Cars 3: The Third Act
The screenwriters of Cars 3 discuss catalyst characters, giving your writing emotional weight, and why Pixar offer the best prenatal care for scripts.
In Pixar’s Cars 3 — the follow-up to Cars (2006) and Cars 2 (2011) — hotshot champion racer Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) discovers that he might not be the fastest car on the track any longer, when the younger, faster Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) begins beating McQueen in races.
Like most Pixar films, Cars 3 is the result of a collaboration of the studio’s creative brain trust.
Of the three credited screenwriters, two — Kiel Murray and Bob Peterson — are studio veterans.
Murray co-wrote the screenplay to the original Cars and worked on the development of Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Up, Brave, Monsters University, and Inside Out.
Peterson has worked at Pixar in various capacities since the original Toy Story, receiving Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay for both Finding Nemo and Up (which latter he co-directed). He has also voiced several beloved Pixar characters, including Roz from the Monsters, Inc. movies, Mr. Ray from the Finding Nemo movies, and Dug from Up.
And joining the Pixar team for Cars 3 is veteran screenwriter Mike Rich, whose screenplay credits include Finding Forrester (2000), The Rookie (2002), and Secretariat (2010).
Creative Screenwriting interviewed Murray, Peterson, and Rich separately about why now was the right time for McQueen to face the possible end of his racing career, the role that “confidence gap” played in the development of new character Cruz Ramirez, and why Pixar is “the best prenatal care for any script that you can find.”
At what point did Pixar decide it had the right story to go forward with Cars 3?
Kiel Murray: With these franchises you always want to know who it’s about. The first movie was about McQueen, and the second movie was a sort of off-ramp to the Mater story. We wanted to get back to the McQueen story. When we looked at what would be next for him, we wondered what that would be like both as an athlete, and also for what he was dealing with in the rest of his life.
Bob Peterson: Director Brian Fee, executive producer Jon Lasseter, Mike Rich, and story supervisor Scott Morse spent a lot of time in the early stages about three or four years ago talking about what would make a worthy sequel.
We had told the first two acts of McQueen’s life. In the first film, a rookie becomes a humbler racer. And although Cars 2 was a Mater film, it had McQueen at the top of his game. So we thought, “Well, why not go for the third act of any athlete’s life? What happens when you start declining, and how do you redefine yourself?”
Only then did we feel like this movie was really worth doing, because it might have universal themes that the audience could get behind.
Mike, you’re the rookie when it comes to Pixar in this group. How did you get involved with Cars 3?
Mike Rich: I got a call from Pixar. I think part of the reason they were expressing an interest in me — and I was thrilled with the prospect of working for them — was that I had worked on several films which had sports as a theme or sports as a backdrop. Also, my very first film, Finding Forrester, had a bit of a mentoring aspect to it as well. While they were very early on in the development and the brainstorming of this idea, those were two themes that they were interested in pursuing, so I think that’s why I got the call.
I came on board in late 2014, and ironically it came at a time when a lot of iconic athletes — Derek Jeter, Kobe Bryant, and Jeff Gordon — were beginning to consider what they wanted to do next. They were confronted with what every athlete is confronted with at some point: When should I hang this up? When is the moment in which I need to be looking at what the next step is for me?
That was the thing that was so interesting to me — giving McQueen that challenge and obstacle that everybody faces: That you’re not getting any younger.
The “aging sports star” story has a natural arc. Why do you think it was time to do this story with Lightning McQueen?
Mike: I think it represents a universal truth — not just in sports. In this day and age so many of us are wrestling with a changing landscape in our lives and work. Sometimes we feel that if we don’t find a way to adapt, get smarter, or fit in with what’s happening in our careers, that we’re just going to be simply forced out, and probably not on our own terms.
We have a line that pops up more than once in the film, where Lightning says, “I get to decide when I’m done.”
I looked back on the first Cars at the relationship that McQueen has with Doc Hudson, who was his mentor. Doc was forced out of racing because of a crash, and McQueen finds himself in that same situation in this film. That to me seemed like such a natural progression in the story.
The film is a mentoring story, with McQueen mentoring the new character Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo). Can you talk about writing her, and what role she plays in the story?
Bob: Films need catalyst characters around the main character to push them where they need to be.
All of our films are about relationships, and we felt like the franchise could use a new character that would push McQueen to evaluate who he needs to be by the end of the film.
Kiel: Initially, it was trying to figure out who should go on this journey with McQueen. Looking at it from his perspective, who would be the most challenging character for him, and who could he also give back to somehow? He has more confidence than anybody, so I felt like it should be someone who maybe doesn’t have that.
I have a daughter and two sons, and I’ve been keenly observing the boys’ natural confidence and my daughter’s self-doubt. Even though she is very brave and does amazing things, her initial go-to thing is a lack of confidence. She’s twelve now, and I’ve also seen it with her friends.
It got me into reading about the recent studies of a natural confidence gap in girls. And I talked to a lot of women at Pixar in leadership positions who said they really identified with that. Even though they are in places of success or power, they still had nagging self-confidence issues. We also talked to Cristela about her own life story and her confidence issues while coming up in comedy.
It was a zeitgeist of things that all contributed to forming that character, and that’s when she really started to work. Pairing her with McQueen, who is the master of confidence, seemed like a great duo.
Bob: It started giving us depth to the character. The two of us worked that last year on perfecting her, giving her depth to make her more of a force in McQueen’s life, and also someone who had to deal with her own life and figure out how to overcome her own inner obstacles.
Mike: I have to say I’m so fortunate to share credit on this film with both Kiel and Bob. Their work — and especially Kiel’s perspective — on Cruz’s arc were absolutely invaluable to where that character ended up. I may have laid the foundation and poured the concrete with that character, but those two were able to take the character to an area that just made the overall story so much stronger.
So much of what Pixar does is very collaborative in nature. For me, that was a departure. Every one of the previous films that I had worked on was as a solo writer.
Having never teamed up on a project before, it was invigorating. It was exhilarating when I was in the story artist room with fifteen storyboard artists just peppering ideas back and forth and off the wall. It was a new and great experience for me, and I can honestly say that the final product of Cars 3 is what it is because the three of us worked on that film.
Pixar has always done a wonderful job of working these very deeply human themes into films about talking cars, toys, and other crazy things. How does Pixar do such a masterful job of getting those themes into the story?
Kiel: I am sure it’s been over-said that it’s preached everywhere at Pixar that “Story is King,” but it really is true.
I find that if your number one goal is to make a great story, you’re looking to make something that is entertaining. But to make something that also has an emotional weight or is satisfying emotionally, you have to go with the deeper, human themes.
I know it sounds crazy, but I also think because the films take so long to make and there’s a maturation of the story as you go, sometimes the story tells you where it wants to go. Because we watch it so many times and change it, you can see the things that people are responding to emotionally.
For instance, Cars 3 was going down a comeback story path for a long time, which it is, but Cruz and the mentor-friendship relationship that developed happened in the last eight months after Bob and I came on. It had the roots of a comeback story, but it evolved into a mentor story because that was what people were emotionally connecting with.
Unused recordings of Paul Newman as Doc Hudson from the original Cars were used in this film. From a screenwriting standpoint, was it challenging to incorporate this material into something you could use in the story?
Kiel: As soon as the mentor relationship became what I wanted to go for, it seemed like a freebie. We had this great mentor character in the first movie, so I asked, “What else do we have of him that we haven’t used?”
I feel like any time you hear Paul Newman, it’s just gold. It really doesn’t matter what he says. [Laughs]
I asked them to pull everything and print it out for me. I went through to find fun things or things that seemed relevant. We knew that we were going to have that moment in town when McQueen sees the letters that Doc wrote about him, and we had the idea about including a few flashbacks so we could see him moving and talking.
It is such a nice layer to have, and gives it so much history and depth.
Bob: It seemed natural that Doc would have a place in this film, and listening to the Paul Newman recordings was like hearing an old friend. Jon Lasseter said that Newman would joke around, like he took a plastic water bottle and put it behind his neck when no one was looking, then he would stretch his neck and crinkle the bottle like his bones were creaking. [Laughs]
He was a jokester, and that came out in some of the dialogue. I added the scene with Doc clowning around with items stacked on his hood just to give that impression. Doc was pretty gruff in the first film, but there would’ve probably been moments just like there were with Paul Newman when Doc messed around a bit to add levity.
Bob, of all your work for Pixar, one of the highlights is Up, which you co-wrote and co-directed. It is considered by many to among Pixar’s best films. What do you think it is about the film that resonates so much with audiences?
Bob: We all have a grandfather, husband, wife, or grandma, and the idea of loss — how you deal with loss and how you move forward — is universal. I think it’s a combination of the grief that we put in the film, mixed with the talking dogs, flightless bird, and goofy scout, that all somehow tap into the surrealism of grief.
It’s the universal theme of loss mixed with crazy fun. It was a combination that you weren’t expecting, and I think it ended up being memorable for that reason.
You never know how these things are going to go, and it just came together. I was on a soccer field watching my kid, and a bunch of twenty year-olds were talking about Up. I just didn’t expect people that age would be so into a movie about grief and loss.
For me that was one of my best and favorite working experiences. I created a relationship with these characters, including writing and performing Dug. It’s a set of characters that I grew to love by the end of the film, and it was sad to let them go when it ended.
Finally, what have you learned about writing from working in a creative environment like Pixar?
Kiel: At Pixar everything is planned and created from scratch, and we certainly utilize the storyboarding process.
Another amazing thing about Pixar is that all the spontaneity is created. In live-action, if you capture something fun that happens you’re like, “Well, we won the jackpot today!”
I had a great mentor on the first Cars movie, Joe Ranft, who was the head of story of that movie. He always said, “Trust the process.” Even when you feel like you’re in crisis mode and you can’t figure out what the story is, if you follow and listen to what it wants to be, or what people are responding to, it will take you down the right path.
Bob: For one thing, we workshop until the bitter end. It’s a place where the written word and the idea of working through a film are very respected. You have a chance to try things, go down blind alleys, and hone the project until you’re happy with it.
It’s not just “Take the script and shoot it,” it’s “Take the script and do eight or nine story reel versions of it while working with story artists to come up with the best film you can.”
I think it’s also really fun to bring in the visual component of animation. Writers enjoy working with the story artists who are visualizing what they do.
You can think in terms of the visualization of worlds that don’t exist, like Inside Out, and it lets you go off to these fantastical places. The story artists are also great story minds, and have ideas that you can handshake with as you go forward.
It’s a very nurturing place, and is the best prenatal care for any script that you can find, because you’re surrounded by great arbiters of taste who have done it before and have great objectivity to what you’re doing.
You’re never really lost in the woods because you can show it to a group of people who can scare you straight into what you should be doing. You always have someone that has your back for objectivity, which is a nice feeling.
Mike: I cannot tell you how many times when I hit a bump in the road on Cars 3, Scott Morse or Brian Fee would say, “Well, let’s get the story team together! How’s after lunch?” We would go in that room and it would be this embarrassment of riches of ideas that would just pour down. In that regard, the Pixar experience was unlike any other that I ever had.
I will look back on this experience with Pixar so fondly. I remember when I first got into the business back with Finding Forrester, someone gave me the advice, “Make films that you will be proud to show your grandchildren.” This will certainly be very high on that list.
Cars 3 is in theaters today.
Featured image: Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) and Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) in Cars 3 © 2017 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.