Welcome to Awards Contender. This month, SYFY WIRE is talking to the actors, directors, designers, and craftspeople whose work was featured in the best movies and TV offerings of 2019, and who are now the leading awards nominees. Today, we're speaking with director Josh Cooley of the Oscar-nominated film Toy Story 4.
It's dangerous out there for a toy, and every Toy Story movie demonstrates how in new and unnerving ways. Think about the mutant toys in the first film. Or Woody's nightmare in the second film, with all the doll arms grabbing him. Or the brush with death-by-garbage incinerator in the third.
Toy Story 4 multiplies the menace with visits to a creepy antique store (ruled by a Mafioso-like doll with ventriloquist-dummy henchmen) and a carnival (where the plush toy prizes have every reason to grow bitter).
"You just know something bad is going to happen," says director Josh Cooley, who chatted with SYFY WIRE about the unconventional toys joining the ensemble, the would-be villains, and how the best scene is a Godzilla reference.
Toy Story 4's breakout star Forky was inspired by your son, somehow?
One day, we were just talking about the rules of the Toy Story world, just breaking it down to the bare minimum. Anything that a kid plays with comes to life, so we started questioning what constitutes a toy. What is a toy? Because my kids will pick up rocks or sugar packets off the table and start playing with them. Does that mean that it's alive in this universe? So in a way, we started unraveling the sweater of the universe.
What would happen if Bonnie made a toy? What would that be like? What made me laugh was thinking about something coming to life that had no idea what was going on. The other toys can go, "Bonnie's coming!" and drop to the ground, and he can just go, "What are you doing?" It would force Woody to explain what it means to be a toy. That's not just explaining the job, but also explaining his worldview. And I was just thrilled that it was such a bizarre idea.
My son was about 4 or 5 at the time, so I took a picture of the character home and said, "What do you think this guy's name is?" No context. And he looked at it and went, "Forkface!" And I was like, "Whoa! That's pretty funny, but we're not going to be able to use that." I told everybody at work, and we were all laughing. And then somebody said, "Well, Forky is pretty funny." Bonnie doesn't need to know what a spork is, and it's not clear what he is: "Am I a fork or a spoon?" That ambiguity became part of the character.
Forky doesn't want to be a toy. He sees himself as trash, and he wants to go where the trash goes. In a way, it's a PG-rated suicide story …
We didn't want it to feel that way. At the end of Toy Story 3, it looks like they're going to die in the trash dump. I think part of the world of Toy Story is that being trashed means you're gone. So definitely, Forky wanting to jump in the trash is that. It's like a child innocently running into the street and not understanding what the street means. And it underlines Woody's realization that there is more to life for him as well, so he does end up practicing what he's preaching.
In different iterations, Bo Peep was a villain. How did you work out what you wanted Bo Peep to be?
That was a tough one. From the very beginning, she was always part of the story, and her return was going to be a part of it. But it was like, "Well, how does she return? Why does she turn?" We took it as far as we could: What if she is doing the right thing for the wrong reasons? What if she's a villain in Woody's eyes?
She wouldn't be killing toys or anything like that. I think we had an idea where she was freeing toys from the bedroom, like she was helping toys run free. We kind of did a version of that. She's representing everything that Woody's terrified of, but she's fine with it — like in the first movie, she's a lost toy. I think that's the most shocking way to affect Woody. She helps turn him. She helps be an example that there is more outside a kid's room.
Gabby seems like a villain at first, but once you understand her loneliness, rage, and sense of inadequacy, she's not. She's a defective vintage doll, and she wants to be loved, too.
We originally did have her as a straight villain. Her whole thing was "I just want to get fixed and get out of here, and I don't care how that happens." And in the end, she got her comeuppance. She got fixed, and she got purchased — not by a kid, but by a Gabby Gabby collector. She was put in a glass case, to be protected from dust and all that stuff, and we reveal that she's in a room full of Gabby dolls, all in glass. She's been frozen in time again. It was pretty Twilight Zone-y.
But we thought, if we want Woody to really learn something, the biggest thing he could do would be to help the person who needs it the most, who also happens to be the antagonist. That's a big idea. If we can present her one way, and then turn Woody as well as the audience by showing how she really is on the inside, she's not so different from Woody after all. They're mirrored characters. They're both stuck, in a way. So once we had that, it was a question of how do we sell that so that it doesn't feel like she's trying to trick Woody at any point.
It must have been so fun to be there when Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele did the voices for the stuffed carnival toys Ducky and Bunny. How much of that was improvised?
We always recorded the two of them together, and you never really do that in animation. I would give them the context of the scene, and we would run through it a couple of times as written, and then they would just embellish on it. I was trying to hold back my laughter, and my stomach hurt so bad! It was just killing me. So much pain. Those were some of the best sessions.
At one point, I asked them, "Can you guys make up a song by chance?" And they said, "Sure!" And they riffed like four or five songs about getting a kid in different styles. They did one that was more like a rap, one that was more like a gospel song, one that was more rock-and-roll. I wish we could have put all of that singing in the movie, but there was no way.
I would imagine there was a lot of riffing with the laser eyes/mouth fire scene …
Yeah. I'm pretty sure I just told them, "You guys are attacking the carny, and you start growing larger and larger to the point where you're massive and things are blowing things up all around." And they just ran with it. I loved it. I love being able to surprise the audience with how all of a sudden they're attacking somebody, which is what you want them to do, in a weird way. My son is a huge Godzilla fan, and so this is my nod to that for him.