IAR INTERVIEW: Billy Crystal Talks 'Monsters University' and Looks Back at '61*'

Wednesday, 19 June 2013 08:46 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR INTERVIEW: Billy Crystal Talks 'Monsters University' and Looks Back at '61*'

Actor, comedian, writer, director, producer and frequent Oscar host Billy Crystal has been making audiences laugh for almost 40-years!

After beginning his career as a stand-up comic, Crystal first gained prominence for his role as Jodie Dallas (one of the first unambiguously gay characters on TV) on the popular ‘70s comedy series Soap. He joined the cast of Saturday Night Live in 1984, where he created a string of beloved characters including Fernando “You Look Marvelous” Lamas, and Buddy Young Jr., as well as impersonations of Howard Cosell, Muhammad Ali, and Sammy Davis Jr. He would eventually go on to have an extremely successful film career starring in such classic movies as Running Scared, The Princess Bride, Throw Momma from the Train, When Harry Met Sally …, City Slickers, Analyze This, and Monsters, Inc

In addition to co-hosting the celebrity charity institution Comic Relief with Robin Williams and Woopie Goldberg, he has also hosted the Academy Awards Ceremony nine times, more than any other host in history with the exception of legendary comic Bob Hope. Crystal has written and produced several of his own films including Memories of Me, City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold, My Giant, and America’s Sweethearts, as well as directing Mr. Saturday Night, Forget Paris, and the classic baseball film 61*. The popular performer now returns to the big screen with the first prequel of his career, Pixar’s Monsters University, which opens in theaters on June 21st. 

The film, which features Crystal reprising his role as Mike Wazowski, tells the story of how Mike and fellow monster Sully (John Goodman) first met while attending college. In addition to Crystal and Goodman, the movie features returning voice actors Steve Buscemi (HBO’s Boardwalk Empire), Frank Oz (The Muppet Movie), John Ratzenberger (Toy Story series) and Bonnie Hunt (Cars), as well as series newcomers Charlie Day (Horrible Bosses), Nathan Fillion (Serenity), Alfred Molina (Spider-Man 2), Aubrey Plaza (Safety Not Guaranteed), Sean Hayes (The Three Stooges), Dave Foley (A Bug’s Life), and Oscar-winner Helen Mirren (The Queen). 

I recently had the pleasure of traveling to Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, California to sit down with Billy Crystal, along with a few other members of the press, to talk about his work on Monsters University, as well as the legacy of 61*

Since Crystal has done very few sequels in his career, I began by asking him if the idea of making a prequel to Monsters, Inc. was more appealing to him then doing a standard follow up. “Well, I wanted to play him no matter what and I knew that they wanted to do one again,” he explained. “People still love this story, because the first one was so imaginative. Over the years more families were seeing the movie, and it was turning on more kids. More people were realizing what a great movie that first one was. The vision of it is really sophisticated. What's in the closet? What's behind the door? It was phenomenal! I think they kept listening to people saying, ‘We want more.’ But they wouldn't do it unless they had the way to make something special, which is what they did here. I think that's sort of why I was thrilled that it was this and not just another sequel. I would think that would be almost too easy and predictable. This is unpredictable.”

Crystal went on to explain how he was finally told bout the film and contacted to return for the prequel. “Here's how it happened. I was in San Francisco for a surprise party for John (Lasseter) for his 50th birthday. It was one of the great surprises of all time. He thought he was going to watch Robin (Williams) do a concert outdoors. They drove him up and he's backstage with Robin, who usually doesn't have anyone backstage with him. They said, ‘We are going to walk you to the stage now Robin.’ They really did it great. Nancy (his wife) just lied to him constantly and had flyers made for this concert and fake tickets around the house.” 

“So he was backstage at this facility, meanwhile we're all out on the lawn and there are about 1,000 of us,” Crystal continued. “Robin said, ‘Come with me. There's a place where you can watch right off of in the wings, it'll be the best place.’ So they walked on to the stage, he looked out and we all yelled happy birthday. The surprise was that his birthday was six months prior to that. So then he walked up to me at the party and said, ‘Thanks for coming and we're going to do a sequel to Monsters, Inc. but it's a prequel, and they're in college.’ Then he walked away. That's really all he had to say at that point because they probably didn't know much more. But it just led me to think about what that world would be like. Then the next week we started talking about stuff and I said, but what's Mike's thing? He says, ‘He finds out he's not scary.’ I thought that was just great.” 

The actor went on to talk about the film’s message and the idea to focus on Mike and Sully’s college experience. “When they set this movie in the college years I thought, well great! They said, ‘They’ll be toga parties and stuff. I said, yeah, but what's the story? What happens? Finally they said, ‘well, Mike finds out he's not really scary.’ Then I totally got it,” said Crystal. “The movie was really going to focus on what happens to him and it's a very personal movie. But it really becomes about the friendship and it really grows so they can walk into the door of Monsters Incorporate together. The message was so good, that failure in life is going to happen and it's how you handle it. Mike doesn't let anything get in his way and when it does he either goes around it, over it, or through it. So that's what I loved. What I found out more about Mike, was the more sensitive side of him that made him less of a monster and more of a human.”

While recording the dialogue for the film, Crystal had a chance to record along with his co-star John Goodman, which is very rare for an animated movie. He discussed how much of the film’s lines were actually scripted, and how much ended up coming out of improvisations between the two comedic actors. “Most of it's on the script. But there's a lot of room to improvise. Then in the booth with John I'll just say, I got something. And he says, ‘Go!’ He's a great listener. It's like a trapeze. I'll do the spins and he'll catch me. Or sometimes he'll go off and I'll catch him. It's a very good amiable friendship. The director, Dan Scanlon, protected his script but also let us play with it. I'm telling you the CIA doesn't work as well. You get the pages the night before, sent FedEx to you, and it's disguised to look as something else,” he explained. “It's like, oh, your farm tools arrived. No, it's my script! Then you have to hand them back as soon as you get there the next day, but there would sometimes be a note from Dan that said, ‘Needs something here, what do you think?’ We do play around a lot. How much of it ends up? Sometimes I don't even know once I see it. I did this over two years now, so I don't remember. I don't even remember this morning,” he joked.

Usually when you make a sequel an actor has the opportunity to build on his already established character, but when you make a prequel it’s the opposite, you’re building on who the character will become. Crystal discussed this and his approach to creating young Mike Wazowski. “I was building underpinnings on him for what we already know. In that way I was improving him. It was surprising about how much there could be underneath him, underneath his green skin and no clothes. It was surprising about how much he's such an odd-looking little guy, but yet people just love him. It's fascinating to me. So the texture of the scenes … even just to use the word texture in a movie about two monsters is really a tribute to the depth that I think they envisioned when we started to work on this.”

I followed up by asking Crystal if he made a conscious effort to make his voice sound younger in the film. “I sort of let him go. We tried. It was more about attitude and word choices. John (Goodman) has a couple of chuckles and says awesome a lot. His look was more severe than mine. It was hard to really do much with Mike because he's just an orb.”

Dan Scanlon takes over directing duties from Pete Doctor who helmed Monsters, Inc. and Crystal talked about working with the new director. “Dan is a hipster. I love Dan. He's a terrifically talented, very funny and he really helped us a lot,” he said. “He was really able to verbally communicate the space you were acting in even though you're not. He would create these things so you could actually see it and he would really push you to try and fine tune things. He was great and Pete Doctor was terrific too and I he went on to win an Oscar for Up. They're both very different, but part of the same pedigree. Everyone's different. Pete was a little bit more laid back and Dan is a little bit more aggressive. They're both very trusting and terrific. I hope Dan gets a chance to direct actors in a live action movie some day. I think he'd be very good at it.”

Finally, I’m a big fan of Crystal’s baseball movie 61*, which is about how Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s record for most home runs in a single season. I think it truly belongs on a list of the top-ten baseball movie of all-time. However, the film’s ending glorifies player Mark McGwire for ultimately breaking Roger Maris’ record, which is now a bit unsettling to watch in the wake of learning that McGwire was using performance-enhancing drugs at the time and essentially cheated. So I asked Crystal if he would ever consider going back and changing the ending of the film for a Blu-ray director's cut now that we know the truth about how McGwire broke the record.

“No,” Crystal answered. “In the ending Mr. McGwire is holding Maris's bat, which is actual footage of him. He's teary eyed and he says that he held Roger's bat and he’s proud that his bat will now lie next to Roger’s. We toyed with changing that but I said no, because this is what really happened. When I look at Mark's reaction to it, and he's been mad at me because I said this in another interview once, I actually think the tears were guilty tears whether he knew it or not. I think there was an emotional place in him that knew that this wasn't on the up and up. He still hit them, but he had help. You still have to hit the ball, you still have to do it, but you shouldn't hit that many. That's what I think happened there.”

“So I don't think it's good to change it,” Crystal continued to explain. “We screened the movie for the 50th anniversary of the 61st home run. The movie was voted into the baseball hall of fame, you know the script and the print resides there. So we took it to Fargo, North Dakota where Roger was from, and we screened it in the theater where he and his wife Pat romanced in high school. We did a round table town hall meeting with Bob Costas afterward. It was the first time I had seen the movie in a theater since the premiere because it was made for HBO. I have to say, it really looks great in a theater because it was really designed for a one. Haskell Wexler (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) shot it. During the part of the movie where McGwire comes on, the audience started booing and hissing, but remember we were in Roger's hometown. Afterwards Bob asked me, ‘Would you change it?’ I asked the audience what they thought and they started yelling, ‘No.’ I say no too because the epilogue is Bob Sheppard, the former Yankee public announcer, saying that Roger Maris died never knowing the record belonged to him, and it still does in many people's eyes.”

I quickly followed up by asking Crystal if he thinks McGwire’s record deserves to have an asterisk next to it just like Maris’ record unfairly did for so many years. “That's a good question. There's been no legal proof that he did what they were accused him of doing. He has to live with the shame himself.” 

Monsters University opens in theaters on June 21st.

To read our coverage from the Monsters University Los Angeles press conference, please click here.

61* is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD.

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