'Soul' Filmmakers Explain How Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross Helped Them Conjure the Afterlife

Director Pete Docter, co-director Kemp Powers and producer Dana Murray discuss the Pixar movie's mashup of jazz and ambience

BY Alex HudsonPublished Dec 7, 2020

Life is a bit like jazz — an emotional journey full of improvisation and wrong notes. That's what makes jazz musician Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) the perfect lead character for Soul, Pixar's emotional new movie about a man who dies and then goes on an otherworldly quest to fulfill his life's purpose.

"There was a point in which you were talking about the main character being an actor who got a part in Death of a Salesman," co-director Kemp Powers reminds producer Dana Murray during a Zoom call with Exclaim! "It was like the opposite of a jazz character."

Director Pete Docter chimes in: "We moved away from that because it felt like he was out to be famous or known in some way. We were looking for some noble pursuit that we could all get behind that would be interesting to watch, and that felt like it was for the greater good, as opposed to self interest."

In the end, it was a Herbie Hancock video on YouTube that inspired the filmmakers to change directions and rewrite Joe as a pianist (and even get Hancock involved as a consultant). Late Show bandleader Jon Batiste came on as a musical contributor, writing songs for Joe to perform.

But in the end, jazz only tells half of the musical story of Soul. The score was handled by Oscar-winning composers (and Nine Inch Nails members) Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who inject the film with a sense of futuristic electro ambience that's perfect for its mystical, psychedelic depiction of the afterlife.

"They talked about trying to do their version of of Randy Newman," remembers Docter, explaining that Pixar scores have typically been whimsical and orchestral.

"We're like 'No, no, no, that's not why you're here,'" interjects Murray. "We wanted this to sound otherworldly. And all their scores do have a sense of ethereal moodiness, and so we were like, 'Don't do what we've already done.'"

Ultimately, Reznor and Ross totally abandoned the traditional Pixar model, opting for a moody soundscape that's peaceful yet eerie. It's not as jarring as some of their scores — it doesn't have the industrial throb of Watchmen, nor the atonal harshness of Bird Box, instead channeling a spooky, synthesized sweetness that feels closer to their work on Gone Girl or Mid90s.

The Pixar team loved the music so much that they ultimately let it inform some of their animation choices. "You hear this driving bass come in for Terry," says Kemp, referring to one of the supernatural characters who inhabits the afterlife. "It kind of influenced her movement because the character hadn't really been animated yet. When Terry moves, it's influenced by the music that Trent and Atticus scored the character to when it was still in storyboards."

These competing musical styles, traditional jazz and futuristic ambience, perfectly capture the two sides of Soul. On the one hand, this is a movie about the small-scale concerns of day-to-day existence; on the other, it explores big-picture questions about the meaning of life itself.

And if getting members of Nine Inch Nails to score a family-friendly animated film seems a bit strange, well, that's part of the joy of Soul, which comes out Christmas Day through Disney+. "How do we shake things up?" asks Docter. "The fun of throwing some of these wild cards in, I think, ultimately brings forth some really cool stuff."

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