Movies

Inside The Making Of Pixar’s Trippy ‘Soul’ With Director Pete Docter, Screenwriter Kemp Powers, And Producer Dana Murray

Soul (which will be on Disney + on December 25th) is the fourth Pixar movie Pete Docter has directed. Between his prior three Pixar films — Monsters, Inc., Up, and Inside Out — there’s a good case to be made he’s responsible for full lakes of tears shed. (Mostly for those last two movies listed.) Though, with Soul, people expecting the waterworks again might be surprised just how weird this movie winds up being. Of course, it’s got Docter’s, almost patented by now, meditation on death and what makes us tick, but now mixed in with some pretty trippy visuals (and trippy music, provided by Trant Reznor and Atticus Ross), it makes for quite the wild ride. As I told Docter, writer Kemp Powers (who is having a pretty busy year between this and the Oscar-buzzy One Night in Miami), and producer Dana Murray … I kind of wished I had watched this movie “at night.” For example, at one point the main character becomes a cat.

That main character we speak of is Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a music teacher who dreams of playing jazz full time instead of teaching kids who don’t appreciate him. Unfortunately, after getting his big break, he falls down a manhole and finds himself in the afterlife. Joe desperately does not want to be in the afterlife and winds up defying the people in charge of the afterlife to come back down to Earth and get his body back, accompanied by 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), a soul who hasn’t been born yet who doesn’t have things quite figured out, which is why she hasn’t “advanced” to Earth yet.

As the filmmakers get into ahead, Soul gets into some pretty heavy ideas for a kids movie. Especially the concept of “lost souls,” people who are still alive, but get so engrossed in whatever it is they are doing, or what they are believing, they cease to be the person they used to be. When I asked Docter if this had anything to do with people today believing in things like QAnon, he certainly didn’t see that it didn’t have to do with that. (Also, in happier news, Kemp Powers is getting a new puppy and he tells us all about that.)

One of my only notes I wrote down while watching this was, “This movie is wild.”

Pete Docter: [Laughs] Better check your notes!

When I read about the movie I was surprised it was pieced together along the way with a lot of changes, because it feels like someone’s weird vision.

Docter: Well, I think from what I’ve learned about, I’m a huge fan of Disney as well as Miyazaki. And I always had these ideas that the movies would come out fully formed. And all the research that I’ve done shows that even my favorites, like My Neighbor Totoro or Dumbo, went on these super weird circuitous roads. And I do think there is this grand illusion that, when you watch something, it feels like it came down and it was perfect from the beginning. I’m not saying that that’s Soul, but I think the truth is, in all cases, that there’s a lot of development and wrong turns and withdrawals and additives. And it’s a creative process. It’s messy.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t say to Kemp, what a year for you between this and One Night in Miami. This feels like a busy time for you.

Kemp Powers: Yeah… [Laughs] It’s pretty weird. I’m not expecting anything like this to happen again. I’m just calling this my Michael Green year. A friend of mine, Michael Green, a couple of years ago, he wrote Logan and Blade Runner 2049 and The Orient Express and they all came off the same year. Things happen when they happen. So, I’ll take it when I can get it! But yeah, I’m very proud of both films.

Dana Murray: Plus he’s getting a new puppy. So…

Powers: I mean, this week. So yeah.

Do you have the puppy or you’re in the process of getting the puppy?

Powers: I’m in the process of getting the puppy.

What kind of puppy is it?

Powers: Bull Terrier.

Why don’t you have the puppy yet? What do you still have to do?

Powers: I have to get the gear, and the puppy’s not quite old enough.

Oh, I see.

Powers: Like seven, eight weeks. So, yeah, I’m getting the gear and I’m going to pick it up.

Docter: I think there is a big puppy shortage though, right? With the COVID and everything? Everybody wants cute dogs and they’re hard to find.

Is that true? I could see that being the case.

Docter: It’s a puppy shortage.

But isn’t that’s good?

Murray: The shelters are empty, but what it’s going to do is it’s going to spike breeders to breed more, so I don’t know.

Oh…

Murray: Okay… I derailed the whole thing.

So, Soul gets into a lot of things like life before birth and life after death, which are topics people historically get angry about. So how do you broach that without getting too deep into people’s belief systems and still say what you want to say?

Docter And I do think that’s why people argue about it, because they have deeply held beliefs, that of course are impossible to prove in any sort of way like, “look here’s evidence.” So, early on, I know that was a big concern with folks at Pixar. That we were going to accidentally piss somebody off. And, so, we did a ton of research.

That’s a much better way to put it, by the way. “How did you not piss people off?”

Docter: [Laughs] Well, yeah. I mean, my hope was that people would leave the theater, or watch it in their homes, and say, look, we got to talk about this stuff, right? Because it is things that we don’t generally think about a whole lot during the day. Maybe more so now than we pre COVID times? I don’t know. It’s super interesting stuff that I think could really shape the way we live our lives if it was more present Like, what are we here for? What’s our purpose? If we have one. And, I think those are things that if we asked ourselves more often, we might live differently. [Laughs] And, boy, that’s nice, low ambitions, right? With the cartoon movie for kids.

But also, I know Pixar movies can be trippy at times, but this is a trippy movie. I watched this in the middle of the afternoon. While watching I kept thinking this is something I should be watching “at night.”

Powers: [Laughs] When Pete told me that he wanted to make a Terrence Malick-zone for kids, at first, I was like, hmmm.

You need more leaves.

Docter: Yeah, more leaves.

When they jump from space to Earth, the score, is that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross?

Docter: Yes.

It’s almost like a Tron sound. It makes for quite an experience.

Docter: I mean, for me, as soon as you feel like, okay, well, I’ve seen this before…

Nope, sure haven’t.

Docter: I hope this film is challenging in good ways, but also emotionally truthful. I feel like, boy, it’s a testament to all the great collaborations we had from the music, to the visuals, and everything in between. That people were able to get in tune with, not what is out there, but what’s inside and make things that felt correct for the moment that we’re creating. And that’s tough to do, especially on a deadline.

Soul gets into the idea of “lost souls,” people who get too invested in a task or ideas that they lose who they are. With QAnon and things like that, there are a lot of people out there getting caught up in some pretty crazy ideas and not facing reality. Was that what you were thinking of when you came up with that?

Docter: I think in part that’s true. And then there are a lot of people who just seem to be drifting. You see people walking through the city or are you like, oh, are they there? Are they in their body? Where are they? Actually, I think the way it was originally, if I remember right, Jamie Baker put this in, and he’s one of our story artists. And we were looking for, not bad guys, but scary elements to this place. Because the astral plane is a place where you go when you’re just spacing out and having a good time. And you’re dreaming or daydreaming or doing something you really love. So, we were looking for ways to give that shades and have some stuff that was maybe a little scary to it.

And, the lost souls, I think both do that. But also, as you’re pointing out, I echo kind of a tendency to some of us have in life to kind of drift through. I think also, as we developed, we realized there’s really not too far of a jump from someone who’s totally into something totally passionate into whatever it is … making music. And then, there’s not much of a jump over into being lost and just completely obsessed and consumed by it to the point where you’re not really engaged in life anymore. And so, that seemed like, thematically, right on for what we were talking about.

Well, I’m happy people are going to get to see it under our current circumstances, which I know was up in the air.

Docter: What was your note to yourself again? “This movie is nuts”?

This movie is “wild.”

Docter: Wild! Well, that’s a little more positive I think than “nuts.”

Murray: [Laughs] And you need to watch it at night.

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