Years ago, screenwriter Meg LeFauve made the bold choice to leave a career as an executive at Jodie Foster’s Egg Pictures, surprising many. But the move has paid off for her in a big way leading her on a path toward an Oscar nomination for her work on Pixar’s Inside Out, which she shares with Pete Docter, as well as co-writer Josh Cooley. Going back many years, LeFauve had an affection and respect for the writers of Pixar, whom she considers some of the finest storytellers in the business, not knowing that she would ultimately end up co-writing two Pixar films in the span of a few years—Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur. For her next projects, the writer is sticking with Disney, penning a Tina Fey-driven live-action film, as well as Captain Marvel, which will make history as the first ever female-driven Marvel film. Below, LeFauve shares her love of Pixar, the collaborative process on her Pixar films, and her thoughts on the way women are represented in cinema.
A video called “Inside Out: Outside Edition” by Jordan Hanzon has been making the rounds on the internet—it’s a 15 minute short film version of the movie with all the “inside” bits cut out, and it demonstrates the power of Pixar’s visual storytelling. Have you seen it?
I have. I’ve heard of it and I’ve seen pieces of it. It doesn’t surprise me because during the writing process with Josh and Pete, we were always very aware of telling these multiple stories—we’re telling Riley’s story outside and we’re telling Joy’s story down inside the mind loft, and we’re telling the story up in headquarters, and they all have to relate and talk to each other, but they also have to stand on their own. So there were three storylines moving at the same time. [Laughs] It’s fun that people liked the movie that much that they do that.
As you transitioned from your work at Egg Pictures to your work as a writer, what was it about Pixar and the animated format that spoke to you?
For me it really was the storytelling—the level of storytelling they do at Pixar. And of course, I was a huge fan, starting with Toy Story, of their animation ability and the kinds of stories you can tell, both visually and metaphorically, with animation. As a storyteller myself, it’s such a great treat to be able to do. I wasn’t somebody who set out specifically only to do animation, but I feel incredibly lucky that I ended up there.
Some threads of psychology suggest that there are eight primary emotions, but in Inside Out, you’ve narrowed it down to five. You came in after a lot of this work had already been done, but what were some of the challenges in conceptualizing this film?
There’s so many challenges as a writer, but of course, the first challenge is that they’re singular emotions—Anger, Sadness—and yet they have to be complex characters. They cannot become only a single note—that became tired very quickly. So even though they’re singular emotions, they have to be, themselves, moving through complex character emotions and having their own experiences as characters. And then, of course, they’re in a room and they’re not going anywhere. (Laughs) I remember one day Josh just saying, “We gotta have props!”—they need props—they’re five emotions in a room; what is going on in the room? We’re inventing everything—everything. And the rules now add in the layer of complexity of, there’s no template to what we’re doing and it’s all coming out of the mind of Pete Docter, so that incredible freedom is also an amazing challenge because you’ve got to start picking and choosing because it has to work as scene and metaphor, and it has to work as a story engine, and it has to work in entertainment, and it has to be emotional. I can’t really quite describe the complexity and the challenge we had with creating that world and still telling a great story at the same time.
There’s also this interesting aspect of a particular emotion being at the controls—for Riley, it’s Joy, for her father, it’s Anger. What were the discussions centering around that concept?
That was Pete Docter’s choice—my understanding of it and how I thought of it was certainly as parents, they’ve evolved, and I don’t think only one emotion dominates as much. They work much more in tandem now because they have an adult brain—they have a frontal lobe. Whereas we’re watching Riley experience all this together.
You’ve worked within different facets of the Disney Studio—first Pixar, and now Marvel, with the upcoming Captain Marvel. How would you describe the experience of the writer working within that studio system?
It’s funny because they’re all in different stages. Obviously, the Pixar experience, I’ve fulfilled it and completed it, in terms of the films. And Marvel, we’re just beginning, and I’m writing a live-action movie for Disney [starring Tina Fey] as well, so that’s in the draft stage. I would say even at all those different stages, so far, the only real bar that’s been handed to me is with story—how do we get to the best story? It’s the same with Marvel and the Disney live-action so far. That’s an amazing bar to be handed as a writer, and that’s my experience so far.
You spent a year and a half working on Inside Out and then went over to work on Pixar’s other 2015 release, The Good Dinosaur. Was it difficult to transition between these two film worlds?
What was great about it was, Inside Out was so complex, with three different storylines and multiple worlds, that really presented, as a writer, a certain kind of incredible challenge because it still had to be emotional, it still had to be fun and entertaining. It was very complex. And then moving over to The Good Dinosaur, which is the other kind of storytelling where the challenge is two characters moving through different worlds; it’s an opposite kind of challenge, and yet equally challenging because what seems incredibly simple is actually incredibly complex, in terms of the relationships and the storytelling we were having to do. In that way, it was great because my brain could move into a different kind of storytelling. But always at Pixar, the bar is high, in terms of the kind of stories and the levels of storytelling we need to reach. The challenge is always there.
You also seem to wear many hats—I believe you’re still a producer on occasion, as well as a writer, script editor and script consultant. How do you balance all that?
The core work I’m doing is as a writer, and the script consulting comes mostly because I used to be a teacher. I taught in the UCLA graduate programs and I taught for a minute at AFI. I just love working with storytellers and helping them with their stories, especially young, up-and-coming filmmakers. So that’s just an extension of something that I love to do. And the producing, I’m not really doing as much of that—that’s, again, more in the project stage.
It seems like there are not only great stories for and about women this year, but also a number of great, complex female characters. As one of only a few Oscar-nominated female writers this year, what do you think this year’s offerings reflect?
I think it’s incredibly exciting, and what I loved being able to do with Riley as a girl character was show all the different aspects of her—she can be angry, she can be sad, she can be scared. She’s a full character, and that’s what’s exciting about watching these female voices come forward. What I feel I can do personally to help with diversity is to mentor those younger female writers and writers of color who are coming up so we can hear their voices, because when you can hear them, they can get made into these films, which is incredibly exciting. With Captain Marvel, of course the first call to action for Nicole Perlman and myself is a great character and a great story, but certainly as women, we want to talk about the female experience because we’re women—that’s what we know.
Where are you in the process with Captain Marvel and your Tina Fey-starring Disney project?
On Captain Marvel, we’re really just at the beginning. Nicole and I are just spitballing through the really big, basic story questions, so there’s nothing to report there. And even if there was, I probably couldn’t tell you, but honestly, we’re just starting. And then with the Tina Fey project, I’m just working on the first draft with the producer, using the feedback and creative churn that I learned at Pixar, and it’s been really fun.