With Toy Story 4, which marked his feature directorial debut, Josh Cooley faced a high-pressure situation, looking to create an excitingly fresh animated film that would do justice to the legacy of an iconic franchise, while conjuring up the perfect send-off for Woody, one of the most beloved characters in Pixar’s history.
Picking up with the loyal cowboy rag doll, Buzz Lightyear and the rest of the group of toys first introduced to the world in 1995, Toy Story 4 sees the gang head out on a road trip with toddler Bonnie. Coming across Forky—a toy of Bonnie’s own creation, that the gang must protect at all costs—Woody’s adventures result in an unexpected reunion with his long-lost friend Bo Peep, and the cowboy must decide what kind of future he wants for himself, with owner Andy long absent from his life.
Coming to the project, excited by the prospect of introducing new characters and environments to Toy Story, Cooley had some experience as a director, having helmed Pixar shorts George and A.J. and Riley’s First Date?. At the same time, he acknowledges that he had much to learn, as he set out to mount the latest Toy Story film. “I thought I knew what [directing] was like, just being around directors a lot and working with them, but once you’re in the driver’s seat making decisions, it’s a completely different experience,” Cooley says. “I learned a lot about leadership; I learned a lot about just the process, in general. I came up through the story department, but I never worked with the technical teams before, so just seeing how they do what they do was incredible.”
While studios and the filmmakers working for them are often wary of mounting sequels, fearing that they won’t stand up to the original material, Cooley notes that the teams at Disney and Pixar could not have been more supportive of his efforts with Toy Story 4. “The interesting thing was, we had people that worked on the first Toy Story film; my production designer designed Buzz Lightyear 30 years ago, and now he’s working on this one. We had people that were the OG team, and then we had newer artists that would show me pictures of them dressed as Buzz Lightyear for Halloween when they were five, and now were working on Toy Story,” he explains. “So, it was really cool, seeing these two groups that just really love it.”
An Oscar nominee for his contributions to the Inside Out script, Cooley developed the story for Toy Story 4 alongside John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Valerie LaPointe, Rashida Jones, Will McCormack, Martin Hynes and Stephany Folsom. One of the primary challenges and goals for Cooley, in making the film, was to take creative risks, and “throw this wrench into the works of everything we’ve come to expect with Toy Story,” he tells Deadline. “Early on in this process, there were a couple of screenings we did where it felt very Toy Story, in the sense of, ‘These are the characters we know.’ It didn’t feel new.”
By thinking deeply through story and playing with the rules of Toy Story’s world, Cooley was able to pull off his greatest ambition with the project—to “earn the title of Toy Story 4.”
DEADLINE: How did the story for Toy Story 4 come together?
JOSH COOLEY: Andrew Stanton had originally written an outline for a story that was about the return of Bo Peep. It was Woody kind of setting out, outside of the bedroom, to bring Bo back to a kid’s room. So, that was always in it, from day one, the idea of Bo somehow being part of it, and every film I’ve worked on at Pixar starts out this way, where you don’t know exactly where you’re going. You’re just kind of searching around.
Rashida and Will read the outline like five years ago, and I remember when they said, “Oh, there’s this antique store here in the script. That could be a place where Bo’s lamp is, and that could be more of a location.” I really loved that idea, because I felt that that was something we had never explored before, and even years later, when I became director, I was like, “I love that idea.” I was there for all of it, so I got to kind of cherry-pick through everything to create it.
Those were all little ideas, but we did need to have this theme to hang it on, and it wasn’t until quite a few years later when we realized we had something, with the introduction of Forky. He was new, and something totally different from anything we’d done before. Then also, he’s an innocent character, so he can force Woody to explain what it means to be a toy.
Every Toy Story movie’s about Woody, so we were just constantly trying to find Woody’s arc. Then, with Bo being in it, I pitched to the execs my thought of how to use Bo—that she is the catalyst for Woody to change in this film. So, it’s not Bo that changes; it’s that she changes Woody, which is similar to the relationship I had with my wife when we were dating. Out of that was born the ending of the film, because we realized that that shows true change in Woody, seeing that there is life outside of the kid’s room.
So, it was definitely this very fluid process that happened over the years, and every single writer we’ve worked with brought something new to the table. It’s very messy, but a cool way to do it.
DEADLINE: How exactly did wind up making your directorial debut with this film? Which storytelling opportunities presented with Toy Story 4 were most exciting to you?
COOLEY: I was the Head of Story and writer on Inside Out, and as I was finishing that film up and directing the short film that was on the DVD, Riley’s First Date?, John Lasseter asked me to be co-director on Toy Story 4, so I started doing that. Probably about a year and a half into that, around 2016, he said he was too busy running three other companies, so he said, “I want you to be full-time director.”
I was absolutely thrilled to take that on, and absolutely terrified at the same time, because it’s Toy Story, and there’s so much love for it out there. I adore it, too, so I wanted to make sure that it was a story that was worth telling, and that it wasn’t just another adventure. So, that was really important to me. I kept saying, “We need to earn the title of Toy Story 4.”
With that being the bar, and the end of Toy Story 3 being a bar, as well, it was like, Okay, every Toy Story movie has new characters and new locations, and that’s what, to me, makes it fun. It’s something you’ve seen before, but never from [the toys’] point of view, so that’s why I was excited about the antique store. Because that’s the place you see old toys, but what would that be like for them? Also, the carnival, because we realized carnival toys had the worst existence, out of any toy. Because they’re basically bait. They just hang there, waiting for kids to come up with money and try and get them, and they want to be with those kids, but then the kids lose, and they move on to the next town. That was something we’d never experienced either, so anything that was new, immediately it was like, ‘We’ve got to go down that path, and see if anything comes out of that.’
DEADLINE: How did you come up with and cast characters new to the world of Toy Story? Tony Hale was a perfect fit for the role of Forky, and it was great fun to hear Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele on screen together, as carnival toys Ducky and Bunny.
COOLEY: For Forky, we really started off with that character just talking about the rules of the world for Toy Story. We looked at our own kids and [said], “Our kids play with anything. Like, my kids will pick up a rock, and pretend it’s a truck. So, does that mean that rock comes to life?” We were sitting in the story room, just kind of going, “Oh God, what are the rules? This is insane,” and then we said, “Well, no. Let’s actually embrace that. Let’s take a character that Bonnie made, that’s a craft project, and bring him to life. We’ve never seen that, and let’s play it as if the toys have never seen that, and even Forky has no idea what’s going on.” So, it was a way to play with the expectations of the audience, as well. We’re all very familiar with the rules of Toy Story from what we’ve seen in the trilogy before. It was like, “Let’s turn this on its ear and have a character that has never seen the other films, and forces Woody to explain the world to them.”
The second we started thinking of him as somebody who’s just like, “What is happening?”, Tony Hale came to my head, just because I love him in everything he’s done, and I was like, “His voice would be perfect.” Because not only is it so funny, but he can also do emotion, and [bring] heart to even these ridiculous characters that he’s done. So, we were lucky that he said yes, and he took some time to find the character’s voice. I wanted Tony to not feel like he had to put on a voice, so we workshopped that, and had so much fun with the animation, because the animators were excited to try a new character like this.
Originally, their first animation was too good, so I was like, “No, make it crappier, like this is a kid puppeting a toy across the room. That’s how he should move, not like something that’s been beautifully animated.” So, it was fun just to throw this wrench into the works of everything we’ve come to expect with Toy Story.
Then, with Keegan and Jordan, I’m so thankful they said yes, too, because they brought a whole ’nother level to the movie that I did not expect at all, even in the writing of it. I knew that they’re so good with characters, I loved their TV shows, I loved their movies, so I felt like as long as we had a structure to it, they could help plus the scenes that we had. They did that times a million, and it’s very rare that we actually get two voice actors together in the same room. We did it a few times on this film, but we did it every time with Keegan and Jordan, just because they know each other so well, they can bounce off each other. I’ve watched them basically read each other’s mind as they’re saying these lines, and the thing that’s great is that they stayed on story point. So, they’d say all this great stuff, these great improvs, but it wasn’t just random for random’s sake. It really did have to do with the character and the scene. So, it was amazing to watch, and really hard to watch, because my stomach hurt so much from laughing, and trying not to laugh out loud on the mic.
DEADLINE: Gabby Gabby, the terrifying and ultimately sympathetic doll without a voice box, is a really interesting villain for Toy Story. How did this character, her menacing henchmen, and a general atmosphere of horror enter into the story?
COOLEY: My parents took me into tons of antique stores growing up, and they are dusty, and old, and creepy, and have a haunted house feel to them. There’s kind of no way to get around that, especially towards the backs of some of these places. We did a lot of research on this film, too, went to a lot of stores. There were always creepy dolls from eras past, and there were always ventriloquist dummies in a corner somewhere—usually broken, which makes them even more terrifying. So, just looking at what’s actually there, and seeing, “Is there anything we can pull from there?”, I loved the idea of having a villain that was a doll.
We’d never had a female villain in Toy Story, and I also loved treating her like the godfather, [who] has henchmen that are doing her bidding for her. I had a ventriloquist dummy growing up that I loved, so that’s kind of a nod to my childhood. It’s also a little bit of a nod to Woody, because originally, in the first Toy Story, he was going to be a ventriloquist dummy.
In a couple of early versions with Gabby, she was just a pure villain, and it was still scary, but she just felt like an obstacle. When we discovered that Woody and Bo can be helping all these other toys get with kids, the biggest one would be helping Gabby do that. I loved the idea of going, “Here’s the bad guy”—even in all the marketing stuff—and then having that one scene when Woody and Gabby face off that turns the audience and Woody to empathize with her.
That was a tough scene, and we knew it would be. The way Andrew Stanton wrote that scene is brilliant, and we worked really hard with the animators, and with Randy [Newman] doing the music, and with the lighting…Everything had to read as, “She is not trying to fool him here. She’s being 100% genuine.” So, that was something we had to really track.
DEADLINE: Was it a difficult process to find an ending that felt right for Toy Story 4, given the implication in the story that this may be the final Toy Story film ever made?
COOLEY: That was a big thing that kind of went hand-in-hand with figuring out Woody’s arc, because he couldn’t be the same Woody he was at the beginning of the movie. There’s no story to that, if it was just going out and coming back, and everything’s the way it was. We tried that version, and it didn’t work, and we tried another version—more of a Casablanca-type ending where he finds Bo, but then she realizes she wants to be with a kid, and he helps her get with a kid, so they won’t see each other anymore, even though they care for each other—and that didn’t fully work.
So, it was this ending that I put forward, and it was the day I thought I was going to get fired for sure, just because I’m in my head going, “Am I seriously pitching that Woody and Buzz are going to separate?” But it’s the only thing that felt like a real change for Woody—that he’s moving on, and going outside of the kid’s room. It took a while for us to find that, and once we were like, “Okay, let’s try this out,” it took a while for us to make sure it played exactly right, because it’s really a fine balance between making it feel like he’s just ditching his friends, or ditching Bonnie. You don’t want it to come off cynical, or anything like that.
DEADLINE: Is it your understanding that Toy Story 4 will, in fact, be the final film in the franchise?
COOLEY: From my perspective, we worked really hard to make this fourth film the completion of Woody’s arc, so that it felt like a completion for him. For the franchise, I have no idea. It’s kind of out of my hands, not my decision, but if there’s anything I’ve learned from working on this film, it’s that there’s so much of the toy world to work with, and we’re taking advantage of that for streaming. We’ve got the Forky shorts, which are amazing, and the Bo short, as well. So, I can’t tell the future. I don’t know. But we worked really hard to complete Woody as a character.