Yet, as we sat down at a table just outside The Steve Jobs Building on the Pixar lot to talk about his Pixar directorial debut, the longtime storyboard artist and writer (Cars, Brave) was one other important thing: calm. If there was ever any pressure for the young writer/director, it has long come and gone. At this point, he seems to be enjoying this part of the ride. In our conversation, we talked about the pressure, the innovation and the lessons learned during his first run in the director’s chair at Pixar.

I’m curious about the pressure that comes with being a first time director. We made a joke yesterday when we saw the pool. We had joked, “What, do you need to show your Oscar to get into the pool?” It raises kind of a question about working at Pixar. Do you feel that kind of pressure?

Dan Scanlon: It sounds crazy, but no, not really. I think the reason is because everybody is pretty damn supportive here. I never feel like…I feel like everyone is sort of involved and invested in the movie even if they are not working on the movie. And even having the brain trusts involved in the movie, it feels like they take responsibility for it too. I suppose the pressure might almost be something I feel more as we get closer to release than I did when we were doing it, because I really tried to focus on the problem at hand, which is the story. And I felt like, “All right. Well, that will be what drives me, is just making sure that this story works, and don’t think about anything else. Don’t compare it to anything.”

What do you think was the biggest hurdle story-wise?

The biggest hurdle I think at first was probably the prequel itself, just dealing with the predictability of prequels. But once we realized how to kind of use it to our advantage with Mike’s story, we had different hurdles as we went. Sully himself was a hurdle for a while as a character because you think about Sully in Monsters Inc. before Boo shows up, he’s just a nice guy. That’s not really much of a character. It is the situation with him and Boo that brings out qualities in him.

So, luckily, this being a movie that took place beforehand, we realized we had to change the characters to see how they grow, and so we were able to actually make a little more of Sully than what we had originally thought. But it took a while to figure out what his role in the film needed to be. That was another big hurdle.

Speaking of hurdles, it feels like every time we talk about a Pixar movie we find out that along the way there was some kind of innovation. Something new had to be created to make this movie. What do you feel was the big thing as far as technically?

I don’t know that it… Well, I think the biggest technical thing was just the amount of characters. We had never done anything quite to that level, especially the amount of different rigged characters with different tentacles and legs. Being at a university and wanting to have that kind of diversity in the background was difficult.

We also had a new lighting system this time around, which wasn’t necessarily a necessity of the story, but I did think that it really helped ground the story in reality, this sort of rich quality that the light had. Those were kind of the main things.

I was actually watching the commentary for the original movie. I remember the story that Pete Docter told about having one moment where he animated it himself, Sully’s expression at the end. Do you have a moment like that in this movie?

No. I was an animator for a while early on, but a 2D animator. I never learned how to do computer animation, and I still haven’t. Scott Clarke, the animation lead, was like, “I could teach you how to … you could make a ball roll or something in the background.” I thought, “Eh…” I really didn’t have time. It was so fast. I never really did anything like that. There was one thing I wanted to do but I just didn’t have time, which was the scene where Mike was walking down the hall and there were those paintings of all the great scarers. I really wanted to paint one of those. I don’t know that I would have been good enough to pull it off, but that was the one thing I was going to try to do and I just didn’t have time.

Kind of along those lines, you are dealing with a preexisting universe. You are dealing with a huge creative team. What is the Dan Scanlon stamp on this movie?

Well, I would hope… I mean, for one I don’t know how even important that is. I feel like we kind of make these movies together for the most part. We are a creative collective. But I don’t know. I would hope maybe humor. I tend to like dry humor. I feel like we have a lot of that going on. And then heart. I like a movie that makes me… that has some emotion to it. I want a movie that that’s roller coaster a little bit. But yeah, I guess those would be the elements if there are any.

Billy Crystal said almost the exact same thing: humor.

Oh, really?

Yeah. Right after he called you a hipster. Now, Revenge of the Nerds is easy. When you watch this movie you’re like, “Oh, that’s totally just like that.” But what are some of the other movies that were drawn from?

You know, we watched a lot of movies. We watched a ton of college movies. I don’t think that we, in any way, intentionally tried to draw from one over the other. But we wanted to get that feel of those sort of ’80s classic college romps. And John was really good about pushing us to really get the college aspect in there.

But the trick was that there were very few college movies that also had any kind of heart to them. They were usually about partying. So that was a little bit trickier to kind of reinvent, well what would that be about? And self-discovery is certainly a big part of college. So we had to fly a little more solo on that part.

Is there anything that would surprise us that you guys sat down and watched?

Not necessarily. Well, you know, oftentimes, I can’t think of an example, but I think what would surprise people is we don’t just watch the genre. The genre is just a part of it. That’s really just to get sort of entertainment…Actually, it’s really just to get kind of what are the paradigms of these things? What are the building blocks that they all follow?

But we also watched movies with the same themes or similar themes. So we might watch prequels for that part of the genre, but we might also watch movies about people who have kind of impossible dreams. So, sometimes that makes for weird movies. And sometimes they’re not good movies. A lot of times you learn as much or more from kind of a bad movie because it kind of spells it all out for you, like, “Oh, yeah. Now I see this beat coming.” I think good movies have the same structure as bad movies, they just hide it better.

For a first time feature director at Pixar, what would you say is the biggest thing you learned through this process?

There’s a number of things, but I think to keep moving forward. There’s some real dark days where you just feel like the story is falling apart in every one. Just keep moving forward, even when you are bluffing, even when you don’t quite know what is going to happen next. Trust your leads, the people that you have around you. Follow the spirit of the note sometimes over the actual suggestions. Sometimes people give a suggestion and people want to take it as law. Just follow the spirit of it. There’s a reason they are poking at it. That doesn’t have to be the solution. Those are kind of the main things. And then, just every decision goes back to the story. Don’t worry about… You don’t have to make decisions just because. You don’t have to make decisions just based on your own personal taste. I mean you certainly do that, but when you can, always make a decision based on a story reason.

Monsters University is in theaters now.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)