‘Soul’ Producer Murray Reflects on Cannes-Selected Animated Feature

Gregg Goldstein

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After her Oscar nomination for producing the 2017 animated short “Lou,” Dana Murray is making her feature producing debut with “Soul,” the third Disney/Pixar film from director Pete Docter to be named as a Cannes Official Selection. Jamie Foxx voices the role of a middle-school band teacher who is transported to the Great Before, a place where souls (including 22, voiced by Tina Fey) are developed before they go to Earth. It’s one of the few Cannes films with a Black cast (Phylicia Rashad, Questlove, Daveed Diggs, Angela Bassett) and co-director/co-writer (Kemp Powers, who shares writing credit with Variety alum Mike Jones). Murray talked to us about the film, internal Pixar “culture tests” and how things have changed since Pixar co-founder John Lasseter’s departure in late 2018. — Gregg Goldstein

What can people expect from “Soul?”

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Pete Docter makes films that go emotionally deep. People will walk away really thinking about their lives. We get so wrapped up in our to-do lists. [It’s about] appreciating the smaller things, a theme most people can relate to now that we’ve been sheltering in place. Just enjoying a piece of pizza on the street with friends — small things that feel like the biggest deal right now.

There are two worlds in the film: New York City, which John Batise composed the jazz music for, and the Soul world, where Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross composed music. It’s beautiful how the two [scores] come together in certain scenes.

The film’s release date was bumped back to Nov. 20 …

We’re hoping that we get to keep that date, but we’re obviously keeping a close eye on whether there’s a resurgence of [COVID-19].

How did your career begin at Pixar?

I started almost 19 years ago in 2001 as the “Finding Nemo” desk PA. Back then, even if you had one job title, you were probably doing 12 different jobs. It was a great time of opportunity. I spent a couple years in what we used to call the shorts department, which did the theatrical shorts and all the DVD and theme park content and commercials, After that, I was art manager on “Brave.” The first film that I worked with Pete was “Up,”where I was kind of managing our camera and staging department. And then I was the production manager on “Inside Out.”

You were nominated for an animated short film Oscar for producing 2017’s “Lou,” about a lost-and-found box. How did you jump to “Soul?”

After “Inside Out,” Pete was doing a lot of self-reflection and came up with this idea. That was back in 2015, and we started working on it in 2016. Usually our films take five years and we did this one in four. The story developed quickly, so they kind of pushed us forward.

You said in a video interview that making it was a painful journey at times …

Early on, it’s painful to just pick a lane at moments. Our process at Pixar is to put something together that we’ve worked so hard on. Then we all get in a room, tear it apart and rebuild it. It’s painful because it feels like every week you’re rewriting a
new story.

How did Kemp Powers come aboard?

Two years ago, we read one of Kemp’s plays and immediately were intrigued. There’s so much of Kemp that’s like Joe Gardner (Foxx) . He’s the same age, from New York, grew up in the same time, loves jazz. We needed someone to really focus on character.

This may be the first Pixar film to have a Black co-director.

Yeah, I think it is. When we brought Kemp on to write, there was never a plan for him to be a co-director. But with how much he was contributing to the story and characters, he quickly became such a partner. We wanted to make sure we were being truthful and authentic with our African-American cast, and he played a huge part in that. We had a lot of consultants and an internal culture test …

What is an internal culture test?

It’s [done with] employees at Pixar who are African American. We pulled them together to be a part of our process. They were helping us with the characters and their stories, just making sure that they were authentic.

Was there an effort from the beginning to make a film that had more of a focus on Black characters?

When we decided that our main character was a jazz musician, as soon as you start looking into the history of jazz, it just made sense that Joe was African American. So it was a decision made by the story we were telling.

Given all the Black Lives Matter protests around the world in the past few weeks, does anything in the film speak to that?

We’re definitely not trying to tell a story about someone’s experience of being Black, but we wanted to make sure that we were telling a great story about character who is Black. So we hope that it’s a love story, not only to the African-American community, but to New York City. I wish it was coming out on the original release date, June 19 [Juneteenth, the unofficial holiday celebrating the end of slavery], but I’m hoping the country will be ready for it [when it does].

This is one of the first films to come out since Pixar co-founder John Lasseter left the company in late 2018 after what he called “missteps,” including hugs that made some employees uncomfortable. How has the climate for women there changed since then?

We’re trying to make a lot of changes. It’s always been a place where I felt super safe, but we’re just being more conscious about how we do things. As we’re making decisions about casting and storytelling, we’ve put processes in place to make sure it’s 50/50, female-to-male. We’re tracking those things, where before we maybe weren’t.

Given what’s happened with the coronavirus, what are your thoughts on the future of theatrical exhibition?

Doing a theatrical release is so important, not only for all of the theaters who count on us, but also the restaurants, bars and businesses that count on people going out with their families. So I really would like to [see this] in theaters.

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