“Soul” writer Mike Jones on his way from film journalism to Pixar

A former editor of filmmakers and IndieWire, Jones eventually found his calling as Pixar’s senior story and creative artist. But it was not an easy journey.

In Pixar’s “Soul,” jazz pianist Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) struggles to escape the afterlife after an injury threatens his upcoming gig. The film was written by Pete Docter (“Inside Out”), Kemp Powers (“One Night in Miami”) and Mike Jones, who also debuted at Pixar as lead producer. Jones started out as a film journalist for Filmmaker and IndieWire before turning to screenwriting and eventually landed at Pixar. He is now on the way to a serious fight for awards, because “Soul” remains a serious candidate for the best animated film and other categories.

The journey was not easy. Here Jones tells his history and how she inspired his new project.

I grew up in San Antonio, Texas in a family that loves movies, but I never thought of writing or being a part of the film industry as an option. We didn’t have a lot of money. There was a time during high school when I was alone, living in my aunt’s room and holding two jobs while I was trying to graduate. I didn’t make the grades that opened the door for me. So I felt that my future prospects were narrow. I was a nerd, a skinny kid who could put his thoughts pretty well on paper, so I went to college for two years to be an English teacher. I assumed it was done by people who loved books and writing. But I fell with a group of people from the University of North Texas who were all movie nerds.

My movie diet at the time was “Star Wars” and “ET”. That man said, “You should watch this movie“ 8 1/2 ”in the movie library. I put on those awful high school grade plastic headphones and I put on VHS. I remember two things from that experience: how much my head ached throughout the film and how much I couldn’t turn it off anyway. I was so confused and yet delighted at how beautiful it was. I really tried to make the two things coincide – I was so confused, but so preoccupied with this unconventional narrative.

From that moment on, I was completely unprepared on this constant diet of art films. The idea of ​​going to film school was still foreign to me, but the group I hung out with wanted to be like Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, who were both going to New York. I decided, “well, why not?” So I wrote the script — I don’t even remember what it was — and went into New York. For some reason, going to New York and making a movie opened up a world to me. It was as if this strange university on the East Coast was giving me a ticket to Texas.

However, it cost me a lot of money that my family did not have. I took every loan I could plus personal loans because it was something I just had to do. Texas is so big and my family is spread over every inch of that place that the idea of ​​leaving seemed strange. Still, when I could suddenly amuse the idea, I had to get out.

At first I concluded that I wanted to be a cinematographer. But the writing teacher there pulled me aside and said, “You should think about the script.” One day I went to IFFM – later known as IFP Week – which took over Angelica over the weekend. I found myself in a theater and saw all these people hacking their movies. I soon joined IFP, and because I could write, I was noticed by Karol Martesko, a publisher at the then Filmmaker Magazine.

I started as a special project manager at Filmmaker in 1993, which was a wonderful time in the history of independent film. All of these things were coming out and people really noticed it. The film’s editor, Scott Macaulay, gave me a chance to write. From that point on, I became editor-in-chief for the next four years and I just loved it. We were at 57th Street in the DGA building, and IndieWire started out as a sister publication in the adjoining office, so I got involved with them, too. Co-founders Eugene Hernandez and Mark Rabinowitz had so much energy and it was clear they were starting something exciting.

IndieWire co-founders Eugene Hernandez and Mark Rabinowitz

Through all of this, I continued to write screenplays. By 1999, I had written three or four screenplays. However, it was always hard to take me seriously as a screenwriter, even when I started making a little money from it. When I would tell people that I was a screenwriter and that they knew I was a journalist, it was hard for them to see it. There was a stigma in a strange way. Impatience in trying to be something I am not. When I hid the fact that I was a journalist when I applied for the paper, I felt that the door was opening a little more.

I wrote the script called “Miller” and delivered it to a casting agent who sent it to Chris Cooper, Marcia Gay Harden, and Scarlett Johansson. Suddenly we had this movie going to be made – and then it didn’t. But the script got around and Chris Cooper’s management company read it and asked me if I wanted a manager. I signed a contract with Lindsay Williams of AMG and David Kopple of Gersh. From that moment on, I started getting more work done. I soon became what you might call a “working screenwriter”: I didn’t make a lot of money, but I earned enough to make ends meet, enough to be a full-time screenwriter for about eight years.

I sat down comfortably to write a spectacle, an adaptation of a book called Steven Sherrill’s “Minotaur Breaks a Cigarette Break.” It was about the Minotaur as a short-order barbecue cook in a family steakhouse in Wichita, Kansas. I connected with that. I did such jobs in Texas. I had burns on my hands from cooking fat. I knew that kind of loneliness of working with low wages. My original screenplays have always drained my life and I have usually had more success with them. However, “Minotaur” added a genre element that was exciting to me. I could put aspects of my life into those fantasy elements. It was a real discovery. I wish I had learned that sooner.

I always limped a bit and decided I had to go to LA. My first son was just born and I felt pressured to make this a real career. Everyone said, “You have to go to LA,” so we did too. The Minotaur script should be my new writing pattern.

Then the writers ’strike happened at the worst possible moment.

When we arrived in LA, a strike was inevitable. You could see it coming. I was desperate for work. But no one would hire me before the strike. So I put the “Minotaur” script in the drawer and tried to figure out what to do.

Mike Jones at WGA Strike 2007

I started giving tentacles to my journalism colleagues. Eugene Hernandez recommended me to Dani Harris. She wanted someone to follow film festivals for Variety.com, while occasionally contributing to independent film in daily and weekly magazines. And this was Variety, with gold leaf business cards. A world far from filmmakers. I have never made such money as a journalist. And it was true when this new idea of ​​publishing online took shape.

The diary and weekly were still coming out, but in the corner were me, Dana, Anne Thompson and a few others who were throwing things at various blogs. I remember having problems with press editors when I published something that ruined a story that went into print. We managed to introduce the person to the first screening of the movie “There Will Be Blood” from Fantastic Fest. I told the writer to rate the room because the buzzing was so hot. I posted the reactions on my blog The Circuit and I got into so much trouble because it was considered a review. Todd McCarthy was furious! And he had a point. I crossed the line. I was ashamed.

I worked at Variety for two years. I liked it. But after Variety was acquired, there were a lot of cuts – Ben Fritz, Anne Thompson and I were released, among others. They let me go as soon as we found out we had another child. So what could I do?

Jones works for Variety, where he ran the blog The Circuit.

Well, I took the “Minotaur takes a cigarette” out of the drawer, transcribed it and gave it to my agent and manager (who, thankfully, stayed on strike with me). It turned out to be a pattern that got me back to work. I remember David Kopple saying he would send it to every person in his rolodex. Suddenly, when I thought I was really going to have to crawl back up, I found a job again. One of the places that read it was Pixar. They called and said, “We’d love to meet you whenever you’re in the Bay Area.” I said, “I’m coming tomorrow,” I got in my car and drove there to meet the development echo Mary Coleman and Emily Zulauf.

I loved the place. It was so far from any studio I worked in: this beautiful little balloon that didn’t touch Hollywood. At first I didn’t think there was a way I could end up there. But Pixar doesn’t necessarily want animation writers – they, for example, are looking for authors outside of Sundance. The studio can make everything funny or look great, but they know they need a story. They are more attracted to unusual playwrights (and a few also have comedies from comedy). And so I got my first job with them helping Henry Selick while Pixar oversaw his film. I worked for him for a few months and then jumped into Pixar to help with the movie The Good Dinosaur.

During that time, I became close with “Coco” writer Matt Aldrich and “Inside Out” writer Meg LeFauve. I watched their films come together. We were in a mutual Brain Trust and went through Pixar’s rigorous story process. This took home the idea that the narratives in these stories merge towards a pure, emotional moment. They are looking for writers who can build and lead to that emotion. Now, as a senior storyteller and creative artist in the studio, I tell that to every writer who enters. The core of Pixar’s iterative procedure is to lay those foundations.

For me, Pixar never came across as a factory. It is run by artists. And Pixar has that mandate to “schedule up” embedded in their DNA. Fail fast. It failed a lot. Throw it away and keep throwing. Their big advantage is that they can shoot the film over and over again for years. This iterative procedure in Pixar is key.

My father, who encouraged me to leave Texas and pursue a film career, died while making the film “Soul”. We were close and the experience of loss inspired a key moment in the film. There is a sequence called “Epiphany” in which Joe pulls out all the items he collected during his travels at 22. He puts them on the piano and “plays”. At that moment, he triggers not only the memories he created, but also others from his own life.

Pete Docter, Kemp Powers and I would have long conversations about what it means to feel fulfilled in life. Early on, we didn’t want Joe’s character to find pleasure as a successful jazz pianist. We all now have a measure of success in our careers, but will we think about it on our deathbed? We don’t think so. We will think about our close relationships, the awe in our lives, the regrets, maybe even something as simple as digging our toes in the sand or staying with our father in the last days.

Pixar asks their artists to constantly draw from their lives – what makes you emotional, what you nurture from your life, what’s hard about it. Before I came across this, I would write down the specifications that came from my upbringing. And while they gave me a lot of work, they never succeeded. Sometimes, when I rewrite a job or assignments, I could drag my life into the story. But Pixar expects that kind of honesty to inform their films. It’s a stressful but wonderful POV to write. I can’t imagine being anywhere else.

“Soul” is now airing on Disney +.

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