I attended the Monster’s University Freshman Orientation (press event) in April. Travel expenses and accommodations were covered by Disney/Pixar (as well as plenty of behind-the-scenes sneak peek information about the upcoming movie) but no monetary compensation was received. All opinions are my own.
When Monsters, Inc. came to theaters in 2001, Dan Scanlon was just starting his first year working with Pixar. Like the rest of us, Dan got to know the world of Monsters, Inc as a fan first, before ever working in the world of Monsters. Now, Dan is fully immersed in that world, as Director of Pixar’s newest film, Monsters University, opening in theaters on June 21.
One of the things that struck me over and over as I visited the Pixar Studios buildings and employees in April was how down-to-earth everyone was. Such was the case with Monsters University’s director Dan Scanlon. (I mean, this looks like a friendly guy, don’t you think?)
We got right down to business with Dan, who gave us some fun insight into the planning and production process of a movie like Monsters University.
One of the first questions brought up by our group of bloggers was, “How challenging was is to abandon certain elements of Monsters, Inc. as you were making the new movie?”
Dan Scanlon responded, “In the first film, Mike says to Sulley, “You’ve been jealous of my good looks since the fourth grade.” It’s a thing that a lot of people have brought up, and we certainly noticed it right away when we started developing the story idea. We did several versions of the film where we actually showed the guys meeting when they were younger, and one of the things that ended up happening is we ended up realizing that, in order to service that particular line, we were hurting the story.
We were hurting the story that we wanted to tell, which was the story of how these guys met and how they became friends. It became clear that in order to respect that line, we would had to have made ‘Monsters Elementary’, which was not a story we wanted to tell. John Lassiter came to me and said, ‘You kind of have to let that go. In the long run, it’s gonna hurt both movies if you don’t tell this right.’ And the spirit of that line in the first film was to say that these two guys have known each other a long time. So, let’s just imagine that ‘You’ve been jealous of my good looks since fourth grade’ is just a monster expression.”
I like that explanation.
The role of fear in Monsters University
We moved on to discuss how fear was used in the story of Monsters University. Monsters, Inc. was unique in that they deconstructed monsters in a way where the viewer got to know them. The first movie helped kids understand where monsters were “coming from,” which led to taking some of the fear out of the monsters.
Dan Scanlon: “I think initially we always sort of make these movies for ourselves and keep our own families in mind as the gauge. It is tricky to make a children’s movie when you’re dealing with the issue of fear. The good thing is, the monsters are still these sort of fun characters. But it is always a tough line.” He goes on to say that he remembers watching movies when he was a kid, and some element of fear is thrilling and fun, too (just think about the step mother in Snow White…she was terrifying!).
Why the college scene for the Monsters sequel?
A few of us were curious about the reasoning behind making a prequel…and making the setting college, especially in light of the fact that college tends to be pretty wild and often not very kid-friendly.
Dan Scanlon explained, “We knew we wanted to tell the story of how they met. I think the reason college came up was – and I could be wrong because I didn’t work on the first film – but I think that in the early stages of the first film they had actually talked about their old college days.” And so when the idea of making a prequel came up, everyone immediately thought of exploring Mike and Sulley’s college experience.
“Monsters University also gives you an opportunity to just get to see another monster world, or another place for monsters to go that seemed classic. Plus Pixar had never done a college movie,” said Scanlon.
In preparing for the story line and the design of Monsters University, the Pixar team revisited their own college days, as well as a bunch of classic movies from the 80s that have a college theme (when you see the movie, you’ll notice a ton of 80s hidden touches throughout).
Dan Scanlon went on to say, “You know, it’s funny. I feel like when I was in school, I was probably more like Mike. I was pretty focused on trying to get good grades, and more like Squishy where I just didn’t really have a lot of friends. Which I didn’t even realize until someone asked that question. I realized, ‘wow…that sounds so sad.’
He said that he could really relate on a deeply emotional level to Mike’s college experience. “That feeling of showing up at art school, and realizing that, though your mom puts your drawings on the refrigerator, you’re actually not the greatest artist in the world. It’s horrifying. And it’s humbling, and I think that people have that experience a lot.”
“And that part of it, that idea of Mike being up against that was what I felt would be the heart of the story, and what I felt connected to personally is what we do when things don’t work out the way we’d planned.”
Monsters University is about the friendship between Mike and Sulley, but it also has a wonderful message about never giving up and accepting the fact that sometimes what we think we want is not always what we need…
That’s a lesson I’m still trying to master, even 20 years after high school!
I attended the #MonstersUEvent press trip during the month of April. All travel expenses were covered but no monetary compensation was received. All thoughts and opinions are my own. Photos included in this post were taken by the official Pixar MU photographer. Used with permission.
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