Having a good cry with Pixar’s Pete Docter
What are we doing with our lives? Are we making the most of our time? If we define ourselves by our work, what happens to our identity when that changes ... or goes away?
During the past year of lockdown and isolation, we’ve had more time than ever to ponder these existential questions. And if you saw the latest Pixar movie, “Soul,” a surreal journey that examines life after death, life before death and the choices we make in between, you may have come away thinking that this gentle, joyful and profoundly curious movie arrived at a most serendipitous time. (The movie earned three Oscar nominations, including animated feature.)
Fact is, Pete Docter, the film’s director and cowriter, has been mulling these ideas for years through a body of work that includes some of the greatest movies made this century. Films such as “Up” and “Inside Out” have gently taught us about the need to accept and acknowledge all of the emotions that come with life, including grief and sadness. The preamble of “Up,” a marriage story told without words in just four minutes, is heartbreaking, yes, but it also hints at the message Docter would return to years later with “Soul”: It’s the small pleasures that make up life’s treasures.
Connecting with Docter, Pixar’s chief creative officer, from his Bay Area home, we immediately jumped into these ideas. Tears were discussed, but not shed, during this interview.
I’ve seen a bunch of headlines describing “Soul” as your “midlife crisis” movie. Watching “Up” and “Inside Out” again, it feels like you’ve been working up to this “now what do I do?” theme for a while. Just how long have you been having this crisis?
[Laughs] My son, who’s now 24, went off to school right about the time I started on “Soul.” That was definitely closing a chapter, and you feel a certain amount of sadness over that. And that of course was “Inside Out,” which is a parent’s point of view of your kids growing up and the reminiscing about the passing of the lost childhood.
It feels like everything in my experience, I enjoy it while it’s there, but I don’t really love it until it’s gone. I don’t understand how I need to appreciate it until it’s taken away from me. I really had a great time with my kids when they were that age, and now that they’re gone, you look at pictures and it’s almost painful to see them as little creatures. We have video of my daughter, who’s now 22, that’s just absolutely hilarious. She’s so entertained by herself.
I never quite understood the sheer joy that grandparents have on their faces, but maybe now I do. [Laughs]
Please stop. You’re going to make me cry. But, then, I got teary at the mere sound of that piano plinking “Bundle of Joy” in the opening seconds of “Inside Out” when I watched it again last night.
[Laughs] And you’re right. All this was a trigger too for “Soul.” My son got married last year, before all the COVID happened. And, obviously, there’s joy and happiness. But then there’s this sense of loss too, as a parent. “Oh, this now has undeniably passed. He’s forming his own family.” And that surprised me. You see people crying at weddings, but I thought it was just out of joy. And it certainly is, but there’s a lot wrapped up in that.
Much has been written about the tear-inducing properties of Pixar movies. And I feel like you’re the director there who really relishes the value of a good cry. Are you aware of your reputation for making people sob?
Are people crying at the end of “Soul”? That was the challenge, seeing if we can get emotion from people out of a person’s understanding of how they fit into the universe and what life is about without leaning on a relationship. People talk about the montage from “Up” as tear-inducing. I’m not sure that people get that from the end of “Soul.”
Does that possibility disappoint you, fewer people crying?
[Pause] Yeah. Kind of. [Laughs] Movies should be exorcising these emotions. I’ll give you an example of what I’m going for. On “Inside Out,” Joy was stuck in the pit, and I knew she would have an epiphany and get out. And we were struggling with different ways of how she could get out, and I had this idea of Bing Bong being the added weight that prevents her from leaving. So when he jumps out, he’s now stuck down there, and he’s going to disappear. And I was so happy, not because I’m a masochist or I like making people cry. But I felt: This is exactly what movies are supposed to be doing.
Leaving people emotionally devastated? [Laughs]
We are always trying to trigger people, provoke, make them care. Generally, I stay away from fear. I don’t really find that a pleasant one. But, obviously, a lot of people like horror movies because they like that adrenaline rush. You just want the movies to have the right balance of truth so people don’t just feel like it was a big sugar-coated nothing.
You talk about staying away from fear ... “Up” has a pretty terrifying villain, Charles Muntz, who does all sorts of horrible things. How much did Christopher Plummer bring to that character?
He was incredible. When he passed away, I was flooded with all these memories of working with him. It was funny to hear his agent and his friends call him Chris, because he’s such not a Chris. He’s a Christopher. He walks in and has this presence and strength to him. Someone asked George Sanders the actor, “You’ve played so many wonderful villains ...” “Villains. I’ve never played a villain in my life.” That was Plummer too.
At the end of the scene where Muntz falls to his death, we initially had him falling, yelling the way people do in movies. And he kept distancing off the mic, and the engineer asked, “Mr. Plummer, can you stay on mic?” and he said [adopting a proper gentleman’s accent], “Well, that’s an old radio trick I learned from Orson Welles.”
Not much you can say to that, is there?
No. [Laughs] But then it was his idea to just do it silent so that when he falls, he just kind of takes an inhale of breath and, stunned, goes down. It’s so much more real and haunting.
I wonder where Muntz ends up in “Soul’s” vision of the afterlife. But, then, you leave the afterlife a little vague, focusing more on the pre-life. Why?
Not a lot of the religions talk about the pre-life, so if we can just avoid religion altogether, this really becomes about philosophy instead of theology. A lot of our answers came from essentialism, the Plato and Aristotle thing. Are you born with this innate sense of purpose? From what I’ve read, most of human existence, at least in the West, has believed that when you’re born, God gave you something and — bam! — you were born to be a baker or a brewer or whatever.
And the jury is still out: Are we happier with that choice? Was it Sartre who said that we’re painfully, terrifyingly free? That the most terrifying thing in the world to him was that we have this freedom and that there’s something comforting about being told, “Here’s where you live, and this is what you get.” Which Americans have largely rejected.
Americans don’t like limitations. We’ve seen that in the past year. So where do you come down on this question?
If you want to be realistic about it, I think I’m probably an existentialist being that, yes, there is meaning, but it’s up to you to bring it. You have to find it in your own life. And that’s the statement in “Soul,” this Kierkegaard idea that you could live a life of meaninglessness ... but if you could, find something that is true for you.
There’s this story of the teacher during World War I, and the student wants to go off and fight for the right cause. But he also has a sick mom. So what’s better? For him to stay and take care of one, or go off and potentially do good for the larger group? And the answer is: Whatever he chooses that’s genuinely right for him is the right thing. And that’s what I think we’re talking about. I’m not saying anything can be right, and it takes a deep dive to come to those answers. But that’s where I come down.
Well, that brings us full circle to the midlife crisis that partly inspired “Soul.” You win the Oscar for “Inside Out” and you think, “That’s it?” You felt a purpose, but it wasn’t enough?
It’s something my wife has struggled with me for the 28 years we’ve been married. I love animation. I love making movies. It occupies so much of my emotional space, and the downside of that is letting it define the totality of who you are. She is constantly going, “You are not your job. You’re more than your job.” She’s finally like, “I’ve been saying this for decades now. You finally got it.” [Laughs]
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