Disney is the John Hammond of movie studios – they spare no expense. This was especially evident when Disney gathered a cavalcade of local & entertainment journalists at Pixar‘s headquarters in Emeryville, California, outside of San Francisco, in late March for the Cars 3 press day. The third entry in the highly-successful Pixar franchise debuted an eye-catching trailer last November, showing off an unexpected “dark and gritty” side to the series. We got to see more context for that scene during the screening, and a ton of new information about the film during the two-day event, meeting with the lead animators, the character designers, the writers, and the creative advisers on the kind of Herculean effort goes into making Pixar movies. You check out those individual reports at the links!
Walking up to the Steve Jobs Building, the animation giant’s main studio, is exactly what you’d expect from a modern tech company with a historic legacy. The lamp and ball many are familiar with from their title card loom giant outside the entrance, while inside a wide open space with glass ceilings let light stream in on ping-pong players and people eating at the food court. At the other end of the atrium is their screening room, a cavernous theater (pictured above) with starry lights emulating the night sky above.
Director Brian Fee said Cars 3 was a return to Lightning McQueen’s (voiced by Owen Wilson) story, to bring the movie more in line with the first. “Despite the fact that they’re talking cars, [Cars] is one of the more realistic movies we’ve done at Pixar, as far as the world. It’s the real world with real people with problems” and there’s a weight to the air that was important we capture again.”
45 minutes were screened for us, introduced Fee, producer Kevein Reher, and co-producer Andrea Warren. The same trio participated in a press conference the next day, where they announced Randy Newman would score the film. We were also treated to a full screening of the latest short preceding Pixar’s latest, titled Lou. The most salient thought I had as I listened and interviewed these Pixar creatives was how their filmmaking process is like iceberg theory: the majority of it is never seen. And Cars 3, despite being a threequel with a franchise foundation behind it, is no exception.
Up first was Lou. First-time director David Mullin and producer Dana Murray walked us through the long journey the short took to the big screen. Mullin said he had been pitching them since 2005. He conceived the titular character, a pile of lost-and-found toys (named after the missing letters on the box) that torments, then redeems, the school bully J.J., with the help of his wife. Production was greenlit in 2013. Murray joined the team in 2015 after feature delays on The Good Dinosaur caused the short to get pushed back. It wasn’t until 2016 that they started putting it together. It’s funny, sweet short that fits in nimbly with the Pixar essentials which, as Pixar head honcho John Lasseter imparted to Mullin, are heart, setting, entertainment, and animation.
The Cars 3 footage was from Acts 1 & 2, showcasing an aging Lightning McQueen stages a comeback after a terrible raceway accident. I got to say, as someone who wouldn’t put either of the previous Cars films among his top 5 Pixar movies, While not yet done-and-polished, the main set piece at a demolition derby was spectacular and, according to the combined efforts of the lead animators, a perfect example of the Pixar iceberg. But perhaps the part of the footage that popped the most was the introduction of Cruz Ramirez, a young, hip trainer voiced by Cristela Alonzo. As the producer Kevin Reher and character designers related, Alonzo’s own life experiences as a stand-up comic helped shape the character and it shows on screen. Her plucky can-do attitude contrasts with McQueen’s old-school style, giving the film its emotional weight as both struggle to break out of the boxes other vehicles put them in.
“I love Cruz she is one of my favorite characters in this movie,” Warren said. “She is very inspiring and charming. In some ways, she put herself in an industry where she’s a fish out of water but she’s charging ahead anyway. She’s bold. I love what we learn about her in this film and I love the relationship she has with McQueen, how they influence each other, face their fears, and help each other face their fears. I have an eight year-old daughter and I’ve already said to her ‘I can’t wait for you to see this new character Cruz, I think you’ll really like her.’ I think that’s true of all girls.”
Fee recalled a story when one of his daughters turned down learning the guitar because “that’s for boys,” which floored him
“I know society says “Princess movies and this and that.” But I had not heard that musical instruments have gender attached to them,” he added. “The fact that at such a young age they were already drawing labels and attaching things that aren’t for them. That was a red flag for me. So when I see Cruz, I see my girls and I want them to see somebody who can rise above anything society puts labels on.”
Cruz isn’t the only new popular cast addition. There’s also Jackson Storm, a younger rival to the aging McQueen voiced by Armie Hammer, a character which Pixar COO John Lasseter – an champion of the franchise – fell in love with, according to Fee.
“John invented Lightning McQueen but he wanted to make sure that when Storm pulled up next to him, he looked old. And he was ready to go there. ‘Let’s make him outdated, how do we do that?’” Fee said. “Storm is his own thing. There’s definitely an echo of young McQueen. I like to think of him as someone who was born with everything. Life has given him everything. He’s never had to work hard for anything. He thinks that the world owes him this. It’s his day and nobody else belongs. He lacks appreciation for those who came before him and sharing it. He’s entitled, basically.”
Fee said Lasseter always pushes for authenticity above all. While McQueen may be taking a trip out of the familiar streets of Radiator Springs (though the filmmakers assure it or its characters won’t be forgotten), it was key to the character’s journey. “He’s desperate and where it ultimately leads him is the South. That’s the roots of stockcar racing in America so we wanted to spend a lot of time in that country.”
Another way the team honored the sport was by including characters based on the pioneers of the sport, such as Junior Johnson, Wendell Scott, Louise Smith, Smokey Yunick, all of whom broke barriers to participate in the sport they loved.
“I think as far as the legends of NASCAR, It was interesting to here about all of them certainly the pioneers, were so brave, so inspiring,” Warren said. “It was those stories that were so compelling, it made us want to highlight [them].”
The vaunted “edge” the initial trailer brought to two things: 1) elevating the racing and put the audience on the track. and 2) “cornering” McQueen emotionally, which makes for a dramatically-rich story. Fee “loves” that trailer. “We had one thing we wanted to say: out of the gate, this is not the Cars movie we’re expecting. And, there’s the other side of it, which is that sequence was the one that was done” calling it ultimately a “happy accident.” For once, a happy car accident.
Cars 3 races into theaters June 16.