Interview with SANJAY’S SUPER TEAM Director Sanjay Patel & Producer Nicole Grindle
If you’ve seen The Good Dinosaur, then you’ve watched SANJAY’S SUPER TEAM because it’s the short film just before the start of the movie. It is an action packed, but emotional short story about a little boy and his father. It’s actually a true story about Sanjay and his Dad and that makes it even more heartwarming.
About SANJAY’S SUPER TEAM
In “Sanjay’s Super Team,” the new short film from Pixar Animation Studios, accomplished artist Sanjay Patel uses his own experience to tell the story of a young, first-generation Indian-American boy whose love for western pop culture comes into conflict with his father’s traditions. Sanjay is absorbed in the world of cartoons and comics, while his father tries to draw him into the traditions of his Hindu practice. Tedium and reluctance quickly turn into an awe-inspiring adventure as the boy embarks on a journey he never imagined, returning with a new perspective that they can both embrace.
We actually learned quite a bit during this interview with Director Sanjay Patel and Producer Nicole Grindle. I’ve narrowed the list down to my favorite facts about the short film.
When asked about the picture drawings that are used in the short, we found out that Sanjay did not draw those. What is interesting is that he and Chis, the Production Designer, asked the crew members kids to do the drawing. Sanjay said “The kids took it really seriously.” Nicole added that “they all did their artwork, brought it in, and we did our best to get them all in [the short]. That was fun.”
Sanjay did tell the children to never give their artwork away for free again, though. 😉
What really interested me was the story behind the short. Nicole started by telling us that Sanjay has “worked at Pixar for almost 20 years and has worked on a number of films there. He started out turning his back on his father’s culture and wanting to fit in as an immigrant and embrace more traditional animation art. After 10 years at Pixar he got the itch to do something else and was introduced to South Asian art. He fell in love with it and started doing books outside of Pixar and his books were a bit hit. Books like The Little Book of Hindu Deities that allowed him to reconnect with the culture and then he did Ramayana. Then Pixar said, “Wow.” They saw his artwork, was at the Asian Art Museam and it was so successful Pixar said, “Hey come to Pixar. We want to put a show on of your work there.” Then, John Lasseter saw it and said, “Hey, we want you to do a short film.” Sanjay didn’t want to do that. But, then you were persuaded.”
Sanjay said that that the story was “like an evolution of me as an Artist and me as a dude. I was really scared. I was really scared to bring my identity, my part of my culture, and this ting that was so precious to my parents and my community and to work. 3 years later I’m completely shocked that we were able to tell the story and tell it in a way that was so sincere.”
He was worried that the story they were going to tell wasn’t going to work with the Pixar brand. Then the President of Pixar politely contradicted him. “He felt Pixar was always interested in telling new stories. Then, I finally had a conversation with my father and he pointed out, ‘Sanjay, they had this relationship with you and they’re finally asking you to try this thing and for you not to try would be bad karma. He said, ‘That it was my duty to at least try. Win or lose. That doesn’t matter. That’s not part of the equation Sanjay, but it is your duty to at least try.’ So I tried.”
Sanjay continued, “John Lasseter, in particular, he really believed in the concept from minute one. He seemed to draw out the concept before I even knew it. The original concept that I pitched to John included the story. It was about a little boy in India that was ignoring the cultural stories that were carved on the temples around them.”
He and John discussed where Sanjay was born and raised and how it would fit into the short. Since Sanjay was raised in Whittier or in San Bernadino, Southern California, they decided to bring the story closer to home. Sanjay told John how he “spent every morning with my dad and his rituals and my rituals and he really connected with both concepts.”
“The first note from John said ‘you know, Sanjay, just tell your story about you and your dad.’ He said, ‘If you just tell that as honestly as possible people will connect to it.’ John gave me permission to say things that I wouldn’t say otherwise just because I think growing up in this culture I was always so afraid of exposing my identity, my parents’ identity, my parents’ community. My normal was always to try to fit in. So, it took John Lasseter to say to me, ‘No, Sanjay, your story, your parents’ story has value here. You have permission to tell it.’ I’m super grateful.”
When asked how he saw the short impacting kids from his culture and background, he had some great insights. “I’m excited. I grew up here and my friends were like everybody [else]. There was maybe one brown friend, but it was Hispanics, black people, white people, and what was cool was just cool. It wasn’t, ‘Oh, that’s a really interesting perspective from a Latino identity.’ It was just, ‘Oh, that’s cool. Either I’m into that or that’s dumb I’m not into that.’ All our friends would just be interested in whatever was cool. So, I knew when John asked me to do this I knew Pixar just makes things that are cool.”
He continued by saying “that kids of all sorts of cultures and identities will embrace it and it just felt really exciting that we could tell this part of the story and have Pixar kind of be the ambassador to it. We’ll make it cool for all the kids. I know people from my community will feel less alone or different and maybe will feel more included.”
Nicole added, “What I loved about the story was that it bridges cultures and that the inner generational thing is happening everywhere right. The parents want to pass on something from their lives to their children and the children are so interested in what’s the newest flashiest thing and it’s been going on forever. I’m hoping that all kids take away there is something that my parents have. Even if I’m not interested in it. Wow! My parents think that’s cool. So, I should maybe pay attention a little bit more. That’s been my interest in the film.”
I just think the way we made the short just know it has my thumb print on it. It has my dad’s thumb print on it. That matters. People can smell something that’s authentic. I can at least. -Sanjay
Sanjay said that they did fly his dad to Pixar to screen the film. His dad had not watched a movie since The Sound of Music. He had never seen animation, or Pixar animation, so this was a new experience.
Of the experience, Nicole said, “it was pretty intimate. It was sweet because he was all business at first. He wanted to come and […] watch the film and say, ‘Yes it’s very good.’ Then when we started talking about he was proud of Sanjay and that’s when he went over the edge.” Sanjay added that “He got super emotional.”
Nicole said, “I think he’s a very hard working guy. He works 7 days a week, 24-7, he runs a motel. Here’s his son, not only was thanking him, but understood who he was and what had sustained him. I thought how can that not be emotional. To have your child say, ‘No, I see what you’ve been doing and I appreciate it.’ So it was pretty emotional.”
We were discussing culture and the use of Vishnu in Hindu culture. Sanjay said that “it was a big question, but that he had a very small answer for it. My hope is that we open the door. We have 6 minutes to just introduce these concepts, these cultural sort of figures and without language it’s so hard to really capture the depth and the complexity of these figures.”
“Vishnu stands for preservation and balance. That’s a very simple 2 second sort of explanation. There is much more that can be said and written about that philosophy and that character. Ultimately, I don’t think it really matters because my job was just to open the door.”
There were a few of the bloggers that were immigrants, or that had children who had immigrated to America and were able to give their thanks to Sanjay and Nicole for opening doors that may not have otherwise been opened. It was special to hear from those moms and have that different point of view. Sanjay thought that was exciting to hear.
When we mentioned that he seemed very humble, Sanjay said, “You met Pete Sohn. That guy is amazing. Really good, upsetting good. There’s a phrase for it. It’s called inspiring.”
It was asked how it came to be that his name was on the movie title. Nicole chimed in, “It always had to be Sanjay and he didn’t like that at first, but we encouraged that with the character. Little Sanjay was always the character and then when we were looking for titles fo the film we were trying all kinds of stuff. We did try the name Dia to represent the candle because he wanted it all to be light. We considered calling it enlightenment and they said, ‘Oh come on. You can’t call a Pixar short Enlightenment.’ Finally it was John who said, ‘It has to have your name on it.’ and he said “Sanjay’s Super Heroes or something.’ Already we had the little action figure saying ‘Super Team.’ He wanted the Super Team to also represent him and his father.”
Sanjay said that “so much of the credit goes to John” in regards to the story and the film being made. He said he “knew if I could just collaborate with Pixar we’d figure out a way to communicate to everybody and that was super important to me.”
When discussing the topic of religion in the film, Nicole said that “I think there were some concerns that people would misunderstand what the film was about and worry that maybe we were promoting one particular religion over another, but as long as we recognized this was a story about the real Sanjay’s experience with his father then how could anyone object. That’s why we put the pictures at the end of Sanjay and his dad. Just to emphasize that this is one family’s experience and it happens to have involved religion, but that’s not the main story. It’s really about a little boy interpreting his father’s experience with his religion.”
Sanjay added, “I’m super proud to have gotten this opportunity to make it. I think growing up, every day twice a day I got to see what my dad did and it was like I hated it because it was boring. Now, in hindsight, I could see how it’s a really special thing to invite people a part of the community that isn’t stereotypical, but something that’s really honest and true to some people in that community and their experience. It think it’s a really cool thing.”
What a great time we had talking with both Sanjay and Nicole about the process of creating and how they think the film will be accepted.
SANJAY’S SUPER TEAM can be seen in front of The Good Dinosaur, in theaters everywhere. Have you seen it yet? What did you think?
The Good Dinosaur Red Carpet | The Good Dinosaur Movie Review | The Good Dinosaur Products & Disney Infinity 3.0 | Interview with Jack Bright, Raymond Ochoa & Marcus Scribner | Interview with Director Peter Sohn & Producer Denise Ream