Inside Out is a complex film about the human psyche, but it has a really simple message: Sadness is an important part of life. You can’t have joy without sadness, and growing up means accepting that memories can be happy and sad. Director Pete Docter told io9 it was hard to avoid making this feel like an “after-school special.”

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Spoilers ahead...

We caught up with Docter, along with producer Jonas Rivera and co-star Kyle MacLachlan, for exclusive interviews ahead of Inside Out’s DVD release on November 3. And we got to see the brand new short film that’ll be included on the DVD, “Riley’s First Date”—in which Riley and her parents deal with some uncomfortable situations when a boy (whom you might recognize) shows up to take Riley out on the town. Suffice to say that some emotions get heightened.

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And Docter and Rivera told us that the biggest pitfall they were worried about in Inside Out was turning it into too obvious of a message film, like one of those After-School Specials with a clear moral at the end.

Usually, in an ordinary movie about drug dealers or adventures, “this stuff is subtext,” adds Docter. But in this film, the emotional stuff is front and center—”we’re putting that stuff forward as the text,” and this was “something we were struggling against.”

How did they get around this? “We made sure not to say anything ‘on the nose,’” says Docter. “You have to dramatize it, and make it a little bit disguised.” And Rivera added that they went through version after version of the film in their “story reel” tool, going through drawings of the different sequences in the film, trying to build in layers.

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But the most important guideline, says Docter, was always to “make it physical” instead of verbalizing it. So instead of having anybody ever say “sadness is an important part of life,” the film goes out of its way to show this through physical actions—and the device where the memories change color when they become sad instead of happy was an important part of this.

For example, says Rivera, there’s a scene where Joy is looking down at the memory dump and seeing all of Riley’s memories that are getting wiped out. You could have a version of that where Joy actually describes the memories and the things that Riley used to love, and the fact that these things are now gone—but there’s no need to say any of that, because the audience can see it for themselves.

Anger was originally “Ira,” and Sadness was originally Fear.

Originally, they had a version of the story where Riley, as a small child, had fewer than five emotions. And you see that as the characters grow older, they get more and more emotions, and that control room gets more and more crowded with more different types of emotion. “But it ended up being a problem,” says Docter. “We had to work really, really hard to make sure [it was clear] who they were, and what they represented.”

Adding to the potential confusion, in the early drafts of the film, the emotions had different names—Anger was called “Ira,” and Sadness was named “Misty.” But Joy was always just named Joy. “The audience had to work a little harder to find out who they were,” says Docter. The combination of the increasing number of emotions as characters grew older, plus the different names for the emotions, led to the movie “tipping over into complexity, and things being unclear.”

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So in the end, “we named them as to what their job was, and we cut out any others, to get the clarity of those five.”

Also, originally, Joy’s main nemesis in the film was Fear, rather than Sadness. “The reason why we chose that was because we thought that Fear would have a lot to say about our lives in Junior High,” says Docter. “Certainly true for me,” he laughs. “It drove a lot of decisions. And so we thought, ‘Okay, maybe this film can talk about that.’”

Adds Docter: “So we set them on their paces. We got Joy and Fear both kicked out of Headquarters and they went through the mind. We had a lot of funny stuff. But it was not [right]... Ultimately, the films are always about your main character changing. [Joy is] learning, as she goes, as to a different way to look at life. And Fear wasn’t bringing any of that to Joy. At the end of the film, you want Joy to be able to do something that she never would have been able to do at the beginning of the film. And how is Fear teaching her that? So ultimately, it felt like a character that would have much more to say about that would be Sadness, that Joy is not just going to be able to power through everything and look at the bright side of stuff. Sometimes she’s going to have to slow down and allow the sad feelings to take hold. Slow down, allow healing, ask for help... those kind of things. That’s what Sadness does.”

And even though it may seem weird that Joy learns something in the movie, rather than Riley learning something, that’s part of what was cool about this idea, says Rivera: “Riley isn’t the protagonist in this film. Riley is the setting.”

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Also, as parents, Docter and Rivera realized that this isn’t really a film about a kid, as much as about parents watching their kid grow up and deal with stuff.

The Science of Sadness

The more they dug into the science of how the mind works, the more Docter and Rivera realized that sadness really is vital. “Sadness doesn’t feel like a good thing [that] you would try to seek out,” says Docter. “And yet it’s essential for dealing with loss. You can’t just power through, like if your parents die or something—your life’s fundamentally changed. It’s silly, and ultimately destructive, to ignore those things. That’s the purpose of sadness.”

“That’s what was surprising to us,” Docter adds, “that emotions all have jobs. They all have specific benefits to us.”

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And the device in the film where memories become mixed, and have more than one color, is something that felt very true to the film-makers. “I lost my grandmother along the way of making this film,” says Rivera. “Suddenly, something that you’ve always thought of as happy—like, ‘Oh, Christmas at Grandma’s house’—now is tinged with sadness.” The memory doesn’t become entirely sad, but it has sadness attached to it.

“Whether or not the science totally backs that up,” the multi-colored, mixed-emotions “just felt right to us,” adds Rivera.

“The idea of physicalizing it, that came along the way. We didn’t have that right at the beginning,” Docter says. “The idea of a multi-colored memory. That developed maybe three or four years in.”

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“When you back at your life as a kid, you think, ‘Oh those were simple days, things were black and white,’” Docter says. “Probably actually not, but that’s the way we as adults look at it. And the complication and the nuance of adulthood, we were trying to represent that physically in the film.”

“What’s ultimately at stake in the film is, ‘Is Riley going to remain the kid we know and love, or is she going to change?’” Docter says. “Of course, she ends up changing. That’s part of the process of growing up. But it took us a while to verbalize that, to intellectualize it. And even longer to figure out how exactly to represent it. What’s the strongest, the most clear way, make that work?” Every time they switched a beat in the story, like Riley dumping her former best friend, they had to rearrange the islands inside her head to match.

But it was important for the interior of Riley’s head to have a huge scale, including a sense that there was even more of Riley than what we were seeing in the film. “We joked with our technical department that we’ve built the ocean for Finding Nemo and outer space for Wall-E, but the biggest set we’re ever going to do is the mind of this little girl,” said Rivera.

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And having these huge structures helped to dramatize the stakes of the movie. Rivera thought of the islands crumbling as being like the heart-breaking scene in Breaking Away where the main character tears up the posters of the Italian bikes that he’s always loved.

The thing of the islands of personality, and the core memories that each shape one key part of your identity, was something that “we thought we were making up,” says Docter. “Which is weird, because then in the end, we showed it to some scientists, who said, ‘No, no, that’s the way we talk about it in the literature, that we define ourselves through five to seven key elements in our lives.’”

Meanwhile, Docter insists that it’s just an accident that Pixar happens to have two very off-beat, seemingly risky projects (Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur) coming out in 2015, after a period dominated by sequels and questions about whether Pixar was still pushing the envelope. The studio is always trying to schedule things according to how soon they seem like they’ll be ready, and sometimes you get a few safer projects in a row purely due to the vagaries of scheduling. From Docter’s perspective, he and Rivera went straight from Up to Inside Out. And they didn’t feel any more pressure than usual to make this film something that would connect with audiences.

Kyle MacLachlan is filled with Joy about the return of Twin Peaks

I also got to interview Kyle MacLachlan, who plays Riley’s father. I asked him how he felt when he realized that Riley’s father’s leading emotion is anger, and he laughed. “Well, from what I understand, all of the emotions sort of shift around in there, at the console,” says MacLachlan. “And anger’s sort of the one that takes the lead” inside the father.

“I guess it feels like it’s right,” he adds. “But they’re all softer. It seems to me that they’ve all blended together a little bit more, each of the emotions. So at any time, any one of them could possibly lead, I guess.”

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Adds MacLachlan, “I tend to feel that joy leads in my life, most of the time. Silliness. Very important to me,” he laughs. “So that’s my experience... To me, it’s still joy that runs the show. Occasionally, a little bit of disgust, only because I live in New York City.”

In Inside Out, MacLachlan is playing a character who’s “very preoccupied” with his startup job, and the whole family is strugling to adjust to moving across the country. “I think what happens at the end is he sort of realizes that maybe the job has been too much of a priority for him. Although it has to be. But he needs to step back, I think, and really acknowledge the difficulties that he’s going through, that the Mom’s going through, and that Riley is going through.”

“It is the nature of our time,” adds MacLachlan, “that the demands of day-to-day life and work can really put a lot of pressure on the basic family unit.”

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MacLachlan feels like this movie has a powerful message about how emotions shape our memories, which in turn shape our vision of ourselves, “particularly with Riley as she comes through this difficult time, and [has] a little loss of innocence. And she finally experiences what happens when emotions bleed together—and they should, and they can, exist together, in the same memory.”

Between Inside Out and Agents of SHIELD, MacLachlan has gotten to play a couple of very flawed father figures lately. He says he’s been “very much” enjoying tackling this sort of role. “I never know quite what I’m going to get from moment to moment, in my work.”

He describes Cal in Agents of SHIELD as “again, a very flawed dad—flawed by circumstances—and he did his best to adjust to it. Starting out, I knew very little on that show. They give you just enough to know what you need to know. And as the character unfolded, and the story opened up and became richer, I was very excited. Because it made sense to me, that A plus B would lead to this. And the same in Inside Out—the Dad thinking that he’s doing something helpful for his family, and truly believing in it. And ultimately it did [help], but at a cost.”

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The key to getting inside these tragic, messed-up father figures, says MacLachlan, is “understanding the journey, really, and recognizing what’s needed for the story.” In the case of Inside Out, Docter and Jonas were tremendously helpful in explaining how things were going to work. And there are some super sad moments, like when the dad tries to do the goofy monkey noises, and his daughter just shuts him down. “I think Pete [Docter]’s impluse to do the movie, obviously, was his relationship with his daughter, and trying to figure out, ‘Oh, I wonder where that kind of crazy young exuberance went, as she grows older and grows closer to going into her early teens. Where does that go?’ And this was his attempt to understand that.”

And meanwhile, I had to ask MacLachlan about returning to Twin Peaks, and how that’s going. “You know, the whole world of Twin Peaks has been such a long time coming, but I’m so excited about it,” says MacLachlan.

He adds: “I think the thing that gets me going the most is the fact that David [Lynch] and I, we haven’t worked together for 25 years. And to be back in that director-actor relationship, right now, has been—and we’ve just started—has been such a joy. So much fun. We really have a very special connection, as actor and director. So I’m excited about exploring that so much.”

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But MacLachlan wouldn’t say anything about the storyline of the new Twin Peaks, or how the fact that he’s playing the “Bob” version of Agent Cooper will play out. All he’d say was, “We’ll see where it goes. But it’s definitely... it’s new, and it’s going to be pretty exciting for the fans to watch what happens.”


Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All The Birds in the Sky, coming in January from Tor Books. Follow her on Twitter, and email her.