Yesterday at D23 Expo, during a panel called Pixar Secrets Revealed!, filmmakers from the North California animation studio talked about various esoteric aspects of their craft. One of those aspects was, of course, versions of movies that were initially developed but never made it onto the big screen for one reason or another (proving that your favorite Disney•Pixar films, while often seeming like effortless masterpieces fresh out of the oven, sometimes took years of backbreaking labor). Yet one particular secret was left out of the panel: a waylaid variation of a Disney•Pixar favorite WALL-E that bears little resemblance to the movie New York Times critic A.O. Scott called the best movie of the decade. This was a version known as Trash Planet, where the titular robot led a revolution and encountered a nasty race of blobby alien folk.
We went out to lunch with Jim Reardon, who co-wrote WALL-E with director Andrew Stanton before transitioning to Walt Disney Animation Studios, where he has worked on Wreck-It Ralph and next spring’s Zootopia, to get the full scoop on the evolution of WALL-E.
While WALL-E is often thought of as a singular work of Stanton (and with good reason), the original idea came from Inside Out filmmaker Pete Docter. “It was about a family of aliens going on a summer vacation on a planet and it’s supposed to be a resort and there’s this tiny little robot that drives them nuts,” Reardon said of the original story, likening it, in spirit, to National Lampoon’s Vacation. “John [Lasseter] passed on it but the idea of a lone, solitary robot on a planet full of trash really struck something in Andrew. And he thought he could make it into a love story.”
Reardon boarded the project in 2004, after “directing on The Simpsons for about 14 years.” He and Stanton had gone to school together at Cal Arts and Stanton had always asked Reardon when he was going to come up and join the Pixar family. After the phenomenal success of Stanton’s Finding Nemo, Reardon thought he’d finally take Stanton up on the offer. “So when I came in he pitched this idea of a lonely robot who meets a robot sent to this planet,” Reardon explained. “Based on that, John and Ed [Catmull] went for it.”
Early on, they knew that this would be a tough nut to crack. With a fairly solid first act, the question was: where do they go from there? “The hardest part was getting from the part when he leaves the planet, to: what is the rest of the story?” And that’s where the major deviation in WALL-E’s development occurs.
In the current version of WALL-E (the version that A.O. Scott loves so much), WALL-E and EVE are transported to the Axiom, a giant spaceship that houses some of the last humans in the galaxy. But originally the spaceship was filled with gelatinous, inhuman blobs. This ties into an initial idea that Stanton and Reardon had about the movie being totally free of speech.
“We were going to try and do it without any dialogue at all,” Reardon said. “We invented a dialogue taken out of the IKEA catalogue.” This language was made up of indecipherable, childlike gibberish, Reardon explained. “They were a tribe, really. The whole mislead was that it looks like a tribe of aliens but then you realize humans have gotten really, really fat … and transparent.”
Apparently this twist was inspired by one of director Stanton’s favorite sci-fi movies.
“It was meant to be a little bit like Planet of the Apes, because Andrew loves the original Planet of the Apes. There would be this big reveal where you thought they were just these blobby aliens but you discover that they were human beings once,” Reardon explained. “So there was a mystery to it. And one thing we discovered was that if you were going to do a movie without dialogue, you have to be exceedingly clear as to what your story is.”
Keep in mind that there were also drafts, around this time, where WALL-E wasn’t as Reardon called him, “Johnny Humanity-Seed, everywhere he goes he makes people a little more human,” but is instead leading a Spartacus-like robot revolution. (Something Reardon confirms.)
And while these ideas are fascinating and would have made a very interesting (and very different) film, Stanton, Reardon and the rest of the filmmakers behind WALL-E kept running up against the same trouble spot, that was tied directly to the alien’s and their baby talk-like language. “The story was too complicated and finally we said, ‘We’re going to have to have some dialogue,’” Reardon said. “I know some people felt we should have stayed without dialogue.”
Not that he misses the blob creatures. “It could have been off-putting,” he said, matter-of-factly, adding that the process WALL-E went through, of extreme creative revision, is one that pretty much every animated film goes through. “In this business, you try a lot of ideas and sometimes it doesn’t work or it leads to something else.”
But there was one question that still nagged us: it had been reported that WALL-E was, at one point, titled Trash Planet. We had to ask: was this ever the title? And apparently, it was, if only for a short amount of time. “It was always going to be WALL-E, but originally it just had one L, for Waste Allocation Lifter. But John didn’t like that idea. He said it looked like whale,” Reardon told us. This impasse led to the creation of alternate titles. “So they started making lists for alternate titles like Trash Planet or Out There, which marketing really liked but we weren’t crazy about.” It was Reardon, actually, who solved the problem and allowed them to keep the name they had originally. “One morning I got a rush of blood to the head and went to Andrew and said, “What if we add another L?” And it satisfied John because you could pronounce it phonetically. So we got to use it.”
And through all that, with blobby creatures and abandoned titles, a genuine animated classic was born.