‘INSIDE OUT’ Q&A: Director Pete Docter & Producer Jonas Rivera Share Their Emotions


IMG_0129 copyPreston Barta // Features

Tomorrow, Disney•Pixar’s latest animated adventure, INSIDE OUT, hits theaters. The film is directed by Academy Award-winner Pete Docter (UP) and produced by Jonas Rivera.

It takes place inside the mind of 11-year-old girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) and is driven by the allegorical representations of her emotions– there’s Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black) and Fear (Bill Hader). All emotions tend to work together, but that’s all until a family move disrupts Riley’s life, sending Joy and Sadness to get lost in her subconscious.

In the below interview with Fresh Fiction, Docter and Rivera talk about how the created the world within Riley’s mind, how they cast the different emotions, and how they kept their minds from running wild.

The islands that make up Riley's personality. Photo courtesy of Disney•Pixar.

The islands that make up Riley’s personality. Photo courtesy of Disney Pixar.

I love all the different “islands” that make up Riley’s personality— those memories that meant the most to her in her upbringing that made her into who she is in the movie. What are some of the islands that make up your personality?

Pete Docter: “[Laughs] For me, I think I would definitely have a Disney one, because that was one of the things that got me into this— just loving the Disney films and parks.”

Jonas Rivera: “Me, too. We share that.”

Docter: “We share that. I love THE MUPPET SHOW— that was a formative thing for me. I think you can kind of sense it in the dynamic between characters in my films. We were lucky enough to have a little tribute to The Muppets; we had Frank Oz and Dave Goelz, two of the major guys there. They did little bits in the film as guards of the subconscious, which kind of makes sense.”

TOY STORY, too. I saw that one of the girls in Riley’s classroom had on Sid’s Zero/skull t-shirt.

Docter:“Oh, yeah! There’s all sorts of little inside jokes like that sprinkled throughout the film.”

Rivera:“That shirt, by the way, Bob Pauley, one of our art directors, designed that shirt well before Zero.”

Oh, really? Tsk tsk on them.

Rivera:“I have a theory… that Zero may have [Laughs]… But yeah, we all have Disney because Disney World and Disney movies are what fueled a lot of us. I have football islands because I like sports. I think everyone would have some sort of family island and probably friends.”

Docter:“Music. I grew up with music, playing the violin for a couple years. Music contributed a lot to the way I think about the films— the timing and pacing, because they’re both temporal art forms.”


Docter:[to Rivera] “And you played—”

Rivera:“Yes, I played music and loved that. It’s all the things you love, right? And to us, that was interesting because when we watch our kids grow – and mine are younger – I’m seeing already that toys aren’t being played with as much, and certain television shows are not animated anymore. They’re changing. And yes, the islands were all about was her personality. You don’t want to the things that your kids love erode because that means change and that’s hard for us. It was a fun, visual way to illustrate that. We question whether or not the whole island-thing would make sense.”

Docter:“At first, I was like, ‘this is going to be great! What we love is making stuff up. It’s going to be easy!’ It was not easy.”

Well, it turned out great.

Docter: “Thank you. Thank you so much.”

Rivera: “We’re very proud of it.”

Riley's emotions: Sadness, Fear, Joy, Anger and Disgust. Photo courtesy of Disney Pixar.

Riley’s emotions: Sadness, Fear, Joy, Anger and Disgust. Photo courtesy of Disney•Pixar.

As you should be. What about for creating the emotion themselves. There are many to toy with. What made you decide on five that you have in the film?

Docter: “The thing that we were talking about from the beginning is that each emotion in us has a specific reason for being there. ‘Fear’ keeps you from getting hurt; ‘Disgust’ keeps you from getting poisoned. But ultimately, the real important thing that emotions give us is a connection between each other. If you really get down to what the most important things in everybody’s lives are, it’s always going to be your family and your friends, and those are the things you value. The people that you feel closest to, at least in my case, are people that you’ve had good times with, but also people that I’ve been scared for, that I’ve experienced loss and sadness with. It’s really the emotions that gives those relationships depth.”

When you’re trying to design characters, obviously with emotions, you don’t have faces to start from. How did you go about creating the looks of the characters?

Docter: “Well, we talked to psychologists, psychiatrists, neurologists and folks that could help us identify which ones there were and what jobs they had. And then, I kind of wrote up a character description for them, and some of them were kind of quirky, like Anger. Anger likes meat– kind of non-intuitive things. But then, we gave all that stuff to the character designers and they just drew; they filled the room with literally thousands of drawings. Some of them were great but didn’t quite work for one reason or another. The characters kind of evolved and got honed over the months.”

Rivera: “Pete had said, ‘I don’t want them to be people. They’re not little people. They’re emotions, so they should look how our feelings feel.’

Joy would be like a star; she’s always external and exuberant. Sadness was a tear drop. So even their shapes and colors echoed this. Fear was like a raw nerve, just this tight little line. Anger is a brick, this immovable brick. And Disgust is a stalk of broccoli. So their shapes were sort of born out of that simple thinking and then fleshed out.”

Docter: “We also thought about idioms and phrases that we use, like ‘Feel hot under the collar’ or ‘I feel blue.’ Things like that, that might be clues as to how they could look. That was the job on the film to take this very abstract idea and make it physical so you could actually build this stuff.”

From left, actors Phyllis Smith (Sadness), Lewis Black (Anger), Amy Poehler (Joy), Bill Hader (Fear) and Mindy Kaling (Disgust) voice in INSIDE OUT. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Cabage/Invision/AP.

From left, actors Phyllis Smith (Sadness), Lewis Black (Anger), Amy Poehler (Joy), Bill Hader (Fear) and Mindy Kaling (Disgust) voice in INSIDE OUT. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Cabage/Invision/AP.

How difficult was it to cast the different roles?

Docter: “Some of them were a little more obvious. Even as I would pitch the idea, I would say, ‘Think of the fun we’ll have when we get to voice casting. Like, imagine Lewis Black as Anger.’ And everybody would totally get that. Other ones we found relatively late. Even Joy was probably the toughest to write for because Joy as an emotion could lean a little annoying. She’s just so energetic and wearying. We struggled with that for a while before we said, ‘All right, let’s talk to Amy Poehler.’ Her character on PARKS AND REC is similar in that she’s an overachiever. She’s worked so hard to do what she’s trying to do, and I think some of that is what makes Joy sympathetic. You feel like she’s working her butt off to make this right for her kid.”

Rivera: “Amy can really thread that needle of appeal and positivity, but we hope not too much that you don’t buy it.”

Docter: “She and Bill Hader, and to some degree Mindy Kaling, were really involved in writing as well. We spent the lion’s share of the work crafting the story, the structure and the emotional bedrock of the thing. And then we’d go to those guys and talk about individual lines — ‘Can we make this funnier?’ or ‘Do you have any ideas for adjusting this to make it more clear?’ — that kind of thing.”

One of my other favorite things about the movie is all the detail you put into it. You give clever ways of why your mind does this or that, like Joy’s projecting lava when Riley jumps from the couch to the chair. It must have been a lot of fun to come up with ideas. Were there any ideas you couldn’t include but wish you could have?

Docter: “Usually what you do is you come up with a big, long list. Most of them get thrown out, and you keep the top four or five for everything.”

Rivera: “The stream of consciousness, that’s one I sort of miss. We had this idea that, like the ‘Train of Thought,’ there would be this slow stream of consciousness through the world and I thought that was really neat and beautiful. But again, there were so many ingredients that after a while–“

Docter: “The story got really long.”

Joy holding one of Riley's memory orbs. Photo courtesy of Disney•Pixar.

Joy holding one of Riley’s memory orbs. Photo courtesy of Disney•Pixar.

How did you come up with the idea for the memory spheres?

Docter: “With the memory spheres, the very first thought was that memories would be in jars, like Mason jars. It seemed kind of cool.”

Rivera: “Yeah, that’s something you store on shelves. There was something less elegant about it. I just remember someone drawing it like a snow globe, and that felt a little more lyrical and beautiful. It just felt right, and we just sort of leaned that way.”

Pixar has been such a success over the years. Do you attribute that to the superior, relatable scripts, or is it the ability to take that script and mold it into characters we just instantly love?

Docter: “I think it’s because of the geniuses who work there [Laughs]. But we do have amazing people — we have John Lasseter and Ed Catmull, who have crafted a system that allows us to make the calls. At most studios, the creative calls are driven by executives who are not actually storytellers, they’re more businessmen. In our case, John Lasseter is the final, final word, and he’s a filmmaker, so that’s pretty awesome. I know he’s always thinking on behalf of the audience as opposed to who knows what else.”

Rivera: “He’s an executive, but he thinks and responds as a director, so that is pretty freeing and pretty rare. I’ve only been at Pixar, but it seems with everyone that I’ve spoken to that it’s a pretty rare thing. I think the other thing is Pixar really gives us the time. We only release movies when we think they’re good enough to release, which is why sometimes they even shift around a bit. That’s sort of how we think it should be done.”

Docter: “And they know that we’re going to make mistakes. At some point, every one of our movies sucks, and we’re not just being modest; it’s genuine. They’re not very good. Thankfully, everybody believes in us and the concept enough to move it forward and build on that. And then the next time it sucks a little less.”

INSIDE OUT is available on Blu-ray and DVD today.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.