Inside the mind of Pete Docter, things didn't look pretty. Ahead of an important screening for his bosses at Pixar Animation about two years ago, the director was wrestling with a thorny story problem on his next film, "Inside Out."
"This one moment is funny, but I don't know what the movie as a whole is saying," Docter recalled thinking to himself as he walked the hills near his home in Piedmont, Calif. "How did things get so far and we still don't have anything? Maybe I should just quit? I'm gonna get fired."
It is likelier that Pixar would fire Luxo Jr., its desk lamp mascot, than Docter, a beloved figure at the studio who is known for bringing emotional depth and a childlike wonder to his films. Docter's last feature, the Oscar-winning 2009 adventure tale "Up," contained both a moving, wordless montage about infertility and death and a talking, squirrel-obsessed golden retriever named Dug.
Like "Up," "Inside Out," which premiered to ecstatic reviews at the Cannes Film Festival on Monday in advance of its theatrical opening June 19, is daringly original in its conceit, in which emotions serve as characters and a little girl's head as the setting. Executing the abstract movie took Docter on an emotional journey of his own as he navigated moments of self-doubt and creative gridlock.
The story line asks audiences to accomplish the psychologically sophisticated task of watching our own minds — a reviewer at Cannes called "Inside Out" "one the most conceptually trippy films ever made as a PG-rated popcorn picture." If critics felt Pixar has been playing it safe with its recent spate of kid-friendly sequels, they're not likely to feel that way now.
In an interview at Pixar last month, in a room with a cardboard standee of Walt Disney in the corner and white boards filled with dizzying lists of production targets behind their heads, Docter and his longtime producer, Jonas Rivera, explained how "Inside Out" took shape.
Lanky, wide-eyed and sincere, Docter, 46, carries himself more like a kid with particularly good manners than a grown-up — this temperament works well at Pixar, a spiritually youthful company that was celebrating Wear Your Pajamas to Work Day and hosting a chocolate festival.
Docter's idea for "Inside Out" came to him in 2009 when his own daughter, Elie, now 16, began to leave the uncomplicated joys of childhood behind.
"She would be at home and be tap dancing and doing all that goofy stuff, and we first heard of it through her teacher, who'd say, 'Elie's a quiet child,' " Docter said. "We'd say, 'Really?' She suddenly became aware of judgment and where do I fit in and where is my social circle. It's a tough time."
Wondering what was really going on inside his daughter's head, he pitched a movie that would help him find out.
"Inside Out" takes place inside the head of a carefree, tomboyish 11-year-old Minnesota girl named Riley. Her emotions, led by Joy, a yellow sprite voiced by an exuberant and occasionally manic Amy Poehler, live in relative harmony, steering her together through childhood's ups and downs like the crew of the Starship Enterprise. But a family move to exotic San Francisco pushes Joy from her role as the brain's captain, as Sadness (Phyllis Smith) takes the controls with increasing frequency. Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) start to bicker and jockey for control of "headquarters."
"We loved that idea of, if you personified your emotions, what is happening?" Rivera said. "Riley would go into school, and whether or not her best friend would sit by her was like 'Saving Private Ryan.' "
In an era when computer animation is ever more photo-real, Docter's idea would enable his crew to return to the caricatured style of so much of the traditional animation they'd loved as children, in classic Disney films like "Dumbo" and "Pinocchio." But it would also push his team, including co-director Ronnie del Carmen and fellow writers Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley, to construct a theoretical world from scratch.
"We talked to neurologists and asked, 'What does a memory look like?' They said, 'Well, we don't really know,' " Docter said.
In the film, "Abstract Thought" looks like a Picasso painting, "Imaginationland" like a Disney theme park and the "Train of Thought" is an actual train that chugs along until Riley falls asleep, when Dream Productions, a movie studio of sorts, takes over.
"We were worried early on — the rules and operations of the movie. Is this trackable? Will kids get this?" Riviera said.
Pixar executives also knew the studio and its corporate parent, Disney, would have work to do selling the concept.
"Our reaction was, this is a great idea," Pixar President Jim Morris said. "But, boy, it's gonna be really hard. This one is not a simple one to market. It's essentially a movie about the importance of sadness."
By the time Docter pitched the film, he had earned the right to try something tricky. The native of Bloomington, Minn., joined Pixar as its third animator the day after he graduated from Cal Arts in 1990. He helped develop the story and characters for the studio's first feature, "Toy Story," before directing his own first feature, the Oscar-nominated "Monsters Inc.," in 2001 and contributing to the Oscar-nominated screenplay for "WALL-E" in 2008.
"[Directing] was not natural to me," Docter said. "If I rewind back to 'Monsters,' I still do not know whose idea it was to let me direct. That was weird. 'Cause I'm not a natural alpha male leader type."
Rivera thinks Docter motivates his crews in a subtler way, with the strength of his ideas.
"Pete doesn't pound the table," Rivera said. "People crave truth and believability in this business, even when we're making fake things. All people want to know is, does what I'm doing matter? The crews here know what to do and how to do it. Pete comes to them with the 'why' they're doing it."
But on "Inside Out," the "why" didn't come to Docter until relatively late in the production — to be precise, that day when he thought he'd be fired. That's when Docter had the creative epiphany that Sadness, a character he had undervalued, was, in fact, the key to the story.
"In modern day U.S., we associate sadness with negativity," Docter said. "We try to avoid it, we even self-medicate. But really sadness is a response to loss. It forces you to slow down and reboot. When you see someone crying, it's a signal to other people. I realized that Joy needed to let Sadness forward."
Docter's revelation meant tearing up much of the work he had planned to show Pixar executives, including Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter.
"We had to go to John and tell him, even though this is a big no-no, that we're not gonna have a screening," Docter said. "We're gonna pitch what we're gonna do. That was kind of scary, I'm standing in front of you waving my arms instead of showing you all the homework with the hope that you understand why we're doing this."
The next hurdle was screening for kids. Docter, who also has an 18-year-old son, said he let go of an early worry about children understanding the film when kids at test screenings were explaining the premise to their parents.
"Kids get it quicker than adults do," Docter said. "That's really the first language kids learn. Part of growing up is learning to control and contain those emotions. As adults, it goes full circle — we have to go to therapy to get back in touch with those emotions."
The adult critics at Cannes seemed to wholly embrace the film, with Variety calling "Inside Out" "the greatest idea the toon studio has ever had."
Docter isn't taking anything for granted.
"We're people," he said. "We're insecure. You can have Academy Awards sitting in your office, but you still feel like, that was probably just a fluke. That was probably the right combination of things that happened. Can I do that again? I have no idea."