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It's All In Your Head: Director Pete Docter Gets Emotional In 'Inside Out'


This is FRESH AIR. I’m David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, in forTerry Gross. Our guest, Pete Docter, directed the new Disney-Pixar animated film “Inside Out,” as well as the animated films “Monsters Inc.” and “Up.” “Inside Out” imagines what goes on in a child's mind, which is ruled by competing emotions. Terry Gross spoke to Pete Docter last month. When the film begins, an 11-year-old girl named Riley is uprooted from her home in Minnesota because her father has started a new company in San Francisco. This usually joyful girl becomes sad and angry that she's been forced to leave the house, her friends and the hockey team she loves. Much of the film takes place inside her head, where there's a control room operated by five characters who personify her primary emotions. Joy is voiced by Amy Poehler, Anger by Lewis Black, Fear by Bill Hader, disgust by Mindy Kaling and sadness by Phyllis Smith. In this flashback scene, Riley is in her highchair at the kitchen table with her parents. Her father, voiced by Kyle MacLachlan, is feeding her broccoli. The five emotions in her mind’s headquarters are figuring out how to deal with this dreaded food.


KYLE MACLACHLAN: (As Dad) Here we go. All right, open.

AMY POEHLER: (As Joy) This looks new.

BILL HADER: (As Fear) Think it's safe?

PHYLLIS SMITH: (As Sadness) What is it?

MINDY KALING: (As Disgust) OK, caution. There is a dangerous smell, people. Hold on, what is that?

POEHLER: (As Joy) This is Disgust. She basically keeps Riley from being poisoned, physically and socially.

KALING: (As Disgust) That is not really colored or shaped like a dinosaur. Hold on, guys. It's broccoli.

KAITLYN DIAS: (As Riley) Yucky.

KALING: (As Disgust) Well, I just saved our lives. Yeah, you're welcome.

MACLACHLAN: (As Dad) Riley, if you don't eat your dinner, you're not going to get any dessert.

LEWIS BLACK: (As Anger) Wait, did he just say we couldn't have dessert?

POEHLER: (As Joy) That's Anger. He cares very deeply about things being fair,

BLACK: (As Anger) So that's how you want to play it, old man? No dessert? Oh, sure. We'll eat our dinner right after you eat this.

DIAS: (As Riley, crying).

MACLACHLAN: (As Dad) Riley, Riley, here comes an airplane (imitating airplane sound).

BLACK: (As Anger) Oh, airplane. We got an airplane, everybody.

MACLACHLAN: (As Dad, imitating airplane sound).



And, of course, the airplane is the spoon that the father's feeding into the child's mouth. Pete Docter, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on the film. I know the film was...

PETE DOCTER: Thank you.

GROSS: I know the film was inspired in part by being the parent of a daughter who was 11 at the time you were thinking of making the film. What kind of mood changes were you seeing in your daughter - competing emotions that she was obviously experiencing - that you were trying to decode that helped lead to the movie?

DOCTER: Yeah, well, we were lucky in the case of our daughter. She was pretty tame compared to some stories I've heard. But she definitely went from being kind of a goofy, high energy, little kid to being much more kind of quiet and laid-back. And, you know, I sort of realized the days of playing with dolls and trains on the floor were over. And that's kind of what led into this movie.

GROSS: What gave you the idea of personifying five emotions - joy, anger, sadness, fear and disgust - and having them at the controls in the control room of the child's brain?

DOCTER: Yeah, we called it headquarters, which is where they work. And the idea kind of started with me just thinking about what would be fun to see in animation, you know? What have I not seen that we could do...

GROSS: I'm going to stop you for a second. I just - I shouldn't tell you this 'cause it shows how stupid I am. I just got the joke of headquarters 'cause it's, like - in the film, it's, like, they're at headquarters. And, of course, it's, like, the headquarters of the brain. But, right, it's…


GROSS: …Headquarters - got it. Thank you.

DOCTER: Right (laughter).

GROSS: I hope your audiences are smarter than I was with that one.

DOCTER: There's a lot of layers in this movie, too.

GROSS: Yeah.

DOCTER: Yeah, we - I was just thinking about, like, OK, I've seen a lot of movies about all these different subjects, including - for some reason, I got thinking about the human body and realizing, well, I've seen, like, traveling through the bloodstream and into the, you know, stomach and things. Well, what if we did this in the mind as opposed to the brain? So instead of blood vessels and dendrites, what if it was consciousness and dream production? And that would allow us to have characters that represent emotions. And that felt like, man, that's exactly what animation does best - strong, opinionated, caricatured personalities. And that just got me excited.

GROSS: You boiled it down to joy, anger, sadness, fear and disgust. It seems to me if you were Jewish, and perhaps Catholic, guilt would have been a character.

DOCTER: (Laughter) I'm not actually sure if guilt is an emotion. In fact, that was - at the very beginning of this process, we realized, man, we really don't know very much about the subject. So we better do some research, and we started looking around online. We found some scientists think that there are basically three emotions. Others went up to 27. Others had 16. Some were in the middle. So we were kind of left with no definitive answer to our basic question - how many are there? Dr. Paul Ekman, who worked in San Francisco - still does - which is where Pixar Animation Studios is - he had, early in his career, identified six. That felt like a nice, manageable number of guys to design and write for. It was anger, fear, sadness, disgust, joy and surprise. And as I was sort of doodling, I was thinking, surprise and fear - probably fairly similar, so let's just lose surprise. And that left us with five.

GROSS: So part of what Paul Ekman does is, like, decode facial expressions to try to understand what a person is feeling and how it's expressed.


GROSS: Did you study his decoding of faces, expressing emotion?

DOCTER: Well, that's actually how I got to know his work because back on "Toy Story," I was a supervising animator on the first "Toy Story" and read about his work in identifying these basic facial expressions. It was interesting 'cause he said there are so many muscles in the face that could be used in combination with each other that just are not. And that's because basic human emotion is sort of hardwired into us as people. And so he - some of his early work was traveling to Papua, New Guinea, to find tribes that had no outside contact at all, show them photographs of expressions and tell them stories and say, OK, if your mother died, what kind of face would you make? And he found that they identified the same expressions that we would here in the United States. And so it's fairly worldwide. That was pretty fascinating and a little revolutionary at that time, apparently.

GROSS: Describe how you drew Joy, who is voiced by Amy Poehler.

DOCTER: Joy we thought of as kind of an explosion or a spark. You know, she's like an outwardly directed person who's just always moving, and she's full of energy. And even the way she looks - if you look at her up close - and this is true of all the emotions in the film - we wanted them to look not like little people. So they're not made of skin or flesh. They're made out of energy. And so they have these tiny little particles that sort of roil and move and - that we felt was a good way of representing that.

GROSS: And Mindy Kaling is the voice of Disgust. And I've been trying to imagine what it was like for her to get the call saying, we'd like you to personify disgust.

DOCTER: Yeah. I know she (laughter) - we kind of worried about that one. We did say, OK, it's disgust - she's disgusted. She's not disgusting. And that kind of assuaged her fears a little bit. But she came in. We gave her a pitch. She was actually pretty key to decoding some elements of the story. We were really wrestling with these two different themes of growing up and then embracing sadness, which we felt were kind of separate. But I don't know, I had an intuition that they could somehow be connected. I pitched her the story. And as I turned around - 'cause I was pitching kind of off some visuals on the computer - I turn around and she's crying. And I thought, oh, no, what? Did she get, like, a bad text or something? You know, she was - really responded emotionally. And she said, I'm sorry. I just think it's really beautiful that you guys are making a story that tells kids that it's difficult to grow up and that it's OK to be sad about it. And that - we were like, quick, write that down, you know, 'cause that was really what we were trying to say.

GROSS: It is the kind of moral of the story that if you cut off sadness, you're not going to feel anything when you're sad. And that that's the worst thing of all. And that sadness is the way to be able to communicate what you're really feeling with other people.

DOCTER: Yeah. One of the other experts we consulted with - this guy named Dacher Keltner - he was big on sadness as a community bonding, I think is the word he used. It's, like, you know, if you're sad, it's a way of connecting with other people. And we - a lot of times we sort of feel embarrassed by being sad, and we go off by ourselves to hide and cry by ourselves. But, really, it's a way of re-establishing relationship.

GROSS: So did you imagine, when you were making this film, psychologists and parents using the film to explain to children what their own emotions were and to tell - to help tell children, like, it's OK to be sad. Tantrums aren't very helpful (laughter). We know you have anger, but, you know, you have to kind of mix that with the other emotions.

DOCTER: Well, not really...

GROSS: So did you think of this as a kind of, like, teaching film?

DOCTER: (Laughter) No. In fact, I know, like, for a lot of people that's kind of a bad word, right? You don't want to have a lecture. We were really - as I said, the thing that attracted me to it was the fun and the chance to take people places that everyone was sort of familiar with on one level, but had never seen visualized. You know, things that we get to explore in the film, like why songs get stuck in your head and long-term memory and what was that weird dream I had last night? Where did that come from? You know, so this was our chance to really bring all that stuff to life and explore it in a fun way. However, as we went into it, I was really, at certain points, almost felt like I couldn't move forward because I really wanted to make sure that the science was as correct as it could be because, you know, I think - I don't know. You just don't want to make a film that scientists go to and roll their eyes at, you know?

On the other hand, this is the mind. There's a lot of different ways to kind of slice that and look at it, so it was a tricky film to balance. In the end, I think you're right. There are - we've already had discussions with people who feel as though the film has really helped them. There's one story that's pretty amazing. A guy who we work with - and we had screened the film for our friends and family along the way just to make sure it was working and it wasn't too complex, you know, especially for younger kids. Luckily, they not only got it, but this guy came back the next day and he said, I got to tell you this story. My son has been taking swimming lessons. And he's been afraid to dive off the diving board. It's just too high, and he's scared, so he hasn't been able to do it. Yesterday, after seeing the film, we went to lessons, and he dove off the diving board. And everybody said, yeah, that's great. How did you do it? And he said, well, I just felt like fear had been driving, and I asked him to step aside. And for us, we were sort of blown away. Not only did he get the film, but it was actually making an impact in his life. That was, like, the ultimate receipt.

GROSS: That's really lovely. If you're just joining us, my guest is Pete Docter, and he directed and co-wrote the new Pixar Disney movie "Inside Out." Let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Pete Docter. He directed and co-wrote the new Disney Pixar movie "Inside Out." And it's an animated film that goes into the mind of an 11-year-old child where Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness are all at headquarters - the control room in her brain - kind of competing to control her emotions. And it also imagines what goes on in your mind when you're making a memory, storing the memory, deleting a memory. And that's - that must have been a very challenging part for you because, like, the brain is really a lot of neurons and electricity (laughter) and electrical currents and stuff. And it's not like there's a storage room with memories in it. But, of course, you create a storage room with memories. And the memories - each memory is, like, an image encased in a glass-like ball that can be broken if you're not careful. It can roll away. It can - things can happen to it. You have to be careful with your memories.

DOCTER: That's right.

GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about figuring out - if you're trying to kind of make an analogy or a metaphor out of memory, how are you going to do it so that children and adults will both not only comprehend it but feel like it's accurate in some metaphorical way?

DOCTER: Yeah. The way real memories work, from what we understand, is really complex (laughter). And it's an interconnection of different things and redundancy in the brain. So the idea of a memory existing as a little snow globe - the way we represent it in the film - is actually not scientifically accurate at all. However, for story reasons, we needed to represent them in certain ways. One of the things that sort of blew me away that I had didn't know when we started is that memories are completely susceptible to change. And this is, you know, one of the many reasons why certain people are trying to get it taken out - eyewitness testimony in court cases because it's very unreliable. Every time you recall a memory, you're basically making another copy of it and, at that same point, it is susceptible to new changes and adaptations. So, you know, if you remember from when you were, you know, in second grade and there was Christmas and you got a present from your grandfather, and your mom was wearing a red dress, that may or may not all have happened. It might have been introduced slowly over the course of the years as you recall this memory over and over. So that was a very cool but complex idea that we thought about representing in the film but could not find a way to make it work. We actually needed the memory - if you see the film - as a very different kind of a plot device of revealing some information to our main character. So we chose to represent it as these sort of beautiful, little snow globes, which kind of weirdly that's the way we think of memories - at least most of the folks that we talked to. You think of these memories as being very pure and absolute and unchanging. That's not actually real life.

GROSS: Yes. And that's why in your film if Sadness touches one of the memories, the memory turns blue and is forever changed by the sadness it's been touched by...

DOCTER: Yeah, well, now people...

GROSS: ...Which gets to exactly what you're talking about, that memories change over time as we recall them.

DOCTER: Though that actually is scientifically accurate. If you were feeling sad right now and you recall a sad memory - or a very happy memory from the past, it will be tinged with more sadness based on your current feeling. So we felt like that was actually on solid scientific ground (laughter).

GROSS: There is sadness in this story in "Inside Out" because the 11-year-old girl is forced to move from her home in Minnesota. Her father - I think her father has a startup, and it's in San Francisco. So the family, you know, this 11-year-old and her mother and father have to move to San Francisco. And she's leaving behind the house that she loves, the little lake she loves to skate on, her hockey team, her friends. And she - they move to San Francisco. The house is kind of, you know, run-down. And she's just, like, so sad at having left everything behind. And I think that's such a scary thought for a parent. You know, that the parent is making the change that has to be made, but it's going to create such sadness in the child.

DOCTER: Yeah. Yeah, we were looking for a way to represent adulthood and the passing into adulthood. And I think, for me, personally, and a lot of the folks that I work with, childhood is kind of a sacred, special kind of point in time that has a real joy and purity to it. And we sort of long on a daily basis to reach back and kind of grab onto that in some way. So this idea of moving seemed like a good way to sort of represent that metaphorically. It also is something for me personally. When I was in fifth grade - so about 11 - my folks moved us to Denmark. And so not only did I have all new friends and all new surroundings, I didn't even understand what they were talking about, which was very difficult and kind of started me, I think, on my path to animation. It was a lot easier to draw people than to talk and interact with them, so...

GROSS: Why did your family move to Denmark?

DOCTER: My father was working on his Ph.D. on Danish choral music - the Danish choral music of Carl Nielsen - so over there to do research.

GROSS: So were you very sad?

DOCTER: I remember kind of falling into this melancholy of - yeah - and Denmark, as a country, there's not a lot of sun. I think there's, like, statistically, like, 20 days a year that are sunny. The rest of the time it's cloudy. And it kind of has that feeling, for me, in being in fifth grade - of course, it's very beautiful. You go back now and I see it in a totally different light. But at the time, it was kind of a dark - I remember kind of feeling as though I was walking in slow motion a little bit. I think in part because that's the age when you're suddenly aware of all the social responsibilities and connections and wait, am I wearing the right clothes? Is this cool? Did I say the wrong thing? You know, up to that point you just kind of blissfully go through your life and things are relatively simple it seems.

GROSS: Did you adapt?

DOCTER: Yeah, I think by the end - I mean, weirdly, like - I remember coming home with splitting headaches for maybe three weeks where I guess my brain was trying to figure out what they were talking about. And by the end of the year I was fairly fluent, although, of course, it's all gone now (laughter). So, you know, I think by the end of the time, if we had stayed longer, I probably would have been fine. Then we moved back to Minnesota and then I was out of step with those kids, so it was kind of a double whammy.

GROSS: In the movie, it's the father's job - the father's new startup - that takes the family to San Francisco and makes 11-year-old Riley say goodbye to everybody, you know, all the friends she loves and the school she knows and everything. And in your life it was your father's doctoral work in Denmark that took you away from your home. You're a father now. And I'm sure you relate to the father as well as to the child in the film. The father who has to move the family away and also the father, who, as soon as they get to their new home, his cellphone rings and it's like OK, the backer for his startup, who he was supposed to meet with later in the week, is there now. And so he's got to leave right away to get off to this meeting. And the child feels totally abandoned by Daddy. Do you feel kind of weird when in the past when your kids were young and you had to say goodbye to them or not say hello to them because you had to do your animation meeting or whatever, that here you were - are working really hard to do wonderful entertainment for children and that's why you can't be with your children?

DOCTER: Yeah, to bring families together, I need to go away.

GROSS: Exactly.

DOCTER: Goodbye kids.


DOCTER: Well, we try to - we definitely try to have a balance. And I think things have gotten a lot better at Pixar. When we did "Toy Story," that was an all hands on deck situation that really was time intensive. Since then we've tried to regulate things so that you at least get to go home at night and not have to pull all-nighters and see them on weekends and things. So, you know, like everything in life, it's a balance.

BIANCULLI: Terry Gross speaking with Pete Docter, director and co-writer of the new Disney Pixar animated film “Inside Out.” After we take a short break, we’ll hear more from Pete Docter. And later, we’ve got Pokey LaFarge in the studio to play some tunes for us. I’m David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I’m David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry’s conversation from last month with Pete Docter, who directed and co-wrote the new Disney Pixar animated film “Inside Out.” He also directed “Monsters Inc.” and “Up.” Much of “Inside Out” takes place inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl, a mind ruled by competing emotions – joy, anger, fear, sadness and disgust.


GROSS: So I've read that there was a point in which you were supposed to show part of the film to John Lasseter, the founder of Pixar, but you had nothing you really wanted to show him yet. So you described what you were planning to do, but you had nothing to show and you felt like a real failure at that point.


GROSS: So how did you handle that emotionally? Like, what got you through that feeling of maybe this isn't going to work?

DOCTER: Well, the film initially - we had decided to pair joy with fear because I don't know about you - for me fear was a major motivator in junior high. So we thought there's probably some good stuff there - some good humor and identifiable stuff. As the film went on, we had developed all these great scenes that were really funny, but in the third act, it wasn't adding up to anything. And, you know, you want Joy, now having learned her lesson, to go back to headquarters to do something that she would never have been able to do in the first act, but what exactly is that? I don't know. And at this time, we had spent almost three years working on the film. And I knew that there was an upcoming screening where not only were we going to show it to everybody else at the studio, we also needed to move into production. And yet I was sitting there in editorial going this is not working. I'm a failure. I mean, I've - these other films were flukes. I don't know what I'm doing. I should just quit. What would I miss? I'd miss my house and I'd miss going to work. But I think the thing that I realized I would miss most is probably similar to everybody, which is your friends. And I thought about it and I realized the friends that I feel the deepest connection with are the friends that, yeah, I've had good times with, but they're also people that I've been angry with, that I've had sadness alongside them, I've been scared for them. And it sort of hit me that the very subject matter of the film that I'm dealing with is the key to the most important thing in our lives, and that's our relationships. And so we had done all this research showing the job of each individual emotion, you know, fear keeps you safe. It deals with uncertainty. Anger is about fairness. If it feels that you're getting ripped off or taken advantage of, that's when anger comes up. Sadness deals with loss. And I suddenly had this new revelation. It felt like to me that those are all true, but the real, deeper reason we have emotions is to connect us together. And that felt big to me. And I suddenly had an idea that we needed to get fear out of there and sadness connected with joy. And I ran back. I called producer Jonas Rivera and Ronnie del Carmen, who’s our co-director, and we met that Sunday night. And I kind of went through this whole spiel with them, and I was kind of expecting them to sink into their chairs and, you know, bury their hands in their faces 'cause the pressure was pretty great. Instead, they totally lit up. And so the three of us went to John and to Ed and the rest of the - we sort of call it the brain trust, you know, other filmmakers. So the cool thing was they very quickly understood why - and were totally on board - why this new thing was an improvement. And so they got on board and we moved on. It was a scary moment, but it was the right call in the long run.

GROSS: Can I point out that I think the real hero of the story you just told was fear? Because - seriously, it was fear of failure that got you to realize that sadness had to be more of a main character in the movie.

DOCTER: That is true.


DOCTER: That is true. Maybe there's another movie in there…

GROSS: Yeah.

DOCTER: …Where fear is the hero.

GROSS: Let's pay our respects to fear.


GROSS: Let's give fear its props.

DOCTER: It's a great motivator.


GROSS: Pete, you know, you said that, like, fear was such an important motivator when you were in junior high school. Isn't it still?

DOCTER: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. More than I'd probably care to admit (laughter). And in part that's good. But then, like any emotion, and this is something we learned from the research as well, there are positive and negative aspects to all of these.

GROSS: Yes. You haven't had a film that failed. But - and I hope you never do - but I always imagine what it's like when I do see a movie that's pretty bad, and I think somebody spent years of their life working on this and it's not good. Imagine how they must feel. No one's going to go see it.

DOCTER: Oh, I know and it's...

GROSS: Do you live in fear of that - that someday you'll spend, like, five years making an animated film and it won't be good and that's, like, five years of your life?

DOCTER: Absolutely, you know? But the truth is, at some point, our films - almost every single one of them are really bad. And it's largely hats off to John Lasseter and Ed Catmull who have set up a system whereby they're expecting it. They're expecting us to make mistakes, and they've set up a process that allows us to correct for that and do it again and iterate. So I think that's a real key to the films that we've made.

GROSS: What is that process?

DOCTER: Well, what we do is we have a script, of course, but for us, writing is also like storyboarding. It's drawing. And so we will cut all of those drawings together with music, sound effects and dialogue. And we screen this kind of stick-figure version of the film. So we can sit with Lee Unkrich and Andrew Stanton, and all the other folks, and experience what the film is going to be like. And then we go away into a room and we talk about what worked and what didn't. And then we take all of those findings and we do that whole process again. And it's about a three-month process every screening. And that way we have seven or eight chances at the film before we have to actually build the models, build the sets, do the animation and all of that. So it's a - I think that's a real key to the way we make films.

GROSS: So now that the movie is opening, are you going to see "Inside Out" with audiences and see what the reaction is like in just, like, a theater of random people?

DOCTER: Yeah. Oh, yeah. That's one of the real joys for me is going out and watching it. And usually I'm not watching the screen. I'm kind of sitting and looking off to the side, spying on people to see what they react to' cause it's - as Joe Ranft used to say, you know, animation is like telling a joke and waiting for three years to see if anyone laughs.

GROSS: (Laughter) That's great. Pete Docter, thank you so much for talking with us.

DOCTER: Thank you, it was fun.

BIANCULLI: Terry Gross speaking with Pete Docter last month. He directed and co-wrote the new Disney Pixar animated film “Inside Out.” Coming up, singer Pokey LaFarge. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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