INSIDE OUT Interview: Pete Docter and Jonas Rivera on Making Joy Likable

     April 8, 2015


Inside Out is about an 11-year-old girl named Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias). She’s as happy as can be until her parents decide to move from Minnesota to San Francisco. She’s got no friends, has to call a rather dingy townhouse home and can’t even find a decent slice of pizza anywhere. Part of the reason Riley can’t cope in the real world is because her emotions are having a crisis of their own in the mind world. Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) accidentally wind up in longterm memory and until they get back to HQ, the only emotions Riley’s got to work with are Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black).

However, it wasn’t always that way. At one point, Joy had to make the trek back to HQ with Fear instead of Sadness and the filmmakers also considered having Joy’s desperation to keep things happy, happy, happy ruin Riley’s school play. While visiting the Pixar campus for an Inside Out footage screening, I got the opportunity to take part in a roundtable interview with director Pete Docter and producer Jonas Rivera. The duo discussed the inception of the idea, how it changed over the years, the possibility of incorporating Inside Out into Disney theme parks and more. You can check it all out in the interview below and, in case you missed it, click here to read my reaction to the first 56 minutes of the film.


Image via Disney

Question: Correct me if I’m wrong, but when you’re pitching a Pixar movie, you have to come up with three different ideas …


And then you go with the best one, right?

RIVERA: Usually.

What was it about this concept that really appealed Pixar?

DOCTER: We were finishing Up and I [came] up [with] three ideas and pitched them and John [Lasseter]’s like, ‘Well, okay. Keep working on this and, you know, maybe steer that way,’ and then it was a couple of weeks later I came up with this one and pitched it to him and he agreed that we should just focus on this one exclusively. So it didn’t really come out of the three. Most of the stuff we do is slightly outside of the normal sort of operating procedure.

RIVERA: I think to your point it was, at least for me, because when you pitched it to me and I saw John sit forward at about the same time, there was just a lot of promise in it. John’s always looking for worlds that seem somehow familiar but have been untapped to the audience, which is easy to say and hard to find and you had a great way – I don’t remember it exactly, but it was based on the observation of your daughter and so kind of right out of the shoot, ‘Okay, it’s coming from truth and observation,’ and you said something along the lines of, ‘What if we told the story of a little girl that’s growing up or something but she’s not the main character, she’s the setting.’ That felt new. That felt like a doorway in, and that’s what John craves, and we all do. There was not a ton more other than the personified emotions in the mind and so forth, and it felt like enough of an arena that at least John was confident this was really great, to let us try to plow that.


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You knew it was going to be very complicated and have a lot of moving parts, so was being able to say, ‘Okay, now we have to do it,’ daunting at all?

DOCTER: Well at the beginning it was the delusion of, ‘Oh, this one’ll be easy, right? I know the other ones were hard, but this one we’ll figure it out right away,’ and then it doesn’t last very long before you realize, ‘Oh, okay. This is actually gonna be…’ I think in the end this one’s turned out to be the most difficult project I’ve ever worked on, for many reasons.

RIVERA: Yeah, it really was. It’s just so fragile. It was one of those things where it was a great concept, it was a great idea, and that’s a huge success when you’re developing something, but then it stayed there, it stayed at that stage for a long time. As we started to write and board and we’d have a screening of just our story reels and the brain trust of Andrew [Stanton] and Brad Bird, and everyone would get together, but we noticed they’re still saying the word ‘concept.’ The movie would end like, ‘This is a great idea!’ [Actually], we need it to be a movie. It just took a little more labor and, I think, fine-tuning to get it there.

It was mentioned earlier that one of the reasons it took so long with Brave was the technical aspects. In the case of Inside Out, what do you attribute the longevity of the project to?

DOCTER: Well, it was pretty much the same time schedule as Monsters and Up, so it seems to kind of take between four and a half and six years for all the films. This was kind of right in the middle, about five.


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RIVERA: Yeah, it was pretty stable, actually. Most of the time, as per norm, is in story.

DOCTER: I remember we were saying, if we somehow got a perfect script from heaven, we could probably make it in about 16, 18 months.

RIVERA: Yeah that’s where they all come from, by the way.

DOCTER: Yeah, from heaven. [Laughs]

RIVERA: No matter how you overlay these movies, it’s about 12 months to animate a movie, seven or eight months to light it and so forth, so it’s really the planning, the two and a half years …

DOCTER: Yeah, figuring out what movie it is we’re making. Because I always thought, growing up I had this idea, when you watch the movies it feels as though the writer or the creator just like, [laser sound effect], it all came to life at once, and the truth is, it’s a weird, lumpy discovery process. So you have this little bit and then you add that, add over here and then that doesn’t belong and you move things around, so it’s a really organic, messy process and that takes time to kind of sort through.

Was there any specific idea that got you guys from the concept stage to actually making it happen?

DOCTER: Yeah, well, a couple of things. One of the reasons may be that it was poked at for so long that – any movie is about relationships, so you have Joy and Sadness, or Joy and Fear in an earlier draft, and Joy was just hard to land as a character, even later when people did acknowledge it as a movie they would be like, ‘I don’t like Joy. I’m not rooting for her. I’m annoyed by her,’ and so that was really hard, bitter medicine to swallow because she’s our main character. But, you know, she was such a tough one to write for because if you make her just chipper and, ‘Come on, everybody! Let’s do this,’ you’re like, ‘Somebody take her out back,’ you know? It’s just not real. It’s not truthful. So getting Amy Poehler I think was a huge pivot point for the film. She just had the ability to be able to know how much of the enthusiasm to balance with just little bits of sarcasm and undercutting and things like that.


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RIVERA: She’s really skilled at that. But I think, as I hear you say that, there was a lot of things that would happen in story and plot that, ‘Oh, that really works!’ It felt like, ‘Oh, that’s the movie. I can see the potential of it,’ but it didn’t work character-wise. There was an earlier version where Riley was in a play, a school play, and Joy’s so enthusiastic that basically Joy kind of steered her into a social firestorm where she was kind of not acting her age or embarrassing herself in front of the girls and that felt really gettable, but yet, the way we were handling Joy wasn’t yet developed enough to make her totally likable through it. You start to blame her for it and not like your main character. But, I remember watching those reels and going, ‘Oh, I see it. If we could get both of these to work at the same level, this could really be cool,’ because this felt gettable. There are a lot of moments like that along the way where you see something in a storyboard or a drawing …

DOCTER: That first sequence of dinner, the dinner scene was one that – I think that was in the first screening, maybe the second, but it was really early and that was a little like, ‘Here’s how the movie could be,’ and everybody was like, ‘Yeah! Yeah!’ So then that was a big turn there.

RIVERA: Ronnie, too. Ronnie del Carmen, the co-director and an amazing artist. He would just draw sometimes on napkins or on coffee cups and everything, and I’d go through and look at stuff at the end of the day and every now and then there’d be a little drawing that would just capture the entire movie. So you’d feel like, ‘Oh, I see it!’ Or there’d just be a little thing of Joy looking at a memory and you feel so much emotion that they were like little creative insurance policies that this is gonna work.


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Was it always going to be that Joy was the main character and not all five of them together having an equal part?

DOCTER: Yeah, for whatever reason the one thing, there’s a couple of things that I had in that initial pitch before we even developed, I think I called her Optimism, as the main character and I knew that she would be kind of the leader of all these other guys, and I thought of it as an ensemble comedy. So as we cast it and wrote it, that was always kind of the intention.

RIVERA: But she was always like the one driving, so to speak. Maybe her job was eroding, but it was always her.

DOCTER: Yeah. I think as we talked about it and watching my daughter and watching a lot of kids go through this, including myself, there’s a childhood joy – in fact we actually talked about personifying her as Childhood Joy at one point – that goes away. Once you sort of are exposed to the brutal reality of the world, that’s gone, so it’s a rite of passage and there’s something kind of beautiful and necessary, but sad about that loss and so that was part of the ingredients from the beginning.

Is that why other emotions are in charge in the parent’s brain?

RIVERA: Good question.

DOCTER: Yeah, we wanted to make a point to Joy, in an earlier draft, that her time is limited and the other guys are gonna have their day and she’s not gonna be driving all the time anymore. Plus I think, this is based on just observation, people tend to have kind of temperaments. You know, this guy’s always grouchy and this guy’s kind of skittish, so we were kind of playing on that.


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RIVERA: Confirmed by when someone asked us like, ‘Why is Anger driving dad? That’s not how it is.’ And I’m like [yelling], ‘Yeah, it is!’ [Laughs]

Were the emotions in the mom all female and all male in the dad?

RIVERA: They were, they were.

Was that a specific choice?

DOCTER: Really what it came from was trying to make it bulletproof clear, because we’re cutting from all these different places one after another, so we just came up with a convention of dad, mustache, all the guys inside have mustaches, and it just seemed weird to have female voices with the mustache, that was kind of confusing. And same with mom. She has the glasses and the hair, so it was really just about a quick read and for the humor of it.

RIVERA: Yeah, we were cutting it together on storyboards, too. We’re like, ‘Ah, there’s 18 characters in this thing,’ and we were just worried that it wouldn’t read, so it was really about preserving comedy and all of that. We kind of justified it later as we made it like, similar to the ‘who’s driving,’ like maybe as you get older you calcify a little bit who you are, but it was really – nah, let’s not kid ourselves. We just did it to make it read and funny.

They also definitely seem a lot more integrated.

DOCTER: Yeah, they work more as a unit, which I think comes with maturity. At the  beginning it’s like, [makes noises] and later on everybody is kind of like, ‘Let’s just deal with this rationally’.


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RIVERA: I think one of the ideas early on was that the emotions would be the age of who they’re in, so they’re Riley’s age. They’re adults, but they have the knowledge of that age, so Anger says, ‘Well, we’ve got an airplane,’ because the food’s coming so he’s talking like an adult, but he’s saying what a two-year-old would say.

DOCTER: ‘Now, we all know that boys have cooties, so let’s analyze …’ You know, they kind of talk about it.

RIVERA: That’s indisputable, as adults. I guess that translates when they’re adults, now they have mom and dad’s knowledge and a quicker shorthand between them because they’ve been doing the job for 35 years or however old they are.

One thing we learned from a few people today was that a lot of things were left on the cutting room floor. Was there anything specific that either of you were fighting to keep in this film, but for whatever reason couldn’t fit in?

DOCTER: Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff.

RIVERA: Yeah, good question.

DOCTER: There are other places that they visited like The Secrets Vault, which is kind of intriguing. It’s this like dark, mysterious place where all the secrets that Riley knew, that her friend Meg had kissed a boy and, ‘Oh, that was a secret,’ so it had to be kept away. We also had a great scene, which was really fun, where they went to music cognition, so understanding music as a part of almost like a language. Like when you watch your cat and there’s something musical playing, you know the cat doesn’t heart it. It’s just noise to the cat, but for us it means something so we thought maybe we could represent that in some way. And Joy starts talking, but then it becomes music itself and it forms into shapes and things, and that was really cool but it ended up being kind of redundant with abstract thought so we had to cut that. There was a lot of stuff like that.


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RIVERA: One of my favorites was sort of the hobo camp.

DOCTER: Oh, yeah.

RIVERA: A bizarre sort of collection of Riley’s doodles and things.

DOCTER: It was all stuff she had created as a three-year-old.

RIVERA: It kind of led to Bing Bong.

DOCTER: Oh, yeah. Bing Bong, that was his first appearance, along with Mrs. Scribbles who was kind of a stick figure, a bad drawing and Mr. Sun which, you know how you always draw the sun as that quarter arc in the corner of the page? It would float down and it was only a quarter. They were all kind of like out-of-work actors who were like, ‘Well, we had our day. Come on, pull up to the fire, let’s reminisce,’ and Joy was like, ‘No! We’re gonna go back there and we’re gonna bring childhood back.’

RIVERA: You know, that totally family film gettable hook of hobos? [Laughs]

At one point it was going to be Joy and Fear walking around the mind, right? Why did that change?

DOCTER: Well, we chose Fear because it felt like, ‘Okay, junior high, man, that’s truthful.’ So many of my decisions were based on the fear of what somebody might say or notice, so pairing Joy and Fear felt like – in a sense, Fear is an anchor and Joy is gonna pull him forward so it felt truthful, but as we got into it, I feel like the core emotion, the core kind of thing that we were talking about was a sort of loss of childhood and that’s a sad moment as opposed to a fear-based thing. At the end of the movie, which you guys haven’t seen so I’ll try not to talk about it too much, Joy has to go back and correct the error of her ways and what is it that she’s gonna do? What is she acting on? And that decision alone, kind of speaking cryptically here, had to do more with Sadness than it does with Fear. So it really has a statement of kind of what we were talking about, it needed to be represented in that relationship between Joy and [Sadness].


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RIVERA: It wasn’t that Phyllis [Smith] was better than Bill Hader.

DOCTER: Well, you know, there’s that too. [Laughs] They’re all fantastic.

RIVERA: Also, something to me that was really inspiring that came out of the research – and this is way oversimplifying it – just the fact that we have a reason for having emotions, there’s a reason, they all do a specific job. As we started talking about them and what that job would be, they all sort of made sense. Sadness sort of made the least sense. I get why I’d be angry or I get why I’d be scared of something. If a dog bites you, there’s a reason. It’s a safety mechanism. But Sadness felt the most mysterious and I think that led to a lot of the discussion of finding a deeper well with it.

Did you always know that you wanted these five actors to play these roles? When did you come to that casting?

RIVERA: That was really fun.

DOCTER: We used Lewis Black as an example of casting when we were pitching.

RIVERA: Your original pitch, yeah.

DOCTER: ‘Think of the fun we could have when we get to casting. Imagine Lewis Black as Anger!’ I think I pitched that to John and to [Bob] Iger and all those guys. But everybody else, we designed the characters without having particular actors in mind and then only later we would listen to a list of people.


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RIVERA: We started just listening to everybody, looking at everyone. Obviously we had a list of people that we love and are fans of. Bill Hader was on that list. We’ve been a fan of his for a long time and it literally happened that he just showed up at Pixar. I’m not kidding. One day he just was in the atrium and it turned out he had told his agent he loves Pixar Animation and just wanted to come check it out.

DOCTER: So he flew himself here.

RIVERA: So we met him and it just kind of worked out. He’s such a great actor and character guy. It turns out he’s a great writer.

DOCTER: [Imitating Bill Hader] ‘Oh, hey guys!’

RIVERA: Yeah, yeah. [Laughs] So yeah, we ended up collaborating with him.

DOCTER: I’m glad Bill’s not here because doing an impersonation of Bill …

RIVERA: That was pretty good!

DOCTER: He’s done one of all of us. I haven’t heard his of you. Here, you know, people do caricatures, Bill can do that with his body. It’s crazy. He suddenly becomes someone else.

RIVERA: And it’s not even like the crazy spiked-out personalities. It’s like, the guy that makes coffee here or something. Bill would get a coffee and then do that guy somehow.


RIVERA: Anyway, we’re so proud of the cast. Obviously Phyllis is so amazing and hesitant and perfect and all of that. And then Mindy was just so great. They all kind of brought a lot to it, as well. Mindy Kaling, we kind of talked through the character, she was just so great at bringing this condescending but not mean, you know, judgmental – because, like I said, the character’s disgusted and she got it, she could do that. And Amy literally is Joy to us when we met her. We just fell in love with her and are big fans of hers. She makes everything effortlessly kind of fun, but, as Pete said, knows that border. And we even explained it that way, like, ‘We’re struggling with the character because if she’s too saccharine-y,’ and she’s like, ‘Got it. I can walk that line. I know how to do that.’


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DOCTER: She said something like, ‘I can get away with saying things that most people can’t.

RIVERA: She’d go pretty far, right?

When did you cast them? Was it all at the same time?

DOCTER: Kind of in waves.

RIVERA: Over like a year and a half, I think.

DOCTER: Yeah, because was Bill the first one we signed?


How far into development was that?

DOCTER: For that, let’s see. Was it like year three or something like that?

RIVERA: Bill was almost like two years in, so he was first. And he came and helped us write the story. And then Amy was last, and she was about a year out.


RIVERA: Yeah, so probably over the course of three years we cast them all.

DOCTER: And that was largely because we had so much trouble writing for that character, as we talked about. We were looking for like, ‘Okay, what is she about?’ Before we cast some random actor, what are we looking for? What are we asking them to play? What’s her weakness? Vulnerability? I can never say that – vulnerability. [Laughs]. That’s my vulnerability, I can’t say the word.


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RIVERA: Be vulnerable about that.

How about making the negative emotions likable and relatable? I feel like people are not gonna want to be like, ‘That one’s my favorite,’ just because it’s a negative feeling.

DOCTER: What’s funny is, I feel like they’re easier to write for, they’re funnier. Joy, being the positive was actually really hard to write for, but anger was like, ‘Argh!’ It’s just fun, and you show it to kids and little boys especially, totally get anger, right on board with sadness and fear and everybody. But Joy was actually harder, and I think that’s true of comedy writing in general. If you have a broken character who’s flawed, it’s much more fun and more relatable somehow.

RIVERA: It makes me think, Bill’s had that idea with Fear, that he’d be the most prepared. He’d speak in lists.

DOCTER: ‘There’s five reasons we shouldn’t do this. Here’s why. Number one, there could be sharks; number two …’ [Laughs]

RIVERA: He came up with like a whiteboard, he was very prepared. Then we have that gag in the movie where he has that pile of papers. That’s just really fun. Like, he’s so ready to be afraid, he kind of likes it.

DOCTER: But it does seem like kind of negative or seemingly negative aspects are kind of key to comedy. That’s interesting.


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Do you worry about kids being scared of the dream sequence with the dog?

DOCTER: We hope they are. [Laughs]

RIVERA: Yeah, I don’t know. My six-year-old probably will squirm a little bit.

DOCTER: I don’t know, I don’t think that’ll be – because there’s enough kind of goofy funny stuff going on. There’s some other stuff later in the movie that you haven’t seen yet that maybe they’ll be more scared of. [Laughs]

RIVERA: Well, we cut it off right as they go into the subconscious, which I think my daughter, again, will squirm a little bit there.

DOCTER: ‘Daddy, I have to go to the bathroom.’


DOCTER: ‘Let’s go.’

RIVERA: But there’s a pretty good wink at, you know …

How much did you take free will into account and who’s controlling what?

DOCTER: That was something that right from the beginning I know Ronnie had a big issue with. If Riley is her emotions – and early on we had other emotions and we also had logic and reason. And his thinking, which I agree, [was] if those characters are Riley, then how can Joy love Riley? It’d be like loving your car. Part of the relationship that you have in a loving relationship is the fact that everybody has free will, so we made a conscious decision to drop logic and make Riley separate from her emotions. And again, this is truthful. You don’t choose whether you feel fearful or anger, it just kind of comes to you. What you do with that then is your choice and how you react. We realized early on that we were basically telling this movie from a parent’s point of view and so Riley needed to have her own autonomy.


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RIVERA: Early on we would debate the pronoun debate. What’s the right grammar? Do they say, ‘We’re hungry?’ Do they say, ‘Riley’s hungry?’ Or do they say, ‘I’m hungry,’ you know, if you’re one of the emotions. And if we went too far literal, and this was Ronnie’s concern, it started to feel like she’s a robot, like Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask where there’s like the stomach guys. It started to feel too mechanical. It just took a long time to find where to put the throttle on all these things.

Was that any inspiration, the Woody Allen movie?

DOCTER: Well, we knew it was out there so we looked at that pretty early on to try to [see] if there’s anything to learn from or stay away from. Generally, if something is out there and especially if it’s known you just want to stay away from threading on the same turf.

It’s a little raunchier also. [Laughs]

RIVERA: Yeah, it’s not quite the right tone. We looked at the old Disney short, there’s an old short called Reason and Emotion, it was an old like propaganda WWII short. It’s a little like the devil and the angel, almost like a conscience but that’s in the head, it’s reason and emotion.

DOCTER: ‘Don’t let Hitler control you.’


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RIVERA: It literally ends up being about that which is so crazy.

DOCTER: ‘Control through fear. Don’t let …’

RIVERA: So we looked at that being old Disney fans. We almost looked at more of the things to avoid like Innerspace, we didn’t want it to be literal and things like that.

I know this is really early on, but has anyone talked about incorporating Inside Out into the Disney theme parks?

RIVERA: We have. Thirty minutes after the pitch I’m like, ‘This has to be at Epcot,’ because we’re huge park fans. So yeah, we’ve definitely called those guys and showed them along the way and our hope is that we can have some sort of – feel’s like Epcot Center to me in a good way, you know.

DOCTER: Yeah, I mean, all that stuff is really kind of complicated, how things come to be at the parks. I don’t think anybody really understands it, even those guys. When, why, and what are the decisions. Some of it has to do with availability and popularity of the show and all that kind of stuff. We hope.

RIVERA: With Disney there’s such synergy across the company. We hope our characters can walk around on Main Street and all that stuff, but just because we think that way, we wanted to show them.

Is there a toy that you want developed from the movie?

RIVERA: Oh, I wanted a Bing Bong.

BOTH: You squeeze him and he cries candy. [Laughs]

inside-out-teaser-trailerWhat do the emotions do when Riley goes to sleep?

DOCTER: That became a huge, many day discussion.

RIVERA: That’s a great question.

DOCTER: Because, do they all stay on duty or do they not? So where we ended up was, they cycle through and there’s dream duty. So the other guys get to go to sleep, they go up and there’s this little sort of mushroom-shaped place, there’s an R&R place up there, but one guy has to stay on duty and that’s why you might have a dream that’s actually really silly, but you wake up with your heart pounding and you’re scared because Fear was on dream duty. So when you tell somebody else, ‘Oh, I had this terrifying dream. There were these little hopping magnets,’ it’s absurd, but that was our justification anyway. I think in real life they don’t sleep at all.

RIVERA: There’s one shot where Joy wakes them up with an accordion and Disgust takes off her eye … [laughs] like she was in bed or something.

DOCTER: In fact, Mindy came up with a thing of like, ‘Anger, are you ever gonna change that shirt? It’s been 11 years. As a friend, no offense. I like it, but …’ [Laughs]

RIVERA: [Laughs] Sounds ridiculous.

DOCTER: We had one thing where every scene she was gonna show up with a different outfit, a fabulous outfit.

RIVERA: Yeah, yeah. That’s right.

DOCTER: That got nixed.

RIVERA: That was probably me saying we can’t afford it. [Laughs]

Inside Out hits theaters on June 19th.

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