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Pete Docter’s ‘Inside Out’ Finally Arrives

Six years in development, one of Pixar’s most anticipated and important films in years hits U.S. theatres.

There was a time when the idea that Pixar might “worry” about the critical success of one of their feature releases was laughable. Pixar single-handedly defined the CG animated feature medium, setting the competitive bar that every other studio tried in vain for years to reach. Of course, every film has its risks; looking back, even on Toy Story people at the studio were sending out their resumes, sure the film would bomb. But for many, many years, Pixar was King. And, for the most part, it’s good to be King.

But that’s not the case today. Serious competition exists in every direction – numerous studios have conjured up winning formulas generating every bit of the critical accolades and financial rewards Pixar for years claimed as their own. That even includes Pixar’s parent company, Disney, whose recent films like Frozen and Big Hero 6 have captured huge worldwide audiences and billion plus dollar receipts. Team that with the solid but less-than-hoped-for performance of Monsters University, the removals of directors late in the game on both Brave and the upcoming The Good Dinosaur, as well as the perception in many industry circles that the two Cars movies were nothing more than merchandising cash grabs, and you begin to realize that for the first time in years, Pixar has reason to be a bit anxious about a feature film release. Pixar hasn’t released a film in two years, since Monsters University in June of 2013 – The Good Dinosaur was bumped from its 2014 release to later this year because of creative issues with the story. If that wasn’t enough, Inside Out is being released against the box-office juggernaut Jurassic World. All appropriate reasons to swallow hard.

But based on audience responses and critical reviews, Joy, not Fear, may soon rule the day at Pixar. Inside Out is destined to put Pixar back once again at the head of the animation industry’s creative dinner table. Smart, funny, insightful, original, beautiful, Inside Out is the film Pixar is expected to make – it’s the film Pixar is supposed to make. And thankfully, for audiences and the animation industry, it’s the film that, after six long years, Pete Docter and his team were able to make.

But this is the entertainment “business,” which means nothing is ever a sure thing – nothing is taken for granted. Inside Out is a truly special film, but nonetheless, the pressure to succeed still remains.

As Docter describes, “Now I feel pressure. Right now. Along the way, I don't think we really felt more or less pressure than [we did] on any of the other films. Until the last year. I think that was compounded by the fact that we had to move Dino [The Good Dinosaur]. Suddenly there was a gap. We were the next ones up. There was a full year of nothing before it comes to us. That's when we started to really feel a little more like, ‘Okay, this has really got to be good.’"

Inside Out takes place primarily inside the mind of a 12-year-old girl named Riley, whose happy, idyllic Minnesota childhood is filled with hockey, laughter and constant parental adoration. But her life is abruptly upended when her parents move across country to the grungy confines of a cramped and dingy San Francisco walkup, a move made more unpleasant by her father’s sudden shift from loving, caring, doting dad to distracted, no-longer-paying-attention startup business executive dad. For the first time in her life, she is truly unhappy, experiencing waves of emotions she’s never had to deal with before.

Queue the five emotions living within Riley’s mind – Joy, Fear, Sadness, Anger and Disgust, the five central characters in our tale. Led by Joy, they grapple with situations never before encountered as Riley tries to come to grip with her new, unpleasant reality.

Docter, who grew up a shy kid in Minnesota, is no longer shy as he shares his feelings about some of his own tough times, experiencing emotions that not only led him to embrace art and animation, but years later, led him to come up with the idea for the film. “Literally, I don't think I went over to anybody else's house from like eighth to tenth, eleventh grade. I just didn't really have friends. I didn't know how to engage with people. I was kind of shy and gangly and awkward. I would escape and draw in my room. I think that's really the reason I got into animation. I had something to say, but I didn't know how to speak to people. I know that that's a really difficult time for a lot of folks.”

Despite complex issues surrounding the human mind, emotions and adolescence, the director’s initial pitch to producer Jonas Rivera and studio creative chief John Lasseter was really quite simple. “I noticed my daughter growing up, being a little less goofy and wacky and funny and a little more shy and quiet because she had turned 11,” Docter recalls. “It freaked me out watching her go into that place, because I remember being in some dark places myself in junior high.

“And at the same time, I was looking at different ideas for a film and thought about emotions as characters,” continues Docter. “So the basic pitch that I gave to Jonas at first, and then ultimately John, was, ‘What if we have an 11-year-old girl who's moved across the country, but she's actually not the main character? She's the setting, because inside her head are her emotions that help her deal with everyday life?’”

Starting from that simple concept, co-director Ronnie del Carmen and writer Josh Cooley worked with Docter, slowly developing the story over the next four years. Four tough years. Docter relates how Lasseter surmised the tough road ahead, noting, “John said to me, ‘This is such a cool idea. It's got a lot of complexity and a lot of potential. It's also gonna be really hard.’ And I didn't really see that at the time. I was too taken by the fun of it.”

Part of every Pixar film’s development process is ongoing story reel screenings for Pixar’s famed Brain Trust, which normally includes both Docter and Rivera as well as Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich. Getting a consensus on story is no easy feat. It can be a tough crowd. As Docter explains, “We have screenings every three months, and we invite that group in. They're a very critical group. Frankly, you could show Casablanca in that room, and we would find things wrong with it and chip it apart. So a lot of it [getting consensus] is schedule. And you're, like, okay, this [film] has to be done, and everybody knows the schedule. Everyone knows where we are and is respectful of that. So, on the ninth screening, people aren't gonna say, ‘Why emotions?’ They're gonna have more specific kind of targeted notes. But we also bring in the security guards and payroll people that aren't necessarily born to give notes, and we hear their notes, as well. And when you aggregate that, you sort of experience what the audience might think.”

According to Docter, while every film is difficult, Inside Out was especially tough. “They're all more difficult than I expected. You have to have a sort of clueless optimism when you go in. Kind of like having a baby or something. If you remembered the pain of it, you probably wouldn't do it again. This one was especially difficult. Maybe it's just because we're close to it right now. I do feel like, comparing it to Monsters or Up, this one was just more work.”

Docter recalls when he finally felt he was capturing the spirit of his idea in a story that was working with an audience. Says the director, “I remember…it was the dinner scene. It was the first time that was really boarded where I could see Lasseter, and I could see Lee, and I could see them in silhouette, busting up. And it was, like, ‘OK, that's cool. That got them.’ And it wasn't even right yet. It wasn't even in the right spot. But you could start to see through the weeds what the movie might be. And they're a pretty tough audience. So you know when you have John Lasseter, OK, that must be touching something in the pulse of the world. And so then you dig there.”

As they dug, the core of the movie finally revealed itself. Says Docter, “We did have this realization along the way that the subject matter we'd chosen to deal with was really crucial to the thing that's most important to us as humans. Which is relationships. I had this realization that the people I feel the deepest connection with are beyond just folks that I've had a good time with. That we've gone to Disneyland with. [It’s] people that we've shared intense sadness with. The loss of Joe Ranft, and other people that we got to work with here that I've been scared for, that I've been angry at. All these things that don't always feel positive at the time establish the deepest connection with each other. That's ultimately where we set this film.”

It took quite some time to arrive at the final set of five emotions. First off, there is little agreement among experts how many emotions there really are. Some say three, others say 27. Without any scientific consensus to fall back on, the team realized they just had to figure it out on their own. Docter explains, “We arrived at five, mainly because it's a nice odd number. It felt like a good crowd, enough contrast and conflict between them, but not so big that you're, like, ‘Wait, who's that again? Schadenfreude? Okay. Lost track of …‘ If we were to represent all 27, I just…my brain was hurting, thinking of writing for all these characters.”

Dr. Paul Ekman, a psychologist and pioneer in the study of emotions and how they relate to facial expressions, was a consultant on the film. His work in the 1970s identified six emotions – the five Docter used, plus one – surprise. Says Docter, “We felt surprise, as a cartoon, is probably fairly similar to fear. So we jettisoned that one, and that's how we ended up with the five.”

One of the films inherent strengths is its casting, a terrific ensemble led by Amy Pohler as Joy, Bill Hader as Fear, Mindy Kaling as Disgust, Phyllis Smith as Sadness, and Lewis Black as Anger. Pohler’s Joy, as the lead emotion, effortlessly captures the unconditional and relentless optimism of her character. Lewis Black, safe to say, practically steals the show. If ever a part cast itself, it’s Anger. Hader as Fear is not far behind. As Docter describes, “A lot of the lines on paper, if you read the script, they're, like, sort of funny. But when these particular actors bring them to life, it's somehow so specific and so wonderful that it's fantastic. Lewis Black was one that, even as I was pitching the concept, I would say, ‘Imagine the fun we're gonna have when it comes to casting. We could get people like Lewis Black as Anger,’ and people would go, ‘Oh, yeah, I get that!’”

Rivera took the lead in contacting Black. “I called Lewis through our casting department at Pixar, and we pitched him the movie,” he recalls. “We wanted him to play Anger. And he immediately, I think what he said was, ‘Great, real stretch casting, guys. Brilliant.’” Says Docter, “[He really gave] us a hard time.” Continues Rivera, “Like, he mocks us for calling him. That was even perfect. He was so great. He does one of the great lines in the movie, too. He's got that great line where he just says, ‘What have we done?’ And he says it in a non-Lewis Black way that has a punch. He's just a great actor.”

Hader handled the role of Fear with equal gusto. But his recruitment to the film was quite different. According to Rivera, “Bill came on pretty early. I was a fan of Bill Hader since Saturday Night Live. And it turned out Bill was a fan of Pixar. We didn't know it. He shows up one day at Pixar, and our casting director calls, and says, ‘Bill Hader's in the atrium. Does anyone wanna go have coffee with him?’ I go, ‘What?’ So we go down there, and there's Bill Hader drinking coffee by himself.”

Rivera continues, “He had, on his own dime, flown up, just because he loves animation. I mean, Bill knows more about movies than anyone I've ever known, animated or otherwise. We introduce ourselves to him, and he says, ‘Oh, my God!’ ‘What?’ He says, ‘Is that Ralph Eggleston?’ who is our production designer that no one would know, unless you watched Side 3 of the Wall-E Blu-ray. And he'd watched everything and knew everybody.”

Hader not only played Fear, but had a hand in some of the writing. As Rivera describes Hader’s efforts, “We just fell in love with him. He came on to write with us actually because he's such a great writer, and he was so much fun in the story room. We just went through the script, and he started developing voices. He kind of leaned towards Fear, and was perfect at it. He really brought this sort of − I don't know − Don Knotts, Sheriff of Mayberry, quick turn on a dime that made us laugh, and he fit.”

The rest of the casting was not as easy. As Docter notes, “Disgust, we struggled with a lot, because we weren't sure whether she should be disgusting or disgusted. And once we arrived at disgusted, Mindy's voice came up. And she, again, takes lines that are, like, fine in writing and makes them amazing to listen to. She, like most of the cast, we would come with the script and I would say, ‘Do you have any other ideas for this? Go ahead and play around.’ And she would come up with little alternate lines and asides and added a ton to both the character and the film.”

Phyllis Smith was not the first choice for the role of Sadness. In fact, originally, Sadness was going to be a male character. Says Docter, “Early on, we actually had that character as male in the very first versions. And then, as the film went on, we realized we had too many guys in this movie, especially if it's taking place in a girl's head.” An early version of Sadness had her more of a crybaby. Then, Rivera saw Phyllis Smith in the film Bad Teacher, and thought her performance as someone who was always hesitant would be perfect for the role of Sadness. As the producer notes, “She was just so funny. In Bad Teacher, she was hesitant and couldn't even order a chicken sandwich. Like, ‘I'll have the chicken sandwich?’ Everything had a question mark, and that felt right, and it worked. And that's how we ended up playing the character, and she just nailed it.”

The final emotion to be cast was the film’s central character – Joy. “Joy was the last one to be cast, and it was the most difficult of any of the characters to write for because she had a tendency of being really annoying,” Docter says. “If you write someone who is always chipper and upbeat and, ‘Come on, guys, we can do this,’ it just kind of got like, oh, you wanna sock that person. And so Amy was able to put that in some way that made it entertaining. It was not insufferable. You root for her.

“I don't remember whose idea this was, but instead of recording right away, we spent the whole day reading through the script, one sequence at a time,” Docter continues. “And then Amy would start narrowing in on certain lines, not just for her, but some of the other characters, as well. She's got such a brilliant writing mind, as well as being an amazing performer. We took advantage of that.”

Inside Out opens today in theatres across the U.S. among other international territories. Bring some Joy to your life and go see it.


Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.