'Soul' Searching: Inside Disney and Pixar's Most Existential Movie Yet (Exclusive)

How Pete Docter and co-director Kemp Powers explored the animated before and afterlife.

Pixar films have tackled a number of heady topics -- exploring identity, coping with loss and the inevitability of change, and that's just the Toy Story franchise -- but Soul might just ask the studio's most existential question yet: What is the purpose of life?

It should come as no surprise then that Soul hails from Pete Docter, who helped script the first Toy Story films before taking the helm on such thoughtful titles as Inside Out and Up. This movie follows a middle-school band teacher, Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), whose dreams of becoming a professional jazz musician are put on hold when he falls down an open manhole and lands in The Great Before.

There, he meets a reluctant new soul, 22 (Tina Fey), and the duo set off to return Joe to his body and a second chance at living. Phylicia Rashad, Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, Angela Bassett and Daveed Diggs round out the film's Earthly cast, while the spiritual realm boasts the voices of Graham Norton, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade and Rachel House, among others.

The making of Soul provided plenty to ponder on for Pixar: It's their first film to feature a Black lead, as well as the first completed remotely amid the pandemic and the first to debut exclusively on Disney+. ET logged onto Zoom with Docter, co-director Kemp Powers and producer Dana Murray for a look at how the project was brought to life.

Early visual development art of 'Soul Suggestions.' (Pixar Animation)

ET: The places this movie goes to are so existential and grand. What was that first kernel of an idea that evolved into Soul? And when you have that idea, how do you know that it'll make for a Pixar movie?

PETE DOCTER: Both with Monsters and Inside Out, they were born of like, "What is intriguing to me as an animator?" And really, this film started with, "What does a soul look like?" Because it would force us to do nonhuman-based stuff that animation does so well. Then as we thought about it, it was like, "Wow, there's some really deep levels to this." It's the core of who we are! This came about watching my kids grow up and realizing they were already who they are when they were born. They had aspects of them. How is that possible? They haven't spent any time in the world, and yet somehow, they have a sense of personality and character already. So, it just seemed like if this is intriguing to me and when I tell a couple of other people, their eyes light up and they start to think about it, that's what we need to get going. From there, of course, it's a lot of work and a lot of new ideas that get folded in and typically, you end up with this table full of ingredients and you're like, "This meal's going to taste awful! Because it's got everything in the world. We have to clear out some stuff and really pair it down." It's kind of a constant winnowing and expanding process.

Visual development art of Joe Gardner. (Pixar Animation)
Visual development art of Joe Gardner. (Pixar Animation)

As I understand, when you settled on Joe being Black and soundtracking the movie with jazz music, that's when Kemp came aboard. Can you talk about why it was important to have him write and co-direct with you and how the film became more authentic through his collaboration?

Docter: The character went through a number of changes. It started as a heist movie where two souls were going to get an Earth pass so they could sneak off to Earth. Later, once we arrived at a character who was on Earth, he was an actor for a while. And then we settled on a musician, because we wanted something that was fun to watch and root-able, that we didn't feel was a selfish goal like he just wants to be famous. If you say, "I'm an actor," you think, "Oh, you just want to be famous." Which may or may not be true! But, with a jazz musician, you don't think that, because nobody really knows a lot of jazz musicians. There's just a passion for it that you go, "That feels noble. Yeah, I'm behind that guy." So, once we knew he was a jazz musician, we felt like, "Jazz grew out of the Black culture, so how can we not make him Black?" And then we realized, "I don't know anything about that life. That's completely different than the way I was raised." And so, we were lucky to meet Kemp.

And Kemp, can you talk about where Soul was at when you came on and what you wanted to bring to it?

KEMP POWERS: When I came onboard, Joe was probably one of the least developed characters, even though he was still the main character. And I think there might've been a certain amount of -- I don't want to speak for someone else -- but there might've been some fear. Like, we don't want to mess this up, so Joe was just not clearly defined at all. The reel that they showed me was only reel number two -- Pixar usually does about eight or nine reels of the entire film -- and a lot of the questions I had spoke to the how ill-defined Joe was at the moment. So, I just started pouring some of my ideas based on my own experiences into it. But I was also really clear from the beginning that I'm one guy from New York who happens to be Black. I don't represent all Black people. It was important that there were lots of other voices. I think you could fall into a trap if you say, "Well, we're sure this is fine. Kemp said it was cool."

Also, when Pete made me co-director, it's really important for people to understand, I wasn't just there for the Black stuff. My contributions to the film are not simply limited to, "OK, it's something Black. Kemp, take it away!" There were a lot of interesting ideas involving Joe that were not my ideas. Similarly, there were a lot of ideas in 22's world and in the soul world that were. The whole idea of an antagonist, Terry, that was something I pitched Pete. There was no antagonist whatsoever. I get how easy the narrative is to say like, "The Black stuff is Kemp," but I can't emphasize enough how this was a group lift behind the scenes. And whereas my personal experiences were a starting point, I believe that people appreciated my contributions just as another passionate artist.

Storyboard art from 'Soul.' (Pixar Animation)

This feels more adult than other Pixar films. It's a middle-aged protagonist, it deals with themes of missed opportunities and discovering one's purpose and even jazz music I tend to think of as a more mature genre. Was there any concern about kids connecting before you get to that sort of adorable world of The Great Before?

DANA MURRAY: I think there's always concerns. I mean, we definitely talked about it, but going through the experience on Inside Out -- because those same questions were raised -- we had a kids' screening early on and kids were able to explain to their parents exactly what was going on. We had faith in that. So, we did the same thing. We had a kid screening and the kids were able to explain to us adults exactly what was happening. And something that's really exciting for me is I have two little girls, a 7-year-old and a 9-year-old, and I have some of the Joe toys here that we've been reviewing with our products team. And they are playing with Joe. My daughter has been showing these on her Zooms and playing, so I think kids love big questions like what this movie's asking.

[Docter holds up a Joe Gardner toy that suddenly announces, "I am a jazz musician!"]

Powers: Also, with the music, don't forget I was introduced to classical music through Tom and Jerry. I was introduced to opera through Bugs Bunny and "Killed a Wabbit." Kids suck it up like a sponge. If anything, it'll give them a curiosity about something that they wouldn't have before. All these genres of music that I love so much as an adult, when I really think back to when they were first introduced to me, it was often through a children's cartoon.

I think the last Pixar movie with a truly human protagonist was Coco, which was also dealt with death, albeit from the perspective of coping with the loss of a loved one. What's going on over at Pixar with all of the existential pondering?

Docter: We're all gettin' old. [Laughs] You want to feel like, if I'm going to be working on this thing for four or five years, I want to have something that's going to engage me and make me think and continue to challenge me. So, it can't be anything too easy, and you want it to be personal and you want it to be universal. I will say there's a lot of stuff coming up by younger directors that don't have as much to do with death. There's something for everybody.

Kemp: I would argue this film is less about death and it's much more about life and purpose. It's about, What should I be doing with my life? I think there is an important distinction there. It really is a celebration of life.

Visual development art featuring a Counselor in The Great Before. (Pixar Animation)
Visual development art of 'The Zone.' (Pixar Animation)

In developing The Great Before and Great Beyond, you could really do anything you want and make it anything you want. Where do you even start then?

Docter: I met with a bunch of priests, a rabbi-- It's going to sound like a joke in a minute. They didn't walk into a bar. We even met a shaman who came and spoke with us. We really just tried to turn over every rock. Like, what is it that people believe exists outside of our physical beings? And how do you make sense of it? Obviously, most of them get to, like, "Well, it's totally unexplainable, so we're going to use metaphors to talk about it." The nice thing for us was that only one or two really even mentioned anything about before life. There's a lot of focus on afterlife, but very little attention on before. So, it meant we kind of got to make it up. And as you say, we didn't really know where to go.

For whatever reason, the thing that came to mind first was I imagined Aristotle and Socrates all standing around pontificating and learning philosophy. So, we thought, "What if there's Greek columns and fields where people could learn?" But it felt very specific and Western. Souls are going to China, they're going to Alaska, they're going everywhere, so it had to be beyond any sort of cultural references. That's why we designed this very abstract but hopefully somewhat austere and formal architecture. Everything you do has an effect and what [production designer] Steve Pilcher was going for was a slight bit of nature -- so it doesn't look manmade -- but it's got a formality to it, that there's an intelligence at work, that souls are given these personality attributes with some sort of rhyme and reason.

Do you each have a favorite element of The Great Before, a detail that you think is particularly clever or inventive or moving?

Docter: I really liked the counselors myself, just because they are basically the complexity of the universe distilling itself down into a form that you stupid humans can understand. And it's a little bit off-putting and weird, because they don't quite look like people -- you can see they kind of have eyes, but they're odd -- and I think they're pretty funny.

Powers: I really like the concept of the lost soul, the idea that your passion can become your obsession and that obsession can consume you. I know it's very dark, but basically, that's Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. Like, his presence on the astral plane is a hulking behemoth of a monster, because he's just obsessed. I feel like that's something that people can really understand and get with.

Murray: Even more after sheltering in place for six months, Joe's museum -- his life museum -- has really made me ponder, "What would be in my museum?" Just thinking of those moments in my life, that's a really emotional thing to think about.

I personally love the new souls. When Joe spells "H-E double hockey sticks" and they start chanting, "Hell!," I was like, Is this allowed?!

Murray: We're not sure, is it?! [Laughs]

Docter: I know. We were kind of surprised.

Visual development art of Joe Gardner and 22. (Pixar Animation)

You've worked on this movie for so long without any idea of what the world could have or would have been when you're releasing it. It's coming out now, and it has the first Black lead in a Pixar movie amid the Black Lives Matter movement and our continued reckoning with racism. It's also a movie that has a lot to say about living in a year that unexpectedly, with the pandemic, is very filled with death. Why is now the right time for Soul to come out?

Docter: Of course, we didn't plan it because we started this five years ago or whatever, but I think it does have a lot to say about where we are, and I hope it will give people kind of an outlet. A bit of an escape, but also a chance to really discuss a lot of this stuff. I feel like there's so many days -- maybe before March -- when I would wake up and I'd be like, "All right, what do I have to do before lunch?" And then, "What do I have to do before dinner?" You just kind of march through your day, and then it's done. That's a sad way to live. The idea that you're waking yourself up to life and looking at it anew every day, I think is really exciting. That's what we try to communicate in this movie.

Soul debuts exclusively on Disney+ on Dec. 25.


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