Andrew Stanton is an American film director, screenwriter, producer and voice actor working for Pixar Animation Studios, where he is vice president in the creativity department. He is the mastermind behind Disney’s much-loved animated movies like Finding Nemo, and its sequel Finding Dory. Stanton has two Academy Awards to his name. In this chat with Guardian 20, he talks about his past work, and his recent Netflix feature, Stranger Things.
Q. What was your reaction when you saw the complete first season of Stranger Things for the first time?
A. I was blown away. It was actually my son who first told me, “Dad, you have to see this show, it’s amazing.” And I don’t usually get stuff told to me so emphatically by my kids. They’re a little jaded, a little low key, and so I had to watch this one. I watched, and I binge-watched it like everybody else. I think it took me less than two or three days to go through the entire season. I was blown away by it.
Q. Were there any specific themes in the show that you identified with?
A. The thing that hit me the most about the show right away was just how it made me feel like I was the teenager; that I was in the 1980s, loving the movies. I didn’t think it was derivative. I didn’t think it was ripping anything off. I actually felt like somehow they had captured the exact sort of pure innocence and wonder that I felt watching the movies, and also what it felt like on the screen. And, it was a kind of wonder that I remember in our early days of Pixar when we were trying to make Toy Story; we were trying to capture the very same thing through a different medium and through a different type of story, but the same feeling; and I hadn’t felt it for so long. It suddenly felt fresh again.
Q. Tell us about what it was like working with the Duffer brothers and Shawn Levy.
A. It was interesting to meet the Duffer brothers and Shawn Levy by phone and by email first, because we all sort of shined each other’s shoes and sang each other’s praises for what they had each done and it all felt very sincere. But you never really click until you meet somebody. What amazed me about the Duffers is how much I related to them in a weird way because I have twin brothers and they’re identical and they’re five years younger. And so I’ve been used to the role of not only being the sort of hanging out with twins but also understanding and translating the sort of psychic twin speak, and the fact that they’re huge movie fans and movie geeks themselves doesn’t hurt. So we got along right away.
Q. How did you become involved in this project?
A. It was a fluke how we became involved. I’d been really thinking that, I wanted to get back into live action after four years of doing another animated feature, and I thought well, maybe TV would be the way in, because I was really done with a multi-year commitment to anything and even live action features can be over a year. I thought TV might be good: maybe a month or two on something. It just happened to be through a connection through my entertainment attorney. And he made it happen so fast I said, sort of as a joke, well, I also love Stranger Things, if there’s anything you can do for me… He goes, “Oh, I represent Shawn Levy. I’ll have him call you.” And, like, half an hour later, Shawn calls me and that’s how it happened. It was that quick and so I think it was like so many things, it was just luck and timing.
Q. And how was working with Winona Ryder and the kids?
A. Working with Winona is kind of a pinch-me moment, because I’ve been watching her, I’ve been growing up along with her in cinema. So it’s very strange to suddenly be working professionally with her, and that’s exactly it. She’s such a pro, that I’m basically learning from her more than anything about how to be out of the way and just help when they need help, give advice when they need advice, and just in a weird way it’s been a master-class. And the kids have been so professional themselves. I think I’ve been really spoiled. I don’t think I’ll be able to work with any unruly children ever because every single kid on this cast has been really, really stellar, not only talented but really disciplined and such a joy to work with. And the nice thing is that when you call cut, they’re just kids and so I feel like I spend half my time just playing the role of uncle or dad that I would normally in life and then suddenly I’m working with a long-term actor whenever we call action.
Q. Now you’ve directed a couple of recent episodes of the show. How challenging was that?
A. Well, there’s so much packed in these two episodes! I got the two episodes that have the most going on, the most separate storylines that are all starting to weave together. I think we will have hit every location, every cast member, every plot point that was going on up till now in the season, and this is where all of it kind of converges. So there’s a lot at stake, a lot of things building to a climax. It feels almost like a finale but it’s actually a respite coming right behind this, before it goes to an even larger finale. So, it’s something that the Duffers explained to me that they had learned on Season 1 about how to give sort of a midway climax so that you’re really hanging and you don’t get the sag in the middle of the season. I think it’s going to be pretty nailbiting through for several storylines.
Q. Any favourite moments so far?
A. Gosh, I have so many. For me there are some of the smaller moments that just really fit dramatically, they just sort of tell a lot in one small moment. We just did a scene today with Bob and we realised, wow, if we do this all in one shot on a steady-cam, we can go with the momentum and the dramatic pace in the build that he has and actually feel like we’re moving in the same way.
Q. What’s the difference between working on live action as opposed to animation, which is what you’re used to doing at Pixar?
A. The only difference is we’re still going for the greatest cinema we can ever make, storytelling-wise, emotion-wise, and when we’re in animation, it’s just it takes a lot longer. It takes years to do there what we’re doing in weeks here. So, for me it was more of a personal challenge as a filmmaker to see if I could hold my own at this pace, and I’m loving it. It’s a nice change of pace.
Stranger Things Season 2 is now available on Netflix