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Interview: Director Peter Sohn Talks Cultures Clashing and Opposites Attracting in ‘Elemental’

April 18, 2023Ben MK

You might know him as the voice of Sox the robotic cat, Squishy the jelly monster frat, or Emile the culinarily gifted rat, but Peter Sohn's ties to Pixar go much farther back than Lightyear, Monsters University and Ratatouille. Originally an artist who worked on such animated favorites as Finding Nemo, WALL·E and Up, Sohn made his feature-length directorial debut with 2015's The Good Dinosaur. And now, with Elemental, Sohn is stepping back into the director's chair for what is guaranteed to be another Pixar classic, in this 8-years-in-the-making story about literal opposites attracting, in which a girl with a fiery personality named Ember (Leah Lewis) meets a go-with-the-flow kind of guy named Wade (Mamoudou Athie).

I caught up with Peter Sohn to chat about Elemental, the cultural and filmmaking inspirations that went into the making of the film, the fact that it marks Pixar's first foray into the romantic comedy genre, and more.

Where did the idea for Elemental come from, and what about the story made you want to step back into the director's chair, 8 years after The Good Dinosaur?

Sohn: The idea came from three personal places for me. One of them was just this experience of marrying someone that was not Korean, and all the culture clash [with] my parents [and] my grandparents. And then the second piece was this idea of this world of elements. It just felt like a world that was rife with metaphors and symbolism [about] cultures mixing and not mixing, and the fun of that world. And then this idea of being a foreigner and coming to a new place, and all that comes from those themes. That's where that came from.

And [as for] jumping back into [being a director] — these things take so long, you really need to find something that's gonna keep pulling you through. And this gratefulness and appreciation for the sacrifices our parents have made was that fuel. When I got lost, I would just keep coming back to that north star.

Elemental is, in many ways, a rom-com, which would make it a first for a Pixar film. Why do you think it has taken nearly 30 years for Pixar to dip its toes into the genre?

Sohn: That's a really great question. I feel like the projects are always so different, from different points of view of the different filmmakers that are behind them. Everyone's trying to push something newer. WALL·E had romance in it. But this idea of two characters that are finding what's missing in each other, and beginning to see how those puzzle pieces can connect, was a new avenue in story breaking. Most of the time, it's this journey of friendship, where this is something beyond that, and something that's gonna go deeper. Trying to find that key was interesting. But what's interesting about this film is that it's not just a young boy meeting a young girl, it's also a father-and-a-daughter story. So there's this triangle that starts to happen that hopefully resonates with everyone.

What were some of the cultural inspirations, as well as your own filmmaking inspirations (rom-com or otherwise), that you drew from while making Elemental?

Sohn: There were a lot of fun ones. Like [when] I brought my in-laws to eat Korean food for the first time. My dad had ordered all this spicy food, and [my in-laws] had never had anything like that. And just watching them go through that all got into the movie in this funny way, where fire people ate hot coals. And so we would take something personal and flip it in this creative way, and "Elementalizing" it.

[As for filmmaking inspirations], the magical worlds and characters of [Hayao] Miyazaki was one aspect of it. My favorite romantic comedies — like Moonstruck or The Big Sick — and big city films like Chinatown and The Godfather were all ingredients [that went] into making this thing.

There are so many interesting and unique characters in the film, but is there a particular character (or characters) that's your favorite?

Sohn: I would say that even though, in making the characters, fire and water were both difficult, ultimately, the water character of Wade was something that I really started falling in love with. Just cuz of his free emotionality. He's transparent, so you could see his emotions on his sleeve. And that sort of transparency is something that I wish I had more of in my life. There's just an envious thing about him that I never expected.

And is there a certain scene (or scenes) in the movie that was your favorite to work on?

Sohn: One of them would just ruin the film itself, so I'll keep that one as a surprise. But there's a moment where Ember catches her father working late at night. And I remember this with my dad, [who] worked a grocery store like until 11 o'clock at night. Sometimes I'd find him falling asleep at the counter, just cuz he'd been working so much. And the animator found this performance with the fire, where the father's fire was roiling much slower. It just got me connected right into that feeling of this idea of our parents and how much they gave up to give us a life. This little performance that this animator did gets me every time.

Last but not least, what do you want viewers to take away from Elemental?

Sohn: I hope they have a great time at the movies, and to come back to the theaters. But at the same time, [I hope they] have some fun with the elements. I hope they get a little science love in there. But, ultimately, [I hope they're] grateful for their parents' sacrifices that they've had in their lives.

Elemental is in theatres June 16th.

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