Inside Out Interviews: Director Pete Docter & Producer Jonas Rivera | Buzz Blog

Inside Out Interviews: Director Pete Docter & Producer Jonas Rivera

A talk with the creators of Pixar's latest animated feature


On June 19, the new feature from Disney/Pixar, Inside Out, opens in theaters. In April, director Pete Docter and producer Jonas Rivera visited Utah to talk about the film with local media.

City Weekly: There’s no reason for you to remember, but when you were in town for Up, I asked you about the theme of parenting running through your movies [Monsters Inc. and Up]. Clearly that continues to be of interest to you.

Pete Docter: The movies we make, they’re cartoons, they’re fun, they’re funny. But we’re given this great opportunity to make movies. And if we can say something deeper about our own lives, that’s what I think is interesting. And I don’t think there’s anything that has affected me as deeply as being a parent. So it’s something I keep coming back to.

CW: For me, [Inside Out] felt like a parental coming-of-age story—when you as a parent have to grow up to the idea of seeing your child growing up to what they’re becoming. I’m wondering if that’s a way you envisioned it.

PD: For sure, and I think you’ve probably heard me talk about watching my kid grow up—both kids, but particularly my daughter. She was a very happy, spunky kid and then she became a different person. At first that felt like a real tragedy to me, because she was such a funny kid. But then, of course, in the long run you realize, you know, you can’t hold your kids back. It’s just nostalgic thinking by me to think you could preserve that in some way. And who she’s becoming is so beautiful as well. So it’s definitely autobiographical in that way.

CW: I was having a conversation with one of my local colleagues…who’s not a parent, and I was speculating, “Boy, I don’t know how this is going to play to someone who’s not a parent.” And he talked about his own connection to Riley’s story, about having been a kid who moved. So, while you’re creating, and you have to serve a story, I’m wondering how conscious it has to be that you have an entry point for different kinds of viewers.

PD: I always look at personal experience as a starting point. There’s a lot of times I start with, “I had this experience in my life that blah blah blah,” and people go [bored voice] “Oh okay, that’s interesting.” And so I realize that’s not a universal thing. But as we talk about kids, Jonas [Rivera] has younger kids, the co-director, Ronnie Del Carmen, his kids are older, and so as soon as I brought up this idea of kids growing up, everybody was talking about it. It’s something that concerns us, and is vital to our own lives. So that was immediately something to hook into: the experience of growing up.

Jonas Rivera: We made the film with the point of view of parents, but everyone is either a parent, or has been a kid at that age. Everyone. Everyone’s felt that … Everyone grows up. I think because of the work we do, or where we work, or what we grew up loving, the other theme of it is not wanting [to grow up], of denying it. Like the Peter Pan thing. We want to be in Neverland. I didn’t even want to drive a car. Because then it’s forever. So when [Pete] pitched the story, what I felt five years ago—my daughters are 9 and 6 now—was “Yeah, if I could”—and this sounds so awful—“I would freeze time.” If I had the power, I’d never want them to change. But that’s actually awful, right? That’s a horrible thing to do. They obviously need to grow up and live life. But I was selfish. So when you started talking about [Inside Out’s character Joy], I thought, “I get why she’d be thinking that way. Why would you want anyone to be sad?”

As a parent you read all this stuff, I remember my wife would cut things out like, “You’re going to spend many more years wishing you had greasy handprints on the windows than you’re going to spend cleaning them up.” And I’d think, “Yeah, that’s true.” You know an idea is worthy when it creates that kind of a discussion around the story table.

CW: Who do I get to blame for the earworm [chewing gum] jingle?

PD: [laughs] Let’s see: I wrote a version of it. We went through a lot of versions of it. Michael [Giacchino] wrote the music.

CW: When you have something like that, it has to be hard to actually think, “I’m going to write something that’s going to instantly stick in someone’s head.” Do you have to just trust, “I know that Michael can do this; if anyone can do it, he can”?

PD: Yeah. I mean, we told him exactly what we were looking for. It’s like any number of gum commercial jingles we all grew up with. And I think even there, we changed a couple of things to just make it—

JR: We said, “It has to be the worst kind of stuck-in-your-head.”

PD: The first two things we asked [Giacchino] to write were that and the Bing Bong song. Which are not really stretches of your art.

CW: How do you start with the visual side of it, this very concrete way of representing memory and the mind? Not necessarily just the [control room] console, but the memory balls, and the whole landscape.

PD: It came in little stages, fits and starts, and a lot of that, Ronnie Del Carmen…he has this amazing ability, we’ll be talking about something very conceptually, and he’ll put it down on paper. And suddenly you’ll go, “Yeah, like that.” Or, “Maybe if that’s a little bit bigger.” So he’s able to visualize this stuff, and then we road-test it. I’d say nine times out of ten it ends up not-quite-working and we have to adjust it or throw it out entirely. But you just start with your best guess of what that should be and how it should look.

JR: There’s a great cycle that starts with the writing and then the art department is doing visual development, so they’re kind of waiting for the script, and the writing is waiting to see what they’re drawing.

PD: “Somebody go! Somebody figure it out!”

JR: But it’s really interesting, you talk about memories, and losing memories, and what is it physically? I remember Ronnie did a drawing like a Mason jar with fireflies.

PD: Memories in jars.

JR: And it just felt kind of cool. But then someone drew like a snow globe, and that almost felt more evocative, a little more beautiful and graceful.

PD: We started thinking about, “Where do they get Mason jars in the mind?” I don’t know where they get these spheres either, but it’s a little more organic somehow.

JR: So that, what we just re-enacted, is pretty close to how it works. And then it would just stick. But the whole thing was fun, because there’s no point of reference. You can look at brains and shapes of things—we really wanted to avoid the brain and keep it more metaphorical—but just thinking about the functionality. I remember you drew on a white board [the emotions characters] driving, and this whole idea of a console and a screen—

PD: —with levers and pulleys and knobs and things.

CW: You mention this kind of feedback loop of creativity [including Ronnie Del Carmen], and I’ve seen this “co-director” credit on Pixar films for years. And yet for me, I don’t know exactly what that means.

PD: We don’t either. [laughs] … Co-director really developed back on A Bug’s Life, and it was a way of really crediting and honoring these guys who are contributing in major ways. It differs depending on who the co-director is. Like on Monsters, Lee Unkrich was the co-director, and his talent, his amazing ability is in cinematography and editing. So on that film, I would just trust that this story and the beats and the rhythm that I want, I’m just going to hand them off to Lee, and he’s going to work with the team to make that all happen. On this film, Ronnie’s strength, like I said, is visualizing, converting emotion into specific beats. Which is really more story/early concept stuff. So on this film, once that was finished, he stayed in that department and I was the one kind of filing it down through production.

JR: Ronnie was our story supervisor on Up, and he—not single-handedly, but a big part of the opening [sequence], taking that from the page to the visuals. He’s such a powerhouse at translating written to visuals that we thought that merited a co-director on this in terms of just crafting the story. There were so many unknowns in the visuals, and he helped close doors. Because that feedback loop, what it does is it presents more ideas. And Ronnie’s pretty good at going, “This one,” and just pinning it down.

PD: In the end, everything that’s on the screen is my call, like it or not.

I’ve read a lot over the years about animators and the design of characters, and how that can evolve once voice casting is done. Were there any instance in this case where you got the voice casting and then you thought, “Oh no, this is really the way the character should look.”

PD: Not so much the looks. In all cases, we’d designed the characters before we cast them. And in large part, we were looking for actors who sounded like the characters we designed. But in almost every case, once we record with them, we become aware of the subtle rhythms of things they’ll say or words they would use or how they’d phrase something. So almost inevitably we’ll dump stuff from the first recording session and re-write it based on the talents of the particular actor. I think there were some exceptions on this. Richard Kind [Bing Bong], we had worked with him before, so we had his voice in our heads already. And so right out of the gate, we used a ton of stuff from that first session.

JR: And the thing about our cast, they were so great, it’s like they were in character even when they were not recording. Like Richard [Kind] would break and he’d go [imitating Richard Kind’s Bing Bong voice], “Was that good enough? I just want it to be good.” Yes, and you’re still Bing Bong right now.

PD: The fun is when you get these characters and actors into part of your brain, so even when I go back to work and I’m writing I can turn them on, and they feed me lines. It’s like they’re dictating to you somehow.

CW: It’s been two years now without a Pixar film, and those have been two very good years for Disney Animation Studios. Is there any element of that success, even though you’re not competitors, that makes you roll up your sleeves and go, “Okay, we’re back.” How does that interaction affect your creative juices?

PD: I guess I don’t think of them in competition. I guess they are, creatively. I don’t think of it as, “Oh, they’re doing good, so we better up our game.”

JR: The timing at Disney overlapped when we had to move a little bit and course-correct. … This sounds weird, but we’re actually proud, even though it stings, to move a film and even live with the fact that there might be a summer or a year without one. Because that’s a core of our DNA, that we’ll never put out a movie we think isn’t ready. And it just so happened to line up with those [Disney] films that did great. We actually collaborate with those teams down there a lot, show each other our films, and I’m big fans of those films. My daughter, by the way, her name is Elsa, so you can imagine what I went through when Frozen came out.

PD: To me, it’s really interesting because John [Lasseter] and Ed [Catmull] lead both teams, so what are the differences? Can you write a mission statements for both companies…

CW: … and are those mission statements different?

PD: Yeah.

JR: I would hope they are.

They’re inherently different because the people, aside from John and Ed, who are making the films are different. But I’m not sure you could really put it down on paper. Or at least I’ve tried, and I’ve failed. I’d be interested to hear what you thought.

CW: I wouldn’t dream of jumping into that.


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