Rashida Jones is still credited as a writer on Toy Story 4, the next installment in the beloved franchise. But, sources tell The Hollywood Reporter, the actress and her writing partner at the time, Will McCormack, left the project early on after John Lasseter, the acclaimed head of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation, made an unwanted advance.
THR made repeated requests for comment to Jones and McCormack starting on Nov. 7 but received no response. In a Nov. 21 statement to The New York Times, Jones and McCormack said, "We did not leave Pixar because of unwanted advances. That is untrue. That said, we are happy to see people speaking out about behavior that made them uncomfortable. We parted ways because of creative and, more importantly, philosophical differences." They described Pixar as "a culture where women and people of color do not have an equal creative voice," adding, "We encourage Pixar to be leaders in bolstering, hiring and promoting more diverse and female storytellers and leaders.” Disney declined to comment on the alleged incident involving Jones though a studio source said the departure was over "creative differences."
Multiple sources at Pixar and in the animation community spoke with THR about Lasseter's alleged behavior but asked not to be named out of fear that their careers in the tight-knit animation community would be damaged. Based on their accounts, the alleged incident involving Jones was not an isolated occurrence. One longtime Pixar employee says Lasseter, who is well-known for hugging employees and others in the entertainment community, was also known by insiders for "grabbing, kissing, making comments about physical attributes." Multiple sources say Lasseter is known to drink heavily at company social events such as premiere parties, but this source says the behavior was not always confined to such settings.
Now Lasseter is taking a leave of absence from Pixar after acknowledging "painful" conversations and unspecified "missteps," he wrote in a memo to staff on Tuesday. The leave is said to be for six months, a source tells THR.
"I have always wanted our animation studios to be places where creators can explore their vision with the support and collaboration of other gifted animators and storytellers," Lasseter stated. "This kind of creative culture takes constant vigilance to maintain. It's built on trust and respect, and it becomes fragile if any members of the team don't feel valued. As a leader, it's my responsibility to ensure that doesn't happen; and I now believe I have been falling short in this regard."
The executive added: "I've recently had a number of difficult conversations that have been very painful for me. It's never easy to face your missteps, but it's the only way to learn from them."
It is hard to overstate Lasseter's value to Disney. He is known as the genius behind Pixar films from Toy Story to Inside Out to Coco, opening Nov. 22. He took charge of Walt Disney Animation in 2006 and led a revival that included such gigantic hits as Frozen.
Sources say some women at Pixar knew to turn their heads quickly when encountering him to avoid his kisses. Some used a move they called "the Lasseter" to prevent their boss from putting his hands on their legs.
A longtime insider says he saw a woman seated next to Lasseter in a meeting that occurred more than 15 years ago. "She was bent over and [had her arm] across her thigh," he says. "The best I can describe it is as a defensive posture ... John had his hand on her knee, though, moving around." After that encounter, this person asked the woman about what he had seen. "She said it was unfortunate for her to wear a skirt that day and if she didn't have her hand on her own right leg, his hand would have traveled."
The same source said he once noticed an oddly cropped photo of Lasseter standing between two women at a company function. When he mentioned that to a colleague, he was told, "We had to crop it. Do you know where his hands were?"
Another former insider remembers awkward encounters with Lasseter, who liked — as many in the industry do — to hug in meetings. "You'd hug him and he'd whisper in your ear, a long time," this person says. "He hugged and hugged and everyone's looking at you. Just invading the space."
Disney's statement regarding Lasseter's leave of absence read, "We are committed to maintaining an environment in which all employees are respected and empowered to do their best work. We appreciate John’s candor and sincere apology and fully support his sabbatical."
Lasseter is best known as one of the founders of Pixar, which began as a part of the graphics group at Lucasfilm. Along with Ed Catmull, he popularized CGI in animation with early films like Monsters Inc. In 2006, after Disney purchased Pixar, Lasseter was named the chief creative officer of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios. He has since become the face of all Disney animation, overseeing the recent resurgence of the studio's namesake brand with properties like Frozen and Moana.
While Lasseter has won two Oscars (one is a specialty Oscar for his work on Toy Story), Pixar has racked up eight best animated feature wins. Under Lasseter's purview, WDA has picked up three wins, most recently with 2016's Zootopia.
Pixar films have grossed over $6 billion at the domestic box office. The Emeryville-based company is set to release its next feature, Coco, on Wednesday. Pixar is currently working on a sequel to The Incredibles and the fourth Toy Story installment. WDA will release the Wreck It Ralph sequel next year.
A former Pixar employee requesting anonymity says Lasseter's leave of absence statement is "ridiculous" and "trivializing this behavior." The employee adds, "To sum this up as unwanted hugs is belittling and demeaning. If it was just unwanted hugs, he wouldn't be stepping down."
Carolyn Giardina contributed to this report.
Nov. 21, 8:00 pm Updated with statement from Rashida Jones and Will McCormack.