Man Out of Time: Lightyear’s Director Travels Back to his Cinematic Childhood

Buzz approaches the speed of Lightyear. 
Buzz approaches the speed of Lightyear

Pixar filmmaker Angus MacLane opens his Letterboxd to share formative childhood movie memories and the patrilineal roots of the real Buzz Lightyear.

This interview contains discussion of minor plot points in Lightyear.

It is appropriate to its time-hopping story that Lightyear is about the past and future at the same time, an approach the film embodies in more ways than one. Taking its concept from imagining what it’d look like to make the 1990s space flick that inspired Toy Story’s Buzz character, Pixar veteran Angus MacLane (co-director of Finding Dory) makes the space ranger a man left behind by time.

Marooned on a distant planet, Buzz Lightyear becomes, essentially, a test pilot of the technology that might get his crew back to Earth. Lightyear’s mission, and his unwavering dedication to it, leaves him without a personal life of his own, as his friends and colleagues move on (appropriate casting then, to have Buzz played by a one-time Captain America, a man also subsumed by duty). True to Pixar form, there’s an aching heart at the center of the galactic action; after all, this is about someone who would rather warp time and space than learn to ask for—and accept—help.

Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) is commander and best friend to Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans).
Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) is commander and best friend to Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans).

Also delightful: all the ways in which the animators have put their own spin on high-concept, Interstellar-adjacent science fiction, with call-outs to the best action points and archetypes of the genre. (Watching these iconic forerunners was part of the pre-production process—MacLane shared with us the watchlist he created for his crew, featuring Aliens, Mad Maxes, Blade Runners and various Arnie vehicles.)

Letterboxd members are besotted with the deadpan, robotic side-kitty, Sox, yet another ginger space-cat and just one of various riffs on Aliens, along with gross, hostile fauna that preys on inattentive space marines. Audiences also note a continuation of Pixar’s habit of ambushing audiences early with something tear-jerking. And many recommend seeing the film in IMAX, because: space.

On that note, the happiest Letterboxd reviews note the joy of just being able to see a new Pixar movie in a cinema. Mikey P writes, “Making a movie the whole family can legit enjoy earns bonus points with me. Felt like something new.” And self-confessed germaphobe Matt Singer chose not to move when a mom and daughter sat right next to him, “because it quickly became clear that this girl was loving the film, and seeing it through her eyes was a special thing to behold.”

Buzz meets Sox, his assigned AI companion.
Buzz meets Sox, his assigned AI companion.

The family friendly, big-screen vibe makes sense considering the filmmaker at the helm of this latest Pixar team effort. When the world went into lockdown in 2020, MacLane—who joined the studio in 1997—rallied his fellow directors to create Letterboxd lists for parents searching desperately for good family film recommendations, his own picks featuring some all-ages, all-time greats.

In the obligatory behind-the-scenes documentary Beyond Infinity: Buzz and the Journey to Lightyear, MacLane’s colleagues reveal the full extent of his cinephilia, telling how in meeting after meeting he would pull movie references from his brain, casually throwing out time codes and release years and production minutiae without error.

So it was a pleasure to meet in-person with Angus MacLane at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival to reminisce about the cinema experiences that fuelled his lifelong love of filmmaking, the film that was his own Lightyear growing up, and directing astronauts on how to deliver astronaut lines.

Lightyear director Angus MacLane with a model of Buzz Lightyear’s spaceship.
Lightyear director Angus MacLane with a model of Buzz Lightyear’s spaceship.

I wonder if this might be the first family movie about the concept of time dilation. I wanted to ask where that idea first crystallized for you.
Angus MacLane: Yeah. The idea of time dilation is really autobiographical, in relation to what it’s like to work at Pixar. And what it was, was when we would do movies, it takes like four or five years. And I would go home to Portland, Oregon every year, pretty much, but I could feel the city changing when I went to my home town. Nobody else seemed to notice, and everyone at home was getting older, and I felt the same, and so it was this feeling of time jumping.

But that kind of isolation of how you see places differently as you get older, and you feel the same, was the core idea that kicked off time dilation for this. And so it was the idea of, because of his job, he was going to be separated from people that he loved, or society, because he was so dedicated to his job. It was this kind of weird in-joke about working in animation.

It has a strange synchronicity with the conditions of working during the pandemic, this isolation and this feeling of lost time, if that had any bearing on it as well?
It didn’t actually, that was all completely happenstance. The coincidence in that was really interesting, and the isolation became more poignant… Some of the themes felt a little bit similar, or close to home, or even working from home in some cases. But, yeah, that was not intentional.

Star Wars (1977) had the droids a young Angus was looking for. 
Star Wars (1977) had the droids a young Angus was looking for. 

Continuing with that concept, it made me wonder what your favorite space movies or sci-fi movies were. What was your Lightyear, so to speak?
Well, the first Star Wars I saw when I was three, and it was playing at a theater that had been playing the movie for over a year. So it opened in ’77, this theater, Westgate, ultimately played it for 76 weeks in a row. And so, the summer of 1979, I saw it, and it changed everything for me.

That’s where I wanted to be. I wanted to make that. I wanted to be in that. I was so young, I thought that the actors were actually behind the screen. I remember that very specifically. That, and the really awkward kind of ’60s, really rough stucco exterior of this theater that was mostly like quartz rock, it was quite ugly.

That was a movie that made a big difference. And because of that, I wanted to draw Star Wars, and recreate stuff like that. That was very common for people my age at the time. It really had a huge impact; that was, for people of my generation, a big deal. It’s hard to imagine before and after that, it had such an impact, because there wasn’t something that was quite that big or that unifying as a cultural event for kids at that time, until that happened. Then when it happened, it opened the floodgates for a variety of sci-fi things.

Then the next really big one—although, every year there was a really awesome sci-fi movie—was The Empire Strikes Back in 1980. And then in 1981, Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s not quite sci-fi, but it had a similar adventure feel, and really had a huge impact.

“There is nothing cooler than getting away from adults using sweet BMX tricks.”
“There is nothing cooler than getting away from adults using sweet BMX tricks.”

1982 was E.T., and that had an emotional component, and a kid protagonist. Although I’d always been drawn to more adult protagonists when I was a kid, this one was like, ‘Oh, okay, this is right in the pocket.’ I really enjoyed the concept of kids on BMXes sticking it to the FBI or the government. I remember seeing that, and I was just like, ‘There is nothing cooler than getting away from adults using sweet BMX tricks.’ That just was so great.

So then ’83 was Return of the Jedi. And then ’84, it was kind of a weird year. There was Gremlins, and there was Ghostbusters, but neither of those were a slam dunk for me personally. I respect them both. And then ’85 was Back to the Future.

But it was seeing Aliens in ’86, opening day, that solidified my interest in film. It was like an upgrade, like the difference between Star Wars and Aliens, Aliens was real, like “that actually happened”, where Star Wars was make-believe.

So that was really the era that helped define what I wanted to try to do with this film, as far as the way that it affected me as a kid. Not repeating, not trying to replicate the specifics of it, although there are references to those movies, but trying to make it feel like the excitement you got out of seeing an Amblin film at the time.

Alien series stars Ripley and Jonesy have a cuddle. 
Alien series stars Ripley and Jonesy have a cuddle. 

That folds into my next question, because I wanted to ask what specifically inspired you for Lightyear, and the references you were working with there? Aliens is one of the clear ones.
Yeah. Yeah, Aliens is pretty direct. Then Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Tron, I don’t know if I was really influenced, but I did see Tron in the theater, which was a tough go. I figured I’d like it more when I was older, but I still was really influenced by that design. I think it was the sci-fi movies of 1977 to 1987, chiefly, that was the big thing.

And I don’t know why it took a dive after 1987, but I think it was Alien Nation, that one was not good. And then 1990 had Total Recall, which was pretty cool for like a fourteen- or fifteen-year-old. That was awesome. And then Terminator 2 was mind-blowing. Seeing Terminator 2 during the summer was so great. 1989 was also [Indiana Jones and the] Last Crusade. It wasn’t quite as good as Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it was good enough. And it was [projected] in 70 millimeter, kind of near my house, and there was something really great about that, the rhythm of that movie, and the excitement of that film.

That theatrical experience sounds like it was very important for you.
Absolutely. Yeah. I went to movies a lot with my father, and it was such a joy to take him to the premiere of Lightyear. I didn’t get to sit next to him, unfortunately. But sitting next to my father watching a movie was great.

The best movie to see with him is The Blues Brothers. Because, for whatever reason, seeing those cop cars crash, like the 99 cop cars, something about people in authority getting the screws put to them by the underdog, he loves that, so I love watching that movie with him so much.

I would go see these movies with my dad, anytime that you would have the underdog getting away with something, heist movies… I remember Midnight Run, seeing it with my father, and when Robert De Niro was impersonating Yaphet Kotto by stealing his badge, that, again, was kind of a class warfare, a really funny anti-establishment thing I thought was so funny.

Sometimes we’d see a movie and he would laugh really hard, and afterwards I’m like, “That was pretty cool.” He was like, “No, it was terrible.” That only happened one time, and it was Howard the Duck. I remember very specifically, we saw Howard the Duck, he laughed very hard. And I was like, “Wow, you liked that.” He is like, “No, that was not good.”

“Bring me four fried chickens and a Coke.”
“Bring me four fried chickens and a Coke.”

I’ve now just been kind of tracking how much the anti-establishment sentiment has come up. Did that color Buzz’s journey?
I’ve never thought about that. I think you’re probably right. I think that’s, well, not to make it all about my father, but he did end up getting kicked out of three boarding schools for doing really exciting things. So I think he kind of has that, and maybe I have that too. Weird.

I think it comes across in the film somewhat.
Interesting. I think that when we watch heist movies, or anything where you want this Robin Hood character to win, the heist needs somebody to be embarrassed. So in Ocean’s Eleven, it’s embarrassing for Andy Garcia’s Terry Benedict to lose that much money. He has everything, but the embarrassment of that is great.

When you see The Sting, and when Doyle Lonnegan is totally taken to the cleaners—spoiler alert—but it won Best Picture in ’73 maybe, or whenever [the 46th Academy Awards, held in 1974]… it’s the people that are untouchable getting embarrassed that is so satisfying. Certainly in Lightyear, the embarrassment of when Buzz steals the ship, and he’s embarrassing his commander, he’s defying a direct order for the greater good, that’s the closest thing to that kind of flavor.

Zap patrol members Izzy Hawthorne (Keke Palmer), Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi) and Darby Steel (Dale Soules) on a mission with Sox and Buzz.
Zap patrol members Izzy Hawthorne (Keke Palmer), Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi) and Darby Steel (Dale Soules) on a mission with Sox and Buzz.

I was going to say that Buzz kind of plays both roles, with the relationship he has with his commander, and then the opposite with the Zap team. They’re sort of embarrassing him in places.
Yeah, well that’s where he’s becoming the mentor. Alisha is his mentor, and his superior, but he respects her, because they have a… basically, his respect goes to [them] when he thinks that they’ve earned it. So Alisha has definitely earned his respect. He has undying respect for Alisha. He loves her and respects her.

But the rookies, he doesn’t necessarily respect until they earn their respect. And Burnside, he doesn’t respect, because Burnside, he dismisses the legacy of Alisha, very, very pointedly, by showing up and interrupting everything, and getting rid of her name plate. But that’s a very astute observation. Thank you for that. That’s great.

I saw in the credits that [British astronaut] Tim Peake is credited as the countdown announcer?
Yeah, he did the countdown. And I will tell you, it’s weird to direct an astronaut on how to do a countdown. I mean he knows the numbers, so I don’t know how helpful I could be. He was a little nervous. But he did it once, and I said, “Pretend you don’t like the job, you’re tired of it, you want to go home, you have no energy for this. Just do it like you hate it.” And he just, like, “Five …” Great, totally aced it, and it was great.

It’s kind of astonishing to me to hear about an astronaut being nervous.
Well, yeah, he wasn’t nervous, he was super pro about it, but you could hear a little bit of, like he was putting on a voice a little bit, to try to show confidence. And sometimes when you’re a director, you need to… especially when his one line is he’s got to do a countdown, you can afford to [say], “Let’s just try something different.” Because the other one would’ve worked fine.

Major Tim Peake commences countdown, engines on. 
Major Tim Peake commences countdown, engines on. 

I wanted to ask, in the spirit of us being at an animation festival, I was wondering if there were any animators that you’d been watching recently that you really loved?
That’s a great question. I liked what Arcane was doing, I thought that was pretty exciting. I don’t watch a lot of animation, to be honest, because I get a lot of that at work. I’m more excited about live action, just because there’s more variety.

Of course. Is there anything recent that you’ve been watching that you love?
Well, it’s been a little tough with the pandemic, and finishing the film. What did I like? What was good? God, I’m out of… hold on a second, let me check my Letterboxd.

I mean, yeah, perfect.
I know, I know, I know. Hold on, this is important to me, I got to get this right. I’m looking at my diary. Everything Everywhere All at Once, that’s the best thing I’ve seen. I saw that at the Castro in San Francisco, that was awesome. Throw Down, I’d never seen.

The Johnnie To film?

What we would give to see Sze-To Bo in a throwdown with Buzz Lightyear.  
What we would give to see Sze-To Bo in a throwdown with Buzz Lightyear.  

Oh, I love that. The Gillette ad at the end of Throw Down may be one of the funniest frames I’ve ever seen in my life.
Yeah, it’s so great. Throw Down was so good. And then the best thing I saw in the pandemic was A Colt Is My Passport, which is a Japanese gangster picture. It’s worth checking out. It was on Criterion. That one was really quite exciting. Oh, and I’d never seen 1997’s The Castle, the Australian film.

Lightyear’ is in cinemas now. ‘Beyond Infinity: Buzz and the Journey to Lightyear’ is streaming on Disney+.

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