Released in 2008 at the height of Pixar’s cultural influence on the world of animation, WALL-E It remains one of the studio’s most iconic and moving works. The story of a garbage robot in the ruins of Earth who finds purpose and love (while also helping to lift humanity from the brink of irrelevance) is funny, romantic, and inspiring in equal measure, all without losing an ounce of the iconic charm of the company. The Academy Award-winning film has only grown in impact as the years have passed, with its satirical side proving particularly prescient of modern culture in many very distressing shapes.
15 years after its initial release, the animated sci-fi film is re-released as part of the Criterion Collection. To celebrate the occasion, CBR had the opportunity to sit down with Andrew Stanton, who directed and co-wrote the film. He dove into the process of creating Pixar animated films, what Apple founder Steve Jobs had to say about early incarnations of the film, and what the fundamental difference is between directing animated and live-action stories.
RBC: WALL-E it’s been highly praised since it first came out, and this Criterion Collection release is just the latest in a long line of accolades for the film—it’s even in the Library of Congress. It will survive nukes if it comes to that. As a filmmaker, how is it that your work is celebrated on that level?
Andrew Stanton: Well, I mean, it’s weird. I don’t take it personally as much as you think. I feel like really great stories or movies, at least in the way that we discovered and evolved them at Pixar, you really feel like it’s a bit like what Michelangelo said, that he just discovered marble sculpture. He feels like they’re in the ether and sometimes we’re lucky to discover some really strong ones. Even though it was over a long period of time and very gradual, there was something really unique and pure that was slowly being discovered. I feel like I can take responsibility or credit for not giving up and forcing it to be discovered and, in a weird way, protecting it as it gets refined.
You feel that way with every movie because it takes a town to do these things. I just felt lucky and blessed to have discovered her and to feel like she was there to be found, and I felt special in that moment. He felt unique at that moment. I knew we were challenging the studio, [and] I knew we were challenging ourselves. It was the closest I felt to when we were doing toy story, that we were challenging the assumptions that existed in the industry and among the audience about what an animated film could be. It was really nice to be back at that forefront, pushing the envelope again and saying, “There could be a lot more than we know.”
The irony is that it’s one of our less modern money makers, but from a movie buff’s standpoint, it’s a lot of people’s favorites. When I left to do television for about six years, everywhere I went, other filmmakers, peers, people who were my heroes, they all had [it], and it was something very special for that. He was born out of such a love for pure cinema, not pure animation, pure cinema, and he seemed to be recognized for it. That’s why I felt maybe that’s why it’s worthy of being in this kind of top-tier world of the Criterion library.
I remember when the movie came out, all my friends who weren’t as into animation as I was were loved. WALL-E and I wanted to know what else was out there that was like this, and I had to tell them, not really much.
Right? Because she had never felt it. I think I speak for a lot of us at Pixar, especially the original team. We never watch the animation. We never watch other animated movies. That was like looking at a photocopy of something because animation is inherently a caricature of something. So we were always looking… We all went to the movies. When we talked about what inspired us or what we saw that weekend. We always talked about the movies.
We grew up with the movies we’ve seen. It didn’t matter what medium it was, and it was rarely animation that excited us. Usually it was the animation that frustrated us. We just felt like we were the only ones hearing a new sound. We were interested in what else it could do, what else was possible, and when has it always been this way.
I want to mention the first act of the film, that largely silent section of the film for which I never heard any real criticism.
it’s so pure. That haunted us throughout production. Like, it’s so pure that you definitely wanted to try to keep it that pure. So we were working really hard not to talk as much in the rest of the movie, to try to get back [those] moments when we could maintain that purity. It’s a bit of a sign that we really challenged ourselves early on and almost walked off a tightrope at times. It was difficult, but I think we did it.
Was there ever any temptation to do WALL-E a more vocal character and giving more dialogue to that first act?
That’s thinking like Hollywood, and we’re not Hollywood. At home it was the opposite. “Why can’t it be as good as the first act?” He had Steve Jobs coming down, there was a meeting where he said, “The first act is great. The rest is rubbish.” That was at the beginning when everything is crap. So there was nothing unique at that point other than the fact that everyone was intoxicated by what we initially found out.
Everyone from the head of the studio on down said, “We’ve got to keep trying to dig in there.” So there was never a debate about that. It just shows you how hard it was to have a full top-down studio supporting you on this vision, with no one trying to fight it, and everyone supporting you for four years, and we still couldn’t get it 100%. That just shows how big our appetites were.
WALL-E is such a forward-thinking movie: it really predicted a batch how culture has evolved in the last 15 years. In retrospect, how do you approach progressive satire like the one seen in WALL•E?
I think some of that was the benefit of being a high-tech studio. We were the first people who had email before most people had it. In 1989/1990, we were the first people to use the Internet, which was called Mosaic at the time, just us with a couple of other universities before it started being called the information highway, the World Wide Web, and all that . We were probably the first people in the entertainment industry where everyone worked entirely off screen from the late ’80s on. So we would look into the future at least five or six years quite often.
Steve Jobs was literally our boss. We got the iPhone before everyone else by a few days. I got it early in the production of WALL-E, and I remember playing with it and saying, “This is like holding a jetpack. It’s like holding the future, like holding a flying car. It’s brand new, but why does it look familiar?” Then it hits me: I used to smoke cigarettes and I thought, “Oh, this is what I used to do when I smoked cigarettes when I was bored and waiting for my friend. I’d light a cigarette.” just to kill time.” I found myself doing that all the time. [with the iPhone].
We all do it now, but that immediately made me go, “Oh, Jesus. This is super addicting,” and it took me a few seconds to say, “I could see a horrible future around this.” I didn’t want to be right. Literally, this kind of thing: I was having coffee at Astor Place, and I’m sitting at Starbucks, and I’m looking out the window and I see everyone passing by to go to work. Everyone but a sixth or seventh person was on his iPhone, staring at him as they walked across the street, not looking up, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, I’m at the Axiom.”
It is the saddest kind of claim in the world.
It is enough.
You’ve done a lot of work in both animation and live action. What is the biggest difference you have found when directing both outlets?
I will give you my short and wise answer. People in animation like to read instructions, and people in live action don’t like to follow instructions. That is more or less the type of people where they divide. Animation is like Mozart: he’s writing a symphony. You’re arranging it, and it’s all on paper until you finally have little time to get the orchestra together to finally play it at the end. It can be a masterpiece. Live action is you show up with your sax and go to your little jazz club, and you don’t know what you’re playing until you’re playing right then and there, improvising on stage. That can be a masterpiece. They are just two very different approaches.
Looking back over the last fifteen years, what would you say has surprised you the most? WALL-E legacy?
That he has not aged. That it feels as fresh as when it went out into the ether. I felt like I had just been given this amazing character to play that I’ve been chasing ever since. Other stories that I write, I really realize how weird it was and that it’s just as intoxicating as it was when I first thought about it as it is in the final product. Eight, 10, 15 years later, I can look at it and feel just as inspired or in love with the character as the day I thought of it. That’s not something that always happens.
WALL-E (The Criterion Collection) is now available.