As Story Supervisor on Toy Story 4, Valerie LaPointe spent the past five years helping to bring this new, and somewhat unexpected chapter of the beloved franchise to life. In this “spoiler-free” interview, the Pixar veteran discusses the multigenerational approach she and her colleagues took in crafting this emotionally-charged journey for Woody and company — as well as her own, personal journey with animation, which began thanks to a certain mermaid.
Jackson Murphy: When Toy Story 4 was announced, people were surprised considering the impact of “Toy Story 3”. What was your initial reaction to the news that Pixar was going to do Toy Story 4?
Valerie LaPointe: If I’m gonna be completely honest, I think me and a lot of other people at Pixar had a similar reaction. We all really loved being part of previous films or being here when they happened. It felt like a lot of closure with “Toy Story 3”. But for me, I was like, “Ah. Okay. What’s the story?” And then right away when I was pitched, I think by [director] Josh [Cooley] what the story was going to be and that Bo Peep was the pivotal character, then I perked up and thought, “Okay. Yeah. I could see this being a really good reason to make this.”
JM: It’s been 20 years since “Toy Story 2”, which was the last time we saw Bo Peep. And she’s definitely got more of an edge in this one. Was it challenging to take who she was before and give her a little bit of a spin, while still staying true to the character?
VL: I think it was a challenge in the sense that you’re taking a secondary, if not tertiary, sub-character in this world and making her a main character. We definitely had to add a lot of dimension to her and an interesting backstory. And there was a big challenge in that, but it was a lot of fun. And we had to take what we knew of her character: we knew she was flirty and confident – but that she actually was a pretty pivotal character to Woody, if you think about it. She’s the one he confides in and is the voice of reason for him. So she was pretty pivotal to him, even in a small way. From there we expanded out as far as where we wanted to take Woody in the film and how Bo would be a catalyst for that.
JM: And where you take Woody is awe-inspiring. Some scenes are stunning and really deep. Not gonna spoil things, but this is largely a psychological drama for Woody. Did you and the other writers talk with psychologists or mental illness specialists to really get the emotions?
VL: Well I think what naturally happens is you pull from your own life stories. It was an interesting combination of multi-generations here. There’s the people who started the first “Toy Story” movies, and there’s the middle generation where I came in around 2006. And now we have a new generation at Pixar. I felt like it was this amazing combination of all those voices and perspectives and life experience that kind of informed where we believed he would be at and what would be the next chapter in his life.
JM: And listening to Tom Hanks’ voice performance this time as Woody – I think he’s got the most grit to the character out of the four movies. Was Mr. Hanks really surprised in how deep things were going to get for Woody?
VL: Yeah. The story evolved over time, so he saw it evolve as well. Each time we brought the film back to him to record again, we made slight tweaks and big changes. And he was really impressed with where we were taking it – the ending especially. But we were definitely going back and get the fun and the charm of Woody. He’s obviously not Woody in “Toy Story 1” – he’s a more evolved Woody. But those core pieces of his personality are true and there in pulling that out of his performance.
JM: I know “Toy Story 4” has been in the works for a long time. There were stories that came out that “Cars 3” and “Incredibles 2” had to be moved-up in order to make more time to fully develop “TS4”. At what point was the script that we see play-out in this movie… officially locked-in?
VL: We went through many, many versions on this film. I think we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to live-up to our own expectations (laughs)… and have a really good reason for making it. And I believe maybe right before Josh came on as director, as we were sort of finding that, and Andrew Stanton was a big part of that. And we started locking-in on these bigger, different ideas about what was going to happen to Woody – how he was going to change – and also about Bo Peep. The idea of her becoming a lost toy, which I don’t think I’m giving away because it’s in the trailer, and re-defining that because it’s always presented as this terrible thing that can happen to a toy through Woody. We were looking at it from a different angle (“What if that’s not a bad thing?”). That was a big step, also, in expanding the universe and world of “Toy Story”.
JM: As the story supervisor, you’re looking at all of this and trying to balance everything out. There’s fun elements for the kids, but a lot for the adults as well. But when it comes to the emotions, do you look everything over and go, “Wait a second – maybe this is too much. Maybe we’re going too far”?
VL: Yeah. That was definitely something we had to constantly consider and debate about, to be honest – like friendly debate with our story team and the director and writers. We all feel very passionately about these characters and this world. And we went back and forth a lot about how far we could take it or how much was believable, knowing these characters so well, especially Woody. It was a challenge in finding that balance – also in coming to that decision of “How do we tell that story?” Just putting the pieces together in the right order so that it feels right.
JM: I saw Tom Hanks on “Kimmel” the other night, and he brought out a couple pieces of paper about things he could and couldn’t say when it comes “TS4”. How have you honestly been over the last several years keeping this all in, and then in just a matter of days it’s going to be unleashed upon the world?
VL: (laughs) I think it’s been strange for me and for our story team because it’s been so personal to us for so long. I’ve literally worked on this film for five years. My first daughter was a baby when I started making it, and now she just finished Kindergarten. It’s been this long haul. We care so much about it – every tiny little detail and decision. There’s been a lot of excitement and energy and I’m just blown away about how well it’s being received and how everyone loves it. It’s a really great graduation, in a way. Five years of your life culminating.
JM: You guys really pull it off. Does your daughter really understand what’s going on in the “Toy Story” movies?
VL: It’s been funny to go through this and experience it at the young age when she’s just having fun watching it, but doesn’t retain or remember too much of it – and then now she is at the age where she’s taking it in more. She just saw it [the other day], and it was pretty exciting. She had her Bo Peep costume on, and she was changing her outfit every time Bo Peep’s cape or skirt changed. So I thought to myself, “Alright. Mission accomplished.” This is what I wanted to have happen with Bo Peep – everyone, especially young girls, relate to her and connect with her on that level.
JM: And did she take the ending well? Did she take it how you hope audiences do?
VL: She’s so young… with the gripping emotional quality of the trilogy combined, she hasn’t totally completely gotten that yet, so I didn’t have balling tears yet. But I am curious to see how teenagers and adults are gonna be taking this.
JM: The two words I wrote in my review are “painfully satisfying.”
VL: Oh wow!
JM: That’s what I think people are going to feel – in a positive way. That’s honestly how I felt.
VL: That’s a really good way to describe what a story team aims for. (laughs)
JM: You’ve got a lot of new characters. I think one of the other risks you had was putting a lot of new characters front and center, especially Key & Peele’s Ducky and Bunny. They’re great. And Key & Peele are a bit more over the top in nature when it comes to their comedy style. But when you see their scenes, they really fit well into this franchise.
VL: We developed so many great characters that it was a challenge to find enough screen time to give them all. At some point, you want to favor your main characters in your main story, of course, but then as soon as they came in… especially Ducky, Bunny and Forky. As soon as they were animated… you just want to keep watching them. They’re so hilarious. And literally it’s that magic that happens when animation brings it to life. You just want more them. There’s only so much screen time, but we managed to get them in there.
JM: And using them for the Super Bowl spot was a very smart move as well. And going in, I thought maybe Duke Caboom was going to be similar in tone to how Ken was in “Toy Story 3”, but he’s actually more restrained. How was that character shaped, and what made the movie star of the moment Keanu Reeves, perfect for him?
VL: We all Keanu Reeves, so at some point his name got thrown out there in our laughing and goofing around. And when it stuck we were like, “Really? We’re gonna get him?!” And then of course being from Canada arose from the Story Department. “Wouldn’t it be funny if he was from Canada?” [Reeves] really brought something to it – his own self brought to the character took it in an interesting direction. More restrained but really funny… and unique.
JM: If I’m not mistaken Valerie, you were a teenager when the first “Toy Story” came out?
VL: Yeah. I was just starting high school.
JM: Do you remember going to see it in the theater?
VL: Oh, yeah. I knew when I was eight that I wanted to work in animation, when I saw “The Little Mermaid”. I kind of became obsessed at that point, drawing and performing. And I remember when “Toy Story” came out because it was so good and so different with the storytelling and the humor that I started shifting gears and my dad saying to me, “You’re gonna have to learn computers.” And I thought, “OH NO! And all this time I’ve been drawing and thinking I was going to be drawing!” But of course, as I got older, I figured out that story is what I want to do, and that’s still drawing, and it’s developing characters. I love what everybody does on the computers, but it’s not necessarily my talent.
JM: And after working on “Toy Story 4″… what do you think you’d say to teenage Valerie about your future in animation and with these characters?
VL: Oh my gosh. I would just be… “You’re not gonna believe this, but it’s all gonna happen.” I don’t really know any other way to describe it. When I step back and look at what I’ve been doing – what I’m able to do right now – it’s like having a dream come true, for sure.
from Animation Scoop http://www.animationscoop.com/qa-with-toy-story-4-head-of-story-valerie-lapointe/