ED. NOTE: Pixar director Pete Docter hops on the phone one weekend in June, and the conversation easily glides to areas of commonality. We are talking about the topography of both San Francisco and of being (and parenting) a child on the brink of adolescence — two of the spectacularly steepest journeys one can experience, with enough hurtle-down hills and straining inclines to render the trip forever memorable. So it’s fitting that in his new movie, “Inside Out” (opening Friday), the Oscar-winning Docter shows both the majesty of the Golden Gate and the winding peril that is Lombard Street. In the beautifully inventive film, San Francisco is the exterior, and the mind of an 11-year-old child is the ultimate interior. Here is how the Bay Area-based filmmaker arrived at these twin destinations.
THE SHIFT is sharp enough to make grown men weep. One day your child bounces with the relatively gravity-free air of innocence and joy. And then, just like that, a different life form moves in, similar in appearance but not quite in spirit.
Congratulations, Dad. It’s an adolescent.
Pixar filmmaker Pete Docter knows this road map well. It began to play out about five years ago when, as it does for most all parents, it spurred twin, parallel sensations. “My daughter is changing,” Docter says he thought when his Elie was 11. “She used to have this happy, goofy spirit. But she began to move toward being more quiet and more reclusive.”
It wasn’t just his daughter’s shift and drift that stirred his emotions. As most parents can attest, it has a prism-like effect, a sense of refracted duality, as you stare squarely at the present while reflecting on your past.
“It was two things,” Docter recalls of that time. “It triggered my own fears. I was pretty nerdy as a kid, and things stressed me out. I wondered: ‘How do I fit in and what do I say? What are the social things I should do?’ And then, in fifth grade, my folks moved us [from Minnesota] to Denmark. It was all that.
“Watching my daughter made me a little sad,” Docter continues. “As a parent, I was playing and being a part of that ‘pretend-play.’ And that was going away [at 11]. That was a big part of the film.”
“The film” is “Inside Out,” Pixar’s first original movie since 2012. Docter’s five-year labor of love is his first directing effort since the brilliant, Oscar-winning “Up.” In “Inside Out” (in theaters June 19), the family of 11-year-old Riley moves from Minnesota to San Francisco, and the girl must leave behind her friends and school and hockey team, even as an unfurnished new home is cold and bare and uninviting.
Yet Docter’s vision is not simply a tale viewed from a movie’s typical physical perspective. The filmmaker was sparked by an age-old question – “What in the world are you thinking?” – but he had the ability to seek answers with new-age technology. The CGI-animated “Inside Out” spends most of its time inside Riley’s mind, in a colorfully abstracted place where five emotions chatter and quarrel at Headquarters: Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Fear (Bill Hader).
“One of the big decisions I made early on was to say that the movie is set in the mind, not the brain,” Docter says by phone from the Los Angeles area. “There are no blood vessels and dendrites – it’s a bit more abstract.
“Freud and Jung and neurologists kind of break down the mind very differently, and research for the film was essential,” Docter continues. “This film kind of mixes the two.”
At the air-traffic-like console that is Riley’s mental HQ, Joy runs the show and the handling of “core memories” – at least until dawning adolescence seems to imbue Sadness with accidental yet influential powers. Then, when Joy and Sadness end up outside Headquarters, desperate to catch a Train of Thought back where they belong, our 11-year-old girl is ruled by conflicting Fear and Disgust, with explosions of Anger — in ways that fittingly play out like blended blasts of sarcasm. Those three temporarily ruling emotions — less nuanced here than Joy and Sadness — are played as pure “types.”
“I’m a pretty anxious person,” says Hader, the former “Saturday Night Live” standout, acknowledging his easy fit to play Fear. “And he’s a middle-management kind of guy — we just put a bow tie on him. He’s an archetype person who exemplifies this main emotion.”
Line for line, “Inside Out” may well be Pixar’s funniest film yet, even amid its tearjerking moments. Docter gives much of the credit to his comedic all-stars. “We have amazing comic talents,” he says of all these NBC- and Comedy Central-honed stars. “We played around a lot of times, and the humor was [often] in the way things are said. Sometimes, the words on paper were not that funny, but when someone like Mindy said them. . . .”
The cast returns the full-throated praise. Black says of Docter: “He’s a genius. It’s unbelievable. And it’s really annoying.”
After punctuating that last line with a laugh, Black expands: “It’s just, more than anything, this overall sense of, he knew what he was going for — just watching him [expertly] fill in the blanks for his vision.”
“He is a genius,” Hader echoes about Docter. “And he’s incredibly modest — he’s kind of like Jim Henson: Modest and very sweet, and he does this amazing thing of letting you do your thing. . . . He’s very intuitive. He’s not thinking: ‘This is something the kids will love, and will get giant weekend box office.’
“He’s a real artist. He thinks: ‘This is what moves me.’ And this is personal to him.”
Personal enough that you can detect reflections of Docter’s life arc in his cinematic dossier. A quarter-century ago, he was only several years into adulthood himself when, as a newly minted 21-year-old grad of Cal Arts, he became one of Pixar’s very first hires. By the time he directed the studio’s “Monsters, Inc.,” having children at home was already inspiring his story decisions.
“I think being a parent,” Docter says, “has affected every film I’ve worked on.”
And ushering two teenagers through adolescence provided the truths that he can always return to creatively.
“That was a core thing throughout the whole film: Trying to tap into that difficulty — that kids grow up and it’s sad and it’s beautiful and it’s necessary.”
And what does Elie, now that she’s 16, think of the 11-year-old Pixar character she helped inspire?
“She saw it a couple of months ago,” Docter says, “and she said [plainly]: ‘Good movie, Dad.’ ”
No embellishment. No overexcitement. Just the directness of a high schooler hurtling toward adulthood.
Sounds perhaps like personal inspiration for Pete Docter’s next movie.