Josh Cooley and Meg LeFauve discuss why their lead character was the most difficult to write, how they emotionally connected to the story, and the advantages of working in a creative environment like Pixar.
[Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Creative Screenwriting. It is reprinted here in collaboration with that site.]
by Christopher McKittrick
Like all Pixar films, Inside Out was born out of collaboration. The original story was developed by Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen (Docter also directed the film with Del Carmen as co-director). Joining Docter in writing the screenplay were Josh Cooley and Meg LeFauve. Cooley has worked in numerous creative roles at the studio for over a decade. In comparison, LeFauve is a newcomer to the Pixar scene. In fact, Inside Out is the first credited feature film screenplay for both Cooley and Le Fauve.In Pixar’s Inside Out, it takes five emotions – Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust – working together inside the head of an eleven year-old girl named Riley in order to maintain a healthy emotional balance. Similarly, the way the creative process works at Pixar is that many minds come together to create the best movie they possibly can.
Cooley ended up co-writing Inside Out after starting as story supervisor on the project, and LeFauve joined the team when production was well underway and during the storyboarding process offered new perspectives on Riley’s emotional development. Cooley and LeFauve’s contributions to the screenplay helped make Inside Out one of the most successful Pixar films.
Creative Screenwriting interviewed Cooley and LeFauve separately about why the lead character was the most difficult to write, how they emotionally connected to the story, and the advantages of working in a creative environment like Pixar.
Josh, your earliest credits with Pixar are as a storyboard artist, which I know is a significant part of developing storylines at Pixar. How did your transition to a screenwriting role on Inside Out come about?
Josh: I went to art school because I wanted to be a 2D animator. I discovered drawing storyboards and really loved it. I first came to Pixar as an intern in the story department and worked on The Incredibles and Cars, and then became a story artist and that’s what I was all the way up to Inside Out.
I was the story supervisor on it, so I was in charge of the story department. We had Meg and other writers helping out over the years and I was just constantly coming up with ideas. I remember Pete would come into my office and ask, “What do you think should happen here?” and I would say, “What if you try this?” and he would say, “Oh, that’s great! Let’s do that!” Then he eventually said, “Why don’t you write it? You sound like you know what to do. You know what should happen. You should write it.”
So I would type it in Final Draft and he would give me some changes as I pitched it to him. That happened enough that I was just writing the movie. But being in the Pixar story department is the greatest film school in the world, so I felt confident enough that I could do it.
Meg, Inside Out is your first credited screenplay. What was your screenwriting background previous to working on this film, and when did you became involved with Inside Out?
Meg: I had written a script for Warner Bros. and I had a script with my writing partner at the time, John Morgan, that had gone to the Sundance Lab for writing and directing. I had done what all writers have to do, which is to write those many, many drafts that no one will ever see to hone my craft. I had a few scripts out there – I was writing a pilot and I had optioned a book – so I was doing what everybody does, trying to get my skills in place as a writer while also progressing my career. I actually had a production background before that – I was with Jodie Foster’s company for ten years – and that really greatly affected me as a writer and how I approach stories.
When I came in on Inside Out I think they were a year and a half or maybe even two years in. At Pixar, you make the movie many times by storyboarding it. I think they had about two screenings before I came in and Pete was at a crucial moment of thinking about shifting the main relationship. He originally had it as Joy and Fear, and now he was shifting over to Joy and Sadness. He was well into the process, so he brought me on to help.
What were your initial thoughts on those first versions of the movie?
Meg: It’s interesting because it was a conscious choice by Pete, the producers, and myself to not watch those versions to try and keep me fresh. Pete pitched me where he was and then I talked about the characters, the emotions he had chosen, and some of the places they had thought they wanted to go, like dream production or the unconscious. It was really about taking the elements they had done so far and have me be the fresh perspective coming in on it.
One of the well-known stories about the development of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is that the writers narrowed down the seven dwarfs from a list of fifty potential characters. Similarly, were any other emotions considered for inclusion in Inside Out?
Meg: That was before my time, but I do know that there were. There were some really fun ones, like Surprise. But by the time I had gotten there it had been narrowed down to the five.
Josh: It’s funny – we did a lot of research talking to neurologists, brain scientists, and all sorts of people who studied emotions – and depending on the neurologist you talk to they believe that there are five emotions, six emotions, three emotions, and all the way up to something like twenty-five. One of the versions had a ton of emotions in it and it just became too overwhelming and too confusing. We wanted to center the story around Joy, so having all these other distractions just wasn’t working out. We narrowed it down to the five emotions that we really felt could show the full range of human emotions that best fit our story.
We had a lot of them at one point. We had Schadenfreude, which was really fun [Laughs]. He was kind of a one-off gag, but Anger would punch Fear and Schadenfreude would see it and just go, [In a German accent] “Ha, ha, ha! Your pain amuses me!” Ennui was one who just didn’t seem to care about anything. We had Pride and Hope as well.
What was the most challenging emotion for you to write?
Meg: Joy was the most challenging because incessantly happy people are annoying. [Laughs] It was a challenge to have people emotionally attached to her and like her. I think there were a few keys to doing that. One was that Pete was very smart and understood that Joy’s motive needed to be that she wanted to take care of Riley versus a selfish motive of power. It was really all about Riley.
Another key was understanding that Joy’s vulnerability and her doubt was what kept her relatable and make her someone we could emotionally attach to. I think the vulnerability of every character was key. The third thing that really helped was casting Amy Poehler. She has such a beautiful interpretation of Joy that is very friendly and caring and she wants everyone to be happy. Her personality, her tone, and just how she approached the part were so crucial.
Josh: Have you ever had that experience where you meet somebody and they’re too happy all the time, and it gets super annoying? That’s exactly what it was like watching the reels early on. Joy was just happy for no reason, and it got old really fast. It wasn’t until we changed Act I so Riley had all these reasons to not be happy that you saw Joy really struggle with that. It made her more human and more likable. When you see her trying to make things good and on top of that have Amy Poehler do the voice it really started to come together. From day one the other characters were easier. For Anger we thought, “Lewis Black.” It kind of just fell into that, and luckily that worked out. [Laughs]
One aspect that sets Riley apart as a character is her love of hockey. Why hockey?
Meg: When I came in she was a figure skater, and Ronnie Del Carmen had drawn and created that beautiful sequence where Joy skates with Riley. It was really beautiful and emotional, so we knew that scene was essential to their relationship and that skating was important to Riley. I believe it was Ronnie who was talking about who Riley could be and her figure skating background, and I’m pretty sure it was Ronnie who said, “Well, what about hockey?”
I just went crazy. I thought that was the best idea I had ever heard because hockey lets her use all of her emotions. She can get angry, and it’s a team sport so it involves other kids. That was something we were searching for – something she could miss when she moved that involved a team.
Josh: Once we looked into Minnesota, which is where Pete grew up, that’s all that kids do there – both boys and girls. Pete was telling me that some of them are on skates as soon as they learn to walk. We thought, why not? It’s awesome and it’s true-to-life. It’s also a mental game. You really need to be alert, and we played into that in the last scene when the emotions are driving her through the hockey game. I loved it and I thought it was a great idea. It’s also great for animation because it’s very visual.
One of the reasons why Inside Out has been so successful is that so many people have connected with it emotionally and found it easy to relate to emotional times in their own lives. Did you relate the story to anything in your life?
Meg: I moved a lot when I was a kid, so I definitely understood what that felt like. I wrote the scene when Riley comes in to talk to her parents when she comes home after running away. I didn’t really understand how deeply personal that scene was for me until I was watching it in storyboard in the screening room and I suddenly realized, “Oh, that’s what I wanted to say to my parents when I was eleven.” This sentiment that Riley tells her parents, “You want me to be happy but I’m not,” was a very brave thing for Riley to do. It actually opens up the connection and heals the parents. That was something that I felt as a child and it was a personal moment for me.
The other personal moment for me was from my kids. They went to a preschool called Children’s Circle and it was all about teaching children emotional intelligence and how to relegate their emotions. The idea is that you can teach them A-B-C and 1-2-3 when they know themselves and can emotionally exist in the world.
One of the things we were taught to do as parents was that when children have emotional experiences you sit down next to them and you narrate back to them what they’re feeling so you can give them language and teach them about themselves to help them move through their emotions and regulate themselves without denying what is going on in their reality. That’s like when Sadness sits down next to Bing Bong and says to him, “You lost your rocket, and that’s really sad. You had great times on that rocket.” That is a scene right out of the preschool that I sent my kids to and where I learned to do that! [Laughs]
Josh: The part that always gets me is when Riley and her parents come together. When I started working on this film my daughter had just been born and by the time we finished it she was almost five years old. Having my first kid at the same time that this movie was being created was interesting because I was writing as a parent on a movie that is very much about parenting. I was bringing my everyday experiences right into the movie.
A funny story about that is one day Pete asked, “What should we do early on in Act I just to show how much fun Riley is as a little girl? What’s something funny your kids do?” I was telling him how I was trying to give my daughter a bath and she jumped out the bathtub and ran through the house naked. Pete said, “Oh that’s great! Let’s put that in!” So it’s in the final film. [Laughs] I had a lot of personal experiences as a parent through production of it, so just seeing Riley grow up and cry to her parents at the end just crushes me because it reminds me of the experience working on the film.
Speaking of that emotional understanding, did you do any research on emotional development in children as you were writing?
Josh: Pete had this idea early on to go inside the mind of an eleven year-old girl. Early on the only thing we had is that we wanted the emotions to be the characters. That meant researching what emotions do. We brought in Paul Ekman and Dacher Keltner, who are experts on emotions. They explained to us how the reason we have emotions is that they protect us. Fear is to let your body know that something is wrong. Anger is there to let you know that you’re being treated unfairly. Disgust is literally there so we don’t eat something wrong and die. We discovered that is exactly what parenting is. You’re there to protect your child. So we treated the emotions like parents for Riley and because all of us in the writing room are parents ourselves, we just reflected on our own experiences as parents to create the characters.
Meg: When I came in that all had been done so I read all of that background, but my own personal research was really from sending my children to that preschool to learn about emotional intelligence and what I could bring from that in terms of accepting where you are and where your child is and starting from there to help them process.
Bing Bong is a character that so many people have grown attached to. Did you have any role in his development?
Meg: Bing Bong was already there when I came in. I think that Pete had an imaginary friend when he was little. Bing Bong was a pretty fun character and Ronnie had storyboarded that beautiful end of Act II moment with him. I connected with him because he’s such a kid. He’s such a beautifully optimistic child running around in Riley, and I think that is why people love him so much. He’s that wonderful part of ourselves that believes in everything. He was super fun to write.
Josh: Since this movie takes place in the mind, one of the things we did early on is make a huge list of all the potential mind things that we could experience, like Dream Production and Stream of Consciousness. Stream of Consciousness didn’t make it into the final film, but one of the other ideas was an imaginary friend. At one point we had a whole hobo camp of imaginary friends that Riley used to have. That was the first time we had a character like Bing Bong in there. We liked that character so much that he kept evolving. Early on we wanted to treat him like an out-of-work actor that was trying to get playtime with Riley even though he didn’t realize that she’s now older than three.
I had a lot of fun working on that character. I came up with him crying candy. It was just that kind of weird stuff that a little kid would come up with. I always thought that he would be a sympathetic character because he’s trying to overcompensate so he can get played with again and be thought of. I remember the day that Pete thought that maybe Bing Bong should sacrifice himself to show his real love toward Riley. As soon as Pete said that it crushed me, but at the same time I knew that was exactly what we should do.
It’s funny that you mention the hobo camp, because now that I think of it the character design for Bing Bong has him dressed like a hobo.
Josh: Yeah, exactly. He’s got the patches, the old jacket, and the hat. It’s very much a tramp sort of costume.
Josh, in addition to Inside Out you are co-directing Toy Story 4. You help create stories for some of the most beloved characters in pop culture. Do you feel a sense of responsibility when writing stories for these characters considering what they mean to people?
Josh: I do, but if I were to think about it that way I think I would just crawl into a ball and start crying.[Laughs] I love these characters just as much as everybody else does, if not more because I spend all day with them all the time. I want to make stories with these characters that I want to watch and experience. I believe that if I can satisfy myself that the audience will be happy as well. All of us at Pixar love these characters as much as the audience does. You spend so much time with them that they really do feel like your own children.
I can guess a character like Riley especially feels like one of your children because you made the film during your daughter’s earliest years.
An extra bit of that is that the young version of Riley is actually voiced by my daughter, so yes.
Josh, you also wrote and directed Riley’s First Date, which is a short sequel to Inside Out. What do you think are the story requirements for a good sequel?
Josh: The bottom line of it is that we want to continue the story if it’s a story worth telling. WithRiley’s First Date there was an opportunity to make a short and I wanted to continue telling Riley’s story. We had so much fun with the boy at the end of the movie that I wanted to put them in a situation and see what would happen there. I treated Riley’s First Date as if you were just watching more of Inside Out.
Meg, between Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, and Captain Marvel, you seem entrenched in Disney properties. Have you discovered any particular advantages to writing for Disney?
Meg: The honor of it is that Disney has such an amazing history in film. The common denominator between having worked with Pixar and now that I’m working on some other Disney projects is that so far all questions have been a singular question, which is, “Is this the best story that we can tell?” That really has been the focus, and as a writer that is such an amazing bar to hit.
Josh, you’ve worked for Pixar for over a decade now and have contributed to some of the most successful animated films of all time. What do you see as the advantages of working in a creative environment like Pixar’s?
Josh: I really believe that the reason the movies are so successful is because of this environment. We’re all working together to make the best movie we can possibly make, and fortunately the audience has been enjoying our films and the stories we tell. It’s because we’re all in this room together bouncing ideas off each other and making each other laugh. Whether any of that makes it into the film or not, it makes the atmosphere very collaborative.
Check out more articles by Christopher McKittrick at Creative Screenwriting.