Pixar superstars Pete Docter and Jonas Rivera were in town this week, promoting their beautifully experimental, heartwarming, family adventure “Inside Out” — which we’re not allowed to say anything about until June…but no really, mark it on your calendars and plan to see it opening weekend.
Because of some scheduling issues, we Flix Junkies ended up sitting down with Docter and Rivera at the end of an exhausting press schedule, and we’d just like to note that both men were super gracious and energetic. We were fans of both men before this week, but now we’re writing haikus in their honor during our off hours.
Travis: First of all, for me personally, my family’s in the middle of a move right now and I have a daughter who’s about the same age as Riley, and so I was watching this with my heart just totally attached to her character and I want to start off asking if this was coming from a personal place for you?
Docter: It was really a very personal thing in a couple ways. My daughter was 11 when this film got its birth, and she was changing a lot. She was a very spunky, spirited little kid, and then she was starting to become more reclusive and quiet. That also rang bells for me because as a kid, I moved to Denmark right at about age 11. It was a very difficult time because I felt like, “I don’t understand any of the rules here,” right at the time when it’s the most important thing in the wiring, we need to socially connect with other people. I felt the least prepared to deal with that. I think a lot of those elements went into the bucket there.
Travis: Obviously that’s kind of the heart of the story, but when I see something so conceptual or so experimental, I guess, with the narrative, I wonder if it’s that’s the challenge to you. Do you start with, “I have this idea for an experimental narrative. I wonder if I can sustain that for an entire movie”? Or do you have this story of Riley over here on the left, and you realize you need another perspective to really tell the story you’re going for?
Docter: It’s funny. The very basic concept at the beginning, even before I pitched it to [turns to Rivera] you guys, was using emotions as characters. That just seemed like such a no-brainer for animation fun that that was kind of my toehold into it. I thought like, if you get anger and fear and I didn’t even know what other emotions there were at that time, they felt like characters that would be fun to write for and funny to watch.
Rivera: Didn’t you have Joy as Optimism at first?
Docter: Yeah. I think I had anger, fear, optimism, and then some other potential characters. So a lot of the nuts and bolts came in the development of the story which took three, four years to do.
Rivera: But it started with, this will be fun. It wasn’t, let’s challenge ourselves, or we have a story over here. It’s this is a fun thing to do.
Docter: Every time we start out I’m always saying, I don’t want to do something we’ve done already. I want to try to push this in some way. It gets harder as we do more and more movies and other studios are doing movies. There’s less stuff that hasn’t been explored in some way or another. That was something that was always part of the mix.
Rivera: But it wasn’t like we said let’s do something that’s experimental. It was just let’s do something new. Let’s tell a story that’s new and go somewhere we’ve never been. It happened to be a really tricky. I remember Brad Bird saying something like …
Docter: “Great movie guys. I’m glad you’re making it.”
Rivera: Good luck.
Travis: When I watched the trailer, I asked, how do you sustain this? It’s a clever concept, but how do you do this? You did. You did manage to do it, but just for me as a consumer, I questioned if you could keep it up for an entire movie.
Docter: Well, when you open the hood, it’s the same, I think, across the board. All of our films have a central relationship that ends up affecting and changing a main character. Joy, in this case is our main character. That was not easy because early on we felt like, can emotions emote other feelings than what they are? Should Anger always be angry at everything, and Joy always joyful and so on? That might end up being correct scientifically, but it was too limiting as storytellers.
Travis: It’s interesting so I guess Joy really — I mean now it’s obvious — she was the protagonist, but I still really got attached to Riley …
Docter: Oh, good.
Travis: And possibly I considered Riley the protagonist because Joy’s so in love with Riley.
Rivera: That’s great actually …
Docter: That is good…
Rivera: And also, even though Joy is the protagonist, her story is nothing without the stakes meaning so much to Riley. She loves Riley.
Docter: We sort of had twin protagonist in a sense because we have the outside story of Riley. She’s completely unaware that this whole struggle of and world is going on inside of her, and then there’s Joy. The two stories had to talk to each other. As we developed the film, we realized when one world affects the other or vice versa, each one of them exponentially get more interesting. Early on we didn’t have, say, the islands of personality. We realized what’s really at stake here is Riley’s personality. That’s what as parents we value. That’s why it’s sad when my daughter is changing. How do we represent that physically? After a bunch of false starts and things that didn’t quite work, we ended up with this idea.
Travis: Both of you, so if I look at “Up” and then now at “Inside Out,” your films stand out from the rest of Pixar’s library because they are set in a very real world and deal with some real world problems. We’re not talking about ants or toys. We’re talking about real people. I have several questions about that starting with how do you keep that in balance?
Docter: It’s funny because at the same time or in the same breath, it’s also probably the most cartoony that we’ve ever done as a style and the way that we represented it. But I think what we’re all attracted to is truth.
Rivera: I would agree. I think we’ve found or we’ve at least worked toward that sweet spot of honoring the movies we love like the classic Disney animated movies, the “Dumbos” or the “Lady and the Tramps.” They’re just really fun and entertaining but have this emotional core to them. I don’t know, they hit you and stay with you for a long time. That’s what I’m after. They tend to be full of emotion and truth and that’s why when Pete pitched [Inside Out], the concept was one thing, but the fact that it was based on observation on his daughter made it real. That’s a personal truthful thing, so no matter where we take it, I know it’s always got that core, and that’s really important when you’re trying to honor the fact that you have this job where you get to make something and put it in the world. You want it to be legit. It has to be real or why do it.
Travis: You get to a point with every film, I think, where you know what the adventure is. You know the linear story that you’re trying to follow. But my favorite part is when Riley’s mom comes in, and she throws in a very confusing thing which is, “I’m so proud of you,” which is coming from a real place and an honest and seemingly healthy place, but it may not be for Riley. There’s no answer for it. I love you guys did it in “Up” and you did it in “Inside Out” and kudos to you, but I think that talks to what you were just saying about incorporating those honest moments.
Docter: For us it was a reinforcing, just at the moment, Joy was losing her viewpoint and her statement on the way things should be run, she was having to step back from the console, and the other guys are going to now start to complain and get angry and things like that. Mom comes in and says, “You know what I really love is when you’re happy.” So Joy’s like, “Oh, okay. I should continue to be in charge.” That was really the driver behind that sequence because it reinforced Joy to give it a little more interest to that.
Rivera: It’s Joy’s “Told you so,” kind of.
Docter: Yeah, which of course in the end might be wrong on mom’s part as well. We wrote that a couple times so that it didn’t feel too manipulative or like you say, it’s honest from mom’s standpoint. She is valuing the fact that Riley’s happy and upbeat about the move.
Travis: And I love that all of your emotions were confused at the same time. Nobody knew what do with that situation including the audience.
Docter: I don’t know what to do with it.
Rivera: Including the filmmakers.
Travis: Again with “Up” and with “Inside Out,” we’re dealing with, I think, some really, not heavy topics, but new things, and I wonder is there a jury there. Are you the jury that says, “This is too dark. We can’t go here.” Because you guys have gone some interesting places and really honest places that you don’t see very often in family entertainment.
Rivera: There’s sort of a jury. It’s not me. I’m part of it. I mean I’m the producer of the film so I certainly try to be the canary in the coal mine. All the filmmakers, the writers, the directors, the producers, the story artists, we constantly screen the film to each other, and we’re very critical of the films. That comes through, so you can see patterns. You get, I don’t know, the structuralist writing, directing film notes. Then the other thing we do is we bring in departments that don’t normally give notes, so I’ll bring in finance or security, honestly, because then you’re stimulating what a real audience might see, and we look at patterns. It might be, oh, yeah, no one likes Joy or whatever it would be. If 50 people said they didn’t understand what this may mean, so it tells us maybe what the story needs.
Docter: It has been interesting. I think back on “Up,” we had that sequence we called ‘Married Life’ at the beginning where we had a beat where they can’t have kids. We did take some people looking at us saying that was too far. You guys pushed it too far. So we did an exercise of cutting it out. Interestingly not only did you not care as deeply in that sequence, you didn’t ultimately care as much on the whole film because that darkness was missing.
Rivera: Yeah, and it’s like six seconds.
Docter: We said all right. It might be difficult for somebody, but I think it’s necessary to really invest in the story.
Rivera: I had a friend of mine … All my friends always tell me, “Ah, I love it!” But with that part specifically my friends said, “Yeah man, that one got to us.
Travis: There’s so many people who are affected by that issue, and if it isn’t directly, we still have aunts who are like second mothers to us or to our children and it just connects so beautifully. Absolutely love what you two are doing specifically with your films and thank you for going to places that other artists are not necessarily willing to approach, at least in the family genre.
Docter: Thank you. It’s great to hear. I also have to say, man, we’re lucky to work at a place that allows us to explore, make mistakes and that will support us when we find something that works.
Rivera: Pixar is pretty special because we push and I’m proud of the films we make, but we’re able to do that. John Lasseter pushes us, and it’s pretty rare, I think, when you got heads of studios that … People ask me, how did you pitch even a movie like “Up?” I said, I don’t know. You pitch it to john. He was up for it, and we made it.
Travis: Well, I love “Up,” and I’ll say that the first 15 minutes or so of “Up” is among my favorite movies ever. That first section is just so, so good.
Docter: It’s good to be here.
Travis: Well, thank you again. Thank you for coming to Salt Lake, and can I ask you a question maybe a few fans are wondering? I know that you’re with Disney now and Marvel and “Star Wars” and “Monkey Island,” which I hope someone explores one day. Is there ever going to be a marriage between Pixar and one of these other universes?
Docter: It’s impossible to say ‘never’ or ‘yes.’ I think what it would take, like all the films, is an interested talented person to make it happen. If John Lasseter said, “I really want to see a combination of Marvel and Pixar,” then it would happen. So far we all have these independent towers that we work in. We cross-pollinate once in a while, but most of the time we’re just off in our little tower.
Rivera: It’s cool. Where that does happen strangely, and this is something we’re passionate about, is the parks. All of those are going to show up in Disneyland and Disney World. It’s kind of cool. I don’t know, there’s just something about all the characters live there.
Docter: That is interesting. You have to ask do the Marvel comic characters belong next to Star Wars?
Rivera: Right. I don’t know.
Travis: Right. And can they shake hands with that princess.
Rivera: Even Merida. Does Merida stand next to Cinderella? I don’t know.
Travis: She should be everywhere.
Docter: Frankly I like to think of our films as being believable enough that even it upsets me to see Nimo show up in the same frame as Sully. I like to think they’re different universes. They don’t belong together. I don’t know. That’s me, but I don’t run things.
Travis: Well, thanks to both of you again.
Docter: Thank you.
And there you have it. Again, we don’t expect to sit down with cooler cats than Pete Docter and Jonas Rivera. All our best to them and “Inside Out” which hits theaters this June.