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Mr. Beaks Goes UP with Pixar's Pete Docter!

Put simply, Pete Docter's UP is the tale of an adventurer who travels via house to the jungles of South America. That's probably unique enough, but here's the kicker: our daring protagonist is the kind of fellow who pays half-price at the movies and eats his dinner at 3:30 in the afternoon. Pixar's never faced a greater marketing challenge than Carl Fredrickson, an eighty-two-year-old man (voiced by the once and future Lou Grant, Ed Asner) who evades the banally evil clutches of a retirement community by rigging up thousands of balloons to his soon-to-be-demolished home and - improbably, wondrously - taking flight. For Carl, a former balloon salesman, this is one last chance to make good on a promise to his (now deceased?) childhood sweetheart that they'd go exploring in the wilds of Venezuela. It's also an unexpected opportunity to get harassed nonstop by Russell, a young wilderness ranger who's racked up every merit badge imaginable save for "Assisting the Elderly". At Comic Con on Saturday, Docter unveiled two scenes: Carl's escape and a short bit that finds Carl and Russell hauling the hovering house through a thick patch of rain forest. The former is gorgeously done. Since a balloon takeoff is a little less raucous than, say, a space shuttle igniting, Docter adopts a light, whimsical tone; as the house floats by apartment building and skyscrapers, regular folk tend to react with quiet astonishment (save for a little girl, who giddily marvels as the balloons cast a vibrant, swirling reflection of colors across her bedroom wall). It's a nicely understated sequence, one that appeared to be concluding with Carl settling into his easy chair for a midday nap. But then there's a knock at the door. At 19,000 feet. Carl does eventually reach his South American destination, and that's where the action of UP really gets going. As for the "how", "what" and "why", Docter's got until May 2009 to mete out those details. For now, he's just giving us a taste. And while the character decision has me baffled, I can't wait to see how Docter and the other storytelling geniuses at Pixar are going to make it work - because if the previous nine films have taught us anything, we know they're definitely going to make it work. After the presentation, I got the opportunity to briefly chat with Docter, who's best known as the mastermind of MONSTERS, INC. He'd apparently just flown in from Tahiti, so we began by commiserating over our shared exhaustion.

Beaks: I've seen enough. Comic Con is fun, but it's also just... exhausting.

Pete: It's like Andreas Deja. Do you know him?

Beaks: Yeah.

Pete: He has this amazing collection of animation rough drawings. I went to look at them, and after a while I was just overwhelmed. "I love it! I can't get enough! And yet I'm just... (eyes rolling back into his head)."

Beaks: So, I first want to say that your presentation was fantastic even though you shattered my dream that you might be headed in a Russ Meyer direction with UP.

Pete: (Laughs) Oh, yeah.

Beaks: People see that title, and they wonder. But it has been a very mysterious project. The title is so wide open.

Pete: That is the intrigue of it, I guess.

Beaks: And now that I've seen it... let's just say I wasn't expecting an eighty-two-year-old man as a protagonist. This has got to be the toughest sell in the history of Pixar. Where did Carl Fredricksen come from?

Pete: In our culture, it seems like old people are relegated to... "Go live in your old folks home, and stay out of my life." Which is really too bad because, as I've found in the real world, when you meet what looks like a little old man... you get to talking to him, and you're like, "Shoot, this guy created Dumbo!" I'm talking about Joe Grant, who's a guy I got to work with. He had all these amazing stories. "When I was sitting with Walt and Stokowski about the music..." You're like, "Oh, my gosh!" These rich pasts that these people have, these amazing stories... let's tap into that. There's this rich texture. Even with the way people move: we have challenges in terms of "Okay, Carl needs to get from this side of the screen to that side of the screen." You don't want to sit there for twelve minutes and wait for him to cross, but that's what it takes. He moves slow. We're having to figure out what's the most entertaining way [to watch an old man walk across the screen]. Do you cut? There are certain limitations. But I love embracing those shoulders. It's like with Mike [Wazowski from MONSTERS, INC.]. He has one eye. How do you make him shrug? How does he sniff his armpit? He can't turn his head because he has no head. It's his whole body. He doesn't have a nose either. So we figured out a way to do it. Old men are a similar thing; there are certain challenges, but that's what makes Carl very specific and very fun.

Beaks: Where did you start with the script: the character of Carl or the idea of a South American adventure?

Pete: It was really more the character on this film. It's been very character driven. We also had other thoughts of where they should be. We initially had other thoughts of where they should be. We knew that we needed some place where this guy got stuck, an isolated location. I was thinking of a tropical island in the South Pacific, but that's been done so many times. So we were trying to figure out if there was some other place, some other way to fulfill our story needs that's maybe a little more unique, and that's when we settled on this.

Beaks: The South American milieu looks spectacular, but it also comes with its own cinematic history. I loved the scene with Carl and Russell hauling the house through the jungle FITZCARRALDO-style.

Pete: Yeah, exactly!

Beaks: Was that a reference?

Pete: Well, as we developed it, someone asked, "Hey, have you seen FITZCARRALDO?" So we watched it, and... yeah, there are some similar things. We also looked at THE MISSION, with this guy who feels like he has to punish himself, that he's paying penance for something he didn't fulfill. That's one of the themes in the film: dealing with unfinished business.

Beaks: Speaking of THE MISSION, do you think Michael Giacchino might incorporate elements of that great Ennio Morricone score?

Pete: (Laughs) It's going to be fun to talk to him. He hasn't started on it yet because he's still busy on STAR TREK. But there's a wide variety of story needs for this film, from comedy to real drama to pathos to action... it's going to be fun. I'm looking forward to it.

Beaks: And I get the feeling that you just gave us the bare minimum with these two characters. You're holding back a great deal, right?

Pete: This is our debutante ball, so you don't want to show everything. You just want to tease a little. As we get more footage prepared, we'll talk more.

Beaks: There's one thing I've always wondered about Pixar's writing process. You addressed it a little at the panel, but I just wanted to press a little. It's about writing to theme. The films always have an unmistakable message being conveyed. It's not heavy-handed, but it's definitely there: alternative energy in MONSTERS, INC., consumerism and sloth, both intellectual and physical, in WALL-E. I know you guys say that you don't think about such things, but they're integral parts of your films.

Pete: It would be somewhat irresponsible for me to say we don't think about it. We definitely have to, but we don't set out with (playing the scold) "You know, what America needs today is to be conscious of the energy crisis!" We're an entertainment company. We think of it from a character standpoint and a story standpoint. "What do we need to tell the story?" In the case of MONSTERS, INC., that was an impetus behind why a bad guy would break the rules. We came up with the energy crisis as a way of saying, "Okay, this is what's propelling this character." We did a similar thing with WALL-E. It's really all character driven as opposed to feeling like I'm making a social statement. But hopefully they do both.

I concluded by fishing for some second-hand details on Andrew Stanton's JOHN CARTER, and got absolutely nothin'. Oh, well. As for UP, I can't for the life of me figure out where this film is going, and I love it. I imagine we'll get something a little more substantial when BOLT hits in November. Faithfully submitted, Mr. Beaks

Readers Talkback
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  • July 27, 2008, 2:11 p.m. CST


    by Preditor74


  • July 27, 2008, 2:11 p.m. CST


    by Preditor74

    HEre I am

  • July 27, 2008, 2:11 p.m. CST


    by Preditor74

    All by myself

  • July 27, 2008, 2:12 p.m. CST


    by Preditor74

    maybe I can start touching myself

  • July 27, 2008, 2:12 p.m. CST


    by Preditor74

    Yeah...good thing Im alone

  • July 27, 2008, 2:12 p.m. CST


    by Preditor74

    Man this is getting boring

  • July 27, 2008, 2:12 p.m. CST


    by Preditor74


  • July 27, 2008, 2:13 p.m. CST


    by Preditor74

    Hello Preditor

  • July 27, 2008, 2:13 p.m. CST


    by Preditor74

    Who said that?

  • July 27, 2008, 2:13 p.m. CST


    by Preditor74

    Who said that???

  • July 27, 2008, 2:13 p.m. CST


    by Preditor74

    It's me...your inner monologue.

  • July 27, 2008, 2:14 p.m. CST


    by Preditor74

    Have you been here the whole time i.m?

  • July 27, 2008, 2:14 p.m. CST


    by Preditor74

    Yes...and I saw that mess you made all over the POST TALKBACk button

  • July 27, 2008, 2:15 p.m. CST


    by Preditor74

    Sorry I.M....all I had was a sock...and I kind of like it

  • July 27, 2008, 2:15 p.m. CST


    by Preditor74

    I don't care. That doesn't excuse you squirting hair gel all over it.

  • July 27, 2008, 2:15 p.m. CST


    by Preditor74

    Hair gel

  • July 27, 2008, 2:16 p.m. CST


    by O_Goncho

  • July 27, 2008, 2:16 p.m. CST


    by Preditor74 wipe it up....WITH YOUR TONGUE!

  • July 27, 2008, 2:16 p.m. CST


    by Preditor74


  • July 27, 2008, 2:17 p.m. CST

    Sorry, chum.

    by O_Goncho

    Why do the character decisions 'baffle' you Beaks?

  • July 27, 2008, 2:20 p.m. CST

    I think we need to give Pixar The Benefit.

    by Redfive!

    I thought a Rat who wants to cook was a far fetched idea along with this,but That ended up being one of my favorites EVER,so I have 100% faith this will be nothing but SPECTACULAR.

  • July 27, 2008, 2:25 p.m. CST

    Hope John Carter of Mars will kick ass.

    by SpencerTrilby

    As for Up, it looks nice but I wish they put together something more... substantial as a teaser.

  • July 27, 2008, 2:48 p.m. CST

    Pixar is far from perfect

    by Rupee88

    some of their movies have been boring and some of have been dumb. The have made 3 or 4 great ones, which is still an amazing batting average. But they are incredibly overrated. Kung Fu Panda was about as good as Wall-E.

  • July 27, 2008, 3:30 p.m. CST

    by fluffybunnywhiskers

    Just reading the first few paragraphs of that description: lonely old balloon salesman that flies around with his house tethered to a load of balloons to make good on a promise to his lost wife? That sounds AWESOME! Beaks what are you thinking? The old man premise sounds great, especially looking at that short Pixar did of the "two" oldies playing Chess in the park. This sounds phenomenal.

  • July 27, 2008, 3:31 p.m. CST

    Panda as good as WALL-E?

    by tiltandflip

    Kung Fu Panda was a ton of fun, but I personally wouldn't put it on the same level as WALL-E. But that's just my opinion.

  • July 27, 2008, 3:31 p.m. CST


    by Pennsy

    The Dark Knight's estimated US boxoffice gross as of this weekend. It's more than halfway there already. Titanic, after a decade, finally has a challenger for its crown as the highest moneymaking film of them all. (all adjusted-for-inflation-aholics avoid this thread, then ;))

  • July 27, 2008, 4:02 p.m. CST

    come on, its pixar!

    by Obscura

    They wont let it out of the door unless its perfect! if they wanted make a quick hit they wouldnt be using an 80+ year old character. They're in the buisness of manking money just like any company, but they know the quality is the best way to get that. worked for em so far, we have no reason to doubt them.

  • July 27, 2008, 4:31 p.m. CST

    How can you guys want a substantial teaser?

    by Evil Hobbit

    It's simply a tease! The whole point of it is just to show a single image to let you know there's something coming 'up'. Nothing more, it's not ment to be substantial, it's only to show a glimps and then have you go like uhm -- what did I just see? Is it good? What? Oh well, we'll see. But that's just enough to get your interest and it's build to do nothing more then that.

  • July 27, 2008, 6:39 p.m. CST

    Ok, but South America is not a place full of jungles

    by ludmir88

    or even full of tribes or drug dealers. I love the american ignorance, just keep it that way.

  • July 27, 2008, 9:46 p.m. CST

    No jungles?!?

    by snowflake

    I may be missing something, but isn't the Amazon, like, the largest jungle in, like, the entire world? (with the most undiscovered tribes also) By the way, the clips for Up looked great. Bolt looked funny also.

  • July 27, 2008, 11:20 p.m. CST


    by BadMrWonka

    if I said LA is a place filled with gang violence and people talking on their cell phones, it wouldn't have to mean that EVERYONE in LA is in a gang or on their cell phone all the time (or both), but since both are a strong characteristic of the area, it's fair.<p>there's a shit ton of jungles in south america, a shit ton of cocaine, and a shit ton of indigenous tribes.<p>also Mardi Gras.

  • July 28, 2008, 4:15 a.m. CST

    Pixar rock

    by scottishnutjob

    I've been to Bolivia, Peru and Brazil, trust me there's a lot of jungle in South America. Also lots of coca leaf - they sell them in bags on the streets - people eat it to keep their appetite down and their energy up. And tons of Quechua and other tribes, its like going back in time. Nothing wrong with that - just how it is. And yeah, Pixar has an incredible batting average and makes far better films than I ever could however Cars was for toddlers only and Ratatouille had way too much talking. The all time classics are the Toy Stories and The Incredibles and hopefully WallE when I see it. For me the best thing about Pixar are the shorts which usually kick the hell out of the film to follow. The earlier synopsis for the opening of Up on this website almost had me in tears, it sounded awesome. Can't wait.

  • July 28, 2008, 6:03 a.m. CST

    Carl is 78, Not 82

    by greenbudha

    Not that it matters but in a video clip online Docter says the old guy's 78.

  • July 28, 2008, 10:10 a.m. CST


    by jones1899

    Lucas is also considering what to do about the fifth instalment in the Indiana Jones franchise, which he has produced from the outset. The most recent film, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, has taken almost $750m (£375m) at the international box office, and the whip-snapping archeologist remains in high demand, even though his own days as a whippersnapper are behind him (Harrison Ford is two years older than Lucas). "We were hoping for box-office figures like that, which is, ultimately, with inflation, what the others have done, within 10%," Lucas explains. "So, we squeaked up there. Really, though, it was a challenge getting the story together and getting everybody to agree on it. Indiana Jones only becomes complicated when you have another two people saying ‘I want it this way’ and ‘I want it that way’, whereas, when I first did Jones, I just said, ‘We’ll do it this way’ — and that was much easier. But now I have to accommodate everybody, because they are all big, successful guys, too, so it’s a little hard on a practical level." "If I can come up with another idea that they like, we’ll do another. Really, with the last one, Steven wasn’t that enthusiastic. I was trying to persuade him. But now Steve is more amenable to doing another one. Yet we still have the issues about the direction we’d like to take. I’m in the future; Steven’s in the past. He’s trying to drag it back to the way they were, I’m trying to push it to a whole different place. So, still we have a sort of tension. This recent one came out of that. It’s kind of a hybrid of our own two ideas, so we’ll see where we are able to take the next one."

  • July 28, 2008, 10:36 a.m. CST

    Shia "The Beef"

    by fishpillow

    just got a DUI!!! Bwa-HA HA HA HA

  • July 30, 2008, 10:34 a.m. CST

    The Elderly

    by Wee Willie

    I hear what Docter is saying about the 'rich tapestry' of some old people's lives. But if you talk to your average old person, who spent their lives going to a dull job, not reading books, and watching tons of TV, you know what? They're boring.

  • Aug. 1, 2008, 12:53 p.m. CST


    by Le Vicious Fishus


  • Aug. 1, 2008, 12:54 p.m. CST


    by Le Vicious Fishus


  • Aug. 1, 2008, 12:54 p.m. CST


    by Le Vicious Fishus