Cars 3 will be in theaters on June 16th and I am SO excited to share more content from the Cars 3 Press Event with you. I had the opportunity to sit down with the writers and story supervisor while in San Francisco and learn about “The Story of Our Story.”
Be sure you check out the following posts for more Cars 3:
A Day at Sonoma Raceway + NEW Trailer for Cars 3
Cars 3: “The Story of Our Story”
Mike Rich has been a screen writer now for more than 15 years and some of the films that he has written and worked on include Finding Forester and Secreteriat. This was his first time working for Pixar and first time working in animation.
Bob Peterson is a 23 year veteran at Pixar. He is a story and screen writing veteran among other things. Bob was a star supervisor on Monsters Inc, writer on Finding Nemo, codirector and writer on Up, the voice of Doug, Roz and Mr. Ray.
Kiel Murray is a writer on Cars 3 and was also a writer on the original Cars.
Scott Morse is story supervisor on Cars 3. Scott has been at Pixar for a little over 12 years now and worked on Ratouille, Wall-E, Brave, Cars 2 and now Cars 3.
The Story of Our Story
Mike shared that he was one of the early writers on Cars 3. He received a call just before Labor Day in 2014 from John Lasseter. He states that it was one of the greatest challenges and opportunities he’s faced being a part of the team that had to crack this story of Lightning McQueen.
Mike tells us a little about why this story was a hard one to cracl.
This guy was very much to our advantage because he was a character that is an iconic character to work with. The one thing we didn’t have was he didn’t have a problem. He didn’t have a dilemma. The last race we saw Lightning McQueen he was on top of the world. He was a champion racer. Things were going well for him and I think part of the reason why Pixar perhaps wanted me to come on board was I had worked in films that dealt with sports in the past and sometimes larger than life. I mean Secretariat. Working on Secretariat was similar feeling of you like to have an under current. You like to have something they can come back from. So we knew we would have to do with McQueen is make him vulnerable and take him down a notch. So in the early exploration of how do we go about doing that we kind of looked at big athletes that were going through a similar thing. If you consider the fact that Cars 3 is really kind of a third act of the overall story, it makes sense that McQueen is now past the halfway, probably a little bit further past the half way point of his career as well. So we visited with and we talked with athletes like Jeff Gordon who was only a couple of years away from his own retirement. Bob and I are big basketball fans.
Bob Peterson adds, “We talked about Kobe Bryant as he aged, his Achilles injury and other injuries and Michael Jordan. These guys 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 its 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. Then we fell like that is the sort of story we’re telling. In this case, it was what do you do when you’re not as fast any more and you have people behind you that are faster. Do you crumple or do you rise up and change?”
Mike states, “When Kobe Bryant injured his Achilles late in his career, he had this famous 3 am post on Facebook where he basically was saying What do I do now. You could tell this larger than life athlete was at a loss. He asked do I crawl under a rock, do I quit, do I rise. He was wrestling with all the things that we realized would be interesting for McQueen.”
Mike tells us that “there is a line that we would put in the film because I had heard it from an athlete who was asked the question how do you know when things are changing, how do you realize it and the answer is the kids will tell you.”
Next, we learn about Jackson Storm, the new kid introduced in Cars 3. Bob tells us about his story:
So speaking of kids, brings us to our antagonist Jackson Storm. The exciting thing for us was that Cars 3 is kind of the inverse of Cars 1. Remember when Cars first started out McQueen was this brash, cocky rookie who just had youth on his side. He had speed to burn. He didn’t need anybody telling him about anything. He had the answers and his appreciation and respect for the sport was basically just for what about me, what’s it mean for me. Cars taught him that there is a lot more to value than just that.
Mike then shares “For us it was a great opportunity to just create a kid who was kind of a mirror image of McQueen, but has much more of an edge than McQueen had in the first story but has the speed and has the technology in how the sport has changed. For McQueen, Jackson Storm really represents a generation that can take from McQueen and McQueen’s career and the sport that he loves more than anything in the world and has grown to love. It’s an example of who he was.”
Bob states, “It’s interesting because it’s a mirror but his generation is colder. You 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.”
We learned that the team made a lot of ‘research trips’ to write and produce this movie!
“Stats stats can tell every bit of the story and sometimes we lose sight of the of the fact that stats can’t measure everything. That 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. So Scott and Brian see our director and myself took road trips. Research trips.”- Mike Rich
Bob: “That’s something we’ve always part of ourselves on at here at Pixar. It’s one of the most fun part of this process is living in the material, living in the source of the material, trying to murder immerse yourself in that acetic and really understand the emotions and stories and history of what you’re trying to put up on the screen and have truth in the materials. We did the best we could. My dad and my grandpa were both Ford mechanics and they wouldn’t teach me anything about cars growing up. When they figured out I could draw, they wanted something more for me. So what did I make them do when my dad retired? We build old cars so I have a ’51 truck and a ’34 coupe. So I was surrounded with cars and now I’m writing Cars. I have this closer connection with my dad. But these trips, I was so excited to go on them. We went to the American 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 Humpty wheeler who used to help run events, Junior Johnson who was one of the original moonshiners. Sitting with these guys, hearing their stories he just living in that world was invaluable to finding the spirit of the love of the game McQueen could not verbalize. He do that he loves racing but maybe that will give us something that McQueen could reflect on. I don’t know everything about this thing.”
Mike shares a little bit about the trips that they made for this movie. “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 then he loves them. We made a point of sitting in the grandstands, hundred rows up in the bleachers. Because they wanted to surround ourselves with what was the equivalent of McQueen’s fans. We saw people wearing Lightning McQueen shirts at the Daytona 500. But there was a moment the closest I can use as an illustration was Dale Earnhardt Junior. There was a moment at the race when he took the lead and there was this ground swell roar that he had taken the lead. I looked over at Scott and said yeah that’s our guy. That’s our racer, that’s the passion he has.”
Bob states, “It was really special because you can see what it’s like modern day and be there for the big hunks of steel going two hundred miles an hour around the track. Then the surprise was seeing how human it was, hearing stories in the garages, 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 shares that “Its about the history of the sport. We went to the Daytona 500 there was a museum and a 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 led us too, we’re very excited now, we were really kind of creating the puzzle. We had most of the pieces now we just had to get started.”
Mike shares that after countless trips and research, they formed a 4 page summary of what they envisioned for Cars 3. He had the awesome opportunity to read this aloud to the group which included John Lasseter. He shares, “So, I started reading the story. One page in, John doesn’t usually tip his hand. He just takes it in. I was telling the story and I got to the 3rd page and all of sudden I looked up and a tear, a single tear rolled down John Lasseter’s face, and that’s when as a reader you go Slow down now, hit every pause that I can. For me I’ve been fortunate enough to have a really wonderful career. For me I thought afterwards, that’s the closest I’ll ever getting reading a script to Walt Disney.”
Mike shares “The other thing that I was just so appreciative of Pixar because the time that is involved with putting these films together, is often fresh eyes to a story, bringing someone else in that can take a look and say maybe this character can go here. Helps to evolve characters and helps to evolve the story. And leads to a lot of people.”
Bob gives us a summary of how the story came together and about their team:
We came out a year ago and I think for me one of the joys of working at Pixar is the joy of working with good people and funny people and interesting people. I was very blessed. I got to work with Mike and with Kiel, both of us former high school athletes and college. She is a college volleyball player. I was a high school high school basketball player. For me this was a joy to be working on a sports film. You don’t get that too often when working in animation. So we came up with new perspectives and our main job was to work on, since the story was in place, his dilemma who would he be paired with. All of these films exist in a vacuum if its just the main character. You have to have side characters. What’s your character’s flaw a side character needs to push that character to learning who the main character needs to be. We went through a lot of variations and we settled on Cruz Ramirez. And Cruz Ramirez, difficult character to crack and we knew we wanted her to push McQueen. We knew he didn’t want to grow old. He wanted to stay viable so who would push him there. As we were trying to figure her out, She was just a side kick and then she got us coffee, then she was a techie where she was purely technical helping him on the simulator. What we settled on was someone who would really push him and that was a trainer. A trainer who herself wanted to be a racer but had fears as a young car that she couldn’t make it. So the nice thing about Cruz being a trainer, and again we tried a lot of different variations on that, is that she refuses to let McQueen forget that he’s old. You’re my senior project. You’re an old man. He’s trying to escape the idea that he’s old by going and training with these young folks and he’s treated like an old guy and put through Zumba and things like that. Where he wants to be doing technical things and he’s handcuffed to someone who is younger than him and so it’s always a reminder that she is there to push him. Her Achilles heel, we decided on, was that she is purely technical. She’s never been out on the track and so she represents that pure next generation of technology and he’s real world, been on sand, he’s been on asphalt. So the two of them when they come together have something to teach each other. But she is there solely to push him forward and he’s there solely to bring her into who she needs to be. Put these two in an elevator and that’s our test. Take 2 characters, put them in an elevator and they have a conversation and hopefully they’re appealing and entertaining so we applied that test to these guys. And one of the reasons for their success is of course our fabulous writing, but also are actress Cristela Alonzo. She came on, we could now hear this voice in our head and she had this wonderful story to tell herself.”
Kiel tells us about how Cruz came about:
We initially crafted Cruz out of what McQueen needed her to be, but once you know what that who is she is, what’s her own story, its put him aside. We looked at a lot of things and Cristella’s own life was inspirational. She talked about trying to break into comedy, feeling different, looking different and sounding different. She grew up in a small town. We looked at that as well. We looked at, as we always do, at our own lives. I have a daughter and two boys so I am keenly aware of their different levels of confidence and how my daughter, even though she may be an extremely successful woman, may undercut or under estimate herself and my sons will overestimate. That was interesting to me knowing that McQueen is such a confident character that he would be great to pair with someone who needed a little bit of his confidence but then I didn’t want her to be a person that wears that on her sleeve. Because I think most of us are confident in aspects of our lives but there are 1 or 2 things that we are really nervous about so we explored that. I read a lot on the confidence gap and the new recent evidence about why girls are less confident. Its not true for every woman but there’s a lot of evidence and reasons why. I could take up a whole panel. We started playing with it, trying it out in scenes and with audiences of women at Pixar to make sure women could really relate to it. They really related to it. In the scene you ended with last night where she asked how he felt for his first race and how he knew he could do it and he said I never thought about that. I never thought I couldn’t do it. A lot of women said ahh that wishing that you felt that you could but the self doubt. We had a great story artist on our team that did the scratch voice for Cruz and also drew her a lot. And her name is Louise. But she had a similar sort of story to Cruz when she arrived at Pixar. I spent a lot of time talking with her and saying does this feel right to you. And what did you feel when you were in this condition.
Scott shares, “That in a nutshell is how we approached the initial writing phase on these things. You get the movie up and running, you get the emotional on the page but at the end of the day you’re making a movie, you have to make it visual and use that film language that is going to live in your hearts and your minds. That’s really tricky with human characters let alone talking cars let alone sequences like Cruz’s dream sequence. That was a real hard nugget for us to crack. And we have a sizeable story team that we work with, an amazing group, all ages, all different backgrounds. We try different artists on different sequences throughout the movie and try to challenge them with action scene or a comedy scene to make everybody grow. We had a lot of different people on Cruz at certain points. Mechanically it was serving its purpose in the movie, it would get us through like duct tape but it wasn’t emotional, it wasn’t an experience yet. We knew that we couldn’t push forward into production into animation until we really ended that. Talking with Kiel and we had a newer board artist Louise Smyth that came on. Louise is so much fun to work with mostly because of her personality and because she’s new, she brings a lot of enthusiasm. But she secretly told us that she suffers from imposter syndrome at Pixar, where she is like the small fish in a big pond. She finally got her dream at working at Pixar in her mind and would she measure up, does she have the goods can she do what everyone else can. She’s challenging herself. As we looked at the sequence we said lets put Louise on it see what she can bring to it. Just talked with her, how do you shoot that, how do you feel. Louise had these great ideas. We hand out script pages and we read through them with the script artists and a lot of times they go back and forth with the writer and the board artists get their input in the writing phase that way. And then we start thumb nailing. The first visuals on a napkin, that’s the back of an envelope. An Eskimo pie wrapper and it turned out beautifully. We tend to keep our trash and draw on it. We started talking about how can we make this dynamic. These talking heads. How can we make these shoeboxes with eyes on them emotional, human, and she had some great ideas. She put on her headphones and she really got into the acting and as we clicked through these boards we realized this is Lightning McQueen’s movie, he’s been dominated throughout the whole movie but that translates into screen language too and he’s taking most of the screen most of the time. He’s big and boisterous and not really letting anyone else get a word in edgewise. We know from his point of view Cruz is a means to an end. She is going to help him beat Jackson Storm in his mind. When she’s not doing that and he blows up at her, she leaves his trailer. Louise had this great idea to flop that visual dynamic to start bringing Cruz forward and we’re going to hear her story for the first time and really minimize McQueen for the first time in the movie. So bring her forward but at the same time she is becoming dominant and her story is starting to live for the first time she is able to vocalize it in a way that she has never done to herself, speaking out loud, she still can’t make eye contact. She can’t even turn and even when she does turn to look at him, she can’t hold his gaze. So we sent these down to editorial and started looking at them edit. We cut our scratch voices to them and Louise did a great job playing Cruz’s scratch voice and you find out very quickly what worked on the pages the drawings, McQueen won’t shut up. McQueen is having to counterbalance her conversation throughout the whole thing so we really minimized his voice too. Emotionally he starts to seem more take with her, and didn’t realize she felt these things. If he can hear her story for the first time, we can hear her story for the first time. Which really sets to our hero, this dominant guy was able to take a step back and look at the world with a different view for the first time. So story boards are great because as you’re looking at emotion and comedy sometimes you land it at the end of the day like you need to but sometimes you go down the wrong path. During the demolition derby there’s a scene where Luigi and Mack are being discovered and they so no we’re part of a traveling circus, spinning plates, singing opera, anything to keep from being discovered. The undercover gag was kind of the running thread for a certain amount of time in early versions of the movie and Mack gave different versions. He appears as a lumber jack or military transport, circus, the party supply truck. At one point they were going to be a film crew so if McQueen was out racing it would look like he was an actor in a film about Lightning McQueen. But like 90% of everything we do, we toss it and we just keep workshopping until we find something that works.”