Chief Creative Officer at Disney Pixar, creator of the film Cars and Ferrari enthusiast, John Lasseter was welcomed to Maranello by Felipe Massa who took him for a spin on the track. He returned the compliment with his own inimitable take on several Ferrari models
Estimated reading time: 13 minutes
When I first met John Lasseter, at the 2003 Detroit Motor Show, I didn’t know who he was. But he caught my attention by the way he was looking at the Ferraris on display: it was as if he were examining people, not cars. His expression changed from one model to another and he smiled from time to time.
When he was introduced to me I quickly realised he was the man behind the hugely successful Toy Story movies. ‘I’m thinking of a new film, with cars in the lead roles,’ he said at the time, with his customary enthusiasm, ‘[and] I would be pleased if Ferrari would agree to let me use one of their models.’ Usually when a producer asks for a car for a film, he does it in the tone of someone doing you a favour. Lasseter, however, made his request courteously and was absolutely delighted when I replied that Ferrari would be happy to collaborate with him, provided that he revealed what he wanted to do with our car. ‘Well, you see, in order to understand what I want to do, you must think of the car in a different way from normal,’ he replied. ‘You must think of an animated car living and moving about in a world of cars that are also animated. To give you an idea, the service station is our restaurant and the tyre dealer represents what a shoe shop is for us.’ Genius. This was the premise behind the movie Cars and he wanted a Ferrari to talk with Michael Schumacher’s voice. And that’s just how it turned out.
When I went to see him 18 months later at Pixar in Emeryville, California, he asked me to promise him not to say anything about what I was going to see. Then we went into a big projection room and he showed me some never-seen-before scenes from Cars. I was speechless: never had an animated film about cars and racing seemed so realistic. Even the race cars that hurtled around the typical American oval circuit looked uncannily like the real thing. Fast forward four years, and watching John Lasseter clutching the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Golden Lion award on stage at the Venice Palazzo del Cinema earlier this year made me realise what lies at the heart of his success. It wasn’t the award, rather the way he held it – like a schoolboy who had won a prize for having done well. He is a man of great humility. Lasseter is a key figure in the global success of Pixar, and is now the Chief Creative Officer of both Pixar and Disney following their 2006 merger. Today, he divides his working week between Emeryville, across the bay from San Francisco, and Disney’s Los Angeles HQ (‘Disney and Pixar must each keep its independent style: the former in the line of the great history of Walt Disney, the latter with an innovative technique and language,’ he says), and it’s his decision which films each company puts into production. Despite this high-profile role, Lasseter remains as energetic and driven as ever; his creativity stemming from an unbridled curiosity in everything around him; things that could become, by changing size, shape or colour, a protagonist in one of his stories.
This interview – and the Cars makeover of the Ferraris you see here – is an exclusive for The Official Ferrari Magazine, and yet another demonstration of John’s bond with all of us at Maranello. The Official Ferrari Magazine: How would you describe your relationship with toys and cars? John Lasseter: I’ve always viewed myself as just a kid who never had to grow up. I’ve always loved toys, and that love of toys is where the idea for Toy Story came from: the simple notion that when you’re out of the room, your toys all come alive. As far as cars go, my father was the parts manager at a Chevrolet dealership in Los Angeles and I used to work weekends in the parts department – even as a little kid. The combination of my father working for Chevrolet and me growing up in southern California, which has always been car crazy, back in the heyday of the Chevrolet muscle cars – the phenomenal 1969 Camaros, the 1970 Chevelle SS 396s and the amazing Corvettes over the years – means cars have just always been a part of my life.
My interest in cars led me to a love of auto racing as well. My wife and I live in Sonoma Valley, which is north of San Francisco in California wine country, and there is a racetrack there, Infineon Raceway. Not only does NASCAR come there every year, it’s also one of only two road courses that they race on (NASCAR races mainly on oval tracks). I took a three-day racedriving class there in open-wheel race cars, and the practice days were some of the most fun I’ve ever had. My love of cars just goes deep. And that is what led me to thinking about doing a movie with cars as animated characters. Ultimately it led to the movie Cars.
TOFM: What are your memories of when you came to visit us at Ferrari’s headquarters in Maranello?
JL: As long as I live, I’ll never forget coming through the famous archway at the entrance to the old Ferrari factory, and seeing a brand new, beautiful red, Ferrari F430 with eyes in the windshield – as though he were a character from Cars – staring at me. That was one of the most touching things I’ve ever seen, and it’s a memory I’ll never forget. To travel across the world to one of the most amazing, exciting places for me ever to visit, the Ferrari factory, and see this beautiful Ferrari done up like a character from the movie I had just created – it was so exciting. I think the next was walking the assembly line and seeing how the cars are hand built. From seeing [the workers] cut the beautiful leather to actually walking the assembly line, getting to see the V8 line right next to the V12 line… I’ll never forget that. All the amazing and talented people there – it was just spectacular. I also really enjoyed the area where they restore the classic Ferraris. It was fascinating to see these stunningly gorgeous works of art that were being perfectly restored. They even let us go back and look at the records of all of the Ferraris that had been manufactured—the original paperwork of each and every car. It was really special. But the highlight for me was going to the Fiorano racetrack and being driven around it by Felipe Massa. It was so fantastic just to see him doing practice laps in the Ferrari F1 car, and to be there at the garage where everybody was working on the car. And then a beautiful light-blue F430 Spider pulled up… They gave Massa the keys, he had me hop in beside him, and we buckled up and went out to do some laps.
It was just magic. We were going at this incredible speed, but he was so relaxed. He was just sitting there, lightly holding the steering wheel with his fingertips and shifting gears with the paddles on the steering wheel, and talking away to me as he was driving. It was just stunning to see him handle the car with such skill. It was so much fun to do these laps and at one point he just stopped the car and said, ‘I think we should put the top down’. He pressed the button, the convertible top came down, and then we took off again. Everybody else got so nervous because we had been on a part of the track where no one could see us; all of a sudden they heard the car stop and they didn’t know what happened. Then the next thing you know, we ripped right past with the top down. That moment was pure magic – I’ll never forget it.
TOFM: I know you are working on Cars 2 and can’t wait to see it. But what’s this I hear about Lightning McQueen [the lead character from Cars] driving a Ferrari in the sequel? How can he do this when he’s a car himself? Also, why do you believe Ferrari won’t win the championship in the movie?
JL: I have to give you a little background. As I was travelling around Europe doing publicity for Cars, I had cars as characters on the brain. I kept looking out the window in every country I visited, and asking myself: what would Lightning McQueen, and Mater the tow truck, do in these unique situations? Like in England, driving on the opposite side of the road. Or in Paris, getting stuck on the gigantic roundabouts like the one around the Arc de Triomphe; Mater would be there for months because he’d never get out. Or on the autobahn in Germany with the cars passing him at such high speeds. And in Italy with the beautiful little hilltop villages, and the streets always filled with scooters buzzing around like mechanical flies. I just kept laughing at the idea of what this would be. So I thought, if Cars is successful enough for people to be interested in a sequel, then I would love to take these characters and have them travel around the world. And then of course Cars did very well around the world, and everyone was very interested in a sequel, so we started developing the idea that Lightning McQueen is invited – because you have to remember, in the world of Cars, a car and a race driver are one and the same – to this international race of champions. Because of my friendship with Ferrari I’ve grown to love F1, and sports-car racing and GT racing as well. I love seeing all these different types of racing. And so I thought it would be really great to have these champion race cars from all the different types of racing come together and do a series of races around the world. We wanted the countries they would race in to be the top automotive countries in the world – Italy, the UK, France, Germany and Japan – and we wanted every race to be in a different discipline. Yes, we’re going to have Ferrari race cars competing – with my love of Ferrari, absolutely. And of course a Ferrari F1 car, or a Ferrari GT, would probably beat Lightning McQueen in some races. But then there are disciplines like rally racing or off-road competition, or even dirt racing, where things would even out. So that’s what will make it exciting. Having these different types of races and courses [will] even out the chances for all the cars.
TOFM: You are a man with an extraordinarily busy diary. Which Ferrari would you choose to go to these events: collecting an Oscar; seeing a NASCAR race; or going to the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance?
JL: For going down the red carpet at the Oscars, I would absolutely have the 612 Scaglietti. I think it is just so exquisite. That beautiful, beautiful, classy car would look so great on the red carpet at the Oscars – it always looks like it’s dressed up in its finest apparel. It’s just a fantastic looking car. For going out and watching a NASCAR race, or any kind of race, I would definitely pick my friend the Scuderia – because he’s such an expert at racing and he’s so fast himself. I love going to see races with someone who really knows what they’re talking about, and the Scuderia would be just fantastic because he’d know exactly what was going on. For the Concours d’Elegance at Pebble Beach, it would be the California, without question. The name is so appropriate because this car is meant for California. When the fog burns off and it becomes a gorgeous, gorgeous summer day on the coastline, there is nothing better than pressing the button to take that hard top down and driving around with that convertible, you know? I was born and raised in California, never lived anywhere else, and I’ve never seen a car that is more perfect for California than the Ferrari California. The brand new, gorgeous 458 Italia… Oh my goodness. Now that car… it would be difficult, actually, to hang out with that car, because no one would pay any attention to me. He’s the kind of guy that would walk into a room and all the women would look at him and just go, ‘wow!’ Such a beautiful car – it’s really something. And of course, the 599 GTB Fiorano… one of the great things about that guy is his sound. That gorgeous V12 sound is just one of those things that makes everyone turn and look. You have to stop what you’re doing no matter where you are when that guy drives by – it’s just breathtaking to hear.
TOFM: You’ve just received the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. But how important is winning an award like the Leone d’Oro been to your career?
JL: Receiving the Golden Lion was one of the greatest moments in my life and my career. To win the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Venice Film Festival was just something I never thought would ever happen to me. I still can’t believe it, especially when I look at the list of past winners (the list includes Orson Welles, Steven Spielberg and David Lynch). I feel so humbled to be included in
that group of filmmakers. But I think the thing that I’m most proud of is that they not only gave it to me, they also gave it to Pixar as a studio. It is the first time in the history of the Venice Film Festival
– the oldest film festival in the world – that they gave the Golden Lion to a filmmaker and a studio. It meant a lot to be able to share this award with my fellow directors at Pixar. We work so collaboratively that it is really, really appropriate that we win this award in collaboration too. Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, Brad Bird, and Lee Unkrich were all there, and it was special for us all to receive the award together. It also means a lot because we’re animators. We won the lifetime achievement award at the Venice Film Festival for our work in animation, and it makes me really proud that animation is respected like that. We’re very, very honoured.