Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley pen Pixar’s latest classic

June 15, 2015 Danny Munso

Pete Docter felt like a failure. He was taking a walk on Father’s Day weekend in 2013 knowing he had to present the current version of his latest film for Pixar – Inside Out – to studio head John Lasseter on that Monday morning. Deep down, Docter knew the movie was simply not working. It had spent three years in development and was on the verge of being canceled. Thankfully, he gets his good ideas while taking long walks.


Inside Out was always going to be a problematic production due simply to the inventiveness of the idea – an animated film that takes you inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley. Docter came up with the concept in the aftermath of his 2009 Oscar-winning classic, Up, as he was in search of a story that could only be told through the genius of the artists at Pixar, the company he has called home for over 20 years. “I knew there had been other cool ideas that had been done about having to do with going inside someone’s body, like people traveling through the bloodstream and stuff,” he says. “But I wondered about the mind. I’ve never seen emotions as characters. That immediately seemed to be like a fun place to explore and personify those emotions.”

Around this time, Docter began to notice behavioral changes in his 11-year-old daughter, Elie (famous to Pixar fans as the voice of Young Ellie in Up). “She was going from a goofy, rambunctious person to someone much more quiet and reclusive,” Docter says. “It made me wonder what’s going on in her head and how that change happens. It hit me that I wasn’t going to be sitting on the floor playing dolls with her anymore.” Docter relayed his ideas to co-director Ronnie del Carmen, who’d worked with him as the story supervisor on Up, and they agreed the concept of a film about emotions was nothing without the hook of being able to view the changes in a child through the eyes of parents. “Ronnie said ‘If this is going to be a film about emotions by the guys who made Up, it better be emotional to watch. So what are we talking about in a movie?'” Docter recalls. “A lot of people who worked on the film have kids and we would always talk about how watching your kid grow up is a sad but necessary and beautiful experience. That seemed like good turf to be hunting in for a story.”

Pixar is notorious for the fact-finding research trips on which executives send their story teams, and Inside Out was no exception. But this time, rather than visiting the exotic mountains of Peru like he did for Up, Docter and his team interviewed psychologists, psychiatrists and neurologists about exactly what is going on inside all of our minds. His original pitch for the film contained character ideas for Optimism, Anger and Fear, but he knew he needed more. “We tried to find out what emotions are there?” he says. “How many are there? What is their function and purpose? The consensus was there is no consensus.”

Different scientists believe we are made up of a varying degree of emotions, ranging from as little as 3 to as many as 27. The filmmakers briefly considered including them all, before coming across the work of San Francisco-based Dr. Paul Ekman who identified our six core emotions as joy, sadness, fear, disgust, anger and surprise. After playing with those six – and a seventh, pride – for a short period of time, Docter thought fear and surprise might appear too similar. So Inside Out became about Riley’s five core emotions: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black). “Animation does strong, caricatured personalities the best,” Docter says. “So we just trusted our own gut in terms of what we thought we need to tell this story best.”

Because the film was taking place in a world that has never existed onscreen, the filmmakers had no context for what the inside of a mind would look like. Everything you see in Inside Out is built from scratch and presented not because of any particular scientific fact discovered by the creative team but rather invented to serve the emotional story the team wanted to tell. Docter pictured Riley’s memories appearing in the form of kinetic balls from machine sculptures made by the artist George Rhoads. Early on, the writers also came up with the idea that the emotions can rewind the memories like a video recording. These core memories – pivotal moments in Riley’s life that become jeopardized in the story – came later in development, as did her Personality Islands which were crafted as a way to help the audience visualize what is important and ultimately what’s at stake for Riley.

Early in the process, the film gained another screenwriter as Docter tapped Josh Cooley to help him on the script. Though Cooley was on board as head of the story department from day one and had participated in the very first story meeting with Docter, del Carmen and producer Jonas Rivera, it was never a plan to make him one of the official writers. “I was always in the writing room when we were notecarding and trying to figure out exactly what the story is and the proper way to tell it,” Cooley says. That evolved to Docter calling Cooley into his office from time to time to talk out a scene. “He would say, ‘I’m trying to figure out this area here,’ So we’d just brainstorm together and bounce ideas back and forth. Then he would say ‘Yeah that sounds great Why don’t you write it?’ So I would type up some pages, and he and I would go back and forth and that just kind of never ended.”

Making a Pixar film is drastically different from the process involved in a live-action one where a script needs to be in place long before anything is filmed. On Pixar movies, the script is always in flux as the storyboard artists draft, redraft and then screen rough versions of scenes until all involved agree something is working. That’s why, despite a few years of fruitful development on the story, a film like this can stall with no concrete ending.

But Docter and his team had a lot of the story in place: Riley’s Minnesota-based family gets uprooted to San Francisco and she has a hard time adjusting. These changes coincide with this situation happening in her head: after accidentally leaving Headquarters, the place where the emotions are stationed, Joy and Fear traverse the various parts of Riley’s mind to retrieve her core memories. But there was no real path through the thematic territory Docter had hoped to cover when he first pitched the idea. “I knew Joy and Fear had to escape and that Joy had to get back to Headquarters to do…something,” Docter says. “I just wasn’t sure. We were getting to a point where we had to stop talking about this and start making the movie. The schedule was telling us that. But I could tell the movie was missing something. We had a bunch of really entertaining scenes but no real master thesis to what it was saying.”

So Docter went on his Father’s Day walk, thought he was a failure and actually contemplated the possibility of getting fired. He is one of Pixar’s most important figures so there was no danger of that happening but the thought crossed his mind that if he did get taken off the project, he would miss working with his friends. He thought about what bonded him to those people. Yes, they shared a lot of good times together, but they also shared arguments or have been afraid for the others or been with one another in moments of great sadness and all that only strengthened their bond. “These emotions do these individual jobs, but they also connect us together,” he says. “This very subject matter we’re dealing with here is at the core of the most important thing in our lives: our relationship with the ones we love.”

Docter called del Carmen and Rivera and the trio met late that Sunday night. In the new ending in Docter’s mind, Sadness, not Fear, would accompany Joy on her journey and the acceptance of Sadness would be the key to how Riley and her parents’ wounds are healed. “I knew Sadness would be the thing that brought the family back together,” Docter says. “We initially paired Joy with Fear because Fear was a big part of my life, especially at Riley’s age. So it seemed like it was a relevant and important thing to play. But I knew Sadness would be the key. We tell our kids to not be sad, but yet there is real value to these emotions and what they add to life. It allows you to connect with the world in a deeper way.”

Key to fleshing out this idea was a new addition to the writing team in the form of Meg LeFauve. She had never received an official writing credit, but was a veteran of the industry as an executive, producer (she produced the 2002 indie hit Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys), and consultant. A spec of hers made it to the desk of one of Pixar’s secret weapons, Senior Development Executive Mary Coleman. One of Coleman’s jobs is to find outside writers to pair with the in-house talent, like Tom McCarthy for Up, Ben Queen for Cars 2, and a pre-Oscar-winning Michael Arndt after Coleman read a spec he had written: Little Miss Sunshine. She thought LeFauve would be a good match for Inside Out, and Docter agreed. “I flew up to Pixar and met with Pete,” LeFauve recalls. “We spent a lot of time talking about who I was and what I cared about. We also talked about my experience before I became a writer which was as a producer, working with directors on finding their vision.” Docter told her about the work that had already been done on the film and, most importantly, about the new direction he wanted to take the material. “I was deeply, deeply moved by what he wanted the film to be about,” she says. “We talked about what Joy needs to learn about Sadness and started the building blocks from there.”

LeFauve, who self-identifies as a “story nerd,” loves helping mold a troubled taleinto something great. “I always start with theme and what we are trying to say,” he says. “What is the idea in here? What are we pushing to? Sometimes I would be that person saying OK, but how are we going to get to that moment or OK, but where does that go in the story?” LeFauve likens the unique experience of writing a Pixar film to something akin to a television writer’s room where ideas are shared freely in a room between herself, Docter, Cooley, and del Carmen before an agreed upon direction is written down and then put in storyboard form. “I would then sit in when the Story Artists were pitching the scene and if it was moving or changing in a way I thought would affect other dominoes or things were coming before or after, I would raise my hand,” she laughs. LeFauve was amazed at the way the writers and artists put their work out there in such an open way that it inspired her to do the same, even though she was stepping into an unknown environment. “It was a wonderful experience to go through,” she says. “Everyone in that room is being vulnerable and authentic. That’s why these guys are so good. Everyone there has a level of trust that brings out the best in everyone.”

The biggest challenge facing the writing team was crafting a newly emotional wrap that delivered on the final treatise that sadness is a key emotion in a person’s life. “I told Pete if we want the movie to be about accepting and embracing sadness, then we’re going to have to cry at the end of this movie,” she says. “We need to embrace Sadness and let Riley go through that dark period.” The filmmakers knew they needed satisfying endings to both Joy and Riley’s story and of course, Joy’s journey would directly impact Riley’s ending. Soon, the writers found the incident they would need to make a satisfying conclusion: Riley runs away and plans on returning home to Minnesota via bus. It’s a dark, beautiful climax to a Pixar film as Joy makes it back to Headquarters just in time to show Riley a core memory: her hockey team lifting her up on their shoulders after a game.

But that’s not the moment Joy wants Riley to remember. Joy allows Sadness to touch the memory and rewinds it to what came before that moment with her team: Riley crying in the arms of her parents after missing the winning goal. Her team showed up later to cheer her up. The memory is sad, but the way her parents comforted her in that moment of sadness is what makes Riley get off the bus and return home. “The core memories are the most precious things Joy is protecting through the whole film and for her to turn them over to Sadness and allow Sadness to turn them blue was a daring thing to do,” LeFauve admits. “Because now Riley is, at her core, sad. But that moment became the anchor of what gets Riley home to talk to her parents. We had to earn that moment.”

The writers were careful to walk the balance between sadness and depression, taking pains to depict a sad child, but not a depressed one. “At one point in the process, we boarded gloom as a character and his darkness started to take over the mind,” Cooley says. “But it started getting heavy and ultimately going down a road we weren’t interested in depicting.” LeFauve explains the writing team had multiple conversations about being delicate with how dark they could go with sadness before it became too much. “We wanted to be very, very respectful about even implying that she is depressed,” she says. “There were a lot of discussions about not implying that serious depression is something you can instantly get over. It’s a larger, deeper issue that what we were talking about.”

LeFauve also helped flesh out the idea for the personality islands that originated with Docter. LeFauve pushed that the islands being in jeopardy would be a device the audience could lean on to help understand what is going on inside Riley’s mind. “She was the one to really push at the idea that this movie can’t just be an intellectual exercise,” Docter explains. “She was a proponent of these islands are there and we need to show them when they go down. We need to feel it. You have to have the audience feel the deepness of that. That was when we could articulate the fact that what’s at stake in this movie is Riley’s personality. That’s what parents get concerned about when we see our kids changing.”

One idea Cooley had very early in the story process inadvertently led to one of the key non-emotion characters in the film: Bing Bong (Richard Kind), Riley’s imaginary childhood friend. In a version of the story that had Joy and Fear exploring Riley’s mind, the pair of them came across something of a hobo junction at an abandoned train station where all of Riley’s imaginary friends and drawings were convalescing. Bing Bong was one of them and his role gradually increased as the years went on. He even had his own subplot where he was on the run for stealing Riley’s old long-term memories, but that was cut in favor of his current role in the film. “There was something about having this mirror character to Joy that we liked,” Docter says. “If Sadness is the opposite of Joy, then Bing Bong is Joy times 10. He wants to hold onto the Riley that she was at age 3. So we thought he would be a fun false guide for Joy.” Joy remembers Bing Bong fondly so follows him even as he leads them into trouble. For a while that was his complete role until Docter realized that Bing Bong’s desire to hold onto the younger Riley could be used as a major beat later in the story.

“As that character crystallized, I realized he’s the spirit of childhood,” Docter says. “I remember imagining that I know what has to happen here. Bing Bong has to sacrifice himself and help get Joy out of there so Riley can move on to adulthood. I knew it could be a very moving thing.” It’s thanks to Bing Bong that Joy finally escapes being trapped in long-term memory and returns back to Headquarters to show Riley the memory that stops her from running away. The final moments of Inside Out are incredibly emotional for any film, not to mention an animated one. But it is the wonderful culmination of the epiphany Docter had while out walking that not only saved his film, but ultimately made it one of the best of the year. “I don’t get my jollies by making people cry,” Docter laughs. “But that’s what you’re after as a screenwriter and as a filmmaker: to affect people emotionally.”