Pete Docter previews Pixar's future: “Inside Out” Disney+ series, more “Monsters, Inc.”, and more

Pete Docter previews Pixar's future: “Inside Out” Disney+ series, more “Monsters, Inc.”, and more

The chief creative officer also clarifies original storytelling is still very much a priority, even as the studio scopes out sequels.

There's been a lot of talk about Pixar lately, specifically about what the future of this storied animation house will look like in the years ahead. In light of recent box-office slumps — namely around 2020's Soul, 2021's Luca, 2022's Turning Red, and 2022's Lightyear — the powers that be, including chief creative officer Pete Docter, addressed possible pain points that contributed to the low receptions. Interviews given to Bloomberg gave the impression that Pixar would be shifting more readily to sequels and reboots over original storytelling, which didn't sit too well with many fans.

Sitting down with Entertainment Weekly at Disney's New York City offices in Times Square, Docter feels elated about Pixar's future. He emphasizes that original storytelling will still be very much a part of the studio's DNA, with two non-sequels on the upcoming movie slate — one being Elio, the other an unannounced title.

"I feel like we're in a really golden place where, after a lot of turmoil, every project we have is exciting to me for multiple reasons — both from new looks and technology, but more importantly, original stories and storytellers," Docter tells EW. "I've been at Pixar for 33 years," he adds, "and I don't think we've ever been in a period of more turmoil and uncertainty than right now, which is kind of exciting. I know that's weird maybe to say."

With Inside Out 2 in theaters this weekend, Docter elaborates more on Pixar's current direction while previewing what's coming down the pipe.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did it take a lot of trust to pass off your baby Inside Out to another filmmaker after directing the first one?

PETE DOCTER: I never had worries because we're a very collaborative studio, and Kelsey Mann, who directed the film, was very collaborative. From the beginning, it was clear he wanted this to be authentic to the first film. First thing we actually did was to watch the whole film on half volume and talk through it: “This is a setup for that,” “The original design for the memories used to be jars.” We did all sorts of deep dives, and then I was along for the ride. He and his team did the lion's share of the work, obviously, but he was great about looping me in.

I love that you mentioned the jars. Are there other tidbits that ended up actually making it into the sequel? 

We had played a little bit with the Stream of Consciousness in the first one. We didn't put it in because it felt similar to the Train of Thought, both as a device of conveyance and also just conceptually. So, obviously, that's now in the sequel. It's funny, we played with one of the emotions being Schadenfreude, the joy in other people's pain. I think the gag was that Fear got hit in the head, and then Schadenfreude comes in and goes, "Your cries of pain amuse me." Of course, he has a German accent. I don’t know why it didn't really work for that movie, and we tried it again for this movie and it didn't really fit with Riley growing up and the social anxiety and all that.

<p>PIXAR</p> The Emotions in Riley's Mind from 'Inside Out 2'


The Emotions in Riley's Mind from 'Inside Out 2'

Related: Pixar boss responds to fan campaign to cast Ratatouille superfan Josh O'Connor in live-action film: 'It would be tough'

When did Inside Out feel like it had a lot more material to do a sequel? I’m sure box office played into it, too.

Even as we were working on it, I was like, "Boy, there's enough to make another movie here." But my thought was, "Let's just really wrap it up nicely in a bow and give it to the audiences." It wasn't until, I guess, fall of '19 early '20 that there had been enough other people talking about it. It still felt like it was a part of the zeitgeist. We said at the beginning, if there's nothing there that we all think has a deeper resonance, we won't do it. But when Kelsey came back with Anxiety as a character and a plot line, all of us were like, "That was a huge part of my junior high existence. I think there's something there." We could personalize it in a way that allows people to have an ability to talk about that vague feeling of nerves and tension.

I did see the announcement of an Inside Out Disney+ series. Is that something you can talk about? 

We have finished. It's coming out next spring. I'm not sure that there's been a specific release date, but in the first film, remember we go to Dream Production to see how Riley's dreams are made? It semi-explains why they're so weird. We've continued the exploration of the power of dreams and how they affect us in our waking life, as well. So it's pretty cool.

What is your thought process about what gets a TV show for streaming versus a theatrical release?

It's kind of like the Wild West. Everybody's trying to go, "How does this work now?" The world's changed. What do we do? What do people like? Streaming was a little bit of a searching around for ways to reach our audience. Early on, this was right before COVID hit, was when they announced Disney+. Bob Iger [Disney CEO] and Alan Bergman [Disney co-chairman] asked us to do some stuff specifically for the service, but that was really before anyone had an understanding of the economics of how it all works. How much can you spend on a show, and how do you even track what it made? A box office is super easy. Three people came in, I know I can count the money exactly. With streaming, depending on how you divide it up, do you get more money to do something that's new or that attracts new viewers? It's very squirrely.

Disney/Pixar Ember (Leah Lewis) and Wade (Mamoudou Athie) of 'Elemental'
Disney/Pixar Ember (Leah Lewis) and Wade (Mamoudou Athie) of 'Elemental'

Related: Welcome to the Belief System, a core part of Riley's mind in Inside Out 2

I’m glad you brought up box office because there was a lot of talk when Elemental was released in theaters. What do you define for Pixar as a success versus a failure? To me, Elemental was a success because it made money over time.

I think it's defined as a success for Disney now, too, but the first few weeks, because we were playing by the rule book of five, 10 years ago, we were like, "This is a disaster open to so small a number." Everybody reported it that way. Even now, we're kind of scratching our heads: Did we market it wrong? Did people not see it as something they were interested in? It feels to me like it was word of mouth, so it had a slow build. Maybe that's the way movies go now. I don't know. It's also such a tricky thing with… what do they call it when it comes out in theaters and then it comes out on streaming? We were looking at other movies on Netflix and stuff. Again, it's the Wild West. Everybody's trying to figure out: How do we make money?

I do wonder if it’s because people are just waiting for it to come out on streaming. Is that something you are thinking about?

That's been my theory. We've definitely thought COVID inadvertently taught people to wait a few months, and it'll be on streaming. I think it has kind of shot us in the leg a little bit in terms of theatrical, and we are trying to tease that apart. I think this film [Inside Out 2] is not coming out on streaming until it's like a hundred days later, so hopefully people are like, "I got to check it out. I got to go to the movies."

I want to ask you, too, about the Bloomberg article that came out recently. My takeaway was that fans were a little anxious about prioritizing sequels over original storytelling. What do you want to impart to fans about the current state of Pixar? 

One thing that I think was maybe slightly misinterpreted was the idea that we have to deliver more of what people know and maybe lean away from the personal. All of that's true to some degree, but I think what we're always trying to do is find what are the universal things that everybody believes, both in terms of concepts and in terms of life experience. So, for example, I thought [as a kid] my toys came to life. I thought there were monsters that lived in the closet. We're looking for those kinds of big, universal things that people go, "I already know that it's an original idea, but it's a concept that I had, too." So it's kind of a sequel in that way. You know what I mean? There's a limited number of those, so they each have to be done in a very unique way through a specific lens. We want to hold onto that, but we want to make sure that they speak widely.

Are all of the projects that you've announced so far, like Elio and Toy Story 5, still in development?

Yeah. We have two originals coming out next. We have two original films coming out, and then Toy Story, and then some more original. We still have a little bit of work to do to get to the balance that was talked about in the Bloomberg article one to one, which is exciting. We can talk again in a couple of years. We have a lot of stuff that is in the works now that I'm pretty excited about.

So, original storytelling is still very much a priority?

Absolutely. Even in sequels, the worry is that you're going to end up just repeating either plot lines or themes that we've dealt with before. We had early versions of Inside Out 2 where they're going after the core memories again, and we gotta shake this up. So we made a lot of decisions based on the desire not to repeat ourselves.

'Monsters, Inc.'
'Monsters, Inc.'

Related: Disney, Pixar shut out of major animation awards Best Feature category for first time

Do you think about which stories you feel, for lack of a better term, deserve to be franchised?

I always thought there was some rule that would be the formula for what films become franchises or what gets sequels, and there isn't. It’s much looser, but obviously, it's based on all of the above. We have to find something we think is worthy, first and foremost. It should be something hopefully the audience responded to — and then we could still not find anything. We've been searching for ideas for a Monsters, Inc. sequel for a long time, and we haven't seen enough to start working on anything there yet.

Your most successful films to date have been installments of The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Toy Story, Inside Out, Up, and Monsters, Inc. Are those six properties ones you're actively looking to revisit?

We're looking at everything, but we haven't really made any small list of films like that.

We're currently in a superhero era. What are your thoughts about the potential for Incredibles as a Disney+ series?

Clearly, that's a super entertaining world. [Director] Brad Bird and [Pixar's former chief creative officer] John Lasseter really brought some great stuff that was original to that genre of family on the mundanity of having dinner, carpooling to school, or whatever, and superheroes. That feels like it definitely has more to play with.

Finding Nemo is another one that keeps coming up. In the same way that you're still exploring treatments for Monsters, Inc., are you exploring options for Finding Nemo?

For sure. It's open, as are a lot of other movies. The ocean's a big place. There are a lot of different areas and zones that feel like they're open for exploration. However, the deeper question that we're trying to be better at regulating ourselves is: what is this movie about? The deeper problem of Nemo was, as a parent, how do I raise my kid and allow them to live life and keep them safe at the same time? Which is this unanswerable conundrum that there is no answer to. We're kind of looking for those big life things, and unless we find something like that, we could put in all the spectacle and new, cool stuff as we want, but, as the guy who wrote Dumbo told me, "What are you giving the audience to take home?"

What kind of story would you say Elio is adding to the roster of stories Pixar has told? 

Everyone has sat under the night sky and thought, Are we alone? Are we the only intelligent life in the universe? So it’s tickling that, and then thematically, it also talks about something that's very central to our own experience in the same way of, Am I the only one going through this? It feels that one, from the beginning, has proven to check all those boxes of something that is a universal concept in terms of the overall conceit and deeper theme. Obviously, it slipped behind Inside Out 2 for a lot of different reasons, but I think it's in a good place.

Disney/Pixar 'Toy Story 4'
Disney/Pixar 'Toy Story 4'

Related: Disney is finally giving 3 streaming-only Pixar movies a theatrical release

What excites you most about Pixar's future slate?

I feel like we're in a really golden place where, after a lot of turmoil, every project we have is exciting to me for multiple reasons — both from new looks and technology, but more importantly, original stories and storytellers. It's a very exciting place to be, but we're trying to hold back some of the surprises for the future. I've been at Pixar for 33 years, and I don't think we've ever been in a period of more turmoil and uncertainty than right now, which is kind of exciting. I know that's weird maybe to say. On one level, it would be nice to know that if we consistently deliver good films to theaters, then we can stay in business. I don't think even that's guaranteed right now. There's just so much new stuff out there. The streaming is kind of… There are so many choices. Budgets are all over the place, so it's a definite period of change, which I personally find exciting.

Focusing on more diverse voices in filmmaking has been a priority for you for a long time. Would you say that it’s still a priority? 

Absolutely. I have a great slide of the directors from seven years ago versus the directors now, and it's a whole wide group of filmmakers. Regardless of diversity, any time someone goes in for the first time, there's a steep learning curve. Domee Shi, who's already done Turning Red, is working on Elio, and you can see the experience level. Enrico Casarosa, who did Luca, is doing another one that's just night and day.

With Toy Story 5 announced, did you ever speak with Tim Allen about the whole Lightyear situation?

I haven't personally. I know Jonas Rivera, the producer, talked with him about the intention of Lightyear, the movie being separate and different. He's still the voice of Buzz Lightyear, the toy that we all know and love from the film. I think that's been straightened out.

Read the original article on Entertainment Weekly.