Inside Out Interview with Director Pete Docter

His 2001 movie Monsters, Inc. (co-directed with Unkrich and David Silverman) was the first Pixar movie not directed by Lasseter and it was the first to be nominated the first year of the Academy’s Animated Feature Oscar. (Sadly, it lost to Shrek.) Eight years later, Docter won that same Oscar for his 2009 movie Up, which was also one of Pixar’s first movies to be nominated as Best Picture rather than just as an Animated Feature.

That brings us to Inside Out, a family comedy as different from Up as that was from Monsters, Inc. and also one that may be different from what we expect from Pixar in terms of subject but not in terms of laughs and emotional content. In going inside the mind of a tween girl, it introduces the emotions Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger, appropriately voiced by Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling and Lewis Black, and it gives us a look into one possible way that our minds work, but in a highly humorous and entertaining way.

Having previously spoken to the filmmaker during our visit to Pixar earlier this year, got back on the phone with Docter for a follow-up interview that you can read below. I’ve seen your movie twice since we last spoke and I remember this being mentioned by John Lasseter as early as CinemaCon, maybe 2011? At the time, it was just a very basic concept and your name was mentioned and there may have been an early image.

Pete Docter: Yeah, I think we had a Ronny Del Carmen drawing, right?

CS: I think so. It was just a head and a couple characters inside but not looking anything like the characters as they are now.

Docter: Right, right. I think it was part of a larger roll-out or something like that.

CS: Yeah, exactly. It basically was just teasing what Pixar had coming up in the next few years. It takes a long time to make these movies in general, and I think was originally supposed to come out last year, then it got bumped by “Dinosaur,” and then “Dinosaur” got moved as well. Did that change your pre-production schedule when it moved back a year or did that just make it easier?

Docter: No, this film didn’t really get bumped at all. It stayed to its original schedule. “Dinosaur” ran into some problems, so they leapfrogged to be after us. So, of course, they come out this fall. But we just kind of slogged ahead and our usual struggle to get this one done.

CS: Was this a smaller crew than usual? Jonas was saying that you kind of wanted to have a smaller group of animators working on things, so was that true that you wanted to try and use a smaller crew?

Docter: Yeah, I always feel like if you have a smaller crew, you can not only get to know the individual strengths of people more specifically, but then, you also give them a longer runway to be able to apply the knowledge that they have learned to subsequent work. So if you have a very huge crew all working for three weeks, then wham, it’s all done. But a lot of this stuff is discovered along the way, you know, how to move these characters around and what’s successful and what’s not. That just takes time, so I think in the end, it was about the same crew size, at least in terms of overall man-weeks than the last couple of films we’ve done. We were pretty much on time and on budget.

Inside Out

CS: Was it harder to balance the tone of this one? In “Up” you had a very poignant opening with the famous montage, then it went straight into humor and then action and adventure. This one, there’s a lot of humor, but it goes back and forth pretty much throughout the whole movie.

Docter: Yeah, that was really tricky. I was lucky to have Kevin Nolting, who edited on “Up,” he was the lead editor on this as well. You’re right. You’ll have cheerful action to comedy, like really close together. That was very tricky, specifically the ending, ramping out of the sort of emotional climax of the film, back into humor and uplifting, just finding how long to let people sit there and kind of feel it so that it really resonates, so we don’t shortchange anything but don’t overstay it. You know, that took some balancing.

CS: Obviously, Riley is the central character sort of, but each of the emotions also have an arc in some ways to get to where they wind up at the end. Was it hard to figure out exactly how to get to that point? Even with a great premise like this showing how the emotions and the mind work, it must be hard figuring out where to end it.

Docter: I knew I wanted Joy to be the main character from the beginning, and we pretty early on discovered, “Okay, this is a movie told from a parent’s point of view.” It’s watching your kid grow up and the difficulty of that and wanting to hold onto it, and yet, that’s impossible and all those kind of things. So Joy as a main character wanting her to kid to be happy, it seemed like a rootable and understandable goal, and yet, utterly impossible in the long run. So she kind of has the biggest arc for sure, but we have some other things that we discovered along the way like Sadness. As a writer would say, she has a claiming arc, so she has an instinct for what she needs to do, even at the very beginning of the film. Along the way, she gains the confidence to be able to do what she has felt all along.

CS: Over the years, Pixar has never sought out to make “kids movies.” Obviously, they appeal to kids, but I don’t think you ever actually set out make a kids movie. With this one especially, it seems like there’s a lot of things that adults will get, where kids will just enjoy it for the characters and the fun stuff going on. I’m sure you get this with every movie including “Up” whether kids will understand some of the finer points. Have you shown it to a lot of audiences with kids to see what they’re reacting to?

Docter: Yeah, we have. We’re worried about it along the way because you’re right. We don’t think of these as kids movies. We’re making them for ourselves and hoping to have some complex stuff for the adults, especially themically. On a sort of surface level, we hope there’s plenty of entertainment and things for kids as well, so that in the end, there’s something there for everybody. But on this one specifically, we were worried about the complexity of all the rules. You know, it’s a made-up world with a lot of stuff in there—personality islands and core memories and all this kind of stuff, so we brought kids in maybe a year and a half ago. It was maybe half-animated, I think. The nice thing was, we had five and six-year-olds explaining the movie back to us better than we were pitching it ourselves and they really got everything, so it was pretty amazing.

CS: Jonas mentioned when you first pitched it to Disney, you were comparing the emotions to the Seven Dwarves, which is an interesting analogy, because the Seven Dwarves each had very distinct personalities.

Docter: Yeah, I mean, those were so clearly drawn, and in the writing and in the performing, not just the visual drawing, but we saw this as a similar opportunity, where we could really just take advantage of strong, unique caricatured personalities that would have strong opinions on how to deal with anything in life and watching them kind of butt heads seemed like a really great opportunity to do what the animation does best.


CS: I haven’t talked to any kids who have seen it, but I would think that something like “abstract thought” might not be something they would get.

Docter: It’s funny. I’m not sure they understand. I don’t think it’s physically possible for little kids to know what abstract thought is. That seems to develop later, like age seven or eight, I think, if I remember the research. Little kids still understand three apples, but they don’t understand the concept of three as an abstract idea until later. But, they seem to enjoy the sequence, anyway. They laugh a lot and follow it and understand, uh oh, they’re going to get stuck there. So, it’s really, as with many films, I think kids enjoy it. They’re probably seeing it at a little different level than the adults do. I was just going to tell you, we have this amazing story about one of the technical guys at that screening I mentioned. He came back the next Monday and said, “Yeah, I got to tell you that story. My son has been taking swimming lessons and has been afraid to dive off the diving board.” And after seeing the movie the next day, we went and he jumped off. We said, “Oh, that’s great. How’d you do it?” He said, “Well, I felt like fear had been driving, and I asked him to step aside.” So we thought that was pretty mind blowing, that not only did he get the movie, but it sort of was able to affect his behavior in some way.

CS: Jonas mentioned a similar story and I thought it was brilliant because one of the hardest things for kids to understand is their emotions, their feelings. If you have a movie like this that can be enjoyed by parents, but also the kids can watch it and go, “Oh, I understand why I’m mad.” They see it as that visual thing. No one’s ever tried that, as far as I know, even with child psychology.

Docter: Yeah. I know Amy Poehler said, I think she has two boys, and she said, “If you really want to torture them, you say, ‘How did you feel about this?’ They’re like, ‘Ah.’” They hate talking about feelings. But, watching, for example, Anger, he’s a very physical character. So, if you stomp around and involve fire and things, that suddenly speaks to boys.

CS: Some of the funniest scenes in the movie are when you go into other people’s heads, like Riley’s parents and the boy she meets. It seems like there’s more territory to explore, but is that something you’d want to explore or is this one of those movies that works better as a done-in-one?

Docter: We realized and recognized that, boy, that does get laughs and it’s really fun. The issue for us was you can’t be away from your central character and the thread of the story too long. So, it really worked more as kind of spice, I guess.

CS: I guess the only thing you could do was like with “Toy Story” and just have Riley when she’s in her 30s or 40s and see where her emotions are at. You could do that in 34 years like “Boyhood” or something.

Docter: Yeah, yeah, looking back, you could’ve probably set this film at any number of junctures in life, because there are these big emotional shifts that happen, but there was something central to watching my daughter grow up and that was kind of the birth of the whole thing.

inside outCS: I remember you mentioned that you talked with psychiatrists beforehand. Some of the things like the personality islands and how it branches off of specific memories, is that something based on some real science or psychology you learned about from those discussions?

Docter: What’s funny is that I would have said, “No, we just made that up,” which we did. But then, two weeks ago, I was talking to a neurologist and he said, “No, no.” He said, “I was going to ask you where you found that because that is in the study, in the research, that people define themselves by five to seven key core memories.” I was like, “What? Really? We just made that up.” So that’s interesting.

CS: Most of Pixar’s movies have taken place in different worlds and places, but I’m wondering if there’s a chance they might take place in the same universe. For instance, I thought I saw the birds from “For the Birds” in your opening title sequence and there’s other nods like the “Toy Story” toys appearing in “Up” and others.

Docter: Yeah, I always feel kind of like it bugs me. We’ve had a couple of requests from video games and things to mash all the characters together, and I always feel like, that’s so weird. I don’t think of “Monsters, Inc.” as existing in the same space as Carl Frederickson from “Up,” or whatever, you know? They seem like completely different universes to me. Although interestingly, even with the Pizza Planet truck, which shows up in every film, we tried to stylize it and change it subtly. If you see it in “Cars,” it’s got some of the same shape language as the other characters, versus like “Up,” and it’s much more angular to try to fit into that universe. So we do these subtle changes to try to remain consistent.

CS: I probably should have asked this of Jonas, but as a writer, director, and an artist who works with other artists, you’re basically trying to make a movie as entertaining and a memorial experience. But this is also the movie business and these movies are expensive to make, so how much of those aspects of the business in terms of marketability, etc, go through your head during the creative process? How do you be creative without having those other realities affect that process?

Docter: Well, I think the way I look at it is not so much from a financial aspect. I’m definitely aware of schedule–Jonas and I partner on that. He makes me aware of how much time it’s taking and what we have to accomplish. But in terms of subject, I kind of ignore that. There’s no way for me to anticipate what people will like or not like. I just try to look for things that I respond to, and then, as you sort of test it on the other filmmakers, if they respond to it, we feel like, all right, then this is probably something that the public, it must be relevant to them. I think as soon as you start thinking, “Okay, girls from seven to 14 like the color red or they like elves or whatever it is,” I think you’re dead, you know? It’s got to be personal. It’s got to say something truthful.

CS: Do you have any aspirations to do any live action stuff like Andrew and Brad have been doing or do you feel like you can really do everything you want in animation?

Docter: So far, I’ve felt like animation really is what speaks to me. I mean, I do have a couple of ideas that would probably be better suited for live action, so never say never, but for now, I’m pretty intrigued by what animation has to offer.

Inside Out opens nationwide on Friday, June 19.