Kori Rae Talks the Dynamics of Producing Monsters University
With Pixar’s Monsters University scaring up big box office numbers in its first week of release, Kori Rae is probably resting a bit easier. Regardless of the success of any studio’s previous films, in today’s fickle movie biz, nothing is a “sure thing.” Not even a Pixar film. Especially not a prequel to one of their most popular films, Monsters, Inc. Kori, a 20-year Pixar veteran, knows firsthand the realities of the feature film business. That understanding, along with her steady hand and sensitivity to the rigors of the animation production process, are but a few of the reasons she was chosen to produce Pixar’s latest hit film. But it wasn’t always a hit film. For the better part of four years, it was anything but a hit film. Often, it was just plain terrible. But ultimately, Kori, Director Dan Scanlon and their entire crew iterated their little fingers to the bone and created a funny, poignant and charming film.
Prior to the film’s release, I had a chance to sit with Kori and discuss the frustrations, joys, pressure and overall dynamic of producing Monsters University.
Dan Sarto: There aren't that many animated feature films getting made, let alone getting made at your studio. There aren’t that many producers, let alone female producers. So how does one go about getting to produce a feature film at Pixar? Especially Monsters University. You’re treading on hallowed ground.
Kori Rae: Yes I know, I know. It was a little bit scary. At Pixar, personally, I started at the bottom and worked my way up. I think that's probably the story of a lot of people, especially in production. The producers here, a lot of us started a long time ago, coming to Pixar as a PA or an assistant. We learned everything here at the studio. But I didn't know, when I first arrived here, how much this was where I “needed” to be and where I wanted to be. It just turned out to be the perfect amalgam of art and technology and filmmaking and storytelling. Until I was here, I didn't even know that I had such a passion for production side of making films. It's so much about team work and collaboration. I have a little bit of background in teaching and coaching. I’ve played team sports my whole life and I think that helped me a bunch. It helped me because producing really is like overseeing a large team. But it’s also creative problem solving. That's kind of what teachers do in terms of having to teach new students every year. How do you teach the same thing over and over and not get bored? So really, at Pixar it's about creative problem solving and continued learning. I've been here 20 years and every single day I come to work I learn something new. I learn something about myself and about filmmaking.
DS: I'm sure there are group of folks that have similar capabilities. What put you in the producer’s chair? Was it a matter of timing? Did you hear about the project early enough in development to let it be known you’d like to produce?
KR: Well, I worked on Monster's, Inc. So I was quite familiar with that world and I definitely put my hat in the ring and let people know that I would love to produce this film. Timing is always a part of it. That worked out. Because of my history here and because I've been in production for so long, they trusted me and they gave me the shot. Luckily, hopefully, it worked out.
DS: In my opinion, having seen the film, I'd say it definitely “did” work out. As far as the dynamics of the 20,000 or 50,000 or 100,000 decisions that get made over the course of the production, how do you assess when to say “Yes” as opposed to when to say “No?”
KR: Part of it is my style, and part of it is the Pixar culture that I've grown up with. Most of the time, we don't know what we're doing. I try to create trust with the team that I'm working with. I am vulnerable and say, “I'm not exactly sure if this is the right way to go. But trust me, if it's not the right way to go, we won't be penalized for it.” I'm not going to say, “We can't.” I will say, “We'll still have time, still have resources, still have opportunities to go back and do it a different way if we need to. We’ll be able to fix it.” It's also about soliciting information and opinions from the people around me. I very rarely make a decision on my own even though the buck stops with me and I need to be the one who can make a decision. Most of the time, I'm getting input, just being the ring leader and saying, “Hey, this all sounds great. The majority seems to think that we should do this. That's sounds like a great idea. Let's try it.”
Again it's creating that trust with the crew that if it doesn't work out or if it's not the direction we should have gone in, it's nobody's fault. I found that a lot of the crew members fear that they’ll get in trouble if they do something wrong. They’ll be the one to blame. And so in order to get people to open up and not work from that place of fear, you have to back it up and you have to make sure that when it doesn't work out or when someone asks, “Why did we do that?” it's all my responsibility as the boss. It’s no one else’s responsibility but my own.
DS: Take that one step further. You are working with very passionate, very talented artists. Starting on down from John [Lasseter], from a creative standpoint, from a visual development stand point, from a story standpoint, what is the dynamic with regards to arbitrating decisions? Who gets the final say?
KR: The producer's role is to partner with the director of the film. It’s a creative partnership, and so ultimately the decision-making for the film should be coming from the director. We have an amazing brain trust here. We have John, Andrew [Stanton], Pete [Docter], Lee [Unkrich], a ton of resources to help us make those decisions. The truth is there very seldom needs to be any kind of arbitration because the best ideas generally are agreed upon.
DS: They percolate up…
KR: Right. On this film, it never happened that there was an idea put forth that the director said, “I don't want to do that” and I had to say, “Well, you need to do that because Pete or John really want it.” That just doesn't happen. It certainly didn't happen on this film. It's such a collaborative thing, that it's ultimately always agreed upon what the right thing to do is for the story. There are plenty of heated conversations, but that's what makes it great. The whole group, the whole studio, all everyone want is a good movie. So we're all aiming for the same thing.