The Cars 3 Director and Producers Pop the Hood on What Makes Lightning McQueen Tick

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The “Cars 3” Long Lead Press Days, held at Sonoma Raceway, including presentations by filmmakers, a press conference with (left to right) Producer Kevin Reher, Co-Producer Andrea Warren and Director Brian Fee, and raceway activities, held on March 28, 2017 in Sonoma, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

Speed. It’s all I could think about as I sat in a room at Sonoma Raceway for the Cars 3 Press Junket.

With the sound of shrieking tires filling the air in the background, I sat with a few dozen bloggers for the latest part of our epic #Cars3Event Disney Blog Trip. The latest pit stop was the official Cars 3 Press Junket. Seated comfortably at a table in the front of the room were Director Brian Fee, Producer Kevin Reher and Co-Producer Andrea Warren. The trio happily fielded questions from the crowd who seemed as eager to learn everything about Cars 3 as they did to share their experiences.

Cars 3 races into theaters on June 16 and if you’re smart, you’ll be sure to get seat by the finish line. This time around, the stakes are real high for Lightning McQueen. The former Piston Cup champion has apparently peaked. How does a former red-hot champion deal with being ousted by young upstarts? How does a hero handle the end of his career? For Lightning McQueen and Cars 3, it isn’t about that winning moment. Uh uh. It’s all about the journey that gets you there.

For the Cars 3 team, from writers to animators to producers, that journey actually hits real close to home. Going from concept to box office release was anything but a quick race. Fee, Reher and Warren shared their favorite moments behind the latest Cars 3 installment. Now buckle up; the race is about to begin.

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SIMULATED SPEED — Tech-savvy trainer Cruz Ramirez (voice of Cristela Alonzo) is armed with cutting-edge tools—like a racing simulator—to help turn racers-in-training into champions. But Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) isn’t a fan of Cruz’s high-tech techniques and decides instead to return to his roots—bringing his skeptical trainer along for the ride. Disney•Pixar’s “Cars 3” opens in U.S. theaters on June 16, 2017. ©2017 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

We’ve heard the biggest obstacle for Cars 3 was that Lightning McQueen was at the top of his game and didn’t have a problem. How tough was that to crack?

BRIAN FEE: Yeah, with Lightning or Woody or any of our characters, it’s hard when you get into a sequel where they have learned a lot of lessons. It’s hard to have a movie if your main character does not have actual problems to deal with. One of the things we allow is our characters to be imperfect because that’s where we find stories.

With McQueen, it just took a little research. We started talking to [NASCAR driver] Jeff Gordon. We started talking to other athletes and we started seeing people who were at the top of the game who were big celebrities, who had it all and they’re facing the expiration date that all athletes have. Quite frankly, we also felt that way. We felt like as an artist, new artists and interns come into the studio and they can draw better than I can now, let alone when I was their age.

I think everybody in the world probably has that feeling that they know what it’s like for someone younger to come in and you start to feel like you are no longer valid anymore. It seemed like an honest thing to latch onto.

 

How long can the Cars franchise last?

BRIAN FEE: I think we’ll just have to wait and see. John Lassiter always says we won’t make a movie if we don’t have a story we think is worth telling. I don’t know how long it’ll last but we always want to make sure we have problems that people can identify with.

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Members of the “Cars 3” production have a scheduling review, including (lower left to right clockwise) Production Manager Pam Darrow, Production Office Coordinator Emily Davis, Production Office Manager Susan Eggett, Supervising Technical Director Michael Fong, Co-Producer Andrea Warren, Director Brian Fee, Director’s Assistant Jacob Combs and Producer Kevin Reher, as seen on March 22, 2017 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

Can you take us behind the scenes? What was it like having Owen Wilson in a sound booth?

BRIAN FEE: It was a pleasure. Before we get the real actors involved, we do scratch acting, just folks around the studio as we’re trying to craft a story and try things. So, we’ll just grab somebody to say the lines. Then we get Owen in the booth and now it’s actually McQueen. McQueen is saying those lines. You know, one of the, my fondest memories with Owen is him looking at the lines and stopping and saying, “This doesn’t make any sense to me. Wouldn’t the character do this?”

And he’s not talking about just something he wants to say. He wears his writers hat when he’s in the booth. We’ll talk about a scene and he’ll start giving me new options and we’ll play around. Ooften what ends up on the screen is something that wasn’t necessarily on the page that we started with. That’s as close to improv as you can get in the animation world.

ANDREA WARREN: We get him in there a lot not because he didn’t nail the acting on the last time, it’s just, we’re rewriting and changing things. So we have to keep going back with line changes and that sort of thing.

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Producer Kevin Reher (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

What about Nathan Fillion and Kerry Washington? What did they bring to the table?

BRIAN FEE: Nathan’s very charming and he kind of charmed me the moment [LAUGHS] that he walks in the room. He is a pleasure to talk with and he’s one of those guys that will give you seven takes, and they’re all perfect. They’re all different, but they’re all perfect. So, whichever one you use, you left six great takes on the floor that you can’t use. He is a fast worker. He’s very high energy and he’s very gracious. He’s just very personable.

Kerry was… I’ll tell this story. She comes in for her very first day. She’s never done animation before. She comes in for her very first recording session. She drove herself. And she’s running a little late, apologized because traffic is bad. And then she apologizes to us again for not having memorized her lines. Which is something we do not do. There’s no need to memorize your lines. That was just very sweet.

She’s never done animation before but she steps in front of the microphone and starts throwing out all the lines as if she’s a veteran. There’s a certain way we work in animation, it’s a little different and she kind of instinctively had it down.

KEVIN REHER: She loves it beause she doesn’t have to wear hair or make up. Nathan loves animation. He flew himself up to Pixar to meet us before we even cast him in Cars 3, just because he loves animation and wanted to come and see Pixar.

BRIAN FEE: There was a moment where we’re recording Keri and I try not to look at their faces when they’re saying the lines ‘beause I just want to hear it. We videotape everything so that the animators can take cues from what the actor really did. But, I just want to hear the words and see how well the phrasing is cutting through and hear how well just the sound of it is working. I don’t tend to look at the actors while they’re delivering their lines.

There was one part where Keri was delivering something kind of intensely and I was just looking down, listening for the intensity. And then I couldn’t help myself. My eyes went up and I caught her right in the middle of her line. And she was playing to me. She was just giving me the eye daggers. And I actually felt her eye daggers going through my head. She was wonderful.

 

What is the main message of Cars 3?

BRIAN FEE: The message of the real movie for me is buried in McQueen’s story. And it is finding purpose in life. And that changes throughout your life. What is important to you when you’re 20 is no longer probably necessarily what’s important when you’re 45. And we go through these changes where life does have new meaning and that’s the discovery he’s on.

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Director Brian Fee (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

What makes this movie different from the previous ones for the kids?

BRIAN FEE: Wwith all of our movies, we try to expand the world. We don’t want to just go back to the same place and do the same things again. We want to expand the world, we also want to expand the characters. We want to take our characters and put them in deeper situations. Different deeper stages of life. So, I think there’s a lot for kids in this movie. I think our hope is that kids can relate to Cruz.

Our hope is that everybody knows what it’s like to not feel like you belong. And of course we’re just looking for humor whenever we can do it. Plus we’ve got more racing in this movie I think than we’ve ever had in any, any Cars movie. I’ve had people that don’t particularly like racing tell me that they thought this was the best racing they’ve ever seen because it’s story based. Even if you happen to dislike racing, we hope that you’re in the story. You’re not thinking about racing.

 

Brian, this is your first movie as a director. How did your friends, family and peers help you out?

BRIAN FEE: I, I leaned on everybody as much as I possibly could I spoke a lot to other directors. And then I relied heavily on the leads of all the departments because every department is run by experts.

My job is not to tell them how to light the scene. My job is not to tell them how to animate the scene. My job is not to get in there and mechanically do their jobs for them. My job is to inspire them with what the story needs are. How do I want the audience to feel? What does this scene need to achieve? And how can the lighting or animation, come together and help us tell the story?

 

There are so many departments involved, basically making the movie how many people are involved?

KEVIN REHER: Between two hundred and fifty and two hundred and sixty people. And they come and go. They roll off and another department gets full of people It’s a village.

 

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Co-Producer Andrea Warren (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

There are many different angles in the story. Which one can you relate to?

ANDREA WARREN: I really love Cruz’s story. I just find her to be such an admirable, likable character. She’s very passionate about racing and she’s in this world where, she’s a little bit of a fish out of water. Yet she really makes her mark, she finds her way and throughout this movie I love that we get to know her more, we know about where she’s coming from and what motivates her.

KEVIN REHER: For me, it was Stella [Cristela Alonzo, voice of Cruz] A lot of Stella’s story was in the movie because she told us her story as somebody who was born in a border town of Texas and had to work real hard to become a stand up comic. Nobody told her that she could. So we stole that.

BRIAN FEE: I’m of two minds I guess because I have two daughters. One day my daughters told me rather abruptly that certain things were for boys and certain things were for girls. And if something was “ for boys,” they automatically didn’t have an interest in it or didn’t feel like they could have an interest in it. And that was a red flag. It just kind of killed me that society puts those kind of labels on things.

At such a young age were already feeling those labels from society. So, there’s a part of Cruz when I see my daughters, and that storyline is very important to me. And also as a parent of said daughters you know, McQueen’s story line of the moment that you wake up and realize what it really feels like to be a parent and what it really feels like to help somebody do something.

When you’re twenty years old, you spend all your time doing everything for yourself. But when you realize the joy you give out of helping someone else find their potential… that’s something I identify with McQueen on a great scale.

 

Cars 3 in theaters June 16

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Comments

  1. ellen beck says

    This was interesting to read what goes on behind the making of the film. I like how the message is how things change and what it feels like to belong. It seems the Crss movies do have a message. Kids relate to these messages in different ways, and it would be a great opportunity for parents to talk to them about the messages presented to see if they ‘got it’.

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