Interview: John Lasseter
Fast forward a year and animator-in-chief John Lasseter has returned to the characters from his 2006 pet project Cars in the hope of continuing the success story of a company which this year celebrates its 25th anniversary.
“I grew up loving cars and the southern California car culture,” says the 54-year-old. “My dad was a parts manager at a Chevrolet dealership, so Cars was very personal to me.”
While the action of Cars revolved around the small town of Radiator Springs and how red racing car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) ended up there, Cars 2 is played out on a global scale.
“I wanted to take another road trip to new places around the world, and I thought a way into that world could be another passion of mine, the spy movie genre,” says Lasseter.
“I just couldn’t shake that idea of marrying the two distinctly different worlds of Radiator Springs and international intrigue. And here we are.”
Yet for all Lasseter’s enthusiasm, to many Pixar fans, the sequel is something of an odd choice. The company’s success story began back in 1996 with the release of Toy Story and every film since then has been box office gold.
From A Bug’s Life to Monsters Inc and The Incredibles, Pixar has hit on a winning formula, one loved as much by adults as children. However, Cars is not held in quite the same affection as Woody and Buzz. However, Lasseter, a man rarely seen without a Hawaiin shirt, clearly believes that a story of cars has the same universal appeal as toys, monsters and superheroes.
“My wife told me, ‘Don’t make it for the car guys; make it for everybody else,” he says. “Basically she said make it for all those people who don’t care about cars and I hope that’s what I have in done.
“As with all our movies, whether it’s the fish in Nemo or the rat in Ratatouille, we see our job as creating characters which people can invest in right from the beginning of the movie. From there it’s about going on a journey and for me there is nothing better than bringing an inanimate object to life.”
Cars 2 sees McQueen and his tow-truck best friend Mater (played by Daniel Lawrence Whitney, better known by his stage name Larry the Cable Guy) travelling to Japan, Paris, the Italian Riviera and London, to compete in the first World Grand Prix.But while McQueen has his headlights set on victory, the rusty clown that is Mater manages to find himself embroiled in espionage.
British actress Emily Mortimer, who voices rookie field spy Holley Shiftwell, the object of Mater’s affections, recorded her scenes in a booth with Lasseter standing in for Larry’s Mater – and sheds some light on why the director cares so much.
“I think he really channels Mater or sees himself as that character in a way. That’s why this movie is so close to John’s heart and it was wonderful having him as a scene partner,” she says.
For Wilson, reprising the role of Lightning McQueen was a no-brainer and he jumped at the chance to work with Lasseter again, explaining: “He has this incredible enthusiasm. You’d think it was his first movie, the way he’s so excited.”
As Lasseter does the publicity rounds for the film, he’s clearly convinced that this will be another hit in the Pixar portfolio. He may well be right – a talking car based on the Cars character Finn McMissile is selling fast at £40 a time.
“When Cars first came out the reviews were mediocre, but it’s popularity has grown and grown,” says Lasseter. “Sometimes it seems that the entertainment industry looks at the box office and often just the opening weekend as the only measure of success.
“But a film has a much longer lifespan than that. Since Cars was released five years ago, it has made $10bn through merchandising, DVD sales etc. That makes me proud and it’s not to do with the money, it’s to do with kids liking the movie so much they want to have one of the characters for themselves.
“At Pixar, we do sequels only when we come up with a great idea, and we always strive to be different from the original and with this story, I am convinced that we have something new to say.
“This movie is vastly different from Cars in nearly every way, yet it’s still a part of the world of Cars. That’s what made it so much fun – the settings all over the world, the glitz, the glamour, the cool hipness of the European cities and Japan, the whole spy genre, the type of racing that they do, the type of race cars that are there.
“Cars 2 is not just a spoof or a homage to the Bond films. It’s drawn from the much wider spy genre. I was born in 1957, so I was just the right age when The Man From U.N.C.L.E. came out, and it was my favourite TV show when I was growing up. I knew The Man From U.N.C.L.E. inside and out, and it made me a huge fan of the genre.”
Only time will tell whether Cars 2 is a hit, but Daniel Lawrence Whitney, who provides the voice of Mater, is convinced that with Lasseter at the helm, anything is possible.
“Pixar always does so well because John’s like everybody’s adopted brother or dad, they don’t want to let the guy down. He’s so doggone nice, they all go above and beyond.”
Pixar’s road to success
Since 1996, Pixar, which is based in California, has produced 12 feature films.
The studio has earned 26 Academy Awards, seven Golden Globes, and three Grammy Awards.
Its films have made more than $6.3bn worldwide and all are among the 50 highest grossing animated films of all time.