Helmer Stanton keeps innocence, love of storytelling

Andrew Stanton is on the phone from the Bay Area, where he is packing his bags for Tokyo. The movie he directed, “Finding Nemo,” will have its premiere in Japan, six months after it opened in the U.S.

“Japan is the last country in the whole world that’s getting it,” he says. “They speed up the English-speaking countries because of the piracy issues, but the other countries where it’s dubbed there’s not as much pressure, so Christmas is the best time to open.”

The premiere coincides with the video release date of “Nemo” Stateside, which pulverized yet another record by racking up more than $135 million in sales on that first day, Nov. 4.

November in Los Angeles is the time of year when industry talk turns to Oscar nominations. One presumed given is that “Nemo” is leading the field for animated feature with other toon pics so much chum in its wake. The fish tale also could generate a best picture or screenplay nom.

Stanton is fairly blase about both kudos and commerce, not that he’s stuck up or anything.

It just doesn’t concern him, and that studious lack of concern is emblematic of the Pixar aesthetic, an attitude of filmmaking that, ironically, has resulted in much financial success and, yes, Oscars: Pixar creative avatar John Lasseter received a “special achievement” Oscar in 1995 for “his inspired leadership of the Pixar ‘Toy Story’ team” and in 1988 for his short “Tin Toy.”

Stanton has been part of the Pixar creative coterie since 1991 when Lasseter hired him on the basis of a short film.

“It was one of those diamond in the rough things: I had these student films that were luckily entertaining enough that they showed at some festivals that coincidentally had Pixar shorts showing in them, the ‘Luxo Lamp’ and ‘Tin Toy’ — and that’s how he and I met. We just sort of hit it off as artists. A short film is sort of the best calling card you can have. It shows your identity — good or bad — of your taste in filmmaking because the whole short’s you. I think that’s what he liked about it. He liked who I was.”

The vaunted image of Pixar is that of a group of highly motivated iconoclasts who have developed this unique way of filmmaking that is story-centered and a lot of fun, but also a lot of hard, disciplined work.

Questioning approach

“Maybe it’s an asset, but we don’t know how other people make movies,” says Stanton. “We kind of learned by trial and error, and out of ignorance here up north. In the ‘Toy Story’ days, we questioned everything. We would just question why do you do it that way. And if it didn’t make sense we wouldn’t do it that way.

“We also fell into making movies as a group, sort of like an ensemble group, or a band. And that is just complete luck, I ended up being surrounded with guys that are way more talented than I am, way smarter than I am, and yet somehow when I’m in the room with them I feel like I’m funnier, I’m smarter, I’m more observant than when I’m alone. Somehow we really feed off each other.”

The rock group or small band combo is a metaphor that Stanton keeps coming back to. That and the need to keep the innocence, the love of sheer storytelling for its own sake. And not getting caught up in the glitz scene.

“It’s trying to make yourself stupid again. Trying to do any trick in the book that’ll make you forget that there’s an outside world with consequences and expectations. And just go, ‘I’m in my back yard again with my buddies and what would I do?’ We just know first hand that that’s where ‘Toy Story’ came from. We just want to be in that same state.”

And though they’re in the state of California, the Pixar crew maintains its distance from Hollywood physically and spiritually.

Keeping its distance

“The biggest thing is that because I think we fell into all this in the Bay Area and we’re not in Hollywood, we’re still really fortunate that when we walk in the door every day we still realize what a privilege it is to make a movie. And we just don’t want to screw it up. Not for our career, or our track record, but for the opportunity to get to do it again. If we were down south or any closer to the sphere of Hollywood’s influence, we would become jaded very quickly.

“If there’s another common denominator, we all think of ourselves as filmgoers first and filmmakers second. It’s very present in our mind all the time of how frustrating it is to walk into a theater especially after you’ve made the plans for that one night with your wife to get out and you’ve paid the $10 each and 20 bucks for food and you sit down and you have a bad time. We just don’t take that lightly. We don’t want to be on that list.”

Stanton could make the trip to the Kodak Theater on Feb. 29, but the approval of his peers is something that Stanton regards as an indulgence.

“Awards are such fickle things that it just seems kind of a waste of time to get too caught up about it. I can make a list of many people that have not gotten recognized by awards that I would love to be put in the same list with. Scorsese and Hitchcock and these people that are just timeless, and no Oscar with ‘em or without them is going to change that.

“I think that it really is all gravy if the name of a movie you’ve worked on is bandied about in any category in any award. I’m not going to complain if something comes our way, but I’m not going to complain if it doesn’t.

“I’m not gooing to make it sound like I don’t think about it. I’ve been fortunate that no other outside influence has been the motivating factor for any of the five films that have come out so far, and I’d hate to see anything kind of slip in there, whether it be awards or money or whatever, because it really had nothing to do with why the other ones were successful.”

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