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‘The Good Dinosaur’: Director Peter Sohn On Creative Freedom, Failure And Belonging To A ‘Nerd Race’

The upcoming Pixar release “The Good Dinosaur” offers a spin on the traditional boy and his dog story. It follows an Apatosaurus named Arlo and his unlikely human friend Spot. The epic adventure story marks the directorial debut of Peter Sohn, who previously lent his skills to the art and animation department for films like “Finding Memo,” “The Incredibles,” and “Brave.”

During a recent visit to Pixar studios, we had the chance to sit down with Sohn to learn how his extensive experience effected his approach to the visually striking “The Good Dinosaur,” appealing to a wide audience and happily belonging to a community of film nerds. (SBC): So many of the films you’ve worked on like “Finding Memo” and “The Incredibles” can be considered classics. How would you say what you learned on those films has come into play for directing your first feature “The Good Dinosaur?”

Peter Sohn (PS): My first film was “Iron Giant” at Warner Bros. That film didn’t have a lot of money. Everyone there was like, “I just want to make the best movie possible. I don’t care where you’re from. If you have an idea that will make the film better, pitch it. Tell it. If you’re hungry about doing the shot, get it. We’re all in this together.” We would always talk about how every dollar that we spent is going to be put onto that screen. We worked very hard in that belief of trying to make a great movie. It’s that race of film lovers. That was a group that tried very sincerely to do something and then the movie tanked and it made nothing. Afterwards there were discussions of, “Can you imagine if it made money?” or “What a rough experience.” But then you had people go, “Okay, no one saw it. it’s fine. We put our heart into it.”

All of the executives at Pixar are all filmmakers, so you’re not getting notes that are outside of that parameter.


(SBC): Meaning they’re not solely commercial based?

PS: It’s not that they ignore that but their priorities always start at, “What’s the best story that we can tell?” For “Memo,” I remember understanding a lot of that priority for story. They would talk about story as king.

I’ve heard the saying, “fail as fast as you can” and I never understood what that meant but you put your heart into something and then say, “that’s really cool but it’s not going to work for this film?” Your priority is to tell a story that you believe in, so you keep putting yourself into it and then getting it stomped on. You learn that a certain path may not work but there’s was a kernel. So you take that kernel and restart again. The idea of trying to make the best thing you can was what stuck with me from all of those other movies.

(SBC): When you’re so immersed in a project for five years and therefore so close to it, how do you objectively know what isn’t working?

PS: The lesson that I learned for myself was the gut vs the brain. I’ve tried to train myself to look at it with gut and no critical judgement and just see it for what it is.

(SBC): There was one sequence that I found to be so emotional. I’m sure you know what it is.

PS: The effigy scene?


(SBC): Yes! I lost it. How do you determine when a moment is not going to be too dark for children to see? It takes a unique skill set to make a film that both kids and adults find enjoyable.

PS: A lot of that has to do with the kids in all of us. All of the directors here have that wonder. I love those types of movies that can appeal to my mother and myself and my daughter. Those are the movies that I grew up on. I don’t like gory movies but I do like movies that can scare me or make me laugh. I remember seeing “Bambi” and understanding how scary and dark it can get but then seeing that contrast of growth making someone happier. “Snow White” terrified me. The idea of carving out her heart and putting it in a box… as a kid, I didn’t really know what that concept was. I was more resilient.

For Arlo’s journey, it’s necessary that he and Spot are talking about loss. It’s an important thing. I’ve experienced loss in my life and want my daughter to understand that you can talk about it and connect to people about it.

(SBC): When you were introducing the film, you mentioned that you’re part of a “nerd race,” can you expand on that?

PS: That was the tribe that I found, this nerd tribe. I feel very lucky because a lot of people don’t always find their tribe. It can sometimes just be about your culture. I’m very proud of being Korean. I’m just saying that growing up and just being defined by this one element. You’re always trying to find a place to fit in.

I love drawing and I love movies but you can only talk about “Bambi” in high school for so long. There’s not many people who will ultimately connect to you on that. Then coming into a workplace like this, where you see that another person can connect with you about the things that you passionately believe in. The people here that run the studio are those same people. Finding that tribe became a really emotional thing for me.

‘The Good Dinosaur’ will be released on November 25, 2015.

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