Pete Docter, Kemp Powers and Mike Jones bring Soul to life

January 22, 2021 Danny Munso

Director/co-writer Pete Docter, co-director/co-writer Kemp Powers and co-writer Mike Jones detail the four-plus year process to create Pixar’s latest masterpiece.
By Danny Munso


In 2015, Pete Docter was coming off his biggest success as a filmmaker. His personal film Inside Out had scored big at the box office and was nominated for two Oscars, winning for Best Animated Film. Yet he wasn’t feeling the fulfillment he imagined he would. “I’m super fortunate to have had a lot of wonderful success in this career I’ve loved since I was 8 years old, yet after Inside Out I thought if I’ve had all this success, shouldn’t I feel at peace and complete?” he recalls. “I think we all have this idea in the back of our head that somehow these achievements are going to fulfill us and fix all these problems, and it’s not the case.” Docter married those thoughts with the germ of an idea for a future movie. Ever since the birth of his son, Docter had been amazed how the boy came into the world with his whole personality already showing, and he couldn’t help but wonder where that came from. “So the whole film started from a really personal place for me. The whole point of our development and writing process is really in search of what is the strongest way that I can say this feeling through a story. What’s the strongest way I can communicate that so you really feel it?”

First, Docter needed a co-writer for the movie that would eventually lead to Soul—someone to help break down the myriad ideas he had flying through his mind. Enter Mike Jones. “I got a call saying Pete would just like to sit in a room with somebody and bat around an idea that he had,” Jones says. “He said he wanted a story set in a place beyond space and time, where souls are given their personalities. The setting felt fun, and it felt like a great canvas to do something.” Jones began working at Pixar years before with The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline director Henry Selick on a stop-motion feature that would have been the studio’s first. Sadly that project ended up getting shelved, but Jones had impressed the studio so much he was asked to help with the story on 2015’s The Good Dinosaur.

He served as a story sounding board for multiple directors at Pixar and in 2017 was offered a full-time position as the company’s senior story and creative artist. “It’s a position that didn’t exist before, so we’re still figuring it all out,” Jones says. “But I love it. I’m the kind of a writer who enjoys riffing with other people, and that’s what this place is all about. Even if I’m not the official writer, I’m also happy sitting with the director and helping them hash out where their story could go or helping to build a framework so they can figure out what direction their concepts can go.” Docter hadn’t worked with Jones directly but as Pixar’s chief creative officer, he knew the important contributions Jones had made to the studio’s other films. “Mike always struck me as really intelligent and smart and someone who brought a lot of depth to his projects,” Docter notes. “In the beginning stages, I need someone with a strong point of view so they’re not just saying yes to what I as the director am suggesting. I got all that with Mike. He was a passionate, wonderful collaborator.”

Pete Docter and Mike Jones during a Soul story meeting at Pixar Animation Studios. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

Soul follows struggling jazz pianist and middle school music teacher Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), who, after finally getting his big break, falls down a manhole and dies. As his soul navigates a mysterious world called the Great Before, he meets a new soul named 22 (Tina Fey), who has no interest in going to Earth to live. The two then work together to earn 22 her “Earth Pass,” which she plans on delivering to Joe so he can return to his body and life on Earth. As with most Pixar films, the story for Soul took many turns over its four-plus years of development. Originally, Joe was an out-of-work actor before they switched his profession to jazz, whose improvisational style they felt needed to be a strong thematic tie-in to the story. And in some early drafts, 22 was the main character, with Joe in a more supporting role. “We tried that for a while,” Docter says, “but we all as humans know that being born and living on Earth is the right thing to do, so there wasn’t enough drama in her having to make that choice of whether to live or to stay [in the Great Before].” In fact, the original concept for the story featured very little time on Earth, period. The story opened with Joe already dead and took place entirely in the Great Before, but the writers soon realized they had to aim part of the story for Earth. “We need Joe and 22 to learn what it means to live a fulfilled life, and there’s no real way of learning that in this netherworld,” Jones says. “The only real way of learning that is taking those characters and putting them on Earth. Once you start coming up with those landmarks, the story starts to find its grip.”

Soul was heading into its third story reel (a rough storyboard version of the film) when Docter decided another voice was needed to accompany his and Jones’ in the writing. “We had gotten to a place where the story was now about Joe, a jazz musician from Queens,” he says. “That led us to making the character Black. Mike is from Texas, and I’m from Minnesota. We don’t know enough about that life—not only being African American but a musician from Queens. We were looking for somebody with that background so the character would be authentic. Kemp fit all those points.” He speaks, of course, of acclaimed playwright turned screenwriter Kemp Powers, who would indeed transform the story of Soul. Not only did Pixar keep extending his 12-week contract—the standard length of all the studio’s writer contracts—but a year after his arrival, Docter and producer Dana Murray found his insights so profound and essential they asked him to be co-director. “He contributed so much to the story beyond understanding Joe,” Docter adds. “He added depth to everything we were doing. It didn’t take long for us to realize he should be co-directing on this thing.”

A Soul story meeting with Pete Docter, Dana Murray and Kemp Powers at Pixar Animation Studios. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

Typical Pixar films usually do at least eight reels before the story is finalized so there was a lot to be decided even with Powers aboard. “It was still fairly early in the process,” Powers recalls. “The bones of the story were there and the main characters were there, but there were lots of sections of the film that were either missing or hadn’t been figured out yet.” When Powers first signed on, the film was more focused on 22 than Joe. “Based on everything there—entertainment value, depth of character—22 was way more interesting at that time. Part of that was because Joe wasn’t really developed at all.” Powers saw a lot of himself in Joe and made it his mission to get that character into better shape. “My first duty, of course, was to flesh out his character, so I asked, ‘Okay, who is he?’ He’s 45 years old and from New York: Oh, wait, I’m 45 and from New York. He’s literally my age, of my generation and from my city, so I started answering a lot of my own questions. I had lots of really fun ideas for things I would love to explore with this character, but what excited me most about Joe was, to me, this was the artists’ journey.”

The similarities between Powers and Joe weren’t simply superficial. Three days before he arrived at Pixar, Powers had turned in the draft for One Night in Miami¸ an adaptation of his own play that would go on to be directed by Oscar winner Regina King and be released by Amazon Studios on the same day as Soul would drop. With that accomplishment locked, now here Powers was hitting another career milestone at Pixar while being asked to write the character of a middle-aged man who finally gets his big break. “In terms of motivations and in terms of character, I beyond got it,” the writer laughs. “I was like, Oh, my God, this is literally what I’ve been living up to this moment.” Often on a Pixar project, when a new writer comes on, the original one leaves, but that was not the case with Soul, where Docter, Powers and Jones all worked simultaneously. “I don’t want to give the impression that I came in, added some Black stuff and that was it. There’s literally no scene in the film that me, Mike and Pete didn’t do some pass of. We were intensely involved in collaborative writing more than any other Pixar movie, which may account for why [this film] feels a little bit different. We all wrote all of it.”

Soul filmmakers Director Pete Docter, Producer Dana Murray and Co-Director Kemp Powers  at Pixar Animation Studios. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

The more the Soul story changed over the years, so did its ending. For a while Joe stayed dead at the end of the film, rather than the way the finished version wraps, where he is granted a second chance at life. “I think one of the reasons you tell a story is to get people emotionally involved,” Docter says. “My thought was the poignant thing here would be for Joe to make a sacrificial choice to give up his chance to go back to Earth in favor of his unborn soul, who’s never had a chance. That seemed very noble.” Originally, there was more of an It’s a Wonderful Life-esque feeling to the story, where Joe realizes after he passes away that he had not lived a worthless life like he feared so he was able to move on peacefully once he learned that. In the final version, that’s not necessarily the case. “When I first got there, Joe did die at the end, and I loved that ending,” Powers says. “I thought it was a very elegant ending, but the story changed. He has not lived a great life yet. He’s learned to appreciate the little things, but he hasn’t spent a lot of time actually doing that on Earth. He learns that some of his relationships are broken—like with his mother. He fixes those over the course of the film, but we felt he needed an opportunity to go and follow up on that.”

The writers found a way for both moments to be in there in some form. Before Joe is given a chance to go back to Earth, we see him on the ramp ready to head to the Great Beyond, at peace with his life. “As the movie started to incrementally change, we thought, Can we have both of these moments?” Jones says. “Can we have a moment where he’s feeling fulfilled and ready and then also have the moment where he takes the same feeling back down to Earth? I was on both sides of the issue at various points during the years of making this, but I think we got there in the end.” Of course, there is also a practical reason for keeping Joe alive. As viewers of the film know, he is sitting at his piano when he finds a way to travel back to the Great Before and give 22 his Earth Pass. Logically, if Joe had moved on from there, he would have been found dead at his piano. “We had a screening where he died, and people were up in arms,” Powers laughs, [as they must have been thinking,] “You mean to tell me his mother finds him dead at his piano? Imagine if at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey stays dead. That’s exactly how that would have felt if Joe went on that journey and then stayed dead.”

In Soul’s final moment, Joe returns to Earth. Originally, the writers planned for a montage of sorts where we see Joe living his life with renewed vigor—he and his mother repairing their relationship and him teaching with more energy—but it ended up not having the desired emotional effect. “We had done a number of versions of Joe living his life, but it always felt kind of lackluster,” Docter says. “For whatever reason, we were not able to get that feeling we were going for.” Instead, we get a simple, poignant moment where Joe steps outside his front door and takes a breath while voiceover plays of Jerry asking him what he’s going to do with his life. “I don’t know,” Joe replies, “but I’m going to live every minute of it.” For a large part of the film’s development, that line was, “I don’t know, but I’m going to enjoy every minute of it,” until one of the animators mentioned it wasn’t having the impact it should. “In life, there are so many ups and downs and disappointments. It doesn’t seem believable that [Joe] was going to enjoy it all, so I went back and changed it to live, which is really more thematic for the film. That’s what life is about—to be connected to an experience. That’s the message of the movie, that these potentially sacred moments are all around you at any moment. It’s up to you to kind of wake up to them.”

Soul is streaming now exclusively on Disney+

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