Toy Story 4 Interview: Josh Cooley, Jonas Rivera, & Mark Nielsen

To promote Toy Story 4, Disney and Pixar recently invited Screen Rant and other entertainment news outlets to Pixar's headquarters in Emeryville, CA, to discuss at length about the film's development, story, and characters, some of which are new and many of which are returning one more time on the big screen. As part of the press day, director Josh Cooley and producers Jonas Rivera and Mark Nielsen participated in a press conference in which they were quite candid about their four years making Toy Story 4.

With Forky, how do you decide what does and does not constitute a toy, and how it gains sentience?

Josh Cooley: That's a great question. I don't want to answer it [laughs]. You now it's funny, from day one, it was kind of like just whatever feels right. And even in the first Toy Story, there is a line where they say all that the lawn gnome across the street hasn't seen them. We don't see that. There are things that are alive in the world that we just never answer the question for, but I kind of feel like it's a little bit of a midichlorian question of, like - explain why that happens. Well... because.

Jonas Rivera: It did make us laugh, though, that one thing I remember kicking around was the idea of kids at Christmas - my kids will sometimes open a toy and then play with the box. We thought that if you were a toy, that would be the worst insult. So there was something about that amplified Woody feeling replaced. That's really what drove it.

Cooley: And it's the toy truth of it, right? Our kids, they do make craft projects and play with them, so that would be alive in this world.

Rivera: Story-wise, it's her writing her name.

Cooley: Well, that's a big part of it. That's kind of... it seals the deal.

When John Lasseter originally talked about this movie it was going to be an entire love story between Bo Peep and Woody and that's obviously changed to now. How much of a love story is there still baked into the movie as is?

Cooley: Well, with Bo being back in the picture, Woody and Bo have this relationship from the previous films. And so there's definitely an element of that, but it was clear that couldn't just be that; it would become a tiny people movie as opposed to a Toy Story film. So there's a ton of adventure in it. And I kind of think of it, like... Raiders of the Lost Ark isn't a love story, but it has that great romantic element in it. So I kind of think of it more like that.

So much about Toy Story now is Woody and Buzz and their relationship. And what we've seen so much of this movie is Woody and Bo, Woody and Forky. And we know Buzz plays a pivotal role, like you said last night. What can you tell us about the evolution of Woody and Buzz's relationship as it progresses and as Woody learns new things on the road?

Cooley: I can't tell you anything [laughs]. It was... you cannot make this movie without Buzz and their relationship. The thing that is really one of the coolest things is having the first film where their relationship begins, and you're seeing how it evolves over the course of 2 and 3, and 4 just continues that. It really does build upon what's come before it.

We heard today that you come up with the idea of Bo being a Lost Toy two years ago, and as this project's been in development for about five years or more, can you talk about how the story's evolved and how you came upon as it is now?

Cooley: Bo Peep was always part of it, but she was always either in an antique store or a location that was always kind of her home. And so, making her the thing that Woody has always been the most afraid of was really interesting. She has a completely new worldview that's completely different from Woody's.

Rivera: It was sort of rooted in its romantic comedy roots. I think what was, my version of it was... you're right, we started feeling like it was just a human story. And although she was a worthy character and there was something interesting to us about paying off that relationship, it wasn't until... it was about two years ago where we started going, "What if we made it Woody-centric?" His worst fear - he's said it all along - was being a lost toy. What if she represented something that would challenge his place in the world and just lean into that? It was almost like a Lady and the Tramp analogy. One's out in the world and why wouldn't you want all of this? And the other one's, no, I want to be at home, and Woody is that. All the change she's done over the years, we thought she had the potential to change him more than anything ever has. That was just the kind of story volley that led to it.

Cooley: Once we figured out that was the place to go, I think, Jonas, you kind of coined this phrase that, if you were to ask Woody as a character, "What was the biggest moment of your life?" He would say, "It was when I met Bo Peep for the second time." So that was our goal for this film, to make this meeting with her so powerful that it was deserving of Toy Story 4.

Toy Story 4 Josh Cooley, Jonas Rivera, and Mark Nielson

So you sort of mentioned romantic comedy that the film leans on; there's been a sort of renaissance and change with romantic comedies, now where they recognize that women don't often have their own agency in the film. So I want to learn about what you're doing to make sure this doesn't happen to Bo and if you had any feedback from the female team that we just talked to in creating her story.

Mark Nielsen: Yeah, so Team Bo is what we called them; [they were] kind of the group within the team - it was folks from Story, from Art, from Animation and Cloth - that really rallied around the idea of just keeping Bo as a really special and unique standout character that didn't kind of fall into tropes or anything that you typically see in an action film. It was very important to us that Bo had a different worldview than Woody. And you know, you said romantic comedy, you know pretty early on in our process we sort of decided to kind of steer away from that and back toward more of an adventure that had a lot of humor in it. But more along the lines of an Indiana Jones-type of film and away from romantic comedy. But we were really happy with the way that the Bo-Woody relationship landed, and I think you'll definitely see...

Does she have her own arc aside from Woody?

Nielsen: Yeah. She absolutely has her own arc. So I think I think we can't wait to share the rest of the movie and let you see what happens with Bo.

Rivera: I'll only add that, since you asked, did we get feedback from that group. The answer is yes. We did. They would unflinchingly say, "She wouldn't hold herself that way," or, "That line's a little off." And even Annie Potts would help steer it. So we did a lot of... we had a good sense of the shape of the scene and how we wanted to dramatize it. But that group would throw a flag on the field if they felt that it was going one way or the other or getting too cemented to Woody's point of view.

Nielsen: We got to show the film to Annie Potts recently, and just her reaction to seeing Bo was really strong. She absolutely was so happy with the way that this character turned out and the way that Bo is represented in the film.

In the opening scene, there's a car that had the license plate RMRF97...

Cooley: Yeah... that is the code, right?

Nielsen: Yeah, [on] Toy Story 2, there was somebody that worked on the show but accidentally deleted the movie from the render farm, and that was the command on the computer that they pressed been deleted the film.

Rivera: Galyn Susman, who's an early producer on this film - I think, and I may have this wrong, but I think while on maternity leave sort of had to run in and crack the code and undo it.

Nielsen: She had a backup of the film on her computer at her house. And so, they backed up the whole thing and they brought it back to Pixar from her computer that she had at home and restored it.

Rivera: I guess, we thought it was appropriate somehow that the license plate on the car that takes Bo away almost killed Toy Story 2!

Nielsen: That person was horrified, by the way. They were horrified.

Can you talk a little bit about Keanu Reeves' character...

Cooley: Yes!

...and sort of playing with the action hero idea?

Cooley: Yeah, we created Duke Caboom and then we... we always create the character first and then we see what's the right actor to portray this, that can do this. And we went after Canadian actors, and he was the first one on our list. And I'm so thrilled that he said, yes. He came here first just to meet with us, before even signing, and we were down in atrium, and he's like, you know, (imitates Reeves) "What do you think he sounds like?" And I'm like, "Uh, huh." But he completely won me over, to the point where we were talking about the character and he was getting deeper, "What do you think drives him?" And so, at one point, he just got up on the table - like, imagine just sitting down there eating lunch in front of everybody and he gets up and [starts doing action poses]. I was like, this is it. This is incredible. And every time we recorded with him, he just had the biggest smile on his face. It was just so much fun and I can't speak enough about how awesome he is.

Rivera: He's everything you hoped Keanu Reeves would be.

Nielson: And we didn't know when we brought him here that he owned his own motorcycle company. His connection to motorcycles was not clear to us until we sat with him and were, like... woah.

Rivera: We even said, "Maybe we should do the Caboom cycle like one of yours?" And he said, "No. No, the Caboom cycle is perfect." Or something like that. He would protect the Caboom cycle that we had. He's great.

Cooley: Real quick, he said, "I'm filming John Wick 3." And I was, like, "Oh, how's that going?" He goes, (imitates Reeves) "I got to kill a guy with a book." Great!

In the previous movies, the opening scene was from Andy's imagination - like, a cinematic, big opening scene - and now it's a flashback. Can you talk about that choice?

Cooley: So we played around with this. We had a million different beginnings for this film. One of them was, like, what if we were in a fantasy playtime and we reveal that it's Andy playing with Molly, his sister, and that's how we get into it? It was like a zombie musical or something. And then we had all these different versions of it. It wasn't until, like... let's just start off with the story, let's just get into it. I just love starting it off with a bang - literally, with lightning crashing. We were just going right into it, to establish the stakes.

Does Forky remember his time before being alive? With him jumping out of the van, is he contemplating his life? Does he view his time as a toy as a form of afterlife?

Rivera: He instinctively knows what he is.

Cooley: Yeah, he knows what his purpose is.

Rivera: We never thought of it like he wanted to die. [For instance], this cup's purpose is to hold water and it would know that. That's just like bed to him, that's home. I think it's just his purpose.

Cooley: And that's what Toy Story is built upon, is that everything has a purpose. So a toy's purpose is to be there for their child. A cup's purpose is to hold water. So, being that he's a spork - so, soup, salad, chili - he's a single-use. Now he has a whole new purpose. And so, that actually not only goes down for Forky, but Woody has a new purpose as well, and so does Bo. So, everybody kind of reflects that theme of change.

Is Michael Keaton back? Where's Ken?

Cooley: Ken's not in this film. He's back at Sunnyside.

Rivera: We love Ken, too. It's a lot of characters.

Can you talk about your first time seeing the original Toy Story?

Cooley: Oh wow. Yeah, I saw in theaters with my brother. I always wanted to work in animation, as a 2D animator, and I remember thinking [that] 3D is going to blow over and people are going to get back into 2D animation. But, at the time, 3D did not look... it was kind of creepy, but I remember kind of being blown away and not fully understanding what I just saw. I can watch that movie a hundred times - and I have, working on this film.

Woody and Gabby Gabby in Toy Story 4

Can you tell us a little bit about Gabby Gabby, Christina Hendricks, and her character?

Cooley: I love this character. We went to a lot of antique stores for reference on this film, and there's always a creepy doll in the corner and, it never fails, at least two ventriloquist dummies spread around inside these stores. Gabby became a perfect villain; we've never done a female villain before, we've never done a baby doll. And so, it was kind of perfect. And then we heard Christina's voice, and that was even more perfect. We met with her, and in her first recording session I had pitched her the whole story, and she said, "This is great. I actually didn't want Barbie dolls when I was a kid, I used to play with ventriloquist dummies." We were like, "...what?" And she said, "Yeah, I did. I also have a lot of doll heads in my house right now." So she's perfect.

Bringing Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key on board, did you always want them to play Ducky and Bunny?

Cooley: Yeah, in fact we recorded them - they might have been one of the first...

Nielsen: Four years ago.

Cooley: Yeah, they were on really early. And as the story evolved and changed, they were always a part of it and always there. Watching them perform is one of the highlights of working here that I've ever had. It's just, those two guys, they know each other so well, we always recorded them together in the same room because they just bounce off each other so well. They're hilarious, as we all know, but the thing that blew me away was how they were able to improv but stay on point in the moment and feel like it's not just being funny for funny sake, but it's like they're supporting the story; every take was supporting the story. They were a joy to work with.

What had you guys settle on a carnival? It's so chaotic, it almost seems like you're making more work for yourselves.

Cooley: Carnival toys is one of them. We're always looking for areas where toys actually do exist in the world to make it feel natural. The carnival just became... at first it was like this would be a fun obstacle for these toys, but then we realized it'd actually become deeper than that and that should be part of the story. Also, just seeing how the lighting of a carnival can affect the mood. During the daytime they're kind of gross, but at nighttime they're stunningly beautiful. We definitely take advantage of that.

Neilson: We love the contrast between life with the toys in the antique store and what was just outside. You know, you've got all of these kids running around outside and these toys that are kind of trapped and don't have a kid that desperately wants one, and it's just on the other side of the glass.

Rivera: We were talking about that thing we heard on the Alcatraz tour... if you've ever been to Alcatraz in San Francisco, part of the tour is they'd say prisoners were kind of going crazy because they could hear people having a party and laughing across the bay, and it was like a thousand miles away from them. That was really emotional and interesting, and we thought the toy version of that was right outside this antique store. Right there is kids having fun and trying to win toys and they can't have it. So it just amplified all the right themes. Plus, it was fun to expose the toys and really put them in a world... we've been in bedrooms and, of course, schools and things, but just to have a little more exposure and trying to navigate this place all added up to dropping it into the story in the right way.

Cooley: We really did take advantage of the areas of a carnival where people can't go. We went to a lot of carnivals for research trips, and it turns out, underneath all those games where they store all the crap for taking down everything, our toys were able to move through there and can still be hidden.

Toy Story 3 had a real sense of finality. So, when moving forward with Toy Story 4, how were you able to find a story and a mood that felt natural and not forced?

Cooley: That's the question of all questions. We love the end of the Toy Story 3; it ends Woody and Andy's story perfectly. We realized there was more story to tell, to continue Woody's story. Once we started going down the path and realizing there is more to tell for Woody, we just kept going and we hit upon something that was worth telling.

Nielsen: The idea of Bo Peep, also, was so intriguing to us. This movie's been kind of code-named Peep here, within the walls, for the whole four years we've been making it, 'cause we knew she was such an important character in this one. The idea of them coming back together after not seeing each other for nine years and just what's become of her was something we thought was really worth exploring.

Buzz Woody and Bo Peep in Toy Story 4

What's it like making a movie for such a wide audience? On one side, you have kids, and on the other side, you have people like us who watched the first movies decades ago.

Cooley: It's a big responsibility. All our films here we try to make for everybody. But I know that Toy Story... there's some deep love for Toy Story and we didn't take that lightly at all. From day one, we were like, this is really important and we want to make sure that we're doing right by the characters, and doing right by the fans and the audiences. And we're the biggest fans as well. So, we wanted to make sure we were carrying the story forward in the right way.

Rivera: The three of us grew up here, basically. We've all had... I worked on the first one as an intern. Half my life has been with these characters. So, we feel a tremendous sense of responsibility for them. We never thought about these movies as for kids; we just think about them as movies and we try to make it that everyone will enjoy them, because that's kind of the movies we grew up seeing. We just take tremendous amount of pride in it; it's all we think about. So, putting it out in the world, and there's people on the show that have said, "The first movie I saw was Toy Story, so I don't want to mess it up." You know, they'll say that, and that's what we want. So it's a real mix of veterans and newer people that feel the same sense of responsibility for it. So we just do our best to do what we would want to see.

Nielsen: You probably got a sense of this from the folks that were giving presentations, but there is such a deep love within the studio for these characters. Everyone was like, if we're doing this, it has to be great. We've got to give it everything we've got to make sure that it's worthy. And so we have that level of commitment really from everybody on the crew, from Story right on down to rendering.

Don Rickles - I know you're using some old footage of his voice recordings. Did that require any script revisions and, also, will there be some sort of tribute to him in the film?

Cooley: Yes, we're going to have a tribute to him. We went through everything that he's recorded. So we went through all past films, all the shorts, all the video games, all the theme park stuff, all the ice capades, all the toys. He's done a lot over the last 25 years. And he did sign on to be on this film before he passed, so we were very honored for that. We were also very honored that his family asked us to see if we can create a performance. Obviously, we can't say anything that's specific to the plot, but we've found enough that it just felt natural and he fits in just like everybody else does.

Has the Rickles family seen what you've created yet?

Rivera: No, they haven't seen it, but we've been in communication with them and they're thrilled that we were able to craft it. Yeah, you're right, we have hours and hours of Don Rickles going, "Hey, Woody!" And...

Nielsen: We couldn't imagine this film with a soundalike. We knew we had to just dig and do whatever we could to try to preserve his voice in this. I mean, he is the voice of Potato Head. You see that toy on the shelf, you hear that voice coming at you.

What were you drawing upon for the ventriloquist dummies, because when I saw it, I immediately thought of Goosebumps and Slappy. I'm wondering if you thought about that at all or were there any real ones that you drew upon for this movie?

Cooley: We do a ton of research on everything, and I know the Slappy one is based on the classic [ventriloquist dummy] as well. So we go through all these different versions or sale. In fact, one of our artists here has an office full of them, and it's terrifying. But one of the things that we wanted to make different was that the way they move and operate isn't just like a little man running around. We are staying true to the truth of the material. So, the same way that Woody doesn't have any kind of support in his system, these guys... they're not built to stand at all; they're meant to sit on a lap. So their legs kind of crumple underneath them, and their arms just flap around, which makes them even more terrifying.

Nielsen: I thought it was funny that the one toy that is actually supposed to talk, they don't.

Can you discuss the technology for this film. The rain in the opening scene actually looks like rain. Is this going to set the tone for future Pixar films, or are you going to pick and choose where you use this kind of CGI technology?

Nielsen: Yeah, I mean it's amazing. The technology is just moving more towards realistic looks, just being kind of almost the easiest thing that you can do. The computing power is just insane compared to what we've ever had on the original film. You know, what we're always striving to do is to make sure that we don't go too far with the realism because we do have caricatured, you know, we have stylized characters like the humans in the Toy Story world and you don't want to try to get to a place where your sets and your characters don't feel like they're from the same world. So, Bob Pauley, our production designer, was kind of the guardian of that on the show, making sure as we draft the antique store, built those props, that everything had that stylized nature to it. And if we took a chair from Brave, or whatever, and repurposed it in here, we would touch it in modeling and change the shape of it to get it to fit in. But a lot of it, for us, in this film, is the realistic textures.

Cooley: Toy Story has always exaggerated shapes but with realistic textures. I remember thinking the same thing when I saw the first Toy Story; the army men running across the wooden floor. I'm thrilled that you're responding that same way now. Who knows what the future will bring? I have no idea.

Nielsen: Whatever rendering power is possible, we do seem to use it all. We go all the way with kind of maxing out the capacity of our render farm to just get the richest look we can. We did that on this film.

Rivera: We have to check this with our supervising tech director, but they did say that the render capacity we have now takes anywhere from 60 to 160 hours to render one frame. And so, you can imagine all the shots in the film and how long they are, the complexities of the frame. But now, with that same render farm we have now, we can render Toy Story 1 faster than you can watch it. The jump is exponential. We eat the gains by adding more complexities and things like that.

Key Release Dates
  • Toy Story 4 (2019) release date: Jun 21, 2019
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