Pixar visionary Andrew Stanton on ‘Finding Dory,’ studio secrets, and what’s next

Never underestimate a fish with short-term memory loss.

That’s one of many lessons to come out this year’s box-office reports, with Pixar’s animated sequel Finding Dory swimming into the record books as the most successful animated film of all time in the U.S. The long-awaited sequel to 2003’s Finding Nemo, Finding Dory tells the story of a fish on a quest to find her parents — a fish who can’t help forgetting everything and everyone she encounters along the way.

The film matched its epic success at the box office with overwhelmingly positive reviews from professional critics and general audiences alike, making Finding Dory one of the year’s biggest cinematic success stories.

So, what’s the secret to the film’s success?

With Finding Dory arriving on the home entertainment market this week, Digital Trends spoke to the visionary filmmaker behind some of Pixar’s most beloved films, Andrew Stanton, who wrote and directed Dory, to find out more about what went into making this phenomenally successful fish story, and what the future has in store for both Pixar and one of the studio’s most prolific creators.

Digital Trends: Of all the colorful characters introduced in Finding Nemo, why was Dory the one to get her own film?

Andrew Stanton: The only reason I made a sequel is because I was watching Finding Nemo about eight years later — I hadn’t watched that movie in a very long time — and it gave me a level of objectivity I probably never had with the film before. I walked out of the theater feeling very concerned that Dory’s issues weren’t resolved. I created her, I knew her backstory, and I kind of felt a parental obligation that she should be at peace. She was physically with a family [at the end of Finding Nemo] and happy with them, but she still doesn’t know where she’s from and she still blames herself for why she’s alone. She has this fear of forgetting everyone.

I needed to know that she’d be okay. It was this emotional, personal obligation to resolve her that made me want to go farther with another story. That was it. If it wasn’t for her there would be no sequel.

There has to be some extra difficulty in telling a story from the perspective of a character that forgets everything a few seconds after experiencing it. Was that something you had to work around in creating the movie’s narrative?

It sounds easy to identify that problem, and we can present it so simply in interviews like this, but the truth is that it took us probably two years into development for us to realize that this was why the film felt limited. No matter how funny we made her and how clever we made her journey, we’d watch the rough draft of the film and we never felt that connected to her emotionally. It was a lesson for me. Something I’ve always taken for granted when telling a story is that any character you’re focusing on in any story you’re reading about or telling has the ability to express how they’ve changed. They have an ability to self-reflect, and can say, “I felt sad yesterday, but today I feel better because someone talked to me,” or whatever. Dory didn’t have that ability. And when you rob a character of that, people can’t connect.

It was a huge epiphany and discovery to have, so then we probably spent another year or so trying to figure out how to solve that problem. She had to have short-term memory loss. We didn’t want her to conquer it and not have it any more — that’s why you like her. So it was a long-term problem.

Hank, the octopus – or rather, septopus — voiced by Ed O’Neill, is certainly the standout character introduced in Finding Dory, and the animation that brings him to life as this constantly fluid, shape- and color-changing creature is impressive, to put it mildly. Was he as big of a challenge for the film’s animation team as he seems?

Technically, yes. Nothing else came even close. In fact, he was so difficult that he might top any other character we’ve ever made, in any movie, at any time. We barely got away with him in this movie. We would’ve had to scrap him in the conception phase under any other terms.

To create Hank, we had to make a puppet out of water. He could be any shape at any time, and to make that many marionette strings to puppet a character is insane. To control that and make that manageable so that it doesn’t take down an entire studio with the computing power it needs to do, that was something we really had to conquer.

You’ve worked on all of the Toy Story movies in addition to Finding Nemo and Finding Dory. Do you enjoy making sequels within franchises you’ve helped create, or are fresh, standalone films more appealing to you as a filmmaker?

“You have to understand that if a movie came across as a sequel, I wouldn’t make it.”

You have to understand that if a movie came across as a sequel, I wouldn’t make it. It’s only a sequel because you’re furthering a character’s world or a character’s development. For the first three to six months when you’re working on a sequel, you’re working with familiar characters you already know, but the truth is, you’re going to quickly get to the point where you need to know more about them and you have to go deeper with them — and then it’s all new territory. The situation they’re going to be in is different than the situation they were in during the first film, so after that three-to-six-month honeymoon period, it’s an original movie for the next three years. So in our minds it doesn’t feel like there’s been anything “sequel” about it.

You’ve been so instrumental in Pixar’s growth over the years. Has Pixar changed over time as Disney’s own animation studio has taken off?

Not in relation to Disney, no. The truth that makes me feel comfortable about Pixar is that it’s never been the same place for more than a year and a half. And that’s because it’s very respectful of and very dependent on the individuals and the artists that make the films. It’s not a factory. There’s not a “Pixar way” to make a movie, even though other people have studied it from the outside and made their lists and their rules, and we can’t stop that from getting out there and being turned into lore.

But the real truth is that there is nobody flying the plane. It’s just the people making each film, and the only way we can make a film well here is to let the right people express themselves and their individuality and their vision for whatever film they’re making. That means it’s going to have a different flavor to it and be a little different every time — not just in the content but how it gets made. So this place has never been the same for like a year and a half, and so as long as it keeps changing, I’ll be able to sleep at night.

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You wrote and directed the live-action movie John Carter, based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ series of sci-fi novels. I really enjoyed the film, but it didn’t do so well in theaters. Do you have any interest in returning to the live-action movie world after that experience?

I will always mourn the fact that I didn’t get to make the other two films I planned for that series. John Carter was the only time I’ve ever planned out more than one film at the same time. There were three movies I planned to make, and there may be an event we do in which I pitch the other two and we show John Carter again in IMAX — maybe next year. I’d like to preserve all of that and let it be time-capsuled and then we can all move on. But I do have the live-action bug and loved every second of working on that film. I think whatever I do next will be live-action. I need a break from animation. As much as I love it, animation takes too long and I’m getting older. Instead of working on one thing in four years, I’d like to work on four things in one year.

I suspect that answers my final question for you: Is this the end of the Finding Nemo and Finding Dory series for you? Do you see another sequel in the future — like Finding Hank, or something along those lines?

Everybody says Finding Hank is the way to go, and I’ve learned to stop saying “No” or “Never.” I said the same thing about Finding Nemo years ago [that there wouldn’t be a sequel], and now here we are. All I know is that it won’t be me any time soon. I’ve spent eight years with fish. Someone else might have a great idea and want to do it, and if it really is great, I’ll probably say go for it. But it’s not going to be me.

Finding Dory is available on Blu-ray and DVD now, as well as many on-demand video services.

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