When you write about the afterlife, you’re definitely wading into dangerous waters.
Produced by Dana Murray and directed by Pete Docter, Soul tells the story of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a middle-school band teacher who yearns for something more. Passionate about jazz music, Gardner wants to be on stage yet he feels stuck. After his sudden death, Joe meets 22 (Tina Fey), a soul who has yet to begin her life on Earth and seems unable to find her ‘spark’. Together, the two fight to help Joe reclaim his live while also helping 22 to discover why life is worth living in the first place.
Known for writing some of Pixar’s ‘headiest’ work (pun intended) such as Inside Out, Up and Monsters Inc., Pete Docter is certainly no stranger to the obscure. However, even for Docter, Soul’s interest in the afterlife provides one of the more complex conceptions ever dealt with by the company.
As they began to develop their visual representation of the Great Beyond, Docter understandably found the task to be an incredible challenge for himself and his team.
“The afterlife was especially like danger, danger, danger,” he remembers. “There’s a lot of pitfalls and things that we could have stuck our foot in by accident… I think one of the first things we did was talk to a lot of different religious consultants like pastors, theologians, rabbis [and] shaman. We tried to understand from every angle how people across time have understood the soul. What does it look like? Are there any clues to us in terms of the design that we can use? We actually ended up staying away from the afterlife. There’s of course, the sort of cliché of going towards the bright light that we did.”
“There was an early script where I actually wrote in the voice of God. I was thinking [that] if we’re talking about ‘Why am I here? Why am I not getting what I want?’, then it’s sort of a Job-like story. And I thought it’d be fun to have never referred to him or her. In fact, I thought it was horribly clever that every line would be spoken by someone else. So, it would be a woman, a kid, all ethnicities and races. But that was one of the first things to cut and probably good because the characters—like us—have to figure things out themselves, as opposed to be told.”
Of course, any conversation surrounding the afterlife leads to discussions about the nature of faith. Despite its exploration of the hereafter, Docter feels that Soul’s system of belief echoes more of the classic philosophers than it does theologians.
“I feel like obviously, beyond Christianity, I think a major goal of any faith is to try to bring sense for people in their lives,” contends Docter. “The idea of how do I know what I’m supposed to do. Am I making the right decisions? All those things are complicated and it’s super helpful to have help along the way. I actually feel like it’s maybe more of a philosophical film than a theological one. Essentialism, the idea that I was born to do this, [is] straight out of Aristotle or Plato. Then, we get to counter with the humor of 22 is for nihilism, the sort of ultimate meaninglessness of it all.
“I think where we come to in the end is existentialism, like a Soren Kierkegaard kind of thing of, ‘Hey, it’s not just meant to be localized over here and then the rest of my life happens.’ All of life is spiritual. Everything you do contributes to who you are as a person and so, the overall meaning of your life. I still struggle with that daily but I feel like having the chance to work on this film was a great reminder daily of how I can be bringing my full self into everything, being more present and… really trying to be. It’s tough because you have to balance that with [the fact that] the movie has to get done. I can’t stand here and talk about philosophy all day but it has made me more grateful and appreciative and desiring [to] practice that. Because… it’s not a personality attribute. It’s not something you’re given. You have to exercise every day, at least in my case.”
“I think, to me, faith and fate are really interconnected,” adds producer Dana Murray. “This year, especially, you just have to [realize that] I’m not in charge. I have to go and trust that my faith and fate that it’ll all work out. That’s threaded into the film, but also just timely of when it’s coming out, trusting in that.”
One of the most unique aspects of the film is its presentment of Black culture. As the first depiction of an African-American lead character within Pixar’s canon, Joe Gardner was an exciting prospect for the company. Understanding that any portrayal of race deserved to be handled with the utmost care and sensitivity, Murray ensured that as many voices as possible were consulted so that Soul could visually provide the most authentic representation possible.
“We took it on as a huge responsibility to portray Joe and the rest of the cast [as] truthful and authentic,” she explains. “I think that 22 walking in Joe’s shoes is really special because we got to go into these Black spaces, like the barbershop and the tailor shop with Joe’s mom. I think that Joe is going through something that’s very universal and something that I think all of us, if we haven’t felt in our life, probably will at some point. I think he’s a character that so many people can connect to. Culturally, we wanted to make the black community proud. So, we brought on a lot of help. We had a ton of consultants and a culture trust and [then, there’s] our co-director and writer Kemp Power. All these voices were such a huge part in making these characters who they were. It was very important to us to portray them in a truthful way.”
“In fact, we, I think our initial concern was about religion,” Docter responds. “The longer term and the bigger concern became more about race and representing culture because there are a lot of pitfalls and things that we didn’t even know [that] we didn’t know. So, [there was] long learning there [for us[.”
Having said this, Docter recognizes that it was never the original intent for Soul to specifically depict Black culture in its story-telling. Even so, once that came into view, he also believes that it created incredible opportunities for learning that made the film’s development a richer experience for everyone involved.
“We didn’t set out to make the first African-American character,” Docter recalls. “It was really out of the decision that this guy who kind of reflects the artist’s journey should be a jazz musician and one of our consultants said, ‘Oh, jazz, you could more accurately call black improvisational music. It grew out of the African-American culture.‘ And we thought, it’s only right then to have our main character reflect that. As soon as we made that decision, I don’t think I knew how little I didn’t know. There was a lot that we needed help with. And [co-director] Kemp Powers, as Dana mentioned, was formative in bringing a lot of those details. But we also had extensive cultural consultants as well. People talking just about the black experience. People talking about music. We got to meet and work with Herbie Hancock and Quincy Jones, [who are] these living legends, which was just fascinating and mind blowing. It was a huge responsibility that we knew that we wanted to portray this life of this man as accurately as we could, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because the movie gets better when you talk about those things in an accurate, specific way. Strangely, I think it becomes more universal the more specific it is. So, we had a lot of the benefit of a lot of really great people that helped us. It was a great learning experience.”
Speaking of 2020, because the film features characters in ‘holding patterns’ with their lives, there’s also an aspect of Soul that connects with the current pandemic. Although the film went into production years ago, Docter also feels like the story resonates in new ways in light of today’s circumstances.
“I think it sort of turned out that way,” reflects Docter. “We started at five years ago and the world was a different place, but a lot of the things that we were investigating, like basically why are we waking up in the morning? What are we doing with our time? Those, I think, are things that we’re maybe asking ourselves more now than we do in normal times. Maybe that’s not always good. I think there’s some value to asking those questions. That was our hope really from the get-go… It’s not like we ever hoped to answer the question of what is life all about. That’s ridiculous to think that you could but, at the very least, we hoped that we would incite some good conversations and make people say, ‘Okay, we got to go get some coffee and talk about this’. (Or, now sit on zoom, I guess, and talk about it.)”
In addition, another fascinating theme embedded within the film is it’s conversation surrounding what it means to know one’s calling. Unlike other Disney projects that encourage you to ‘follow your dreams’, Soul takes a more grounded approach to the idea. In fact, Docter’s script even suggests that over-emphasizing the importance of our ‘dreams’ may be limiting to our ‘spark’.
“That was one of the great joys that came with [it],” he beams. “I think there is, oftentimes, a narrative [of] ‘find what you love, do it, and you’ll never work a day in your life.’ That’ll lead to happiness and fulfillment. Well, no, it doesn’t work like that. There are times of intense joy and fulfillment, but it’s not the answer to everything. So, it was really exciting as a storyteller because I think everybody believes so strongly in that narrative that, when we don’t give Joe the happiness and fulfillment that he was expecting, it’s kind of shocking to people. I don’t know that we really ever pulled this off but the hope was that the word ‘spark’ would be reversed in a way. At the beginning, Joe assumes, like hopefully the audience, that [his] spark is the thing you love and your passion, like music or a science, or whatever those specific things [are]. But, in the end, spark really means life. You know that your job is not to just do this one thing, but your job is to live in all the complexity and nuance that that entails. So, I hope that came across, but that was the intention.”
Since 1995’s release of Toy Story, Pixar has continuously offered though-provoking projects that excite the minds of people the world over. Asked what it is that he finds so stirring about these films, Docter highlights the unexpected impact that these stories have on the audience.
“I guess it’s just wanting to reflect reality or my experience of it,” Docter explains. “When I started in animation, it was all about the joy that I got out of it. Now, I realize that one of the great joys of it is the ability for Dana and I and the rest of our crew to connect with people we will never meet in parts of the world that we will never go. Through the work that we do, we have this amazing ability to connect people. I think animation has a wonderful ability (and I guess, filmmaking and storytelling in general) to allow the viewers to step into somebody else’s shoes and experience life from a perspective that they have not been in themselves. So, those are the most important things for me is just representing the world as it sort of seems to me and that I’m struggling with in hopes that you will see yourself in there as well.”
“Sometimes we don’t even know [the impact it will have],” echoes Murray. “I remember, after Inside Out, getting letters and stories from people like psychologists who are working with traumatized children. The only way these children could express themselves is by using the dolls or stuffies, like the characters of all the emotions. That was kind of like crazy to hear because you just you don’t know how these are going to impact people until afterwards. While you’re making them, you’re so focused and busy doing it that it’s not until later sometimes that you can take it in.”
Despite the film’s difficult topics such as the afterlife, Murray explains that she has been thrilled with the types of questions that Soul inspires within her own young children.
“We both have kids. Mine are younger, Pete’s are kind of young adults now,” Murray points out. “So, my kids just saw the film and I think the conversations that I hope are happening are happening. I think the things that they really connect [with] are discovering this great before, because it’s really interesting. We all like to kind of think about where we came from and where we got our personalities. So, that’s been a huge topic. Then, also the things like their spark. They’re trying to figure out what are the things that I really love doing? What am I interested in? They’ve [also] really leaned into the music, which is really cool, [especially] the jazz music and the Trent and Atticus score. But they’re not asking about the midlife crisis. So, we’re definitely having the conversations that I hoped we would be having. I think kids are really smart and they ask big questions so there’s a lot in there for them.”
“It’s something that we talked about. Dana and I worried about it but I think that, in a way, doing Inside Out was a kind of boot camp for this movie,” Docter continues. “That was pretty abstract. What we found was, if you make it visual, then everybody gets it. If it’s about words, you’re going to miss some people. But visually and through action, ‘this character wants this but this is in the way’. Now, I can understand everything. That’s takes a long time to do but we have an amazing group of very talented people who assisted us and actually just did all the work. They didn’t assist us or anything. They did the work.”
With his ability to make even the murkiest of concepts accessible to children and adults, Docter argues that he never begins with any particular audience in mind when he starts to write.
“Kurt Vonnegut said, ‘Pick somebody and write for them.’ That’s not been my experience,” he states. “I guess, at the beginning, I was writing more just for myself. ‘Ooh, what’s fun? What do I want to play with?’ Then, along the way, Dana will say something about her kids [and I decide that] we need to write for her kids. So, it’s almost like building up layers as we go. I want something just selfishly that is going to excite me and connect with other folks that I talk with. But then I’m also knowledgeable that my kids and Dana’s kids and all these different people are going to see it. So, it’s not really a simple answer I guess, but it is almost like switching the channel a couple of times as we go, sometimes even daily, to make sure we’ve got something there for everybody.”
Soul is currently streaming on Disney+.
To hear our conversation with writer/director Pete Docter and producer Dana Murray, click here.