‘Soul’ Creators On Passion, Purpose And Realizing You’re ‘Enough’

by Terry Gross

The Oscar-nominated movie Soul tackles passion, purpose and the meaning of life — topics that aren’t usually addressed in animated films. 

The movie centers on Joe, a middle school band teacher who feels unfulfilled because his ambition is to be a full-time jazz musician. On the day he lands the biggest gig of his career, Joe nearly dies — but then gets the chance to return to his body if he can figure out the purpose of his life. 

Pete Docter, who co-wrote and co-directed the film with Kemp Powers, says the film was inspired by the emotional turbulence he experienced after writing and directing Inside Out.

“Having … so much success in [that] film, I found myself wondering: Why don’t I feel like my life is all wrapped up and solved in a nice bow? Why didn’t it fix everything?” Docter says.

Soul has generated success of its own. The film won the Golden Globe award for best animated picture, and is nominated for three Academy Awards. But Powers, who’s also up for an Oscar for his adapted screenplay for One Night in Miami, says Soul is actually meant to challenge conventional notions of success and failure. 

“We were trying to help not just Joe, but the entire audience, understand that it’s not about winners or losers and that everyone’s life has value,” Powers says. “That was really a powerful driving force from the very beginning.”

Docter says the film’s message is that life has meaning that goes beyond personal ambition. 

“The movie’s aim is really to say that we’re already enough,” he says. “We all can walk out of the door and enjoy life without needing to accomplish or prove anything. And that’s really freeing.” 

Interview highlights 

On Pixar approaching Powers to work on the film

Powers: It is pretty funny, because obviously when I got the call from my agent that Pixar was interested, they were looking for a writer to help them with a project … the first thing my brain said was, “Hmm, I’m guessing the story must have Black people in it.” I know that that can sound cynical, but look, that’s just the reality of this business, this industry. … It wasn’t very long ago — and when I say not very long ago, I’m talking just, like, three or four years ago — where it was very possible, if you happened to be white, to create and tell a story about anything you wanted to. And no one would so much as push you to even consult with people from that community, let alone invite them in and be partners.

So while it’s easy to kind of take the cynical road, I saw it more as a really interesting opportunity, because when I flew up to Pixar and I sat down and I saw the nuggets of what would become Soul, I really fell in love with the story that Pete was trying to tell. And it was a story that felt like it was about me, and it was a story that really wasn’t about race. That was one of the things that really, really excited me about this. … I tell people, yes, Soul is a film [where] the majority of the characters are Black, but it’s not a “Black” film. We’re trying to tell this universal story through the specific prism of a Black man. And I think that was a really bold choice that I was relishing an opportunity to try to execute.

On Powers’ feedback to an early reel of Soul

Powers: In the early reels, [Joe] seemed like the least interesting person in the film. … Part of it was, I think, because there had been such extreme caution and such a fear of doing things that might offend someone or upset someone, that instead there really hadn’t been much done [on the character]. I didn’t know anything about the guy. I didn’t really know anything about his family. It seemed like Joe was just a very, very lonely man who didn’t know anyone and had no friends. And so that just meant that his life had to be filled in. And, of course, it’s just the nature of being at Pixar, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a director or a designer or an artist, you use your life as fuel. So it was very easy for me [to] say, “Oh, he’s supposed to be a 45-year-old Black man from New York. What a coincidence! That’s what I am!” [And then] to start filling in a lot of those gaps with my own personal experiences.

At different points in our lives and careers, we’ve all been … ‘lost souls,’ based on our definition of it. Because when you find something you enjoy and you’re passionate about and you actually are pretty good at it, it is so easy to take the extra step of hiding behind that thing and using it to not deal with so many other elements of life.

Kemp Powers

On researching depictions and beliefs about the soul for the film 

Docter: I talked to priests and rabbis and experts in Islam, Hinduism, as many of the main religions as we could find, to just see how these different traditions look at the soul and the afterlife and the world beyond our bodily forms. What we found was that most of them have a lot to say about what happens after we die — but very few talk about what happened before. So that meant we were kind of free to make stuff up, which is my favorite place to be. …

If you ask, “What is the soul?” most of them talk about the soul being ethereal, vaporous, non-physical, invisible. We wanted to hint at all that in our design — not only of the souls themselves, but the world they inhabit. And actually, interestingly, the first draft of the film … was a version entirely set in the “Great Before” [a fantastical place where new souls exist before they go to Earth]. There is no Earth-based stuff. It was all about observing life just through these memories and these visualizations of the world, trying to talk this other soul into going [to Earth]. But the more we developed it, the more we realized, if we’re going to talk about what makes life worth living, we’ve got to go interact with it. We got to get our hands dirty — smell, taste, touch, all those things that a soul can’t do.

On depicting “lost souls” in the film

Powers: Something that we discussed when making this film was that at different points in our lives and careers, we’ve all been … “lost souls,” based on our definition of it. Because when you find something you enjoy and you’re passionate about and you actually are pretty good at it, it is so easy to take the extra step of hiding behind that thing and using it to not deal with so many other elements of life. That’s why it was so important that when we introduced the idea of the lost soul — that someone could be lost — but then they could be found. … I’ve definitely found myself, based on our own definition of it, [as] a bit of a lost soul, someone who — to avoid facing all different elements of life — just [loses] myself in my work. 

On screening Soul for kids

Docter: On Soul, we got started to get worried, like, is this too much? Are kids going to be able to track this? So we brought in an audience full of kids. It was probably the second scariest screening, because they’re quiet. Kids are quiet. They don’t laugh a lot. So you’re like, “Oh, we’re dying! We’re dying!” But we found over the years, like especially the first time they watch something, they’re typically just sucking it all up and taking it in. … But afterwards we ask them questions like, “Did you understand this?” And what seems to happen again [and] again is the parents will say, “This film was too complicated for kids. This is not appropriate for kids.” And then the kid sitting right next to them will sit and explain the entire movie better than I could. They get everything. They’re very smart. 

Heidi Saman and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.