[Interview] The rejected ideas that led to Disney-Pixar’s ‘SOUL’

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

You could say that the filmmakers behind Disney-Pixar’s SOUL had their fair share of soul-searching to do before landing on the narrative that anchors the film. The story that made the final cut centers on middle school teacher/ middling jazz musician Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx) and his travails trying to get back into his body after an accident transports him to the world of the Before. There he meets a stubborn newbie soul, 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), who doesn’t have any interest in getting in a human body of her own. The two are then forced to work together to find their own sparks for living.

The process of creating an animated film is a little more malleable than it is in live action. And with that continual tweaking of the material over the usual four years-long span it takes to bring a Pixar film to the screen, a lot of ideas wind up in the waste bin. At the film’s long-lead press day, the filmmakers shared a few of their rejected stories with journalists. One of those shelved ideas was making this a heist movie. Director Pete Docter said,

“The very first version of this took place all in the Soul world, and it was basically a heist movie. We thought that was the best way to represent the underlying theme, or message, that we were trying to get across. And it didn’t [laughs].”

Docter later expanded on the heist movie storyline.

“The heist movie was basically 22 and Joe trying to get an Earth pass. They had to somehow break into the Earth pass facility to get it. What happened was it was a lot of running around, and any time you would refer to Joe’s life on Earth, it was either a flashback or a long lecture, and it just didn’t give us the opportunity to really talk and feel what Joe was going through in this journey. So that’s why we dumped that.”

Another abandoned story track early on was making Joe an actor instead of a musician, but that didn’t feel suitable, Docter mentioned.

“That was another back to the drawing board where you watch the actor and you think he’s out for fame. He’s out for sort of selfish reasons that didn’t have the sorta nobility that music does. That might be just our own predispositions for that sort of thing.”

In Disney and Pixar’s “Soul,” a middle-school band teacher named Joe finds himself in The Great Before—a fantastical place where new souls get their personalities, quirks and interests before they go to Earth. Determined to return to his life, Joe teams up with a precocious soul, 22, to show her what’s great about living. Featuring Tina Fey as the voice of 22, and Jamie Foxx as the voice of Joe Gardner, “Soul” opens in U.S. theaters on June 19, 2020. © 2020 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

It’s also not just the story that shifts over the years, but the designs as well. When it came to the look of the “Before” world, they began looking at real world influences. Docter elucidated,

“We looked at some photos of the World’s Fair from, like, the ‘30’s all through the ‘60’s. We wanted it to be very non-specific in terms of culture, so if you look at it and go, “Oh, that’s Greek, or Italian, or Chinese, or whatever,” that would be wrong because souls, we are saying in the film, come to Earth as a blank slate – that your culture is something that you learn and grow into. We were looking for something simple, geometric. This was largely the art department playing around and then in concert with our technical group.”

Though there’s a heavy emphasis on the role music plays, the filmmakers never considered pushing their idea further into the fantastical hyper-reality of a musical world. Pete Docter explained,

“It felt like the story didn’t really fit with that idea. We wanted this to be as sort of grounded and truthful as we could, even though it’s animation.  We were lookin’ for this great contrast between the ethereal world and the earth, and I guess that would be why I would argue against considering that as a musical.”

Producer Dana Murray said that once they saw a clip from an instructive tutorial from the iconic musician Herbie Hancock acted as the project’s much needed epiphany.

“I feel like from that moment on [is] when we knew Joe was gonna be a jazz musician. There were new-no major blowups after that.”

When they finally settled on Joe’s career passion being jazz music is when things started to clarify that he needed to have cultural specificity. Co-writer/ Co-director Kemp Powers expanded,

“I think it’s important to understand that cultural specificity is not a dividing thing. I like to say that sometimes being hyper-specific allows us to see the universality in all of our experiences.”

SOUL begins streaming exclusively on Disney+ on December 25.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.