Finding Freedom in Finding Nemo: When Andrew Stanton Tried to Get Fired

From the New Yorker’s recent profile of Andrew Stanton, Pixar writer/director extraordinaire of Finding Nemo, […]

R-J Heijmen / 11.14.11

From the New Yorker’s recent profile of Andrew Stanton, Pixar writer/director extraordinaire of Finding Nemo, WALL*E and the upcoming (live action!) John Carter, starring none other than Tim Riggins himself. The author writes of Stanton’s cathartic, career-making crisis a couple years into the Nemo process, when Stanton, in response to enormous internal pressure (not to mention the Law represented by Pixar’s winning streak), faced his worst fears and experienced what can only be called a “bottoming out” moment of repentance. It almost reads like a Judgment and Love entry:

For years, Stanton believed that the original braintrust—Lasseter, Stanton, Docter and Joe Ranft (who died in 2005) – did much better work together than any of them could do solo: they were like the Beatles. “Pixar is the healthiest place to be, “ he said, “because our movies got famous, not the moviemakers–which bought you time to continue your work for a few years before you became a total [jerk].”

Yet he also wondered if he would ever escape [Toy Story director John] Lasseter’s shadow. “Even on Toy Story, my ego kept wanting to see how I’d do on my own,” he said. “Finding Nemo was my first chance.” Like a stool, the idea required three legs to stand. “I’d always wanted to do the ocean in animation, and I was fixated, as a child, on my dentist’s fishtank, which was embedded in a wall: what a weird way for fish to see humans. The missing link – What is this movie about? What makes me care? – came on a walk to the park with my five-year-old son, Ben. That was when I realized that my anxiety – I kept cautioning him – was making me a terrible father.” Stanton worked up an idea about an anxious clown fish, Marlin, whose son, Nemo, defiantly swims out from the reef – and is promptly scooped up by a diver and deposited in a dentist’s fishtank in faraway Sydney.

Lasseter loved the pitch, saying, “you had me at the word ‘fish,’” and Stanton began pre-production in 1999. But Ed Catmull, Pixar’s president, says that problems soon became apparent: “Andrew is phenomenal at pitching, but the pitch isn’t going to end up onscreen. And the tank story was really derailing him.” In the dentist’s tank – which looked exactly like the aquarium in the office of Stanton’s childhood dentist – Gill, a Moorish-idol fish voiced by Willem Dafoe, becomes a surrogate father to Nemo. But no matter how Stanton rejiggered the subplot it kept stopping the movie: there was no emotional payoff. And the delayed revelation of the source of Marlin’s anxiety, the barracuda attack, “was absolutely not working,” Lasseter says. Lee Unkrich recalls, “Andrew wanted to be arty in the storytelling. He was trying to be fiercely independent and prove himself. But I know he was finding it hard to come in to work, because he feared, ‘This is the film that’s going to take Pixar down.’”

Stanton told me, “I just felt, I suck, I suck, I suck, and they’re going to replace me.” One morning over the Fourth of July holiday in 2001, while he was visiting his parents in Rockport, Stanton woke before dawn and wrote a mission statement. He admitted to himself that he’d been at once stiff-necked and craven. “Try to get fired,” he wrote, as a corrective. “Don’t be concerned about box office, release dates, audience appeal, Pixar history, stock prices, approval from others.” He added, “You have a gift for looking at the world with a child-like wonder… You lose that and you lose it all.” After this reckoning, he began to ask colleagues for help, and the main thread of the film, Marlin’s quest for Nemo, finally came together: kids thought it was hilarious, and adults found it almost unbearably poignant. With that solved, the fishtank subplot suddenly became only a minor interruption to the over-all flow.

“What I realized,” Stanton told me, “is, ‘Fine, I’m not an auteur. I need to write with other people, I need people to work against. It’s not about self-exploration—it’s not about me – it’s about making the best movie possible.’ And as soon as I admitted that, it was amazing how the crew morale pivoted and suddenly everyone had my back. If you own the fact that you don’t know what you’re doing, then you’re still taking charge, you’re still being a director.” Aware of the irony, he added, “I learned that from John [Lasseter] on Toy Story – every time he got confessional, and said, ‘Guys I think I’m just spinning my wheels,’ we’d rise up and solve the problem for him.”

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3 responses to “Finding Freedom in Finding Nemo: When Andrew Stanton Tried to Get Fired”

  1. David Zahl says:

    Such an incredible story. Thanks for sharing, RJ. I can’t wait for John Carter. And I thought the other incredible part of the profile was the stuff about parental approval:

    As he began to realize his value, Stanton increasingly wished for wider recognition. [His wife] Julie Stanton told me, “Andrew can never get enough acknowledgement, so he’s very susceptible to flattery. What I’ve said to him – which he does not like – is ‘When is the wonder of it over? Two Oscars, O.K., Nemo, one of the most loved animated films ever – people like you.’” When she made a similar point over dinner at El Pasco, Stanton, who often offers up his recollections pre-interpreted said, “My parents were very Spartan with compliments so my private demon is, ‘Can I make something so good that people can’t help but be effusive?”

    “Your dad has a Nemo flag on his boat, but he’d never talk to you about it,” Julie said.

    Stanton frowned and sighed. He’s grown close to his father in recent years, and even sports a similar beard. “To give my parents credit,” he said, “they did instill my love of movies. They took me to everything from Jaws to The Tin Drum and it had a huge effect. I’m always trying to get an art-house feeling into a blockbuster.”

    “Have you ever asked your parents what they think of your work?” I said.

    “That wouldn’t count,” he said, horrified. “It has to be pure, unprompted praise.”

  2. R-J Heijmen says:

    Thanks Dave. Good to know I’m not the only one in the word addicted to affirmation:)

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