‘Toy Story 4’ Interview: Director Josh Cooley and Producer Mark Nielsen On Continuing Pixar’s Flagship Film Franchise
Wednesday, May 1st, 2019 at 2:45 pm
Earlier this month, I got the very rare opportunity to join a select group of journalists to travel to Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, CA, where we got a sneak preview of Toy Story 4. The fourth installment of the Toy Story franchise sees Woody and Buzz go in a new direction by tapping into new themes that were never explored in any of the previous films. This is what helps keep the franchise fresh and new.
I’ve already shown you how technology has changed since the first Toy Story came out, but now it is time to hear from a roundtable interview we had with director Josh Cooley and producer Mark Nielsen about the upcoming film, the daunting task of revisiting a beloved franchise after the third is considered perfect, bringing Bo Peep back, and more. Check out what they had to say below.
How intimidating was this for you to direct Toy Story 4, especially after Toy Story 3 can be considered the perfect sendoff for the franchise?
Josh Cooley: For me, it was extremely intimidating, right out of the gate. Toy Story is not only important to the studio but the world. A lot of people grew up with it, myself included. It kind of blew my mind to be working on it. It was super intimidating. The great thing about it was that we have so many people on the cast and crew that have worked on all of the Toy Story films. So it is in good hands at all times.
Mark Nielsen: Yeah, these characters mean so much to us at the studio. It’s like the crown jewels to us. Woody and Buzz are in the fabric of this place and I think the spirit of those characters is kind of infused in all of the characters that we put in our films. So to tackle this was a challenge. It was intimidating, but also a great pleasure. A lot of us have been here for a long time and have gotten to work on some of the other films. So to go back into that world was exciting. And we had animators, for example, that have grown up with these characters that were shown dressed up as Buzz Lightyear during Halloween in first grade, that are now getting ready to open up shots and animate those characters.
Why do Toy Story 4?
Josh Cooley: To answer the first question, why Toy Story 4? That was the thing that got me interested in the film, because I had the same questions. Every ending is a new beginning sort of thing. So what is next for Woody? Because there is no way he will be having the same experience in Bonnie’s room as he did in Andy’s room. All of sudden, it just started to blossom, and all of these new ideas started to grow like: how would he handle the situation? And that is always the best kind of scenario for a character that you know really well but in a situation, you have never seen. So it kept kind of growing and growing.
Was this always planned to have a fourth?
Josh Cooley: There is always the thought that if there is a story worth telling, we are going to tell it. So our story kind of organically grew.
Mark Nielsen: Yeah, Andrew Stanton, when we talked to him at the beginning of this, said that he always thought of the first three Toy Story movies as a three-volume set that you could put on a shelf. It was a life with Andy. So the idea of this also sprung out of the idea of a new beginning and a new chapter in the life of Woody. We knew there was a lot more about Woody to learn and ways that he could grow. He is in a situation now. He is in a new room. The toys are all kind of blended from the old room and this new room. There is a lot of potential for growth for Woody in this.
The late Don Rickles will have a voice role in this, how did you work around that since he is no longer here?
Josh Cooley: So he passed a couple of years back, and we were contacted by family and agents as well, and he had signed on to do the project before he passed, and we were excited about that. But after he passed, his family and agent contacted us, and asked: “if there was any possible way, he’s been doing Mr. Potato Head for over 25 years, can you create a performance out of the material?” So we went through all of the outtakes from all of the films, all the shorts, all the video games, all the ice capade shows, every possible thing, and there is a lot of Don Rickles. So it was actually, I wouldn’t say easy, but there was a lot to work with. So I am very honored that he is in this film.
Mark Nielsen: Yeah, it’s an honor to all of us. He’s such a big part of these movies and every time you see a Potato Head toy you hear his voice. So the idea of doing this without him was one we didn’t want to consider. The editorial team did a great job.
Can you talk about the new voice cast and if Bill Hader will be a part of it in any capacity?
Josh Cooley: Bill and I worked on Inside Out together, so he’s a friend. So I said “I’d love for you to do a voice on Toy Story 4,” and he goes, “yeah man, whatever you want.” So we had to have him in there. But this cast is unbelievable. [Keegan-Michael] Key and [Jordan] Peele, just watching them work, it was a dream come true and it was amazing to see that those guys could literally share a brain between each other and know what the other person is going to say. Ally Maki lights up the room. Christina Hendricks got the part immediately. Keanu Reeves is just the coolest guy in the world, and I want to be friends with him forever.
Mark Nielsen: Tony Hale, who voices Forky, was definitely a standout for me. We got to spend a lot of time with him because he’s got such a big role in this project. Just his reaction when he heard us describing the character and what it was going to be like to him – when he heard this is a character that asks the question: “why am I alive,” he was like: “I want that.” He’s been such a pleasure. Such a funny guy and he brought so much to Forky.
Josh Cooley: He has a lot of heart, too, in real life, so he brings that to the performance.
How different are the scratch track performances than the ones done by the decided cast?
Josh Cooley: We have so many good actors here in the studio, all of whom can do great voices. The benefit of doing Toy Story is that we know what these characters sound like, so I can walk up and do the Woody lines from scratch. We try and match the energy more than the vocal qualities of the person.
So what about the new characters like Forky?
Josh Cooley: It is just kind of giving the attitude of the character. Because we always do the scratch first and then we go: “which actor out there would best match this character?” So it’s never trying to predict what they are going to sound like but how they will feel.
Mark Nielsen: We do try to record the actor kind of early. It takes four to five years to make these movies, but we try to get them in as soon as we cast them, at least for one recording session to get their voice in case we need to make adjustments or change the approach to the character. Because as great as the people at Pixar are at acting it does take a leap once you have that actor in.
Josh Cooley: I will add real quickly that something that was really exciting was when we recorded Tom [Hanks] and Annie [Potts] in the first session for the first session. The first session we did on this film we recorded them together because we knew that there would be a lot of in between, and it’s been years since they have been on screen together and we didn’t know how they sounded. Annie sounded exactly like Toy Story 1 Annie from 25 years earlier. If we played side by side each other, you would not be able to tell the difference at all. It was pretty amazing.
Mark Nielsen: They had never recorded together, either. That was surprising. They were both like: “We’ve only been solo in the booth all these years. It’s the first time that we’ve recorded together at the same session.” Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key, we also tried to get them together in the same booth because they feed off each other. You give them the lines they will give you a really different interesting take on it. Every time it is different.
Could you tell us the inspiration behind characters like Forky?
Josh Cooley: The inspiration was that we were sitting in the story room and we were joking about how our kids would take the Christmas present and how they would play with the box before they play with the actual toys. So we were going: “well, does that mean the box comes to life? How does that work?” So we were going down this bizarre path and said: “what if Bonnie actually made a toy, we never seen that in Toy Story.”
Anything we haven’t done in Toy Story, it was like “okay, let’s see where that goes.” Because in number four, there are a lot of things that happened already, and you don’t want to retread down the same steps. So it became this bizarre experiment and it was too funny not to try it, and it kept paying off, so we just kept going.
In regards to recording together, were there any sparks in the room or some good chemistry between those who had recording sessions together?
Josh Cooley: Absolutely. Tom and Annie are so quick. They are so funny and quick-witted. It was like watching a boxing match or something. They are right there alongside each other. That was kind of the first time they were together. It was to double check they had that, so you can feel that there is a relationship there. And out the gate, it was like “we’re good.” A lot of the scenes where they are together were recorded together. We were lucky we got to do that, because that is usually not the case.
Mark Nielsen: It made a big difference in the performance to have both of them in the same scene. Having them interact in that way.
Looking at the animation that we’ve seen so far, have we reached the full potential of animation?
Josh Cooley: I don’t think so. Every story is different. And it requires a different style of animation. That is like saying have we seen the best basketball player of all time? I don’t think that is a thing.
Mark Nielsen: It is amazing to see how much better they have gotten at their craft over time. A lot of these animators have been here for a long time and every film they just blow us away with the subtlety in the acting that they are able to achieve. So we are so thrilled with the animation in the film. It does feel like the bar is higher than it’s been.
Josh Cooley: In fact, I had to pull them back on Forky the first couple of tests, because he looked beautiful, and I said: “No, he needs to be crappier.” Because he’s so different from all of the other toys in this world, he should have a handmade quality to the way he moves. It was an interesting challenge to make it worse.
The rain rescue operation that we saw looks so real, could you talk about how that came about?
Mark Nielsen: The ability to render detail and believable images is also well beyond what we’ve done in the past. That was the biggest effects scene in the film. They put a lot of love and care into that. It’s pretty amazing. We always have to strike that balance between realism but also respecting the caricature of the world. The humans that we have don’t look photoreal, and it would be kind of creepy if it did go that way. You just don’t want to get out of balance between the looks of the sets of the world and the characters.
The dolls and ventriloquist dummies are already creepy on their own just by looking at them, but they move in a way that is a nod to some of the horror classics. Were those early horror films an inspiration to these characters?
Josh Cooley: I love scary movies, not gory movies, I love the scary ones. But antique stores are creepy. There’s a lot of history in them. But that’s what’s cool about them, at the same time. Every single item has a story behind it. And when we were looking at the antique stores, we had cameras on sticks, and they would run it along the ground, but there is so much stuff in between the shelves and spider webs, it just looks like a haunted house. And every antique store we went to had a ventriloquist dummy in the corner, just staring at you. Seriously, every single one of them. And their jaw would just be hanging there. So we had to put that in.
But it is a different flavor than the prison or the school seen in the previous Toy Story films.
Mark Nielsen: It is also a sad place for a toy to be. If they are in a toy store, they’ve got hope for a bright future. But if they are in an antique store, they’ve had a prior life and there is no real hope for what is coming next. You don’t see a lot of kids in antique stores looking for toys. It’s like a retirement home.
Josh Cooley: Sorry.
Let’s talk about populating the toys from different generations in terms of from Toy Story, pulling from true life, and tying them all together in Toy Story 4.
Josh Cooley: The original Toy Story did the same thing with Mr. Potato Head and Slinky Dog. You almost forget those were real toys before Toy Story even existed. And so I wanted to see stuff that I grew up with because what made Toy Story so familiar. Having a Chatty Cathy as a part of the antique store. That was an homage to those speaking dolls. Anybody around my age grew up playing with those Kenner Star Wars toys. It’s like one of the biggest toy lines of all time, so it just felt natural to have them in there.
Was having Bo be such a strong character decided a long time ago or was that just a reflection of the female empowerment movement we are seeing now?
Josh Cooley: That was decided a long time ago. That was the foundation of the fourth film. Bo Peep was always a part of that.
Mark Nielsen: Yeah, the code name we had for this film, and we used it internally, was Peep. For the whole five years we’ve been working on it. We knew Bo was such a great character in the earlier films, but we haven’t seen her. She wasn’t in Toy Story 3, she’s in Toy Story and Toy Story 2, but in very small waves, but we haven’t described what had happened to her. So it was really intriguing to us and digging into this story to develop a back story for her: “Where did she go?” “What’s it like out there?” “Is she with a kid or is she on her own?” So it is just a rich thing to explore.
Josh Cooley: Yeah, we basically got to re-invent her. And we went back and looked at the other films, and the amount of screen time, I want to say seven minutes, from both films, and that’s it. And that includes every single frame that has her in it. So we watched that and went “She wasn’t a protagonist,” so we had the ability to build upon what was already there.
In terms of directing old characters like Woody and Buzz, updated ones like Bo Peep, and newer ones Like Gabby Gabby and Giggle McDimples, which one is harder to get right?
Josh Cooley: Well, there is definitely new ground with a new character that nobody has ever animated before. The benefit of having Woody and Buzz is that animators that have done Woody and Buzz have kind of unlocked them in a sense. They know what you can and cannot do. So that makes life a little easier. But you don’t want to also tread on the same things you’ve done before. So I’d say it depends on the animator and it depends on what the project is.
Mark Nielsen: From a story perspective, one of the challenges of having Woody and Buzz is they have been so established. Everybody feels like they have a relationship with them. So when you are exploring what they can do or what they need to learn, or where they could go, people have opinions all around of what that could be or should be. So it was really challenging to us in telling the story of Woody, to make sure that it felt true to the audience that this is something Woody would struggle with, this is a journey that he would go on, and this is the decisions that he would make.
Josh Cooley: That’s just because of the love for these characters. People are so invested in them. It’s almost like: “Don’t do anything wrong with my kid.” So it’s a big responsibility.
How excited was Tom Hanks to be back to voice this character?
Josh Cooley: Oh man, I’ll tell you, the last session we had with him, it was pretty emotional at the end. We brought him in for the last 20 lines, and we said thanks. He said: “This character means the world to me and my family and that I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years.” So it was really touching. It means a lot.
Mark Nielsen: It was a big deal to him. He was incredibly invested and he really grabbed onto it, and really loved it from the start. It was exciting to have another adventure with this character. It is amazing because I don’t know how many actors play the same role like this for 25 years.
He was reflecting on the ages of his children as it was associated with which film he was working on at the time. Annie Potts talked about it as well. The birth of her child happening around the time of the first Toy Story. So it is a reflective period for them whenever we would record them.
Josh Cooley: One of the most terrifying moments I had was pitching the story to Tom because he knows that character and that world better than anybody. And I just wanted to do right by that, and so he came in saying: “Alright, what are we doing?” So I started pitching it, and we got to the classroom scene, and he goes: “Alright, you got me. I don’t know how you are doing this but you got me.” It gives us the confidence to keep going.
Do you see this as the Toy Story for the new generation?
Josh Cooley: I don’t know what the future holds, but I’d like to think that even if no more films are made, you would feel that the story would continue. If that makes sense.
Can you tell us what it is like not to have John Lasseter, one of the founders of Pixar, and also the director of the first Toy Story, here with you to give you advice on these beloved characters?
Mark Nielsen: Yeah, it’s been a year and a half now, since John [Lasseter] left. And it was a really difficult time for the studio. It was a time of transition. But, honestly, I have to say I am so proud of the way the studio has responded. It is so important to us, at Pixar, that we are telling the greatest stories that we can. And to do that, this has to be an environment where you feel supported, and one that is safe where people can speak their minds. As challenging as it has been, there is a lot of optimism about the future.
Pete Docter is our Chief Creative Officer. He goes back to the beginnings of the studio. There is so much respect for Pete, as a director, as an executive producer – which he is on this film, and as a chief creative executive. He is providing a lot of great leadership and allowing the filmmakers a lot of freedom. We know there is a bright future and a lot of optimism at the studio. There is a lot of great films in development all lined up to be the next films after us.
As difficult as the transition has been, there is a lot of hope about the future.
Josh Cooley: I just wanted to say, and this is a little side note off of that, I was thinking about how lucky I was to work with every single one of the original creators of Toy Story. I am in the studio because Joe Ranft brought me in. I’ve worked with John, I’ve worked with Pete, Andrew and Lee [Unkrich]. I thought that was really cool.
Mark Nielsen: And our executive producers, Andrew, Lee, and Pete were so supportive on this show. They were available any time for anything we needed if we needed to consult, work to work things through with them. Their rich history with these characters, going all the way back, was incredibly valuable to this project.
We will have more Toy Story 4 coverage in the coming weeks leading up to the film’s release. So be sure to check back in for more fun and interesting tidbits, including how cameras work in an animated film, designing the sets, and more.
Toy Story 4 opens in theaters on June 21, 2019. Click right here for trailers and more.