Disney and Pixar always set out to create a good film, which is based on an amazing story. We’ve seen it in Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., Toy Story and most recently, Cars 3. There’s so much that goes into the script-writing process that we never really get to hear about, yet the story behind the story is always fascinating.
Last month, I had the opportunity to hear first-hand details on the story behind the story of Cars 3 while attending a presentation with four writers from Pixar: Story Supervisor Scott Morse (Cars 2, Cars 3, Brave, Wall-E) and writers Mike Rich (Finding Forester, Secretariat), Bob Peterson (Finding Nemo) and Kiel Murray (Cars, Cars 3).
While my intention is never to give spoilers on a film before it has been released, these highlights from the Cars 3 presentation are interesting, but might give away a detail or two about the film.
Cars 3: The Story Behind The Story
MIKE RICH: “One of the greatest challenges was to take a look at Lightning McQueen. Anytime you have an iconic character to work with, you’re in a pretty good place, but the one thing we didn’t have was he (McQueen) didn’t have a problem. He didn’t have a dilemma. The last race we saw Lightening McQueen he was on top of the world. He was a champion racer. Things were going well for him… so we knew what we would have to do with McQueen is make him vulnerable and take him down a notch.”
The team of writers viewed Cars 3 as the third act in the overall Cars storyline, which means that McQueen is a little past the midpoint of his racing career. They looked at careers of big athletes like Jeff Gordon, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan to gain insights of those in a similar situation.
Bob Peterson: “These guys (Bryant and Jordan) are on top of the world just as McQueen is. But then they have to figure out when they start to become obsolete, what do you do? We found that a very interesting way to go with this story. In all these films we look for a universal truth that everyone can sort of identify with whether it’s toys or fish or whatever as long as there is something we can all learn from, a parable that is being told about life in a universal way. In this case, it was what do you do when you’re not as fast anymore and you have people behind you that are faster. Do you crumple or do you rise up and change?”
We learned that the writing team had to decide who the antagonist in the film would be. The antagonist often helps to propel the story forward and aid the hero, and in this case, McQueen, to complete his journey, it’s a very special role. Rich said it was a great opportunity for the team to create a mirror image of Lightening McQueen as he appeared in the original CARS film – a young, rookie race car. The result is Jackson Storm, an edgier, faster racer.
Bob Peterson: “It’s interesting because it’s a mirror, but Storm’s generation is colder. You can see these older guys and they are having fun together and there’s camaraderie. Up come these new guys and it’s more about technique and winning and you sense kind of a warmth sliding out of the sport and that’s why you feel a little unnerved when all these rookies start replacing him (McQueen).”
Mike Rich: “Stats can tell every bit of the story and sometimes we lose sight of the of the fact that stats can’t measure everything. There’s heart. So if the goal was to show that McQueen was very much at risk of losing the one thing that he cherished more than anything, we wanted to show the audience what was it about the sport that he did fall in love with.”
Bob Peterson: “One of the most fun parts of this process is living in the material and really understand the emotions and history of what you’re trying to put up on the screen and have truth in the materials. We went to the South and tried to dig up as much of the deep history as we still could orally, written, walking these old ghost tracks that we could find, talking with all the veterans like Richard Petty, and people that were part of the sport like Humpy Wheeler who used to help run events, Junior Johnson who was one of the original moonshiners. Sitting with these guys, hearing their stories and just living in that world was invaluable to finding the spirit of the love of the game McQueen could not verbalize.”
Mike Rich: “We went to the Daytona 500 and one of the great things about McQueen is just the connection with the fans that he has of the sport. They love him and he loves them. We made a point of sitting in the grandstands, hundred rows up in the bleachers because we wanted to surround ourselves with what was the equivalent of McQueen’s fans. We saw people wearing Lightening McQueen shirts at the Daytona 500.”
Bob Peterson: “It was really special because you can see what it’s like modern day. There are these big hunks of steel going two hundred miles an hour around the track. But the surprise was seeing how human it was, hearing stories in the garage, hearing the drivers talk about why they got into racing. There’s so much heart in it. It’s not about glory for them. Its about competition. It’s about rebellion and all of these other really human things.”
Mike Rich: “Its about the history of the sport. We went to the Daytona 500 museum and library. There are these old yellow newspapers and photographs and file cabinets. It was refreshing because it was an analog thing. Actual files. That’s where we learned about characters like Wendell Scott and Louise Smith who had obstacles, societal obstacles, just to get on the track but they did it because of the love of the sport. These trips and these brainstorming sessions were really kind of creating the puzzle. We had most of the pieces, now we just had to get started.”
Once the research was complete, the script for Cars 3 came together. The next step? Pitching the synopsis to John Lasseter for approval. And guess what? The team was given the green light to proceed!
Mike Rich: “We had to sit down with John Lasseter and pitch the story that we had come up with at the time. I remember we had put together this four page document.”
Bob Peterson: “So you read it out loud to the group, playing all the characters. John knew some of the inklings that we were going to put into the movie, what we were hoping to get in there.”
Mike Rich: “I started reading the story. John doesn’t usually tip his hand. He just takes it in. I was telling the story and I got to the third page. All of sudden I looked up and a tear, a single tear rolled down John Lasseter’s face. For me I’ve been fortunate enough to have a really wonderful career. I thought afterwards, that’s the closest I’ll ever get to reading a script to Walt Disney.”
Bob Peterson: “John cares. He cares about these stories and the ideas. That gave us the boost to move forward!”
Make sure you catch Cars 3, which will be in theaters on June 16.