SOUL – Interview with Pixar director Pete Doctor

SOUL the first movie helmed by Pixar head Pete Docter since 2015s INSIDE OUT and, as we have come to expect from stories created by Docter, it is a delightful, moving and uplifting look at what happens after life… And before it. SOUL sees joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) about to have the best day of his life, before his life is cruelly cut short. Knowing that he has more to do on Earth, Joe doges the Great Beyond and finds himself mentoring a new soul named 22 (Tina Fey) in the Great Before. Although Joe is supposed to be preparing a reluctant 22 for life on Earth, he is more concerned about getting back to his life, a passion that 22 simply cannot understand.

We caught up with Docter via Zoom to find out more about SOUL; the first Pixar film with an African American lead character, the music that makes up such a huge part of the film and what it was like to complete SOUL in the midst of the pandemic.

Do you consider SOUL to be a companion piece to INSIDE OUT?
PD: Maybe thematically, but it is pretty different design wise… We were definitely conscious of the similarities at the beginning. I actually tried to push against that because one thing that we are not so fond of doing is repeating ourselves. I think in the end it’s pretty different in a lot of ways, but it does explore some similar things. I think we all enjoy looking at our own lives and speculating on some of these great mysteries of life and we had a chance to do that in INSIDE OUT and even moreso here.


Why do you think it took as long as it did to have a lead African American character in a Pixar film?
PD: it’s a good question, it’s been way too long and I don’t know that we really have a good answer. We are always looking to reflect as much of the world out there as we can and we are happy that it has finally happened [laughs]; that we are representing a part of the population that just hasn’t had as much voice in our films up to now.


In a time where racial tensions are running high, how important is it to make a film with a Black lead?
PD: We’re so fortunate to have had a story that embraces a lot of the culture that has not been shared, at least in Pixar films. What we are trying to do, of course, as filmmakers is to reach out and connect with people and find that common ground of what it is to live life. It’s shameful that it has taken this long but we are excited to have the chance with this film.


Did Jamie Foxx do any of the music for SOUL?
Pete Docter: We had some other script parts, that ended up getting cut out, where he did. He is an amazing musician as well as an amazing actor, comedian… We cornered him once and said “Is there anything you can’t do, that you’re not great at?” and he said “Bowling” [laughs] Unfortunately there is not any of his actual playing in the film; we wanted it to all sound like authentic jazz, so it’s all John Batiste.


How did you decide to get Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to do the music for the ethereal world?
PD: Trent and Atticus… The idea came up through Ren Klyce, our Sound Designer who we worked with on INSIDE OUT. We met with them, they seemed to really click with the film in a really heavy way that was cool, and I felt like “there is something going on here”. It’s hilarious to get Trent and Atticus, and John Batiste together, because they are so polar opposites as people, it’s a real joy. They are both so incredibly talented and come at things from a different way that ended up being a great marriage.

Considering the role of music on the film, did you ever consider making SOUL into a full blown musical?
PD: Well, no we didn’t. I guess I can’t really answer exactly why other than it felt like the story didn’t really fit with that idea. There is something kind of hyper real about the reality that’s created in a musical, and we wanted this to be as grounded and real and truthful – even though it is animation, it’s all made up. We were looking for this great contrast between the ethereal world and Earth, so I guess that would be why I would argue against considering that as a musical.


One of the things that are so great about Pixar movies is that they are all so unique but they have a level of connectivity, and you can tell that they’re a Pixar film. Are there ideas that you carried from previous projects that influenced aspects of SOUL?
PD: I will say this, consciously I am always trying to push against anything I have done already and if I sense “Oh wait! We’re getting into similar territory as we did before with MONSTERS INC or whatever” I will turn a different direction, but I am the same person and a lot of the folks that I got to work with, we have worked on other films together so I think there are going to be some similarities. I think the thing that we are always trying to do on any Pixar film is to say “OK, on one level this is just going to be hopefully fun, funny, something for everybody” but that gives us, in a way, a Trojan horse, an opportunity to deliver something deeper and really think… We are going to be working on this thing for four or five years, it better engage us in ways that make us excited; so we as human beings are trying to tap down into things that we struggle with, our joys, our successes, pain, failures, all those things go into these movies, even though they’re about fish or horses or bugs or whatever, they are really about us.


There is a story thread in the film about finding your spark, your vocation in life, have any of you ever thought about changing careers and leaving the world of animation?
PD: I felt like this is what I was born to do [but even though] INSIDE OUT was by any mark a success, yet I still found myself expecting more somehow, like it was going to fix everything in my life, and it didn’t [laughs]. There is a lot of stuff that is still broken in my own inner world and so I think that’s really what sparked this film; that moment of “What am I meant to be doing with my life? and am I doing it right?” Of course I don’t know that there is any ‘right’. We were excited, in the film, to have a chance to really look into that and talk about it.


A lot of movies have portrayed the Afterlife, but the Before Life has never really been seen on screen before, what was the process of crafting that part of the film?
PD: We were lucky that way because not may traditions, religions, whatnot, talk about a Before Life, so we thought “What’s that gonna be like?” This is where we get out personalities, our interests. Things like what makes me outgoing or shy? All those kinds of things are given to you there. We eventually came around to almost like a Worlds Fair. We wanted it to be very non-specific in terms of culture; if you look at it and go “Oh that’s Greek or Italian or Chinese” that would be wrong because souls, we are saying in the film, come to Earth kind of as a blank slate in that sense; that your culture is something that you learn and grow into. We were looking for something simple, geometric… As I say, we looked at some of the photos from the Worlds Fair from the ‘30s and all through the’60s, which were a great influence as well. This was largely the art department playing around, in concert with technical group to make these places. We were hoping the buildings themselves, when a character goes in there, moves, it mutates in some way that infers that it gives something to the soul.


SOUL seems like the perfect name for the film – it’s simple but it makes sense – were there other ideas you had for the title?
PD: One of the great things about the word is that it sort of infers a really high ethereal, non-physical, but also an earthy, groundedness and I think there is a push and pull in the very word that really comes directly at what we are trying to talk about in the film.


How difficult was it to approach weightier topics like existentialism, finding one’s purpose in life, and death, while still injecting humour and warmth into the characters?
PD: You might think it was pretty difficult, but there is actually a pretty rich tradition of comedy about death and fatalism and purposelessness and a lot of those things; I think because when you face it you wither break down and cry or you laugh. We had a good time exploring all that stuff.


With the climate of Covid and quarantine, some people have taken the chance to pursue different passions or find what that spark is for them. How did the finished film resonate for you in this climate compared to how it did when it was first being developed?
PD: We started four of five years ago, when everything was normal, and it spoke to me really heavily then, and I think a lot of other folks as well. Boy! Once Covid happened, and George Floyd, there’s so many things that happened in the world that, I feel like, make it speak even louder. I don’t know if that’s egotistical to say! [laughs] I don’t obviously take credit for any of the life-changing events in the world, but it does seem to be really hitting at a good time… Or a bad time. However you want to say it.

In the Before Life, souls have to get their ‘spark’ – their passion, their talent, their drive – before they can go to Earth. Do you believe in the idea of only one spark per person?
PD: Early on, we did a bunch of research in philosophy, and you have Essentialism, which for years and years was at least the West’s belief; you are born with what you have, it is handed to you by god, and your job is to embrace that and go. I think the film argues that back and forth, and we should have another discussion when everyone has seen it because I don’t want any spoilers, but it was a real engaging argument because there are so many times when I believe both; I know some people are just born unfairly talented, why is that!? It’s frustrating. Then I know there are other people who work really hard and became something and brought themselves to a place where they were not born with, so I think there are probably aspects of both, but the film got to argue that back and forth.


The concept of the film gets one thinking about loved ones lost. Was there anyone who you were thinking about when you were working on this film?
PD: For me, there were a couple of folks. This one guy Mike Osnowitz who was a great mentor to me, as well as Joe Grant. Joe Grant I got to know who worked at Disney for years, he was just shy of 97 when he died… At his drawing table… He was so committed to the art form. He had a story on DUMBO, he came up with the music that was used in FANTASIA… He came up with the title of MONSTERS INC, actually. He was a great mentor to me and I learned a lot from him, so he was somebody I was thinking a lot about.


Do you feel this film is riskier than INSIDE OUT?
PD: In some ways, just because of the climate that we’re in, what’s happened in the world, I think you would be stupid not to acknowledge that it is riskier, there are just a lot of unknowns. It used to be you could look at market trends and go “These films did this, and so therefore we’re predicting that…” and I dunno. The future is a little bit less certain right now, in a lot of ways, so that’s obviously nothing we have control of. In terms of what we can control, I still believe that people want to see themselves up on the screen, they want to be acknowledged that their own struggles in life are shared with other people, that they are not alone out there which is, I think, an easy thing to feel, especially now when there are days when you just don’t see anybody else, and you feel like “Am I the only one out there? Am I the only one going through this?”. We have really tried to tap directors who will talk about their own experiences, in the hopes that their own fears and successes and joys will also resonate. Is it risky? I don’t know if I really think of it that way; this is what we are meant to be doing. I don’t want to sound evangelical about it, but it does feel like that’s what we have based our successes on in the past, and it’s what we look for in our present and future.

Words – Brogen Hayes

SOUL will play exclusively on Disney+ on December 25th 2020