Pixar’s ‘The Good Dinosaur’ Interview: Director Peter Sohn & Producer Denise Ream
Wednesday, November 25th, 2015 at 1:00 pm
Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur has had its share of production problems throughout the years. Midway through production, Bob Peterson, who was the film’s original director, was dismissed from the project due to difficulties trying to crack the movie’s third act. But as we would soon discover, the film’s story was suffering as a whole, and ultimately it was pushed back almost a year from its original release date. While the delay can be considered overwhelmingly demoralizing, it did help in the filmmakers’ efforts to figure out the story. Soon enough, with the help of the Pixar Brain Trust, the The Good Dinosaur‘s narrative problems were fixed. Peterson was replaced by Pixar’s story artist/animator and sometime voice artist, Peter Sohn (Ratatouille, Monsters University), while Denise Ream stayed on as producer to help the Korean-American filmmaker.
Sohn and Ream talked to Geeks Of Doom and a group of our fellow journalists during the film’s press day about how emotionally draining it could be when you find out that one of the films you have been working so hard on gets hit with delays. But they also talked about how the film draws its inspiration from the great Westerns that are rarely made nowadays, as well as making The Good Dinosaur with very limited dialogue.
Check out our full interview with director Peter Sohn and producer Denise Ream here below.
Geeks of Doom: Watching the film, you get a sense that it draws inspiration from some of the great westerns. What made you decide that The Good Dinosaur was going to be a Western?
Peter Sohn: It was the idea of a farmer. One of the first drawings I had done was a dinosaur farming, plowing the earth. Then it’s like wow they are like big tractors. Then taking the herbivores to farming land, and taking the carnivores to ranchers, was like “This is wild.” Everyone is trying to survive, there was this real survival quality that was interesting. What I loved about Westerns was that fact. Early on we tried Western where we were going all the way to where we’re like there was a saloon, and we were like “boy, we are just making fun of what we like about Westerns. What is going on?” So it was boiling it down to “what is it about the Western that we are trying to save?” We call it a frontier film. Obviously the ranchers are definitely those cowboys you know. But they weren’t even a family in the early on. They were JR, JW, JL, and they were these kind of jokey like “Ding, Dang, damnit, my bottom half…” and well we were just making fun of it so Denise [Ream] sent us out on research trips, and we would meet families out there. We met this one ranching family in Oregon, the McKays. They were this beautiful family. An older white couple, they adopted five black Haitian kids, and they were living this beautiful life up in Oregon. When we went up there, it was pretty much City Slickers. I’m from New York, so I’ve never done anything like this before. So we’re like okay, let’s just ride some horses. That’s what we went up there for. But soon we would fall in love with this family. This family was so pure, it made me think of my family. I grew up in New York, in a grocery store. We would all work together to survive in the city, make a life for our family, where this was the same thing, a family that was surviving, but out in this incredible country. There was a connection, a universal idea here that was going on. So we were like screw JR, JW, JL. Let’s get McKay in there, because they told stories very much like you would see in the movies, where joe would be like “and them boys, we almost died…” and the kids were like “hey dad, tell them when you were x,y…” like look at this. This father, when you first meet him was tough as nails, and had us all working. Then in the evening, you would see that softer dad side. It made me think of myself as a father, like boy I’m such a helicopter parent, where I am like “oh you can’t do that, I’ll do that for you.” This father with so much love for his kids goes “I am going to tell you this once, and it will be the last time I tell you.” and they’d go “Yeah, dad.” And he was able to, through love. It just changes my life, meeting this family. Then we started to honor what we knew of that kind of lifestyle, so it wasn’t making fun of anything.
Geeks of Doom: How did you decide on which species of dinosaur would be used in the film?
Peter Sohn: That was an interesting process, but it wasn’t that long. It was whatever characters we could use to support Arlo’s journey. Like that Styracosaurus, that crazy pet collector guy that was essentially Arlo – like in Arlo’s journey he meets someone who is like Arlo 50 years down the line. What if Arlo was stuck out there and he was terrified of everything, that’s who Arlo could be. When he meets the T-Rexes, he got to meet someone who he believes aren’t afraid of anything. Then they tell him that they are afraid of things. It would be interesting to play with the T-Rex idea, like that they are the toughest animals that we know, and they are ferocious as we know, and then turn it, so that he would go “Oh that is interesting that Butch would say that about fear, being afraid.” So each spices would kind of form how they would fit into Arlo’s journey.
Denise Ream: What was so fascinating, because the film was in production for so long, it kept getting scientific data that would be announced like there is no such thing as the apatosaurus or the brontosaurus, but no no but now there is the apatosaur. The feathers with the raptors. This kind of information would help influence the characters.
Geeks of Doom: In the film, we see that Arlo has two different families: his family, and the family that he chooses while on his journey, how important was it to address that?
Peter Sohn: It was a big deal. It was something we constantly balanced and talked about. Once we got the T-Rexes into that family world, it started to click in a different way in terms of the evolution of the story. What Arlo would need from family. That idea that every member is integral in family. Arlo feels like he is not. That little nugget of something is what we tried to figure out between each family, including Arlo and Spot being its own entity as well. Knowing that in a place of love, knowing that love could get in him through was something once he matured he knows that. We talked about it a lot.
Geeks of Doom: You shared your story of how you connected with your family through despite the language barrier. Now that you’ve finished the film, has you mom seen it yet?
Peter Sohn: No she has not. She has been in Korea for a while now. She just came back, and I can’t wait for them to see it. I have no idea what they are going to say.
Geeks of Doom: From that first animation reel that was shown almost four years ago, the film experienced a lot of changes, From production to you taking over the job, what about the story had changed?
Peter Sohn: There was a lot of things that happen. The heart of what would remain the same in terms of this boy and dog story. But the world had changed, the obstacles had changed.
Denise Ream: Age of the characters.
Peter Sohn: Some of the biggest challenges were the Poppa storyline. What is something that Arlo can learn from.
Denise Ream: Creatively deciding to minimize the dialogue. That was a big change.
Peter Sohn: It is so funny. Sorry for this analogy, you live with this fish everyday, then your friend comes in and then leaves week, and then when he comes back he says “that fish got huge,” and you’re like “what are you talking about? It looks the same to me.” There are so many little changes that go on a day-to-day basis. Coming from that saloon place, it wasn’t like we got from the next movie to this, it was a really quick turn kind of like resetting the movie, like what were we trying to say with this thing.
Geeks of Doom: Was there any point where Spot had lines?
Peter Sohn: In the older version of the movie he was more of a cave boy that could have not a lot of lines, but was more on the same level where it was a buddy movie where it was like “I don’t like you. I don’t like you. We like each other.” Here it was I don’t like you I’m an animal. I am learning from you because I am still an animal, and you have changed my life.
Geeks of Doom: The Good Dinosaur was hit hard when Bob Peterson was taken off as director, and you were hired to replace him. Not only that, but production basically had to start over because the story wasn’t right. What did you learn about yourselves as storytellers through this process?
Peter Sohn: That is going to make me emotional. It was tough.
Denise Ream: It was really hard.
Peter Sohn: The people at Pixar, and I have been there for 15 years, you learn to put your heart into the work. What is tough is that work gets slammed. That’s just how it is. That is the process that you trust. Here is something I believe in, and slam slam slam. I’m not putting my heart out again, that just hurt a lot. Then you think about what we are doing here? “I’m trying to make the best film that demands you put your heart into it. Everyone would do that, even when it got into the darkest days. Here’s something we came up with, and we were just like “That is beautiful, are you kidding me? I can’t thank you enough.” The biggest thing for me is the people at Pixar. They are just incredible people. I just see Mary, and that whole gang but every leaf on that tree, and then like oh my goodness the animators had put that whole performance, and the designers painted all those scales, trees, and the dinosaurs. There is hundreds of artists that you just never know.
Denise Ream: A lot of it was, honestly, my job is honestly to give people what they need, and in many moments, getting out of the way. Letting people getting on, doing their work, and not micro-managing, and letting them do what they need to do. There is so much about that, that really something I came away from. Letting people do their thing at Pixar is important. They’re responsible, they’re important. They’re talented.
Peter Sohn: We just finished the movie, so we are just processing this. So you guys are saying nice things, it’s just like boy. It’s a crazy journey.
Denise Ream: The way the team rallied behind Pete and the film, it was inspirational. It reinforced my belief, that place can execute anything if we can get the story working. That was just so hard. When Pete was named the director, we shut down the movie, it was totally counterintuitive. We got some more time, but we had to essentially start over. I used a lot of good will currency on this. I replaced a lot of the department heads, because Pete needed to have the most experienced crew if we were going to pull this off in a ridiculous amount of time. That was really, really hard. People that have been working on it. But I knew that was what Pete needed. That was what the film needed. That’s I guess why we are so emotional about our crew. A lot of people that were still on it, were pretty demoralized. It’s hard. It’s like, “am I going to see my family in 18 months?” So just the sacrifice a lot of people made. They were always really supportive, and that was the thing that got us through. We were always encouraged. Sanjay Bakshi is our supervising technical director, and he just kept saying, “How is this happening?” because it felt miraculous at times, because everyone just kept plusing it all the way down the pipeline. Starting, story, though lighting. It’s just incredible.
Geeks of Doom: It almost feels like The Good Dinosaur has most heart for any Pixar film. The animation on this is just incredible, can we talk about the photorealism and the dinosaurs.
Peter Sohn: It is incredible. I hope that we captured something that we saw. It’s not like that we were trying to capture a photoreal place, we were trying to capture an emotional place, where it is just like “look how real these landscapes are, it’s dwarfing me, making me feel things that I didn’t feel.” Then there are moments that are so small like looking at a leaf and how raindrops slide down a leaf. All trying to stick through this 11-year-old point of view of the world, where he’s terrified. But then little bits of beauty we saw out there, we respect that. Looking at the water, and Sharon Calahan and her beautiful paintings of – moving it out of focus, creating some abstract feeling, but it still feels like that moonlit water. That you know in this kid’s head as he is telling you without words that he is alone too, and he understands what you are going through.
Denise Ream: The priority being story, giving Pete time with story; the other priority was truly giving the animators as much time as possible. We changed the production process for animation. We ended up giving good chunks of work to the animators so that they can work continuously. Often times when you are under the gun, you’re just dolling out shots just to get it done or to hit a quota so to speak, and we basically thought if we want to do this movie without a lot of dialogue, this performance needs to be really good. So we prioritize the work flow for animation.
Peter Sohn: It was a completely collaborative effort. All I did was want to learn animation. I went to school for it. That was my goal. So I got to animate on some Pixar films. Working in animators to this capacity, some of the most amazing things I have ever seen, because it’s a room like this, we are all talking about the same characters, and go look this is something I experienced in my life, and they offer up something. Then they go like there is a truth to that one. We talk about this a lot. When Arlo is explaining to Spot that he misses his family, and Spot is an animal, and he’s like I don’t understand what you are saying, and Arlo thinks “You don’t get it,” but then Spot breaks that communication barrier by doing these dog like things of putting the stick down, and Arlo slowly realizing that “oh my gosh, this thing is communicating with me,” but in a dog like way. After he places the sticks, he gets into a dog like position, but after he buries his family, he sits like a human, and he wipes his nose. Which is a very subtle human gesture that is not an animal. So talking to the group of us, like a performer says he added this little thing there, then it’s like “holy cow, boy that’s amazing.” So it’s this collaborative thing of everyone people putting themselves into it. All collaborative, but all from these little places they are trying to put themselves into.
Geeks of Doom: Because there is very limited dialogue in the film, the music in some ways has to be the communicator, can you talk to us about how there were themes in this film, and what made you want to use themes since they are so rarely used?
Peter Sohn: That was early in the discussions. We already knew that we weren’t going to have a lot of dialogue. That sound and music would be doing heavy lifting for us. Some of our favorite movies that would do this, we learned a lot from. Especially knowing how great themes could work. I remember that meeting with John Lasseter, where he was just like we wanted Mychael Danna and Jeff Danna on this project because of Life of Pi. We thought the music was internal and beautiful at the same time, it wasn’t just action music. It was “oh we could stay inside the character’s head for a while.” It was a metamorphosis, it wasn’t themeic.
When we first talk to them about it, it was like “could you do music with themes in them?” and they were like “you know, Hollywood today they don’t look for that anymore, it’s not a big thing. For me I grew up on movies, they go up a couple of bars, and you go “oh what a great movie that was.”
Denise Ream: John [Lasseter] was like “You’ve come to the right place. Just bring all your themes We’ll take them all.”
Peter Sohn: So in that room where we are trying to create some unique themes for each characters, where Spot has more wild and eclectic kind of sound, where Arlo is very hearthy but still searching for that home kind of music. The T-Rexes with their wilderness, the scariness with the pterodactyls, nature itself trying to support when it is beautiful and dangerous. We would talk about in each step, and how those arcs broke, and how Arlo is weak here; but this is where he is running with those birds, he is one with spot, he is stronger now, so what that same melody does here.
Boy we are like so emotional right now.
Geeks of Doom: But you guys did it. Rebooting an entire film doesn’t seem easy at all.
Peter Sohn: It happens at Pixar.
Denise Ream: This was more extreme than usual. I don’t recommend it.
Peter Sohn: I wouldn’t pat ourselves on the back.
Geeks of Doom: Well it worked out for you.
Denise Ream: Hopefully, knock on wood.
Peter Sohn: Is it wood?
Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur opens in theaters on November 25, 2015.