The director of the Pixar film tipped to win the best animation Oscar on the emotions that didn’t make the cut – including Schadenfreude clad in lederhosen By Peter Bradshaw
Frozen might be a tweenie merchandising industry, but Pete Docter’s Inside Out is the film with a grip on adults and children all over the world. It’s the animated story of a lonely kid called Riley in whose head argue five personified emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust.
After watching Inside Out, it’s just impossible to walk around without imagining how your own five emotions are talking among themselves, as they see what you’re seeing on their widescreen monitor. It’s a film that’s getting to be part of the culture. And its director, Pete Docter, is getting to be a serial award winner, poised to win his second Oscar on Sunday (he won his first for Up).
I meet him the night after his Bafta triumph: a tall, geeky, bespectacled man in jeans with unbuttoned shirt over a T-shirt, charming and easygoing, more like an IT guy than a creative genius. His statuette was in front of him for me to marvel at and fondle. (It is heavy, as per all the acceptance speeches, and there is a weird atomic symbol on the reverse of the mask. He asked me what it meant and I was quite unable to help.) So, as a veteran winner, was the Bafta evening routine for him?
“Shaking and nervous is pretty much the routine!” he laughs. “Last night was not routine at all. It was just wild! Your brain goes BREEEEEP!”
And how about those emotions – a very sunny alternative to Freud’s id, ego and superego or the seven deadly sins? “There’s no real scientific consensus as to how many emotions there are,” he replies, thoughtfully. “Some of the guys we spoke to were Paul Ekman [an eminent academic expert on human emotion and its relationship to Darwinian evolution] and Dacher Keltner [founder of an institution called The Greater Good Science Center], out of Berkeley.
And is there a philosophical or even a religious dimension to Inside Out? An important message that we are not just collections of molecules ricocheting around, but that someone is in charge?
“Well, it goes to religious or pseudo-philosophical questions,” says Docter. “What is the self? It’s very deep. Kind of beyond where we wanted to go!” He laughs amiably. “We wanted to preserve the idea of a kid with autonomous free will. We played with the idea of a character who was Logic but we wanted to make sure that Riley was not a robot.”
Inside Out is about the trauma of childhood, while Docter’s debut – 2009’s Up – focuses on the melancholy of extreme old age, with its legendary montage showing what it is like for an old person to lose their life partner. It is impossible to watch without crying. What inspired it?
Docter replies: “There was a guy that I got to know pretty well – Joe Grant. He was one of the creators of Dumbo and worked side-by-side with Disney. Being a total Disney nerd, I was obsessed with asking him questions. He was 92 when I got to know him. And his wife had died seven or eight years prior to that so I never knew her.” (This is Grant’s wife Jenny, who died in 1992.) “He had obviously had moved on, but never quite got past the loss of his wife. And he talked about her quite a bit. She was clearly the love of his life. And there was something beautiful about.
What was the animation that inspired him as a kid? Another laugh, even louder. “I wish I could say something like Dumbo, but actually it was The Rescuers! [a lesser-known Disney from 1977]. It’s not a very good movie. But the animator Milt Kahl did such superb work on characters like Madame Medusa – beautiful fluid animation just dripping with personality.”
And how about the future? A sequel to Inside Out? Or maybe, like his Pixar colleague Brad Bird, a shift to live-action film-making?
“We’ve talked about a sequel but we haven’t come up with anything yet that I feel would merit it,” he says, calmly. “I‘ve definitely thought about live action. But at this point I’m still pretty fascinated by what animation can do and that process and working method. I kind of feel like … I have a slower instinct than most live-action directors but I have more patience. It’s like making a movie in slow motion. You can make these decisions over a day rather than 15 minutes.”
Well, I certainly can’t imagine this laid-back man rushing anything. Not rushing has delivered some wonderful films.