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It's All In Your Head: Director Pete Docter Gets Emotional In 'Inside Out'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. The Academy Awards ceremony is a week from Sunday, and today we have directors of two films nominated for best animated feature. First, Pet Docter, who directed the Disney Pixar animated film "Inside Out" along with Jonas Rivera. "Inside Out" is also nominated for best original screenplay, which Docter co-wrote. Pete Docter also directed the animated films "Monsters, Inc." and "Up."

"Inside Out" imagines what goes on in a child's mind ruled by competing emotions. When the film begins, an 11-year-old girl named Riley is uprooted from her home in Minnesota because her father has started a new company in San Francisco. This usually joyful girl becomes sad and angry that she's been forced to leave the house, friends and the hockey team she loves. Much of the film takes place inside her head in a control room operated by five characters who personify her primary emotions. Joy is voiced by Amy Poehler, Anger by Lewis Black, Fear by Bill Hader, Disgust by Mindy Kaling and Sadness by Phyllis Smith. Terry spoke to Pete Docter in June, and they began with a scene from "Inside Out." Riley's in her high chair at the kitchen table with her parents. Her father, voiced by Kyle MacLachlan, is feeding her broccoli. The five emotions in her mind are figuring out how to deal with this dreaded food.


KYLE MACLACHLAN: (As Dad) Here we go. All right, open.

AMY POEHLER: (As Joy) This looks new.

BILL HADER: (As Fear) Think it's safe?

PHYLLIS SMITH: (As Sadness) What is it?

MINDY KALING: (As Disgust) OK, caution. There is a dangerous smell, people. Hold on, what is that?

POEHLER: (As Joy) This is Disgust. She basically keeps Riley from being poisoned, physically and socially.

KALING: (As Disgust) That is not really colored or shaped like a dinosaur. Hold on, guys. It's broccoli.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As young Riley) Yucky.

KALING: (As Disgust) Well, I just saved our lives. Yeah, you're welcome.

MACLACHLAN: (As Dad) Riley, if you don't eat your dinner, you're not going to get any dessert.

LEWIS BLACK: (As Anger) Wait, did he just say we couldn't have dessert?

POEHLER: (As Joy) That's Anger. He cares very deeply about things being fair.

BLACK: (As Anger) So that's how you want to play it, old man? No dessert? Oh, sure. We'll eat our dinner right after you eat this. (Yelling).

ACTOR: (As young Riley, crying).

MACLACHLAN: (As Dad) Riley, Riley - here comes an airplane (imitating airplane sound).

BLACK: (As Anger) Oh, airplane. We got an airplane, everybody.

MACLACHLAN: (As Dad, imitating airplane sound).



And, of course, the airplane is the spoon that the father's feeding (laughter) into the child's mouth. Pete Docter, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on the film. What gave you the idea of personifying five emotions - joy, anger, sadness, fear and disgust - and having them at the controls in the control room of the child's brain?

PETE DOCTER: The idea kind of started with me just thinking about what would be fun to see in animation, you know - what have I not seen? For some reason, I got thinking about the human body and realizing, well, I've seen, like, traveling through the bloodstream and into the, you know, stomach and things. Well, what if we did this in the mind as opposed to the brain? So instead of blood vessels and dendrites, what if it was consciousness and dream production? And that would allow us to have characters that represent emotions. And that felt like, man, that's exactly what animation does best - strong, opinionated, caricatured personalities. And that just got me excited.

GROSS: You boiled it down to joy, anger, sadness, fear and disgust. It seems to me if you were Jewish, and perhaps Catholic, guilt would have been a character.

DOCTER: (Laughter) I'm not actually sure if guilt is an emotion. In fact, that was - at the very beginning of this process, we realized, man, we really don't know very much about this subject so we better do some research. And we started looking around online. We found some scientists think that there are basically three emotions. Others went up to 27. Others had 16. Some were in the middle. So we were kind of left with no definitive answer to our basic question - how many are there? Dr. Paul Ekman, who worked in San Francisco - still does - which is where Pixar Animation Studios is, he had early in his career identified six. That felt like a nice, manageable number of guys to design and write for. It was anger, fear, sadness, disgust, joy and surprise. And as I was sort of doodling, I was thinking, surprise and fear - probably fairly similar so let's just lose surprise. And that left us with five.

GROSS: And Mindy Kaling is the voice of Disgust, and I've been trying to imagine what it was like for her to get the call saying, we'd like you to personify disgust.

DOCTER: Yeah. I know she (laughter) - we kind of worried about that one. We did say, she's disgusted. She's not disgusting. And that kind of assuaged her fears a little bit. But she came in. We gave her a pitch. She was actually pretty key to decoding some elements of the story. We were really wrestling with these two different themes of growing up and then embracing sadness, which we felt were kind of separate. But I don't know, I had an intuition that they could somehow be connected. I pitched her the story. And as I turned around - 'cause I was pitching kind of off some visuals on the computer - I turn around and she's crying. And I thought, oh, no - what, did she get, like, a bad text or something? You know, she was - really responded emotionally. And she said, I'm sorry, I just think it's really beautiful that you guys are making a story that tells kids that it's difficult to grow up and that it's OK to be sad about it. And that - we were like, quick, write that down, you know, 'cause that was really what we were trying to say.

GROSS: It is the kind of moral of the story that if you cut off sadness you're not going to feel anything when you're sad and that that's the worst thing of all, and that sadness is the way to be able to communicate what you're really feeling with other people.

DOCTER: Yeah. One of the other experts we consulted with, this guy named Dacher Keltner, he was big on sadness as community bonding - I think is the word he used. It's, like, you know, if you're sad, it's a way of connecting with other people. And we - a lot of times we sort of feel embarrassed by being sad, and we go off by ourselves to hide and cry by ourselves. But, really, it's a way of re-establishing relationship.

GROSS: Well, people discourage us from being sad. It's, like, oh, smile. Oh, cheer up. And I think it's often that way with children. I know when I was a child and I wasn't smiling and I was walking down the street, there would always be a stranger coming up to me saying, come on, smile. And I thought, like, get out of my face, you know (laughter)? Like, leave me alone. But...

DOCTER: It is one of those weird social things. You're right. Even as parents we say, oh, don't be sad. You know, come here, we'll distract you with some ice cream or something. And I don't know if that's always the best thing. But it's certainly - you understand why people do it.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Pete Docter, and he directed and co-wrote the new Pixar Disney movie "Inside Out," and it's an animated film that goes into the mind of an 11-year-old child where Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness are all at headquarters - the control room in her brain - kind of competing to control her emotions. And it also imagines what goes on in your mind when you're making a memory, storing the memory, deleting a memory. And that's - that must've been a very challenging part for you because, like, the brain is really a lot of neurons and electricity (laughter) and electrical currents and stuff. And it's not like there's a storage room with memories in it. But, of course, you create a storage room with memories. And the memories - each memory is, like, an image encased in a glass-like ball that can be broken if you're not careful. It can roll away. It can - things can happen to it. You have to be careful with your memories.

DOCTER: That's right.

DOCTER: Yeah. The way real memories work, from what we understand, is really complex (laughter). And it's an interconnection of different things and redundancy in the brain. So the idea of a memory existing as a little snow globe - the way we represent it in the film - is actually not scientifically accurate at all. However, for story reasons, we needed to represent them in certain ways. One of the things that sort of blew me away that I didn't know when we started is that memories are completely susceptible to change. And this is, you know, one of the many reasons why certain people are trying to get it taken out - eyewitness testimony in court cases because it's very unreliable. Every time you recall a memory, you're basically making another copy of it and at that same point it is susceptible to new changes and adaptations. So, you know, if you remember from when you were, you know, in second grade and there was Christmas and you got a present from your grandfather and your mom was wearing a red dress, that may or may not all have happened. It might have been introduced slowly over the course of the years as you recall this memory over and over. So that was a very cool but complex idea that we thought about representing in the film but could not find a way to make it work. We actually needed the memory - if you see the film - as a very different kind of a plot device of revealing some information to our main character. So we chose to represent it as these sort of beautiful little snow globes, which kind of, weirdly, that's the way we think of memories - at least, most of the folks that we talked to. You think of these memories as being very pure and absolute and unchanging. That's not actually real life.

GROSS: Yes, and that's why in your film if Sadness touches one of the memories, the memory turns blue and is forever changed by the sadness it's been touched by, which gets to exactly what you're talking about, that memories change over time as we recall them.

DOCTER: Though that actually is scientifically accurate. If you were feeling sad right now and you recall a sad - or, a very happy memory from the past, it will be tinged with more sadness based on your current feeling. So we felt like that was actually on solid scientific ground (laughter).

GROSS: There is sadness in this story in "Inside Out" because the 11-year-old girl is forced to move from her home in Minnesota. Her father - I think her father has a startup and it's in San Francisco. So the family, you know, this 11-year-old and her mother and father have to move to San Francisco. And she's leaving behind the house that she loves, the little lake she loves to skate on, her hockey team, her friends. And she - they move to San Francisco. The house is kind of, you know, run-down. And she's just, like, so sad at having left everything behind. And I think that's such a scary thought for a parent. You know, that the parent is making the change that has to be made but it's going to create such sadness in the child.

DOCTER: Yeah. Yeah, we were looking for a way to represent adulthood and the passing into adulthood. And I think, for me personally and a lot of the folks that I work with, childhood is kind of a sacred, special kind of point in time that has a real joy and purity to it. And we sort of long on a daily basis to reach back and kind of grab onto that in some way. So this idea of moving seemed like a good way to sort of represent that metaphorically. It also is something for me personally. When I was in fifth grade - so about 11 - my folks moved us to Denmark. And so not only did I have all new friends and all new surroundings, I didn't even understand what they were talking about, which was very difficult and kind of started me, I think, on my path to animation. It was a lot easier to draw people than to talk and interact with them, so...

GROSS: Why did your family move to Denmark?

DOCTER: My father was working on his Ph.D. on Danish choral music - the Danish choral music of Carl Nielsen - so over there to do research.

GROSS: In the movie, it's the father's job - the father's new startup - that takes the family to San Francisco and makes 11-year-old Riley say goodbye to everybody, you know, all the friends she loves and the school she knows and everything. And in your life, it was your father's doctoral work in Denmark that took you away from your home. You're a father now. And I'm sure you relate to the father as well as to the child in the film - the father who has to move the family away and also the father, who, as soon as they get to their new home, his cellphone rings and it's like OK, the backer for his startup, who he was supposed to meet with later in the week, is there now and so he's got to leave right away to get off to this meeting, and the child feels totally abandoned by Daddy. Do you feel kind of weird when in the past and your kids were young and you had to say goodbye to them or not say hello to them because you had to do your animation meeting or whatever, that here you were - are working really hard to do wonderful entertainment for children and that's why you can't be with your children?

DOCTER: Yeah, to bring families together I need to go away.

GROSS: Exactly.

DOCTER: Bye kids.


DOCTER: Well, we try to - we definitely try to have a balance. And I think things have gotten a lot better at Pixar. When we did "Toy Story," that was an all hands on deck situation that really was time intensive. Since then we've tried to regulate things so that you at least get to go home at night and not have to pull all-nighters and see them on weekends and things. So, you know, like everything in life, it's a balance.

DAVIES: Filmmaker Pete Docter speaking with Terry Gross. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're listening to Terry's interview with Pete Docter, who co-directed the Oscar-nominated animated feature "Inside Out."


GROSS: So I've read that there was a point in which you were supposed to show part of the film to John Lasseter, the founder of Pixar, but you had nothing to show and you felt like a real failure at that point.


GROSS: How did you handle that emotionally? Like, what got you through that feeling of maybe this isn't going to work?

DOCTER: Well, the film, initially, we had decided to pair joy with fear because - I don't know about you - for me, fear was a major motivator in junior high. So we thought there's probably some good stuff there. As the film went on, we had developed all these great scenes that were really funny, but in the third act, it wasn't adding up to anything. And, you know, you want Joy, now having learned her lesson, to go back to headquarters to do something that she would never have been able to do in the first act, but what exactly is that? I don't know. And at this time, we had spent almost three years working on the film. I knew that there was an upcoming screening where not only were we going to show it to everybody else at the studio, we also needed to move into production. And yet I was sitting there in editorial going, this is not working. I'm a failure. I mean, I've - these other films were flukes. I don't know what I'm doing. I should just quit. What would I miss? I'd miss my house and I'd miss going to work. But I think the thing that I've realized I would miss most is probably similar to everybody, which is your friends. And it sort of hit me that the very subject matter of the film that I'm dealing with is the key to the most important thing in our lives and that's our relationships. And so we had done all this research showing the job of each individual emotion - you know, fear keeps you safe. It deals with uncertainty. Anger is about fairness. If it feels that you're getting ripped off or taken advantage of, that's when anger comes up. Sadness deals with loss. And I suddenly had this new revelation - it felt like to me - that those are all true, but the real, deeper reason we have emotions is to connect us together. And that felt big to me. And I suddenly had an idea that we needed to get fear out of there and sadness connected with joy. And I ran back. I called producer Jonas Rivera and Ronnie del Carmen, who's our co-director, and we met that Sunday night. And I kind of went through this whole spiel with them, and I was kind of expecting them to sink into their chairs and, you know, bury their hands in their faces 'cause the pressure was pretty great. Instead, they totally lit up. And so the three of us went to John and to Ed and the rest of the - we sort of call it the brain trust, you know, other filmmakers. So the cool thing was they very quickly understood why - and were totally on board - why this new thing was an improvement. And so they got on board and we moved on. It was a scary moment, but it was the right call in the long run.

GROSS: Can I point out that I think the real hero of the story you just told was fear?


GROSS: Seriously, it was fear of failure that got you to realize that sadness had to be more of a main character in the movie.

DOCTER: That is true. That is true. Maybe there's another movie in there where fear is the hero.

GROSS: Let's pay our respects to fear.


GROSS: Let's give fear its props.

DOCTER: It's a great motivator.

GROSS: Yeah.


GROSS: You know, you said that, like, fear was such an important motivator when you were in junior high school. Isn't it still?

DOCTER: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. More than I'd probably care to admit (laughter). And in part that's good but then, like any emotion - and this is something we learned from the research as well - there are positive and negative aspects to all of these.

GROSS: Yes. You haven't had a film that failed. But - and I hope you never do. But I always imagine what it's like when I do see a movie that's pretty bad and I think, somebody spent years of their life working on this and it's not good. Imagine how they must feel. No one's going to go see it.

DOCTER: Oh, I know, and…

GROSS: Do you live in fear of that - that someday you'll spend, like, five years making an animated film and it won't be good and that's, like, five years of your life?

DOCTER: Absolutely, you know? But the truth is, at some point, our films - almost every single one of them - are really bad. (Laughter). And it's largely hats off to John Lasseter and Ed Catmull who have set up a system whereby they're expecting it. They're expecting us to make mistakes, and they've set up a process that allows us to correct for that and do it again and iterate. So I think that's a real key to the films that we've made.

GROSS: What is that process?

DOCTER: Well, what we do is we have a script, of course. But for us, writing is also like storyboarding. It's drawing. And so we will cut all of those drawings together with music, sound effects and dialogue. And we screen this kind of stick-figure version of the film. So we can sit with Lee Unkrich and Andrew Stanton, and all the other folks and experience what the film is going to be like. And then we go away into a room, and we talk about what worked and what didn't. And then we take all of those findings and we do that whole process again. And it's about a three-month process every screening. And that way we have seven or eight chances at the film before we have to actually build the models, build the sets, do the animation and all of that. So it's a - I think that's a real key to the way we make films.

GROSS: So now that the movie is opening, are you going to see "Inside Out" with audiences and see what the reaction is like in just, like, a theater of random people?

DOCTER: Yeah. Oh, yeah. That's one of the real joys for me is going out and watching it. And usually I'm not watching the screen. I'm kind of sitting and looking off to the side, spying on people to see what they react to' cause it's - as Joe Ranft used to say, you know, animation is like telling a joke and waiting for three years to see if anyone laughs.

GROSS: (Laughter). That's great. Pete Docter, thank you so much for talking with us.

DOCTER: Thank you, it was fun.

DAVIES: Pete Docter speaking with Terry Gross last year. Docter co-directed the film "Inside Out," which has earned an Oscar nomination for best animated feature. After a break, we'll speak with the directors of "Anomalisa," the stop-motion animated film in which doll-sized puppets are used to tell an existential love story. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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