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“I was at a baseball game with my editor on [Finding] Nemo,” the director, 54, tells The Hollywood Reporter‘s It Happened in Hollywood podcast. “I borrowed his binoculars and then I missed an entire inning just looking at them and starting to make them look happy and mad and sad. … That cracked it open for me. That’s pretty much what I did: I put binoculars on top of a trash compactor.”
That epiphany led to the design for the title character of 2008’s WALL-E, Stanton’s Oscar-winning follow-up to 2003’s Finding Nemo, which also took home the Oscar for best animated feature.
For the robot’s sidekick — a cockroach named Hal (after Little Rascals producer Hal Roach), Stanton was determined not to ‘Disneyfy’ the character, despite the studio having acquired Pixar in 2006. “I took it as a challenge: ‘Come on! We can make a cute cockroach! Without the aid of little gloves,'” Stanton says. “And you can. You can make almost anything cute, if you try hard enough.”
For WALL-E’s voice, Stanton recalls, “I kept saying for about two years to my producer: ‘I need it like R2-D2! I need it like R2-D2.’ Finally he said, ‘Why don’t we just get the guy who did R2-D2?'” That guy was legendary sound designer and voice actor Ben Burtt, who also created the sound of Star Wars‘ lightsabers and Darth Vader’s heavy breathing. For WALL-E, he voiced the pic’s trash-compacting robot star, plus many other robots depicted in the film.
Regarding WALL-E‘s bleak environmental themes — the first half takes place on an Earth rendered uninhabitable due to over-consumption — Stanton insists, “I hate being preached to and I assume other people do to in a movie. So I went there very reluctantly, and it ended up being out of pure necessity to my main drive, which was I just wanted to believe in the authenticity of why WALL-E was alone.”
“It was really logic at the time, so we’re talking 2005-06, that led me to any of the science and environmental and sociological choices that I did,” he explains further. “I just went with kinda what was happening around me. We were having anywhere from two to a dozen boxes from Amazon show up at my doorstep every other day. … I just started to think, like, where does all this shit go?”
For Stanton’s vision of humans as amorphous blobs on interstellar cruise ships, whisked around on self-propelled chairs, heads buried in their screens, he found another source of inspiration.
“The iPhone came out in ’06, two years before the movie came out. … I was literally one of the first people to get the iPhone before it was brought out to the world officially because Steve [Jobs] was our boss. … I started playing with it and was kind of crazily going, ‘Why is this feeling familiar? This is basically the future and there should be nothing about this that’s familiar.’ It was the addictive quality of it,” Stanton says.
“I used to be a smoker when I was in college, and I remember that,” he continues. “That was way before there was a computer or anything else to distract you with. You would use a cigarette to just sort of pass the time and not be bored. … But I remember then going, ‘Wow, this could get really out of hand fast. This is like a nicotine hit.’ And that’s what made me come up with the distraction of humanity through technology and the screens, and everybody being right next to each other.”
As for what Jobs thought of a first rough-cut of WALL-E, Stanton recalls, “He loved it. And the irony was not lost on him. I didn’t get to be inside his head. I think he was crossing his fingers that my slightly pessimistic view would be incorrect and that it would stay a fairy tale. But he was a big fan of the movie.”
Still, Stanton says Jobs could also be “a harsh critic” during the four-year long development phase. “It took me a long time to get the second half of it right. … I was at one of those lows where we’re in a meeting and he said the front half’s genius, the second half’s crap. I don’t think he used that exact word, but that was the sentiment. That hurt, but he was quick to find me and kind of apologize and say, ‘I just think you’re on such a good path, keep going and don’t give in to your instincts.'”
Addressing the departure of his longtime friend and boss John Lasseter, who left Pixar and Disney at the end of 2018 amid reports of alleged sexual misconduct, Stanton says, “There’s nothing nice about it, and it’s bittersweet, it’s painful, it’s sad. At the same time, what’s grown out of it is a rising of the next generation that was kind of overdue to happen.”
For much more from Andrew Stanton on the making of WALL-E, tune in to the latest episode of It Happened in Hollywood. And be sure to subscribe!
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