Grantland Q&A: Talking With Director Pete Docter About Pixar’s Terrific ‘Inside Out’

The world around us is easy enough to capture on film: Just point the camera and shoot. But a rich internal life? That’s the trick that writers and actors have been wrestling with since the time before talkies. We should’ve known it’d be the brainiacs at Pixar1 who would figure out a way to crack the uncrackable. The studio’s latest effort, Inside Out, trades the vast oceans of Finding Nemo and the wide-open racetracks of Cars for something far more intimate: the mind of an 11-year-old girl. With dazzling verve and unprecedented empathy, the film, which opens today, gives shape to abstract concepts like Joy (voiced, of course, by Amy Poehler), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black), and Sadness (The Office’s Phyllis Smith). It’s plenty funny and wildly inventive — just wait until you see what dreams are actually made of — but more than that, Inside Out is powerfully, radically human. It’s a movie expressly devoted to the hows and whys of existence and surprisingly open to the idea that pain and loss are as crucial to our well-being as sunshine and happiness. It may look like a kids’ movie, but only in the sense that everyone was a kid once. It left me floored.

The man responsible for getting so deeply into our heads is Pete Docter, one of Pixar’s original employees and an Oscar winner for his work on Up. Writing and directing Inside Out was a labor of love for the 46-year-old father of two — though, over the course of the five years it took to complete, there were often times it simply felt like labor. None of that toil was on display when he joined me in Grantland’s New York studio for a podcast last month, however. Fresh from Inside Out’s star-studded premiere in Cannes, Docter was energized and ebulliant, just as eager to talk about the deep research he and his team did into adolescent psychology as to discuss Amy Poehler’s improv skills. And though many are already predicting huge grosses and possibly another Oscar nomination, Docter seemed entirely at ease. Perhaps that’s because he’d already pleased the only critic that mattered: Elie, his daughter who inspired the movie in the first place. “When she saw it [a second time], she admitted that she teared up at certain points,” he said of the now-16-year-old. “So that is pretty awesome.” That’s an understatement. Making a teenager admit to emotions is the only thing I can imagine to be more difficult than making a movie about nothing else.

Listen to the podcast here. An edited and condensed version of our conversation follows in Q&A form.

How did you crack such a difficult piece of visual storytelling?

If we did crack it, it’s thanks to a lot of amazingly smart people. I knew there’d been a lot of movies that take place in the body, but I’d never seen one — or couldn’t think of one — that had gone in the mind. And that allowed us to explore things that everyone had thought about but had never actually seen before. You know, like, “Why can’t I remember that guy’s name?” and “Why is this song stuck in my head?” Those kind of things. That was the attraction of it. At the time I thought,”This will be great. We get to make up the whole world. This will be easy.” And it was not easy at all. It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever worked on.

With [Finding] Nemo, you could look at a picture of a fish and at least kind of have a place to start. And if it goes too far off from that, you don’t recognize it as a fish anymore and, you know, pull back. We had nothing like that. We had to just kind of make it up.

Where does it all start? With physically mapping out the movie or in much more imaginative terms?

It was really a back-and-forth. For this one, the characters seemed to show up first. So I knew from the get-go that I was interested in talking about growing up. This film was inspired by watching my daughter, who was about 11 at the time we started. She’s 16 now. If you saw Up, she was the voice of young Ellie at the beginning of the film. She was kind of like that character, where she was really spunky and full of energy and opinions and things. Then she got a little older and she became kind of more quiet and she changed. And I realized: I remember going through that in my own life. That’s a difficult time for most people. Maybe this film can explore why that happens, what’s going on in our heads, you know?

How were you able to approach the film with empathy toward the change in a childs behavior and acknowledge the magnitude of that emotional transition?

We worked that angle really hard. If you make fun of it or make it off-putting, you really run the risk of having people pull back from the film. The film is told from a parent’s point of view. Joy is sort of the surrogate parent and she goes in and she loves this kid. So we, as an audience member, have to love her too. If we think, “Oh, she’s such a pain,” then you’re not in her shoes and you don’t want what Joy wants.

The amazing decision you made — and you mention this in your New York Times article, but it might be worth repeating again — was the realization that Joy’s partner in getting Riley from one phase in her life to the next would have to be Sadness. And that sadness was there for a reason and she’s not a villain.

Originally, we had paired Joy with Fear. Mainly, because looking back at our own lives — and I know this was true for me — in junior high a large percentage of my decisions were made out of fear. So we thought, OK, this is going to be entertaining. We can put these guys together and really see some fun. And hopefully it’ll resonate with people. As it turned out, we got to the third act — and this is like three years into making the film — and I was realizing I didn’t know what Joy is now at the end of the movie. She has gone through this whole journey, she has learned something? I don’t know. That’s where I realized, I’m screwed. I’ve failed to find the core of this movie.

Had the movie been animated up until that point? What did you have on paper or onscreen when you realized this structural issue?

Any film that we work on — this is fairly typical — [takes] about five years. So I would say the first three to three and a half are writing and rewriting and rewriting. And that’s not only in the form of words, but also in the form of pictures. We draw almost a comic-book version of the movie. Then we put it with temporary dialogue, music, and sound effects, just to give it a road test, to see how it plays. Then we play it, we all sit and watch it. I drag in, like, John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton and all the other guys who are making their own movies. They get to sit and watch my movie and then we all get upstairs and talk about what worked and what didn’t. A large percentage of the conversation is what didn’t work. And a lot of great suggestions are offered up. Sometimes they’re not quite right. We refine and so on, but then we go back, rewrite, redraw it, recut it, and all that stuff.

I think for this film we did about eight versions. The first couple [of screenings] were radically different. Same idea, an 11-year-old girl, going in her head, but the journey was very different. It was about Year 3 that I realized this movie is not about fear, it’s about joy. Really, the epiphany came when I was at a real down point. I was thinking I failed. So what if I give up and move to the North Pole, what would I miss? I know I’d miss walking into work every day, but really what I’d miss is the same thing everybody would, which is friendships, close relationships. It hit me that the friendships that feel deepest are not the ones that have been just fun and games, but the ones where we have suffered together. You know, we’ve had sadness, intenseness, we’ve been angry with each other. You’ve been through all the ranges of emotion and somehow that is what makes that stronger.

I realized that this is the subject matter of the film that I’m working on. It’s got to talk to this. So we went back and we retooled the whole thing with Joy and Sadness together. Of course, Sadness worked out great because it’s something that we don’t really want in our lives. We don’t wanna feel sad. So our struggle then was to create just the right balance.

Theres a real psychology behind the choices you made in the films structure. How did that drive the discussion during the process of putting the film together?

It’s interesting. I look back through my own photos that I took of our process, and the very beginning was very intuitive in talking about loss. I always feel like without loss, you don’t have real depth to stories. And watching my daughter and thinking about my own childhood, there is a sense of loss. There is something that is gone forever that you cannot go back to. And that is sad, but it’s also necessary and beautiful.

So that was a great thing just right off the bat, but then, as is the case with every film we do, we do a lot of research. And in this case, we talked to psychologists, neurologists, people like that. One of the big things that was a huge help for us was finding out the purpose of emotions. And it was not intuitive at first. Every emotion you have has a legitimate reason for existing and [is] an assistance to you. In fact, if you think about it, if it didn’t serve a purpose then it probably would have been bred out somewhere along the way. So fear obviously keeps you safe, keeps you from taking unnecessary risk. Anger is kind of like — at first I thought it was a negative — psychologists told us that basically it was unfairness. If you feel like you’re getting ripped off or taken advantage of, that’s what is going to incite anger. Paul Ekman, who was one of the psychologists we talked to, said it’s a real big motivator for social justice. I was like whaa-what? He said if you feel angry that someone across the world is getting ripped off then that’s going to incite you to write a check or do volunteer work, so it can be a very positive motivating source.

Can you discuss Amy Poehler and her performance in the film?

It’s a very nuanced thing, and early attempts at writing for Joy, you kind of wanted to punch her in the face because she’s annoying. If someone is always like, “Come on, guys. We can do it,” to some degree that’s joy, but it’s also phony. We were very upfront when we met Amy and talked to her about the project and said we’re struggling with this because of that. She said, “I think I can help you.” She was very self-aware of what she brings to the table as an actor. It was fantastic working with her. Really, what we did the first day working with her, we didn’t even record. We just sat at a table and wrote. We would read through scenes and she’d go how about here she says this or maybe we’re doing this. She was a great collaborator in a lot of different ways.

Do you generally record the dialogue once you have the voice actors, and is that concurrent with animation?

We record first, and then the editor will sit and select from the 15 takes or whatever. Sometimes that’s a mishmash, it’s the word “the” from this take and something else from this. It’s put together in a very seamless way. It’s pretty amazing. Then the animators listen to that over and over and they’re inspired by it. If you think about it, from an acting standpoint, dialogue is a secondary effect. In the same way my gesture or expression is of some inner feeling. So they’re trying to get back to that same feeling that the actor felt as they delivered the line so they can then create movement and expressions and the gestures.

What is the Pixar process? Is it like a television writers’ room? What makes it distinctive?

Well, I think it’s a fairly positive room. It’s not a hard room. It really depends on the attitude of the people that are in there. In a nutshell, we talked about how we create these kind of placeholder versions of the film so we can screen it. Then we have what we somewhat pompously refer to as a “brain trust screening” and it’s John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and all these other filmmakers that come into the room and talk about what worked and what didn’t. The reason that works so well is because everybody is focused on the best story possible.

At the beginning of the process, it’s very interesting, when the film is not clear in what it’s trying to say, you’ll get a lot of different solutions going off in different directions. Brad Bird will try to pull what the Brad Bird film [is] and John Lasseter what his is, and things like that. As you move along and it becomes more clear what the movie is trying to be, everybody is a bit more laser-focused on what that is. Then — and this is where it gets interesting — you walk out of that room with sometimes dozens and dozens of ideas. Sometimes they’re in direct opposition to each other. So it’s ultimately up to me and my small group of collaborators to figure out which work, which we feel good about, which were maybe the right idea but the wrong solution. And then we workshop it and rework it. It’ll be me or one of the other writers who’s literally putting it down on paper. Then it goes out to story and back out through the whole process again.

I don’t know that I’ve analyzed my own thing because I feel like it sort of kills it. I just approach it intuitively and I feel like I’m well paired with someone who understands story structure in a deeper way. When you read those [screenwriting] books, I kind of read that stuff and instantly forget it because I’m like, “I don’t know. This seems interesting. Let’s go that way!” I feel like the movies I’ve worked on are more discovered than made.

Filed Under: Movies, inside out, Pixar, Disney, Amy Poehler, Grantland Q&A

Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

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