Movies

Soul Co-Director Kemp Powers on the Pressures of Creating Pixar’s First Black Lead

Kemp Powers and an image from the barbershop scene of Soul.
Kemp Powers co-directed Pixar’s Soul. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Disney and Disney/Pixar.

2020 has been a big year for Kemp Powers, the playwright behind two of the year’s most anticipated films. The first, One Night in Miami, is based on his 2013 play of the same name and tells the story of a fictional meeting between Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke in a Miami hotel room in 1964. The second is Soul, Pixar’s chronicle of a soul finding its back to Earth from the afterlife, which—though it’s for a vastly different audience—shares a few similarities with One Night, including questions about legacy and remembrance. Both are also, to varying degrees, Black films.

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It’s a first for Pixar. Soul’s protagonist Joe Gardiner, a middle school teacher on the brink of achieving his dream as a jazz musician, is Pixar’s first Black lead, and Powers is the first Black feature director in the studio’s 34 years. Powers took on a bigger mantle as co-director for Soul, influencing decisions from character design to marketing. Slate spoke with Powers to find out how he approached his role as co-director and the pressures that come with being—and creating—a first. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Rachelle Hampton: Tell me how you came to be co-director of Soul. From what I understand, you were originally brought in to give notes on the script.

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Kemp Powers: Yeah, I was brought in as a writer originally. It was 2018. Part of the interview process for new writers is they show you the work in progress and you give notes and you have a discussion about it. Based on that I got hired as a writer, and after about a year as writer, Pete [Docter] and Dana [Murray] asked me to be co-director. It was largely, I think, a result of the fact that from very early on in the process they had me doing “writer and.” You know what I mean? Like writer plus.

They really invited me in to get involved in lots of other elements of the film’s development, from a lot of the casting to the character design, to being a part of both the internal and external culture trusts that were organized specifically for this film, to being in edit. It was like, “Oh, wow, as a screenwriter I’m not used to being so a part of the process.” As I would later find out, that’s because that’s not usually what happens. But I was always very inquisitive. I was a fan of Pixar for years before I came to work there. Being there, having to move up to Emeryville, it’s like you’re at art camp. I just wanted to make the most of it and learn from all the people that I was working with.

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When you say internal and external culture trusts, what do you mean by that?

The internal culture trust was actually a group assembled of Pixar’s Black employees. All the elements of the film were run by them at various key points, starting with character designs, set designs, early reels, all kinds of things, just to make sure that it felt culturally authentic while trying to be culturally specific. That was the internal group.

External were consultants we brought in. Bradford Young, the cinematographer, had several great meetings with our DP lighting department, which inspired a lot of the look of the film, particularly in the New York scenes. You know, Bradford is such an expert on lighting Black skin, having been the DP on Selma and When They See Us, and Ava [DuVernay’s] films. We wanted to bring an authentic, distinct look to the many Black characters. Because that’s just it, like, Joe’s the first Black lead, [but] there’s a lot of other characters other than Joe there. And they all look very different, lots of different body types. The great Herbie Hancock was a consultant. With Herbie Hancock it was the music. Dr. Johnnetta Cole, she was a president of Spelman, so it was like she was the mother of all consultants.

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You want to make people happy. You want to tell the story you want to tell, but you also want to make sure that you’re hearing people’s suggestions and hearing their criticisms. And one of the wonderful things is we did hear it. In many cases, the process got slowed down because we had to go back to the drawing board on things. We thought we were doing great, we kind of put it to the consultants, vigorous debate ensued, and the end result was: “Go back to the drawing board. That character needs to be redesigned. This theme needs to be rethought. These things need to be redone.” And we did that.

That process speaks to my next question. Soul is the first Pixar movie with a Black lead. There’s a lot of pressure to get that right. How did you balance that pressure?

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I didn’t balance it. It was a lot of pressure. It was what it was. I was stressed. It kept me up nights. You want your mom and your family to see it and be proud of you and love it. But that’s really the pressure that I’ve put on myself. It was more about the people that I know and love and respect. I didn’t care about internet trolls, you know what I mean? It was about people who know me [and] know what kind of artist I am. You want those people to be excited about your new work and feel that you’ve done yourself and them proud. And it’s a burden and it’s stressful, but I think it’s a burden that I happily like taking on, because I want to do right by it, by my people.

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How did you approach balancing the specificity of the Black experience with the universality that has to be present in kids’ movies?

I think that you can always find that the themes of the film, the themes of any film like this, know no race. That’s the key thing. You don’t have to be a Mexican to enjoy Coco. You don’t have to be Italian to enjoy The Godfather. You shouldn’t have to be Black to enjoy Soul.

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The central themes of the film, questions like, “What am I meant to do with my life?” are not something that just Black people are sitting around thinking about. It’s something we’re all thinking about. But you also want to make sure that the world that you’re creating feels like an authentic world, whatever that world may be, so that someone who is of that group—in this case, if you happen to be a Black person from New York—doesn’t bump and say, “That is nothing like the world I’ve ever seen.” You don’t want to take them out of it. And in the best sense, in the perfect world, you want people who are from that group to feel that someone like them had a hand in creating it. And that’s often evident. You can often tell when there’s Black characters but Black people had nothing to do with the creation of those Black characters.

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How did you and Pete Docter approach decision-making as director and co-director? How did you resolve disagreements if they arose?

Well, ultimately this film’s original idea started with Pete, and Pete had the final say. But also, you have to understand that I’m not the most talkative guy, and I give Pete a lot of credit that when I would voice something that I found problematic, he really listened. I’m the type of person that creatively I’m not going to die on every hill. A lot of stuff isn’t, “Oh, Black people do this.” I don’t really prescribe to that. A lot of stuff is just personal taste, you know what I mean? So, if someone says this character shouldn’t have a gold chain, I’m not going to fight about it because it’s generational. For my generation, I’m like, “Give them three gold chains,” but someone who’s 19—I’m realizing that the younger generation has kind of moved away from a lot of the looks that my generation thinks were cool. That’s taste.

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But when I speak up about something that is not working for me, it’s coming from this place that I feel like it could be damaging to the film if it’s not fixed. And Pete was always open to hearing those types of challenges out and doing something about it. But ultimately, it’s Pete’s film, and my primary job is to help him execute that vision and execute the vision in a way that feels authentic and as good as humanly possible. I’m the co-pilot.

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One of the first things I always look at in Black films is the hair. The hair in Soul is so good, but that barbershop scene was really great. Can you tell me the development process behind that scene?

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Yeah, that scene was my idea. It wasn’t even in the film. I said like, “This guy has to pass through authentically Black spaces and there’s no more authentically Black space than a barbershop.” And it came from a selfish place. It came from a place of, “I just want to see Black hair.” I want to see all different kinds of Black hair. What I love is I rewrote that scene 40 times.

Wow.

But the opening stayed the same the whole time. And I remember the opening well. The opening was hair falls gently down to the floor. That how the scene opens. You hear the clippers buzzing and the hair falls onto Dez’s Timberland boots. That was always the opening. Starting with the hair falling off the head managed to stay through every single iteration. Because again, only Pixar can render certain things the way that Pixar does. And I just knew that it would be incredible to see the process of a Black haircut up close, in a Pixar film.

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Once we sold the idea, it was the same kind of due diligence. The animators took trips to the barbershops, and they sat there, and barbers worked through all of their tools so that everything was done in order. The level of detail that goes into everything; nothing happens in an animated film by accident. So, knowing that level of detail was going to go into a barbershop, I knew it would be awesome if I could justify it from a story standpoint, being in the film. Which fortunately I was able to do.

I really love that. I mean, speaking of Timberlands, this movie is about the afterlife, but it’s also about New York. How did you go about re-creating the city? Watching it in the middle of the pandemic, I was like, “Wow, the city hasn’t felt like this in months at this point.”

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I know, it’s almost kind of sad, isn’t it?

It was. I teared up at all the cityscapes.

I know. Watching the final cut of the film when they go out into the street and it’s crowded with people, I was like, “Oh man, that’s not what the world looks like right now.” It feels almost like a postcard from the past. But honestly, it was a collective. The sets, designers, lighters—you have to understand, our crew at full strength on this film was 350 people. And they’re all going into their own personal experiences, their own batches of references.

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A great example would be the graffiti in Queens. I remember it was one of the designers, Paul Abadilla, who would always run wall graf by us. And he was like, “Oh, would you guys mind if we put ‘Queens get the money,’ on a wall?” And I was like, “That’d be perfect.” My cousins are going to love that, who are in Queens. Or the designers were working on the barbershop, simple details like there’s albums on the wall and making them only Queens hip-hop artists. You have a Nas Illmatic, you have Run D.M.C. Those types of details, the director or co-director aren’t pointing it out. That’s all these incredible artists kind of going into their toolkit, doing their research, and putting all that energy into bringing this world to life.

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There was a scene where it’s revealed that Joe was in a rap crew when he was younger. Did that come from your personal experience?

Yes. I mean, we went so far as to make a demo. And I don’t know where that demo went, but I’m glad that it’s lost to time.

There’s this moment where Joe realizes that this is it, this is what he wants to do. And I’m curious as to whether you could point to a single moment like that in your life.

No, I can’t really draw it to a single moment. The character who really speaks to me and my personal experience the most in terms of what I’m doing in my life is actually Dez, the barber. When Dez says, like, “I wanted to be a veterinarian, but then my kid got sick,” but then he did something else and he found just as much joy doing that thing that he had never planned to do before. That more is a description of my life. I think that’s a description of most people’s lives. They ask us when we we’re in kindergarten and first grade, what do we want to do when we grow up? And I’m like, what kind of question is that? You don’t even know. If you ask the first grader, they’re only going to have 10 things to choose from, because we don’t know what we can do.

I didn’t really know that my career that I’m doing really well in now existed when I was a little kid. So, your dreams are allowed to change, and you’re allowed to kind of keep on searching even after you’ve established yourself, even after you’ve found some comfort. It’s not a eureka moment. Instead, it’s kind of like, “Oh, this wasn’t what I planned for, but damn, I’m really happy doing what I do.” That’s more me.

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