Moviegoers think they understand the life of a screenwriter. Thanks to “Sunset Boulevard,” “In a Lonely Place,” “Barton Fink,” “The Player,” “The Muse,” “Seven Psychopaths,” “Adaptation,” “Trumbo,” “Mank” and others, the image is clear: Scripters are friendless, cynical people hunched over a solitary keyboard, plagued by self-doubt and studio interference.
Of course Pixar is the exception to every rule. The three writers of “Soul” — Pete Docter, Mike Jones and Kemp Powers — talk with enthusiasm about the studio’s unique process of daily brainstorming, which is interactive, intense and nonstop.
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Not every writer could handle this, but when it works, the result is gangbusters. “Soul” has won multiple honors and looks likely to get more when Oscar nominations are announced March 15.
Docter says it takes four or five years to create an animated film; Pixar doesn’t wait for a script draft before starting the work. “We do a lot of rewriting and discovery along the way,” he explains.
“It’s mostly the story that takes so long. Figuring it out is a fluid, dynamic and messy process. We have a system where we can basically mock up the film, show it to people, and then
respond and change things. By the time the film comes out, in essence we’ve already made the film seven or eight times. It allows you to experiment and try things.”
Jones and Kemp had adjoining offices. As Jones says, “We would write in sequences, and send it to Pete in chunks.” He and Kemp alternated writing segments, then swapped them for notes and punch-up. After Docter weighed in, the writers would hand the sequence to story artists, who also have notes and then draw their version of it.
Among those involved were producer Dana Murray, editor Kevin Nolting, heads of production and some designers. Kemp says, “We wanted to stress-test it and get everyone’s buy-in, particularly Pete’s, before we started writing it.”
The three scripters were often writing sequences out of order, because different things go into production at different points. Occasionally a sequence would get locked, which limited what could be changed.
Jones laughs, “The live-action equivalent is being on a set, writing pages as the movie is being shot, with every department coming at you asking ‘Did you change that?’ and the shooting continues — and doing that for three or four years.”
Kemp adds, “There was a lot of ‘Oh, that’s not in the movie anymore. Sorry!’ ”
In an early draft, Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx) was a Caucasian actor instead of a musician. There was also a version focused on 22 (Tina Fey) but Jones said, “We realized something was missing.”
Kemp adds, “Pixar has a strong buddy formula, but the decision was made that every character, including 22, needs to be in service to Joe. That was a pivotal moment in the development of the film.”
Docter has been with Pixar since 1990 and became chief creative officer in June 2018. Jones joined as senior story and creative artist in March 2017. Kemp signed on for 12 weeks, to flesh out the characters of “Soul,” and it turned into a two-year job.
Though the process was intense, the three miss the daily interaction.
“It’s a very communal thing, making animated films,” says Docter. “So it’s a weird feeling to be separated.”
“I also miss the atrium,” says Kemp. “You never know who you will run into.”
Jones explains, “That atrium was designed by Steve Jobs and we always say he intended to create accidental meetings. He forces you to move, to get mail, or get food. And that is missed right now.”
Kemp adds, “Plus, Pixar has the best cafeteria.”
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