Up, Up And Away: An Interview With Up Director Pete Docter And Producer Jonas Rivera

Posted in Film, Interviews, Previews
By Sam Bathe on 25 Apr 2009

Carl Fredricksen, a 78-year-old curmudgeon, is feeling as if life may have passed him by. To make good on a promise he made to his late wife, he sets out to fulfill his dream of a great adventure by tying thousands of balloons to his house and flying away to the wilds of South America – only to discover that he has inadvertently brought along a very chatty and frustratingly cheerful 8-year-old boy named Russell.

Director Pete Docter and producer Jonas Rivera realise that an old man might seem the most unlikely of characters to entertain audiences. “We knew it was a risk, but there is a rich history of grouchy, old characters,” said Docter. “A crusty, old guy just felt appealing. There are a lot of entertainment possibilities. Also, it hadn’t been done yet. One of the big things for us at Pixar is not treading the same ground, and this being the tenth film, that’s getting harder and harder to do.”

With Pixar churning out such critical and commercial hits as Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille and WALL•E, Docter and Rivera recognize that all eyes are on them to hit the next animated homerun. While they admit to trying to act cool, they do feel the pressure. Their winning formula is to make films that they themselves love and that will both entertain and strike a real emotional chord with audiences.

Docter and Rivera asked themselves one question while making this film, “What are we giving the audience to take home?” It is this approach that has made them two of Pixar Animation Studios’ most prodigious talents.

Joining Pixar in 1990, Docter was part of the original team responsible for developing the story and characters for Toy Story, for which he also served as supervising animator. He served as a storyboard artist on A Bug’s Life, and wrote the initial story treatment for Toy Story 2. Docter made his debut as a director on Monsters, Inc., which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film. As one of Pixar’s key creative contributors, Docter garnered an original story credit for early story development on Disney Pixar’s Golden Globe and Academy Award-winning film, WALL•E. For his contributions on WALL•E, Docter was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Rivera joined Pixar in 1994 as a production assistant on the studio’s first feature film, Toy Story. Having worked on almost every Pixar feature film to date, Rivera’s ability and expertise has enabled him to advance his role on each of the studio’s subsequent productions. Most recently, Rivera served as production manager on the Golden Globe winning feature Cars.

When the duo teamed up in 2004 to begin work on Up, they knew the look of the characters was going to be an artistic breakthrough for animation, unlike any they had ever dreamed in the past. Docter recalls, “We have these amazing technical directors who know how to do almost everything, and on this film we said, ‘We want you to do everything wrong!’ Ignore the way things work in real life. The look was very hard to achieve both artistically and technically. Hopefully it’s something that is not obvious but invisible.” Rivera adds, “We didn’t want real, we wanted caricature. It is a little more throwback to old Disney.”

The look of the film was so important to Docter and Rivera that the Up creative team traveled to the South American backdrop of the film to ensure that the landscape was perfect. Paradise Falls, the fictional location of the film, was sketched from the actual table top mountain, like an island in the sky, where Brazil, Venezuela and Guyana meet. They chose the locale because they needed someplace isolated that Carl could get stuck, without any outside influences so that he could grow and evolve as a character. “The mountains are over a mile high, there is no way to get up or down,” said Rivera. “This location felt like a cool place because it is a lost world and very detached, and also sets the tone for making an adventure film.”

Docter and Rivera do a superb job of setting the emotive tone as well. Through a brief yet poignant segment early on in the film, an emotional foundation is established, which is the bedrock for the story. Through a glimpse into the charming relationship between Carl and his wife, Ellie, we learn that Carl was a balloon salesman. Together they had one big dream – to take a great adventure to Paradise Falls. But as life’s little unexpected nuisances got in the way, their dreams never materialized. After Ellie’s death, Carl disengages from the outside world. Upon the harsh realization that he never fulfilled her wish, he takes immediate action to keep their dream alive. It is from this very real-life, human montage, that serious wackiness builds, and there seems to be no shortage of it before the curtain finally close.

Up is released in America on 29th May and in the UK on 16th October.

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