Inside definitely Out (a review)

poster

Earlier today, I had the opportunity to see the latest Pixar movie Inside Out in the company of one of the film’s writers and its story supervisor Josh Cooley (a very nice man). And aside from receiving a lovely lecture about story development at the famed animation house, the connection afforded me an opportunity to appreciate the movie much more than I did on simple viewing.

To briefly bring everyone up to speed, Inside Out tells the story of the emotions that rattle around inside the mind of 11-year-old Riley as she struggles with a move across the country. Although we are introduced to 5 main emotions in Riley Headquarters (get it?)—Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear—there is no mistaking that Joy is numero uno in this space.

Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) sucks the oxygen out of any room she’s in and proves that even the best intentioned of assholes is still an asshole. Her goal in life is to make every moment of Riley’s life a happy one and is not worried about shoving aside the others (ever so happily) to ensure that.

But where Joy has developed a respectful détente with Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Fear (Bill Hader), she firmly but gently has no use for Sadness (Phyllis Smith), practically ostracising the poor creature to the periphery.

With the upset of the move from Minnesota to San Francisco, though, Sadness seems to want to be more involved and in a fracas with Joy, the two get sucked out of headquarters and into the long-term storage hinterlands of Riley’s brain.

At this point, the story basically turns into the Odyssey as the two emotions struggle to return home before Riley falls completely apart at the hands of the others. (To say much more would be to offer spoilers.)

Joy and Sadness wander the hinterlands of long-term memories

Joy and Sadness wander the hinterlands of long-term memories

The challenge I had was in trying to figure out exactly at whom Pixar was targeting the movie.

Superficially, this is a pure kids movie (ages 6 to 10, maybe), unlike many previous Pixar concoctions, which had elements for both kids and adults. Inside Out doesn’t have the depth of Toy Story or The Incredibles to truly speak to adults, much as the most mature 11-year-old isn’t ready for the adult world.

I’m not saying there aren’t adult-focused jokes interspersed throughout the film, but rather exactly that. They are interspersed, like small granules of sugar designed to feed the parents accompanying the kids to the theatre.

Up talked about loss and aging

Up talked about loss and aging

There is no real adult storyline to this film to touch adults as there was in Up or Wall-E. Instead, the film has sweet, adorable moments of baby bums and first goals that might tug at a parent’s heartstrings but never engage the soul.

But as a friend suggested, it is not strictly a kids flick either because it touches on esoteric aspects of the psyche that kids that age would never be able to comprehend, such as abstract thought and the concept of forgotten memories. The problem is these aspects are more conversations of the mind and not the soul. So even here, the adult is largely passed over unless they have an interest in neurology and psychology.

Wall-E dealt with issues of love and environmental destruction

Wall-E dealt with issues of love and environmental destruction

And as a writer, perhaps the biggest sin with Inside Out is there is no sense of what’s at stake.

Sure, Joy is losing her cool as she fights to get back to headquarters. For her, Riley having a down moment is a disaster.

And Sadness isn’t exactly having a picnic as she is routinely sideswiped or ignored by Joy in their efforts to get home. If anything, she increasingly takes the blame for everything onto herself.

But what’s at stake? What if they don’t get back to headquarters?

Does someone die? Is life no longer worth living?

I don’t know because that was never a question on the table. And without stakes, I find it difficult to root for the hero.

And this challenge is made all the more difficult by the fact that the hero (Joy) is also the villain, albeit passively. She is truly her own worst enemy, and so I quickly find myself irritated by her with no great concerns about the outcome.

The six hour conversation and lesson with Cooley helped me see a lot more of what the writers, animators, editors, directors and producers were trying to accomplish. And that did help me understand the movie better. The thing is, few others were going to get this kind of help.

The movie will do well at the box office. Of that I have no doubt. It is a wonderful vivid distraction for young kids.

But it won’t have the staying power of Pixar’s earlier efforts and likely won’t be spoken of again in a few years other than in possibly hushed whispers.

Glen Mazzara at Toronto Screenwriting Conference 2013

The Odyssey of Writing

Image

In his opening presentation to the TSC, Mazzara recounted the story of The Odyssey and used it as a metaphor for his own journey as a writer, comparing the setbacks and challenges experienced by Odysseus to his own.

As Mazzara explains, the story of Odysseus’s return home after the Trojan War is a story of changing winds. Such is the case with writers. When we decide to become writers, we have a lot of anxiety blowing in our heads. They can drive you insane. And bad news; those winds don’t go away, no matter how successful you become as a writer.

That anxiety permeates every scene you write. And once you start working with others, those people add to the confusion in your head.

Writers constantly look for validation, he says, they look for love. In this way, actors and writers have much in common as both groups are looking to receive love and adoration. The big difference is that writers know they’ll never get it, whereas actors maintain the delusion.

The chaos in writers’ heads also sets them at odds with the rest of the film and television industry, which is designed to run under more control. Thus a snarky relationship develops, with people in the industry constantly putting down or belittling writers and diminishing their works. The example he cites is the discussion of whether Shakespeare wrote his plays or it was a British lord with absolutely no record of having written a single literary word.

Mazzara says you simply have to get into a space where you are purely working on the work for the sake of the work. You have to learn to live with the anxiety.

 

He then looked at the concept of hubris and ego. In recounting the story of Odysseus blinding the Cyclops, he noted that as long as Odysseus remained “Nobody”, he was safe and managed to escape the island. It wasn’t until he stood on the prow of his escaping ship and proclaimed that it was Odysseus who blinded the Cyclops that things really went to hell.

When we write, Mazzara says, we have to remove our ego. We are only the steward of the story. The story wants to be told and we are merely the instrument by which this happens. And when working in groups, we have to be generous with each other and avoid taking credit.

He suggests that there is a tendency to try to manage our anxiety by taking the credit for work we have done or to which we have contributed, but we have to avoid this at all costs.

 

Mazzara then gets to the part of The Odyssey where Odysseus reaches Ithaca but finds his home invaded by suitors for his wife. Disguised as a beggar, he sets up a challenge that whomever can string Odysseus’s bow and fire an arrow through a series of axe heads will win the hand of Penelope. After all others have failed, the ridiculed beggar is given the opportunity and despite not being known for his strength, Odysseus strings the bow, makes the shot and then slaughters his disrespectful competitors.

All this to say that writing is about sticking to your strengths and doing it your own way. Mazzara showed loose sheets of foolscap on which he hand wrote his presentation because that’s the way he writes, by hand, on paper. When he tries to write on the computer, he finds himself editing his material and reworking lines as he writes them. On paper though, he can let the writing flow and works his way through the material in his head. However it works for you, he says, be sure you stay in the moment, stay in the story.

We all feel anxiety about conforming to how others do things. He is adamant that we have to fight this urge. As he describes it, it was a lonely journey for him to see that his method of writing works despite being antithetical to the way Hollywood works. Writing, he says, needs to be effortless.

As far as writing as part of a group in a writers’ room, he makes the comparison to a musical group heading into a recording studio, where everyone makes a contribution to the final product. Change one of the players or eliminate one component and the final product is different.

 

And finally, he says, there is a moment when you get your shit together and you know you can make it work. That is the moment you’ve come home.

 

In the Q&A, when asked about the bloody slaughter and carnage phase of The Odyssey, Mazzara said that was the editing phase of screenwriting, when the sheets are covered with red ink and look like they’ve been dipped in blood. In fact, he said, to lighten the blow on other writers, he refuses to use a red pen.