Pixar's Soul Interview

Pete Docter is the chief creative officer of Pixar Animation, so he already has his hands full. Combine that with the fact that he’s directing the animation studio’s latest movie Soul, and he’s one of the busiest people in Hollywood. But thankfully, he had co-director/writer Kemp Powers, and producer Dana Murray to help him out, not to mention all the talented people at Pixar making his job a little easier.

/Film was lucky enough to be invited to speak with all three of these filmmakers to talk about the process of making Soul, including the challenges of creating a world that they couldn’t really research, some of the different story iterations that evolved throughout the development process, and a small update on the forthcoming Monsters Inc. animated series Monsters at Work that will be coming to Disney+. This interview is spoiler-free, so you can read before you’ve seen Soul and not have to worry about ruining the movie for yourself.

For a little refresher, here’s the trailer and official synopsis for Soul:

Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a middle-school band teacher who gets the chance of a lifetime to play at the best jazz club in town. But one small misstep takes him from the streets of New York City to The Great Before – a fantastical place where new souls get their personalities, quirks and interests before they go to Earth. Determined to return to his life, Joe teams up with a precocious soul, 22 (Tina Fey), who has never understood the appeal of the human experience. As Joe desperately tries to show 22 what’s great about living, he may just discover the answers to some of life’s most important questions.

What were some of the biggest challenges of coming up with the ethereal planes that make up The Great Beyond and The Great Before? Was it harder than coming up with a similar kind of plane of existence that we see as the construct inside Riley’s mind in Inside Out?

Pete Docter: Yeah, it’s similar in its complexity and abstraction. Neither of them allowed us to go do research to look at cars or bugs or whatever. It really requires you to explore your own internal feelings. In this film we started out by talking to a lot of religious experts, looking for any hints of what people say happens before we’re born. Actually, it was somewhat freeing because we found very few. A lot of people talk about the afterlife, and that would be kind of a dangerous subject to get into. But in our case, we were talking about pre-life, and because there wasn’t a lot out there, we could make it up.

You’ve probably heard me say this before, but the idea really came from watching my kids, and from the moment they were born, recognizing there’s already some personality there. There’s a sense of humor or fear or whatever, depending on the person. How does that happen? How is it that we’re born into the world with a personality? That’s crazy to think about. So it was exploring how that came to be and then doing tons of iterations trying to figure things out.

Were there any visualization concepts for The Great Before that you were fascinated by but didn’t end up working for one reason or another?

Docter: Anything that we loved and really worked well for the story is in the movie. Along the way, there’s just cool stuff that doesn’t quite work for the story. So those get cut. The whole thing is kind of a blur in my head to be honest. There were so many different iterations and things we tried. Early on, it was kind of Greek-inspired. We were thinking that you get your personality and your wisdom of life, at least in western civilization, from the Greeks. But these are souls that were born around the world in China, Japan, Russia, so they can’t all come from Greece. So we wanted it to be more abstract and non-representational, so you see those strange forms in the film, and it was actually really difficult to come up with those.

Speaking of strange forms, the lost souls was a concept that I was surprised by, because not only are they scary visually, but it feels like a bit of a dark concept for children to embrace. Was it difficult coming up with a way to execute that idea without being too scary for kids? And were you worried at all about crushing the dreams of kids who want to become stock brokers?

Docter: *laughs* Well, the lost souls are really intriguing. Early on they were just an observation that some people have a real passion for something in particular, and other people just seem to wander through life with no real focus or vision, and sometimes they feel lost. As the film developed, we realized the difference between someone with a passion that connects them to life or separates them from it can be pretty thin. Somebody who loves movies might stop going outside and meeting other people and only watches movies and writes reviews and things like this [Editor’s note: I feel attacked, but not really]. That was a really interesting pivot for us when we made that observation.

Kemp Powers: Yeah, in “The Zone” itself, on a base level, everything living on Earth is psychically manifested in one way or another in The Zone. So there are elements of The Zone that have become background fodder that were much more significant at one point. Some of the mounds are what we call dream bubbles, and that used to be a bigger part of the story. The manifestation of people’s dreams was very visible as you worked your way through the landscape. It was about this idea of passionate people who are, for lack of a better word, just lost. They’ve fallen into obsession and are going through their life like zombies. How would we manifest that person in this landscape that’s literally the representation of all the psychic energy on Earth on another plane?

With Pixar’s creative process, I’m sure there are many more elements that were once part of the story that ended up being changed as the film was developed. Can you talk about any of the specific major changes to the story from its earliest inception to the final cut?

Docter: Yeah, there are tons. The movie actually started as a heist film, and it was entirely in the soul world. It was about this soul who wanted to get back to his life, and he was trying to steal a pass to do it. We quickly recognized that if we’re really talking about what makes life worth living, and we don’t actually go show real life, then there’s going to be a lot of talking about it but not a lot of proving it to the audience. So that was one.

There was one version where 22, the soul who doesn’t want to go to Earth, was the main character. There was a version, I think in the first script, where Joe wasn’t a musician, he was an actor. He was going to be in Death of a Salesman. Ironic, huh! One thing about that was being an actor felt a little bit selfish, like he just wants to be famous, and it was a little hard to get behind. That evolved into him becoming a jazz musician.

Powers: There was a version that started in The Great Before where Joe doesn’t even know who he is.

Docter: Oh yeah! That was intriguing.

Powers: So in The Great Before, Joe is like, “Who am I, and where am I?” He’s like Alice already down the rabbit hole. And then he would see glimpses of his life and gradually figure out who he was. We learn things in this process by trying all of it. So there have been so many iterations and versions of the story that, hopefully, even if we completely throw it out,, we don’t really throw it out because we learn things from that version that inform the version that we finally land on.

Pete, you’re also the chief creative officer at Pixar. How do you balance taking on a movie like this as a director while you’re overseeing everything that Pixar is working on? What’s a normal day like for you?

Docter: It’s kinda crazy, but luckily we have a deep bench of talented people, both on this film and throughout the studio. So I leaned a lot on other folks. On the film, we delegated a ton to other people, our leads and supervisors. Within the studio as well, I was able to ask folks like Andrew Stanton, Peter Sohn, and Dan Scanlon to help boost up and look over some of the other projects. Now that the film is done, that’s shifting a little bit.

Dana, this is your first time producing a full feature for Pixar, can you talk about any major lesson you learned during the process and how it compared to your previous work at the studio?

Dana Murray: Yeah, I had never worked with so much of the external talent. I had worked so much within Pixar and those teams, but with the music I got to work with [Jon] Batiste and Trent [Reznor] & Atticus [Ross], and also all the actors. That whole world was all new to me and really fun and exciting.

To wrap up, Pete, what’s your involvement on the upcoming Monsters Inc. series on Disney+, and how is that coming along?

Docter: They are doing that kind of on their own. They’re trying to check in with us to make sure they don’t take any turns that weren’t in concert with the films. Bob Peterson has been helping with some of the writing. He’s not been writing, he’s just been advising. In a nutshell, we’re advising and supervising in whatever way we can to try and be helpful.

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Pixar’s Soul arrives exclusively on Disney+ starting on December 25, 2020.

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