Remember 25 years ago when Pixar Animation Studios was making movies about talking toys and busy bugs?
Since then, far more complex ideas have found their way into the scripts. For example, harvesting energy by accessing interdimensional portals (Monster’s Inc.) and neurophysiological moods and the functioning of the brain (Inside Out).
Sure, those descriptions might be a bit misleading since the more recent films still featured fun characters like an eight-legged chameleon with bad intentions and a superficial green sassypants who loathes broccoli. Even so, Pixar was beginning to realize that its groundbreaking animation went hand in hand with smart — and sometimes profound — screenwriting.
San Antonio native Mike Jones is now part of that team of conceptual thinkers at Pixar.
Alongside two-time Oscar winner Pete Docter (Inside Out) and Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami), Jones co-wrote the script for Pixar’s newest film, Soul. The story follows middle school music teacher and jazz pianist Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) who’s separated from his soul after a serious accident. Stuck in an otherworldly location known as the You Seminar, where souls are developed before being assigned to newborn babies, Joe’s soul is focused on finding a way to get back to his body with the help of a rambunctious fellow soul (voiced by Tina Fey) who has no desire to join the human world.
Born in San Antonio, Jones attended Alamo Heights High School. After graduating in 1990, he said he had no idea what he wanted to pursue as a career.
“I was this skinny, awkward teenager who liked books,” Jones told the Current during an early December interview. “Becoming a filmmaker was really not on the menu for me.”
Jones went to UTSA for a semester and then transferred to the University of North Texas in Denton. There, he ended up running with a group of friends who were always talking about foreign and independent movies. Jones had been to the Bijou Theatre — then Crossroads — as a teenager. He recalls seeing Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing there.
He also remembers that his early film education came from his father who was the first to show him classics such as The Godfather. Still, his college friends were big movie geeks, so he had to find a way to keep up.
“They had seen all this incredible stuff already,” Jones said. “So, I started to watch everything they were watching. Then, I decided we should all apply to film school. I didn’t know that was a real possibility.”
The group submitted their applications — some to the University of Southern California and some to New York University — but only Jones was accepted. He refers to his NYU acceptance letter as his “Golden Ticket,” a la Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.
“It was this wonderful passport out of Texas,” Jones said. “I love Texas. I have family in all parts of the state. But I wanted to see other parts of the country and the world. I felt this calling.”
That calling drove him to graduate from NYU, where he originally planned to become a cinematographer. With encouragement from one of his professors, though, Jones slowly transitioned to writing. He’s worked as a member of Pixar’s senior creative team for the films Coco, Incredibles 2 and Toy Story 4. Soul is his first screenplay for the studio.
His second film for Pixar, Luca, which he co-wrote with Jesse Andrews (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), is scheduled to hit theaters next June. Set on the Italian Riviera, the coming-of-age comedy tells the story of a friendship between two young boys — one of them disguised as a sea monster.
During our interview, Jones talked about the deep inspiration behind a story like Soul and how spending time with his father during his final days helped him build on that narrative.
He also explained why he considers Soul a movie that will stand the test of time. Soul is currently streaming on Disney+.
Soul is such a beautiful piece of work. To call it an ambitious film, I think, is an understatement. I can only imagine you, Pete and Kemp brainstorming ideas for this film when someone says, “Hey, how about if we write a movie that explains the meaning of life?”
(Laughs.) Yeah, it really does start with just an idea. Pete had this idea that there was this place beyond space and time where souls are given their personality. When my son was born, he seemed to have come out with a personality already. I kept thinking, “Where is that place?” At Pixar, we might be able to find a great setting, but that doesn’t make a movie. The thing that makes a movie are characters. Our mandate is to always have the characters drive the story. So, we came up with this idea about a soul who doesn’t want to die meeting a soul that doesn’t want to live. In their interaction, they are able to convince each other of what it means to live a fulfilled life.
So, what does it mean? What answer did you come up with?
It was interesting because Pete said, “You know, I’m a relatively successful filmmaker. I’ve won Oscars. But I’m going to tell you right now, that doesn’t fulfill my life.” He said when he looks back on his life, he’s not going to remember the financial success of his movies or the awards that he’s won. He said what he was going to remember the most are the wonderful and beautiful moments of life. We really started to dig into that idea.
How did you use your own life experiences to build on that narrative?
Well, all this was happening during a time when my father was passing away. Whenever I had time off, I would fly to San Antonio and go be with my dad at the nursing home. During his last weeks, I was still writing some of the heavier scenes. As I was sitting with my dad and holding his hand, I was thinking, “What is the most important thing to him right now?” I wondered, “Is he thinking about his successes and his failures, or is he thinking about how he’s sitting here with his son?” I know that’s what I’m going to remember. What’s going to be most important to me is that I was there for him. All these things were swirling around in my brain as we were making Soul. In the film, [Joe] has an epiphany about his life, which was based on my dad and me being there with him when he passed away.
What scene were you most impressed with when you saw the film? I’m assuming that the descriptions you write of these places in the movie are rendered by Pixar artists in a way that probably blows your mind as you see it go from a written concept to an actual image.
It’s where Joe lands in the You Seminar. The words we wrote for that were, “Joe lands in an ethereal place beyond space and time.” That’s all we had. So, we gave that to the artists and said, “Go do that.” For the counselor characters — guides inside the You Seminar — all we wrote were that they were a “simplified version of the universe.” It’s like, “How do you draw that?” The team of artists said, “What if it’s just this one beautiful moving line that’s constantly changing?” It had all this potential for animation and movement and comedy. It really is a true gift for a writer to be able to write something and then hand it off to someone who can create magic.
Do you ever worry that animated movies like Inside Out or Soul might be too difficult for some children to follow?
It’s funny because we always screen the movie at some point to an audience of children. We want to see what they’re getting and what they’re not. We are always surprised at how much they absorb and how much they do end up understanding. The response from them was spot on [when they watched Soul]. They were thinking about it in a bit of a different way, but they still got it. What I love about it is that a kid can watch Soul at a certain age and get something from it, but then they can watch it five or 10 years later and get other layers as they get older. If any movie is going to have that kind of longevity, it’s going to be Soul.
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