Producer Jonas Rivera on ‘Inside Out’ director Pete Docter’s specific genius

Last week, I joined a group of journalists at Pixar in Emeryville, where we were shown the first hour of “Inside Out,” this summer's new Pixar film. You can get a look at some of what we did in this gallery, and you can see some concept art for the film embedded below.

The last interview of my day was with Jonas Rivera, who produced “Inside Out.” Rivera started at Pixar as an intern, making him pretty much the walking incarnation of a success story at the studio. We”d spoken earlier in the day as part of a round-table along with director Pete Docter, but this was my chance to speak to Rivera one-on-one.

DREW MCWEENY:  I said this when you were in the room earlier: I feel like each Pixar director at this point has a signature and has something that they bring to the table that makes their films different. I don't think of Pixar as this monolithic style. I think that its strongest quality, because it has so many very strong voices that work under that banner. I don't know what it is about Pete, though. His films punch a hole in me. Just the hour we saw last night, there were about four or five moments that gutted me. It's interesting that he seems to not be afraid to express loss, which is something that American movies are hugely terrified of. Yet those are some of the strongest moments in his films, where he embraces that and takes a moment to reflect on it.

JONAS RIVERA:  Well, that's why I love working with him. I mean, that's why I'm proud to be his partner, because that's what I love about the movies. I mean, I look at Pete, and I think of the trifecta. The original Pixar is John [Lasseter], Andrew [Stanton] and Pete [Docter], right? This is how I've always thought of it. John has his finger on the pulse of the world. He”s a populist. The biggest high-concept ideas, that's John. Andrew is on the other side of the spectrum. He's more of an auteur and a writer.

I've always seen him as a story guy. Stanton has a huge sense of story.

Oh, he does. He's our structuralist, and his notes are the loudest on the screen, and Pete is sort of in the middle of those two. He's sort of the heart and the charm, but he takes from both schools. I always think Pete rides that pendulum right to this sweet spot that I equate to how I felt with the Spielberg movies of the '80s, something like “E.T.” that were structurally sound, with finger on the pulse, but they were very truthful. Do you know what I mean?

I think the best moments of those movies are the ones where something raw and real happens. That's what grounds those giant concepts. I have one son who is about to turn ten, I have one who just turned seven, and the death of Goofball Island, as weird as that sentence is to say out loud, sums up so much about what we lose at a certain age with them when suddenly they're too cool or they're worried about things and they start to carry stress of their own or whatever. It is an incredibly difficult moment as a parent, and in that one image, I think you guys have shown it in a way that externalizes it. That's what so impressive, the externalization of giant ideas and giant emotions.

Pete's skilled in that way. He's more skilled than he realizes. He really is what you see, that's him. He's very kind, he's very sweet, he's successful as a director, and I know as a producer and as his partner that no matter what, even when we get off-track and maybe run the movie into the weeds, which happens on every movie, I always know it's coming from a real place, and if we do our job right, it's going to have an impact on the audience. He pitched “Up” to me while we were sitting on the couches down there, and he killed me with it. I used to say, “I don't even know if we should make the movie. We should just have Pete go around and tell it.  That's its purest delivery, like vaudeville or something. Let's travel. He just has this ability to throw strikes with that.

You guys seem like you push things forward in adult ways and yet still manage to be accessible. My children will not have the same experience with this film I will have at all. It's easy to make something that panders to kids, and we see that a lot in imitators, when people rush this stuff out and think it's simple. It is insanely difficult to do it right, though.

It is. It is. Thank you for saying that. We try to honor the fact that we even have a shot to do that. What's even more rare than Pete's ability to do that is that there's a studio with this much infrastructure and oversight and bottom line that allows us to do it. And they do allow us to do it.

The thing that you guys have made very clear when you open up and show people your process that you're not afraid to talk about the failures. You're not afraid to talk about the fact that the film will go into the weeds sometimes. There have been major moments, whether it's “Ratatouille” or “Brave” or this film or “The Good Dinosaur” where you guys take a step back and reassess and rebuild. That seems almost verboten in the conversation about art. Like art appears wholly formed.

I know. I know. You're right. John Lasseter told me that someone asked him once, “How can you afford to make all these films great?” And he answered, “Well, how can we afford not to?  We had this chance and we're going to work as hard as we can on it, and sometimes it doesn't work, by the way, and we move one, because when they're not ready, they're not ready.”

It was a strange feeling last year not having a Pixar movie in the conversation.

Oh, we felt it.

As somebody who's been a fan since “Toy Story,” it was an odd feeling. You realize that's one of the things you look forward to each year, what will happen, what will be the next one.

That's really good to hear, and we're sorry that's how it felt, but we're coming back. It's going to be a fun year. We're excited about both films. We're really proud of them. I feel very lucky to be part of this, and my attitude as a producer is that I'm just going to keep pushing and keep honoring it, since this is somehow what I fell into.

My final question is about your perspective. To have gone from intern to producer, to have gone from somebody that came in at the beginning and kind of saw what could be and now to be part of steering that and being an architect of where they are going, it seems like an extraordinary experience. It must give you a perspective of what Pixar means to people.

It does. I still am a fan. When I came in, Steve Jobs was roaming the halls, and I'd have conversations with him about the cover of the annual report. I felt like I had this front row seat to the birth of the studio. I think it's why I can connect with the crew, because I've kind of done most of the jobs. I know the art department PA. I know what that looks like. I know what it's like to be in the producer's office. I know what it's like to run the art department. John Walker, who's a great producer who I look up to, once told me, “I don't look at any job I've had as different than the last one.” He says, “When I was a department manager at Warner Bros., I approached my job the same way I do as a producer here. It's just a task, and you get it done. You have to delegate some stuff. You have to take some stuff over. You kind of mess up.” And I thought it was really healthy. I've endorsed that and taken that with me as producer. I approach this job no different than I did as the department coordinator on “A Bug”s Life,” when I was just trying to get the model packet to the right person.

Safe to say Rivera”s getting the model packet to the right person these days. We'll have a lot more for you about this film on Wednesday of this week, and on May 26th as well. You”ll get a chance to see for yourself why we're so excited when “Inside Out” arrives in theaters June 19, 2015.