It’s Just Good Storytelling
A Talk with Stanton and Burtt

Imagine a summer blockbuster romance, one made by a major studio known as a pioneer in animation.  Imagine, as part of the backstory to that romance, a global commercial enterprise that had managed to commodify just about everything, and turn it all—politics, entertainment, merchandizing—into one grand, interconnected business proposition.  Imagine an apocalyptic vision, and imagine a voyage undertaken by the romantic couple to thwart the self-perpetuating properties of that universal cartel, to bring it crashing to earth, and to restore a vision of human connection, love, and hope.

Imagine not WALL•E, then, but another Disney production: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.  Imagine not Buy-n-Large, but the East India Trading Company.  Imagine writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio wondering whether Andrew Stanton had cribbed some of their notes; and remember just how many times Elliott and Rossio worked this line into the script for World’s End:  “It’s just good business.”

WALL-E looks to the heavensFrom where I sit, it seems pretty clear to me that there’s a creative tension within Disney that produces highly entertaining and creative works of art—and organically generates within those works of art a certain resistance to commercialization and merchandizing.  It’s as if these writers and filmmakers are continually conscious of Disney theme park trash cans that at one time demanded, “WASTE PLEASE,” or of Happy Meals, Captain Jack Sparrow action figures, or battery-operated toy trash compactors that will one day grace the very apocalyptic landfills that WALL•E envisions.

From where you sit, then, fully realize the cynicism that envelopes me.  And yet realize that I am not alone.

During press conferences at a recent WALL•E junket that I attended, a good number of journalists pressed Andrew Stanton on a number of troublesome societal issues raised by his film.  I’d like to share his responses with you as they shed some light on the praise-worthy Pixar mantra, “It’s all about the story.”

Stanton was first questioned about his vision of future humans as obese, lazy, dependent on technology, and illiterate.  He responded:

You just read too much into it.  Honestly, I just wanted to go with…  I knew [what] I wanted humanity to be—and I didn’t know exactly how to express it at first—was something that amplified what was going on with the main point of the story of the movie, of the love story.  And I’m not one of those people who comes up with a theme and then writes to it; I go with natural things that seem to be firing and then somewhere halfway I realize what the theme is.  And I realized what I was pushing with these two programmed robots was their desire to try to figure out what the point of living was. And it took these really irrational acts of love to sort of discover them against how they were built.  And I said, “That’s it.  That’s my theme: how irrational love defeats life’s programming.”  

And I realized that’s a perfect metaphor for real life.  We all fall into our habits, our routines, our ruts; and they’re actually used quite often—consciously or unconsciously—to avoid living, to avoid having to do the messy part of having relationships with other people, of dealing with the person next to us.  It’s why we can all be in a room with our cell phones and not have to deal with one another.  And I thought, “That’s a perfect amplification of the whole point of the movie.”

So I just wanted to run with science in a way that would sort of logically project that.  And when I found out by talking to (I think his name was) John Hicks, who was an advisor to NASA about long-term residency in space, he told me this fact of [how] they still are arguing about how exactly to correctly set it up so that when a human does go all the way to Mars and back they won’t start losing their bones, because with disuse, atrophy sets in, if you don’t simulate gravity just right the entire time.  And it’s sort of a form of osteoporosis.  And you won’t get that back.  And they’ve said they’ve actually had arguments where they go, “If we don’t get this right, they’re just going to be a big blob.”  And I said, “Oh my gosh, that’s perfect. That’s perfect.”  And I didn’t want it be offputting. 

To be honest, in a very early version, I actually went so weird I actually made them big blobs of Jell-o, because I thought Jell-o was funny, and they would just wiggle and stuff. And it was kind of a Planet of the Apes conceit where they didn’t even know they were humans any more, and they found that out; but it was so bizarre I had to sort of pull back.  I needed some more grounding. 

So as I pulled back, I go, “Look, I don’t want there to be— I don’t want it to be offensive.” But I do think that if you had no reason to do anything any more—everything had been figured out, you know: health, regenerative food, all the other needs to get up; and technology made it that easy to never have to get up (it’s kind of happening just with my remote in my living room, you know)—then I guess this would sort of set in.  So I thought, “All right.  I’ll make them big babies.  I’ll make them—

There’s actually a scientific term that sort of Peter Gabriel told me about it: it’s called “neotony,” where there’s this belief that Nature sort of figures out that there’s these parts of your body that you don’t need any more to survive, so why give it to you?  Why let you grow any farther?  And I thought, “That’s perfect!” Again, it’s almost sort of a metaphor for “It’s time to sort of get up and grow up a little bit.” 

Another reporter—aware, I think, that parents are becoming a little sensitive about their children being bombarded by politically-driven ecological messages embedded in children’s movies—later pressed Stanton on the film’s apocalyptic environmental vision.  Stanton clarified:

I hate to not be able to fuel where you want to go, but that was not where I was coming from when I did that stuff.  I knew I was going into territory that was basically the same stuff, but I don’t have a political bent. I don’t have an ecological message to push. I don’t mind that it supports that kind of view. It’s certainly a good-citizen way to be.

But everything I want to do was based on the love story. I wanted the last robot on earth—that was the sentence that we came up with in ’94. I have to get everybody off the planet. I have to do it in a way that you get it without any dialogue. You have to be able to get it visually in less than a minute; so trash did that. You look at it, you get it. It’s a dump and you’ve got to move that. And even a little kid understands that, and it makes WALL•E at the lowest of the totem pole and it allowed him to sift through everything that we’ve left on the planet to show you that he’s interested in us.

So I had to look at everything from the point of view of: what will you get visually without having dialogue describe stuff to you? I actually had him find a plant before I knew where the movie was going. The reason I loved that idea is that it’s like the dandelions that push through the sidewalk. Reality forces itself through all this manmade material to exist, and that’s WALL•E. He’s this manmade object but he’s got more of a desire to live than the rest of the Universe. And I felt like he was meeting himself; it was almost looking at himself. So for some reason, I couldn’t— I couldn’t get rid of this even though I didn’t know where to go with it, but it ended up being a great symbol of hope. But the most I do is recycle, and I’m pretty bad at that, if you talk to my wife. That’s about where I push it.

Following up on that reply, another reporter noted that the studio had a merchandizing suite at the hotel promoting WALL•E products to the press, and wondered whether Stanton’s film represented something of a push-back against such commodification.  Stanton said,

I wasn’t trying to be anti anything. I think I was just trying to go “Look, too much of a good thing of anything is a cautionary tale.” Honestly, everything I did was in reverse. It was like, “I’ve gotta go with trash because I love what it does to my main character,” and it’s very clear. Well, then I went backwards from that. And I said “Why would there be too much trash?” Well it’d be really easy for me to get that we’d bought too much stuff, and it’d be really easy to show that without having to have it explained. And it’s kind of fun. It’s fun to be satirical like that. You know we all have that sort of Simpsons bent, you know. So I just went with what felt somewhat true. I mean I think we’ve always felt that we have to be sort of disciplined in that area.

The only question I managed to get in on this subject was delivered not to Stanton, but to the film’s sound designer, Ben Burtt.

GW: What I’m wondering about is whether the social commentary of WALL•E concerns you at all as a sound designer; and if so, what do you make of the irony of Pixar and Disney making essentially a film about the dangers of the commercialism of entertainment?

Burtt:  That’s— Did you ask Andrew that question?  I think— Well, I don’t think I’m appropriate— You know, I can’t represent the thinking of the film on that level.  I know that, from my contact, going back three years with the film, when Andrew pitched it to me, in the forefront was always this romantic story: kind of a Buster Keaton movie, a lonely character left alone on an desert island, and an exotic female character enters the scene; and he falls in love with her and he chases her back to the big city. And that was always the driving story line.  The world that was set up, with the demise of civilization coming about through commercialization and no exercise and so on—that was the setting to set up the science fiction part of the story. And we are seeing in the screenings a lot of reactions to that aspect of it. My point of view was that there was not a big emphasis on that; but you know Pixar and the Disney overseers, if that’s the word, they give Pixar a lot of freedom and flexibility to let the directors write and pursue their story and what messages may come out of it. It allows a message to come out that could be very personal and very different, and maybe not a corporate message either.

Another journalist responded by mentioning that Stanton had earlier affirmed that there was no political message intended, but went on to question Burtt about not seeing any agenda in the film.  Burtt continued:

I couldn’t see that at all. No. I was never part of a meeting or discussion where that was ever talked about as a goal. I always saw it as part of the science fiction setup. We want to create a world. What are the problems with the world? What is the world about? How did WALL•E get stranded here, and why are the humans missing? Well, in order to set that up, there’s an appropriate series of events, which is an extension perhaps, of course, like most science fiction, of the present and where it might take us. So that was all I saw.

So there’s little doubt in my mind, after all is said and done, that—for the filmmakers—moviemaking really is all about the story… even though they might not have thought through the cultural satire very deeply.

And yet my own personal experiences with Disney’s very effective, entertaining, and enjoyable commercial ventures leave me convinced that moviemaking is also very much about good business.  If Pixar didn’t make good movies with broad commercial appeal, they’d still be just another footnote to entertainment history… as would Disney.  And I really doubt their success is purely accidental.

Is Stanton right that cynical critics like me read far too much into all this stuff?  Probably.  Almost definitely.  John Ratzenberger, who also participated in the press conferences, might have summed it up the best:  “The adults look at the darkness of it; I don’t think the kids will.”

Oh, to be childlike (and easily manipulated?) once again.