Film / On the Up: Jonas Rivera

In the second part of a two-part series, Conor Barry meets producer of Disney-Pixar’s new epic Up, Jonas Rivera

Sitting down with Up producer Jonas Rivera, you feel as if you’re being let into a secret club. Pixar films are always shrouded in mystery until their release, and each one manages to be more original than the last. So, how do they keep coming up with such original ideas? “John Lasseter [Pixar’s founding father] says two things: Make the film you’d wanna pay to go see, and make a film you’re proud to show your family. We don’t go ask the audience what they want to see, we don’t do market research, we don’t have creative executives telling us, ‘the trends are dinosaurs’, or whatever. We don’t care about any of that; we just want to go to the movies.”

Which is all well and good, but even so, Pixar’s latest release features a 70-year-old protagonist in his floating house. Disney must have been a tad sceptical releasing a cartoon film that didn’t have a cute main character. “It’s sort of a hindsight question for me because it never came up,” explains Rivera. “I guess it’s the power of having a decent track record. Disney really trusts John Lasseter and the creative team at Pixar. It’s a fantastic premise, it’s really bizarre and it’s even hard to explain it. We’re very proud of the fact that if you were watching it on DVD and pressed pause at any moment you can’t actually tell what’s going on. But, that said, it had an emotional core to it, so they never questioned it. All the notes we got weren’t like, ‘Should this be an eighty year old, what are we going to do different?’ It was all about furthering the story.”

The reason otwo prys so much into Disney’s opinion on Up is because Disney and Pixar famously almost split over so-called ‘creative differences’ before Disney finally bought the Pixar studio in 2006. Did the Disney merger make any difference to the creative process? “I’ll be totally honest with you; we were worried about it because Pixar is this ‘Mom and Pop’ grocery store. When Disney purchased the company, Bob Iger [Disney CEO] came to the studio and he got in front of everyone, and said very calmly, ‘Listen, if I were here to bring people in to change this company I just made the worst investment of my life. Something’s working here and I don’t want to mess with it.’ So he simply said, ‘Go.’

“I’ll give you an example. We had a screening of Up. Bob Iger came and all he said was ‘Hey, I was confused at one part. You know, I didn’t really understand why Muntz did this.’ And I thought, ‘Wow, how cool.’ I doubt there’s any other Heads of Studios in Hollywood that would just give a comment like it was anything. He didn’t say we had to do it, he didn’t say to follow up and show him. He said, ‘That’s my note. Have at it, fellas.’ They’ve done a tremendous job of just letting us do our thing.”

Up is the first Pixar film to utilise 3D glasses; the plan is to do likewise on all forthcoming Pixar output. With 3D becoming the common thing with animated films these days, it seemed suspiciously like Pixar are jumping on the bandwagon. “John Lasseter has always loved 3D,” defends Rivera. “He shot his wedding photos in 3D. So he has been waiting for the technology to get to where it is today. When the market place changed, and the studios were getting behind it because it was bringing people back to the cinema… John was just waiting for that.” Rivera also explains how they weren’t interested in following in the footsteps of recent 3D films, using it as a gimmicky tool where objects fly out at the audience’s faces. “Pete only talked about it as a storytelling tool, which made me feel better. Because I’m sort of a purist; I love Pinocchio and Dumbo, so I didn’t want it to be a gimmick. So we decided let’s not use it like a gimmick. Let’s use it like filmmakers and see where we can take it.”

Having won four Oscars for best animated film in the last eight years it’s no shock to discover that there is a lot of pressure to up the ante with each new release.

“You don’t go, ‘Let’s go beat WALL-E’,” laughs Rivera, “but you do go, ‘Wow, WALL-E was really good,’ and the audience is going to expect that. And that’s good; it can’t ever be too easy.”

Cementing his position one of the most laid back filmmakers, Rivera explains how he feels about filmmaking using a White Stripes analogy. “Jack White says something really great. He shows his favourite guitar and it’s actually this kind of junky $300 guitar. The strings are set too high and it doesn’t go into tune but he says, ‘I always think playing an instrument should be a little bit of a struggle. It shouldn’t be effortless.’ And that’s actually a great way to say it. It should be a little hard; it should be a little scary because that forces us to really focus everything on these films. We approach every film as if it’s the first one we’ve done and the last one we’ll ever do. So part of our head is going, ‘Okay, this is it. We may never get another shot’. And that, I think, is good for us.”

Up is released in Ireland on 9th October