By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Twelve years ago, a pair of monsters popped out of a nightmare and onto the movie screen. Rather than terrifying audiences, “Monsters, Inc.”’s hyperkinetic one-eyed greenie Mike and blustering furball Sulley became endearing nocturnal heroes to a whole generation of children and the young at heart.
What helped make these ghoulies so likable in the Pixar animated movie were the distinctive voices provided by comedy veterans Billy Crystal (Mike) and John Goodman (Sulley). Crystal and Goodman reprise their characters in the long-awaited prequel “Monsters University,” again crafted by the Oscar-winning studio that created the “Toy Story” and “Cars” films. The animated comedy is directed by Dan Scanlon, who takes over the “Monsters” helm from Pete Docter, who made the first one.
In this all-new “Monsters” adventure, audiences find out how Mike and Sulley met (in college!) and what they were like before they were fully fledged monsters. As it turns out, they weren’t always so cool and confident. Book-smart but socially awkward Mike and slacker Sulley wind up in the least popular fraternity on campus but together with the misfits of Oozma Kappa manage to make their mark in a “Hunger Games”-type competition with the other houses.
Crystal and Goodman recently spoke about reprising their beloved characters and being part of the Pixar family.
Q: What do you find to be the great touchstone about the friendship of Mike and Sulley ? What it is that makes them so beloved? What is it about the character that resonates with you?
Goodman: The fact that he’s a blowhard. (He laughs.) No, I think the reason they work so well together is that they complete each other, in a way. Sulley really, really needs Mike Wazowski. It makes him complete. It lets the air out of him a little bit. Especially in this film, when they’re not completely formed monsters yet, they learn from each other. They learn how to adapt, how to let go of their pre-conceived notions of themselves and of the world. They’re good for each other.
Crystal: Mike is fearless. He’s really the favorite character I’ve ever played in anything I’ve done. I’ve really missed doing him until (Disney/Pixar creative chief John) Lasseter, at a party, came to me and said “We have the idea. It’s a sequel, but it’s a prequel. They’re in college.” And he just walked away. But he left an idea, and I went “oh, this is gonna be great.”
Q: How fun was it revisiting them after so many years?
Crystal: It was so fun to revisit them at this time in their lives. It was such a brilliant idea to put them in that time period where they’re about to become who they’re going to become. That’s what was so interesting to me. I love this guy to play, and playing it with John is phenomenal because we work together in the studio, and we can act together. We’re not just reading lines; we’re performing them, and we’re playing them, and we feel them. That’s why their relationship on screen is really great because it’s a real thing.
Q: When you were college age, did you each feel that you fit into the world around you, or were you a little bit of a misfit?
Crystal: I have to admit, I was a little bit of a misfit. I was a film-directing major at NYU. I’m still not sure why I became a directing major when I was really an actor and a comedian, but there was something that drew me to doing that. I felt like I was a misfit, in a way, because the other people in my class (included) Oliver Stone, Christopher Guest and Mike McKean. Our professor was Marty Scorsese. Marty was a graduate student—Mr. Scorsese, which is what I had to call him and I still do, when I see him, because he gave me a C. He was an intense guy, with hair down to here (indicating his shoulders), a big beard and granny glasses. He was so fluent in movies and passionate. I really felt like I wanted to be in front of people still, so I was a little out of it.
Goodman: I ain’t never been in no college with famous people like Billy here. I was a drifter for a while. I just was desperate to fit in with a group. Really, I was swimming. I was lost, treading water, trying to find my way. I wanted to play football. It didn’t work out. I didn’t really know what I wanted until I found acting in a theater department, and then everything fell into place, and I had a passion about something.
Crystal: Yeah, that’s how it was for me, too. Once I found a theater group, it became my extended family. I still see a lot of those people to this day … because they owe me money. No, that really becomes your thing. In this movie, (Mike and Sulley) find out who they are. That’s the most important element of this movie to me. Mike has a dream, and the dream may not work out, and then he has to readjust and recalibrate. He does that with the help of his friend, who tells him who he thinks he is, and he starts to believe it himself.
Q: What kind of obstacles did you guys face to get where you wanted? Did you have those moments of doubt, like this dream that I know I’m destined for might not happen?
Crystal: I still have them. Every time I finish doing something. Not (John). He did 14 movies last year. What is so fascinating and frustrating and great about (acting) is you’re constantly, in some ways, starting over all the time, and I love that. All right, I did that, but now what? I don’t have a job now. Then, something happens, or you make something happen.
Q: How did working with Dan Scanlon, your director on this, compare to working with Pete Docter?
Crystal: Dan had totally different energy than Pete, who (also) was great..
Goodman: He had great sensibility, and he’d read with you if the other characters weren’t there. He’s got a good energy to feed off of.
Crystal: He was funny, too. He’s a funny guy.
Goodman: And when you do something he doesn’t like, he gets a funny little look on his face.
Crystal: Yeah, and we’d know not to do that.
Q: How has the experience of working with Pixar changed in the past 12 years, or has it?
Goodman: It just seems like they’ve gotten so much better with their technique. So the thrill is still there because they’re such wonderful storytellers, great writers, and everything is reality-based and grounded, so you can believe in it, and it makes it fun.
Crystal: The difference is maybe it’s a little bit faster now than before. They can do things a little quicker. The imagination is even broader because they can do more. I first saw the movie two weeks ago. Sometimes, you just forget what you’ve done. We started (recording) about two years ago, and the imagery is phenomenal in this movie. The art design on the first movie was astounding, with the door sequence and the chase sequence. This has moments in the scare games that you almost take it for granted, but it took years for them to think these things through. That obstacle course is a phenomenal segment. (I also liked) the dramatic scene with us at the lake. We acted that scene together in the booth. For a movie to have room for those two segments alone, is kind of epic.
Q: Did you change your voice to play these younger versions of Mike and Sulley?
Crystal: On the first day we reported to work together, they showed us renderings of the guys. We just started laughing Sulley’s a little trimmer and a little slimmer. I’ve got this retainer and there’s a little more youth in his eye. They just carry themselves differently. (The difference) is subtle, but it’s there.
Goodman: With the voice thing, I thought I was gonna come in and talk like the kid from “Our Miss Brooks.” (He mimics a high-pitched childlike voice) “Oh, hello!” –And it just happened, after a couple of passes. It just kind of happens organically. You pick up on other energies and the characters’ focuses, and it just happens.
Q: Did you enjoy turning the Oozma Kappa characters from rejects into winners?
Crystal: I loved that Mike sees something in them, but at the same time, he finds out something about himself. That happens also through Sulley. (The Oozma Kappa characters) are endearing, lovely characters, beautifully voiced. I saw it two weeks ago with the cast. I didn’t know a lot of these people were in the movie. Sean Hayes is fantastic in the movie. Charlie Day is great in the movie. Alfred Molina is great. Helen is phenomenal. They didn’t tell me that all these people were in the movie, so it was like going to college on the first day and having all these new roommates. It was fantastic. They’re beautifully animated, and they’re really appealing. (When “Monsters, Inc.” came out) I remember we hosted several screenings for kids who had just lost their parents or uncle or a father or something. All of those kids, and kids throughout the world, were 6 or 7 years old when that movie came out. They’re now the same age that Mike and Sulley are now, so they look at it in a totally different way. I was at USC a couple weeks ago, and we screened the movie for about 400 film students. They went berserk because it’s them. They’re making decisions in their lives, like Mike and Sulley are in this. These guys are –very important characters to them to (those college) students and to little kids. Mike has a toehold —a claw-hold—in people. He means something to them.
Q: What used to scare you under the bed or in the closet when you were little and what scares you now?
Crystal: My Aunt Sheila was terrifying because (she would dab a) napkin in her mouth and say, “You’ve got something on your face, dear” —that thing. “Let me just scratch that off your face.” And now? I still don’t love the darkness, though I’ve learned to smile in it a little bit now and then. The unknown has always been a little scary when you think about those things, especially as you get older. (He pauses.) Boy, that got heavy.
Goodman: I was just (afraid of) the run-of-the-mill Frankenstein. He scared the heck out of me. But I love those old (horror) movies, especially when they’d switch off and Bela Lugosi would play Frankenstein.
Crystal: “Psycho” scared me. Mr. Hitchcock knew what he was doing. To this day, it’s still terrifying.
Q: What’s your favorite new character in the film?
Crystal: They were all great. Charlie Day’s (Art) character is really funny. Sean Hayes is hilarious—the two-headed guy. Helen (Mirren) is terrifying. I’ve worked with her before and she’s the most fun, hip, great, down-to-earth lady, and she’s really scary in this movie. It’s a very great cast.