Pete Docter never stops moving.
The 46-year-old writer, animator, and director — and member of Pixar’s creative brain trust since the original Toy Story — was a human perpetual motion machine when I met him in Los Angeles earlier this month, always sketching, gesturing, punctuating every exchange with a playful character voice or flourish. Docter is a live wire of creative energy, and all you can think while listening to him is: Well, of course this guy makes Pixar movies.
His latest is Inside Out, opening later this week. It’s a wild premise, even by animated movie standards: the film takes place almost entirely inside an 11-year-old girl’s mind, as her five main emotions — Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger — deal with her move to San Francisco and the turmoil that ensues. Its sets are a kaleidoscopic wonderland of psychological concepts-turned-locations: there’s the Dream Factory, where dreams are shot like Hollywood blockbusters; there’s the shadowy terrain of the Subconscious; there’s even Abstract Thought, which, in one of the film’s greatest moments, is exactly as weird as you’d hope.
It may be bizarre, but as Docter and his producer Jonas Rivera recount, they never had less than full support from Pixar head John Lasseter for Inside Out. I sat down with Docter and Rivera to talk about the movie’s personal origins and how Pixar’s internal culture helped them pull it off.
Bryan Bishop: Pete, the project had a personal genesis with your family. Can you talk a little bit about where the idea came from?
Pete Docter: Yeah, it started with watching my daughter. She was a goofy, funny, silly little kid, and then when she turned 11 she got a little more serious and kind of quiet. And basically that made us wonder, what’s going on her head? And I came to work [and talked about it]. Work’s kind of a big therapy session for us, about our marriages.
Jonas Rivera: Totally.
PD: We come, and complain, and talk, and agree, and disagree, and whatever. And what was cool on this film is Jonas has younger kids, our co-director Ronnie [Del Carmen] has older. So as I was saying, "I dunno, she’s quiet," Ronnie would be like, "Oh no, it gets worse!" And Jonas, I see his eyes widening: "That’s coming?" [Turns to Rivera.] And you were coming in with bags under your eyes, going, "The kids wake up and crawl into our bed…"
JR: "They had a nightmare, and threw spaghetti on the floor, and I woke up four times." And these guys are like, "Oh man, what I wouldn’t do to be back there…"
This concept is really out there, though — you’re making a movie inside somebody’s head. Was there any pushback on that idea?
PD: No, there was encouragement. We’re lucky to work with filmmakers who make the calls, unlike most studios where businessmen kind of run things. I think Disney has wisely allowed John [Lasseter] to continue to creatively run Pixar and Disney Feature Animation.
"We’re lucky to work with filmmakers who make the calls, unlike most studios."
JR: It was really cool when he just pitched the top-level to John, because I thought it was great, and said, "Let’s get over to John and pitch this." John was sitting in his chair, and I saw him, from the side, kind of smile and sit forward. And I remember thinking, that’s exactly what you want to see in the audience. You make a movie, you want the audience to kind of settle in, and then sit forward — like, "What is this?" And I knew when I saw him sit there that we had something at least worth chasing down. And he did too, he said, "Definitely, let’s develop it."
PD: I think the things that were attractive that he saw were characters — emotions as characters, that’s made for animation. And the fact that we get to play with things that the audience is going to be familiar with, but they’ve never really seen visualized. And those are hard things to come across. Either it’s something you’ve seen 8 billion times and you’re familiar with, or it’s so far out there that you have no frame of reference, and it just doesn’t mean anything to you.
So how did you go about defining and breaking down those things? The processes of her mind, the islands; you put visuals and names to a lot of abstract concepts — sometimes literally abstract.
JR: It was a long road.
PD: It was. They would start as concepts on a whiteboard, or [just] typing lists. And then we would start to play with them [and think], "What could we do in here?" Almost like set pieces, we thought of them more like action set pieces at first. Then we just tried to thread them through the arc of the character relationships, like how is Joy going to change as a result of the experience of being in Abstract Thought, or in Dream Production, or whatever. And then the art department had the tough job, because we could kind of sketch and doodle some little lines and go, "Okay, this is the Dream Dump, where all the dreams go. And Joy’s here, and she’s mourning, and she’s looking at these memories." But what does that actually look like? Make that three-dimensional — what color is it, how big is it? All those questions, those guys had to deal with.
JR: There were some that seemed obvious, like dreams and Train of Thought; some just fit even as you say them. And some were trickier. Dream Production is the most literal set in the movie outside of the San Francisco stuff.
PD: Yeah, you’re right, that was a little more easy to handle.
JR: But even just, like, the Subconscious being [in a cave] — it was an idea coming out of both story and art that feels right, and the geography of it. And then once we sort of had ideas of how things might look — islands, and where headquarters would be, and sort of the edge of the mind where all the long-term memory is — anything that happened in the story, the geography would change. "Oh, the island’s gone down, so now they can’t get over there." So it was a big wrestling match between art and story and the direction to make that all harmonize.
Were you ever worried about making sure this would play to kids as well as adults? There’s a lot in here that leans toward an older audience.
PD: We kind of made it for ourselves. We didn’t really think too much about kids in terms of… I don’t know, I guess I think in part it’s just kinda who we are. We’re not talking down to kids or up to adults; we’re just talking straight across to us.
JR: We were worried about clarity…
PD: Sure, but that wasn’t really for kids, that was for us! Eventually we got it to kids.
JR: I remember going, "Do we have one too many ingredients in there?" There’s islands, and there’s memories, and there’s core memories which differentiate, and then here’s how it works. Maybe we didn’t have that whole first scene playing exactly how we needed it to be, because that’s sort of the exposition of Joy explaining how it works, and Amy [Poehler, "Joy"] really helped with that. We brought in all the kids from our crew, and their neighbors and soccer team kids, and we ran it and sat in the back and watched everyone. We were pretty pleased; they all got it pretty well. Not just the story, but how it all worked. I asked a bunch of questions — "What are their jobs?" — and they beautifully told it back. Sometimes better than the parents. [Laughs.]
So basically kids in Emeryville are lucky because they never know when they’re going to be brought into a secret Pixar screening.
JR: It is funny though, because we do audience previews, and if you ever come to LA and do an audience preview you get very different notes.
PD: It is true.
JR: In LA kids are like, "I think the second act arc wasn’t as strong as the first."
PD: "Yeah, the denouement was early…" They’re taking story structure classes.
JR: And up north they’re like [the imaginary friend] "Bing Bong’s funny!"
"I love it when films speak to more than just surface-level fun."
Thematically, Pixar movies have talked about the leap from childhood and adolescence a number of times. You’re doing that here as well, but it feels like you’re digging deep into it as a serious issue that people really struggle with. There’s almost an adult perspective. Is that something you were intentionally trying to do, or was it just a result of what you were saying earlier: telling stories for yourselves?
PD: I think it was more just to say something meaningful, you know? For me — and this goes back to what Jonas was saying earlier — about the mandate being "make a movie that you would want to see." I love it when — this is easy to talk about, it’s a hard thing to pull off, and it’s really only thanks to the amazing crew that we have that we did it — but I love it when films speak to more than just surface-level fun. They leave you with something to take home, they have something that’s thought-provoking. This idea had so much depth to it, both in humor, familiarity, and also allowing ourselves to see our own process of thinking and emoting in a way that we’re not really familiar with.
JR: Our goal is to make movies that we hope rattle around in your head longer than just the 90 minutes it takes to see them. And that’s what we mean when we say it’s easy to say, and hard to do. Because you want to entertain people, but you hope it lasts.