March 01 2012: The genius behind Pixar’s animated blockbuster hits Finding Nemo and Wall-E on why he decided to change tack and film a live-action adaptation of a vintage sci-fi epic

Andrew Stanton doesn’t look like the guy who has earned Pixar more than $1.3bn. You’d think that, as lead writer on the Toy Story trilogy and the writer and director of Finding Nemo and Wall-E, he’d surely walk with at least a mild swagger. He’s utterly anonymous in jeans, blue shirt and glasses in a post-production studio in London. I almost expect him to be serving coffee and pastries.

  • Production year: 2012
  • Country: USA
  • Cert (UK): 12A
  • Runtime: 132 mins
  • Directors: Andrew Stanton
  • Cast: Bryan Cranston, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy, Lynn Collins, Mark Strong, Samantha Morton, Taylor Kitsch, Willem Dafoe

He flew in from the west coast of America just the day before and should be hideously jetlagged, but he’s friendly, urbane, focused. He’s here to polish the final few scenes of John Carter, his first shift from animation into live-action. The film is an adaptation of Princess of Mars, the first in a series of the geeky John Carter of Mars novels written a century ago by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

And it’s a huge, slightly baffling risk. Because the series is beloved by notoriously critical fanboys. Because it cost Disney, Pixar’s parent company, $250m. And because Disney is understandably concentrating much of its attention on The Avengers, which is out at the end of April and which threatens to eclipse every other tentpole film this year.

Although the John Carter books – about a heartbroken American civil war veteran who is astral-projected to the red planet – have influenced both Star Wars and Avatar, it is also an apparently odd choice for Stanton. He has, after all, set himself up as the architect of children’s dreams, much as Steven Spielberg did with ET in the 1980s. Stanton is great with fish and toys and robots, but actual real-life actors? A sci-fi epic? It’s tempting to see John Carter as a vanity project; Stanton read the Burroughs novels as a kid and now has the status to get pretty much any film greenlit – not always a good thing.When he is done in the edit, I talk to Stanton in a soulless conference room. He leans back in the office chair, runs a hand through his short red hair and smiles. I ask if he was concerned about the way sci-fi films tend to pay less attention to dialogue and narrative structure in favour of special effects. He bounces forward in the chair, looking genuinely shocked, short red hair standing to attention. “No! Whole worlds have had to be made up in the films I’ve worked on before, which can take years. Adapting a book is much easier. Although – and this might prove offensive to hard-core Burroughs fans – I’ve done a lot of tweaking of the source material because it was very two-dimensional: the hero saved the girl and then, oh my God, they’re going to fall off a cliff!”

Stanton was, however, smart enough to invite American author Michael Chabon in to work on the script. “He brought a polish and finesse to the dialogue that was just classes above mine. It was like having this wonderful quality check.”

Since writing and directing Nemo, the story of a father clown fish who has to bring up his son alone, Stanton has learned the Pixar way of collaborating. By the time he came to write and direct Nemo, he had already worked on the scripts of Toy Story and Toy Story 2, A Bug’s Life and Monsters Inc. Yet, midway through Nemo – which he wrote as a response to “rolling my eyes at The Lion King” – he lost his mojo. He suffered a profound crisis of confidence.

“I hit a spot that made me really question whether I could do it or not,” he says. “I had to learn to share my doubt with my co-workers and the amazing antidote is that I realised I didn’t have to maintain some facade of being the guy with all the answers. I can now own up to the fact that I don’t always have the answers. Making a film is a team sport. Hire people who are better than you, who can do what you can’t. Such realisations were career changing for me.”

Stanton went on to win the best animated feature Oscar for Nemo and another for Wall-E five years later. Pixar is now widely seen as untouchable when it comes to animation and although the company’s public face is chief creative officer John Lasseter, it is Stanton who has written and directed its best films. This is partly because he makes films for everyone. “I have never made a children’s film,” he shouts, then laughs slightly manically.

Part of the brilliance of Wall-E and Toy Story 3 is their unusual alliance of the blockbuster and arthouse. “All I’m ever trying to do is have both without giving up on either. I’m trying to encapsulate something of that life-affirming, humanistic quality you get in so many arthouse films. But on this huge scale that has blockbuster status. Anyway, that’s my Freudian analysis …”

As a boy growing up in Rockport, a fishing village in Massachusetts, Stanton saw mainstream movies with his parents and arthouse films in a dance hall that was turned into a movie theatre each summer. “I was a real movie geek kid: I saw Gallipoli, My Brilliant Career, The Tin Drum. These weren’t films I’d have chosen to see, but I ended up watching three to six of them a day. And then at weekends I’d run off to see Alien or Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

Decades later, Stanton finds himself in a world where Steven Spielberg requests meetings. “He wanted to talk because he liked Wall-E so much,” says Stanton, looking bashful. It makes sense, I say; Wall-E is to children today what ET was to us. “Ironically, we did compare notes on ET and Wall-E. Specifically on giving their eyes expression.” He laughs. “That’s the kind of geek micro-level I live at all day.”

Despite his Oscars, the billions he has made for Pixar and huge industry respect, Stanton has an issue with validation that outstrips the usual creative self-doubt. “I’m still craving approval from my parents. It took a lot of success for me to realise it was never coming. It’s just not in their nature.”

So, at 46, Stanton admits he is driven by his need to please his parents. He is also strikingly hard on himself. He says his strength is structure and his weakness on-screen humour. “Even as a kid I was never the generator of humour, but I always knew who was funny, who to hang out with. And now … I just wish I was the funniest guy on the film.” But the Pixar films are funny. And there’s plenty of subtle humour in John Carter. “OK. I’m not funny enough. I’m sure other people would say I was funny. The thing about working at Pixar is that everyone around you is smarter and funnier and cleverer than you and they all think the same about everyone else. It’s a nice problem to have.”

He smiles and shakes my hand with unexpected firmness. “Success has not changed that recipe.”