Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Andrew Stanton

Inside the sweatbox

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Yesterday, I watched a remarkable documentary called The Sweatbox, which belongs on the short list of films—along with Hearts of Darkness and the special features for The Lord of the Rings—that I would recommend to anyone who ever thought that it might be fun to work in the movies. It was never officially released, but a copy occasionally surfaces on YouTube, and I strongly suggest watching the version available now before it disappears yet again. For the first thirty minutes or so, it plays like a standard featurette of the sort that you might have found on the second disc of a home video release from two decades ago, which is exactly what it was supposed to be. Its protagonist, improbably, is Sting, who was approached by Disney in the late nineties to compose six songs for a movie titled Kingdom of the Sun. (One of the two directors of the documentary is Sting’s wife, Trudie Styler, a producer whose other credits include Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Moon.) The feature was conceived by animator Roger Allers, who was just coming off the enormous success of The Lion King, as a mixture of Peruvian mythology, drama, mysticism, and comedy, with a central plot lifted from The Prince and the Pauper. After two years of production, the work in progress was screened for the first time for studio executives. As always, the atmosphere was tense, but no more than usual, and it inspired the standard amount of black humor from the creative team. As one artist jokes nervously before the screening: “You don’t want them to come in and go, ‘Oh, you know what, we don’t like that idea of the one guy looking like the other guy. Let’s get rid of the basis of the movie.’ This would be a good time for them to tell us.”

Of course, that’s exactly what happened. The top brass at Disney hated the movie, production was halted, and Allers left the project that was ultimately retooled into The Emperor’s New Groove, which reused much of the design work and finished animation while tossing out entire characters—along with most of Sting’s songs—and introducing new ones. It’s a story that has fascinated me ever since I first heard about it, around the time of the movie’s initial release, and I’m excited beyond words that The Sweatbox even exists. (The title of the documentary, which was later edited down to an innocuous special feature for the DVD, refers to the room at the studio in Burbank in which rough work is screened.) And while the events that it depicts are extraordinary, they represent only an extreme case of the customary process at Disney and Pixar, at least if you believe the ways in which that the studio likes to talk about itself. In a profile that ran a while back in The New Yorker, the director Andrew Stanton expressed it in terms that I’ve never forgotten:

“We spent two years with Eve getting shot in her heart battery, and Wall-E giving her his battery, and it never worked. Finally—finally—we realized he should lose his memory instead, and thus his personality…We’re in this weird, hermetically sealed freakazoid place where everybody’s trying their best to do their best—and the films still suck for three out of the four years it takes to make them.

This statement appeared in print six months before the release of Stanton’s live action debut John Carter, which implies that this method is far from infallible. And the drama behind The Emperor’s New Groove was unprecedented even by the studio’s relentless standards. As executive Thomas Schumacher says at one point: “We always say, Oh, this is normal. [But] we’ve never been through this before.”

As it happens, I watched The Sweatbox shortly after reading an autobiographical essay by the artist Cassandra Smolcic about her experiences in the “weird, hermetically sealed freakazoid” environment of Pixar. It’s a long read, but riveting throughout, and it makes it clear that the issues at the studio went far beyond the actions of John Lasseter. And while I could focus on any number of details or anecdotes, I’d like to highlight one section, about the firing of director Brenda Chapman halfway through the production of Brave:

Curious about the downfall of such an accomplished, groundbreaking woman, I began taking the company pulse soon after Brenda’s firing had been announced. To the general population of the studio — many of whom had never worked on Brave because it was not yet in full-steam production — it seemed as though Brenda’s firing was considered justifiable. Rumor had it that she had been indecisive, unconfident and ineffective as a director. But for me and others who worked closely with the second-time director, there was a palpable sense of outrage, disbelief and mourning after Brenda was removed from the film. One artist, who’d been on the Brave story team for years, passionately told me how she didn’t find Brenda to be indecisive at all. Brenda knew exactly what film she was making and was very clear in communicating her vision, the story artist said, and the film she was making was powerful and compelling. “From where I was sitting, the only problem with Brenda and her version of Brave was that it was a story told about a mother and a daughter from a distinctly female lens,” she explained.

Smolcic adds: “During the summer of 2009, I personally worked on Brave while Brenda was still in charge. I likewise never felt that she was uncertain about the kind of film she was making, or how to go about making it.”

There are obvious parallels between what happened to Allers and to Chapman, which might seem to undercut the notion that the latter’s firing had anything to do with the fact that she was a woman. But there are a few other points worth raising. One is that no one seems to have applied the words “indecisive, unconfident, and ineffective” to Allers, who voluntarily left the production after his request to push back the release date was denied. And if The Sweatbox is any indication, the situation of women and other historically underrepresented groups at Disney during this period was just as bad as it was at Pixar—I counted exactly one woman who speaks onscreen, for less than fifteen seconds, and all the other faces that we see are white and male. (After Sting expresses concern about the original ending of The Emperor’s New Groove, in which the rain forest is cut down to build an amusement park, an avuncular Roy Disney confides to the camera: “We’re gonna offend somebody sooner or later. I mean, it’s impossible to do anything in the world these days without offending somebody.” Which betrays a certain nostalgia for a time when no one, apparently, was offended by anything that the studio might do.) One of the major players in the documentary is Thomas Schumacher, the head of Disney Animation, who has since been accused of “explicit sexual language and harassment in the workplace,” according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. In the footage that we see, Schumacher and fellow executive Peter Schneider don’t come off particularly well, which may just be a consequence of the perspective from which the story is told. But it’s equally clear that the mythical process that allows such movies to “suck” for three out of four years is only practicable for filmmakers who look and sound like their counterparts on the other side of the sweatbox, which grants them the necessary creative freedom to try and fail repeatedly—a luxury that women are rarely granted. What happened to Allers on Kingdom of the Sun is still astounding. But it might be even more noteworthy that he survived for as long as he did.

The secret villain

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Note: This post alludes to a plot point from Pixar’s Coco.

A few years ago, after Frozen was first released, The Atlantic ran an essay by Gina Dalfonzo complaining about the moment—fair warning for a spoiler—when Prince Hans was revealed to be the film’s true villain. Dalfonzo wrote:

That moment would have wrecked me if I’d seen it as a child, and the makers of Frozen couldn’t have picked a more surefire way to unsettle its young audience members…There is something uniquely horrifying about finding out that a person—even a fictional person—who’s won you over is, in fact, rotten to the core. And it’s that much more traumatizing when you’re six or seven years old. Children will, in their lifetimes, necessarily learn that not everyone who looks or seems trustworthy is trustworthy—but Frozen’s big twist is a needlessly upsetting way to teach that lesson.

Whatever you might think of her argument, it’s obvious that Disney didn’t buy it. In fact, the twist in question—in which a seemingly innocuous supporting character is exposed in the third act as the real bad guy—has appeared so monotonously in the studio’s recent movies that I was already complaining about it a year and a half ago. By my count, the films that fall back on his convention include not just Frozen, but Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia, and now the excellent Coco, which implies that the formula is spilling over from its parent studio to Pixar. (To be fair, it goes at least as far back as Toy Story 2, but it didn’t become the equivalent of the house style until about six or seven years ago.)

This might seem like a small point of storytelling, but it interests me, both because we’ve been seeing it so often and because it’s very different from the stock Disney approach of the past, in which the lines between good and evil were clearly demarcated from the opening frame. In some ways, it’s a positive development—among other things, it means that characters are no longer defined primarily by their appearance—and it may just be a natural instance of a studio returning repeatedly to a trick that has worked in the past. But I can’t resist a more sinister reading. All of the examples that I’ve cited come from the period since John Lasseter took over as the chief creative officer of Disney Animation Studios, and as we’ve recently learned, he wasn’t entirely what he seemed, either. A Variety article recounts:

For more than twenty years, young women at Pixar Animation Studios have been warned about the behavior of John Lasseter, who just disclosed that he is taking a leave due to inappropriate conduct with women. The company’s cofounder is known as a hugger. Around Pixar’s Emeryville, California, offices, a hug from Lasseter is seen as a mark of approval. But among female employees, there has long been widespread discomfort about Lasseter’s hugs and about the other ways he showers attention on young women…“Just be warned, he likes to hug the pretty girls,” [a former employee] said she was told. “He might try to kiss you on the mouth.” The employee said she was alarmed by how routine the whole thing seemed. “There was kind of a big cult around John,” she says.

And a piece in The Hollywood Reporter adds: “Sources say some women at Pixar knew to turn their heads quickly when encountering him to avoid his kisses. Some used a move they called ‘the Lasseter’ to prevent their boss from putting his hands on their legs.”

Of all the horror stories that have emerged lately about sexual harassment by men in power, this is one of the hardest for me to read, and it raises troubling questions about the culture of a company that I’ve admired for a long time. (Among other things, it sheds a new light on the Pixar motto, as expressed by Andrew Stanton, that I’ve quoted here before: “We’re in this weird, hermetically sealed freakazoid place where everybody’s trying their best to do their best—and the films still suck for three out of the four years it takes to make them.” But it also goes without saying that it’s far easier to fail repeatedly on your way to success if you’re a white male who fits a certain profile. And these larger cultural issues evidently contributed to the departure from the studio of Rashida Jones and her writing partner.) It also makes me wonder a little about the movies themselves. After the news broke about Lasseter, there were comments online about his resemblance to Lotso in Toy Story 3, who announces jovially: “First thing you gotta know about me—I’m a hugger!” But the more I think about it, the more this seems like a bona fide inside joke about a situation that must have been widely acknowledged. As a recent article in Deadline reveals:

[Lasseter] attended some wrap parties with a handler to ensure he would not engage in inappropriate conduct with women, say two people with direct knowledge of the situation…Two sources recounted Lasseter’s obsession with the young character actresses portraying Disney’s Fairies, a product line built around the character of Tinker Bell. At the animator’s insistence, Disney flew the women to a New York event. One Pixar employee became the designated escort as Lasseter took the young women out drinking one night, and to a party the following evening. “He was inappropriate with the fairies,” said the former Pixar executive, referring to physical contact that included long hugs. “We had to have someone make sure he wasn’t alone with them.”

Whether or not the reference in Toy Story 3 was deliberate—the script is credited to Michael Arndt, based on a story by Lasseter, Stanton, and Lee Unkrich, and presumably with contributions from many other hands—it must have inspired a few uneasy smiles of recognition at Pixar. And its emphasis on seemingly benign figures who reveal an unexpected dark side, including Lotso himself, can easily be read as an expression, conscious or otherwise, of the tensions between Lasseter’s public image and his long history of misbehavior. (I’ve been thinking along similar lines about Kevin Spacey, whose “sheer meretriciousness” I identified a long time ago as one of his most appealing qualities as an actor, and of whom I once wrote here: “Spacey always seems to be impersonating someone else, and he does the best impersonation of a great actor that I’ve ever seen.” And it seems now that this calculated form of pretending amounted to a way of life.) Lasseter’s influence over Pixar and Disney is so profound that it doesn’t seem farfetched to see its films both as an expression of his internal divisions and of the reactions of those around him, and you don’t need to look far for parallel examples. My daughter, as it happens, knows exactly who Lasseter is—he’s the big guy in the Hawaiian shirt who appears at the beginning of all of her Hayao Miyazaki movies, talking about how much he loves the film that we’re about to see. I don’t doubt that he does. But not only do Miyazaki’s greatest films lack villains entirely, but the twist generally runs in the opposite direction, in which a character who initially seems forbidding or frightening is revealed to be kinder than you think. Simply on the level of storytelling, I know which version I prefer. Under Lasseter, Disney and Pixar have produced some of the best films of recent decades, but they also have their limits. And it only stands to reason that these limitations might have something to do with the man who was more responsible than anyone else for bringing these movies to life.

Written by nevalalee

November 30, 2017 at 8:27 am

Insider awards, outsider art

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Concept art for Inside Out

I really have no business writing about the Oscars at all. My curtailed moviegoing habits these days mean that I only saw one of the Best Picture nominees—Mad Max: Fury Road, which was awesome—and for all my good intentions, I haven’t yet managed to catch up with the others at home. (My wife is a journalist, and like all her peers, she’s been a passionate member of team Spotlight ever since she saw the earliest photos of the cast’s painfully accurate khakis, brown shoes, and blue button-down shirts.) I can’t even write about Chris Rock’s monologue, since I was putting my daughter to bed when it aired, although the rest of the telecast struck me as the most professional ceremony in years: it hit its marks and moved like clockwork with a minimum of cringeworthiness, even if there weren’t many memorable moments. The ongoing debate about diversity and representation in popular culture is an important one, and it’s going to be even more central to my life and this blog as I continue working on Astounding, which raises huge questions about our default assumptions about the stories we tell. But today, I’d like to focus on just one issue. Why, in the name of all that is good and holy, wasn’t Inside Out nominated for Best Picture?

Because it’s a real mystery. Inside Out was one of the five most successful films at the domestic box office over the last calendar year, and it was the second most highly rated movie over the same period on Rotten Tomatoes, coming in behind Fury Road by just a hair. (It actually has a higher unadjusted score, but falls back a notch because it had fewer total reviews.) It also comes at the end of a stretch in which the Academy has been uncharacteristically willing to find room for animated features in the Best Picture race, as well as in their own category—as long as they’re made by Pixar. And Inside Out is the best Pixar movie ever made outside the Toy Story franchise, or at least the most visually and narratively inventive: its rousing aesthetic freedom is a reminder that even the best recent animated movies have been bound by gravity and mindlessly realistic texture mapping. Yet in a year in which the Academy Awards embraced unconventional nominees without regard to genre, from Mad Max to The Martian, Inside Out didn’t make the cut. And since there were only eight nominees, there was ample room for two more, according to a confusing sliding scale that I don’t even think most awards buffs understand. It wouldn’t have had to knock any other deserving movies out of the way: there was a slot right there waiting for it. But it was nowhere in sight.

Inside Out

This might seem like a moot point for a movie that won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, made a ton of money, and choked up audiences worldwide. (My wife cried so much when we watched it that she practically went into anaphylactic shock.) But the larger implications are worth raising. It’s tough to analyze the collective psychology behind something like the Oscar nominations, which is why the problem of racism in Hollywood has been so difficult to address: it’s less the result of obvious structural shortcomings than an emergent property arising from countless small decisions made by players acting independently. When you try to find a solution, it slips through your fingers. Still, when the industry votes together, inclinations that might pass unseen on the individual level suddenly become all too visible. And in the case of animated features, when you amplify those tendencies to a point where they result in a concrete outcome, like a nomination or lack thereof, it’s obvious that a lot of voters find something vaguely suspect about animation itself. Thanks in a large part to its history as a children’s medium, it still feels like kid’s stuff, despite so much evidence to the contrary—or the fact that studios are increasingly dependent on a global audience for movies that are either animated or might as well be. It’s treated like outsider art, maybe because it naturally tends to attract visionary weirdos who wouldn’t be comfortable anywhere else.

This isn’t the Academy’s only blind spot: it also doesn’t much care for subtitles, sequels, or movies that fail to break even. But when you take into account the usual inverse relationship between artistic merit and job creation, the reluctance to recognize animated features as playing a grownup’s game is even harder to justify: these movies can take half a decade to make, employ hundreds of people, and involve the solution of many intractable creative and technical problems. (In fact, the development of Inside Out appears to have been exceptionally difficult: Pete Docter has spoken of how the entire script was junked halfway through, once they realized that Joy had to go on her adventure with Sadness, rather than Fear. It’s the best example imaginable of the Andrew Stanton approach—“The films still suck for three out of the four years it takes to make them”—succeeding, for once, to a spectacular degree.) And what makes Inside Out such an instructive test case is that everything else was lined up in its favor. It was moving, formally elegant, incredibly entertaining, and it wasn’t a sequel, the last of which probably counted against Toy Story 2, which was also unambiguously the biggest critical and box office success of its year. For an animated film not just to get nominated, but to win, would require both a masterpiece and a sea change in how such movies are regarded by the industry that relies on them so much. And if that ever happens, it’ll be a reason to be joyful.

Written by nevalalee

February 29, 2016 at 10:01 am

So what happened to John Carter?

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In recent years, the fawning New Yorker profile has become the Hollywood equivalent of the Sports Illustrated cover—a harbinger of bad times to come. It isn’t hard to figure out why: both are awarded to subjects who have just reached the top of their game, which often foreshadows a humbling crash. Tony Gilroy was awarded a profile after the success of Michael Clayton, only to follow it up with the underwhelming Duplicity. For Steve Carrell, it was Dinner with Schmucks. For Anna Faris, it was What’s Your Number? And for John Lasseter, revealingly, it was Cars 2. The latest casualty is Andrew Stanton, whose profile, which I discussed in detail last year, now seems laden with irony, as well as an optimism that reads in retrospect as whistling in the dark. “Among all the top talent here,” a Pixar executive is quoted as saying, “Andrew is the one who has a genius for story structure.” And whatever redeeming qualities John Carter may have, story structure isn’t one of them. (The fact that Stanton claims to have closely studied the truly awful screenplay for Ryan’s Daughter now feels like an early warning sign.)

If nothing else, the making of John Carter will provide ample material for a great case study, hopefully along the lines of Julie Salamon’s classic The Devil’s Candy. There are really two failures here, one of marketing, another of storytelling, and even the story behind the film’s teaser trailer is fascinating. According to Vulture’s Claude Brodesser-Akner, a series of lost battles and miscommunications led to the release of a few enigmatic images devoid of action and scored, in the manner of an Internet fan video, with Peter Gabriel’s dark cover of “My Body is a Cage.” And while there’s more to the story than this—I actually found the trailer quite evocative, and negative responses to early marketing materials certainly didn’t hurt Avatar—it’s clear that this was one of the most poorly marketed tentpole movies in a long time. It began with the inexplicable decision to change the title from John Carter of Mars, on the assumption that women are turned off by science fiction, while making no attempt to lure in female viewers with the movie’s love story or central heroine, or even to explain who John Carter is. This is what happens when a four-quadrant marketing campaign goes wrong: when you try to please everybody, you please no one.

And the same holds true of the movie itself. While the story itself is fairly clear, and Stanton and his writers keep us reasonably grounded in the planet’s complex mythology, we’re never given any reason to care. Attempts to engage us with the central characters fall curiously flat: to convey that Princess Dejah is smart and resourceful, for example, the film shows her inventing the Barsoomian equivalent of nuclear power, evidently in her spare time. John Carter himself is a cipher. And while some of these problems might have been solved by miraculous casting, the blame lands squarely on Stanton’s shoulders. Stanton clearly loves John Carter, but forgets to persuade us to love him as well. What John Carter needed, more than anything else, was a dose of the rather stark detachment that I saw in Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, as directed by Stanton’s former Pixar colleague Brad Bird. Bird clearly had no personal investment in the franchise, except to make the best movie he possibly could. John Carter, by contrast, falls apart on its director’s passion and good intentions, as well as a creative philosophy that evidently works in animation, but not live action. As Stanton says of Pixar:

We’re in this weird, hermetically sealed freakazoid place where everybody’s trying their best to do their best—and the films still suck for three out of the four years it takes to make them.

Which only makes us wonder what might have happened if John Carter had been granted a fourth year.

Stanton should take heart, however. If there’s one movie that John Carter calls to mind, it’s Dune, another financial and critical catastrophe that was doomed—as much as I love it—by fidelity to its source material. (In fact, if you take Roger Ebert’s original review of Dune, which came out in 1985, and replace the relevant proper names, you end up with something remarkably close to a review of John Carter: “Actors stand around in ridiculous costumes, mouthing dialogue with little or no context.”) Yet its director not only recovered, but followed it up with my favorite movie ever made in America. Failure, if it results in another chance, can be the opposite of the New Yorker curse. And while Stanton may not be David Lynch, he’s not without talent: the movie’s design is often impressive, especially its alien effects, and it displays occasional flashes of wit and humor that remind us of what Stanton can do. John Carter may go on record as the most expensive learning experience in history, and while this may be cold comfort to Disney shareholders, it’s not bad for the rest of us, as long as Stanton gets his second chance. Hopefully far away from the New Yorker.

Written by nevalalee

March 15, 2012 at 10:31 am

Andrew Stanton and the world beyond Pixar

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Art is messy, art is chaos—so you need a system.

Andrew Stanton, to the New Yorker

For the second time in less than six months, the New Yorker takes on the curious case of Pixar, and this time around, the results are much more satisfying. In May, the magazine offered up a profile of John Lasseter that was close to a total failure, since critic Anthony Lane’s customary air of disdain was unprepared to draw any useful conclusions about a studio that, at least up to that point, had gotten just about everything blessedly right. This week’s piece by Tad Friend is far superior, focusing on the relatively unsung talents of Andrew Stanton, director of Finding Nemo and Wall-E. And while the publication of a fawning New Yorker profile of a hot creative talent rarely bodes well for his or her next project—as witness the recent articles on Tony Gilroy, Steve Carrell, Anna Faris, or even Lasseter himself, whose profile only briefly anticipated the release of the underwhelming Cars 2—I’m still excited by Stanton’s next project, the Edgar Rice Burroughs epic John Carter, which will serve as a crucial test as to whether Pixar’s magic can extend to the world beyond animation.

Stanton’s case is particularly interesting because of the role he plays at the studio: to hear the article tell it, he’s Pixar’s resident storyteller. “Among all the top talent here,” says Jim Morris, the head of Pixar’s daily operations, “Andrew is the one who has a genius for story structure.” And what makes this all the more remarkable is the fact that Stanton seems to have essentially willed this talent into existence. Stanton was trained as an animator, and began, like most of his colleagues, by focusing on the visual side. As the script for Toy Story was being developed, however, he decided that his future would lie in narrative, and quietly began to train himself in the writer’s craft, reading classic screenplays—including, for some reason, the truly awful script for Ryan’s Daughter—and such texts as Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing. In the end, he was generally acknowledged as the senior writer at Pixar, which, given the caliber of talent involved, must be a heady position indeed.

And while the article is littered with Stanton’s aphorisms on storytelling—”Inevitable but not predictable,” “Conflict + contradiction,” “Do the opposite”—his main virtue as a writer seems to lie in the most universal rule of all: “Be wrong fast.” More than anything else, Stanton’s success so far has been predicated on an admirable willingness to throw things out and start again. He spent years, for instance, working on a second act for Wall-E that was finally junked completely, and while I’m not sure he ever quite cracked the plot for that moviewhich I don’t think lives up to the promise of its first twenty minutes—there’s no question that his ruthlessness with structure did wonders for Finding Nemo, which was radically rethought and reconceived several times over the course of production. Pixar, like the rest of us, is making things up as it goes along, but is set apart by its refusal to let well enough alone. As Stanton concludes:

We’re in this weird, hermetically sealed freakazoid place where everybody’s trying their best to do their best—and the films still suck for three out of the four years it takes to make them.

The real question, of course, is whether this approach to storytelling, with its necessary false starts and extensive rendering time, can survive the transition to live action, in which the use of real actors and sets makes retakes—and thus revision—drastically more expensive. So far, it sounds like John Carter is doing fine, at least judging from the trailer and early audience response, which has reportedly been encouraging. And more rides on this movie’s success or failure than the fate of one particular franchise. Pixar’s story has been extraordinary, but its most lasting legacy may turn out to be the migration of its talent beyond the safety zone of animation—assuming, of course, that their kung fu can survive. With Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol and John Carter in the wingswe’re about to discover if the directors who changed animation at Pixar can do the same in live action. The New Yorker article is fine, but it buries the lede: Stanton and Bird are the first of many. And if their next movies are half as entertaining as the ones they’ve made so far, we’re looking at an earthquake in the world of pop culture.

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