The Oscar-nominated film Soul addresses passion, purpose and meaning in life, topics not normally addressed in animated films.
The film centers on Joe, a high school band teacher who is dissatisfied because his ambition is to be a full-time jazz musician. On the day he gets the biggest gig of his career, Joe nearly dies, but then gets a chance to get back into his body if he can figure out his life purpose.
Pete Docter, who co-wrote and co-directed the film with Kemp Powers, says the film was inspired by the emotional turbulence he experienced after writing and directing from the inside out.
“having…so much success in [that] movie, I found myself wondering: why don’t I feel like my life is wrapped up and resolved into a nice bow? Why didn’t he fix everything?” says the doctor.
soul has generated its own success. The film won the Golden Globe Award for Best Animated Feature Film and is nominated for three Academy Awards. But Powers, who is also nominated for an Oscar for his adapted screenplay for A Night in Miami, says Soul is actually meant to challenge conventional notions of success and failure.
“We were trying to help not just Joe, but the entire audience, to understand that it’s not about winners or losers and that everyone’s life has value,” says Powers. “That was really a powerful driving force from the beginning.”
Docter says the film’s message is that life has meaning beyond personal ambition.
“The point of the film is really to say that we are enough already,” he says. “We can all walk out the door and enjoy life without needing to accomplish or prove anything. And that’s really liberating.”
on the powers that be approaching pixar to work on the film
powers: it’s quite funny, because obviously when I got the call from my agent that pixar was interested, they were looking for a writer to help them with a project… first thing my brain said: ” hmm, I guess the story must have black people.” I know that may sound cynical, but look, that’s the reality of this business, this industry. …it wasn’t that long ago, and when I say not that long ago, I mean about three or four years ago, where it was very possible, if you were white, to create and tell a story about anything you wanted. and no one would pressure you to even consult with people in that community, let alone invite them and be partners.
so while it’s easy to take the cynical road, i saw it more as a really interesting opportunity, because when i flew over to pixar and sat down and saw the nuggets of what would become soul, i really fell in love with it. in love with the story pete was trying to tell. and it was a story that felt like it was about me, and it was a story that wasn’t really about race. that was one of the things that really got me excited about this. … I tell people, yes, soul is a movie [where] most of the characters are black, but it’s not a “black” movie. we are trying to tell this universal story through the specific prism of a black man. and I think that was a really bold choice that I was relishing the opportunity to try and execute.
on the comments of the powers in an earlier reel of soul
Powers: In the early reels, [joe] seemed like the least interesting person in the movie. …part of it was, I think, because there was so much extreme caution and so much fear of doing things that might offend someone or upset someone, that instead there really hadn’t been much done [on the character]. I didn’t know anything about the boy. I really didn’t know anything about his family. It seemed like Joe was just a very, very lonely man who didn’t know anyone or have any friends. and that only meant that his life had to be completed. And of course it’s the nature of being at Pixar, it doesn’t matter if you’re a director, a designer or an artist, you use your life as fuel. so it was very easy for me to [say], “oh, he’s supposed to be a 45-year-old black man from new york. what a coincidence! that’s who i am!” [and then] start to fill in a lot of those gaps with my own personal experiences.
on the investigation of representations and beliefs about the soul for the film
docter: I talked to priests and rabbis and experts on Islam, Hinduism, as many of the major religions as we could find, to see how these different traditions view the soul and the afterlife and the world beyond. beyond our bodily forms. what we found was that most of them have a lot to say about what happens after we die, but very few talk about what happened before. that meant we had the freedom to invent things, which is my favorite place to be. …
if you ask, “what is the soul?” most speak of the soul as ethereal, vaporous, not physical, invisible. we wanted to hint at all of that in our design, not just of the souls themselves, but of the world they inhabit. and in fact, interestingly enough, the first draft of the film…was a version entirely set in the “great before” [a fantastical place where new souls exist before going to earth]. there are no land-based things. it was about looking at life only through these memories and these visualizations of the world, trying to convince this other soul to go [to earth]. but the more we developed it, the more we realized, if we’re going to talk about what makes life worth living, we have to interact with that. we have to get our hands dirty: smell, taste, touch, all those things that a soul cannot do.
on the portrayal of “lost souls” in the film
Powers: One thing we discussed in making this film was that, at different times in our lives and careers, we’ve all been… “lost souls” by our definition. . because when you find something that you enjoy and are passionate about and you’re actually pretty good at it, it’s very easy to take the extra step of hiding behind that thing and using it to not deal with so many other elements of life. that’s why it was so important that when we introduced the idea of the lost soul, that someone could be lost, but then they could be found. …I have definitely found myself, by our own definition, [as] a bit of a lost soul, someone who, in order to avoid facing all the different elements of life, just [gets lost] in my work.
About soul detection for children
docter: in the soul, we start to worry, like, is this too much? Are the kids going to be able to track this? so we brought an audience full of children. It was probably the second scariest projection, because they are silent. the children are calm. they don’t laugh much. then you’re like, “oh, we’re dying! we’re dying!” but we find over the years, especially the first time they look at something, they usually take it all in and take it all in… but then we ask them questions like “did you get this?”. And what seems to happen over and over again is that parents will say, “This movie was too complicated for kids. This is not appropriate for kids.” and then the kid sitting right next to them will sit down and explain the whole movie better than me. they get everything. they are very smart.
heidi saman and seth kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper, and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.