Exclusive: Interview with Director Stephen Anderson Talks ‘Monsters at Work’, Upcoming Book, and More
I recently got the opportunity to sit down and conduct an interview with Stephen Anderson over Zoom. Anderson has worked on numerous projects for The Walt Disney Company, often as an animator or story artist. In 2007, he made his directorial debut with Meet the Robinsons, and in 2011, co-directed Winnie the Pooh with Don Hall. Recently, he has been working as a supervising director on the upcoming Disney+ series Monsters at Work, which premieres on the platform on July 7.
How did you get your start at Disney?
I started at Disney in 1995. My first job there was as a story artist for Tarzan which was a pretty awesome movie to have as one’s first experience at Disney. Prior to that, I worked at another studio called Hyperion Animation. It was a small studio and the cool thing about small studios is you oftentimes get to wear a lot of different hats. I was an animator, a storyboard artist, and I also directed some TV there. And then prior to that, I was a student at CalArts for about three years.
What is that process like, changing roles from project to project?
Every project is its own beast. Sometimes it feels like starting over from scratch every time you start, which can be cool because you are obviously bringing stuff that you have learned prior to this new project, yet you are starting from a clean slate. Sometimes that is why you step into a different role on one project that you might not have done on the previous one. It’s kind of like a discovery process each time. I have loved everything I have been able to do but directing is my passion. It is something I have wanted to do the most in my life so I feel very fortunate that I’ve gotten to do that. I want to keep directing and continue finding different kinds of things to direct. I want to work with different teams with different kinds of people and work in different formats like Monsters at Work, a serialized streaming show, which is new to me. It is all about the new discoveries that you can make.
You have worked on bringing new worlds to the screen but also continuations of others (the Hundred Acre Wood in Winnie the Pooh, Monstropolis in Monsters at Work). Do you find one more difficult than the other?
They are both great; both have their challenges. Obviously, creating a new world from scratch is part of that age-old problem where you are staring at the blank page, wondering where to start. The nice thing about picking up a world that has already been established is that you can just start working. You know the rhythm, you know the vibes, you know how the characters sound. This was true particularly for Winnie the Pooh whose characters are so defined. We got in the room and just threw a couple of characters in a situation and immediately began riffing on what would happen with them. The same thing is true for Mike and Sully in Monsters at Work. But with that, we also had the new characters of MIFT (Monsters, Inc. Facilities Team) which was fun because that made the show an interesting combo of a blank slate and stuff that already existed so we could mix those two things.
I know that you have been writing a new book about the 70s and 80s era of The Walt Disney Company, between Walt Disney and Michael Eisner. Could you share a bit about that project?
The book started off with just a love of that time period because that’s the Disney that I grew up with; 70’s and early 80’s was my childhood Disney. And then as I got out into the industry and began meeting the people that were players during that time, particularly in animation, I started to realize there was a lot of drama and a lot of struggles. A lot of people were asking “What will Disney Animation be now without Walt Disney?” This happened in both live-action and animation. It is a really fascinating story of this place that was founded on forward-thinking and then lost its way a bit with the huge disruption of the loss of Walt Disney. They tried for a long time to reestablish equilibrium but also figure out the new normal. My book covers 1966-1986, from Walt Disney’s death to about a year and a half into the Eisner/Katzenberg regime, which is when you can start to feel them turn things around. I’ve been working on it for well over ten years, compiling interviews and so forth and now I finally have it written so I am hoping to get it out very soon. It is something I am very excited and passionate about.
Was Monsters at Work the first time you had worked on a Pixar property?
Yes, the very first time. Pixar has been a great creative resource to run things by such as scripts, outlines, and early storyboard animatics. They have given great story notes to keep us on track as far as the legacy of the project. I know a lot of the Pixar folks and have interacted with them many times over the years but this was the first time I’ve actually worked on something.
What attracted/drew you to the world of Monstropolis?
It was an invitation from Bobs Gannaway, the showrunner who I knew from a short stint I did at DisneyToon Studios when Bobs was doing Planes: Fire and Rescue. They were looking for a director to come on board. It was the perfect timing for me and then when I started thinking about the property and realized “What could be more fun than writing and drawing for a bunch of funny, talking monsters?” It is still a heartfelt world. There is still emotion and it’s not just goofy stuff 100% of the time. But, for the most part, it is just going to be a whole lot of fun telling this truly great story of these entertaining characters. Everything lined up perfectly; it was the right invitation at the right time and the potential for the project to be fun to work on every day and I couldn’t pass it up. And it was fun every day! There are always challenges but creating the show was a blast and the team was wonderful.
Where was the show in production when everything shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic?
Episodes were just about to start being animated. We had either just shipped the first episode or were about to ship that first episode. We still had about three or four episodes in storyboards before they had been approved to go into their layout phase. We were almost at the end of pre-production and right on the cusp of shot production. When I look back on it, the funny thing is that I had only been on the project about eight months when COVID hit. To think that I spent more of my time at home working on the show is hard to believe. I really fell in love with the team so quickly that it felt like, in the best possible way, we had been working together for a long time. We had such great rhythm and I felt like I had known them for years. And other than a few speed bumps from the transition to being in the building to working from home, nobody missed a beat. We established that new normal pretty quickly and just got it done. I think it really speaks to the passion and dedication of the team because everybody really put 200% of themselves into this show.
What does Monsters at Work offer audiences that the first two films maybe didn’t?
Monsters at Work really gives a glimpse into different areas of Monsters, Inc. In particular, the Monsters, Inc. Facilities Team where our main character Tylor Tuskmon is assigned once he realizes he can no longer be a Scarer. So, he’s dumped into the Monsters, Inc. Facilities Team who are these bunch of looneys in the basement. We get to see the “monsters behind the monsters” who are the ones that keep things going by doing all the repairs and keeping the company rolling. We saw the door vault in the great climax of the Monsters, Inc. film and now we get to see the inner workings of things such as the “Shredder Shaft”, which is the place where doors are shredded. We get to see a lot more behind-the-scenes of Monsters, Inc. which is really fun. We also get to spend some time on the Scare Floor (now the Laugh floor) and get to see how all the monsters are dealing with that transition. We get to return to the places that we loved in Monsters, Inc. and we get to see what happens behind the scenes of those places. What I love about streaming series’, in general, is that you can tell this over-arching story but then you can take an episode or two and go off on this tangent and tell a piece of the story that would never fit into an hour-and-a-half narrative. For example, as Tylor is learning about the MIFTers and what it means to be a Jokester instead of a Scarer, you can explore some of these neuroses that he has. Those moments of frustration or those moments where he is trying to prove himself in ways that he has never had to before. I like being able to go off and explore those character things and then come back to those more plot-based episodes.
Is there anything that you want to add before we wrap things up?
I just want to reiterate again what a blast it was to work on and I cannot wait for the world to see Monsters at Work and meet Tylor and all the new MIFTers as well as get reacquainted with our friends Mike and Sully.
Many thanks to Stephen Anderson for taking the time to do this interview with us. You can follow Steve on his Instagram @stevehatguy and be sure to check out Monsters at Work on July 7 on Disney+!