‘Soul’ Directors Pete Docter And Kemp Powers On Bringing Authentic Life To Pixar’s First Black Lead Character & The Importance Of Having Difficult Conversations
On Pixar’s latest Oscar-contending feature Soul, writer/director Pete Docter grappled with worlds both real and imaginary, looking to bring each to life with the same level of care, thought and meticulous detail.
Contemplating the origins of human personalities, the film centers on Joe, a middle school band teacher with dreams of performing as a jazz musician, who is abruptly separated from his body, just as he’s on the cusp of his big break. Subsequently finding himself in a celestial realm known as The Great Before, the musician learns that he must mentor a fledgling soul known as 22, and teach her about the beauty of life on planet Earth, if he ever wants to get back to New York City.
In the case of The Great Before, two-time Oscar winner Docter (who also serves as Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer) would have to engage in the kind of spectacularly inventive worldbuilding for which the studio is known, crafting physical spaces and all-new kinds of characters, on the basis of psychological concepts. With regard to New York City, he would look to realistically capture the world of jazz, while bringing a sense of authenticity and life to Joe, Pixar’s first Black protagonist.
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To achieve all of these goals, Docter and his co-writer Mike Jones would enlist the help of Kemp Powers, the revered playwright and screenwriter who is also up for consideration for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar this year, after adapting his own acclaimed play, One Night in Miami, for Regina King’s directorial debut.
While Powers initially thought he’d be working on Soul for just a couple of weeks, he would ultimately stay with the project for years, becoming Pixar’s first Black co-director, and offering a critical perspective on everything from minute costume details to broader plot mechanics.
For Powers, it’s important to note that at the end of the day, Soul is not “a Black movie,” but rather a story with universal themes that’s filtered through the prism of a Black man. “So, the important thing was that that Black man feel authentic, realistic and like a real Black man’s life. And to me, that’s an opportunity that you never see,” he says. “You know, you never see It’s a Wonderful Life, where Bailey is a Black guy, and we learn this universal story through the lived experience of a black person.”
Never, perhaps, until now.
Below, Docter and Powers reflect on the challenges of cracking the Soul script, culture tests involved in shaping the film, the importance of having difficult conversations, and the strides that Pixar still needs to make, in terms of representation on screen and behind the scenes.
DEADLINE: What can you tell us about the process of scripting Soul? I understand that it took a long time to develop the character of Joe.
PETE DOCTER: Yeah. There were earlier versions where Joe wasn’t even human. He was all soul through the whole thing. I think the earliest version, he had amnesia and he couldn’t remember his life on Earth, but he knew he wasn’t supposed to be here in the new soul place. But the more we wanted to talk about the value of life, we recognized, “Well, we’ve got to kind of get to life, instead of watching it and talking about it.” It was then that we said, “All right, we want to create a character, echoing our own lives, who has this rootable passion for something.” We tried an actor; we tried a couple of other things, and then settled in on jazz.
Of course, that was a pivotal decision, in a lot of ways. It’s what led him to be African American, what led us to nail it down in New York—a lot of the things, just to make sense out of jazz, as well as the thematic elements of it. And that’s about the time Kemp came on, about a year and a half in.
DEADLINE: How did you feel, Kemp, when you were invited to play such an integral role in the development of this film?
KEMP POWERS: You have to understand that even before I’d ever worked at Pixar, I’d always seen Pixar as the house of master storytelling. So for me, I saw it as an incredible opportunity to figure out how to crack the code, so to speak. I’d heard so many stories about writers going through there and coming out better writers, so I was very excited about becoming a part of that process.
When I came on board, the Joe character was established, but he didn’t really have a life yet. In fact, there was even a lot of discussion about whether the main character of the film was going to be Joe or 22, and I think in earlier iterations, it was more 22’s story. So, 22 was not just entertaining, but in many ways, the far more interesting character.
I think once the decision was that that this film is going to be Joe Gardner’s, and we’re going to tell this story about life through the prism of this person, that’s when all the focus came onto Joe, which was great. Because that’s the version of the film that I was excited to write. And of course, I pulled from a lot of my own personal experiences to get the ball rolling, in terms of filling in elements of his life. But I can’t state strongly enough how collaborative the writing process is on a Pixar film.
I mean, the sexy narrative is that the great Pete Docter came up with this idea, and then Kemp came and put in some Black stuff. But the reality is that there’s no part of that script that Pete and me and [co-writer] Mike Jones didn’t touch. It was like a dogpile of writers. Sometimes, Pete would be writing, and he literally tossed me his computer, and I’d keep writing on it. So, we wouldn’t even just be throwing things back and forth.
DEADLINE: What other challenges did you find in the writing process?
POWERS: I think the whole third act didn’t come till much later. The wonderful thing is that the crux of the film—the very things that inspired Pete, in the most dramatic moments of the film—were there for a long period.
DOCTER: I think some of the other challenges were just, there were so many bizarre elements of the film, with Moonwind, and the rules of how can you transcend. A lot of the logic and exposition took some doing, to camouflage and make fun, and make sense of.
POWERS: Yeah. We throw a lot of information at people, don’t we? There was that thing where as soon we give people some new information, we then threw them into another new world and situation. I think the complexity was one of the things we did worry about, less so for children and more so for adults, because adults are the ones whose brains go, “Wait a minute. If that’s this, then why that?”
DEADLINE: You each participated in culture tests, the purpose of which was to make sure that the film depicted the African-American experience with the utmost authenticity and care. How did those meetings work, Pete? And what insights did you glean from your discussions?
DOCTER: The way it worked was, we would show them everything. We had different groups. We had the group interior to Pixar, [comprised of] other employees who are African American, and we would show them the screening, we’d show them design work, we’d show them costumes, and just take a poll from people, as to whether it felt authentic and familiar.
One of the tough things, which we should have seen coming was, I was figuring there would be some sort of consensus of whether it was right or wrong. But sometimes, two-thirds thought it was totally familiar, and one-third said either it was cliché, or wrong in some way.
I remember, Kemp, you guys had a big talk about chains…
POWERS: Yeah, gold chains, and that broke down along generational lines. Oddly enough, the very young folks in the trust thought a gold chain was like a stereotype, whereas my generation, I’m like, “What are you talking about? Gold chains are completely normal and authentic.” There was often not only not a consensus, but so many different ideas that the big challenge was determining what was a landmine, and what was just an issue of personal taste.
DOCTER: For me, I learned a lot, starting with what I didn’t know. There were things I just assumed, and then would get in and you’d be like, “Oh, I was not aware that there is so much more to [this].”
Even the ending, I was initially just thinking of it as storytelling, right? We had a version where Joe selflessly gave up his chance to go back and do it a second time, for someone to go and live for the first time. And from my standpoint, that was really cool—kind of like how Bing Bong in Inside Out got some of the biggest tears, because of that noble sacrifice—only to discover, “Okay, there’s a history of Black characters in movies and stories, where that’s not cool. It’s like a bad trope.” So, there were a lot of things that, if I was more learned and well-read and wiser, I would have probably known. But at least I was able to uncover those things, in the scope of making the film, because of the trusts that we had.
DEADLINE: Pixar’s Andrew Stanton has referred to you as someone who never takes the easy path in his work. Certainly, it was courageous to take on this project—knowing that it could lead you to step on landmines, with regard to race, and also concepts of faith. And while doing so was frightening to you at one point, it seems like the conversations that are the most difficult and scary are the ones that we, as a society, need to have.
DOCTER: I think you’re right, and we have to allow a certain amount of grace and forgiveness when we screw up, because we’re going to say things that are offensive or insensitive. And if right away, you’re ready to shoot people, that’s a real problem. [Laughs] It is much more treacherous right now to be in storytelling, I feel. I don’t know how you feel Kemp, but compared to 12 years ago or something, you know, we didn’t have any of these concerns, for better or worse. Now, it’s almost like everybody’s ready to be offended. They’re ready to jump and attack, and with good reason, in a lot of cases.
On the same hand, there has been a real legacy and a long history of telling stories from one point of view, and so for us to finally broaden that and really be conscious of what we’re saying, and to whom we’re saying it, and how that message is heard, is absolutely crucial.
DEADLINE: While working on this film about the human spirit and identity, did you come to understand yourselves a bit better? Were there specific ways in which the process enriched your lives?
DOCTER: I feel like it’s [resulted in] me trying to get more into a discipline of gratefulness, and I know that sounds like one of those hokey things you see on [self-help] websites, but it’s scientifically proven that the more time you spend appreciating the things around you and really being present, the more contented you are. For me, being in animation, I don’t think I was ever like, “I’ve got to achieve these awards” or anything. But I was so myopically focused on one thing that there have been times in my life, I feel like I’ve been pretty close to one of those lost souls [in the film], where I’m so closed off. I don’t want to talk to anybody unless it’s about animation. So, it’s really heightened an awareness in me of, how do I really reach out and connect to the rest of the world? And again, I’m not always successful. But at least it’s something that I think the film has awoken in me—a desire to do that.
POWERS: [For me], it’s very similar. The irony is that we make films for families, and as a result, we don’t get to see our families that much. [Laughs] Honestly, the whole experience was pretty transformative for me as a storyteller, because you have to understand that on the surface, a film like this shouldn’t be able to be made right now—an original story that you just pull out of thin air. You’re just trying to tell this honest story that gets to some kind of greater truth, [and that’s] just not in the cards with so much of what we get to do in Hollywood. That’s just the truth of it all, and for me, it’s the same thing, where you learn the lesson of the film as you’re making it.
DEADLINE: Kemp, between Soul and One Night in Miami, you’ve had quite a year. What has it been like to see both of those films resonate so widely?
POWERS: It’s been beyond my wildest dreams, to be perfectly honest. You could spend your whole career and not have one thing get out that connects with people in any substantive way, so to have two things that have done that in the course of a month has been very, very humbling. I’m not expecting anything like this to happen ever again, and I’m just trying to appreciate it. But at the same time, you feel the desire sometimes to crawl under a rock because it’s more attention than you’re ever accustomed to getting. So, I am very much looking forward to going back into the lab, as I say, and just being able to lose myself in making something else.
DEADLINE: How do you see the future of Pixar, Pete, as its Chief Creative Officer? In just the short time you’ve served in this role, the studio has taken great strides in terms of representation. But what kind of progress do you want to see made going forward?
DOCTER: Well, I don’t really like to live my life like this, but they’ve done assessment by the numbers, and I think we are still much more male-heavy than we need to be. Even now, especially in Covid, there’s been a lot of difficulty, especially for women caregivers who are trying to do a professional job, but now, their kids are at home. And so, what are you going to do? I think rightly, you make the choice to take care of kids. It would be great if there was a little more equal caregiving between men and women, but that’s a larger cultural thing, too. So, that’s one.
Diversity amongst ethnicity is a huge thing, as well. I think animation, maybe just because of the history, and because it’s a slow process, has for a long time been very white—and that’s changed, if you go to schools now. [But] a lot of it comes down to money, you know? Who has the opportunity to go to these schools, which I think is slowly changing—not fast enough, obviously. I think a lot of us could do more, myself included, to help bring people who are not able to afford it to the table, to be able to start—and then within the studio, it’s something that everybody’s super excited about.
So, the good news is, we’re fighting our own prejudices—our maybe unconscious ones. But consciously, everybody’s super excited to bring these new voices to the forefront, and to see more diversity on the screen and behind the [scenes].
My job in this role is to help coach and mentor new directors, and if you compare our director roster from even six, seven years ago to today, it’s night and day, in terms of diversity that we’re finally seeing. And we still have a long way to go. I think continuing like that throughout the ranks is something that we need to consciously be looking at—you know, not just as a director, but as say, a supervising animator, or supervising technical director. Those are all areas that I think would really benefit from multiple points of view.
DEADLINE: You’ve said in recent interviews that you may have to step back from directing for a while, to focus full time on your new position at Pixar. But do you really foresee that being the case? Or do you think you can strike a balance and do both?
DOCTER: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I mean, I don’t have another concept that I’m developing. I’m kind of switching focus to this other role, which is pretty big. You know, we have more stuff going on now at Pixar than we ever had in our past, so that’s a pretty big focus. But we also are super lucky to have a deep bench of talented, experienced people. So, it’s not out of the question that by sharing the load and balancing all of that, that someday I could come up with something else. So, we’ll see.
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