Pete Docter

Pete Docter can seemingly do no wrong.  He played a big part in writing Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc, WALL-E, and Up – which won him an Academy Award.  His latest film is the amazing Inside Out and I was thrilled to chat to him about it…

Matt:  The animated feature industry is so competitive these days.  Twenty years ago, you’d get an annual Disney film and that’s about it.  Now, you’ve seemingly got one coming out every few weeks.  Is it tougher to be creative in such a competitive environment?

Pete:  It is but our hope is that every film is original and new.  You don’t want to repeat yourself and that’s harder and harder to do with more product out there.  It gets tricky but we’re having a great time and we’re trying to bring that fun and energy to the screen.

Matt:  I look back at animated features from 20 years ago and you’ve got Aladdin, The Lion King, Beauty & The Beast and your first film, Toy Story.  They had a budget of around $30-$40m.  Today’s animated features have budgets around $200m.  Where is all this extra money going?

Pete:  I don’t know if those numbers are totally accurate but we don’t talk too much about the budget.  I don’t think it’s quite gone up that much.  Some of it is how you count the cash in terms of overheads and publicity costs.  It’s funny though as it still takes about the same amount of time as it did to make a film 20 years ago.  Computers haven’t saved any time unfortunately but it has allowed us to bring a richer look to the screen with more texture.  It’s also offered a lot more possibility in terms of story opportunities.

Matt:  Let’s talk about Inside Out.  This is such an amazing concept which is rich in detail.  Where did the idea come from?

Pete:  It came from thinking about what was going on with my 11-year-old daughter.  She was a goofy, funny, little kid but when she turned 11, she became much more serious and sombre and quiet.  It was a big change and I was wondering what was inside her head.  To some degree, it reminded me of myself as I went through a similar kind of change.  It was an opportunity to explore a world that we’re all at once familiar with but which none of us have ever seen before – the world inside our mind.

Matt:  I know it can take a long time to develop these ideas.  How long did it take from developing the idea through to today’s cinematic release?

Pete:  It was right after Up.  Jonas Rivera and I were exploring ideas and this one came to mind.  We then got distracted with other elements of films like Monsters University.  In the end I think it was about a 5 year process.

Matt:  How did you settle on the 5 emotions of joy, sadness, fear, anger and disgust?

Pete:  We did a lot of research because we knew very little about how the mind works.  It turns out that even science is still struggling to figure this out.  There’s still no consensus on how many emotions there are.  Depending on who you speak with, you’ll get very different answers ranging from 4 to 27 different emotions.  We knew 27 would be too crowded so we ended up with 5 due to the work of Paul Ekman who is a scientist who worked in San Francisco.  He had initially suggested there were 6 basic emotions – the 5 we have plus surprise who seemed redundant with fear so we cut him out.

Matt:  I was curious about the gender of these emotion characters.  In the mother, they’re all female.  In the father, they’re all male but in Riley, they’re a mix.  Any reason behind that?

Pete:  Yeah, I wanted the emotions in Riley to be as wide and varied as possible so as to create the most amount of contrast and entertainment.  They’re different sizes, different colours, and we felt having both male and female casting would be really fun.  When it came to mum and dad, that got confusing.  There’s a scene over dinner where we go inside of mum and dad’s head and if you mixed that up with male and female characters, you end up getting confused where you are.  So we gave all of the dad’s emotions a moustache just like he had and we have all of the mum’s emotions glasses and a wig like she had. 

Matt:  The dialogue in this film is amazing and there are so many great one-liners.  How much work goes into it?  Is there a worry you might over-think some of the material?

Pete:  Oh yeah, and I’m sure we do (laughs).  We had the chance to work with some very funny people like Josh Cooley who was one of the writers.  He provided an endless number of funny lines.  We tapped on the voice cast too to help us improve the comedy throughout the whole thing.

Matt:  What’s interesting about the cast is that unlike so many other animated features, there isn’t a big Hollywood star.  In fact, Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Mindy Kaling are more known for their work on TV than in cinema.  How easy was it finding this group of actors?

Pete:  In the case of this film, and I think it’s true of all the other films we’ve done, we designed the characters thinking independently of any actor.  We just tried to design a character we really like.  Once we have that design, we start listening to voices by stripping just the audio track away from a film or TV show that they’ve been in.  The actors we picked seemed so perfect for their roles.  Lewis Black played Anger and I don’t know if you could do any better in terms of casting.  Once you get the actors in and record with them, they end up changing the roles because you adjust as a writer to try to capitalise on what they do.

Matt:  I’m getting a little tired of sequels and reboots but I was excited by the way this film wrapped up.  It feels like the door is open for sequels if you wish to go down that path.  Any plans to do so?

Pete:  It wasn’t deliberate.  We were trying to wrap it up with a slight ambiguity because she’s only 12 so there’s a lot of life left to live.  You never know.  I’ve worked on this film for 5 years and I’m excited to open the door to something new so we’ll see what happens.

Matt:  What projects have you got coming up next?  Given how long it takes to get these films made, are there ideas you have at the moment that we’re going to see from you in 2-3 years’ time?

Pete:  Oh, yeah.  Even this fall we have The Good Dinosaur.  It’s the first time we’ve ever had 2 Pixar films in one year which is exciting.  The premise is around if the asteroid had of missed and not wiped out the dinosaurs, what would the world be like today?  It’s charming and funny and directed by Pete Sohn.  Next summer, we have a sequel to Finding Nemo called Finding Dory.  All of your favourite characters will be back plus some new ones.  Past that, we have a lot of other stuff like Toy Story 4 that John Lassiter is directing and a bunch of stuff we haven’t even announced yet.  It’s an exciting time at Pixar.

Matt:  You’ve made so many great animated featured.  Would you ever consider making a live action movie?

Pete:  Why, do you have something in mind (laughs)?

Matt:  Haha, I don’t have a script handy but I’m sure you’ve got people throwing stuff your way?

Pete:  You never know.  Storytelling is storytelling and there are a lot of things we do that are exactly the same as live action so yeah, who knows.