There’s a superb moment in Pixar’s short film Riley’s First Date? where a 12 year-old boy named Jordan stares listlessly out of a window. His eyes are half-closed, his mouth slightly open, his shoulders slumped. Then the view cuts to the fantastical space inside the boy’s brain, and all his emotions are enjoying the downtime: skating around on half-pipes, whooping and wailing with delight.
It’s a short, almost disposable sequence, but one which aptly sums up the humor which made Inside Out, directed by Pete Docter and Jonas Rivera and released earlier this year, such a hit with audiences. Everything that happens in both the feature film and its related short feels rooted in ordinary human experience; to borrow a phrase from The Simpsons, “It’s funny because it’s true.”
Riley’s First Date? is the latest directorial gig for Josh Cooley, a multi-talented artist, voice actor and writer who both served as co-screenwriter on Inside Out and the voice of the faintly terrifying Jangles the clown. As a result, he was well placed to take on the task of delivering a new, four-minute short film set just after the events of Inside Out. It catches up with Riley four months on, and reintroduces us to Jordan, the boy we briefly met at the end of the main feature – you know, the shy kid whose brain shuts down in panic when Riley first speaks to him.
“There’s a famous quote, I don’t know who said it, but it’s ‘Comedy is truth,'” Cooley says when we bring up the subject of Jordan and his listless staring. “And some humor is being told the truth faster than you’re ready to hear it. So the quicker you see it, it’s just funnier. So, specifically in Jordan, I was looking at the end of the movie for that thing where, ‘There’s a girl talking to me and I don’t know how to handle this!’”
Knowing that he wanted to bring Jordan back for the short, Cooley then began thinking, “What’s the next step?” The result is Riley’s First Date?, which explores the emotional turmoil which occurs behind the scenes when Jordan turns up at the house of Riley’s parents one afternoon. Jordan knocks on the door and asks Riley whether she’d like to go out skating; cue all kinds of panic and confusion in the minds of father Bill (Kyle MacLachlan) and Jill (Diane Lane). Is Riley really going out on her first date?
Which brings us back to that tiny yet wonderful moment described earlier: Jordan slumped in a chair, staring into space, while Bill glowers at the boy with suspicion and resentment. Inside his brain, Anger and Disgust are working overtime. Who is this punk kid? He’s not good enough for my daughter…
For fans of the original Inside Out, the razor-sharp timing of the cuts in Riley’s First Date? will feel like familiar territory. It’s a deceptively complex kind of storytelling, both from a writing and a technical filmmaking perspective, as Cooley admits:
“Jumping from inside to outside, you have to time that just right for the jokes to work. So we would get into editorial and say, “Take frames out here, take frames out there” just to get that snappy feel to it.”
That snappy cutting from the interior world of emotions, governed by such characters as Joy (Amy Poehler), Anger (Bill Hader) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith), all came together in Inside Out’s lengthy story development – in fact, it was a relatively low-key drama scene where Riley and her parents sit around the family dinner table, where the film’s tone and rhythm began to fall into place.
“Once that clicked in, it was in every single version,” Cooley tells us. “We said, ‘Okay, that’s our marker.’ We knew that cutting inside and outside to see how they were affecting each other was the key to making the film work. That was our benchmark.”
By now, Pixar’s process of writing and building its movies is fairly well-known; stories are developed in lengthy meetings where artists and writers share gags and draw storyboards. Eventually, entire rough versions of stories are put together as makeshift films, with hand-drawn images accompanied by the artists’ own voices bringing the characters to life.
“We’d storyboard a whole 90 minute version of the movie that you could watch in the theatre and get a feel for what’s playing and what’s not,” explains Mark Nielsen, who’s producer on Riley’s First Date. “Does it make sense? What characters are we loving or what characters are we hating? We ended up doing that 10 times over the course of five years. We had 10 full screenings of Inside Out…”
“All of them very different,” Cooley interjects.
As a result of this iterative process, it’s inevitable that some jokes and ideas don’t make the final cut. There was one, Cooley tells us, that was designed to follow up on a story beat that came earlier in Inside Out: having moved from Minnesota to San Francisco, Riley and her family are still waiting for all their furniture to turn up at the end of the film.
“I actually thought of a gag, I think I pitched it to Pete and it didn’t work out,” Cooley says. “It was, while they’re at the hockey game at the end of the movie, the removal van turns up at their place and the guy rings the doorbell and goes, ‘Eh, nobody’s answering. I’ll have to put it in storage.’ So they never get their furniture!”
Thankfully, the furniture has turned up by the time of Riley’s First Date?, which, Nielsen reveals, allowed the animation team to re-use some of the furniture from the old Minnesota house set and dress it into the once bare and grey house in San Francisco. Meanwhile, Cooley had to imagine what the inside of Jordan’s head would look like, with his emotions riding skateboards and wearing little jackets.
What’s most noteworthy about Riley’s First Date? is that, after the genuinely moving moments of pathos and reflection in Inside Out, this short follow-up goes for a lighter yet equally well-observed approach. Weighing in at just four minutes long, it’s enough to leave us keen to see more; but while the short might seem like the perfect subject for Pixar’s first sitcom, don’t expect to see a regular series anytime soon.
“Oh, I would not want to make 25 minutes a week,” Cooley says, rubbing his temples with his fingers. “There’s a reason I work on four year-long projects!”
Besides, Cooley has another small project to occupy his time: something called Toy Story 4, which he’s co-directing with John Lasseter.