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Why Disney Pixar’s ‘Soul’ was a tough one for Oscar-winning filmmaker Peter Docter

In Disney and Pixar’s “Soul,” a middle-school band teacher named Joe finds himself in The Great Before—a fantastical place where new souls get their personalities, quirks and interests before they go to Earth. Determined to return to his life, Joe teams up with a precocious soul, 22, to show her what’s great about living. Featuring Tina Fey as the voice of 22, and Jamie Foxx as the voice of Joe Gardner, “Soul” will debut exclusively on Disney+ (where Disney+ is available) on December 25, 2020. © 2020 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.   | Photo Credit: Pixar

At the thought of a Disney original for India, Peter Docter beams, “You know what? Why not? There is a world of storytelling to tap into when it comes to India. And working with Indian filmmakers is a great opportunity too.”

But for now, the Academy Award-winner — known for Inside Out, Up and Coco — and Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer, is eager to release Disney Pixar’s Soul, which stars Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey. The long-awaited film has seen numerous release delays owing to the pandemic, but Disney Pixar powered through, and now the world can look forward to a December 25 release on Disney+ .

The film follows Joe Gardner (Foxx) who is transported to another realm. He is assigned a ‘soul’ whom he must help find their true passion. What follows is a sweet narration of how the choices of people are shaped by the world around them, and even vice versa.

In an interview with Docter, producer Dana Murray, and co-director Kemp Powers, the trio chat about how the film is set apart from other Disney-Pixar films.

Best Animated Feature winner Pete Docter, director of ‘Up’, backstage during the 82nd Annual Academy Awards at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, CA on Sunday, March 7, 2010.

Best Animated Feature winner Pete Docter, director of ‘Up’, backstage during the 82nd Annual Academy Awards at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, CA on Sunday, March 7, 2010.   | Photo Credit: Todd Wawrychuk / ©A.M.P.A.S.

Docter, who is insistent on working on films that would appeal to him as an audience member, says having kids of his own keeps his interest as a filmmaker piqued throughout the typically four or five years spent on a single feature film. But what’s the recipe? Is it formulaic? “We work in layers — philosophical thematic elements, slapstick, good visual fun, verbal humour — and we find ourselves going through the film with different ideas in mind, pushing things forward. Kids are as smart as us, and often smarter!”

Powers laughs, “This film is not made in chronological order.” And Docter tacks on cheekily, “Maybe if we were smarter…” Murray remarks that they had started working on Soul four years ago. As time went on, the film’s team became more collectively determined with the messaging of the film, which led to richer design and storytelling. In the last six months of production, the film comprised the workforce of over 350 people.

Mad love for Foxx and Fey

Murray says that in the beginning, production considered having a kid voice for 22, which would make sense given the character’s sweet and diminutive size. But it didn’t work out. “You just don’t buy a kid being as sarcastic as Tina Fey can do. It just didn’t seem as funny!” exclaims Docter. Hence, Fey fit the bill.

Powers concludes, “We always view 22 as a petulant teenager, with teenagers innately know-it-all’s. So we explored this idea of a teenger who actually is a know-it-all, who has had a few thousand years to fill her war chest with knowledge from teachers she has sent packing.”

During the pandemic...
  • Making Soul during the COVID-19 pandemic was not easy, say all three filmmakers. “We were able to keep working while many of our counterparts in live production films had to stop, so we are fortunate,” agrees Docter. With most of the production done in the earlier stages, editing and fine-tuning took most of the lockdown brunt.

While Joe Gardner remains the central character for Soul, 22 (Fey) is sure to grab audiences’ hearts and minds. Docter shares, “22 showed up, as a character, before Joe. Her original name was actually 107, 306, 822. But we dropped the other digits to just make her 22, so she’s been there for that long and have mentors from any time period, which made for a lot of great jokes.”

Docter continues, “From the beginning, the concept was a soul that looks down to Earth and goes ‘that looks like a lot of suffering and disappointment, I don’t want to have anything to do with that!’ We actually read it in Tina’s autobiography, where she would make fun of students walking past her in high school. 22 always has some funny, snarky thing to say!”

Soul, Docter admits, taps into the more philosophical parts of a being, appealing to children and young adults. “It asks ‘why do we have a personality right when we are born?’ Such big questions were at the heart of it. When Powers came on, he helped develop the character of Joe and the specificity of the scenes,” he recalls. The process has been “messy” but in a good way, he adds. In fact, one can argue that Soul, Inside Out and Up have cleverly made up a trilogy of ‘heart, mind and soul’ for audiences.

Powers has immense respect for Jamie Foxx, and it shows, “When we were thinking about the traits of the person we want to have for Joe, Jamie Foxx nails all of them. He’s a great dramatic actor and comedian. He’s also a great musician, as a singer and piano player, so we couldn’t have picked anyone better. Plus he was one of our first choices!”

In fact, when Jamie was brought on to film and the first recording sessions commenced, Powers shares the character of Joe started to evolve based on Jamie’s performance. “There were lots of intangible things that Jamie brought to the character from the very first reading that caused those developments over the course of creating the entire film.”

It wouldn’t be a Disney Pixar film if there weren’t already some fan theories floating about, even ahead of the film’s release. “I’m so grateful that people care and think we are smart [to the point of making theories online about Disney Pixar films we have worked on],” he quips. “We are just trying to make one movie at a time!”

Soul is a landmark for Docter, whose approach to storytelling is an “exploration and meditation” of each core idea. This is also his first film to be shot in 2.39:1 aspect ratio, unlike the usual 1.85:1 taller scope. “Inside Out was, in a way, boot camp for Soul. This was a tough one. The challenges lay in doing things with abstract characters and worlds. Wait till the next one!”

‘Soul’ premieres on Disney+ on December 25, 2020.

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Printable version | Apr 15, 2021 4:53:11 PM |

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