Every creative work you’ve ever loved has a hero’s journey behind it. The first spark. The endless iteration. The inevitable setbacks. The magical people who appear to help. And the breakthrough idea.
This is Kemp Powers’ story, as told in his words on episode one of the brand new Spark & Fire podcast from WaitWhat, in exclusive partnership with Skillshare.
Who is Kemp Powers?
Kemp Powers is a multi-faceted creative and storyteller. He attended Howard University before starting a career in writing as a journalist. He worked as a journalist for 17 years and wrote a memoir about his experiences, before pivoting to playwriting. In 2013, he wrote the celebrated play One Night in Miami, a fictional account of February 25, 1964, which puts Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown in conversation with each other over 90 minuets and one act. The play was celebrated, and later turned into a film which premieres later this month on Prime Video.
Never one to be pigeonholed to one element of writing, and instead setting his compass on whether he is the best person to tell the story, Kemp shifted his attention to film and television. In 2017, he wrote several scripts for Star Trek: Discovery, and in 2018, he co-wrote and co-directed Pixar’s Soul with Pete Docter and Mike Jones. The film released in December 2020 to tremendous reception. It’s Soul that’s at the center of Kemp’s hero’s journey on episode one of Spark & Fire, the story that could only be told by him.
Working with Pixar
When Pixar approached Kemp, he had just turned down the opportunity to work on a television show. He was in a pattern of saying ‘no’ to projects that didn’t call his attention, but was unsure if he’d turned down an opportunity. Call it fortuitous timing that Pixar solicited his creative skills, offering him a very secretive pitch to come up to Emeryville and discuss a new project they were working on. Shortly thereafter, Kemp flew up to the Bay Area from his home in Los Angeles, and heard the pitch for the rough version of Soul. It was just an idea missing a lot of the pieces, but he saw incredible potential. Within just a matter of weeks, he was commuting back and forth from Los Angeles to Emeryville for the start of a couple of years working on Soul.
“Screenwriting is usually a solitary pursuit,” Kemp shares on the podcast. “That is not what we do at all. Writing is something that happens almost every day, and it’s happening even as the film is in animation. You’re just writing and writing and writing. You’re sitting in the edit and you have your laptop because you make a discover and edit and very quickly rewrite lines based on what you’re seeing.”
In the case of Soul, Kemp notes that “ideas can come from anywhere… anyone on the team. It’s really a group sport. It’s the ultimate form of collaboration, but as the writer, it’s your responsibility to process those ideas and actually write the script.”
In writing Soul Kemp broke down the film into sequences, which were then storyboarded by a concept artist, and continued to be written to the point of perfection, which we see in the final film.
Character Development in Soul
Spoiler alerts ahead, but in episode one of Spark & Fire, Kemp goes into detail on the creation of his favorite scene in the film: the barbershop sequence.
“So much of the journey of Soul for Joe Gardner is this journey of discovery. What does it mean to lead a fulfilled life? You know, are you a failure if you don’t realize your dream? Conversely, if you do realize your dream, does that make your life perfect? These are big, big, heady questions and exactly the kinds of questions one might bring up in a conversation in a barbershop.”
The scene was critical to Kemp’s vision for Soul. It required intricate set dressing, from music albums on the walls, to custom made posters of Black men’s hairstyles, one of which Kemp loved so much that he blew it up and framed it for his home. But that scene in particular allows the viewer a glimpse into the protagonist’s world through the relationship he has with his barber. As Kemp notes, “the thing about a barbershop is often the relationship you have with your barber is going to be the longest relationship you have with anyone in your life… here’s a guy who might know things about the main character that the main character doesn’t know about himself.” Through the process of uncovering the character of Dez, the barber, we get to learn more about the main character and the profound discoveries he makes along the journey of Soul.
The Note Behind the Note
Kemp talks about the importance of receiving feedback, but also the need to really get to the root of what that feedback is.
“There’s this expression called ‘the note behind the note,'” he explains. “Sometimes people will give you a note and the note doesn’t really make sense. They aren’t able to articulate specifically what the problem is. The fact that it’s bumping for them means that there’s something that needs to be addressed, so it’s up to you to find the note behind the note that they’re giving you.”
After running into this issue with Soul, and really diving into the note behind the note, Kemp was able to hone in on a script that felt tighter, more powerful, and truer to the vision he had planned for Soul.
Listen to Spark & Fire, Episode One
Discover the entire story behind Kemp Powers’ hero’s journey as he brought Soul to life with Disney Pixar. Listen, subscribe, rate, and review Spark & Fire here.
To learn more about episodes of Spark & Fire, visit here.