Those following the film industry may know Mike Jones from his tenures at IndieWire, Variety, and other publications. But a career shift took Jones into the screenwriting world, and a partnership with Pixar Animation Studios eventually led to his co-writing credit on the studio’s upcoming critically acclaimed masterpiece Soul.
Soul, featuring the vocal talents of Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey, tells the story of Joe Gardener, a middle school band teacher whose life takes a detour into the world of the Great Before. As with the best Disney/Pixar films, Soul tackles such lofty topics as the origin of personalities and what are we really here on Earth to do? And also as with the best Disney/Pixar films, it engages adults while remaining wholly entertaining for younger audiences.
Here, screenwriter Mike Jones talks to Awards Daily about working in Pixar’s intensely creative environment, about bringing diverse perspectives into Pixar’s first predominantly Black film, and about working with stars Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey.
Soul drops Christmas Day on Disney Plus.
Awards Daily: Let’s start with being a member of the Pixar creative team. What’s that experience like for you?
Mike Jones: Before I even got to Pixar, I would jump from studio to studio just looking for work and getting the occasional job or assignment or selling some pitch or something. When Pixar called, I ended up working on The Little Dinosaur for a little bit. Then, I just jumped around from director to director, and they would tell me the seed of their idea. I felt like my job was then to put that idea into a framework so they can start seeing it as a movie, whether it was a short film for a short film director or a feature. Then, I started to get invited to the brain trusts after screenings. I ended up really jelling with their extremely collaborative nature. It really worked out for me because I was never really precious with my writing. Precious maybe with what I wanted to say, but how I wanted to say it – there’s always a better way. That comes from a bit of my journalism background. I really couldn’t be pressured spending extensive time on the stories I wrote because the senior editorial staff would cut them up and make them read better. You just couldn’t be precious about your work there, so I feel like some of that discipline came with me into Pixar.
But when I find a director that I really feel like we can work together, then I will kind of embed myself on that project like any other screenwriter would. Then the studio often asks me, ‘Can you take a day and meet with this filmmaker? Or can you take a day and see these reels?’ So, I’m much more involved in a lot of the other creative aspects of the studio than others other screenwriters that are there just for that particular job.
AD: You’ve worked on live action films before where screenplays are often very malleable, but I can imagine it would be much more difficult in an animated film. How does the script evolve over time with a project like Soul?
MJ: Well, it depends on the stage. Early on, when I first met with Pete, the only thing he had was an idea that he wanted to set a movie in a place beyond space and time where souls are given their personality. That came from the idea that, when his son was born, his son seemed to be born automatically with his personality. He wondered where that came from, and I thought that was a great idea. But a setting doesn’t make a story, which he knows. So, he was looking for somebody just to bounce ideas off of within a room. Pixar and I are mostly interested in characters making the wrong or right decision based on who they are as characters. So my job at that point was to really try to find how we can tell Pete’s story between two characters who maybe have different goals, kind of your typical buddy movie formula.
We quickly came across this idea of a story about a soul who doesn’t want to die meeting a soul that doesn’t want to live. Through the course of the movie, they end up inspiring each other and learning what it means to live a fulfilled life. Once we had that, that kind of became our North Star. In the early versions of this, Joe wasn’t a jazz musician. I think the very first version, he was an actor, and he had gotten his big break on Broadway. He was going to play Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, and we thought that was just so clever but we just didn’t feel it. As soon as we came up with the idea that he should be a jazz musician, the idea of wrapping jazz and the improvisational nature of jazz was just so electric that we decided to make him a jazz musician. And let’s make him a middle school band teacher who aspires to something greater. That naturally led to the idea that he should be a middle-aged Black man, and that’s when we brought Kemp Powers in.
AD: Talk to me about bringing Kemp Powers in and what he brought to the film to heighten the Black perspective.
MJ: Well, we wanted him to really help us define who that character is, where he lives, what he loves, what his family is, where he goes when he’s not teaching kids, what he listens to. What about him being a Black man shapes who he is. So, the fact that Joe is a Black man in Queens, New York, we wanted to get that absolutely right. We brought Kemp on. He had two scripts: one was really funny and kind of an unproduced pilot that he wrote and then we read One Night in Miami, which we just loved. So, what Kemp brought to the project was essentially the sense that there is not one monolithic way of creating a Black character. Because he proved so incredibly valuable, it was a such a natural decision to make him co-director.
AD: You also have two great comic talents in Tina Fey and Jamie Foxx. How did they help shape the screenplay from their perspectives?
MJ: Well, whenever you get Tina in the room to record, it’s quite natural that she’s going to go off script and add stuff and make it better. We wanted Tina and Jamie to be able to find their way into their characters through their own process. Because Tina comes from a writing as well as a comedy background, she also did help contribute to writing some of the dialogue for her character. It was always great, and it was sometimes hard to cut because all of it was so funny. She was absolutely involved in giving that sense of a character who feels like they know it all, but really doesn’t. A character who feels like, ‘I know everything about Earth, and that’s exactly why I’m not going.’ Then, you realize she knows nothing about Earth. She has never tasted pizza. She has never ever felt the wind on her face. We also needed an actor to be able to make that transition from that kind of know-it-all snark to being driven to come to Earth because she’s blown away by it. I thought she did an incredible job.
AD: How do you write something like Soul that deals with so many inherent concepts that I think adults would struggle with but keep it tuned to a younger audience?
MJ: The first layer of defense on that is really Pete Docter himself. He’s a lover of cartoons and a student of animation. He is naturally going to make something childlike and funny and wonderful and innocent. With a concept like Soul, we knew early on that we were dealing with pretty heavy topics. I wouldn’t say that we let it get bogged down, or we let that the fact that kids are going to watch this alter the writing at all. With Inside Out and with Soul, we ended up showing the movie to a roomful of kids. With Inside Out, they were kind of worried that maybe the kids just wouldn’t get this and the kids got it completely. Then, the same thing happened when we showed Soul to them. Afterwards, we got up on stage, and we just started to ask a bunch of questions. They just recited the movie right back to us. They got it, and they might get it on a different level. Mostly, they followed it, and I think I love that. Because when that kid comes back to Soul in 5 years or 10 years or 15 years, then what I hope is that new layers are revealed to them as they bring their own experiences to it. I think all of the great Pixar films are able to do that. That’s why they have such longevity.