Soul interview

Soul marks another step forward for Pixar into fascinating narrative storytelling that is not only meant for young children. In fact, this may be the least kid-centric movie they’ve made in quite some time.

Don’t get me wrong – the movie is very good and has plenty of the typical Pixar qualities we’ve come to expect from that studio. But a film about a middle school band teacher who finally gets his big break in music, only to quickly fall into a manhole and be whisked away to another plane of existence to learn how souls work? That’s pretty damn ambitious, and it’s yet another example of how the studio often pushes beyond the most basic version of a story when one of their films is making its way through Pixar’s rigorous process of building, breaking down, and rebuilding a movie to get it right.

A few weeks ago, we spoke with Pete Docter (director/story and screenplay by), Kemp Powers (co-director/story and screenplay by), and Dana Murray (producer) about the clash between creativity and pragmatism, Soul‘s excellent score, and the thought process behind a plot decision which temporarily sidelines the studio’s first lead Black character – a decision which I suspect will generate a lot of discussion in the days ahead.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity. Warning: full spoilers ahead.

Before we really get into the meat of the interview, I noticed that Ryan Coogler was thanked in the movie’s credits. How did he contribute to this project?

Dana: Yeah, he’s an Oakland guy, and we’re based in Emeryville. Being the friendly studio we are, we have a lot of space, and I think he was looking for a place to hide and write the films he’s working on. So we took advantage of the fact that he was around and asked him to take a look at the reels and we had a notes session with him, and he was really helpful. He’s a really nice guy.

Cool. There’s a scene in the first half of the movie in which Joe revisits moments of his life that is quietly devastating, and near the end of the film, we see some of those same moments again, but through a different lens. Did you know from the start that that was going to be the “classic Pixar” scene that makes people cry?

Pete: It was maybe the second or third pass – let me answer it this way: I knew from the beginning I wanted Joe to be able to have this epiphany that the small moments in his life were what it was about, and it felt right that that would be at the piano, the instrument of his passion. But exactly how that connected to anything else was a discovery later. I know we have that scene, Kemp, where he walks through his life and it’s pathetic, and I think we just boarded it straight, looking for pathetic moments. And maybe the third or fourth pass through, somebody had the idea of connecting those.

Kemp: Yes. That’s what it was. Initially, it was this idea of a museum of your life, and it was comparing Joe’s failed life to that of a real mentor, which is all of these moments of success. And it was after several passes, like, “Oh, what if all these failed moments, if you just look at them from a different perspective, are actually transcendent moments?” Joe is unfairly judging his own life as not valuable, as not good, and when seen through 22’s eyes, it’s actually kind of amazing. In that period at the end when he’s at the piano, his first glimpses are actually her memories in his body. That’s what triggers this new look at his entire life going all the way back. Which, God knows, talk about notes sessions about “Are people going to understand this?”, that was a lot of them.

The score in that scene is particularly incredible. What kind of direction, if any, did you give Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for creating the music for that big emotional sequence?

Pete: They were pretty involved through the whole thing. They came up and would watch any major revisions we did to the storyboards, and we worked quite differently than we would traditionally. Usually, you’d basically lock picture and then bring somebody like Michael Giacchino or any of our great composers and it’s kind of post-scored. But in this case, they started giving us tracks early on. I think that particular section we were talking about an emptiness and a hollowness. We just kind of used some descriptive words to fill in – I mean, they’re watching the reels, they’re watching the storyboards, so we’re hoping the sequence kind of speaks for itself. But yeah, sort of empty failure and vacant nothingness was the feeling we were looking for.

Dana: It was really cool because Trent so related to how Joe felt after that concert. He’s like, “I remember feeling that way, like ‘Once I play a stadium, I’m going to be good.’ But that didn’t fix me, or fix how I felt.” So when he came back with that cue, we were all like, oh my God.

Kemp: Right, because he gave us like three or four to choose from, and we all unanimously agreed on the first listen. We were like, “Whoa.” I think you started crying, Pete. Not to blow up your spot, but you teared up, didn’t you?

Pete: Yeah, totally.

Kemp: The first time he heard it, he was emotional.

One of the big ideas this movie addresses is the clash between creativity and pragmatism. As creative people yourselves, I’m sure you’ve probably wondered at some point if you should give it all up for something more stable and secure. Talk a little about the message you wanted to put into the world with this movie.

Pete: Pixar’s full of all of these people who succeeded in spite of their parents being like, “You’re going to be a doctor!” and they’re like, “No, Mom, I’m an artist!” My parents were artists, too, so I kind of cursed them, like, “You didn’t give me somebody to fight against!” They were actually super important and encouraging throughout my whole career, so I don’t really have that specific struggle the way I know a lot of people do. Kemp, I know you had some struggles.

Kemp: I certainly had that struggle. No one though this was even a real job. So yeah, it’s been bizarre. This year, having a few movies coming out, I think my family doesn’t quite know what to make of it. Because it’s this thing that I’ve been doing all this time – and of course I’ve been a playwright, but plays are different. Plays run at a theater, and my family has gone to see my stuff at a theater. But  seeing Disney commercials and stuff like that, they’re like, “Are you kidding me?” I guess deep down in their minds, my mom might have thought that maybe I would end up doing something else, even at this age. She’s finally like, “All right, that’s what Kemp does.”

Dana: My parents were pretty encouraging, and I also joke that I was the third child and they were sort of like, “Whatever! You seem fine!”

There’s a scene where we see the various mentors that 22 has encountered during her time in The Great Before. There are a lot of famous historical figures there, but I think I spotted [Pixar writer] Joe Ranft [who died in 2005] was also included, which is such a wonderful tribute. Were there any other more personal choices on that wall that we might miss if we’re not looking for them?

Pete: Yeah, we wanted a wall full of stickers. So there were plenty of chances for people to fill in their own. Another one for me was Joe Grant, who was one of the great Disney story artists and development guys back in the ‘40s. He worked with Walt Disney. I got to know him when he was like 95 or something, and he was a great mentor to me. As well as the father of Frank Oz, this guy named Mike Oznowicz. He lived locally in Oakland, and we would meet him every weekend, and his was just a fantastic, full of life guy. And a bunch of other folks. Did you guys have anyone in there?

Kemp: Archimedes was my big one, remember? I was like, “Archimedes, please!” because I was a little nerd for ancient Greek science as a kid.

Dana: As a producer, that wall became very painful, because it felt like we had all these names, and someone was always in my office and was like, “You know, that person did this, this and this,” and I’m like, “Ahh!”

Pete: “Thomas Jefferson. Well, out he goes!”

Dana: The Internet ruins everybody’s history.

When the decision was made to put this movie directly onto Disney+, was there ever any talk about pulling the Terry moment after the credits when he says, “The movie’s over, go home”?

Pete: (laughs) No, we didn’t. Although I have thought about it. “Wait a minute, everybody is home already!”

Kemp: Not in Korea. There are still certain countries China – they’re going to see it in theaters.

That’s true. Tell me about how the idea to put Joe’s soul in the cat came about and may have evolved over the process, because that feels like one of this movie’s big swings.

Kemp: I think that was [co-writer] Mike Jones’s idea, wasn’t it?

Pete: Yeah, the first version of this was all in the You Seminar. So Joe, in order to get back, had to show 22 his life through those moments in the Hall of You. It ended up being very kind of talk and point, it was like, “Here we are” and we’d stop and watch a scene and discuss it, and then we’d move over here, and we’d stop and watch a scene and discuss it – it was not interactive at all. It didn’t allow the character’s to really change what they were watching. So Mike had this idea to bring him down and switch them so that Joe could see his own life from a different point of view instead of going back into his own life, because that’s, of course, what he wants. So on one level, it seems like, “Oh, that works perfectly.” On another, it was like, “OK, I feel like I’ve seen this before,” and as we did more research, unfortunately there are so few films featuring Black Americans, Black actors, in animation that it was kind of a cliche. So it was definitely something we were aware of. Beyond a cliche, it’s kind of seen as like, “Oh, great. Finally we’re represented and then you take it away from us.” Our hope was, in this particular way, we still get to represent Joe’s life. He’s not in his body, but we’re still seeing his body walk through all his spaces and interact with all the people that he does in his normal life. So it was a bit of a tricky thing to pull off. Cross our fingers.

Kemp: In a traditional body swap, you would have had Joe and 22 get separated, and 22 would do this whole series of things where she’s on her own living Joe’s life better than he is. Meanwhile, Joe – it was purposeful for us to keep them together. Because even though he was in the cat, he had a certain amount of control over his own body.

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Soul is streaming now on Disney+.

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