After it’s been released, a Pixar movie is so simple and enjoyable that it seems like it must have been almost effortless to create. The truth is Pixar’s films can and do change, almost right up to their release—and Finding Dory, which hits theaters June 17, is no exception. In fact, writer/director Andrew Stanton completely changed the structure of the film after he came to a shocking realization.
“By the time we found the right order of stuff, it was such a ringing endorsement [the change] was the correct way,” Stanton told io9. “Because not only did it feel [right], but it was so complimentary to the first movie. It wasn’t matching it perfectly, it was actually the inverse. Like a negative and a positive and [it] really, really played well. And those give you chills. You’re just like, ‘Wow, I’m the host that got to find this story.’”
Finding Dory is set a year after the events of Finding Nemo. In the first film, Marlin and Dory set off to find Marlin’s son Nemo; this time, the trio set off to find Dory’s parents. This is Dory’s story, so Stanton knew he’d have to dive into her backstory, but the problem was, he wasn’t sure when in the movie that information should be given to the audience.
“There were lots of beginnings we tried [on Finding Dory] and [most] started in some version of her childhood,” Stanton said. “The very first one we did, which worked for awhile, was you would just open right where Nemo gets taken [in the first film]. And we relive that moment, bumping into Dory. Then it went into ‘One year later’ and kept the entire past a mystery we discovered along with her.”
What Stanton didn’t realize was he was repeating his old mistakes—because this was exactly how he first started Finding Nemo before realizing it didn’t work.
“In the first movie, that tragedy of Marlon losing his family and finding Nemo in the sand was never the beginning,” Stanton explained. “That was actually at the very end of the movie, [but] told in flashback. So you started the movie with just Nemo waking up dad, the first day of school, and [the movie] was like that for three years.”
However, as the film was testing Stanton realized, without understanding Marlon’s tragedy, you never sided with him and that hurt the movie.
“You were never rooting for Marlon because you never really understood,” Stanton continued. “You just saw him as very nebbish and overbearing and you didn’t like him. And I kept being told, you know, ‘Put that tragedy he went through at the beginning. And I said, ‘You can’t start a movie like that! That’s horrible.’”
It’s funny to think of the beginning of Finding Nemo as being considered too sad after Pixar gave us Up in 2009. But still, moving Marlon’s tragedy to the beginning linked audiences to the character and left Stanton with a new personal mantra: “Never tell flashbacks if you don’t have to,” he said.
Which brings us back to Finding Dory. Because of what he learned on Nemo, he assumed the strategy of holding back information couldn’t be done... until it had to be done.
“For a long time, we put Dory’s backstory completely in the beginning,” Stanton said. “And that started to not work after awhile, because we told too much of it. We realized, ‘Oh, we have to put flashbacks in this movie.’ Because her whole issue is memory.”
However, Stanton explained using flashbacks in this movie doesn’t quite go against his rule. Because of Dory’s memory condition, she is remembering her past for the first time, so she’s more or less experiencing these events at the same time as the audience. Technically, the scenes are in the past, but they’re not traditional flashbacks.
And that’s the realization Stanton had which caused him to rework the structure of Finding Dory. By adding these “flashbacks,” he’d essentially changed Dory into the original version of Finding Nemo that didn’t work. The result is that the films became an even stronger pair.
‘[I realized] ‘Oh my gosh, it’s the complete inverse of the first movie,’” he said. “It’s like they’re meant to be folded up in a little case together and they fit each other.”