Why the first Black lead almost didn’t happen. Exclusive Pixar Soul interview with Jamie Foxx, Director Pete Docter, Co-Director Kemp Powers and Producer Dana Murray on why this animated film release was fate. #PixarSoul
Why Pixar Soul Hits Hard in 2020 | Interview with Jamie Foxx, Pete Docter, Kemp Powers
Just in case you didn’t know, Jamie Foxx and I are now besties.
As with everything in 2020, this was my first ever Zoom interview for a movie. Having no idea what to expect, I curled my hair, put on makeup, and even sprung for the fake lashes – because legend Jamie Foxx and I were going to be “zooming” together, talking about Pixar Soul. I imagined my little screen nestled up right next to his. It was going to be a good day. I felt it in my soul.
I would soon learn that zoom movie interviews meant that my little face would never grace the same screen as Mr. Foxx. On the bright side, I never thought that I would get to ask one question, let alone two during our Pixar Soul interview.
Providence. Fate. Destiny. Coincidence. God. Pandemic. 2020.
No matter what the reason, it’s obvious that Pixar Soul is releasing at just the right time. Stars aligned (did you see that Jupiter/Saturn Christmas star?), and the world anxiously waiting for that piece of new entertainment to really hit home, it’s on our couches, surrounded with the people that we love on Christmas that Pixar Soul chooses their movie release date.
It’s as if Pixar Soul knew it was going to be the movie that we needed – not wanted – but NEEDED in 2020.
So call it what you may, but Disney Pixar’s Soul movie will hit you differently in 2020. And after sitting down with the amazing cast and filmmakers in this exclusive Pixar Soul interview, I truly believe this movie is the sweet note of hope that we all need to end 2020. See why fate brought together Director Pete Docter, Co-Director Kemp Powers, lead actor Jamie Foxx and Producer Dana Murray for THE film of the year, why the first Pixar Black lead character almost didn’t happen, and what Jamie Foxx needs everyone to hear this Christmas.
[Read my full Soul Movie Review for Kids for spoiler free parent thoughts, plus PG breakdown for violence, adult content and language.]
An Emotional Pixar First
Joe Gardner is the first Black lead character in a Pixar film. And as unprecedented as that is, he originally was NOT going to be Black. With 2020 as a backdrop for ‘Black Lives Matter’ and racial injustice, it’s not a coincidence that the main character, a jazz musician from New York City would be anything but Black. But as with any movie conception, Soul wouldn’t be complete without a few rounds of “what if?”
Ironic that in the 34 years of Pixar’s existence, they choose 2020 to release this monumental Pixar film. And our Pixar hero is none other than a strong, passionate, unapologetically Black character. Co-Director Kemp Powers talks about bringing the first Pixar Black lead to life.
“At the very beginning, it was a very personal story of trying to figure [life] out. What are we going through? What’s the world about? What am I supposed to be doing with my life?
[We wanted] to take people on this artist journey of finding a character that we could root for. We played around with an actor or a scientist. But as soon as we found a jazz musician, that felt very selfless. You don’t go into jazz to get rich and famous. You do it because you love it and have a passion for it. When you see somebody play, it’s amazing, like a magic trick. ‘Black improvisational music,’ one of our consultants called jazz that. So we realized that we had to make this character Black. He has to be from that culture that gave us this great American artform.”
Word of the Year | Authenticity
Authenticity, you know it when you see it. But you can also smell it out when it’s missing.
Our souls are craving more authenticity in 2020 – in our relationships, conversations, even our thoughts. We are aching for something real to relate to as we sit quarantined in our homes with the heaviness consuming us. Beyond just the story of Soul, it’s the coming together of the dream cast and crew. It’s the celebration of Black history, culture, and experience and making it real and relatable. It’s the recreation of a historic New York City. It’s the jazz music, a character unto itself that brings so much value to this animated film. Pixar Soul encapsulates the authentic that our souls are longing for.
Being authentic to the Black experience was really important to the creatives behind Soul. From hiring consultants and historians, to the voice talent, to personal experiences of filmmakers, it was the driving force behind creating a world that was purely authentically Black. Kemp Powers explains:
“To be honest, there were a lot of times in making this film where I kept going – can we really do this? Are we gonna be able to say that jazz is Black improvisational music? Is the guy gonna be able to say he can’t catch a cab? No one even batted an eye. It’s part of what makes the texture of this film so rich and honest and sincere.
This is a wonderful opportunity to both do something that my family, my kids, my mom and all my relatives could be proud, but something that everyone could enjoy and just show how the Black American experience and our humanity is as universal as anyone else’s experience.”
You’ve Got a Friend in Jamie
Friendships have been key to survival in 2020. Whether growing, cultivating or even letting go, those relationships have been a foundation for our lives this year. And when choosing Jamie Foxx for the lead of Soul, the filmmakers knew that they needed more than just an actor – but a true friend who connects with you on a soul deep level. Jamie has a life and energy that was so truthful and authentic, even after spending hours at a time creating the voice of Joe Gardner. And Kemp Powers had no trouble backing Jamie and why he was perfect for the role.
“Jamie is known for doing so many different characters with so many different voices. But the thing we loved the most is just Jamie’s natural speaking voice. Because the way he’s talking to you there and them it’s got a warmth to it that feels like he’s really connecting with you. We really leaned on the drama and who [Jamie] is as a real person.”
Finding Joy in the Sorrow
Life, death, sorrow. As if the themes of Pixar Soul wasn’t heavy enough, these themes speak personally to so many in 2020, including lead Jamie Foxx. Currently mourning the loss of his special needs sister, he emotionally states why this movie personally affects him at a much higher level.
“So when you look at Soul, it’s exactly what I am now going through – the bittersweet of losing someone, but gaining a vision of joy of all of the things that my sister taught us while she was living In a beautiful, strange way, it’s exemplified here in this film.”
Thinking Outside the Lines
Abstract thinking. With so many months spent inside the walls of our homes, we are bound to push the boundaries of our minds, even a little. For this 2020 Pixar film, the look of Soul is much more artistic, forward thinking and unique, even by Pixar standards. For an film company always pushing the boundaries of animation, Pixar Soul definitely has it’s own flavor, it’s own “soulful” flavor. And for the visuals department, the animation is a work of art unto itself.
Creating The Great Before and The Great Beyond were visually some of the most challenging work for the Pixar team. But Director Pete Docter explains why the Jerrys, the simple characters made of “lines,” were the most challenging of all.
“It’s not quite two-dimensional. It’s a little bit three-dimensional. But [the Jerrys are some] of the more difficult characters, not only in the film but in our library of characters at Pixar, to make those things come to life.”
Quarantine Hits Differently
Spending so many months locked up with our own thoughts, I’m certain you have wondered how your own life stacks up. The meaning of life theme is not at all new. But in 2020, those quarantine thoughts hit a little closer to home when we’ve been truly “living” out the film sequence. But perhaps quarantine was the best thing to happen to Pixar Soul. Producer Dana Murray expresses how Pixar Soul’s appreciation has changed from conception to release.
“Clearly 4 or 5 years ago when we were developing the idea, we had no idea what 2020 was holding for us. But it does feel very timely. Although our plan was to be out in theaters and travel the world, it does feel like somehow it was meant to be. Now people are going to be able to see Soul on their couches with their families and hopefully reflect on the year a little bit and be able to appreciate the smaller things.”
And for Kemp Powers, maybe the 2020 Christmas release that was meant to be.
“I remember having a conversation with Pete about this where I was like, ‘is this film too earnest?’ Because it seemed like everyone wanted to do films that were hyper edgy and we were trying to do this film that made us feel the way we felt when we saw classic movies, like It’s a Wonderful Life, those movies that really stuck with us.
But it’s amazing the turns that have happened in our world since then. It does feel a lot like fate. This movie was supposed to come out in June initially. And I’ve got to say, it feels like the perfect holiday movie. [It’s] just the thing we want to see on Christmas Day after a very challenging year, 8-9 months into a global pandemic.”
The Message Is Much, Much Deeper
“Christie Cronan is going to get the last question.”
Whew. No pressure. I had no idea that I would get the opportunity to sit before this panel of talented filmmakers and get to close out the Pixar Soul interview session. But with all zoom ears on me, I knew I had to hit home – for kids, for families, for the future generations who would embrace Soul as “their” movie, the movie that helped folks relate, survive and hope through a pandemic. So what message did Kemp Powers want the audience to take home (literally and figuratively)?
“We always see films about pursuing your dream. But I really love the fact that this film shows people that all lives have merit. It’s this idea that you don’t have to have it all figured out. We have a society that from the time we’re very young, we’re taught ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ You’re gonna be this. You’re gonna be that. You definitely have to do this.
But one of my favorite characters in the film is Dez the barber, because he’s a guy that is a master at his craft. He’s a master barber to the point where Joe was like ‘obviously, he always wanted to do this.’ And he’s like, ‘nah man. I wanted to be a vet, but I’m pretty happy with where I landed. I found other dreams. I found other things that allowed me to find fulfillment.’
And I think that just the idea that everyone sitting in that audience should be able to see their lives represented up there in the screen, that’s something that I really hope for. People don’t have more valuable lives based on how famous or how rich they are. All lives are valuable.”
How much is a life worth? Pete Docter adds on:
“A lot of us grew up with this idea that we need to earn our way into being worthy. One of the aims of the movie is to say that just by being alive, we are valued. We are already enough. We all deserve to enjoy what life has to offer. All you have to do is open your eyes and look around.”
A Pixar Soul Interview That’s Goes Beyond The Great Beyond
“It’s such an incredibly weird time that we’re going through. Something good really, REALLY needs to happen.” Jamie Foxx couldn’t have said it better. I think we’re all holding our breath, hoping for something really good to come out of 2020 and carry us into the next year. And I think this is it.
Pixar Soul is the gift that we didn’t know that we needed this Christmas. Whether it’s fate, a God thing or however you want to believe Pixar Soul got here, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a movie about life, death, and soul searching answers is coming home in 2020. While much more adult in it’s roots (read my Soul Movie Review | Safe for Kids? for full thoughts and PG rating breakdown), Pixar has grown up a little this pandemic too. If you take away nothing from this interview, I leave these closing thoughts from Jamie Foxx – words that he wants everyone to hear.
“The world has been here however many billions of years. So 70, 80,100 years is what? It’s a blink of an eye. So I say to everybody, don’t waste your blink. Live your life.”
Disney and Pixar’s Soul | Official Trailer 2 | Disney+
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Pixar Soul is a gift, streaming on Disney+ Christmas Day, Friday December 25, 2020.
I was invited to take part of this Disney Pixar press event in exchange for this Pixar Soul Interview. All photos courtesy of Disney. Be sure to follow Raising Whasians via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and YouTube for more movie updates, celebrity interviews, entertainment and behind-the-scenes info!
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