Buzz Lightyear, the toy? A pretty fantastic hero. But what about the movie character who inspired the toy — or the movie itself? Audiences finally get the chance to find out for themselves now that Disney and Pixar’s Lightyear has zoomed into theaters. Ahead of the unprecedented IMAX release, Disney News sat down with Lightyear director Angus MacLane, producer Galyn Susman, and NASA astronaut (and Lightyear consultant) Thomas Marshburn — fresh from his trip to the International Space Station aboard the SpaceX Crew-3 expedition — for a conversation about the realities of space travel, subverting cinematic tropes, and the importance of teamwork. (Interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
DISNEY NEWS: Galyn, we've heard that you wanted to be an astronaut when you were younger. What was it like bringing your love of space to film?
GALYN SUSMAN: Oh, phenomenal. I mean, as soon as we decided we were doing a sci-fi epic, the first thing I said was, “OK, we've got to go and see the real — we have to meet these people and see what's going on.” And so I was really excited when we connected with Tom, and we were able to go in and get a real sense of, what is an astronaut, and what do you do up there, and how does it all work. It was really exciting.
DISNEY NEWS: Thomas, are there any depictions of space in Lightyear that particularly resonate with your experience in NASA, or especially with your recent trip on the SpaceX Crew-3 expedition?
THOMAS MARSHBURN: I haven't seen the film, but we've talked a little bit about it. So I fully anticipate that — I mean, spaceflight is a very human experience, even though it's fraught with technology to get us there, get us back. That's what we do. We do science up on the Space Station. But I'm very much looking forward to seeing the very real and very present human experience of living up there with not only just a few individuals, but being part of a huge team and mission control and scientists around the world, all the ups and downs for somebody who's in space and trying to make that goal realized. And so I'm very much looking forward to seeing that, and I would imagine Pixar brings that better than anybody.
DISNEY NEWS: Angus, what are some of your favorite elements about space that ended up in the film that you learned from Thomas?
ANGUS MACLANE: I'm a film fan, and I am so fascinated by all types of cinema. But there is a trope in the film — in films in general — of the rogue pilot who doesn't listen to the command and does it his own way. And when you meet the astronauts, they're like, “Oh, actually, it takes a whole team, and you would never last in the program if you were acting that way.” Like, the reality of what it takes to put someone into space is that it’s very much a community effort, and it isn't always depicted that way in cinema. So one of the neat things about our film is the way that it approaches the rugged individualism of cinema, and then, actually, the realities of the situation that require a team to actually make it work. That's something that was really important to me for the film, and I think it reflects what the realities are for most endeavors — in filmmaking and in space travel. It's intentional that he's a character that has never seen a movie where he wasn't the star. You know, he is convinced of his own — that he has the solution. But the reality is, he comes up against it, and he can't actually solve the problem. And because it's embroiled in his own mistake and he has to be right, he could never admit that he was wrong. And his success is only when he can admit that and move on.
DISNEY NEWS: For both Angus and Galyn: If you two had the opportunity to go to space yourselves, especially now after what you've learned making this movie, would you go?
MACLANE: No. I would not go. I would stay here in the comfort of the Earth. But, yeah—
SUSMAN: Yes. In a heartbeat.
MACLANE: Galyn would go.
SUSMAN: In a heartbeat.
DISNEY NEWS: Yeah? It didn't change your [opinion]?
SUSMAN: I'd like to take [Thomas] with me because that would be like a security blanket. But, yes, I would definitely go.
MARSHBURN: We'll talk Angus into it. He'll come along.
MACLANE: One of the things that was really comforting about Tom was when we went and visited Johnson Space Center, we got to do one of their practice things where you're lining up the Soyuz capsule to the Space Station. And I was like, crashing it all — that told me I shouldn't do it. But then Tom was like, “Here, let me help you out.” And he started narrating it and doing— like, seeing him click into that, like, Jason Bourne astronaut mode of doing… His voice changed similar to the way Buzz's does in the movie, where he's like, “All right, we're going to do this thing,” and “Copy that, copy this.” And it sounded like I was in the middle of this, like, mission control. And he was right next to me just piloting it. It was like the world's most boring video game. There were no lasers. But he didn't kill us all. That was great, whereas I would not be useful on the mission. I would actually be weight that they would want to jettison, like on the second stage. That would be where I would be traveling.
MARSHBURN: Any crew would love to have you on board.
MACLANE: [LAUGHS] I'd be useless. It'd be like, “Hey, let's get the funny guy.”
DISNEY NEWS: That sounds useful for entertainment.
MACLANE: “Let's get the jester. He's got the special jester space suit.”
DISNEY NEWS: For each of you: What message would you like the audience to take away from the film?
SUSMAN: You don't live in regret, right? We've got so much right in front of us — our families and our friends and our lives right in front of us. Embrace the life that you have right here, and don't obsess over your mistakes.
MACLANE: I think the impression that I've always wanted the audience to have is, “That was awesome.” But if they don't think that, then maybe they just say, “That was OK.” But awesome is what I'm shooting for. “That wasn't a waste of time.” That would be nice. That would do third.
MARSHBURN: Yeah. I would say those are probably the two — well, on an equal level, perhaps, for me, I was inspired to go into space flight, to fall in love with NASA and with space, from film and books. So in any way that this film inspires young people to follow science, technology, engineering, math fields or other fields, even creative fields — because space flight is opening to everyone now. And so if it inspires them to pursue that, it's a wonderful career path. It's a wonderful way to look forward to life.
DISNEY NEWS: A follow-up question to that, since you were inspired to go into this field because of film, what was it like for you to work with Pixar on a film?
MARSHBURN: Oh, as you would imagine, I think there's a lot of similarities, a lot of overlap with really highly functioning teams. I mean, first of all, they're very kind, charming, wonderful human beings. And I think that has a lot to do with their success, really, in keeping a team together. So I was very impressed with the similarities. I was very impressed with their willingness to invite me into their world for a little bit, and to be interested in my world at the Johnson Space Center and with space flight. So it's been a huge amount of fun.
Catch Lightyear, now playing exclusively in theaters.