is accustomed to working in a collaborative way with the Pixar brain trust on his films, from “Up” to “Inside Out
.” But as the director, he was the one on the line when a powerful emotion—fear—told him that the movie wasn’t ready to hit its scheduled dates. It needed more time.
After showing the film out of competition at Cannes this spring, where it roused both audiences and critics to enthusiastic ovations, “Inside Out” is now this year’s leading contender for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars, winning just about every animation award it’s up for. But it isn’t easy to take an original idea—what happens inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl when she turns toward adolescence—and mold it into an accessible, entertaining, lively, funny, unpredictable animated movie that plays well for both kids and adults.
“Inside Out” was postponed from its scheduled 2014 release, which meant that 2014 boasted no Pixar release at all, while 2015 has had two (the other was “The Good Dinosaur”). It was worth waiting for. The best Pixar entry since Docter’s “Up,” “Inside Out” is a bold yet personal exploration of a world that has not been portrayed on film before: the brain.
In this case, Docter (“Monsters Inc.”) and his Pixar team applied themselves to visualizing the inner workings of the brain for this “major emotion picture,” simplifying and visualizing complex research into the real science of the mind. We are introduced to baby Riley and follow her growth to a happy young girl (Kaitlin Dias) who is going through a traumatic move with her parents from the midwest suburbs to big city San Francisco. Until now, she has led such a well-adjusted life—she’s a strong student, adores her parents and friends and plays competitive ice hockey—that her five inner emotions have been dominated by perkily optimistic Joy (Amy Poehler), who manages to keep Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) mostly at bay.
These five emotions are responsible for shuttling memories to vast memory banks, where pop jingles can play back forever and childhood imaginary friends can be forgotten in the trash pit of lost memory cells. Needless to say the move to San Francisco, where Riley’s parents are struggling to get settled, brings change. Soon this cheerful child is overcome by her other emotions. As Joy and Sadness get sucked into the myriad labyrinths of her brain, she loses confidence in hockey, no longer has established friendships to rely on, and vents against her parents.
We root for Joy and Sadness to find their way back to the control room—confronting an arduous series of tests and hurdles including a surreal dream sequence worthy of Walt Disney’s “Fantasia”—in order for Riley to regain her balance.
What’s amazing about this movie is not just the captivating storytelling, but the fact that it changes the way we view the world. This simplified version of how the mind works is not inaccurate—and many of us will never see ourselves the same way again.
In fact, at one point Docter was ready to quit and walk away. We talked at Cannes.
READ MORE: “Cannnes Festival is Dominated by Two Hollywood Masters”
Anne Thompson: On many Pixar movies there have been crisis points where they went back to revise the script, from “Toy Story” on. But it was a big deal for you to push back the release date! What happened?
Pete Docter: We were at about three-and-a-half years in, and that’s the point at which you have to stop talking about a movie and make it. We need approval on sequences. We have to build stuff and make it. And yet, as I was sitting in editorial, I was thinking, ‘I don’t think we have a movie here. At its heart, I don’t know what Joy is supposed to do in the third act, which is really kind of tell-tale. What does she learn? How is she going to go back to headquarters and act completely differently? She’s going to go back to headquarters and do… what?’
We had really entertaining little scenes of the dream production and the dinner, and I was walking around that weekend — which was Father’s Day weekend, which is kind of ironic, since that’s what got me into this movie: being a father — thinking, ‘Crap, how did we get into this point? I’m going to get fired. I don’t know what this movie is. Yet we have to make it.’
So I felt all this pressure, sick to my stomach, and I thought, ‘maybe I should just quit and save them this trouble.’ Literally I just went, ‘What would I miss? Well, I would miss my house, I’d miss the building and going to work, but, more than that, I think I would miss my friends.’
And it sort of hit me: the people that I feel closest to in life and work in general, who I’ve spent good times with. But there are people I’ve been angry with and sad with and scared for, and I realized, that’s the exact thing that we’re dealing with: the subject matter of this film is the key to the most important thing in our lives — our relationship with other people. I didn’t know exactly all the answers, but I ran back home, I wrote a bunch of stuff, and I called together [producer] Jonas [Rivera] and [co-conceiver] Ronnie [del Carmen], and I said, ‘We’ve got to scrap this whole thing that we’re doing now.’
So you had to tell them you weren’t ready?
Instead of showing the film, which we were supposed to do in three weeks, we went in front of [Pixar chiefs] John [Lasseter] and Ed [Catmull] and said, ‘We would’ve been showing you a movie, but instead I’m going to stand here and wave my arms and tell you what we’re planning to do’ — which is kind of tough, because that’s like selling the potential of something. Instead of, ‘Here’s a new car — but instead of showing you the car, we’re going to tell you about it. Maybe someday you’ll get it, but not now.’ Thankfully, both John and Ed agreed that that was much better, and not much time was wasted because the movie-making process is so much about discovery.
How did that make you feel?
I almost felt like, ‘Man, Pixar’s a really unique place that does allow you to make mistakes.’ I’d made a number of them up to that point. We’d shown people the film, and they said, ‘You know, it’s a great concept — but…’ [Laughs] So we’d not yet really delivered on the promise of the concept yet, and this was, ‘Okay, I’m going to wave my arms and try to sell you something.’ But they gave us some faith that they believed in both the concept and us as filmmakers. And that was pretty key.
It almost ends up being like therapy, where you go and uncover things about yourself. I feel like all three films I’ve directed have changed me in pretty big ways. They’re concurrent with big life things, like having a kid.
Explain how the Pixar system works.
At the heart of it is this idea of, ‘Okay, we’re going to stage the play. We’re going to put on the show, and your first staging of it — which are like comic books with music and dialogue — is, everyone knows it’s going to be flawed and incomplete, and only parts of it, as a general shape, are going to show up. Along the way, through trial and error and focus, you’re able to bring in personality aspects and details that weren’t there in the first place, and try different things. For example, on this film, we knew — right from the get-go — that this story would be about Riley’s growing-up. How do we represent that, dramatically? Ticks on a door frame? How do you show growing-up?
Along the way, we tried something like ‘Oh, there’s a school play,’ or, ‘a traumatic incident in school that she’s made fun of for.’ In the long run, we felt like moving represented that growing-up in a way that I had experienced: when I was in the fifth grade, the family took us and moved to Denmark, so I was plopped into public school not even understanding the language. That was the ultimate fish-out-of-water kind of thing. It allows us to try things, make mistakes, and go back to it again. Just that, alone, is pretty crucial — and pretty rare, really, from what I understand are most of the business of filmmaking and storytelling. You’re expected to get it right. [Laughs]
What was the big change in the movie?
Because Joy had been paired with Fear, if Joy learns from Fear, we’ve got to go back up there and do what? Fear is not an integral part of that. So we went back and re-paired Joy with Sadness, which is what Riley needs at the end. It made so much more sense, because it’s something that we, as humans, don’t want.
It was tricky, because for the emotions to be in charge we can’t have her be in physical peril. If she’s getting kidnapped or lost or something, the [emotions] aren’t going to be able to help her. So we had to come up with something where emotions and coming clean about how you really feel is the key to this. Again, to me, it’s also about the relationships. Basically, Riley, with the difficulty that her dad’s having in setting up his business, is trying to be helpful and be happy. But that is actually the exact wrong thing for her. Sadness is the answer to that. She needs to just express her feelings of loss for what she’s gone through. It was hard for her to understand and figure out, but that came closely after the Father’s Day.
The movie changes the way you look at the world.
It definitely changed me. Emotions are so instinctive that they’re invisible to us. It just happens, right? It’s not until later that you go, ‘Oh, I really snapped! I got mad at that guy. I flipped-out and got sad or whatever.’ You don’t sit there and go, ‘You know, I think the appropriate response right now would be anger.’ It just happens to you. It’s a pretty amazing system that allows you to act and not have to waste time and logic it out.
Did you think about Woody Allen’s “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex”?
Yeah, pretty early on. We thought, ‘Okay, this is similar, and there’s maybe some humor we could learn from this movie.’ We decided, for the sake of simplicity, that our movie would be in the mind, not the brain — the differentiation being that the brain is like the piece of meat. Closer to “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex” and multiple other movies. Now, I haven’t really seen the mind. That would allow us to visit places like dream production, the subconscious, the train of thought.
There are these great, amazing case studies of people who are unable to forget things. They kind of end up going bonkers. So there’s a great value to shedding unimportant things, and even things — though we take a lot of liberties — things like the brightness of memories, the intensity, the emotion of that is what gives it value. So, the more intense an emotion is, the more it’s going to be stuck there.
You dig pretty deep into the science of the mind, which you had to make accessible to us?
Riley’s emotions affect how she acts and what decision she makes, and vice-versa. This was the tough part: how do we craft the world in such a way that the decisions Riley makes affect the landscape down there? Because, most of the time, she’s walking around completely unaware of what Riley is doing up there. (I say “up there”; I guess “out there” is probably more appropriate.)
So, through a lot of trial and error, we came up with this idea of the personality islands. When Riley rejects certain aspects of her personality, they crumble. There’s one scene where Joy barely makes it off Goofball Island, and we just cut to flashes of this little kid turning around in circles with chocolate on her face, making faces. I remember my kids, at that age, and that’s really what this movie is talking about: the loss of that. You’re never going to get that back. That’s really, profoundly sad, but necessary and beautiful at the same time.
I thought, ‘Okay, this is going to be about the kid, but she’s kind of the setting,’ because I’m much more interested in the mind world — why songs get stuck in our head, or why I can’t remember that guy’s name. Those kind of things that we all grapple with, and we get to explain it, put physical reality to it. It’s at once foreign to people and utterly familiar.
To some degree, I think we mix metaphors a bit. I don’t know if ‘the subconscious’ belongs in the same space as ‘long-term memory,’ because one’s sort of a Jungian vs. Freudian thing… Anyway, I don’t really know enough to speak accurately. We’re ultimately going for entertainment value — whatever works.
You send Joy and Sadness on a sort of classical quest.
It is kind of a journey film. [Childhood imaginary friend] Bing Bong is basically a mirror character to Joy. You think about Joy’s arc: she’s going through this journey and realizing that she’s got to let go of childhood, and realize that sadness is a part of life, and using sadness to cope with the difficulty of growing up. Bing Bong is even more extreme than Joy, and our hope was that, by watching him, she can realize, ‘Gee, maybe I’m not all that valid in my belief system. He’s a little, kind of bonkers.’ [SPOILER ALERT] But, ultimately, the idea that he sacrifices himself — that childhood has to go away — is a real tragic, sad thing, but also a beautiful and sad thing.
How did Phyllis Smith effect how Sadness turned out?
Phyllis Smith was kind of key to the character Sadness. We initially thought it might be funny to have a character come in and cry, and in that exaggeration we’d find the humor. Well, that didn’t really work. It just got one-note and annoying, but we realized, once we worked with Phyllis, that she has this great way of playing insecurity. Sadness is really the most advanced and developed of the five. She understands that Riley needs to act in a different way, but she’s so insecure: ‘Oh, I’m sorry, Joy. I know I want to do this, but I won’t.’ She’s claiming her birthright, in a way, which Phyllis brought as an actress.