Director Pete Docter was born to make animated films. He first began animating around the age of eight and started working professionally at 15. The Soul director recently appeared on Rolling Stone‘s The Breakdown to discuss the challenges of his new movie, his success with films like Inside Out and Monster’s Inc., and jazz.
Soul, which is out right now on Disney+, centers on a middle school band teacher who lands the jazz gig of his lifetime — only to almost die before taking the stage. As he travels through the afterlife and its various iterations, he teams up with a new soul in an effort to get back to Earth — and help the soul find its purpose.
“I think a lot of us grew up with the idea that you find what you love, pursue that, and you’ll never work a day in your life. You’ll be happy,” Docter says. “And you know, I don’t know that that’s always the case. So [Soul] is really a kind of an unpacking, or investigation, into [the question of], what is it to live? What’s going on in this place?”
Docter goes on to break down some of the challenges he faced when considering the philosophical and religious ideas touched upon in the film. “The first challenge was not pissing off half the world’s population because there are obviously a lot of different ideas as to what happens after we die,” Docter recalls. “What’s good about this idea is that it doesn’t really have to get into that. Primarily, the movie takes place before life — before we’re born. And there are very few traditions that actually talk about that.”
Docter, who is also the Chief Creative Officer at Pixar, happens to be a huge fan of jazz and was actually inspired by a story he heard from Herbie Hancock when working on Soul. The jazz great was touring Europe with Miles Davis when, during one performance, Hancock played a wrong note.
“And he says, ‘It was so wrong that I worried that I ruined the whole concert.’ But instead of judging him, Miles Davis just looked over, played some notes, and made that chord right,” Docter says. “And he’s like, ‘It took me years to figure out how he did that.’ And what he did was he didn’t judge it. He just took it as something new that happened and did what any great jazz musician should try to do, which is to take anything that happens and turn it into something of value. And as soon as I heard that, I was like, ‘This is exactly what we’re trying to say with this movie.’”
“It’s such a great metaphor,” he adds. “The idea of improvisation is what we’re doing in our lives. We’re just walking through. And so jazz became not only kind of a surface level, integral part of the film, but a very deep, thematic thing as well.”
Before settling on jazz as the passion for the film’s main character, Joe, Docter explains that he and his team initially explored other ideas for the character. “We had one version where Joe was an actor, but he kind of came off like he was trying to get rich and famous,” he says.
Docter goes on to break down how he and his team came up with the score, the character and animation design, the cast, and more.