‘Cars 3’: Writers On Making Lightning McQueen Face His Age

The Cars 3 writers are like a good sports team: a mix of Pixar veterans and a rookie for the best balance of old and new in the third franchise entry.

Pixar scriptwriting, like the animation and design departments, is a collaborative effort. And Cars 3’s squad is akin to a good sports team, complete with a couple veterans and a rookie to fill out its roster.

The newcomer is Mike Rich, screenwriter of films such as Finding Forrester, The Rookie, and Secretariat working on his first animated film, Bob Peterson, a Pixar mainstay and co-writer/co-director of Up, Kiel Murray, a writer on the first Cars, and story supervisor Scott Morse.

Rich, who is known for his sports-themed work, was brought onto the project in fall 2013 with a simple mission: find McQueen’s problem. As all things at Pixar begin, Rich and Morse started by researching, traveling to overgrown dirt tracks in the South to get a feel for where the characters need to go and how the story should feel. It was months and months before Rich actually put pen to paper. According to Morse, there have been 9-12 version of the film over its development and the story crew consists of 8-12 people in total.

When Peterson boarded the project alongside Murray roughly a year ago, they and Rich bonded as former athletes and sports fans, especially as basketball aficionados. They knew what kind of journey McQueen needed to take because they had seen it in many a pro athlete, from Michael Jordan to Kobe Bryant. As they age, their edge leaves and they have to replace youthful exuberance for carefully-honed strategy. Rich said one line from the film came directly from an athlete interview discussing when it becomes clear a change must occur. The line is “the kid will tell you.”

What Rich said they came up with was represented by the character’s mirror in the film, Jackson Storm.

“He’s the same thing McQueen represented when he younger, which is the real possibility that the next generation could be the end of the sport McQueen truly loves,” Rich said.

Peterson’s and Murray’s roles, then, were to bring fresh eyes to the story, literally in this case.

“Building off [Rich’s] story, which was already great, our main topic was how to focus the characters around McQueen,” Peterson said about his late contribution to the process. “How do you surround him with characters that meaningfully push him to a place where we needs to be? And what we settled on was a character named Cruz Ramirez.”

The character, voiced by Cristela Alonzo, already existed, but in the story punch-up, they realized she needed to have more going on in order to motivate McQueen to make the changes he needed to. So she went from a techie-fan to a bubbly trainer who could push and needle him without drawing audience ire. It was Alonzo’s casting that crystallized the character and her struggle for the writers.

“We knew that McQueen is such a confident character that whoever we paired him with would be interesting if they needed that to rub off on them,” Murray said, adding she read books on the subject and the “confidence gap” between men and women sometimes known as impostor syndrome.

The team of writers were intent on returning to the essence of what Cars is, which is an ode to the sports-lovers in all of us

Cars 3 races in theaters June 16.

Sam Flynn

Sam Flynn

Sam is a writer and journalist whose passion for pop culture burns with the fire of a thousand suns and at least three LED lamps.