Before Pixar's 1995 classic won over the hearts of children and the grownups they dragged to the theatre with them, protagonist Woody was a very different character. A "sarcastic jerk", to be precise.
Speaking with Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal last night about his new book Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, Pixar head Ed Catmull opened up about Woody's shady past. Here's an excerpt from the conversation:
Kai Ryssdal: It was not, though, this process of making Toy Story a resounding success, it was not without some really big setbacks. One of which was — and it comes out in the book pretty clearly — you were gonna make Woody a mean guy. Woody, the hero of this thing, was gonna be mean!
Ed Catmull: Right.
Ryssdal: How do you do that to Woody?
Catmull: He was mean. Well, we were discovering — and, at the time, we were trying to figure out how to have a better process. But he was mean. The thing that we learned, though, is that: every one of our films, when we start off, they suck.
Ryssdal: (Laughs) Says the guy who's made I don't even know how many awesome movies.
Catmull: Well and what we've learned with is that they all suck to begin with. But our job is to take it from something that sucks to something that doesn't suck. That is the hard part.
This isn't exactly breaking news, mind you. A BuzzFeed listicle from way back in 2011 buried this most important of ledes all the way down at number 17 of the "33 Things You Probably Didn't Know About The 'Toy Story' Trilogy." But even though I claim to be a diehard Toy Story fan, I was shocked to hear what Woody could have been in some much more cynical alternate universe.
You should listen to Ryssdal's full interview with Catmull since it gives a good look at the unique art and science that keeps Pixar movies from sucking, as my colleague Patricia Hernandez recently put it. The detail about Woody is my favourite part, however, because of what it says about how market research and focus group testing — things that don't have the best reputation for pushing artists creatively — can challenge people to produce better work.
It's tempting to always play the role of the cynic and assume that stories with noble characters and happy endings are somehow infantile or overly simplistic. But Camull's point reminds me of something that Breaking Bad creator and all around storytelling genius Vince Gilligan said last year in an interview with New York Magazine when he was talking about how hard it is to create "honest-to-God nice characters" that are actually compelling.
"Why is SpongeBob interesting?" Gilligan said at the time. "It's because he has passion. He has a passion for chasing jellyfish. I'm very glad people love Breaking Bad, but the harder character to write is the good character that's as interesting and as engaging as the bad guy."
So now that Gilligan is finished with the Heisenberg saga, are you thinking what I'm thinking? I for one would love to see the guy take on the herculean task of making the next great Toy Story movie. Or any Pixar project, really.