Dan Scanlon Talks Monsters University
You should be consistent…this scene is about sadness…that’s a big part of your job. There are brilliant people [on the crew] who know how to convey sadness. If they are not, then you correct. “I’m not really getting sadness from that.” But sometimes, it’s really as easy as that. I think people complicate it beyond that sometimes because they want to, because…
Dan Sarto: They think they should.
Dan Scanlon: Yeah. To answer your question though, to be the go to guy a lot of times, you just have to keep your cool a little bit, keep it simple so that people can understand what you’re doing. There are times to convey that, “Hey, everything is fine” and then there are times to be honest and say, “You know, I don’t know what I’m doing here. I need your help.” But I learned. Leadership is a really important part of the job, and luckily I had Kori Rae, who is a great leader, and John Lasseter who is a great leader. Sometimes I think you learn more from your managers. An artist, put in this position, doesn’t always know how to be a leader. I had some great managers in the departments too, and you’d learn a lot from them about how to manage personality types and how to be a leader. It’s a big part of the job that I don’t think a lot of people realize at time.
Dan Sarto: Well that’s because most people don’t aren’t in a position to need to worry about those management dynamics. But that’s where a lot of the difficulty in any project comes from…
Dan Scanlon: Absolutely.
Dan Sarto: It’s wrangling and dealing with people. Regardless of how talented and experienced they are, at the end of the day you’re still making a film under a deadline, with a certain amount of people, with a certain amount of resources. Do you ever wake up regretting taking the helm?
Dan Scanlon: Every Pixar movie for sure has a moment where you think, “I don’t think this is a movie.” I certainly had those moments. I mean there were certainly moments where we were in the story room and you watch the movie die on the table. You put A next to B and suddenly none of it lines up anymore. We feel that all the time. It’s a terrible feeling. I’m not exactly sure that there was a moment where we thought, “This is definitely gonna work.” But it does feel like when we’re lucky, there's usually a screening where everyone says, “That’s your story.” You try a bunch of stuff, but there's a moment where you say you’ve got the bones of it now. When we realized this was Mike’s story and not Sulley’s, that was a big deal because we had our throughline and our heart. When we added the Oozma Kappa team and they started to really work with Mike and Sulley, that was a big moment of, “There's something to this that’s really worth making…and is working.”
Dan Sarto: Describe the dynamic of deciding when a scene is done. No more iterations.
Dan Scanlon: That’s where I learned a lot from Kori, something she does really well, balancing that out. So much of making a movie too is about choosing your battles. Sometimes realizing that this is just going to take more work. Gauging that as you go. Luckily I work at a place with really talented people so when you make a choice to let something go it probably looks pretty good. Near the end anyway, it’s about morale and keeping people’s energy up. You don’t want to be the person that’s iterating over and over again on something that just frankly doesn’t matter. Again, I always go back to the story. How big a story point is this? How great does this really have to be to convey the idea? I worry more sometimes about spending the energy of people rather than spending money.
And I think you want them to know that you’ve got that in mind. I’m not spending tons of time crafting a perfect water bottle that’s in the background of a scene or that doesn’t really matter in the scene. Even with jokes, frankly, sometimes I think you can fall down a pit with a joke and you have to ask yourself is this more important than a story point that we really want to spend this time with later? But again, luckily I could always look to my leads. I would ask, “Is this hard to do? Is this easy to do?” so that you could justify whether or not it was worth doing, just trying to keep people’s momentum and energies right.
Dan Sarto: Just because you can do something doesn’t mean…
Dan Scanlon: …doesn’t mean it’s worth doing. Luckily, I felt like you said, story was one of my comfort zones. But as you get out of your comfort zone, you really look to the support of everyone around you to make sure you’re making choices in an intelligent way. It’s a marathon and you want to keep everybody excited and passionate and not wear them out. But story is hard in that, like you said, you only have a certain amount of iterations and sometimes you have to do those iterations faster even though it’s difficult. But that’s a place where I think, sometimes sadly for the story team, it is worth it. It affects everything down the road. We’ve got to get the story just right even if it means working later hours and working faster and a little harder. I’d rather spend that energy there because it’s going to matter so much more later on.
Dan Sarto: Looking back on the production, what would you say were the biggest challenges you faced?
Dan Scanlon: Well in the most general way, definitely the story. Because it was a prequel. The prequel added an extra little layer of complication. It was something we hadn’t dealt with before, something that almost at times felt unfair to the story. At one point we were saying, “Crafting a story is like this balancing act where you’re balancing this house of cards and every now and then it falls down. A prequel, it’s like you’re balancing this house of cards and every once in a while a little kid with ‘Prequel’ or ‘Predictability’ written on his shirt comes and knocks them down unfairly.” You just feel like, “Oh the story only worked because we know the ending.” That was definitely hard.