Mr. and Mrs. Incredible
Rama Gottumukkala | Wednesday, February 2, 2005
If “The Incredibles” felt like a down-to-earth, family film of epic proportions, it should come as no surprise that two of the key contributors to the Pixar film share many similarities that are echoed in the film’s tight-knit family.John Walker, a graduate of Notre Dame, and Pamela Walker, a graduate of Saint Mary’s, met while working on summer theatre productions here at Notre Dame. After working in various theater productions in Chicago and New York and moving to Los Angeles, they found a home at Pixar, one of the most prestigious animation studios in the world. John is the producer of “The Incredibles,” while Pamela, a native of South Bend, teaches at Pixar University, the studio’s educational arm.
If we could start off with a few Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s questions, what dorms did you both live in?
J: I lived in Grace [Hall].P: I was at Saint Mary’s in Le Mans Hall.
What were your fondest memories at Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s, respectively?
J: One of the best times for me, and maybe for Pam too, was that we used to do summer theatre. We’d stay at Notre Dame during the summer and do four or five plays. The company was a summer stock company so we hung out together, ate together and worked together. It was a great experience.P: Ditto
How have your educations at the two institutions prepared you for the industry and your respective professions?
J: We both were pretty active in the theatre department. Although I was an English major, so I didn’t actually major in that. But I had something to do with all of the plays. I didn’t always get cast in them but I would work somehow on them as much as I could. It got me, at least, thinking about doing it professionally and it got me over the hump of realizing that people could make their livings working in the arts. That didn’t seem possible when I got to Notre Dame.P: It was great in summer theatre because we got to work cooperatively with other people who were students, [such as] specializing in costumes. Or if we took stage management or scene – there were certain requirements for me as a theatre major that I had to take – that really helped me fully understand not only cast member and crew and their functions. And all that helps the scene flow well and he’s more of a producer now than an actor, but we both produced at one point or another. It’s nice to have an appreciation and a knowledge about what everybody does and we got to do that in the theatre department, which I thought was invaluable. I read that you were married at Notre Dame, which is almost a true Domer’s dream. What was that experience like?
P: Yes, we did. We got married at the church on campus. When we first started our professional roles, my first role was an equity debut in sign language in “Children of a Lesser God.” [John] proposed in this beautiful theatre in the northern woods of Wisconsin on a lake in front of 500 customers on stage – in sign language. So we had a wonderful engagement and we decided to go back down to the campus where we enjoyed so many wonderful times in the theatre together, you know, riding our bikes from one campus to the other. We did a lot of bicycling back and forth between the two campuses and since that’s where our love and creativity started, that’s where we [decided to] trade vows. We’ve enjoyed going back over the years when we were working in Chicago because the head of the department, Dr. Bane, invited us back to listen in and critique the URTA auditions every year. So we got to go back and see the new facilities, [such as] Washington Hall and the black box theatre upstairs, and then have dinner with him at Morris Inn. That was special.
Now, I’d like to move on to your lives since leaving Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s. For John, what led you to become a producer in Hollywood? And for Pam, your job at Pixar University?
J: I had worked in the theatre once we had gotten out of Notre Dame. Pam went to acting school in New York and I went to an acting school in San Francisco – the ACT, the American Conservatory Theater. And after we had finished a couple of years in those plays, I had a job working in a summer stock theatre as an actor and Pam and I went there together. We worked as actors together for a while. I had always wanted to be a producer, like an actor/manager from the 19th century. I wanted to sort of single-handedly revive that genre. So what I tried to do was produce and act and I did that for a while in the theatre. But after a while, I got more interested in producing and managing than I did in acting. So gradually, the acting sort of fell away. I ran theatres in Chicago and Pam and I produced together, did some work in Chicago and little bit in New York. I’ve been running a theatre called Victory Gardens up in Chicago and Pam was appearing in a play there. She came home one night and said that an agent from Los Angeles had seen her work and if she came out to Los Angeles, he’d take her as a client. So she said, “Guess what, honey, I’m going to L.A.” [Laughs] I said, “Wait a minute! You go to L.A., we’ve got these two kids and we have a job here.” But she said, “We need to go to L.A.” So she went to Los Angeles and signed with this agent and I thought, “Well, she’ll go out there for a few months and then come home” and I’d call her and ask when she’d be coming home. But she wasn’t coming home so we had to move out there. I started looking for work in Los Angeles and spent about a year going back and forth and I would go out and interview at different places. It turned out that a lot of ex-Chicago theatre managers and producers ended up at Walt Disney, which was a surprise to me, seeing all these people that I knew. They knew my work and I passed my resume around and I ended up getting a job at Warner Bros., working on an animated film as an associate producer for “The Iron Giant.” Then I did another film called “Osmosis Jones” as an associate producer and then the director of “The Iron Giant” [Brad Bird] got a gig at Pixar, directing “The Incredibles” and he brought me with him. I moved from Warner Bros. to Pixar and produced “The Incredibles.” That took about four years. I’ve been working on that since 2000. That’s the Cliff Notes version.
John, your work with director Brad Bird has produced two classic animated children’s films, “The Iron Giant” and “The Incredibles.” How did you meet Bird and begin working with him?
J: It was a job I got at Warner Bros. I just interviewed for a job on “The Iron Giant” and the producer, Allison Abbate, and the director, Brad, hired me to be the associate producer, which is sort of like the line producer. It was a job interview.
“The Iron Giant” isn’t as well known as “The Incredibles” but it was a critical success and has become an underground favorite for animation fans. What do you remember most about the film, working as the associate producer?
J: We didn’t have any time to make it animated. We made in about two years, which is really quick for an animated film. It was a lot of pressure and it was a big disappointment because we had worked so hard and thought it was really a wonderful film. It was really well-received critically but just didn’t connect with audiences. Some of the marketing may have eschewed it. I remember it as being a great labor of love, which was quite disappointing when it came out.
Pam, how did you become involved with Pixar and what has your experience been like working there?
P: My main career objective and challenge, and for both of us, was to raise these two wonderful daughters while we were kind of climbing the ranks in the theatre in Chicago and moving beyond that, which was the opportunity to work in Los Angeles which I did. And once of my goals was try to see if we could have parallel movements and when [John] was running Victory Gardens in Chicago, I was able to teach there and the children came there after school, because parenting and these careers could easily take 100 percent of your time and commitment. So when he got to Pixar, we had two children in high school in southern California and I was working and getting attention for my work and the ball was rolling in my favor. But then he got this opportunity in northern California, so for three out of the four and half years he took to make “The Incredibles,” he got on an airplane four days a week to fly up north to work so that we didn’t have to take the girls out of school and I could keep working. Eventually, the last year of this job was the most difficult for him and I had to ultimately start turning some jobs down because I was a single parent to two teenage girls, which wasn’t really in the plan. So when I got up there, I thought that, okay, now this has moved me away from the goal of working in television and theatre in the film capital of Los Angeles. I wondered what I was going to do. I started starring in a two person play about Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz and I had done it 13 years ago in a big theatre in the Midwest and then did it in the Los Angeles area. It had some wonderful reviews and was sold-out and it got some critical acclaim with some awards so I was casting around at Pixar, and they said why don’t you do this play for us in our main screening room. They had like a five-course dinner and a couple evenings of theatre and it was well attended and we had an hours worth of discussion after it. It was a really lovely time. The person who helped me put that together at Pixar asked me to teach some acting classes at Pixar University. And then I realized that to be the master of my own fate, I had to go in the direction of film and writing myself. I know how to produce a little bit and I should be directing as well as acting. So now I’ve written a short 20-minute movie and use the classroom as cast and crew and extras and get this thing to whatever I can do there. They’ve been very welcoming to me and it’s been a home and a way to not be in separate parts of world doing our things. It feels like we’re moving in a fateful direction because we’re not bumping heads with trying to do things how they’re not meant to be. There’s a flow to things that feels like this is the right movement, not to sound too L.A. or anything.
John, what experiences did you gain from working on “The Incredibles” that you’ll cherish while producing the film?
J: It was the first time I had the producer job on a big movie. It took a long time and there were hundreds and hundreds of people working on it. I think that one of the most fulfilling, interesting and most fun parts was when we went to Los Angeles to score the film. We had a 105-piece orchestra around the MGM sound stage, where they did all those fabulous musicals in the 1940s. And there was our movie pretty much done and there was an unbelievably gifted orchestra and conductor and composer doing the score for our movie. And I thought that was really exciting and wonderful. I loved the score from “The Incredibles” and for [composer] Michael Giacchino, it was his first feature score. I think that that was a really great experience – just seeing the movie come together because it’s a very slow process in animation and you don’t see much of what the movie’s going to be until right near the end. And these shots would finish up and they would just look spectacular, much, much better than what we had ever hoped and thought we could do. To see them look so good was a really fun experience.
On a more off-beat note, who were your favorite characters in “The Incredibles,” picking from the large cast of colorful individuals?
P: I think Dash is my favorite and I think I have some of his energy. [Laughs]J: I liked Violet. I have two daughters and I liked how she came into her own as a young woman in the movie. And I’ve seen that happen with my two daughters as well, so she’s my favorite.P: And just for your information, the DVD [of “The Incredibles”] is going to have a little short on it about the baby, Jack-Jack. And it’s just hysterical.
On the subject of the “Incredibles” DVD, scheduled to be released on March 15, John, you were a contributor to the director/producer commentary track, along with Brad Bird. How was that experience?
J: Well, it was bizarre. You sit there after working for four and a half years and you’re completely exhausted. And you’re watching the movie and looking at each other, going “what do you remember about this?” And all you remember is that it was hard, hard, hard and we had to talk about that. It was a really surreal experience watching the movie and talking about it with Brad. We had a couple of beers before we started – it might’ve helped! [Laughs] But there’s a lot of great stuff on [the DVD].
Pam, Pixar has been associated with a very high value for their films, as both critically acclaimed and very profitable films. How did working at Pixar influence you and where your career goes from here?
P: Well, I’m thrilled that they’ve been so hospitable. I just kind of feel like I’m putting in the universe my own goals as an actor that you don’t always get to say when you do other people’s scripts. Even when I do other people’s scripts, I’m working for like minds. Every character I play kind of gets under my skin and becomes a part of who I am. This Georgia O’Keeffe vehicle that I’ve had in my back pocket for all these years seems like something I’ve been wanting to say. And so I think the definitive about O’Keeffe has not been done and I’ve got that goal set in my mind, to try to make that happen. Things are unfolding as they should, whether it’s with Pixar or with somebody else. We’re getting introduced to people that we haven’t been able to meet before, which is very exciting. And I feel that for [John] and I, with the foundation of our relationship at Notre Dame was through our work and that feels right to me, that direction. I don’t want to split my focus so much that the relationship falls apart, as easily happens in this business. So you have to balance everything properly and Pixar has been a great place to be as a foundation. John, could you shed some light on what your future projects might be?J: I’m not sure what it’s going to be. Brad and I are talking about doing another film together. He’s got a lot of ideas so we’re sort of waiting for him to land on one and then check with Pixar if they’d like to do it.
I’m sure a lot of people have already asked about a possible sequel for “The Incredibles,” which would make a terrific film if done well.J: That’s the trick – doing it well and coming up with a good idea. We haven’t done that yet. A couple things have to happen first. One would be to have a great idea and the second would be to reassemble the creative team.
What skills have allowed you both to succeed in your professions and in such a difficult industry?
J: I feel like I’m about as skilled as the next person. I think that you just have to keep persevering. There’s lots and lots of competition in the movie business and the theatre business and arts in general. It’s not something that usually comes easily or quickly. If you hang in there long enough, most of the other people quit. [Laughs] So I think perseverance is probably the best thing you can do.P: Perseverance, that’s a good one. There’s a fair amount of rejection, of course, so you just have to build your own philosophy. And I know I find balance through working out and meditation and I’ve written in journals and I’ve got volumes and volumes of journals. I feel like actors are really misunderstood. So you just have to kind of brace yourself against the slings and arrows of a difficult business. But if you feel like there’s something you have to communicate, in the stage or whatever creative outlet you find, you have to just do it. Theatre has been my creative outlet. Sometimes I think if I were a painter, it would be easier. [Laughs] Some other way that I could communicate, but it’s what I do.
Finally, what do you both feel have been the most satisfying accomplishments over the course of your careers?
P: Well, one of the highlights for me was certainly my professional debut with [John] in “Sign Language” and the proposal and all the stuff I told you about. But we also produced a two-person play called Seamarks that did really well and got some awards and it was a real highlight. J: We produced a show off-Broadway together and that was a big accomplishment, something that I’ve always been really proud of. Sitting in the audience when “The Incredibles” premiered and when we had a big party at Pixar for about 1,800 people – that was a really great night. And Pam and I went around the world with the director and his wife, promoting the film. That was amazing to see our characters and our movie everywhere we went, from London to Tokyo to Sydney.P: That’s quite an accomplishment because these last three or four months have been non-stop. First, going around the world. As a student, I went to Rome through the Saint Mary’s program and I talked about taking [John] there in 25 years. So if we never get to go again, last November we made it to Venice and Rome in quite style because we were driven around and getting private tours, hanging out with Peter Jackson in New Zealand. It was an amazing trip for five weeks and then we’ve got all these award shows. So today is actually the first day of normalcy since last October so it feels like quite an accomplishment to survive it all. But we’re kind of tired. [Laughs]