Andrew Stanton and Ellen DeGeneres
Andrew Stanton directs Ellen DeGeneres on Finding Nemo.

Writing the words that will come out of a flesh and
blood actor’s mouth is one thing. But writing dialogue for a wooden
cowboy, a renegade ant, a child-scaring monster and a kidnapped
clownfish is a completely different story—and writing process. With Finding Nemo still drawing families to theaters in droves
more than a month after its release, the film’s writer-director
Andrew Stanton talked with MM about what it takes to succeed
in the family entertainment game.

Jennifer Wood (MM): As one of Pixar’s first
employees, did you ever imagine then that the company would be where
it is now?

Andrew Stanton (AS): Not in a million years.
And it just keeps getting better. It’s really scary.

MM: Can you talk a little bit about how
you conceive your story ideas—and what the writing process is? Pixar
writing credits are often shared amongst many people; how does the
writing process generally work?

AS: The writing process at Pixar is very messy,
very collaborative and very labor-intensive. Our films are discovered
in the “rewriting.” All of our films are original stories and have
often started from simple group discussions between a core group
of us at Pixar. Usually I’m the one who will take all the random
thoughts of those meetings and turn them into a script. That could
take three months or it could take a year, depending on how difficult
it is to figure out the story. Then we will rewrite and rewrite
scenes forever (for years), until we’re satisfied. It’s different
on many of the films; that’s why there are lots of credits
for the writing.

Some are more contractual (i.e. we hired somebody
to do a draft, didn’t like it, but kept a few things), but most
are people we asked to help us out because they bring something
to the table that we can’t ourselves. For Finding Nemo, Bob
Peterson and Dave Reynolds are also credited in writing on the film,
and we worked together on most of the rewrites. Bob is a Pixar employee
and has been working in our story department for years. I asked
him to a write on Nemo because I enjoy writing with a partner
to bounce ideas off of. Also, he makes me funnier in the room. Bob
says he’s the “rubber chicken beneath my wings.” Structure and drama/emotion
are more my strengths.

Dave Reynolds has been our secret weapon on all of
our films. He’s based in LA, but is an absolute comedy dynamo. We
will always be calling and faxing him in the middle of the night
with last-minute requests. He thinks very fast on his feet. So in Nemo’s case it was quite collaborative, but every one of
our films is a different writing experience.

MM: How do you think writing for a younger
age group is different than writing for a general PG—or R—audience?
What are the issues you discuss ahead of time?

AS: We never talk about who we’re writing for.
Never plan for it. I think the minute you try to second guess who
your audience will be (especially children), you will sabotage your
writing. For as much as these blockbuster movies may be seen as
a product from the outside, we at Pixar do not look at it that way
within our walls. It is a piece of art that must be pure in its
execution. We simply write for ourselves, and write what we’d like
to see. It just happens that our tastes are very family-friendly.
Sounds dorky, but it’s true. I’m often told by parents, “Oh, our
kids love your movies, and we actually like them, too,” and I always
respond, “Good, because I wrote them for you—not the kids.”

MM: What is the true test of whether or
not a joke works for a younger audience? How do you go about ‘testing’
your material?

AS: No testing—just our gut. There’s a core
creative group of us who have been together from the beginning (sort
of like a Monty Python troupe), and if we like it, then the joke
stays. And the true test is easy: either people laugh or they don’t.

MM: Do you think that this balance between
being kid and adult-friendly is only achieved through the writing,
or are there other aspects (i.e. character voices, action, etc.)
that assist in making these true “general audience” movies?

AS: I believe the balance is always at risk,
and every element of the film can either strengthen things or tip
it over. But you most definitely want to sense the balance early
in the writing so that you’re working off a strong foundation. You
want to execute ideas that will promote more creativity from every
artist that will work on the film.

MM: What were the basic steps involved in
Nemo—and any Pixar film—completed after the initial
idea is established?

AS: People struggling in Hollywood are going
to hate this answer, because how we do things up here is not the
norm. We think of an idea and then make it—that’s it. No script
submissions, no review boards, no market testing, blah, blah, blah…
Our story development to film production ratio is one-to-one. We
come up with an idea, and then commit to making it.

I believe we can do this because John Lasseter and
Steve Jobs have consciously created a “director-based” studio. Much
like the old studio system, where Selznick, Thalberg or Zanuck would
get an idea, slowly nurture it and then cast the appropriate artists
to it, we do sort of the same thing. We have a pool of directors
whom we encourage to come up with ideas themselves that they are
passionate about and then support them in seeing their vision realized.
Many of us are also writer-directors, which makes the process all
the more streamlined (but it’s not a  requirement).

MM: How did the idea for Finding Nemo come about? And how long was the process, from conception to screen?

AS: Nemo was an idea I had been forming
since as far back as Toy Story. John Lasseter and I are very
close, and have been through movie hell together, so when I told
him I had an underwater fish story and I wanted to direct it he
didn’t even bat an eye. He just said “Go for it.” John’s sort of
like our coach, barking and clapping from the sidelines.

MM: Writers and directors are often asked
about the casting process, and whether or not they can “visualize”
their characters—and who will play them—throughout the process.
Obviously, the visual representation of your characters is of key
importance in the writing process—but what about the voices? Do
you, in the process of writing, have an idea of who you would like
to “play” these characters—are you putting a voice with the character?

AS: You always have a list of names in your
head when you’re writing. It helps you find a voice for your characters.
Sometimes that list is even actors who are no longer living. Heck,
you’ll hang upside-down and chant if it’ll help find your scene.
But usually you keep several options in your head, because you never
know who you’ll be able to get. It’s not that much pressure, because,
as I said before, we rewrite incessantly. Once you cast an actor
you have plenty of opportunity to adapt your writing to their strengths.

The only time I ever broke that list rule was with
Dory in Finding Nemo. She was originally conceived as a male
character (typical male-thinking on my part) named Gill (later to
be Willem Dafoe’s character) that would befriend Marlin and guide
him through the ocean. But I was getting nowhere with it. Then one
evening, at home, I was pounding the laptop, and my wife was watching
“The Ellen Show” (yes, it was that long ago), and I overheard Ellen
DeGeneres change the subject five times in one sentence, and a light
bulb went off. The way she spoke was perfect for this character.

I changed the character to a female, renamed her Dory
and from then on could not get Ellen’s voice out of my head. So
I took a huge risk and wrote the character with only her voice in
mind. I sent her the script, called her up and simply said, “Hi
Ellen, I’ve written this part for you, and I’m screwed if you don’t
take the part.” She replied, “Well, then I better take it.” So,
she saved my butt. I don’t recommend this method of writing. Too

MM: How far ahead of time do you begin working
with your actors, and what sort of input to do you like—and expect
from them?

AS: We work with the actors years in
advance. That sounds like a lot, but we only meet with them about
every four to five months for two to four hours at a time. So, we
worked with people like Tom Hanks, Billy Crystal and Ellen DeGeneres
for over four years, but only a total of two weeks when you add
up all the hours. Every actor we work with, we’re hoping for a certain
amount of improvisation and looseness. We always come to them with
strong ideas and specific lines, but we also know that much of our
best stuff is found by accident, or on the fly, so we encourage

MM: At the end of the day, when the film
is up on screens all across America, what do you hope audiences
take away from your work? I think it would be accurate that going
to a Pixar movie has become more than just “going to the movies”—it’s
really become a highly-anticipated family event. Was this part of
what you had always hoped to achieve?

AS: The biggest compliment would be that it
made them want to go to the movies again, or even better, it made
them want to make movies. For me, my most favorite movies
did that to me. It was like an infection—you almost felt physically
compelled to immediately create after seeing such a great movie.
If I ever heard that from an audience member it would be the be-all
end-all for me.

MM: What’s up next for you and the Pixar

AS: Next up is a movie written and directed
by Brad Bird (of Iron Giant fame), called The Incredibles.
It’s about a family of superheroes forced to come out of hiding
to save the world—and it truly is incredible. After that, John Lasseter
is back in the director’s chair, making a film called Cars.
I’m taking a long-needed break for a while. It’s been non-stop filmmaking
since Toy Story for me, and finally Pixar is well-oiled enough
to afford my absence for a couple of months.