A Q&A with Cars 2 Director John Lasseter

Lasseter talked to TIME about the latest installment of his beloved 'Cars' franchise, working with Michael Caine and the late Paul Newman, as well as the future of 3-D

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Katy Winn / AP

Cars 2 director John Lasseter

Being chief creative officer for Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios seems like it would be more than enough of a job for anyone, but John Lasseter somehow manages to find the time for side gigs, especially any involving his treasured Cars franchise. He shares directing and story credits on Cars 2, the new sequel to the 2006 hit, and he’s overseeing the creation of Cars Land, 12 acres (5 hectares) in Disney’s California Adventure Park devoted to everything Radiator Springs, from Mater’s junkyard to Luigi’s tire shop (it’s slated to open in 2012).

His lifelong automotive obsession began in childhood, when he helped out his father at their Chevrolet dealership in Los Angeles. A road trip with his wife and five sons, tooling along in a motor home along Route 66, helped inspired the original Cars. The germ of an idea for the new film, a globe-trotting spy story, came about on the road for the Cars international press tour. We talked Cars 2 with Lasseter by phone during his hour-plus commute from Sonoma, Calif., to Pixar’s headquarters in Emeryville. Don’t worry, he has a driver.

(See a brief history of Pixar’s movies.)

I was so sorry to hear you lost your father last week. Doing interviews is likely the last thing you want to be doing. Thanks for talking to TIME.
He was a great man and he died peacefully in his sleep, which was sudden but is the way we all wish we could go. It was a week after his 87th birthday. [Talking about Cars 2] is what my dad would want. He was really the first inspiration for Cars.

How did the publicity tour for Cars inspire Cars 2?
I was traveling to all these different places around the world and looking at them from the point of view of cars being alive. I kept laughing at how unique Tokyo and Italy and so on would seem from the automotive standpoint, all the different signals and roads and all those things. I thought if I do another Cars movie, I want to take the cars around the world.

Cars 2 features familiar characters, Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) and Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), but it’s a spy story. Where did that angle come from?
You know how Sally and McQueen go on their first date in Cars? Originally it was going to be at a drive-in movie theater and there would be a movie within a movie. So we created this spy movie starring Finn McMissile. We storyboarded it. Then we shifted the location of their date, but I never forgot about how cool it would be to do a spy movie where the spy and the spy car are one and the same.

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In the opening scene of Cars 2, Finn McMissile scales an oil rig in stormy seas and hangs in the air, Mission Impossible–style, while doing battle with a bunch of evil cars. You defy all automotive logic as we know it.
I will be frank with you: I am a little boy. With the job I have, I don’t have to grow up. The little boy in me comes out when I make these movies, and one of the best things for me is the gadget stuff. I like to think things through; by nature I have to have things logical — like how would a car drive vertically? He would have these little magnetic plates that would come around and coat his wheels so he could drive on anything metal.

In that initial sequence we wanted to establish Finn as the coolest spy car ever. We knew people would anticipate seeing Radiator Springs and all the characters they know, so when the first thing they see is a boat out in the middle of the ocean, it is sort of like, “Wow, what is this?”

In terms of total box-office grosses, Cars is ranked seventh of all the Pixar movies. But given the amount of Cars merchandise I alone have in my house, I assume in terms of merchandising that it’s a much bigger financial success than most Pixar films. Is that the case?
The merchandising is gigantic. We’ve had other movies with bigger global box office, but never in film history has a movie grown in popularity so much after it got out on DVD. The sales of the DVD and the toys have never stopped, and that never happens — it’s billions of dollars [nearly $10 billion, according to the Los Angeles Times]. Cars is one of the biggest films in history when you combine everything. I think it is Disney’s fourth biggest franchise.

And half of that came from you.

I have purchased at least four McQueens. But this is really Mater’s movie. Why Mater?
Mater is so loveable. He is such a sweetheart, and we thought there was a lot of opportunity for growth for that character. I love the friendship between Lightning McQueen and Mater, and this is really about their friendship. Mater discovers that people are not laughing with him, they are laughing at him — that innocence is so much what the heart of the film is.

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How did Larry the Cable Guy become your ideal Mater?
Joe Ranft, my co-director on Cars, was kind of Mater as well. [Ranft died in a car accident in 2005.] We had listened to the Blue Collar Comedy Tour together, with the four kind-of-redneck comedians. When it got to Larry the Cable Guy, I was on the floor laughing. His accent was so thick, but you could understand everything he was saying, so we started talking to him about doing the voice. It was early in his career, and now he is one of [Pixar’s] best friends. He is so dedicated. With other people, you get them for the movies, but you have to get soundalikes for the toys or games. Not with Larry. He has the Pixar record for doing the most recording sessions.

He’s a little divisive though, isn’t he?
That’s what is so funny — he is gigantic in between East Pasadena and Newark, New Jersey. He is huge, but the urban folks don’t quite get him. I have seen him perform so many times and he is the funniest comedian you will ever see. Sweet and irreverent.

And he’s just like Mater?
That’s him, you know.

Cars 2 includes an homage to Paul Newman, whose character, Doc Hudson, was the elder statesman of Radiator Springs. Newman died shortly after making the original Cars, and now the Piston Cup, McQueen’s big race, has been renamed the Hudson Hornet Piston Cup. Did you cast Michael Caine as Finn McMissile to try to fill those elder-statesman shoes?
First of all, Paul Newman and I became very close friends. I loved that man. I went to a number of races with him and shared his love of racing. Every time I went to New York, I would have dinner with him and Joanne. We have lost a few of our voice actors in the past and had to find soundalikes, but I just couldn’t do that because Doc Hudson was Paul Newman.

Early in the development we were looking at possible voices for Finn McMissile, and we always had this idea that we wanted him to be old-school spy. We wanted Holley Shiftwell [the younger spy car, voiced by Emily Mortimer] to be more high-tech and Finn to be more old-school. So we started looking at these fantastic old spy films from the 1960s, including ones that Michael Caine was in, like The Ipcress File and the other Harry Palmer films, and he became the real inspiration for Finn. It was just unbelievable to get to work with Michael Caine. He would turn to me and say, “I wish this was a live action film, I want to play this character.” And I’d say, “You already have!”

Can we talk about the future of 3-D? Roger Ebert is campaigning against it, and in recent months, we’ve seen a drop in ticket sales for 3-D films. Part of it is the sticker price, but as a parent, I’m also resistant to all that stuff jumping off the screen at us. Pixar’s 3-D is the gold standard for subtlety and elegance, but are you worried?
I love 3-D. I have been a big fan of 3-D for a long, long time. I took my 1988 wedding pictures in 3-D! The way that we use 3-D is to help you immerse yourself in the story. We don’t really do the coming-at-you stuff; I believe that pops you out of the movie. Everything I do as the director and producer is to get people into the story. [Ideally] you are not thinking about anything until the movie is over, and we use 3-D to enhance that. In Cars 2 there were so many elements that were designed for 3-D, like Holley and her transparent computer screen that pops up — that looks so cool in 3-D. And so many of the action scenes are staged with 3-D in mind. There are some people that don’t like it, and that’s why we have theaters that show it in 2-D. But all Pixar movies are made in 3-D.

And will be?

You’re celebrating Pixar’s 25th anniversary with Cars 2 and you celebrated the 20th with Cars. Does this mean anything or just coincidence?
We didn’t really plan that. But I am proud to have the movies that I’m directing come out in those big years.