It seems that Billy Crystal was born
to play the jocular Mike Wazowski in Monsters, Inc. Having
missed out on Toy Story, the brilliant comedian does wonders in this fitfully
funny comic gem, revolving around the largest scare factory in the monster world
where the top kid Scarer is James P. Sullivan (John
Goodman), a huge, intimidating monster with blue fur, large purple spots
and horns, known as "Sulley" to his friends. His Scare Assistant, best
friend and roommate is Crystal's Mike, a lime green, opinionated, feisty, one-eyed
monster. Scaring children isn't such an easy job, though-monsters believe children
are toxic and that direct contact with them would be catastrophic. In this rare
chat with Oscar's favourite host, Crystal tells CrankyCritic.com some of the secrets
behind Monsters, in his usual self-deprecating style. [Interview conducted 10/2001]
CrankyCritic®: What made you
want to do a kids' movie?
Billy Crystal: I didn't think of this as a kids' movie when I did it. I
thought it was great. The concept of it was fantastic. I knew the audience that
would come to see this would be adults and kids and the older, wrinkled kids will
love this movie too.
CrankyCritic®: Did you do a lot of improv
in the recording studio that they couldn't use?
Billy Crystal: Yeah, but I thought they should have pushed a little bit
more. I thought, in tone, it could have been a little edgier but when you see
it you go, 'this is joyful and great.'
CrankyCritic®: You and John (Goodman) were
working together. That's very rare in a voice session.
Billy Crystal: I kept pushing for it. I did the first two sessions alone
and I didn't like it. It was lonely and it was frustrating. And, you know Pete
Docter (the director) would say, 'Could you give me one that's doing the same
thing but now ask it as a question?' And I would go 'Why?' like 'I'm not doin'
this'. [Pete would say] 'Well, in case I change the scene.' I said 'Why don't
you get John in here? We'll do it together and we can do everything you want but
we'll do it together. Then it'll be natural. Then the editor won't be the one
who has to put it all together so it sounds real. It'll just be real. Then we
did it and it was great.
CrankyCritic®: Were you uncontrollable when
you were working together? Would you go off on all sorts of tangents?
Billy Crystal: Good ones. As a director and an actor, I encourage improvisation
but in character and in the moment of what it is. My guy, I thought, was free
enough and wild enough to just do anything. And it's up to them to pick the ones
they want and use it. I kept saying to Pete, 'No, go. It's a little darker but
at least have it. Why was everybody screaming and laughing in the control booth
if you're not gonna use it? You want me here, I'm gonna give ya'. It's a smorgasbord.
Take the ones that are good!'
What about your own monsters when you were a kid and were did they hide?
Billy Crystal: Relatives . . . and they hid in Brooklyn. I didn't have
a specific monster guy. I had generalized anxiety which is worse. I had fears
of the dark, you know. I didn't like being in the dark. I didn't like seeing sounds
bothered me. I had really good hearing and when you're scared it gets heightened
so you hear scratching noises or something. We'd had some burglaries in the area,
always someone breaking in. That was the thing. If you're home alone who's gonna
take care of you. Who's gonna fend off the whatever it was. Just the unknown.
It was a tiny little house. There wasn't room for much. My room was in the back
and I didn't like the dark so I would say 'Keep the light on'. I stopped doing
that around two or three years ago. I keep the door open a little bit.
CrankyCritic®: Was there a particular movie
monster that may have scared you?
Billy Crystal: There were some pretty scary movies back then, which now
seem not as scary to some people, but Psycho, as a kid, was just terrifying.
Bambi, to a kid, was scary.
CrankyCritic®: Was there an animated film
you were attached to?
Billy Crystal: Yeah, Pinocchio. It's a great story, the little boy.
You could relate to the kid. Jiminy Cricket was a phenomenal character. The epic
animation, the whale, Cleo, all the other stuff that Disney was able to put in
movies, amazing ideas. It's still great. People are excited that Snow White
came out on DVD.
Someone calls you to do an animated movie. What do you do?
Billy Crystal: If it's John Lasseter who calls me, I go where do
I sign and when do I start? I loved this idea. They brought a piece, about 35,
40 seconds of [Mike] animated with my voice lines from My Giant. I realized.
'The size of the hero is determined by the size of the villain. Without Goliath,
David is just some kid throwing rocks'. It was this over and over again with this
guy talkin' and movin' his hands. Stuff like that. They told me the concept and
brought some storyboards and paintings and Pete explained the movie and that was
it. I just thought it was epic. And when I sat and saw the movie for the first
time the other night the first thing that hit me hard in a great way was seeing
Walt Disney Presents. It hit me hard and I went (takes in a breath) and
my wife went 'What's the matter?' and I went 'This is big'.
You have to eliminate Walt Disney company like we know it today. What it started
out to be was what influenced me as a kid. My mother was the voice of Minnie Mouse
for a little while in the Macy's Day parades in New York. She would do the recordings
of Minnie's voice in the floats of Minnie coming down 5th Avenue with this big
four story Minnie Mouse and my mother was Minnie's voice. So I heard that but
the movies, the Mouse Club. I remember, as a kid watching on our black and while
set this big (indicates tiny) . . . Walt with a hard hat ploughing Disneyland
and putting up this entertainment land with its future highway. It looks like
this guy is everybody's uncle. To be part of the legacy of Snow White and
Pinocchio and Old Yeller and Davy Crockett and the Mouse
Club and Annette and now the Pixar movies, which he would be thrilled about. When
I saw 'Walt Disney' at the head of this movie, I got all excited to be part of
CrankyCritic®: Weren't you supposed to be
in Toy Story?
Billy Crystal: Yeah. It just didn't work out at the time. And then when
John came with this one. I've seen the tests of me as Buzz Lightyear. They used
lines from When Harry Met Sally which was hysterical. First you see Buzz,
then you see the lines were from the wagon wheel coffee table scene. 'Someday,
we're gonna go 15 rounds over who's gonna own this coffee table. This stupid,
wagonwheel coffee table' and it's Buzz and then he walks away and the shot widened
out and he was underneath the coffee table and you hear Bruno Kirby say, 'I thought
you liked it' and little Buzz screams 'I was being nice'. That was the test when
they were sampling voices. I
never knew this. They had taken lines and animated this little section which I
have. It's hilarious.
CrankyCritic®: Now that's a good DVD addition.
Billy Crystal: Yeah but I've got to say though, I wasn't right for it.
Tim [Allen] was fantastic in that character. He was appropriately vacant , really
and the quality of his voice was so full of shit like those movie star guys are,
those space guys. And he was perfect. This (pointing at stuffed toy of his character)
is my guy.
CrankyCritic®: Who inspired you to be a comedian
when you were growing up?
Billy Crystal: My brothers and my dad. My mom was really funny. She still
is at 87. But, I'm the youngest. I'm the runt of the litter too. My dad was in
the music business. My uncle, who passed away two months ago, was a legendary
record producer, 'Rock Around the Clock', 'Strange Fruit', all of Billie Holiday's
stuff. My dad was a jazz producer. The label was a legendary label, a family business
called the Commodore Jazz label. So, I grew up amongst jazz musicians. And so
they were real funny, hip, Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Louie Armstrong, all these
guys were always around. I played clarinet but what was natural for me was to
imitate them and make them laugh. Same with my relatives. The inspiration was
this great group of 40 or 50 relatives, sometimes for Thanksgiving or Passover
or something and my brothers would just go up and make them laugh. It was also
the timing of the '50's. There were also some great comedy shows on live TV. There
was always a stand-up on Ed Sullivan on Sunday and my dad would bring home
comedy albums from the store. We owned this little record store on 42nd Street
and he knew we loved comedy. He had great taste and we were listening to sophisticated
stuff when I was a kid. I didn't know the Beatles stuff but I knew "The Two
Thousand Year-Old Man" backwards and forwards or Stan Freeberg's "America"
backwards and forwards. That was my thing.
CrankyCritic®: Given current event with kids
being inundated both at home and at school, what does it mean to have this kind
of film for kids to see at this point?
Billy Crystal: At any time this movie is a great movie. You know,
now when it deals with fear and laughter and overcoming terror and all that stuff,
that's obviously an added thing for them. But, this is a great enjoyment for everybody.
What I love about the movie, at any time, is that families can go see it together
and it should provoke thought and discussion about fear and about kids. You know,
sometimes when they're afraid of something, they won't tell their parents because
they think something's wrong with them. 'I saw a monster and monsters aren't real'.
Sometimes they'll run into the room and say 'I saw a monster' but, if they talk
about it, maybe they won't have so many.
CrankyCritic®: Did your kids do that?
Billy Crystal: I still do it.
CrankyCritic®: Did you see Shrek?
I assume that and Monsters Inc. are in the running for the Oscar?
Billy Crystal: I think this is a worthy movie of any kind to me. I think
Shrek was terrific. They're just very different. The level of difficulty
in this movie is extraordinary because of the story it has to tell and the levels
of maturity to it. Shrek is a fantastic fable, really funny and it's great
too. They're just different.