The Cars movies have always been an odd member of the Pixar family. The series, about a world in which people are conspicuously absent and vehicles are sentient, is an amusing little play on the way people tend to project themselves into their technology, but to the consternation of movie fans everywhere, the films don’t always seem to run on any consistent, internal logic.
Among the questions that still plague Cars fans: Whatever happened to humanity? How old is the Cars universe? If there are no biological organisms, how can these cars run on fossil fuels? Who keeps making these new cars? The list goes on and on, and according to Brian Fee and Kevin Reher, the director and producer of Cars 3, all those questions are besides the point.
I spoke to Brian Fee and Kevin Reher about the logic of the Cars movies (or rather, the lack thereof), the new film’s journey into more mature dramatic territory. They also confirmed that, although the Cars movies and Planes movies are a part of Disney, they are completely separate entities and will never cross over.
Cars 3 opens in theaters everywhere this weekend.
Crave: The Cars franchise is a big deal to a lot of kids, and yet it’s kind of an odd entity in the Pixar series of films. If you look at a lot of Pixar movies, they take place in a corner of the real world. “Here’s what bugs are doing when humans aren’t looking. Here’s what your toys are doing.” But the world of Cars doesn’t work that way. How DOES the world of Cars work? What is the underlying philosophy behind the world of Cars?
Brian Fee: The only really underlining philosophy is that it’s just a fantasy. It’s a metaphor. The vehicles, the characters, even the world itself, it’s just a metaphor for our world. I always think of the characters kind of like, if you think about dogs and people, people tend to own dogs that are like them. We think about the types of cars that people would drive. A lot of the time when we’re thinking about, when we have a character, what kind of car should it be? We think about who would it be as a person, and what would they drive? So to me it’s just a metaphor. You have to let go of the connection or else you can’t actually sit back and enjoy the story.
And I think some people do have trouble with it sometimes. There are certain logical rules that we want to try to connect. For example, in Cars 3, characters talk about “growing up.” Were they born? Do you think about these things at all? You have to create a consistent world, right?
Brian Fee: For us, it’s a threshold. It needs to be a world we’re familiar with, too, right? So if we held ourselves too literal, the world would not be something you would recognize, you know? So they have to talk in a way that you understand, in a way that you can follow the story without… so for us it’s just a threshold, when it comes to things like that. For instance, our characters don’t tend to have fathers and mothers, you know? But we do have aunts and uncles. We’ll use those terms. We’ll use “separated family” because it’s kind of like “inherited family”, almost. We want to tell a story. We don’t want to pull you out of that story. So when it comes to those types of things we just look at it as, what’s pulling me out of the story? Or what’s helping me go with the story?
Have you ever felt like you were crossing the line? Like, you were introducing an element that raises too many questions?
Brian Fee: Well, we wouldn’t do it. [Laughs.]
Yeah, but I’m curious if you’ve ever come close to it, and if so, what that line might be.
Kevin Reher: You’ve got that moment where Sally and McQueen kiss, and we went, “Yeah, no.” No. Cars don’t kiss.
Brian Fee: Metal on metal, you know?
Kevin Reher: Metal? How is that possible?
Brian Free: It’s going to make a sound effect.
Kevin Reher: Right. No. Clanging.
Brian Fee: Our biggest goal is just to tell a story and we want… to me, the biggest compliment that I could get is if someone were to tell me, “I forgot that they were cars, and I was just watching characters.” Because that kind of is the goal. We have fun with the fact that they’re cars, right? But we’re trying to tell a story about characters.
Kevin Reher: I took the movie to NASCAR and this woman walked out and she had two daughters. “I love the movie for my daughters,” but she said, “I found myself emotionally connected and crying over a damned car!” and I’m like, “Yes!”
For this particular film?
Kevin Reher: For this movie, yeah.
Well, I think this one’s kind of interesting because it works on two levels. On one hand it’s a story for little kids. It’s about talking cars. But it’s a story about retirement and reaching a retirement age. That’s a big disparity, in terms of the experience of the film. It’s a film for older people and really, really young people.
Brian Fee: Well, while kids aren’t going to understand or follow the cares of somebody who might be retiring, the same screening where we took the film to our NASCAR community, who helped us so much to make the film… we did an early screening for them and when the Sterling character told McQueen that he was not going to race anymore, there was a boy running up and down the aisle yelling, “No, no, no, no!” So kids understand THAT, right? Their beloved character can’t do the thing he wants to do. That they understand.
I’m curious, because on some level this is a sports movie, and in sports movies we often have a very clear set of stakes. The stakes here are interesting, because even if Lightning McQueen can’t race anymore he still has his legacy, and he still has someone who’s supporting him and saying “We are going to support you. We’ve got this museum. We’ve got this money.” What goes into that storytelling decision, the storytelling process? Do you not want to make it too intense for little kids? Do you not want to see him destitute?
Kevin Reher: We did crash him. [Laughs.]
You DID crash him! That was messed up!
Kevin Reher: We had a kid write us, five years old, going “Are you killing Lightning McQueen?” and he said, “Because I want to know who did it, because I’m going to buy that toy and I’m going to kill him.”
Oh my god!
Kevin Reher: I know! And his mother said, “I just calmed him down after Trump, and now you’re going to kill Lightning McQueen?” So we sent a poster and a note and said no, we’re not killing Lightning. Just, that first teaser was so… I mean, we got tons of notes from people like, “Oh my god, this is a different… they’re crashing their hero!”
Brian Fee: We looked at it from… like Jeff Gordon, before he retired, we talked a lot to Jeff Gordon, and one of the things he told us before he even said he’s going to retire… but he was talking about the idea that he will have to retire eventually, and he was telling us that his biggest fear is that he’s never going to be as good at anything else. And you think, he’s in his early 40’s. He’s got half of his life in front of him. I think it’s scary for anyone to think, “I’m 40 years old and the best part of my life is behind me?” That’s sad, right? It’s sad to think it’s all downhill from here and there’s nothing to look forward to. And so we were looking at McQueen as, all he’s ever known is racing. That’s his passion. If he can’t get out there and do the thing that he loves… it’s not about winning, for him. When he’s talking with Sterling he’s pleading and pleading with Sterling to give him another chance, and he ends up making that bet with Sterling. He just wants to keep racing. Of course, the bet that he makes is that he has to win. In order to keep racing he’s got to win the next race, which is an impossible gamble. But he doesn’t think there’s anything else that will ever compare to racing.
You have to deal with the possibility, the drama, of being cynical about this sport. You have a lot of young rookies who have no respect. You have a lot of people who are trying to monetize it as well. Can you tell me about that? This seems like such a hopeful series, and now… who’s even MAKING these cars, just to trump these old timers everyone loves, you know?
Kevin Reher: When we did our research Jeff Gordon talked about how he’ll know a new driver because a new driver, younger drivers, they’ll go fast and balls out, but they’ll hit the wall and crash more often. And he says, “As a mature racer, I know that I can’t go balls out because I’ve to get around that turn,” or do whatever. And a lot of the Jackson Storm of it, and not respecting the history of racing and things, a lot of that came out of our research.
Brian Free: To me it’s kind of a truth, right? Respecting your elders and respecting your history. Not every kid… some kids will surprise you, some kids are always into that, right? I think your average kid, that’s a maturity they haven’t found yet. So Jackson Storm and his generation isn’t old enough to respect the older generations the way McQueen [does]. I’m not sure I answered the question.
You’re okay, it was general. I just wanted you to talk about incorporating that element.
Kevin Reher: The other thing is, it is McQueen and Cruz’s story, and you don’t want to give too much weight to the whole backstory of Jackson Storm. I mean, I think one of the things that’s great about Armie Hammer is you get that this guy is a jerk. You get it right away. “Get a lot of pictures! This guy is a crafty veteran!” All that kind of stuff. All those sort of sarcasms. You get immediately, this is jerk.
Brian Fee: Well, it’s somebody who’s never had to work hard, right? Storm kind of represents somebody who was almost born into the system, so to speak, right? He’s never had to work hard, he doesn’t think anyone else belongs there but him. He doesn’t think McQueen’s generation belongs there anymore. He certainly doesn’t think Cruz, who’s a street car, could possibly be as fast as him and when it turns out she just might be, it grows a fear in him that he’s never had to deal with before.
What is the Pixar philosophy on the Planes movies? Are those canon or are those their own separate entity right now? How do you feel about them?
Kevin Reher: They’re their own separate entity. They’re done by a group at DTS and John [Lasseter] is involved at DTS, but we have no relationship to them at all.
So you don’t think there will ever be some sort of crossover?
Kevin Reher: No.
Brian Free: No.
That’s never going to happen?
Brian Free: No.
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William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.