When you talk with Peter Sohn, director of Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur, you can’t help but feel like you’re standing face-to-face with grown up Russell from Up. This is no coincidence as Sohn was the inspiration behind the lovable Wilderness Explorer in one of the best animated films ever made. In his directorial debut, Sohn is excited to share the inspirations behind this dinosaur Western, but also gives a hint to the struggles behind the production. “There were days that were so dark,” he explained, “that you’re just like ‘Why am I doing this?'”
As many fans know, The Good Dinosaur was supposed to be released in 2013, then delayed to 2014… and then again to the end of 2015. Sohn, who had been part of the story team since the project started in 2009, suddenly found himself taking the reigns one year ago. With such a tight deadline, any director would feel stretched thin. “And then you remember how much you love the people around you. And you love these characters, and you love the message that is in there.”
What is the message? For Sohn, it’s Arlo’s journey to conquer his fears. It’s hard to deny after seeing the finished product that a better title would have been The Brave Dinosaur. “You can’t beat fear. You can find ways to survive it. You can’t beat nature. Mother nature is one of the biggest, most powerful things in our world. But you can learn to survive it, as it has its beauties too.”
Speaking of nature’s role in the film, producer Denise Ream credits director of photography Sharon Calahan with making the world of The Good Dinosaur so believable. Having spent time painting landscapes around Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Calahan lead the creative team on an impromptu trip to explore the wild west. The trip was rushed in an effort to see the area before winter set in. One of the biggest lessons they learned was that the weather there is temperamental and quick to change. “If you don’t like it, in ten minutes it’s going to change… And so that inspired us to make this movie… What if the antagonist was nature?”
While an impressive cast had previously been announced that included John Lithgow, Neil Patrick Harris and Bill Hader, all of the voices were recast for the final version of The Good Dinosaur. In speaking to members of the cast, you get the sense that their involvement was not years, but rather days to lend their talents to these characters. Same Elliott, Anna Paquin and A. J. Buckely recorded all of their dialogue in a single recording session. Raymond Ochoa, who plays Arlo, met the voice of his character’s father, Jeffrey Wright, for the first time during the film’s press junket. “He’s pretty cool. Just met with him, we’re getting close,” he joked as he shared the end of a table with the Golden Globe winner. “We’re making up for lost time,” Wright mused in his smooth, deep voice that he is so identified with.
One thing all of the voice talent seems to have in common is a love of Pixar films and excitement for finally being a part of one. Raymond Ochoa puts it best. “Monsters, Inc. is my favorite film of all time. So the be in a Pixar movie, it’s just… I’m so grateful for that, and it’s an amazing opportunity.” Sam Elliott agrees that voice work at Pixar is a dream come true, “It doesn’t get any better than that, in terms of the animation world.” “It’s like getting a call that somebody has made the Olympic Team,” muses A. J. Buckely. In conversation with his agent, he had to ask “Are you sure they want me?” For Anna Paquin, she felt like she’d been working towards this for a while. “I’d always loved Pixar, and had been sort of trying to figure out how to get ’em to want to hire me, and then it kind of just happened.”
When it comes to publicity surrounding animated films, it seems that celebrity voice actors get all the credit for their character’s performance. Jeffrey Wright, however, takes a more humble approach. “You’re just a small part of it at the end of the day. I mean, you’re kind of the last noticeable layer because whole sections of one credit… It’s like they’ve got a thousand people that work on volumetric clouds… You’re just one element in a huge army of people that were required to pull this off.”
All of the voice actors agreed that without Peter Sohn’s expert direction, they wouldn’t have been able to provide convincing performances. To A.J. Buckley, the experience of working with him was truly special. “He’s a really genuine guy who truly cares about the work… It’s rare to find people like that in this business, and in this world.” Taking it back to the film’s inspiration and roots, Sohn shares his concerns about finishing the film in time. “I honestly wasn’t sure if we would be able to actually get all the way here and do it… I still feel so lucky that we got to do a film like this, and I mean, it was largely because of movies by Carol Ballard and Bambi and Dumbo that, I don’t know, I’m just… I’m grateful.”