What’s a guy gotta do to get a shot at directing his first Pixar film? In Dan Scanlon’s case, he may have had to kill somebody.
Granted, that somebody was fictional — and a ’70s children’s TV host, to boot. But thanks in part to whacking a live-action character, Scanlon got his first crack at heading up, ironically, an animated movie.
The Pixar film that proved his reward is “Monsters University,” the first prequel in the Oscar-larded history of the studio that brought moviegoers the beloved hit “Monsters Inc.” a dozen years ago. Scanlon, a master of story, has worked on Pixar’s “Cars” and “Brave” and the short “Mater and the Ghostlight.” But he thinks it was his low-budget, self-written/directed/starring live-action 2009 mockumentary, “Tracy,” that helped him get the “Monsters University” gig. Directing the film marks a personal career leap and, as a happy coincidence, it opens Friday, his 37th birthday.
“Making ‘Tracy’ on my own may have made a difference — for me and them,” Scanlon says by phone from Oakland, not far from Pixar’s headquarters in Emeryville, Calif. “It’s not the same as an animated story, but it is an attempt to tell a feature-length story with heart and humor.”
(To round out his cast for the wry, Christopher Guest-esque “Tracy” — which centers on plumbing the mystery surrounding a wacky TV host’s death — Scanlon recruited such Pixar pals as Ronnie del Carmen and “Brave” director Mark Andrews. And the film is dedicated to late Pixar legend Joe Ranft, the mentor who taught Scanlon so much about story.)
Having a pitch-perfect ear for such heart and humor was crucial to making “Monsters University,” in which the odd couple of scaremongers — small, mouthy Mike (voiced by Billy Crystal) and hulking, mellow Sulley (John Goodman) — are returned to college, back when their differing styles made them rivals. The movie’s fresh energy comes from plugging into the formation of that prickly-before-fuzzy friendship.
“John and Billy had to reinvent these characters while keeping them familiar. Mike is still funny and confident, but he’s also more idealistic and naive and passionate than what we saw before,” Scanlon says of his little cyclops-eyed live-wire.
“Sulley is the same way: He’s so lovable in most instances, but we wanted to give [John] somewhere to go, so we made Sulley cocky.”
Scanlon says they even tried to center the story on Sulley. But thanks to the director’s well-trained instinct, he could tell that wasn’t what best served this monster origin story.
“Mike’s story was the heart of the movie,” Scanlon says. “No matter what we did [with Sulley’s narrative], it didn’t hold a candle to Mike’s.
“We like that in telling Mike’s [underdog] story, it’s helpful to know that his dream is not going to work out. He had to work hard for everything.”
And when it came time for Mike and Sulley to be given new life — springing from page to pixel — Crystal (65) and Goodman (60) brought the vocal energy of considerably younger men, Scanlon says.
“Whenever we get them together, they play off of each other,” says the Ohio-bred Scanlon, noting that they often performed together in the sound studio — hardly standard practice for animation. “They make each other better. The emotional scenes are better. [Recording together] doesn’t work with every actor, but these guys have a charisma and a chemistry. . . . It was a great experience the days they were together.”
Besides his returning actors, Scanlon could also rely on the famed Pixar brain trust — such animation greats as John Lasseter, Andrew Staunton, Brad Bird and Pete Docter — to help detect creative issues during the film’s three-year process. Then again, they’d already taught him so much.
“I spent so much with the brain trust in other films, I didn’t see a barrier to break through” as a director, he says. “I saw it as a moment of trust.
“And when it came time to get help, I saw how their gut [instinct] is always right. It’s not always the right solution, but they’re right when pointing out the problem.”
So after all those years working in the story department, what was the best part of helming a Pixar project?
“As director, I had a front-row seat to see how these movies are actually put together.”
Scanlon sounds fully and utterly enthused — like a man who, on his birthday, looks forward to letting the world unwrap his gift.