Pixar’s latest, The Good Dinosaur, is a great many things, but at its heart it is simple: a story of a boy and his dog. Only, the boy is a dinosaur and the dog is a non-verbal human. And if that weren’t enough of a subversive flip, it takes place in a world where the asteroid never hit Earth and destroyed the dinos. But at its core, The Good Dinosaur is about as intimate and personal as it gets for director Peter Sohn, who’s infused the script and story with a veritable Grand Teton worth of personality and personal influence. So while at Pixar (yes, that is a full-on brag; sorry), we sat down with Sohn to talk about the story’s accomplishments, process, and why it compares so well to a film like Homeward Bound.
Nerdist: What you do you think you accomplish, storytelling-wise, flipping the “boy and his dog” narrative on its head, essentially making the human the pet?
Peter Sohn: Arlo also help uncover some of my own issues. There has been a therapy session with just developing Arlo for sure. My own fears and my own confidences, but the humanity, the connection between this—and what those surprises can be. I was telling you guys yesterday about when my wife was really pregnant and the dog coming up and lying next to [her]. Just some connection there. What is going on? I don’t understand, but it was unpredictable. Animals don’t have a gesture where the dog went, “Aww, I feel bad. I’m going to walk over and lie next to you.” It was blank face and he just lied there and the animal’s decision to do that—that you felt. What is this connection between animals and us that can showcase what our humanity is?
You know what’s funny is that trying to dig into it, it highlights Spot’s humanity in a weird way, too. I don’t want to talk to sappy about it, all I’m saying is that we did focus on Spot and that relationship. In that moment when they’re talking about each other’s families and their losses. You see him lie down like a dog, but then after burying his effigies, we see him sit up and do a little sniff. That is a very human thing, and [we’re] trying to find those little gestures that all of a sudden make us who we are. His little pat that he does to Arlo to say, “I understand you. I connect with you.” That’s a thing that animals can do sometimes. That’s what’s been fun about that relationship once you flip it: because if the human is just a human then would we be playing with those cliches versus digging into something else.
Nerdist: I kept thinking about the movie Homeward Bound when I was watching this. I loved that movie as a kid, and saw so much of that play both in Homeward Bound and The Good Dinosaur—this idea of relationships on a more instinctual level. What was it like trying to find those moments? Were they things you knew off the bat or was it stuff that just happened organically and surprised you?
Peter Sohn: Everything that you just said. Literally, the story process—I take a long time, you know? Some days you experience something that all of a sudden goes in, or there’s an idea you’ve had from the very beginning that was in, then it came out, then it comes back into the story again. Then there are ones I specifically backwards engineered from some other idea. It’s all this mixed bag of trying to tell a story heart-fully, but at the same time knowing that the story will begin to tell you what it wants, you know? It’s a really weird phenomenon. It’s like you start telling a child, “You’re going to be a violinist,” but all of a sudden it’s, “I don’t want to do this. I want to be a basketball star.” You think, Wait, what? Then, do you decide to go, “No, throw that basketball stuff away. You’re going to be a violinist”, or do you go, “Oh, okay. Let’s push the violin away. What is it about the basketball? I can get coaches”? You try to listen to it, but still help guide the thing. A lot of ideas come in that way, or, it’s telling us it wants this. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t.
Jonas would always say, “If it’s a good idea it will always come back.” That helps in two ways. It allows you a liberal freedom to let go of something that you thought was necessary, and to allow you to move forward in another way and discover something else. So you’re always, “Okay, that is an interesting idea lets try it. Uh…what was that old idea we talked about? What was that thing Kelsey? Oh yeah! Let’s try that. That one worked, but this one didn’t”—so it’s always whatever tool you have in your drawer.
Nerdist: Was there any personal impetus for this project in particular?
Peter Sohn: I would always say that story-making is very much therapy. A character like Arlo is me. As a kid, being a minority in New York—there are fears that stop you. There are confidence issues as an artist and everywhere as a parent. They’re all these things that become something in you and trying to understand what that growth is becomes the movie. As a father, you are trying to embody all these characters and try to find what’s the truth in them—as Arlo, in his growth. There are all these searches that you do; as a father, there are all these searches that you do; they all start to intertwine.
Nerdist: What do you think a film like this does that’s different then what Pixar’s done in the past? Obviously, visually the animation of nature and how it paralleled emotion during the movie was fantastic.
Peter Sohn: You know, there’s not a lot of dialog in this film so it takes its time through a lot of it. There are some slow moments, and there’s some quick ones for sure, but it is one of our first films that is all exteriors—I think it’s 99% exteriors. To create a world that is that huge has been a real challenge. The story itself, I would say this is one of the first stories that our main characters are younger. A lot of the other Pixar films are always from either adult point of view or adult characters. I know Riley [from Inside Out] is a young character, but Joy and Sadness are essentially adult-like, and I know Russell in Up is an older character, but it is about Carl’s journey.
Here, Arlo and Spot do represent a new type, where the buddy concept isn’t, “I don’t like you. I kind of understand you. I like you. We like each other.” This has always been about, “I don’t like you. I’m an animal. I don’t understand you. I’m an animal. I’m learning from you. I’m still being an animal. You’ve changed my life.” It’s more of a one-way thing. This is one of the simplest stories that I’ve written. In developing it, that was something everyone got excited about because the story was so simple and pure. John Lasseter would always say, “There’s nothing to hide behind.” That’s going to be one of the great challenges of this film: because it is this pure, simple thing, it will be seen everywhere because you can’t hide behind plot, you can’t hide behind things—and that’s been one of the great challenges.
The Good Dinosaur is in theaters now. Have you checked it out? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.
Alicia Lutes is the Managing Editor of The Nerdist. Find her on Twitter (@alicialutes) talkin’ ’bout dinos ‘cuz she loves ’em.