‘Monsters University’ director Dan Scanlon, an animated Everyman

Animation director Dan Scanlon of the Pixar movie "Monsters University" says "The Muppet Movie" was a big influence on his early life.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Dan Scanlon, 37, joined Pixar in 2001, working as a story artist on “Cars” and “Toy Story 3,” and he co-directed the 2006 short film “Mater and the Ghost Light.” He made his feature directorial debut this year with “Monsters University,” which became the third-highest-grossing film in Pixar’s history. We spoke to Scanlon about his own movie history recently.

What’s the first movie you saw?

It was probably “The Empire Strikes Back,” though, since I was only 4, it’s hazy. Dragon and gladiator movies were huge at that time. And the Muppets. Those were my formative movies.

First movie that took over your life?

Definitely “The Muppet Movie.” That’s what got me drawing, drawing those characters over and over again. Looking back on that movie now, I love that it’s this weird mix of puppet characters in a very naturalistic setting with all these great comedians in it. I didn’t appreciate it as a kid, but now, Albert Brooks ... Steve Martin ... there’s some cool stuff going on.


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The movie that you’re a little embarrassed to love?

I love “It’s a Wonderful Life,” maybe because it doesn’t fit in with the other movies I love. I don’t know why I feel a little embarrassed sometimes saying that. OK, this is probably embarrassing, but every now and then at night I will just watch the end of a movie I like, just to cry. So I have this little pocket of movies — “The Iron Giant,” “Superman,” “The Royal Tenenbaums” — where I can click to the last chapter and there’s just this one word, one moment that really gets me. I like a movie that puts you through some dark stuff, but in the end you walk out feeling good.

The movie you’d recommend to aspiring animators?

I watched a lot of Tex Avery and Chuck Jones cartoons growing up. They’re so clearly staged and beautifully directed, and the characters are so rich. That’s an accessible place to begin.

What movie would you like the president to see?

On the plane, somebody was watching that Jamie Foxx movie [“White House Down”] where the White House blows up and the president is running around. And all I could think was: Does the president watch these movies? And, if so, is he thinking, “That’s not what the Oval Office looks like.” Or is he just horrified that people are making movies about the worst thing that could happen in his job? Because I doubt they’re educational. He’s not thinking, “Oh. Right. I should strap two guns to my back.”

If you could be any character in a movie, who would you be?

I never identified with one movie character, but I definitely lived my life like I was in a movie. Maybe that’s common for directors. Walking around at school, I was very consciously thinking, “I’m in a movie,” imagining what music was playing and how this shot would look. I feel like I constantly lived my life that way. There was comedy. Some drama. No romance ... not for a long time, at least. I played the Everyman. Still do.


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