Recently, Nightmarish Conjurings’ Shannon McGrew had the opportunity to be part of a roundtable discussion for the upcoming Disney+ film, SOUL, moderated by Jacqueline Coley of Rotten Tomatoes. During the interview, we had a chance to speak with Director/Co-Writer Pete Docter, Producer Dana Murray, and Co-Director/Co-Writer Kemp Powers about bringing SOUL to life and the importance of showcasing the Black experience.
In SOUL, Joe Gardner (voice of Jamie Foxx) is a middle school band teacher who gets the chance of a lifetime to play at the best jazz club in town. But one small misstep takes him 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. Determined to return to his life, Joe teams up with a precocious soul, 22 (voice of Tina Fey), who has never understood the appeal of the human experience. As Joe desperately tries to show 22 what’s great about living, he may just discover the answers to some of life’s most important questions.
When talking about the early inception of the film, it was revealed that SOUL initially wasn’t centered around an African-American jazz player. When explaining the genesis of the story, Co-Director/Co-Writer Pete Docter described what the turning point was.
Pete Docter: At the beginning, this was a very personal story of trying to figure [things] out. What are we going through? What’s the world about? What am I supposed to be doing with my life? I wanted to take people on this artistic journey of finding a character that we could root for, that we find compelling and interesting. We played around for a little while with an “actor” or a “scientist” but as soon as we found a jazz musician, that felt very selfless. It felt like someone who loves… you don’t go into jazz to get rich and famous, you know? You do it because you love it and have a passion for it and it’s fascinating to watch. When you see somebody play, they’re just amazing.
As soon as we hit on that, one of our consultants called jazz Black improvisational music and we realized we have to make this character Black. He has to be from that culture that brought us this great American art form. We knew we needed a lot of help with that so [producer] Dana Murray put together multiple groups of consultants and we contacted Kemp Powers. We were lucky to have him along for the ride.
When talking about assembling the team, Dana not only looked for outside consults but also employees within the Pixar family to lend their perspective in regards to not only the cast, but also the musicians, both on screen and behind the scenes.
Dana Murray: Not only did we get to have the dream cast, but we had a dream consultant team. Our Head of Diversity and Inclusion here, Britta Wilson, was a great partner to me in building who those outside consultants were gonna be. She mentioned Dr. Johnnetta Cole, we brought in Daveed Diggs, we were lucky enough to get to hang out with Ryan Kuebler to have him look at the film, Bradford Young, Questlove, I could go on and on. We worked with a lot of working musicians as well, in New York City and here in Emeryville, and teachers and… the depths of the bench was crazy. We were really lucky. We also brought together the Black employees at Pixar and created a trust as well. They were a part of the daily process where the outside consultants were more on a weekly, monthly [basis]. And then [musician] Jon Batiste, I mean, he’s the obvious one to mention here. He’s an historian and a genius. He came to Pixar quite a bit to speak to our crew and the animators and he brought a lot of life to Joe’s character as well.
Now that the team was assembled, once Co-Director/Co-Writer Kemp Powers came onboard he was able to steer the ship in the direction it needed to go in order for it to be about the Black experience.
Kemp Powers: When Dana and Pete first approached me to become involved in the film, the first thing I asked was, “What work of mine have you read?” and they had actually read a play of mine that I wrote called “One Night in Miami…”. So I was like okay, you know what you’re getting into, you know my politics, you know that I’m gonna be pushing for a lot of Black stuff because I can’t help myself. I think our culture is amazing and a lot of people, particularly in Hollywood, will tell you that in order to appeal to a wide audience you want to get away from that and I feel the opposite. I feel like there is universality by going for hyper specificity. My number one defense is, do you not enjoy “The Sopranos” and The Godfather if you’re not Italian? That sounds absurd, right? And it’s specific to a very unique culture. I feel like this was a wonderful opportunity to both do something that my family, that my kids and my mom and all my relatives could be proud of, but something that everyone could enjoy. It shows how the Black American experience and our humanity is as universal as anyone else’s experience.
And it really did kind of start with that conversation with Pete. I remember Joe getting a suit was a plot point. And I said to Pete, “He also needs a haircut, right?” and someone said, “Well, the haircut isn’t as important as the suit” and I was like, “I wouldn’t have even come up just to Pixar for the interview if I couldn’t have got lined up. So I’m gonna disagree and say that haircut is every bit as important as the threads.” And I love that Jon Batiste actually backed me on that cause Jon Batiste, in talking about what makes a person successful in jazz said, it’s not just the talent, it’s the complete package. Sometimes, you know, it’s about the presentation, it’s about the body language, it’s about your threads. It was so great to have that be actually a plot point in this film. What I love about what Pete and Dana allowed us all to do is they encouraged us to lean into that stuff as opposed to shying away from it. To be honest, there were a lot of times in making this film where I kept going like, “Can we really do this? Are we gonna be able to say jazz is Black improvisational music? Is this guy gonna be able to say he can’t catch a cab? Like, are we gonna be able to do all these things?” And honestly, no one even batted an eye. And I don’t think it hurts the film at all. I think it’s part of what makes the texture of this film so rich and honest and sincere.