Producer Kori Rae Talks MONSTERS UNIVERSITY, Creating Pixar’s First Prequel, Casting Helen Mirren, Crafting John Ratzenberger’s Role and More

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During our recent set visit to Pixar Animation Studios for Monsters University, we had a chance to sit down with producer Kori Rae to talk about the behind-the-scenes production of the studio’s newest animated film.  During this roundtable interview, Rae talked about the inherent challenges of creating Pixar’s first prequel, getting to explore existing characters more thoroughly, other variations of the film that were discussed and her various roles within Pixar.  Since casting was part of her responsibilities for Rae on Monsters University, she also talked about getting Helen Mirren to sign on, searching for Billy Crystal’s younger counterpart to voice Mike Wazowski in grade school and just how they go about crafting roles for John Ratzenberger.  Hit the jump for the full interview.  Monsters University, also featuring the voices of John Goodman and Steve Buscemi, opens June 21st.

kori-rae-monsters-university-interviewQuestion:  This is the first prequel for Pixar I think isn’t it?

Kori Rae:  It is, yes.

So that’s kind of interesting.

Rae:  Yeah.

What was kind of the biggest challenge of going back and revisiting these characters as younger?

Rae:  Yeah, one thing we learned for sure early on is that prequels are hard. They’re definitely, definitely hard, because it’s a lot more has to go into fear now.  How to not make your film predictable.  Everybody knows how it ends. Everybody kind of knows who the characters are at the end of the film.  And you have to figure out twists and turns along the way to keep the audience engaged and involved and surprised, so that they’re rooting for a character even though they know how it ends.

We learned a ton and it was really, really challenging.  And we, we had a realization of why there aren’t that many prequels out in the world, especially good ones. They’re really hard. [LAUGHS]

Why so?

Rae:  Knowing how the beloved Mike and Sulley were as characters and, if you think about Monsters, Inc. and who those characters are, there there’s so much more to be mined.  And we wanted to just find out who and figure out who they really are.  Who is Sullivan and before he gets to Monsters, Inc.?  How did he get there? What type of Monster was he?  Same with Mike. Mike is sweet but he’s a comedic side kick in Monsters, Inc.  We wanted to dig, find out a little bit more of him.  What was his life before that and who was he?  So we just wanted to dig in and find out more about them and go back to a time in life that everyone could relate to. And that 18 to 22-year-old age group, around college, so that even if you didn’t go to college everyone is 18, 19 and kind of out on their own for the first time.  Figuring out who they are, who they want to be, who they thought they were.  So we just thought that was a really cool place to explore.

kori-rae-monsters-universityDo you have a character bible for Monsters, Inc. and can you go back to use that for backstory?

Rae:  We did a little bit but they only took us so far.  There was a lot more to figure out. So there were some basics there, but the truth is we really needed to dig a lot deeper and kind of create much more in-depth back story for both of them.  And that was part of the fun and part of the challenge.

Is there an iteration where we see Mike and Sulley’s parents?  Were they always consciously left off the table?

Rae:  No, we definitely scored that.  We have scored it in many ways and each of their ages. What we kept coming back to was, it took so much time that we were losing out on their relationship once they met, but both separately and then when they met. 

And so we finally just kept leaning towards where we ended up.  but we did many iterations with, with both sets of parents. [LAUGHS]

Do you ever sort of wonder if Mike was enough of a character to actually work with?  Like physically, he’s just a circle right?  Like who’s gonna relate to this circle within a circle?

Rae:  Yeah that’s the art of character development and that character story arc within the film and I think it was a lot of fun figuring out who he was from an emotional standpoint and from a character standpoint. Based on what we knew about him in Monsters, Inc. it was a great deal of fun to figure out who he was and how he got to be the crazy guy he was in Monsters, Inc

monsters-university-poster-mike-wazowskiSo Boo was integral to the first film and audiences loved her.  Was it challenging not to have her in this film?  Did you ever consider a sequel where she’s older?

Rae: Sure I think we did, but we really felt like this idea of, if going backwards was really worth it.  And it kind of also gave us a reason to come up with new characters that you would fall in love with just as much.  And so that was something we really, really tried hard to do and we hope we did.

How did this crew change over time?

Rae: The crew changes over the course of the four years that the film was in production, but at its peak we were about 260-270 people on the crew here.

This is your first feature film where you’re the producer right?

Rae:  Yeah.

Talk to us a little bit about that role and it’s different than the previous roles you’ve had.

Rae:  Yeah, so I’ve produced commercials and then started in Production Management managing the Animation Dept. and the Production Manager on Monsters, Inc. and Associate Producer on that film as well and Incredibles.  But certainly the Producer is exponentially more challenging and more involved, because the buck stops with you. 

So I got to learn how to deal with talent and work on all the casting. So there’s just a lot more elements to the role.  The production stuff and experience I had, but then there’s all of the marketing and the consumer products.  Everything that kind of relates to the film outside of the actual production is also the responsibility of the Producer.

Do you have to sign off when, when they ask for double the computing power?

Rae:  [LAUGHS] Yeah, with the executive team kind of.  It’s a co-signing, if you will.  [LAUGHS]

How do you go about making a decision like that?

Rae: It’s just a discussion about what the show needs and what the studio needs. We needed more rendering power to use the new lighting tools that we implemented on the film.  This studio needed more rendering power as well just to make sure that all of the films that were coming into production had their needs met.  And so it was a negotiation and a decision. It was a studio-wide decision; it wasn’t just for the film.

kori-rae-monsters-university-interviewAs a follow up to the Production question, Pixar gets a lot of flak for women directors, but most of the Producers at Pixar – Lindsey, you, Darla – are just women.

Rae:  Uh-huh.

Is it just strong women in the production role?

Rae:  Right.

Why do you think that is?  Is that something that John personally said this is a good fit have to this type of personality producing and it happens to be predominantly women?

Rae:  Yeah, I don’t think so.  I mean I don’t think it’s a gender thing. We had got Jonas Rivera who produced Up and John Walker produced The Incredibles.  I think we have really talented people here.  I think a lot of this probably in the earlier days. Catherine, myself and Darla started out as a Producer, but we kind of came up through the system here and and learned a lot.  So I think that we’re also always looking from within, so it’s kind of just trying to use the resources and the experience and tap into that experience.

In terms of the talent, did you have a hand in terms of getting Helen Mirren on board?

Rae: Only in so much as setting up a meeting with her.  She wanted to come here to meet and find out about the movie and talk with John and Dan about it and everything. So in that way, yeah.  But as soon as we had the character designed and the story character description kind of nailed down, she was definitely at the top of our list – on Dan’s list – creatively. An incredible talent that they hoped, at that time, that we could get. So it was a huge thing for us and, and she’s just amazing.

But at the same time you have to take this Oscar Winning Actor and then make this this horrible looking creature…

Rae:  That’s true.  But you know she thought Hardscrabble [was an] amazing character design, but really it was when we talked to her about who the character was that she really thought that was great.  That was this powerful you know legend of a scarer.  And that she was the Dean of the whole scaring program at this very prestigious school.  And so she really took to it.  And, and was thrilled to take on that role.

monsters-university-sliceSo, conversely though, you know again Billy Crystal’s the one who basically dived sort of this movie; how do you go about finding the little Billy Crystal?

Rae:  That was hard, that was hard and finding really good child actors is difficult, especially in this medium where they have …  I mean adult actors find it difficult because they don’t have anybody to play against and they’re in a room by themselves and they’re reading dialogue, but it was especially difficult to find.  We went to New York.  We went all over trying to find someone who had that little, that little edge, that gumption of a young Billy Crystal. And so it was a long search, but we found him: Noah Johnston.  We think he’s great.  We think he pulls it off and Dan worked with him really hard to kinda get that, you know just even how quickly he speaks as a young kid.  And most kids that young don’t.  He’s just got it goin’ on.  He’s talking to all of those kids on the playground and … so yeah.  So he was a good find.  It took a while though.

So were Billy and John like on board in the beginning?  Or did you have to do any convincing for them to come back?

Rae: No, no and they were on board from the beginning and, in fact, I think Billy had been asking John, “When, when, when?  When can I be Mike Wazowski again?” [LAUGHS]

Really?

Rae: Yeah.  He loves this character.  I think even in an interview he stated that it’s his favorite character he’s ever portrayed or played.  So he’s really, really fantastic and he is Mike Wazowski in every sense.  So they were both thrilled to come back. [LAUGHS]

Let’s say that this story takes more than a year. So he’s still got three years of college left.  All the years between this movie and Monsters, Inc.

Rae: No.

Do you anticipate doing a force or another movie.  Do you think there’s still material here to play with?  What do you guys have any plans?

Rae:  Yeah, no plans. I have no idea. I’m sure something could come up, but nothing has been talked about. Nothing has been even mentioned thus far.

monsters-university-set-visitOnce every 21 years.

Rae:  I honestly don’t know.  I mean so we’ll see, we’ll see how this one does.  Finish it out.

John Ratzenberg popped up in every movie you guys make. Is it literally a John Ratzenberg meeting?

Rae: You know, there’s not.  It really is … we want to kind of keep that good luck charm going, but it’s not something we think about within the story. It comes up organically and sometimes it’s early in the process of the story when we’re like, “Oh, you know that would be great. We can pull John in for that.” Other times it’s later in the process, where we haven’t figured it all out yet and we come back and we’re like, “Oh, what would be great you know–”  But it usually just magically works out somehow.  That there is a great role, but there’s not … there’s no big meeting that happens.  It really does happen within the show organically.  John and Pete didn’t even know for a while where we were gonna use him and so it was a surprise to them.  So kinda fun, but yeah, it works.

Talk to me about working with Pete on this and what he was able to contribute himself?

Rae: Yeah.

And possibly even revising?

Rae:  Right, right. Pete was so great and he’s so generous with his time and his energy, so he was very involved, especially at the beginning. He would come to our story sessions and sit in when we wanted him to and when we needed him there to kind of guide. And then, throughout the film, he was there for Dan as a resource. 

They had lunch every week, they would talk about the film. He was just a touchstone anytime we felt like we were at a place where we wanted to run something by him. I mean it would come up sometimes in character design or even set design.  We would want to run stuff by him just to make sure that we were getting it right, that these characters and the sets and the environments were all in the world and fitting in the world properly.  And so he gave us some really great guidance up front and then we were off, but he trusted Dan so much and he trusted the team so much that he was never worried, just excited and generous.  And would help when, when we needed him to and wanted him to.

monsters-university-dean-hardscrabbleFrom what we’ve seen it the first 30 minutes, Dean Hardscrabble is a fairly minor role; does she take on more screen time?

Rae:  I think over the course of the film she’s incredibly important.  I mean it’s just who she is and what she stands for is really the most important. Screen time, sure, yeah.  You’ll see her certainly in the rest of the film. You’ve seen a good smattering on her in the portion that you did see and it’s really not screen time about her. She’s such an important part of the story and what she represents.

The dark side of being the scarer?

Rae: I think hopefully it’s more about being a teacher and a teacher who has certain ideas and thoughts about things and is kind of, you know, not penetrable and thinks that they know everything.  The intention of Dean Hardscrabble is to kind of be that type of person in someone’s life who is unwavering and believes they know everything.  The hope is that those characters like that can change. In this particular instance, Mike and Sulley can have a hand in helping her change a little bit, change her way of thinking.

I don’t sense a true villain in this movie.

monsters-university-posterRae:  Not so much.  It’s a little bit different than that you know.  There are different archetypes and different things that you come across, but it’s not quite as heavy handed as a flat out villain, so.

The look of the college is very much like Hollywood.  Everybody here would imagine their own as like, “Oh yeah that kind of looks like my place.”

Rae:  Right. Yay! That was the intention. [LAUGHS] It worked.

Now that seems like a tricky thing to come up with, that it’s something that everyone could relate to.

Rae: Yeah it’s great if that’s what you’re getting, that’s fantastic because that was absolutely the intention.  And that was what Dan and the whole Art Department and all of the designers really wanted to get across, that it was recognizable and that everybody would feel like, “Oh, I could go there or I have gone there.”  And that it was gettable, even though it’s in the Monster world and there are certain things about the architecture that are quite different, but that it’s recognizable as a school.  So, yeah, that was intentional.  That was what we were going for.  We were hoping to do that.

By Dave Trumbore

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