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Toy Story 3 EXCLUSIVE – Director Lee Unkrich on living up to high expectations

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Toy Story 3 - Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Aliens, Slinky Dog, Rex, Jessie, Hamm, Bullseye, Mr Potato Head, and Mrs Potato Head
Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Aliens, Slinky Dog, Rex, Jessie, Hamm, Bullseye, Mr Potato Head, and Mrs Potato Head © Disney/Pixar

Eleven years after Toy Story 2 enchanted audiences, the sequel finally comes out this week – and yes, it’s another winner from Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios. The movie is directed by Lee Unkrich, who began his Pixar career as a film editor on Toy Story and went on to co-direct Toy Story 2.

In the final sequel Andy is about to leave for college, and his loyal toys, including Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tim Allen), due to a mishap, find themselves in Sunnyside Daycare, where they are practically abused by the children. Can they escape their fate and find a happier life?

I spoke with Lee Unkrich today about one of the most anticipated movies of the year.

It’s been 11 years since Toy Story 2, and the fans of the franchise are really awaiting this movie. As someone who loved the first two movies, I was a little worried about this one. Was it stressful making this third film knowing the fans will be expecting so much?

Toy Story 3 - Woody, Buzz Lightyear and Jessie
Woody, Buzz Lightyear and Jessie © Disney/Pixar

If you were worried, imagine how worried I was. John (Lasseter) asked me to direct the movie about four years ago and when he asked me I was immediately very flattered and excited at the opportunity, but that was immediately followed by a wave of nausea.

I just realized it was a Herculean task ahead of me, not only to take the next Pixar film, which is already pressure enough for any of us working at Pixar, but also to direct a sequel to two of the most beloved films ever made.

I knew I ran the very real risk of it being a sequel that people wouldn’t be happy about, and being forever seen as the person who (ruined) the series.

I did my best to surround myself with really great people and I worked tirelessly for a long time to make a movie that was worthy of sitting alongside the other two films.

What took so long to make the third movie? There was only four years between Toy Story and Toy Story 2.

Toy Story 3 - Buzz Lightyear and Andy, Woody
Buzz Lightyear, Andy and Woody © Disney/Pixar

We wanted to make Toy Story 3 right after 2, but there were a lot of sticky contractual issues between Disney and Pixar at the time that kept us from making Toy Story 3.

We moved on to other projects and it sat on the self for a long time. But eventually, of course, Disney bought us, and when that happened that log jam went away and we were finally able to start making the movie.

What was the balancing act that you had to do to keep the familiar aspects of the original that the people loved but make the movie different?

Well, just from a technological, visual standpoint, I wanted the film to look as gorgeous as anything we’ve been making lately, like Up. At the same time, it needed to look like a Toy Story film.

We had a lot of conversations early on about how to do that, and what we arrived at was we very carefully followed the original design philosophy of the world, the look of the movie.

We then took advantage of our latest tools for doing the lighting and texturing, and the animators are way better than they were back then, so everything was subtly better.

After so many years, did Tom Hanks or Tim Allen have a problem getting back into character?

Not at all, the actors are fabulous and they have been bugging us for years about when we were going to do Toy Story 3, because they really wanted to do it. When we finally called them to say it was happening, each actor stepped into the recording studio and it was as if no time had past at all, they jumped right back in and were happy to be there and everybody did a great job.

Do you find that sometimes they’re very protective of their character and they say, ‘I’m sorry, I know my ‘toy’ better than you do?’

(He laughs) They know the role that I’ve had in the three films, and since I edited the first two movies they know that I’m greatly responsible for the final performance of theirs that’s up on the screen

They completely trust me, and nobody has pulled any of that. It’s interesting because when they do these movies they’re only doing a series of maybe five recording sessions and each one is a few hours long. I’m living with the movie for four solid years, in their lives it’s a blip.

They really have to just trust us that we know what we need and what we want from them.

In the film, the day school the toys end up in is like a prison. I know you watched a lot of prison movies, was there one that influenced the look of the school or one of the gags in the movie?

Toy Story 3 - Aliens, Bullseye, Jessie, Mrs Potato Head, Mr Potato Head, Rex, Hamm, Slinky Dog, Woody, Buzz Lightyear
Aliens, Bullseye, Jessie, Mrs Potato Head, Mr Potato Head, Rex, Hamm, Slinky Dog, Woody, Buzz Lightyear © Disney/Pixar

We had a lot of fun finding the visual similarities between preschools and prisons, they have security cameras everywhere, you’ve got an exercise year in the back, it just feels like a prison for toddlers.

All the prison movies influenced it in little ways, but you’ll probably see some overt references to Cool Hand Luke in the movie. The scene where Mr. Potato Head is getting thrown in the box, and also there’s a scene where Buzz Lightyear is kind of walking around reading the rules of the prison, which is absolutely an homage to Cool Hand Luke.

The visual of Mr Potato Head being stuck on a tortilla was brilliant. I almost fell out of my seat laughing. Where did that idea come from?

That came very early on when we first kicking around ideas. We were having a gag session; we were talking about different ways to have fun during the prison escape. And somebody said, ‘Maybe we should try having Mr. Potato Head stick his parts in something else.’ That ended up being the tortilla idea.

You have another iconic toy in this – Barbie’s boyfriend, Ken, who is hilarious. Did you think of Michael Keaton voicing the role because he’d done a part in Cars for Pixar?

Toy Story 3 - Voices of Michael Keaton and Jodi Benson
Barbie, KenIconic swinging bachelor Ken (voice of Michael Keaton) is smitten when he spots Barbie (voice of Jodi Benson) amongst the “Toy Story” gang © Disney/Pixar

That was certainly part of it, because we had worked with him on Cars. John Lasseter had a great time working with him, and he’s just great at improv and has so much energy in the recording sessions.

We thought of Ken first, and we started to explore what his personality might be, because Ken has never really had a personality, he’s just Barbie’s boyfriend. When we take an existing toy and try to give it personality we try to let the personality stem from the true nature of the toy.

In the case of Ken we thought, ‘Well, how does it feel for this male toy, to be a girl’s toy, it’s only played with by girls.’ And on top of that he’s really just an accessory, he’s not an equal to Barbie, he’s no more important than a purse or a pair of shoes to her, and that would have to give someone (a feeling of) great insecurity.

We kicked some of those ideas around and we came up with dressing him up in lots of different outfits, and thought he could maybe be one of those shallow vapid clothes-horse kind of characters. That led us to Michael Keaton; we just thought he could make it really funny, which he did.

Last year you, and all the directors from Pixar, went to the Venice Film Festival and you all received the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement Award. What do you remember most about that evening?

The whole trip was amazing. It’s the kind of thing you remember the rest of your life. We’re all relatively young. I’m 42 years old, most of my colleagues are around the same age, and we joked that we still have time in our lives to change jobs and try to get a lifetime achievement in something else.

It was amazing receiving that award from George Lucas. It was incredible and if things we have now were to go away, which I hope it never does, we still have that as an emblem of a lot of really special moments and experiences that we’ve had as a result of making these films.