I’m guessing by now, you’ve heard a little something about INSIDE OUT, the latest bit of wonderment from Pixar, directed by one of its old-guard creatives, who has been with the company and contributed to pretty much every film (officially or not) since TOY STORY. As a full-fledged director, Pete Docter was at the helm of both MONSTERS, INC. and the highly regarded UP, two of Pixar’s finest examples of blending highly emotional content with humor. With INSIDE OUT, the story is literally about emotions—five of them, working together to get an 11-year-old girl through one of the toughest times in her young life.
Pixar has always had a stellar track record with casting voice talent, but they’ve truly outdone themselves with the five emotions in young Riley’s head—Amy Poehler as Joy, Phyllis Smith as Sadness, Bill Hader as Fear, Lewis Black as Anger, and Mindy Kaling as Disgust. Many of these folks are writers themselves (which we talk about) and added a great deal to the characters and plot of the film.
I’ve said it before, but I’ve been lucky enough to interview a great number of Pixar filmmakers over the years, and they are among my absolutely favorite to talk to. They have great stories about the evolution of story and characters, and the creative process at Pixar lends itself to great conversations. Joining Docter in Chicago recently was INSIDE OUT producer Jonas Rivera, also a producer on UP, as well as a member of the Pixar family in some capacity since TOY STORY as well, leading the art department on A BUG’S LIFE and MONSTERS, INC. and as production manager on CARS. No surprisingly, this was a really fun interview, which took play the morning after a great Q&A screening we did the night before. With that, please enjoy my talk with Pete Docter and Jonas Rivera…
Capone: When you first pitched the story of INSIDE OUT—and I’ve talked enough to Pixar people to know that a lot of times when you pitch, you don’t just pitch one thing at a time—how much of what we see in this film was there in that initial pitch? What was the core idea that was there in that pitch that made it all the way to the end?
Pete Docter: Well, weirdly—and correct me if I’m mis-remembering this—my memory is I pitched three ideas. John [Lasseter, chief creative officer for Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios] said, “Well, keep developing all of them. None of them are really working 100 percent.” And then later, I came back from somewhere with this idea of emotions as characters, and I went to John and like pitched that one. Even then on the first time, I said, “I want to develop this one full time and trash those other three.” And John goes, “Okay, yeah.” At that moment, there wasn’t much more than, we have an 11-year-old kid, she’s in school, the teacher asks a question, “Does anyone know, what is the skeletal system?” And the kid goes, “Ah” [starts to put his hand up], and we zip in and we see her emotions. And Optimism— think I had called Joy at that time—said, “We know the answer to this one. Raise your hand.” And Fear is like, “Are you kidding? Did you see them make fun of that other kid? They’ll mock us out of the class.” So it was just a way of exemplifying how this whole thing could work and the fun we could have with it, but I really didn’t have much more than that. I didn’t have a story about a kid moving. All the meat of it came in the following months and years.
Capone: It sounds like from what you said last night, the key establishing scene that you developed first was that dinner scene. That was the one that not just showed us Riley and her emotional process was, but how adults were a little different and maybe driven by different emotions.
Jonas Rivera: It was a lot of fun. That was the first time I was like, I see the movie now. I see what the motion picture could be. So it really worked.
PD: That was Ronaldo Del Carmen who actually wrote most of that. We talked about the concept. John recognized early on right from the beginning, maybe from the second pitch he said, “Really think about going into people’s heads and showing what’s happening in a toddler’s head? What’s happening in a goldfish?” He understood what’s happening. So he saw the humor in that really early on. So I think that’s what led then to the dinner scene.
JR: Yeah, he had suggested Riley should have a brother because then you really get the contrast. That didn’t end up happening, but the note was: there’s a lot of entertainment value here if we can figure it out.
PD: So that sequence was boarded and even approved before we had a really clear through line of what the story was all about and how Joy would represent growing up.
Capone: Something I noticed watching it the second time is how the console the emotions use gets bigger as Riley gets older. It literally just starts out as one button, and then what we see most of the time is a fairly decent-sized one, and then the upgrade is like the super computer, and the adult ones are also bigger.
JR: Yeah, they’re bigger but somewhat antiquated. A little more analog and binary.
Capone: Pixar films don’t necessarily come together in one clean script. It’s done in like pieces that are butchered, taken apart, and put back together. What were some of the core ideas you wanted to include? What were some of the fun things that ended up getting jettisoned? I know last night, we talked about individual emotions that didn’t make the cut.
PD: Dan Scanlon put it well. I was talking to him a couple of weeks ago. He directed MONSTERS UNIVERSITY. He said, “We work in glazes. It’s like thin layers that build up over time. I think that’s really accurate.
JR: Things get built on top of each other.
Capone: Sometimes buried.
PD: We do these screenings every three or four months, and that’s where you pull yourself out of the weeds of thr individual pieces of characters or sequences, and you look at it as a motion picture. Usually when you do that you’re like, “The beginning’s not right. The ends starting to be right.” Or, “That dinner scene, that’s really funny. Maybe it’s not in the right spot, or maybe it’s not set up right.” But things start to calcify. So then you pull the movie apart, but you need those four things, and then you rebuild it, trying to connect and learn every time. So it’s learning experience about what your movie needs to be. You said, and I always thought this was accurate, clearly these movies come from the directors and are driven by directors, but you like to find your movies as opposed to make them. So we don’t like write a script and go, “Let’s go excite this plan.” It’s a little more Russian roulette-ish than that. It’s like, “This feels right. Let’s make us learn from it and make it again and make it again and make it again.”
Capone: From what you were saying last night, a common criticism of some of those early screenings was “These are great scenes, but let’s find the movie here. Let’s find the thing that drives it home.”
PD: That’s always interesting too, because if it’s cold, clinical, and correct on paper, that doesn't get a good response. On the other hand, if you have funny, funny though the whole thing, but it doesn’t add up to anything, you can get a false response there, too. So you wanna have just enough entertainment to show the potential, and then hopefully some emotional punchline that makes you go, “I understand what is being said—the theme of this film, what we are talking about.”
Capone: So what were some of the original ideas, either areas of her mind or individual emotions that you thought were good, but they didn’t work in this context?
PD: Well, we talked early on about this being a film about dealing with the passing of childhood, and one of the very first things that Ronny Del Carmen drew was this wonderful picture of Joy standing in this field of rolling hills and memories just raining down, and she’s in the memory dump of where things are forgotten. So that felt immediately like, that’s not something we learn from the research. There’s not a part of the brain where they dump old memories. But, it emotionally felt truthful and connecting to that idea of the passage of time, of forgetting. So that sequence as a concept was there from the very beginning. It didn’t really work in terms of communicating until almost the very end.
JR: But it felt right. We saw that painting and were like “That’s so beautiful and lyrical and sad that there’s this sea of memories and things that are forgotten.” What if something down there was important? What if you’re in the dumpster behind your house and you’re like, “My photo album. What’s this doing here?” That’s not even a piece of writing. It’s a piece of artwork that led to something.
Capone: That idea is still in the memory dump scenes, when you can still see a faded image of a memory before it evaporates.
JR: “There’s the little kid; she used to be happy, and now that part of her is gone.”
Capone: There are a lot of parents who have similar thoughts to Joy: “My child should be happy all the time.” They won't even allow the possibility of any of these negative things coming in, and this is about realizing good and bad emotions are all a part of that kid.
PD: And it’s so normal. We don’t embrace that. We say to our kids, “Don’t be sad,” like a command almost, and of course you can’t.
Capone: I have to ask about the Abstract Thought sequence. Like I said last night, it’s one of my absolute favorite scenes I’ve ever seen in a Pixar film. Kids aren’t even going to get that totally, but they’ll love it and so will the parents. It’s for adults and art students. Why did you think that was safe place to go?
PD: I’m glad you like it, because as soon as we came up with the worlds, we made a big list of places we could go, and Abstract Thought was immediately like, “Oh, we’ve got to go there.” That takes full advantage of what we always wanted to do in animation, which is really take things further and push thing visually in different directions. It was really interesting as that one developed, because we were seduced by art history. We looked at Salvador Dali, Picasso, things like this, and at one point, we were trying to almost represent an art history lesson—melting clocks and things like that.
And then we backed up and went, “Wait a minute. How is it that 11-year-old Riley in her mind knows about art history?” That’s not really what this place is. It’s about the abstraction of ideas, which is something as we looked in the research; that’s something that develops later on in a child’s life. So we really worked to have clear stages of abstraction going further and further, reducing to the point where it’s just going to be these weird blobs with nothing but shape and color. So we had to work really hard to make sure that it made sense in the story. That it’s basically on Joy’s arc and line. She’s trusting Bing Bong, and this is the first step that shows maybe this isn’t such a good idea to follow this pink elephant.
JR: It’s weird too, because my kids, my six-year-old, she doesn’t understand abstraction, but how she read it is was she would sink a little more at each stage. My hope is there’s video game or cartoon logic that this is a dangerous tunnel, and you’ve got to get out before you disappear. Eva just accepts that, and then when she’s older, she’ll hopefully see it a little bit differently. So it works enough like a haunted house gag on the surface.
Capone: One of the interesting things someone said to me after the film is they think this film could feasibly help people in ways you guys might not even be aware, in terms of understanding and communicating with their kids, maybe allowing a little bit of fear and a little bit of sadness into their lives and not being so afraid of it. At any point in the process, did you thing, “This could be clinical. This could open up conversations or change behaviors that might not have happened otherwise.”
PD: One of our psychologist advisors spoke to that. I almost didn’t want to allow ourselves to think about that too much, because that’s a heavy weight to carry around when really you’re just trying to make a funny cartoon. Did we mention the story last night, about the swimming lessons kid?
Capone: I don’t think so.
PD: You want to tell that one?
JR: Yeah. We screened it for our kids on the crew when it was half done. We were just trying to make sure it was clear and little kids would get it as much as we hoped they would. We were pleased to find that they did, and they were able to explain the core memories and the islands and operations, but also the plot and story of it. We did this on a Saturday, and one of our guys came back in on Monday and said, “I’ve got to tell you guys. Our little boy who’s six has been doing swimming lessons for a long time. He’s been afraid to dive off the board. When we take him up there, he won’t go. We saw the movie on Saturday. On Sunday when we went to the lesson, he jumped right in.” He swam over, and they said, “Well, how did you do it?” And he said, “Well, I just thought Fear might have been driving, so I just pushed him aside.” We just flipped, because we are not trying to make a preachy thing here, but it was a real great feeling to know this story worked on a level, and this kid embraced it and took it home with him.
Capone: He grasped the concepts. He got it.
JR: Yeah, and somehow employed it. It was really nice. It was really a cool moment.
PD: He’s the son of a scientist, so…
Capone: Watching the film the first time, I’m thinking that Joy, done by the wrong actor, could have been fairly annoying. I don’t believe there is anybody else that could have done it as well as Amy; I’ve been watching her for years play Leslie Knope, a version of this complete optimist who is also right on the cusp of being annoying. Talk about how getting her changed the game.
PD: It really did. That was one of the most difficult things—probably the most difficult thing—for sure in writing, was finding Joy and understanding how to find the balance of making her readable as the optimist who’s driving things forward without wanting to slug her in the face. We were pretty upfront with Amy when we met her about that, that we were struggling with this. We had a couple other keys too, not to downplay Amy, because she was the major element that really helped land that.
The other thing that we did, and we continued to work on for the rest of the film, was making sure that all of Joy’s decisions are outwardly driven for Riley’s benefit, not for selfish gain, because early on when Joy says, “Come on, guys. We can do this,” it feels like she’s in it for her, and as long as she continues to look outward and that everything that she’s doing, the reason she’s working so hard, is for that kid. That was another of root-able thing for us. But Amy was really fantastic. You never know with actors how aware they are of their own persona? And Amy right away said, “I think I can help you guys, because I can get away with saying things that other people can’t.” It’s wild that she knows that. So she helped with the writing, I think we mentioned last night.
Capone: A couple of your actors are actually also writers, including Amy.
PD: And Mindy.
Capone: It really moved me, especially when Joy and Sadness are gone and the three others are left in the control room, they’re all still doing what they can to make Riley happy. They’re not driving the boat, necessarily. They’re trying to save it from crashing and burning. But that’s a really important concept, that they’re working together. When I first heard about this film, I assumed they’d be fighting all the time for control, and the fact that they're working together is a really comforting thing. Talk about embracing that idea.
PD: We wanted to make sure they were all there for the benefit of Riley, and I think Mindy said she found that comforting, having seen the whole film and imagining that there’s characters that are there for your best interest.
JR: There’s debate, but there’s something about that that they all have their jobs to do. It’s something we always thought about, but we had to really underline later in the project. We really wanted to be clear that Anger isn’t just trying to make her mad; he’s just trying to do what’s best for her in his mind. It takes all of him to wrestle with that to make it right.
PD: We did have one early version where Fear secretly, or not so secretly, was trying to take over. Once Joy was gone, he was like, “Alright, finally this is my chance. We’ve been taking all together too many risks. We got to really pull it in here, folks.”
JR: That’s right. That was really funny.
PD: But that created a whole other subplot. It was intriguing for many reasons. One, it felt somewhat truthful, especially for junior high. But then there was a whole “villain” that he became that Joy needed to battle at the end, and it got away from our main thesis statement.
JR: I remember we played that one; it was pretty funny that he even in the end was like, “Well, everyone knows that I have always been in charge; you’re all welcome.”
PD: He said something like, “I’m in charge.” And everybody else was like, “Wait, you think just because Joy’s gone that you get to be the leader?” And he’s like, “What do you mean? What does Joy have to do with this? I’ve always been the leader” in his deluded way.
JR: [laughs] That was pretty funny.
Capone: I have to admit, the first time I saw it, I thought we were going to find out that Sadness was the villain character, because she’s always doing things off to the side.
JR: Oh, that’s great.
Capone: I thought we would discover that she was actually plotting to make Riley miserable as she enters her teenage years.
PD: In a weird sense, if you really want to break it down, Joy is kind of the villain, but she’s also the hero because she’s the one that learns. Sadness is already at the end of her arc at the beginning, because she knows Riley should be sad; it’s just that she’s eventually able to claim that.
JR: Joy’s the villain like George Bailey’s the villain. He’s doing the right things for the wrong reasons.
Capone: I love this is the first year we get two Pixar films. I know you’re not doing it next year, but is this going to be the new norm?
PD: Well, it’s been an expressed goal for a while to do one film every eight months.
JR: One and a half a year.
Capone: They just dropped the GOOD DINOSAUR teaser today.
JR: Did you see it?
Capone: I watched it minutes before I came down here.
JR: We’re really excited. I thought it looked cool.
Capone: I love that it’s a What if… story. I know nothing beyond that.
JR: You shouldn’t because it’s really cool. We’re really excited for it. I love the teaser.
Capone: But that’s the plan is to more or less do two?
PD: In essence, that was to balance the desire to make sequels and not have that overweigh things. A lot of times, we get heat for doing too many sequels or not enough sequels, and so we’re trying to make sure we have a balance. As things go forward, we approve things that are working, so just by accident sometimes, you’ll get two or three sequels stacked up in a row. It’s really driven by what’s working in the production pipeline. But I think that’s why it was started, to balance all that.
JR: Yeah, we just want to make more.
Capone: It’s strange to see animation studios increasing its output, because that’s not happening everywhere.
PD: Yeah, we’re lucky. We’ll see how long we can sustain it.
JR: I know. [laughs] It’s a lot of work.
Capone: Thank you both so much; it was great to see you again.