'Soul' Creators On Passion, Purpose And Realizing You're 'Enough'
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. The Academy Awards are Sunday night, and the movie "Soul" is nominated for three Oscars, including best animated film. Our guests are the director and co-director of the movie, Pete Docter and Kemp Powers. They also co-wrote the film. Kemp Powers if also nominated for an Oscar for best adapted screenplay for his film "One Night In Miami..." which he adapted from his play of the same name. Pete Docter wrote and directed "Up" and "Inside Out," which won Oscars for best animated film. He's now chief creative officer at Pixar Animation Studios. Terry spoke with Pete Docter and Kemp Powers last month.
They began with the movie "Soul." It's about what makes a life meaningful and what makes us who we are. The main character, Joe Gardner, is a middle school band teacher who feels unfulfilled because his ambition is to be a full-time jazz musician. On the day he's offered a full-time teaching position, he learns of an opening in the band of a jazz legend he idolizes. He auditions and, to his amazement, gets the gig, which he thinks will be the beginning of his real life. He's so excited by this dream come true, he pays no attention to where he's walking and falls right into an open manhole. He's transported out of his body, onto a conveyor belt to the great beyond. But he refuses to die just as he's about to get his big chance. So he runs in the opposite direction and falls into the land of the great before, where his body is in a holding pattern between life and death. Through a series of adventures and mishaps, he has to figure the purpose of life before he can return to his body.
In this scene from early in "Soul," Joe Gardner, voiced by Jamie Foxx, is at the piano telling his middle school band students about how he fell in love with jazz when he was a child. The piano part is performed by Jon Batiste, who also composed and arranged the jazz sections of the score.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SOUL")
JAMIE FOXX: (As Joe) Look; I remember one time, my dad took me to this jazz club. And that's the last place I wanted to be. But then I see this guy.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO PLAYING)
FOXX: (As Joe) And he's playing these chords with fourths on them. And then with a minor...
(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO PLAYING)
FOXX: (As Joe) Oh, oh, whoo. Then he adds the inner voices. And it's like he's singing.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO PLAYING)
FOXX: (As Joe) And I swear, the next thing I know, it's like he...
(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO PLAYING)
FOXX: (As Joe) ...Floats off the stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO PLAYING)
FOXX: (As Joe) That guy was lost in the music. He was in it. And he took the rest of us with him.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO PLAYING)
FOXX: (As Joe) And I wanted to learn...
(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO PLAYING)
FOXX: (As Joe) ...How to talk like that.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO PLAYING)
FOXX: (As Joe) That's when I knew...
(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO PLAYING)
FOXX: (As Joe) ...I was born to play.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO PLAYING)
FOXX: (As Joe) Connie knows what I mean. Right, Connie?
CORA CHAMPOMMIER: (As Connie) I'm 12.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS: (Laughter) I love that. Pete Docter, Kemp Powers, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on the Oscar nominations and on the win from the Golden Globes. Pete, you originated the story of "Soul." What was the germ of the idea?
PETE DOCTER: Well, yeah, I started working on it after "Inside Out." And it was a kind of a period of some amount of emotional turbulence. And I had always loved animation. You know, I was 9, I think, when I made a flipbook and figured out this is what I want to do with my life. And having just finished "Inside Out" and so much success in the film, I found myself wondering, why don't I feel like my life is all wrapped up and solved in a nice bow? Why didn't it fix everything? And maybe I've been pouring my efforts and focus into the wrong thing. So this film was really an investigation into what's going on in my life, what's going on in the world and what's life all about.
GROSS: So why did you make the main character a jazz musician?
DOCTER: Yeah. We experimented with a couple of different things. For a while, Joe was an actor. And we found what happened was that the audience, for whatever reason, thought he was - he just wanted fame. So it was like a selfish goal. But with music, especially jazz music, you know, you don't go into jazz to get rich and famous. You do it because you have this passion and drive to perform this kind of music. There's something that felt noble about it. And then as we learned more about it, jazz as a metaphor for life was just too good to pass up in terms of what we were trying to say in the film.
GROSS: How did you decide to collaborate with Kemp Powers on the film?
DOCTER: Well, we had made some of these decisions of Joe being a jazz musician, being - living in New York. We figured, OK, if this is a film about a jazz musician, our main character should probably reflect that. That seems like the right thing to do. We need some help. We need people who are - somebody - ideally, it would be a major contributor, the writer - who knows about those things. And so we were really lucky to find Kemp, who not only is all those things, but also is a damn good writer.
GROSS: So does this part get a little awkward? Like, you realize you need a Black person...
GROSS: ...Working on the screenplay with you. And, Kemp, you realized when you're called that, like, you're the Black person who's going to help them with it. It's like, I think we recognize that that is what needs to be done. But I think it's, like, an awkward position for everybody. Like, how do you talk about that?
KEMP POWERS: Yeah. I mean, it is pretty funny because, obviously, when I got the call from my agent that Pixar was interested, they were looking for a writer to help them with a project - and they're always very cloak and dagger about it. So they wouldn't tell me anything about what the story was about. But, of course, (laughter) the first thing my brain said was, I'm guessing the story must have Black people in it.
POWERS: And, you know, it's - I try not to be - I know that can sound cynical. But, look; that's just the reality of this business, this industry. And that it wasn't very long ago - and when I say not very long ago, I'm talking just, like, three or four years ago - where it was very possible, if you happened to be white, to create and tell a story about anything you wanted to, and no one would so much as push you to even consult with people from that community, let alone invite them in and be partners.
So while, you know, it's easy to kind of take the cynical route, I saw it more as a really interesting opportunity because when I flew up to Pixar and I sat down and I saw the nuggets of what would become "Soul," I really fell in love with the story that Pete was trying to tell. And it was a story that felt like it was about me, you know? And it was a story that really wasn't about race. Yes, "Soul" is a film, the majority of the characters are Black. But it's not, quote-unquote, "a Black film." It's this - we're trying to tell this universal story through the specific prism of a Black man. And I think that was a really bold choice that I was relishing an opportunity to try to execute.
GROSS: Were there changes you wanted to make as soon as you started working on it?
POWERS: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I think that's part of what probably - you have to confirm with Pete. I'm sure that's part of what got me hired is that they showed me a reel. It was about 45 minutes long. And I had notes. I mean, I had a lot of thoughts. And there were definitely questions I had about, basically, this main character, Joe. I think the way I described it - Pete, correct me if I'm wrong - was that in the early reels, he seemed like the least interesting person in the film.
DOCTER: Yeah. It was an interesting concept, but not Joe (laughter).
POWERS: Yeah. Joe just - and part of it was, I think, because there had been such extreme caution and such a fear of doing things that might, you know, offend someone or upset someone that instead, there really hadn't been much done. Like, I didn't know anything about the guy. I didn't really know anything about his family. I didn't know - it seemed like Joe was just a very, very lonely man who didn't know anyone and had no friends.
And so that just meant that his life had to be filled in. And of course, it's just - the nature of being at Pixar is that it doesn't matter whether you're a director or a designer or an artist; you use your life as fuel. So it was very easy for me when you say, oh, he's supposed to be a 45-year-old Black man from New York - what a coincidence, that's what I am - to start filling in a lot of those gaps with my own personal experiences.
GROSS: So what is one of those gaps that you filled in with your own personal experience?
POWERS: It was honestly the first scene I started working on when I came there. And it's a scene - we call it - I think the scene is called suit. And it's when Joe goes to get a suit from his mom, who is a tailor. And a lot of elements of the discussion they have between his mom - who's played by Phylicia Rashad - Libba, is really just a - versions of conversations I've had with my own mother about, like, how long are you going to continue to pursue this writing thing?
You know, it's - pursuing writing as a career can really seem like a fool's errand to people, and understandably so when you consider the likelihood of having any kind of success at it. And so as you get into your 30s and then get into your 40s and you still haven't made very much of a dent, you know, a concerned parent is going to really tell you about those concerns.
GROSS: So we happen to have this scene (laughter) cued up and ready to go. So let's hear it. So this is Joe, the jazz musician, and his mother, who runs the tailor shop.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “SOUL”)
FOXX: (As Joe) Mom, I know we've had some rough times, but you're right. I can't be truthful with you because it seems like no matter what I do, you disapprove.
PHYLICIA RASHAD: (As Libba) Look; I know you love playing.
FOXX: (As Joe) Then how come except for church, you're the happiest when I don't. I finally land the gig of my life, and you're upset.
RASHAD: (As Libba) You didn't see how tough being a musician was on your father. I don't want to see you struggle like that.
FOXX: (As Joe) So dad could pursue his dreams and I can't?
RASHAD: (As Libba) Your father had me. Most times, this shop is what paid the bills. So when I'm gone, who's going to pay yours?
FOXX: (As Joe) Music is all I think about from the moment I wake up in the morning to the moment I fall asleep at night.
RASHAD: (As Libba) You can't eat dreams for breakfast, Joey.
FOXX: (As Joe) Then I don't want to eat. This isn't about my career, Mom. It's my reason for living. And I know Dad felt the same way. I'm just afraid that if I died today, that my life would have amounted to nothing.
RASHAD: (As Libba) Joey.
GROSS: So Kemp Powers, what was the version of that conversation you had with your mother?
POWERS: It was several conversations. And the last part, where he says, if I die today, I feel like my life would have amounted to nothing, that was something I was saying to myself a few years before when I almost died in a hospital. And I had gotten very - it was right before the opening in Baltimore of my play, "One Night In Miami," ironically enough. And I'd had an allergic reaction to Tamiflu and ended up coming down with rhabdomyolysis. It's basically, your muscles start dissolving, and it causes your organs to shut down.
And I ended up in the hospital in Baltimore for more than a week. And there was a great concern that everything - that my organs were all going to fail. And I was surrounded by my loved ones, you know, and family. And I was just - I spent - I couldn't move because I was in such pain. I was heavily medicated for the pain. So I would just spend most the day staring out a window.
And I just - this malaise fell over me. And I just was saying to myself over and over again, like, oh, man. Like, it's like I - it's like I've never even - I didn't accomplish anything. Like, it's like I wasn't even here. Like, no one's even going to remember that I was here. And I said to myself that, like, oh, if I make it out of this, then I'm going to, like, go for broke. And it was when I got out of that hospital a few weeks later that I basically turned around - and I was still doing journalism as contract work - that I quit my last journalism job and said, I'm not available anymore to do any contract work; I'm really going to kind of pursue this foolish dream of mine of doing my creative writing by going all in.
And, you know, for my mom, it's one of those things where, like, being a writer all these years, it's not - it's embarrassing, you know? You go - you're married, you end up getting divorced, you have kids and you're getting older and older and still having to go to your mom to, like, borrow money because every time there's a big opportunity and you talk about it with such excitement, you're - ultimately, something always ends up happening that makes that opportunity not be as lucrative, as fruitful, as you expect it to be.
It's funny because my mom was - she called me up a couple of weeks ago. She was pretty upset with me because when we won the Golden Globe for "Soul," I hadn't told her (laughter) because I've gotten into the habit of not bringing up what I'm doing anymore just because of so many years of always saying, I've got this thing. I've got this thing, and it never - and so my mom was like, I had a - she was like, a friend of mine calls me up and says, congrats to your son. He won a Golden Globe. And she's like, do you know I had to pretend like I knew what she was talking about?
GROSS: (Laughter) Oh, gee.
POWERS: So yeah. It's (laughter)...
GROSS: Well, I hope you told her about the Oscar nomination - nominations, (laughter) plural.
POWERS: I believe she knows now.
GROSS: OK, good. I think I need to reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guests are Pete Docter and Kemp Powers, the director and co-director of the film "Soul," which they also co-wrote. It's nominated for three Oscars, including best animated film. Powers is also nominated for an Oscar for best adapted screenplay for "One Night In Miami..." which he adapted from his play of the same name. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JON BATISTE'S "KENNER BOOGIE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Pete Docter and Kent Powers, who directed and co-directed the film "Soul," which has received an Oscar nomination for best animated film. Powers also is nominated for best adapted screenplay for "One Night In Miami..."
So I want to get back to the conceit of "Soul." Pete, one of the things you had to do is to figure out what is the afterlife or the limbo that your main character was going to be in when he has this near-death experience and he's holding on for life, and it's really unclear whether he's going to live or survive. So you had to figure out this whole kind of system of what happens to bodies in limbo. So did you talk to people who had near-death experiences? And I should ask here, Kemp, did you have a near-death experience when you were in the hospital in the kind of predicament that you had just described, where all of your organs might be failing as a result of the allergic reaction you were having?
POWERS: I mean, it felt like a near-death in that, you know, I wasn't in a coma. I was awake, but I couldn't move, physically. And it was a situation where the only way they can treat rhabdomyolysis is flushing your body with water. So I was hooked up to several IVs. They were monitoring my heart to see - make sure that it didn't drown my heart and cause it to stop. And then it was just a matter of time. It was either the process was going to start reversing itself, or it wouldn't. And so it was kind of like, is this slow death or not? It definitely felt like a near-death experience, living through it. And, you know, it took me quite a while to recover from that. Like, I wasn't able to really walk at full speed for a period of months because of the muscle loss. And I think the hospital said that it was one of the worst cases they'd ever seen at that hospital. So it absolutely felt that way.
GROSS: Did you feel like your life force was being drained?
POWERS: I mean, yeah, I felt like I was - there were days at the - right before - you know, full disclosure, like, right before things started to improve, I was starting to write letters to my children. Like, OK, I guess I better explain to these two kids why I'm not going to be around anymore.
GROSS: So to bring that back to the movie, was there anything you drew on from that experience that you wanted to put into the character of Joe, who desperately wants to live but knows he might not?
POWERS: Well, the scene where - when Joe falls through the manhole cover and he's looking into the light and he turns around and is like, no F-ing (ph) way - man, that spoke to me. And, in fact, I think, remember, Pete, like, when we got into animation, I kept on pushing for us to make Joe even more adamant about, like, there's no damn way I am going into that light, to the point where he's shoving people out of his way because (laughter) that's how - that was absolutely how I felt. But no, I think it was - what Pete was going for was just tapping into something that I knew from experience and knew from having felt it.
I mean, this character's journey - it's interesting. In our society, whether it's - people mean to do it or not, I feel like we're all broken up into winners and losers. That's really how it feels. It feels like we're told that, based on the decisions that we make, we're all going to end up being a winner or being a loser. But increasingly, it seems like the thing that makes a person a winner is akin to, like, winning the lottery. It's something that's almost impossible. So it feels like almost no one actually gets to be a winner.
But it's not about winners or losers in that everyone's life has value, and that's something that really, really spoke to me immensely as someone who - you know, and I think it speaks to a lot of creatives because creatives are notoriously a group that suffer from imposter syndrome (laughter). And so that that was really a powerful driving force for me.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you both. If you're just joining us, my guests are Pete Docter and Kemp Powers, the director and co-director of the film "Soul," which has an Oscar nomination for best animated film. Powers is also nominated for best adapted screenplay for "One Night In Miami..." We'll be right back after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S ALL RIGHT")
JON BATISTE: (Singing) Say it's all right. Say it's all right. It's all right to have a good time 'cause it's all right. Oh, it's all right. Now, listen to the beat, kind of pat your feet. You got soul, and everybody knows 'cause it's all right. Oh, it's all right. When you wake up early in the morning feeling sad like so many of us do, just hum a little soul, make life your goal, and surely something's got to come to you. Say it's all right. Say it's all right. It's all right. Have a good time 'cause it's all right. Oh, it's all right. Now, everybody, clap your hands. Give yourself a chance. You've got soul. Everybody knows that it's all right. Oh, it's all right. Oh, it's all right.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Pete Docter and Kemp Powers, the director and co-director of the film "Soul," which received an Oscar nomination for best animated film. It already won the Golden Globe in that category. Docter and Powers also co-wrote the film. It's about a middle school band teacher who dreams of being a full-time jazz musician. And just as he gets his big opportunity, he falls into a manhole and is transported to another world where he's suspended between life and death and is forced to rethink the meaning of his life.
Kemp Powers is also nominated for best adapted screenplay for his film "One Night In Miami..." which he adapted from his play of the same name. It's about the conversation he imagines Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Cassius Clay had the night that Clay won the world heavyweight title, defeating Sonny Liston in 1964 before Clay became Muhammad Ali.
Well, let's get back to talking about the film "Soul." Since "Soul" is so much about what happens when you're between life and death and what happens in the afterlife and the before life, I'd love to hear the stories you were each told about what happens when you leave this world or when you're in that kind of limbo state. Pete, let's start with you.
DOCTER: Yeah. I mean, I grew up Lutheran, and so - understanding kind of the concepts of God and heaven and so on. But I think, you know, as a kid, you have these very specific - I guess you want to put visuals to them, right? You want to visualize, what does that look like? And then when you go back now as an adult and read the same - you know, the Bible and so on, it's not very well spelled out. If you're looking for answers, there's almost more questions there, which, I think, is kind of the intention of it - to just - to make you think and really engage in it. The more research we did on this film, it's almost like my brain expanded to allow for the possibility of these things. I don't think I came up with any specific, concrete answers. It's more that I was able to think more broadly.
GROSS: That's an interesting result of making the movie.
DOCTER: Yeah. It was a great experience to be able to come into work every day and basically ruminate and think about and meditate on this theme of, like, what's life about? And, of course, that's really beyond trying to describe any cosmological or theological system or whatever. It was really more looking and separating the differentiation between passion and purpose, you know, and those became big controlling ideas in the film that we kept circling around, trying to define.
GROSS: What is the difference, the way you see it?
DOCTER: As someone who feels as though I have this purpose in life, which is to create animated films - no, that's my passion. It's what I love doing, right? But I think a lot of times, you end up mistaking that this is what I was born to do - in fact, we ended up putting that in the film that Joe feels - he says, I'm a musician; this is what I was born to do. But those are different things, right? The idea that your purpose in life has something to do with your passion - it could be, but I think it's broader than that.
GROSS: Well, he's even told when he's in the state of limbo that the spark, the thing that you're passionate about, isn't your soul's purpose. And the meaning of that - he's basically told, if you let your obsession take over, you lose your sense of meaning. You lose your sense of purpose.
DOCTER: Yeah. We had this great element in the film that we discovered - these lost souls. So this is - I won't get into the specifics. You'll have to see the film. But there are these characters, these creatures that sort of are, like, haunted, wandering the astral plane, disconnected from life. And for people like myself who have this intense passion, that can be just as isolating. That can be just as lost to be completely absorbed by something. And I think in its best case, in its best incarnation, something like music or storytelling, film, it connects you to life. It reminds you how interconnected everything is and how - this is why I had to make a movie about it instead of me talking about it.
DOCTER: But, you know, the idea that when you walk out into the world and you smell the air and you hear birds and you taste and touch and all those things - that's, I think, what ultimately we really want from life - is this reminder that we're not alone, that we're all connected and part of something bigger than just our little puny bodies.
GROSS: So I want to get back to something you were saying, Pete - that obsession can block out a lot of things that are very important about life, that the work that you do, no matter how passionate you are, isn't the total meaning of life. And it can block out some of the meaning and some of the beauty of life. So, Kemp, when you were emerging from this near-death experience in which you had that awful allergic reaction and you had promised yourself that if you survived, you're going to go all in and try to do the kind of writing you really wanted to do instead of journalism, where you felt you weren't really making any progress in your career - so did you become very obsessive about that? And did you get to the point where you felt like you were shutting out parts of life?
POWERS: Oh, absolutely. I - something that we discussed when making this film was that at different points in our lives and careers, we've all been - we feel like we've all been lost souls based on our definition of it by - because - look; when you find something you enjoy and you're passionate about and you actually are pretty good at it, it is so easy to take the extra step of hiding behind that thing and using it to not deal with so many other elements of life.
That's why it was so important that when we introduced the idea of the lost soul - that someone could be lost, but then they could be found, that they could come out of it, that it was a state of mind, a state of being the characters in the film could go back and forth between because - you know, I don't want to speak for Pete. But I've definitely found myself, based on our own definition of it, a bit of a lost soul, someone who - you know, to avoid facing all different elements of life, just losing myself in my work. And it becomes that much easier, like I said, when you start having a little success at it. So it gives you even more of an excuse to just stay there all the time.
GROSS: And, Pete, you know, you were talking about some of the things you opened your mind to in making this movie. Did you also feel like, gee, maybe I should take more pleasure in just, like, little things in life, like falling leaves and the taste of pizza? (Laughter).
DOCTER: Yeah. No, and it sounds kind of trite and small to say, but it's absolutely true in a sense, I think. As an artist - I keep a sketchbook - when I draw, there is some connection made because of that attention, that I could have walked past a building for years, but if I stop and draw it, then I'm suddenly aware of all this detail and specific stuff that would have completely - I would never have observed before, you know? So there's something about the act of drawing that I think is kind of a spiritual connection in there as well.
GROSS: Yeah. And it's no longer just, like, background; it's something that you can immerse yourself in and appreciate the details of.
DOCTER: Yeah, yeah. No, I mean, working on this film was really - and I think this is true of any story - when you get to turn things around and say, OK, if Joe believes he's, like, an essentialist, you know, if - the philosophical school of thought of, like, I was born with this purpose, then you get to start playing around with, what's the flip side of that? Maybe there's a nihilist in the film who believes there's no meaning at all to anything or - you know, that's kind of our character that Tina Fey plays is this - she thinks life is meaningless, although that turns out to be somewhat of a surface-level - like, a way of dealing with her inner fear that she's not good enough, which I think is something else that a lot of us have this worry that unless I perform up to a certain level, unless I make these accomplishments and achievements, then really I haven't - I don't deserve it. I'm not good enough.
GROSS: Yeah, I think we can all relate to that (laughter).
DOCTER: Yeah. And I feel like the movie's aim is really to say that we're already enough. You know, we all deserve and we all can walk out of the door and enjoy life without needing to accomplish or prove anything. And that's really freeing, I think.
POWERS: And that - and it's not to say that we don't think people should have dreams because it's very easy for people to take that message and assume that we're saying you shouldn't have dreams, and that was never the case (laughter).
GROSS: You're not saying just enjoy the pizza and the falling leaves.
DOCTER: No. No, but do. But do, you know, yeah.
GROSS: But do, yeah (laughter). OK. Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guests are Pete Docter and Kemp Powers, the director and co-director of the film "Soul," which they also co-wrote. It's nominated for three Oscars, including best animated film. Powers is also nominated for an Oscar for best adapted screenplay for "One Night In Miami..." which he adapted from his play of the same name. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JON BATISTE'S "LOOKING AT LIFE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Pete Docter and Kemp Powers, who directed and co-directed the film "Soul," which has received an Oscar nomination for best animated film. Powers has a nomination for best adapted screenplay for "One Night In Miami..." which he adapted from his play of the same name.
Kemp Powers, I want to ask you about "One Night In Miami..." because in addition to the best animated film Oscar nomination, you're nominated for best adapted screenplay for "One Night In Miami..." which is adapted from your play of the same name. And it's about the night that Muhammad Ali won the heavyweight championship, defeating Sonny Liston, and then there was a gathering in the Hampton House Motel of Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown, who's a football player. You know, you've written this whole dialogue for them, this whole conversation in which they talk about, like, the great issues facing them as individuals and facing the civil rights movement and, you know, the more radical Black movement that Malcolm X is a part of. How much do you actually know about what happened when they all got together?
POWERS: Honestly, just little tidbits in terms of the actual discussion in the room. I mean, if you read biographies on each of the four men, if you read enough of them like I have, there will be references to details of that night, them being in quiet conversation, them just having vanilla ice cream to eat - which is a detail that I put into the film script. But it was really less about - I mean, we - when I wrote it, I wanted to really position this more as historical fiction because it was really less about what they actually said that night, to me, and more about what each of these men represented.
And the discussion that I wanted these characterizations of them to have is a discussion that Black men have been having since way before that night and are still having to this day, Black people in general. And it's what, if any, social responsibility does a Black public figure have, whether it be a Black athlete, a Black politician, a Black singer, Black artist? What, if any, public responsibility do you have? And it just so happened that these four men represent very clear, very distinct ideas about how much or how little you have.
And again, when I first found out that this was a real night, my intention was to write a book about their friendship. So I went down this path of doing years of research to write a book that I never got around to writing. And then as my career in journalism ended and my creative writing career picked up, the very thing that had stymied me from writing the book, which was not being able to fill in that blank, was really the perfect setup for what initially was a stage play to debate these things with, like I said, characterizations based on everything that I really knew about each of the four men.
GROSS: How have you answered the question you posed for yourself - like, how much of your work should be in service of the larger movement?
POWERS: Well, for me, I think - I never don't think about personal and social responsibility. It's never not on my mind. And in terms of how much, it's very situational. That's why when I wrote that film, I didn't want an audience to come away from it feeling like the central argument, so to speak, is between Malcolm X and Sam Cooke, and I didn't want audiences to leave feeling that one person was necessarily right and the other person was necessarily wrong because the answer is very situational.
I think that in order for us to - as a people, to get where we need to be, we need both Sam Cookes, which means people who were willing to suffer and work within the system to bring about change that you might not immediately see, but that's change that's happening. And then you also need Malcolm Xs - people who are willing to confront the problem publicly and burn the whole system down and start over if need be. There's very different tactics.
And I think that their debate is, in many ways, an internal monologue. It's the debate that goes on inside my psyche now that I'm a very public artist. It's a debate that happens before I decide which projects I'm going to take on, which things I want to really commit myself to. And I think it was - I'm really happy that the play version of that story was actually one of the couple of things that Pete and the folks at Pixar read before they brought me on to "Soul" because I felt like, OK, if they've read "One Night In Miami," they should know that I'm going to really be speaking up (laughter) if there are issues that I find objectionable about certain elements of characterization.
GROSS: Pete, what did you find relevant in "One Night In Miami" to "Soul"?
DOCTER: I just felt like Kemp's ability to take these themes and argue both sides of it was exactly what we were looking to do in the film and portray them through such strongly opinionated and clear characters, you know, because, of course, those - the characters are the voice of the author. And in all these things, it's like the audience experiences it through those characters, and they were just so cleanly and clearly defined. It was really great. I think we read the play version because, of course, the film one hadn't - you hadn't even started writing it, had you?
POWERS: I turned in the first draft the week I started at Pixar (laughter).
DOCTER: Oh, OK.
POWERS: So yeah, it wasn't done yet (laughter).
GROSS: It's kind of interesting that "One Night In Miami..." and "The U.S. (ph) Vs. Billie Holiday" and "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" - three Oscar-nominated movies - are all based on real people. And there seems to be kind of a trend of a lot of African American-themed films being about real events in history or real people, you know, including yours - "One Night In Miami..." And I'm wondering, like, if you have any thoughts about why that is.
POWERS: I - honestly, I was wondering that one myself. Maybe it's universal consciousness. I'm assuming a lot of it probably has to do with Trump's presidency. I was having a conversation with another Black filmmaker about this fairly recently and just this idea that it feels like as a nation, we're going through such a moment of crucible change.
So it's pretty easy to, you know, look at other moments of crucible change in our own nation's history. And the '60s in particular really jump out because first, like, you know, we're so familiar with so many of these people. So many of them are our heroes and our icons. But there's also always lessons to be learned from their experiences, and in some cases, lessons that it's very evident that we have not learned as a country, you know?
And that's not to say that we haven't had progress. Of course we've had incredible, you know, progress. The night that "One Night In Miami..." took place, Miami was still segregated. These men actually had to stay in the Black part of town. They didn't have a choice. So it's not to say there hasn't been immense progress, but it does point out just how bad things can get when the pendulum swings in the other direction. And it does feel like there have been some massive pendulum swings.
And then the last presidency, I think - I think, this is just my theory - maybe got artists kind of examining that a little bit more. But remember, I first wrote the play back in 2013. So this predated, you know, Black Lives Matter, and it predated all these movements, so it's really hard to say.
GROSS: Well, good luck to both of you at the Oscars. And thank you so much for talking with us. It's just been a pleasure.
POWERS: Oh, it's been great to be here.
DOCTER: Thank you. It was fun.
POWERS: Thank you.
DAVIES: Pete Docter and Kemp Powers wrote the film "Soul," which Docter directed and Powers co-directed. "Soul" is nominated for an Oscar for best animated film. Powers is also nominated for an Oscar for the "One Night In Miami..." screenplay, which he adapted from his play of the same name.
Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new movie "Moffie," which tells the story of a white South African teenager hiding his sexuality as a young soldier under apartheid in the early '80s. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY ROLLINS' "I'M AN OLD COWHAND")
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