Up: An inside look at how Pixar makes a (potential) blockbuster

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Jonas Rivera, producer of the Disney/Pixar's upcoming 3-D animated Up, told SCI FI Wire that creating a more intense story than in past Pixar adventures was essential to connecting the audience with the characters. "We always knew we wanted to do this movie with an old guy," Rivera said in an exclusive telephone interview Thursday.

Rivera added: "It just made sense, and there's a lot of history there, and there's a lot of potential for comedy and nostalgia to it. But the only way to make that mean anything was to set it up on real emotional stakes, and so it all was about laying a solid foundation for the film emotionally so that you would care about these events, so that it would mean something."

Rivera offered SCI FI Wire a glimpse inside the walls of Pixar and the process by which a story comes together there, a process that's unique among film studios. It involves a lot of back-and-forth among the creators of such films as Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc. to turn the movie into a classic.

Up follows Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner), a septuagenarian widower who embarks on an adventure to South America by tying thousands of balloons to his house and literally lifting the building up into the sky. He is joined by an 8-year-old scout named Russell (Jordan Nagai) and a talking dog named Dug. Rivera spoke exclusively to SCI FI Wire about his work on Up. The following is an edited version of that interview. Up opens May 29. (Spoilers ahead!)

This might be a boring question, but how do you construct your stories? Because when you look at Up, there's a cohesiveness in every single scene, not only in terms of story, but also the characters and the themes. Is a script written and then rewritten scene by scene, or how does Pixar's process work?

Rivera: It's not a boring question, it's a great question. It's "the" question, because it's what we put the most emphasis on throughout all of these films, and this is the 10th one. It's sort of a blessing and a curse at Pixar, to be honest, because it's never done, you know what I mean? The story is never done, and trust me, as producer I wish Pete would walk in and go, "Here's the script. Let's make it!"

The truth is he goes, "Here's the script, let's start making it." And then we make it 50 times. What we basically try to do is we try to get out a script and a story reel as fast as we can, and that way we start reacting to it as a movie as opposed to just as a screenplay. Then what we do is we get other directors together—we call them the Pixar brain trust, Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird and John Lasseter—and we throw it up in front of them every eight to 10 weeks, and they just pound on them. The directors are super-brutal honest with each another, and we kind of pick up the pieces and go from there. My job is ... over the course of the first couple of years to try to find stable footing from which we can start producing. Like, which sequence is going to hold up? Which characters do we know what we're going to build? It's constantly being rewritten and re-evaluated and then rewritten again, and then changed and altered, so it's a moving target for sure.

How difficult is it for you as a producer to facilitate a director's vision, since animation is inherently or necessarily more collaborative even than a live-action film?

Rivera: I suppose it is just because we try to give ourselves enough runway before we kind of take off so that we're stable. But it's a great question again, and my job is to take that initial idea of a film that Pete puts forward and kind of protect it though all of its incarnations, through all of the technical hurdles that we have to clear, through all of the production schedules and so forth that we have to get through.

It was easy on one level, because the movie, I thought was, even before there were any visuals or storyboards, Pete sat down with me and pitched me this story. He just kind of got through the beginning where we meet Carl as a young kid, we meet Ellie and learn the whole bit about the adventure book, their life together through good times and bad times and ultimately her death. He got that far, where we see Carl walk in the house holding one blue balloon, and that's where our story begins.

I'd never heard anything like that, not in animation, not in live action, so I kind of took it from that day forward that my job is to hold on to that and help the audience feel what I just felt at this pitch. It sounds corny, but day to day that's my job. So I knew the story would change, and I knew what would happen to Carl in the second act would change, and in the third act, but I knew that emotional core would be there. So no matter what, I just had to kind of hold on to that, and if I felt us straying from it, I'd say, "Hey, Pete, I've got to tell you, when you first told me this, I went out and called my wife," in the hopes to kind of pull him back to the center line.

Are there specific examples of ideas that you had to change, rein in or sculpt into the story?

Rivera: I can tell you this: One of the early story notes that we got from Andrew Stanton or from Brad Bird, early on, we had that beginning, and it was always working. But once we got to the tupuis [flat-topped mountains in South America], there's a lot of crazy stuff that we're introducing. I was glad to hear you say that it all felt organic and not stitched together, but for a long time it didn't, and to be totally honest with you, these movies—and this one is no different—often go through rough spots, and we have screenings where it just doesn't work.

You don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, so the biggest note we got was "This feels like a collection of things you guys like, and it's not making any sense after they arrive, so make it make sense." Or we'd get "This is all cool, but we don't get why Carl is doing this." So we'd need re-engineer the setup.

But one of the toughest things was actually setting up Muntz [Christopher Plummer] as a character. Andrew Stanton always talks about invisible setups; you're watching this newsreel and seeing Carl's introduction to adventure, but really what we're doing is we're setting up Muntz's motivation and why he's up there. For a long time that wasn't clear, and that was the big note from Disney. Bob Iger loved it but told us at one of the screenings, "Yeah, I just don't quite get why he'd be up there that long." He wasn't saying it like, "Change it because I'm the executive." That was an honest reaction that we could get from the head of Disney or my mother.

So we kind of took that note and said, "Let's fix it so it's clear why he's up there." In the course of that exercise, we took it way too far; we made it maybe way too extreme, and it's a big balancing act. If you do that narratively, you pull the focus from your main character, and at one point we had it so far that Muntz had found the fountain of youth, and that's why he was up there, and that was how he stayed young. But that started becoming the biggest thing in the movie, so you'd do that and all of a sudden, who cares about Carl and his house? That guy found the fountain of youth! So then you'd go, "OK, now we're a little out of balance." And my job as producer, sitting on the sidelines sometimes nervous when this happens, because I know it's part of the process, was to be the vote of confidence: "Hey, Pete, I liked it better that way, and here's why." Or "Pete, bad news. Whatever you think, we've got to be done next week, because we've got to get it into production."