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Man walks on a cross walk speaking on the phone from the Pixar movie “Soul”
Joe (Jamie Foxx) races across the busy New York City street
Image: Pixar via Polygon

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Soul began with the Great Beyond, then evolved into Pixar’s film about Black life

Producer Dana Murray explains how early ideas were reworked into what we’ll see on Disney Plus

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Pixar’s new movie, Soul, pushes the studio creatively beyond anything it’s attempted before. The premise — in which a middle-school band teacher with dreams of being a jazz musician dies moments after getting his big break with a musical legend, and goes on an existential adventure with a pre-human soul — is heady enough. But our hero, Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), is a Black man, the first such lead in a Pixar film.

With studio stalwart Pete Docter (Inside Out, Up) at the helm, Soul is one of the most visually daring stories Pixar has ever told. It also represents a path forward for the studio in telling more diverse stories. With the film due out on Disney Plus on Dec. 25, Soul producer Dana Murray sat down virtually with Polygon to discuss the film’s gestational period, how co-director/co-writer Kemp Powers reshaped Joe’s character arc to be more authentic to Black culture, and more.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and concision.

I know Pixar films take so long from when the idea comes to light — in Pete Docter’s mind in this case — to when the movie is finally done. How big of a change was there from that initial idea to the movie people can see in a few weeks?

Dana Murray: So, all of Pete’s films that he’s done in the past have been a five-year period. We did [Soul] in four years. We initially were supposed to come out in the summer of 2021. And we got pushed forward and had to scramble. In retrospect, it feels like it was a blessing because it forces you to make decisions. Pete’s the type of filmmaker that really loves to discover and meander down different paths, which is awesome. And I think that’s why he makes such wonderful films. So everyone was kind of like, “Is he going to be able to work under this time constraint?” And he did. He really stepped up and was able to like make calls.

I know with WALL-E, to pick a random Pixar film, at one point, the future humans were so far devolved from humanity that they couldn’t speak. And that obviously changed. Are there any examples from the early stage of Soul where one idea that sounded firm was tossed on the cutting room floor?

Yeah, I think [in] the very, very first draft, the entire film took place up in the soul world. It didn’t come to Earth at all. Also, I don’t think she was named 22 at the time, but 22 (voiced by Tina Fey) was the main character. She was still that character that didn’t want anything to do with Earth. “Earth is gross and stinky. Why would I ever go to that rock?” But it wasn’t very interesting because we couldn’t really prove that Earth and living was worth it, unless we went down there and actually showed her. So that’s where Joe came into play.

I know that writer Kemp Powers was brought on to Soul midway through production. How much of the expansion of Joe and his identity was tied to Kemp’s involvement? Was that a big part of his presence on the production?

No. So when we decided to go to Earth, we came up with this Joe character. We were playing around with wondering, “What’s Joe’s passion?” And we tried different things like animation, but that felt totally dorky [laughing]. And we thought, “No one’s interested in that.” When we landed on musicians, that felt good, but we first tried rock star. But it didn’t feel noble for him to try to get rich and famous. So then, we landed on jazz and Pete grew up loving jazz. I’m kind of a late bloomer when it comes to getting into jazz.

But when we landed on jazz musician, that felt like a noble thing. Because you don’t do that to get rich, right? You do it because of the passion of it and you really love it. Then right when we found that, we found this Herbie Hancock masterclass where he talks about jazz and he tells this whole story about playing with Miles Davis. And it felt like the perfect metaphor for the film we were trying to make. And once we decided on jazz, we knew Joe had to be Black. Once you start researching jazz at all, it’s Black foundational music. So, at that point, we were like, “Well, we need help.” So we found Kemp and that’s when he came on.

Joe (Jamie Foxx) accompanies Dorothea (Angela Bassett) on the piano during a transcendent audition.
Joe (Jamie Foxx) accompanies Dorothea (Angela Bassett) on the piano during a transcendent audition.
Image: Pixar/Disney Plus

It’s impossible to talk about Soul without discussing racial identity, because Joe is the first Black lead character of any Pixar film. Before Coco, there weren’t really many non-white lead Pixar characters. Did Kemp reshape the arc for Joe? I know he’s spoken about encouraging a barbershop scene in Soul as being specific to the Black experience. Were there elements like that which Kemp pushed for Joe as a character?

He absolutely did. Joe, as a character, we knew his basics when Kemp came on, but he felt a little hollow. One of the reasons Kemp connected with the film right away is because when we met with him, he was 45. So, middle-aged. He grew up in Brooklyn. And he had also been on this artist’s journey. He switched careers late in life. He just really identified with [Joe] as a character. He just saw so much opportunity in filling Joe up and who he was.

And it was really important to Kemp to make sure that it felt like he was going into Black spaces and had authentic Black relationships that his community would recognize and identify. He was huge in all of that. But we also made sure to have many touch points within the Black community. So we needed to make sure that there were a lot of voices speaking to the authenticity of the film and the characters.

Within Pixar, we put together an internal culture trust, which was a number of the Black employees that became, like, our film culture trust. And we got a lot of external consultants, too. Musicians like Herbie Hancock and Quincy Jones, but also musicians that were working in the clubs on a nightly basis in New York. And middle school band teachers, too. It was also really important to get female bandleaders to represent Dorothea [Williams, a character in Soul]. In the jazz community, there’s not very many female bandleaders so speaking to her as a character.

Cultural consultants, too, like Dr. Johnnetta Cole. She kind of became our mother hen of the consultants. She was really part of the approval process of making sure there was nothing offensive in the character design or even the set pieces and trailers. All of those things ran through her.

I’m sure there were a lot of different opportunities for learning within those discussions with the consultants and culture trusts. Is there a specific example of something they pointed out that you might not have thought of?

Our character design. Pete wanted a really stylized look in New York City, with our characters specifically. He loves [English artist] Ronald Searle. So we were looking a lot at his drawings. I think some of it early on ... Joe is a character who involved quite a bit [of design] because there were pushed features. Some of it just felt like it was going too far. People in our culture trust felt it was really important that he looked like a Black man. But we didn’t want anything to ever be offensive. So they were a big part of honing in on the designs and pulling the facial features in different ways.

Also, just some of the lines in the movie. For example, Kemp said, “It’s really important when Joe’s getting out of the shower to say he needs to put on lotion.” It’s a very specific thing. Or hailing the cab in New York City, having a little comment there. Those were the little details that were important to everyone working on the film.

Two souls work at an abacus in a heavenly space
The entity Terry (Rachel House) keeps track of the souls who enter the Great Beyond
Image: Pixar/Disney Plus

You mentioned the stylization in New York, but I think it’s equally true that the world-building of the Great Before and The Great Beyond is pretty heavily stylized. And it’s not tied to a specific vision of what may lie outside of human existence. How did the team arrive at that visual concept?

Yeah, that was hard. We went into production on all the New York scenes first, because it took a long time to get there, how we were going to visualize the soul world. There’s no research trip you get to take. So our artists worked really hard and were trying all kinds of different things. And Pete was just not feeling anything for a long time. We looked at a lot of references to old Roman or Greek stuff, or college campuses. But every single soul comes from this soul world. So we didn’t want it to feel specific to any culture either.

So we ended up looking at old World’s Fair books. There was just something about some of the looks in there that felt really cool and different. And there was a lot of Swedish sculpture art that we were looking at. That’s where we got a lot of the personality pavilion shapes. But it was difficult to arrive where we finally did in the You Seminar.

I’m thinking of the scene in the beginning of the film in which Joe pushes through the invisible barrier to fall through to the Great Before. That’s genuinely very striking and a visual push forward for Pixar. How was the visualization in that scene decided upon?

One of our story artists, Trevor Jimenez, is incredibly talented. He actually asked Pete, “Hey, can you let me take a pass at boarding this, what it would look like?” And the [storyboards] he pitched the first time look a lot like what that scene looks like now. So we asked him to run with things. He directed that mini-scene. So visually, that was really different and fun. It reminds me a little bit of how we treated Abstract Thought in Inside Out. It’s a little bit like this one-off scene that we could just get kind of weird with, and do visually wild things.

Over the last few years, with shorts like Sanjay’s Super Team and Bao, there’s been more of a push to have diverse voices creating at Pixar. What else is being done to ensure those non-white voices get elevated for future features and shorts?

I mean, it’s a big priority for the studio right now to diversify the voices telling these stories. Because that’s something that Pixar takes seriously. They bet on the people first and ask those people to come up with ideas rather than just buy a script. And so those stories always come usually from a really personal place. It took too long, but now we’re getting more females and more culture in the development, which is really exciting to see. It took too long, but it’s definitely happening now.