The only way is up — Pete Docter of Pixar speaks about his helium-filled adventure ‘Up’

Pixar continued its string of hits in 2009 with the poignant, swashbuckling and often hilarious “Up.” As consistent as the films have been, so too have the filmmakers, as three years of interviewing the directors has shown. Brad Bird, Andrew Stanton and another one of Pixar’s original crew, Pete Docter (“Toy Story,” “Monsters, Inc.”), are all affable, talkative, friendly creators who never seem to tire of answering questions about their films. Docter grew up in Minneapolis, but he knows Santa Barbara from visiting his grandparents here, and he’ll return once again to screen “Up” and take part in the Festival’s screenwriter and director panels this weekend.

In “Up”, Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) attaches thousands of balloons to his house and goes in search of Paradise Falls to fulfill a promise to his deceased wife. He has a stowaway, Russell, an eager boy scout, and a later meeting with a boyhood hero, Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer).

“Up” recalls a lot of Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli films, from “Porco Rosso” to “Laputa: Castle in the Sky.” Are those films part of your DNA?

Yeah, absolutely. When you’re making the film, you’re trying to steer away from anything that exists already and trying to make it original and different. Yes, those (Ghibli) films, then the Disney films growing up, and even films like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” those were the influences. That and a film called “The Station Agent,” written and directed by Tom McCarthy, who ended up writing on this one.

What about the “Lost World” stuff? Did you watch old serials and adventures?

Yeah, we watched “Lost Horizon,” where it is Shangri-la out in snow-covered Tibetan mountains. We ended up pulling most of it from our travels down there [in Venezuela], the real-life stuff we saw and experienced is just so fantastic and wild that’s really where the design and even the story ideas came from. They said there’s two types of weather there: It’s either raining or about to rain. And it changes every five minutes. So a lot of the things, seeing those strange rock shapes emerging out of the mist we had (in the film), those were pulled right out of the experiences we had up there.

There’s a real economy of story in “Up.” Other storytellers would have given Carl’s balloon house creation more lead time, but you go right into it. Is that from editing meetings or just the way you helped write it?

There’s a lot of discussion when we show the film, which is part of the process here at Pixar. We edit the whole thing together as a story reel. It’s drawings, so it’s relatively cheap compared to a production coming up, and that way we can get a sense for the film and how it’s gonna play, and we bring all of the directors, from John Lassiter, Andrew Stanton, Brad Bird and everybody who’s working on other stuff, drag them in and make them watch the movie. Then we sit around and have discussions. There was a lot of talk about “gee, (the balloons) come out of nowhere,” we need to set it up. But there’s a good element of being ahead of the audience and a surprise there that adds to, it’s sappy to say but the magic, the ethereal experience you have as you’re floating through this city. I felt like that was necessary. There was something about the surprise of that and the movement from potential loss, right into escape, that felt like where we needed to go.

What are the pitfalls of a typical “old man learns about life from boy” story, and how did you avoid them?

In a way, an early problem was the opposite, because there was so much bizarre, weird stuff that people, I think, did not feel that “this is old hat,” but “where’s the familiar?” It was the married life sequence where the emotion of that landed us on some sort of solid ground to go forward. As for the relationship between kid and the old man, Bob (Peterson) and I watched as many types of those films as we could, trying to figure out what’s cliché. I guess the only answer is to just try to make the characters as unique and individual as possible. The big thing we’re trying to make sure is, if you were to stop the film anywhere along the way, the audience should not feel they know where this is going.

Was the metaphor of Carl towing his house full of memories, which is just brilliant, there from the beginning?

No, it wasn’t. The very first incarnation of story was that Carl landed, but the house floated away. And it landed on the other side of the mountain. So instead of getting the house to Paradise Falls, he was just trying to get back to the house. I think it was actually Bob Peterson, the head writer, who came up with this idea that he had fallen out of the house and had to drag it over there. It sort of was a crucifix or weight on his shoulders that he has to bear. At first we wondered, can we sustain the whole movie with Carl tied to his house? He’s kind of literally weighted down, but that was exactly what the story needed.

How did the design of the characters evolve?

This film was interesting, because it started from a character. Bob and I, we just wanted to play around with a grouchy old man character. It had a lot of potential for entertainment, but we realized the emotion of what happens as you get old — you have all these amazing stories, and you’re reflecting back on your life, and there was a lot of truth and beauty to that, which we hadn’t seen before. His character became much more specific when we cast Ed Asner. We started out just talking, and I did a bunch of drawings. They were just ideas, like “Carl sucks on lemons at night,” or “Carl has problems with ear hair.” Just quirky, weird things that might help make him more defined. In the case of (villain) Muntz, we had written him a little more ruddy and boisterous, a little more like Hemingway. Then when we cast Christopher Plummer, and he became a little more educated and erudite and refined. Then you bring the animators in, and they respond to the story work and the voice work and that goes in a whole new direction.

What’s the deal with old people’s walkers and tennis balls?

You don’t see people in real life with (canes like Carl’s). It’s usually walkers, and they wear holes in the pads they come with. People put the tennis balls on, they fit nicely.

You’d think the companies would fix the walkers . . . unless they’re in cahoots with the tennis ball manufacturers.

It’s maybe all backroom dealings, who knows.

IF YOU GO
PETE DOCTER, ‘IT STARTS WITH THE SCRIPT’ SCREENWRITER’S PANEL
When: 11 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 6
Where: Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St.
Moderator: Anne Thompson (IndieWire)
Cost: $36

‘UP’ SCREENING
When: 10 a.m. Sunday
Where: Arlington Theatre, 1317 State St.
Cost: Free

PETE DOCTER,’DIRECTORS ON DIRECTING’ PANEL
When: 11 a.m. Sunday
Moderator: Peter Bart (Variety)

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