For your reading pleasure, please enjoy this free excerpt from our article interviewing co-writer/director Angus MacLane and co-writer Jason Headley about Lightyear from Backstory Magazine’s issue 47 – now available to read! This is not the full article – so, if you enjoy what you’ve read in this free excerpt – we hope you’ll join us to read the rest of the article by by subscribing to Backstory Magazine so you can read the rest of the piece and so much more!
Co-writer/director Angus MacLane and co-writer Jason Headley on penning Pixar’s sci-fi epic.
By Danny Munso
Angus MacLane isn’t quite a Pixar lifer, but he’s very close. He joined the studio as an animator in 1997 for the studio’s second feature film, A Bug’s Life, and has continued to help shape some of its biggest films. He eventually transitioned to directing, first with the 2008 WALL-E tie-in short BURN-E and then a pair of Toy Story projects—the short Small Fry and Toy Story of Terror!, Pixar’s first TV special. After co-directing the 2016 blockbuster Finding Dory alongside Andrew Stanton, MacLane was asked to pitch ideas for his feature directorial debut. The resulting film—Lightyear—is a lot of things. It’s an ode to both classic sci-fi films of the ’70s and ’80s that formed MacLane’s lifelong obsession with cinema and the beloved character he animated time and time again. But the time-bending plot of Lightyear is also a thinly veiled metaphor for what it’s like to spend your life working in animation. “You make an animated film, and it takes about four years,” he says. “You feel separated from society. Then you go home and everyone looks older. And as you get older, you have to deal with new crews and rookies. So that was the big idea: Write what you know. It was a place to start.”
Since he’d spent so much time in the Toy Story universe, MacLane had always wondered what the movie was Andy saw in the 1995 film that got him so excited to get a Buzz Lightyear toy for his birthday? And the director could relate, as he had the same experience Andy did in 1977, after Star Wars made him fall in love with both cinema and toys. When it came time to pitch ideas for a feature, he had other stories in mind, but going down the Buzz rabbit hole proved too tempting. “Movies take so long, and I wanted to do something that was fun,” he says. “So it really came from what I want to see as a movie. We all just asked, Why don’t we just do this thing? It’ll be fun. That was the spirit with which it was intended.” Mission accomplished. Lightyear follows astronaut and space ranger Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Chris Evans) who makes a fateful decision that maroons his entire ship full of people on a hostile planet called T’Kani Prime. Eager to make up for his mistake, Buzz, with the help of his mentor and commanding officer Alicia Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), embarks on a quest to find a way home. However, each four-minute trip he makes to hyperspace costs him four years back on the planet. And after each mission, he returns home to find that life has gone on without him. With the help of his robot cat, Sox (Peter Sohn), Buzz eventually cracks the formula and tries again, this time ending up years in the future, where the planet is now inhabited by robots who answer to their master, Emperor Zurg (James Brolin). Buzz and his new crew, which includes Alicia’s granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer), has to find a way to stop Zurg and save the same group of people he marooned there years before.
As the journey to Lightyear began, MacLane started working with screenwriter Matthew Aldrich, who helped pen Pixar’s Oscar-winning Coco and with whom MacLane worked briefly on Dory. (Though Aldrich doesn’t receive screenplay credit on Lightyear, he does receive it for co-writing the story.) MacLane’s first directive was to establish a proper tone for the film. Although inspired by the Toy Story universe, this clearly couldn’t be Toy Story 5 or even have that same feel. MacLane wanted this to play like a big-budget studio sci-fi film whose lead just happens to be Buzz Lightyear. “We wanted it to have a realism in the sense of making it dramatically satisfying and having the audience be concerned for the character’s safety,” he says. “That was our big tone thing early: How do we make it so you’re concerned about these characters and care about them? I always wanted to tell a slightly aged-up sci-fi film. I didn’t want it to be jokey or campy like Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers. I like those things, but I wanted this to be slightly different. We wanted to make it a hard sci-fi film punctuated by comedy and a sense of realism. In some films now, there’s a sense of awe but no sense of fun. There’s a sense of pretentiousness where they take a pulpy subject and put a serious skin on it in live action, where it’s so serious there’s no room for any comedy at all. Conversely in animation, there will be so much humor and so much goofiness there’s no chance for realism. I just felt like there was an opportunity somewhere between those ideas.”
The concept of time dilation—which is the cause of Buzz losing four years every trip he makes—is something MacLane and Aldrich latched onto early on as a major tentpole for the project. MacLane admits they struggled with communicating the idea at first, not by under-explaining it in the script but by overdoing it. “I don’t think there was a concern about [the audience not understanding],” he says. “But as with most things, we had a lot of different ways of explaining it and we found the longer explanation didn’t help us. You get in these situations where you explain stuff and the audience just doesn’t care. It actually hurts your realism.” After two years of story development, Aldrich amicably left the project in mid-2019. Pixar’s then head of development Mary Coleman called Jason Headley, who had finished work co-writing the studio’s Onward just months before, and asked if he could consult with MacLane for two days to talk through issues with Lightyear’s story. “They had a good structure, and Angus had the man-out-of-time story and things he wanted to do,” Headley recalls. “I think what they needed at that point was just to put more heart and humor into it and make the whole thing work like a fine-tuned watch.” The two-day period went well enough that Headley was asked to come aboard full-time, except he was concurrently taking meetings in L.A. trying to get his next feature as a writer/director off the ground. Still, he agreed to join Lightyear until that happened. A few months later, the COVID pandemic shut down all live-action film production, Headley’s project went on hold, and he remained on Lightyear through the end of the film.
One of the many reasons Lightyear soars the way it does is the writers’ success in crafting this new version of a Buzz that is broadly recognizable to audiences who love the Toy Story character, and that is by design. If the filmmakers simply attempted to create a “real” version of the Buzz we know from the Toy Story films, not only would that not make a lot of narrative sense, but it would have caused Lightyear to fail. “After the idea was greenlit, I went and watched Toy Story again, and his character was even thinner than I remember,” MacLane says. “He is this rigid space cop, and that works so well for Toy Story. But I didn’t know how to stretch that into a feature. The funny thing about Buzz is he’s really kind of dumb, and that’s funny for a side character. But if they’re the main character, the audience starts to resent that a little bit, so we needed to have more nuance.” Headley admits he may have underestimated the challenge of writing a new version of a hugely popular character before beginning work on the film. “I don’t think I fully comprehended it,” he says. “You just go, ‘Sure, we can do that.’ I realized we were attempting two pretty advanced moves at the same time. One is we were taking the traditional side character and making him the protagonist. Already that’s tough, because the side character gets to be wacky and gets to be a little less realistic. Then we’re taking a toy and making him human. With those two degrees of a side character and a toy, you can have a little more caricature than character. So it was a challenge making those two moves but also wanting to do enough nods to the character but not enough where it’s full fan service and reducing the stakes.”
MacLane’s extensive history with the character was so deep he was able to find ways to connect his Buzz with the toy version in ways that helped influence the shape of the story. “I knew the spirit of the character was something we’d be able to hit,” he says. “I had a very concrete idea about what Buzz is to me, having worked with him for so long. Buzz is defined as a character who has a disagreement over the nature of reality. He has a different point of view than everyone else around him. So while we weren’t going down a similar road as Toy Story, we asked how we could set him up for differences of opinion. We found what seemed like fertile ground for the character, which is that he’s back on a planet he doesn’t recognize and has gone on without him and now he has to get by in this new world while he’s trying to get back to the old way. So that felt spiritually connected.” One early iteration of Lightyear’s story involved a love interest for Buzz, a fellow pilot who was also experiencing time dilation. They were, as MacLane puts it, “passing ships in the night.” Narratively, the idea wasn’t working but it did indirectly lead to the creation of Alicia, who despite passing away at the end of the film’s first act, serves as the emotional backbone of the movie.
“[Alicia] started off as a trail of breadcrumbs,” Headley says. “I remember saying, ‘What if he had a friend and since he has to do all this stuff, the friend dies?’ That was the start of it. Slowly she turned into a worker at the fuel depot who solved his fuel problem and then became his commander. That gave it even more power and strength. So we kept making tweaks in the right direction. I remember saying to Angus that Alicia saved this movie.” Once Alicia became Buzz’s friend and boss with Star Command, that led to the symmetry of Buzz becoming a mentor to Izzy, who is the granddaughter of his own mentor. Moving away from Buzz having a romantic relationship with someone to a strong character like Alicia—who, you may have read, shares Pixar’s first same-sex onscreen kiss—helped the film in numerous ways. “There’s a long list of sci-fi where as soon as the main character and side character become a couple, it diminishes the side character,” MacLane says. “I never wanted that to be the case. That was one of the many brilliant things about making Alicia queer. It’s totally clear they’re not an item. It solidified their relationship as good friends and as mentor/student. So then when we meet Izzy later on, you’re not wondering if this is a second chance for the unrequited love. You just want to take that all off the table.” Alicia and Izzy also aid Buzz’s character in understanding that his toxic masculinity-fueled way of going it alone isn’t fulfilling or successful. “There’s an unusual narrative aspect to the film, which is Buzz only ever succeeds when he’s getting help,” MacLane laughs. “Whenever he decides to go it alone, he fails. When he goes off on his own, that’s when he gets into trouble. He is a hero caught up in his own mythology who starts to believe that his success is entirely by divinity, so why shouldn’t he succeed? I think there’s something really interesting about the idea of taking a character who is primed to be this solo hero and have him come up against the reality of what it takes to actually do those things.”
As Toy Story 2 diehards know well, there is a funny subplot in that film that reveals Buzz’s archnemesis Zurg—in true Darth Vader fashion—is actually his father. Since Lightyear is the film that inspired those toys, Zurg had to be a part of the film’s plot. And initially, the writers did go down that road. Late in the film, Zurg’s massive robot body would open and the person inside would be revealed to be Buzz’s dad. “We tried that for a while,” MacLane says. “It didn’t work for a variety of reasons. We could have gone that way, but it wasn’t emotionally satisfying. Any audience member who has seen Toy Story 2—they know where it’s going. And if we did that, the whole first act would have to be about the dad and how he lost his dad.” They also briefly toyed with Zurg being Buzz’s fellow ranger/love interest before that character was excised from the story. “I wasn’t invested in seeing Buzz fight his former lover in a robot suit. I don’t care about that. It was surprising but not satisfying.” During their two-day brainstorm session, MacLane pitched Headley a brilliant idea for Zurg that he had been mulling over: What if the person inside Zurg was Buzz himself? “I liked that a lot,” Headley says. “I liked that the antagonist would be this warped mirror of the protagonist, so we started to play with that.”
In the finished film, Buzz encounters an older version of himself from an alternate timeline. This Buzz has traveled far into the future and obtained technology to go back to his mistake and undo everything. Our Buzz realizes this would deprive everyone on the planet a generation of families they’ve been building. “I wanted it to be something emotional,” MacLane says. “The neat thing about it is that Old Buzz is who Buzz was at the beginning of the movie. He has to make a choice going into the third act, and the choice he makes is different than the choice he would have made at the beginning. It will erase everything Buzz has come to appreciate about living in the modern era.” The choice came with some risk. Allowing the audience to get a glimpse into what our Buzz could have become opens the door to questions about his character. However, the way the writers execute the last act of the film makes for a poignant finale, one that deepens the audience’s affection for the character. “There wasn’t a lot of concern about that, because I think ultimately for most of us, our greatest villain is ourselves,” Headley adds. “The road we could have taken or not letting go of things isn’t helpful to us.”
As it turns out, this late plot change makes the entire story work. It forces our Buzz to confront his deficiencies, namely his selfishness and his desire to always work alone. Having Buzz be his own antagonist is emblematic of the writing of Lightyear. The film could easily have been a simple cash-in on a popular franchise but like most Pixar projects,Lightyear succeeds at being something much more: a deep rumination on time and community that just so happens to double as an insanely fun sci-fi blockbuster. MacLane may have lost another four years of his life to making Lightyear, but for audiences it was well worth it.
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