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WALL-E director Andrew Stanton talks art house inspirations, Pixar blockbusters, and getting the Criterion treatment

Nearly 15 years after WALL-E earned acclaim and awards, Pixar pioneer Stanton reflects on his most ambitious, and personal, project

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Wall-E
WALL-E
Image: Courtesy of Disney/Pixar

Practically from the moment of its 2008 release, Pixar’s WALL-E was hailed as a classic. Pleasing a wide swath of moviegoers and raising the already high bar set by previous Pixar releases like Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles, WALL-E earned six Academy Awards and won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Now, as WALL-E becomes the first Disney/Pixar film to receive a Criterion Collection edition—with a 4K digital master and the requisite bells, whistles, and supplemental material—director Andrew Stanton sits down with The A.V. Club to talk about his experience making the futuristic fable.

Stanton, who co-conceived the story and co-wrote the screenplay for WALL-E, was one of the founding figures at Pixar, starting as a writer and animator before taking the reins as a director. For WALL-E, he mined a lifetime of cinematic experiences—he was once an usher at an early indie theater—and sought a fusion of art house cinema and towering blockbusters. Stanton reflected on the formative film experiences that informed WALL-E, along with the future he sees both for himself and the next era of animation.

The AV Club: It was so great to re-watch the movie and then go look at the new supplements and to see just how deeply you mined every cinematic experience that made a mark on you to make this. Tell me about that journey.

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Andrew Stanton: Well, it’s funny, we could probably do that with every one of our movies at Pixar because we’re such filmgoers and film aficionados. But WALL-E was unique in the sense that it reached back as far as cinema’s beginnings, practically. And because I was also going for an art house tone more directly from my upbringing that I had gotten for being an usher in an art house theater with foreign films, I really felt like somehow it grazed the history of cinema a little bit more directly and on a wider breadth than other films that I had worked on.

And so I’d always felt it had somewhat a weird kinship, or what’s the word, allegiance, to this Criterion library. Because so many of the movies that I was inspired by in my youth and that were referencing just coincidentally on WALL-E were in their canon, were in their library. And that was really what led me to asking Disney if they wouldn’t mind breaking precedent, letting me see if Criterion would be willing to do a version of the film.

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AVC: I’m curious about the experience of digging deep into your personal creative history. What did that unlock for you?

AS: I’ve always been trying to have my art house cake and my blockbuster cake and eat it too. I say that in one of the docs, I was running off on the weekend to see Raiders [Of The Lost Ark] while I was going running back to see My Brilliant Career to usher for. I was getting this dual education in cinema-going. And so I’m a product of that. The first chance I got to really try and push more depth and life-affirming and complexity was when I got to fully helm Finding Nemo. And people don’t remember—people now associate Pixar with a lot of crying and emotion—but that’s the first movie where we really tried that, where we really lit some darkness and truth about life and death and things being precarious and stuff. That was really leaned into for the first time in our movies there.

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And that was me trying to get my art house on. And so when Nemo worked really well and did well, I said, “Well, that was just feeling like I’m scratching the surface. I want to go farther. I want to feel like ... What would an animated sci-fi film feel like if I was seeing this in my art house that I went to as a kid?” I was trying to basically get a flavor and a tone that I had never gotten to have in that medium. And it made people nervous. But once they saw even the earliest examples of what we were trying to do, everybody got excited because we felt we had pushed the envelope with Toy Story and what was a different way to think what an animated film could be and expound it beyond just a musical and a babysitter and fantasy. And this suddenly felt like we were doing it again with this movie.

WALL-E
WALL-E
Image: Courtesy of Disney/Pixar
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AVC: WALL-E is a perfect synthesis of the epic pop blockbusters that you loved and those intimate art house films. And you had a well-financed toolbox, yet you’re constantly zeroing in on these very simple emotional beats. How did you keep your arms around all of that?

AS: I call it inventing a new color. Everybody’s trying to guess what this color looks like that we’ve never envisioned before, and you’re all kind of blindly going forward, holding hands. And that’s what it feels like on every one of our pictures. So I was just very blessed that I’m in a studio environment that encourages that. From Steve Jobs and John Lasseter down, everybody encouraged trying to expand the borders of not just what we did at the studio, but in movies in general. We were in it not to repeat ourselves, and we’re in it to evolve the medium and hopefully be part of film history by earning it, by just making a worthy film. And we’re trying that every time. So I think if there was anything that I was battling, it was, “Did we bite off more than we can chew?” Because I had such full support, and we were still failing a lot, trying to get there as we went, and the time’s ticking and the money’s getting spent. But everybody’s supportive. It’s just, “Can we do it? Can we climb that mountain in time?”

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AVC: Pixar’s way of making movies has become kind of legendary, and it’s even being replicated outside of the animation world—

AS: It’s a good thing.

AVC: Yeah, it’s a good thing. The collaborative energy there seems so conducive to making great content.

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AS: We never invented it, we just allowed it. It’s such a weird, simplistic, novel idea that’s been going on since the dawn of creation. It’s just amazing how the world’s set up to make that the last thing that’s possible.

AVC: Tell me about both this template and working in the Hollywood structure and occasionally peeking out the door from Pixar and seeing how the rest of the industry operated.

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AS: Well, for as Pollyanna and as nirvana as we make the environment at Pixar, I also realized that every movie that I’ve ever been inspired by and watched and still refer to, most of them were under much harsher restrictive circumstances, yet they made it. So there’s a part of me that just wanted to go, “Okay, this is how I get to make something with full support. But I want to know, can I do this under the same duress, under the same limits that all my heroes did?” Because I want to be good at this and there’s stories that I want to be a part of and stories I want to make that aren’t animation. And so I had to just go out and learn how to do it.

I sort of put myself out as a chef for hire for other restaurants and just see how they do it and just didn’t complain. I just figured it’s all learning a learning curve. And it really is so much about just whatever little you’ve got, how can you make a collaborative environment? How can you make people feel that they’re contributing to the final solution of getting a wonderful scene or a wonderful moment in a story and not feel that they’re just a number?

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AVC: I can only imagine that taking a big creative swing with a movie like Wall-E, and having it get the critical acclaim and the wide audience, had to change you in some way.

AS: You know what? It’s funny–nobody’s brought this up. And I felt like I learned how to make movies in a band, with a group of people. I didn’t learn individually. So I didn’t know what was mine and what wasn’t, and I didn’t care. I was just so psyched, for that analogy, to play the songs that were coming out of that group and the chemistry that created this greater thing that was the sum of its parts. And as we had to expand and by the time I got to Nemo, Nemo was a bit of discovery of “Who am I? And what am I capable of?” And I was very unsure all the way through it.

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And it wasn’t until I finished that I felt I had earned sort of a reflection and a chance to look back and go, “Oh this is who I am as a filmmaker when left alone.” And so WALL-E was my first movie to indulge in not a full confidence, but a full understanding and insight into what my voice was. And so I wanted to sing more. I wanted to try it out now that I kind of had a sense of, “Oh this is me.” So WALL-E was me indulging a little bit in discovering what my voice was.

WALL-E
WALL-E
Image: Courtesy of Disney/Pixar
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AVC: It’s been interesting to see what you’ve been doing lately. We’ve seen you stepping into some television to direct episodes of Stranger Things and Better Call Saul. You’ve taken a little step into the Star Wars world as a writer on Obi-Wan Kenobi. And you’re planning to direct a live-action feature. What’s exciting about these steps and where you’re headed?

AS: I couldn’t think of anything more challenging than trying to do TV, which is so rigorous and so fast, and it’s somebody else’s vision. And I was almost like a session player for hire. And I loved it because it took the psychological pressure off, “It’s not mine. I don’t have to prove something about myself. I just have to be good at telling a story.” And that’s hard enough. And I want to be good under these technical circumstances and with this medium.

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It’s why I’m going back into live action now with an indie film, which is something I’ve never done before. I need a certain amount of challenge to want to go there and do something. And frankly, this is crass, but I just want to work on good shit! I don’t really care about what the marquee value is of something or whether there’s a career path. I’m too old for that. I’m just lucky to be able to get to still do it. And I just want to work on good stuff. I know enough and I’m confident enough now to know what’s probably going to be good, and I just want to be a part of it.

AVC: I feel like we take Pixar for granted because of its continued the high bar of excellence.

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AS: It’s definitely judged on a different scale than everybody else gets judged on. So, nice problem to have.

AVC: What is the future of Pixar, and animation in general, in cinematic terms?

AS: All I hope is that it’s something that nobody expects coming and that it surprises you and that it’s great. My hope at the time when we were just making one movie at a time and there was just talk of a studio, I remember saying, “I just hope that if we ever got to that place, the only expectations that you would have if you saw the Pixar logo was that it would be worth your time and that it would surprise you and it would be of great quality and that would be it. It could be anything after that.” And that still is my hope.

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With a whole new generation of filmmakers and after 30 years, I can’t trust my instincts at my age. What I trust is the current generation’s instincts. Because we were the current generation at Toy Story, but we—a lot of us running the studio—aren’t anymore. And so we’re looking to the younger new voices for where else do we want to go? What else do you want to do? What surprised me? What are we not thinking of? Because that was always what made us interesting internally on a day-to-day basis: not so much caring about an audience, but just like, “What do we want to go see? What are we not seeing in the theater that we want to see?” Because that’s what got us here.