Is journalism the best training ground for screenwriting? Two-thirds of the writers of Pixar’s “Soul” have backgrounds as reporters: Mike Jones (whose resume includes expert work at Variety, 2007-2009) and Kemp Powers (17 years on the beat, including stints at Forbes, Reuters and Newsweek).
They wrote “Soul” with director Pete Docter; Powers is also co-director of the film, which debuts Dec. 25 on Disney Plus and seems a likely contender for Oscars and other film awards.
Jones and Powers join a stellar list of newsmen who became screenwriters. Many went on to win Oscars, including Mark Boal (“The Hurt Locker”), Cameron Crowe (“Almost Famous”), William Monahan (“The Departed”), Emeric Pressburger (“The Invaders”) and, of course, Herman Mankiewicz, Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, Ring Lardner Jr. and Billy Wilder (six Academy Awards, plus the Thalberg).
Jones has been with Pixar since 2013; in 2016, he had a meeting with Docter, who was fascinated that his son was born with a personality that seemed completely his own. “Pete wanted to set a movie in a place beyond place and time, where souls are given their personalities,” says Jones. “We came up with the idea ‘What if a soul who doesn’t want to die meets a soul who doesn’t want to live, and they end up influencing each other?’ The idea is to explore what it takes to live a fulfilled life. That idea became our North Star.”
Powers signed on in August 2018. He says, “In the initial version of ‘Soul,’ the main character was an actor, and not Black. Once they landed on the idea of a Black jazz musician, they called me. They’d read my play ‘One Night in Miami’ and an unsold pilot I’d written.
“I was working very closely with Pete, Mike and the whole team. Maybe a year after I got there, Mike went to start writing [Pixar’s 2021 film] ‘Luca’ and Pete asked me to be co-director of ‘Soul.’ That 12-week assignment ended up two years of my life, which is a great thing. I got to see the film through to the end.”
Pixar prides itself on widespread collaboration. Jones and Powers had adjoining offices and would map out scenes, then bring their work to Docter and others in the “Soul pod” on the Pixar campus in Emeryville, Calif. It was constant writing, consultations, discussions and revisions. Powers says, “For me, the experience coming on board was like having to hop onto a bullet train that won’t stop — and not get my arms ripped off.”
Did journalism feed directly into screenwriting? “For me, it did in terms of having thick skin,” Powers says. “I think journalists are not as precious of their words as a novelist might rightly be. I credit the thick skin and the reporting aspect, the amount of research. Even with a simple idea, I find myself digging for information because you want to be as informed as possible before opening your mouth.”
Jones adds, “My first big feature for Variety was the first Abu Dhabi Film Festival. I spent so much time on that story and I wanted it to sing; I slaved over it. I turned in the story and didn’t hear anything. So I called and asked an editor if it was OK and she said, ‘Eh,
we made it work.’ They had cut it in half; it read great, but my first experience made me realize ‘I need to get over any preciousness about my words.’ It was a great education.”
For the record, other Variety alums include Dan Gilroy, Oscar-nominated for his 2014 “Nightcrawler,” while current executive VP global content/executive editor Steven Gaydos has had multiple screenplays produced, including the Monte Hellman-directed “Road to Nowhere.”
So, you aspiring screenwriters can go to film school, or you can study Robert McKee … or you can become a journalist.