A Little Bit of Soul

December 25, 2020
We speak with the key creatives behind Disney/Pixar’s latest wonder, Soul.

For generations of families, Disney/Pixar has helped our children navigate some of life’s tricky subjects – from bereavement (Bambi, Lion King, Up) to laughter is stronger than fear (Monsters Inc), childhood mixed emotions (Inside Out) and hope (WALL-E) to the age-old question of what do our toys get up to when we’re asleep (Toy Story).

Disney/Pixar’s latest film, Soul, is no different, asking us to consider the meaning of a soul and what is it that makes you…YOU.

“In our story, everyone is born with a soul,” explains Soul’s co-director Pete Docter. “And those souls don’t just show up unprepared, they’re trained and given personality and interests.”

According to Docter, the idea for this unique world was 23 years in the making. “It started with my son – he’s 23 now – but the instant he was born, he already had a personality. Where did that come from? I thought personality developed through your interaction with the world. And yet, it was pretty clear that we’re all born with a very unique, specific sense of who we are.”

Soul introduces Joe Gardner (voice of Jamie Foxx) as a middle-school band teacher with a passion for jazz. “Joe wants more than anything to become a professional jazz pianist,” says Docter. “So, when he’s offered a rare, once-in-a-life opportunity to play with one of the greats, Joe feels he’s reached the top of the ultimate mountain.”

But one small misstep takes Joe from the streets of New York City to The Great Before – a fantastical place where new souls get their personalities, quirks and interests before they go to Earth. Unsurprisingly, Joe doesn’t feel like he belongs in this land of new souls. Determined to return to his life, he teams up with a precocious soul, 22 (voice of Tina Fey), who has never understood the appeal of the human experience.

“Sometimes souls have a little bit of trouble finding that special spark to earn their way to Earth,” says co-director Kemp Powers. “The Counselors at The Great Before call on mentors to help inspire these souls – extraordinary people in history like Abraham Lincoln. And that’s worked for every single soul except 22, who’s a bit like a petulant pre-teen. And she definitely, without a doubt, has no desire to go to Earth.”

Chatting with Soul’s creatives, producer Dana Murray talks about how they showed various versions of the film to young audiences throughout the process. “We took the same play as with Inside Out, where we pulled in 50 or 60 kids of our crew, ranging from 4 to 16 and showed them a rough version.”

From here they talked to the children in small groups. “It was pretty incredible, even the young ones – yes, they might not understand the bigger themes such as ‘Am I living my life the right way?’ – but they were really entertained and understood the concepts and asked big impressive questions, so even though there’s these very high concepts they all still really enjoyed it and got the film,” she says.

The decision to have an African-American lead character was made four years ago.

“Joe as a character came out of reflecting the artist’s journey; someone who has a passion and believes deeply that his job is to be a musician. But once we landed on it being a jazz musician, we felt it was only right to make that character African-American because jazz is one of the many great contributions to American culture and it has continued to grow and develop into many other forms of music,” says Docter.

African American writer Kemp Powers came on early to help develop Joe’s character and also serve as co-director. “The film is better when you have more truth in it, so we wanted to make sure we captured  as much about the culture and the music as possible,” adds Docter.

Casting Fox and Fey in the film’s key roles, it was initially hard reigning in Foxx who wanted to improvise with an array of voices.

“It was intangible with Jamie. He does so many different characters and voices but what really drew us to him was his natural voice. The ‘Jamie Foxx having a conversation at 7/11’ natural speaking voice,” says Powers.

“Having Jamie Foxx voice Joe, it automatically makes the character cooler. You can’t imagine a character with Jamie’s confident voice not having dated for example,” laughs Powers.

Nevertheless, Foxx admitted to the Pixar team that he was slightly intimidated by the gig. “He’d worked on all these voices, so he was freaked out when we told him we wanted his own voice. He thought maybe he was doing a bad job but that’s just how animation works,” says Powers.

“For the rest of the souls, however, we wanted them to represent everyone in the world and went as far as to give the new souls purple irises so they don’t represent genetic anything – they could take on any gender or ethnicity around the world.

“However, souls that have lived will be changed by their experience on earth so, like Joe, they will have distinguishing characteristics like his hat or glasses.”

With New Zealand’s own Rachel House cast as the character of Terry, she was able to record her voice virtually.

“We never even met her because, even before the pandemic, New Zealand is too far to fly for a two-hour session – but she knocked it out of the park,” says Docter.

Despite the distance, Powers says he even wrote the character to suit House’s voice. “I spoke with her on the phone before we even cast her, and during the entire conversation, I was just making notes on how she pronounced certain words. She has a lot of bass in her voice and it’s raspy but she’s also so sweet,” he says.

Foxx could relate to his character Joe’s joy in performing. “His dream is to one day play with [jazz legend] Dorothea Williams. It’s like a basketball player who wants to play in The Garden. I was born with a similar spark – I came out singing and telling jokes.”

Docter agrees. “Jamie Foxx never stops. He’s such a go-getter, and we wanted that for Joe as well. Like Jamie, Joe’s not a guy who’s just going to give up. He continues to push for his dreams.”

“I just want to be remembered for the joy, man,” says Foxx. “I had to do a career day for my daughter. I introduced myself as the Deliverer of Sunshine. I create the smiles and give the joy.”

In voicing soul 22, Fey thinks that fear is what makes 22 so appealing. “I think the ways in which she’s cynical and the things that she’s scared of are really relatable,” she says. “Life is scary at times, and life hurts. Everyone has those moments of ‘It’s too much!’”

Originally planned as a theatrical release in June, to coincide with American celebration Juneteenth, Soul was rescheduled to release on Christmas Eve (US)/Christmas Day (Australia) on Disney+. “When we finally landed on Disney+, it was a little sad at the beginning [to not have a theatrical release], but given where we are in the world, this seems like the best way to ensure the film is seen,” says Docter.

Kemp echoes his sentiments. “Considering the state of the world right now, I think we’re honestly lucky to have a platform with 60 million subscribers that’s going to allow us to get the movie out this year. I feel like this is a lemonade out of lemons situation.”

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