In Pixar’s “Soul,” jazz pianist Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) struggles to escape the afterlife after an injury endangers his upcoming gig. The movie is written by Pete Docter (“Inside Out”), Kemp Powers (“One Night in Miami”), and Mike Jones, who also makes his Pixar debut as a lead producer. Jones got his start as a film journalist for Filmmaker and IndieWire before turning to screenwriting and eventually landing at Pixar. Now, he’s on track for serious awards contention, with “Soul” leading the field for Best Animated Feature as well as contending in other categories.
It wasn’t an easy journey. Here, Jones recounts his history and how it inspired his new project, as told to IndieWire’s Eric Kohn.
I grew up in San Antonio, Texas in a film-loving family, but I never thought writing or being part of the film industry was an option for me. We didn’t have a lot of money. There was a time during high school where I was on my own, living in a room at my aunt’s house, holding down two jobs while trying to graduate. I didn’t make the sort of grades that opened doors. So I felt my future prospects were narrow. I was a geeky, skinny kid who could put his thoughts on paper pretty well, so I went to college for two years to be an English teacher. I assumed that’s what people did who liked books and writing. But I fell in with a group of people at the University of North Texas who were all film geeks.
My film diet at that point was “Star Wars” and “E.T.” This one guy was like, “You should go watch this movie ‘8 1/2’ in the film library.” I put on those horrible plastic high-school-grade headphones and I put on the VHS. I remember two things from that experience: how much my head hurt throughout the entire movie and how much I could not turn it off anyway. I was so confused by it, and yet enthralled at how beautiful it was. I was trying really hard to make those two things match — being so confused yet so enmeshed by this unconventional narrative.
From that point on, I was dead-set on this steady diet of art movies. The idea of going to film school was still foreign to me, but the group I was hanging out with all wanted to go be like Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, who both went to NYU. I decided, “well, why not?” So I wrote a script — I don’t even remember what it was — and got into NYU. For some reason, going to New York and being involved in film opened the world to me. It was as if this weird East coast university was giving me a ticket out of Texas.
Granted, it cost me a bunch of money that my family did not have. I took out every loan I could plus personal loans because it was something I just had to go do. Texas is so big and my family is spread across every inch of that place that the idea of leaving it felt odd. Yet when I suddenly could entertain that idea, I had to get out.
At first, I decided I wanted to be a cinematographer. But a writing teacher there pulled me aside and said, “You ought to think about screenwriting.” One day, I went to the IFFM — later known as IFP Week — which took over the Angelica for a weekend. I stumbled into the theater and saw all these people hawking their movies. Soon, I was involved with IFP, and because I could write, I got noticed by Karol Martesko, the publisher at Filmmaker Magazine at the time.
I started as the special projects manager at Filmmaker in 1993, which was a wonderful time in independent film history. All this stuff was coming out and people were really noticing it. Filmmaker’s editor, Scott Macaulay, gave me a shot at writing. From that point on, I became the Managing Editor for the next four years and I just loved it. We were on 57th Street at the DGA building, and IndieWire began as our sister publication in the office next door, so I got involved with them as well. Co-founders Eugene Hernandez and Mark Rabinowitz had so much energy and it was clear that they were starting something exciting.
Throughout all of this, I kept writing screenplays. By 1999, I had written three or four scripts. However, it was always hard to be taken seriously as a screenwriter, even when I started making a little money off it. When I’d tell people I was a screenwriter and they knew I was a journalist, it was hard for them to see it. There was a stigma to it, in a strange way. An impatience in trying to be something that I wasn’t. When I would hide the fact I was a journalist when submitting my work, I could feel the door open slightly more.
I wrote a script called “Miller,” and got it to a casting agent, who sent it to Chris Cooper, Marcia Gay Harden, and Scarlett Johansson. Suddenly, we had this movie that was going to get made — and then, it didn’t. But the script got around and Chris Cooper’s management company read it and asked me if I wanted a manager. I signed with Lindsay Williams at AMG and David Kopple at Gersh. From that point on I started to get more work. Soon, I was what you could call a “working screenwriter”: I didn’t make a lot of money, but I made enough to get by, enough to be a full-time screenwriter for about eight years.
I got comfortable enough to write a spec, an adaptation of a book called “The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break” by Steven Sherrill. It was about the Minotaur as a short-order grill cook at a family steakhouse in Wichita, Kansas. I connected with it. I had worked those sorts of jobs in Texas. I had those burns on my hands from cooking grease. I knew that sort of loneliness of low-wage work. My original scripts always drew from my life, and I usually had more success with those. Yet “Minotaur” added a genre element that was exciting to me. I could put aspects of my life into these fantasy elements. It was a real revelation. Wished I’d learned it earlier.
I was always limping along a little bit, and had decided that I needed to go to L.A. My first son had just been born and I felt a pressure to make this a real career. Everybody said, “You have to go to L.A.,” and so we did. The “Minotaur” script was going to be my new writing sample.
Then the writers strike happened at the worst possible moment.
When we arrived in LA, the strike was imminent. You could see it coming. I was desperate for work. But nobody would hire me in the lead-up to the strike. So I put the “Minotaur” script in the drawer and tried to figure out what to do.
I started putting out feelers to my colleagues in journalism. Eugene Hernandez recommended me to Dana Harris. She wanted somebody to cover film festivals for Variety.com while contributing the occasional independent film piece to the daily and weekly. And this was Variety, with gold-leaf business cards. A world away from Filmmaker. I’d never made that kind of money as a journalist. And it was right when this new idea of online publishing was taking shape.
The daily and weekly were still being published, but off in the corner were me, Dana, Anne Thompson, and a few others throwing stuff onto various blogs. I remember getting into trouble with the print editors when I published something that spoiled a story going into print. We were able to get a person into the first screening of “There Will Be Blood” out of Fantastic Fest. I told the writer to gauge the room because the buzz was so hot. I posted the reactions on my blog, The Circuit, and I got in so much trouble because it was considered a review. Todd McCarthy was pissed! And he had a point. I did cross a line. I was so ashamed.
I worked at Variety for two years. I loved it. But after Variety was acquired, there was a lot of downsizing — Ben Fritz, Anne Thompson, and I got let go, among others. I was let go right when we found out we were having a second kid. So what could I do?
Well, I took “The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break” out of the drawer, rewrote it, and gave it to my agent and manager (who, luckily, had stuck with me through the strike). That proved to be the sample that got me back into the business. I remember David Kopple saying he was going to send it to every person in his rolodex. Suddenly, when I thought I’d really have to crawl my way back up, I was getting work again. One of the places that read it was Pixar. They called and said, “We’d love to meet you whenever you’re in the Bay Area.” I said, “I’ll be there tomorrow,” got in my car, and drove up there to meet Mary Coleman and Emily Zulauf in the development department.
I loved that place. It was so far away from any of the studios where I’d been working: this beautiful little bubble untouched by Hollywood. At first, I didn’t think there was any way I could end up working there. But Pixar doesn’t necessarily want animation writers — they look for writers out of Sundance, for example. The studio can make anything funny or look great, but they know that they need the story. They’re more attracted to the odd dramatic writers (and a few who have comedy chops as well). And so I got my first job with them helping out Henry Selick while Pixar was overseeing a film of his. I worked for him for a few months and then jumped into Pixar to help out on “The Good Dinosaur.”
During that time, I became close with “Coco” writer Matt Aldrich and “Inside Out” writer Meg LeFauve. I watched their films come together. We were on each other’s Brain Trusts and went through Pixar’s rigorous story process. It drove home the notion that the narratives in these stories coalesce toward a pure, emotional moment. They’re looking for writers who can build and drive to that emotion. Now, as the studio’s Senior Story and Creative Artist, that’s what I tell every writer who comes in. The core of Pixar’s iterative process is to lay out that foundation.
To me, Pixar doesn’t ever come across as a factory. It’s run by artists. And Pixar has this mandate to “fail upwards” built into their DNA. Fail fast. Fail a lot. Throw it up and keep throwing it up. Their great advantage is that they can shoot the movie over and over again for years. This iteration process at Pixar is the key.
My dad, who encouraged me to leave Texas and pursue a career in film, died during the making of “Soul.” We had remained very close and the experience of losing him inspired a key moment in the movie. There’s a sequence called “Epiphany” where Joe pulls out all the objects he’s been collecting during his journeys with 22. He lays them out on the piano and “plays” them. In that moment, he triggers not only the memories that 22 created, but others from his own life.
Pete Docter, Kemp Powers, and I would have long conversations about what it means to feel fulfilled in life. Early on, we didn’t want the character of Joe to find satisfaction as a successful jazz pianist. We all have a measure of success in our careers now, but on our deathbeds, are we going to be thinking about that? We don’t think so. We’ll be thinking about our close relationships, the awe in our lives, the regrets, even perhaps something as simple as digging your toes in the sand or being with your dad in his final days.
Pixar asks their artists to constantly draw from their lives — what makes you emotional, what do you cherish from your life, what’s hard about it. Before I encountered that, I’d write specs that drew from my upbringing. And while they got me a lot of work, they were never made. Sometimes when I’d get rewrite work or assignments, I could sneak my life into the story. But Pixar expects that sort of honesty to inform their films. It’s a stressful yet wonderful POV to write from. I can’t imagine being anywhere else.
“Soul” is now streaming on Disney+.