Inspiration from actual events

SPOTLIGHT

Family road trip helps Pixar director find the message behind `Cars'

Spotlight On John Lasseter

June 09, 2006|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

John Lasseter, the creative chief and top director at Pixar and Disney Animation, long ago proved that he can create timeless fairy tales with insects, in the fractured Aesop's fable A Bug's Life (1998), and with toys, in Toy Story (1995) and Toy Story 2 (1999). He extends his reach in Cars, an ultracontemporary comedy-drama about the perils of careerism and speed for speed's sake.

Now 49, Lasseter rooted this tale of a racing wunderkind who gets his comeuppance in his own recent experience. On the phone from the movie's premiere at the Coca-Cola 600 in Concord, N.C., two weeks ago, Lasseter says, "It's a personal story, and it comes from how I felt after working nonstop through the '90s, directing Toy Story and A Bug's Life and Toy Story 2. Through that time I'd had four of my five sons as well. My wife had been so supportive of my career and was hoping to get more of me after Toy Story 2.

"She said, `You better be careful because one day you'll wake up and your boys will have gone off to college and you'll have missed them and messed up.'"

So Lasseter took a summer off, bought a motor home and set out for a two-month road trip with his family. "We started by putting our feet in the Pacific, and aimed to put our feet in the Atlantic and go home. And instead of being at each other's throats, we really bonded as a family."

Trying to stay off the superhighways, Lasseter got a crash course in Americana without really trying. It was the first time in his adult life he was "living it for every day, not even thinking about tomorrow."

Lasseter already had been developing an idea for a movie about cars with collaborators like Pixar's head of story, the late Joe Ranft. "I came back and told Joe what I learned: that in life, the journey is the reward.

"So why not have a character that learns about slowing down? Who better than a race car, because race cars are built from the ground up for speed? And then he gets stuck in a ghost town and learns there's so much good stuff there."

Lasseter set out to shatter expectations: "At the opening, we establish this very fast pace with racing power and speed, with the camera always moving - even when you're traveling on the interstate, the camera is always moving. The eyes won't always see it that way, but it's edited and staged to reinforce the impression that you're in a fast-paced, modern world."

But then Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) lands in the shambling-charming Route 66 town of Radiator Springs. Lasseter "locked down all the shots when we introduce the town, made them longer than you think they're going to be or should be. I had to establish this feeling that time is the one commodity this town has. And time is the one thing a race car is always trying to fight against."

As a director who views animation as a part of all movie art, Lasseter had his team "look at all those kinds of movies in which an outsider comes into a small town and slowly changes," including such individualistic choices as Bill Forsyth's nearly forgotten Local Hero (1983).

Lasseter never thought of his unconventional pacing "from the standpoint of risk." He had faith that his seductively detailed view of a world that mingled the organic and mechanical would amaze and delight viewers. "Early on, Joe and I decided it would be fun to make the cars come alive without being exactly human. We started looking at the parallels between what humans need and what cars need. A gas station to a car would be like a restaurant to us and a tire shop like a men's shop."

Production designer Bill Cone soon got into the act. "We realized that when we look into clouds or mountain ranges, we see human faces and body parts. A car would see car parts. When you're in the Southwest and you see jet trails in the sky - we thought those parallel lines would be like tire tracks. A lot of making Cars was taking the world and reimagining it as being totally car-oriented."

His close friend and collaborator, Ranft, who went with him on follow-up jaunts through the Southwest, didn't live to see the fruits of their labor. En route to a mentoring program a year ago, the car he was traveling in crashed into the waters off the Pacific Coast Highway. Lasseter says Ranft earned his credit as co-director as well as story supervisor.

"He was by my side the whole way, intimately involved in the creation of the story and also shepherding me into the animation."

Mater, the lovable, rattletrap tow truck, who triggers the hero's transformation into a fully rounded character, was Ranft's baby.

"He developed the whole character with me. And he was really Mater; Mater's big heart is really Joe."

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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