Written by: 
Jessica DeLeón

Mike Jones came to UNT to be an English teacher.

Then he got to talking to his Clark Hall suitemates, and the subject of movies came up all the time.

"Why don't you go watch 8 1/2?" one of them asked, referring to the famed art film by Italian Federico Fellini.

This was in the 1990s, so Jones went to the UNT Media Library to watch it with vise-like plastic headphones on VHS tape.

"I was totally captivated by it," he says. "My head really hurt from those headphones, but I couldn't take them off."

That incident inspired Jones to pursue a career in film. Now 30 years later -- and after many, many attempts -- he has found success as the co-screenwriter for the Pixar movie Soul, which has earned Golden Globes for Best Animated Feature Film and Best Original Score, and is receiving Oscar buzz. The film not only caps Jones' quest to see his words play out on screen, but it earned a devoted audience for its plot that examines the meaning of life.

"It's been a watermark I hope I can reach again," he says. "I think this film has an important message for right now."

'Life is not one thing'
Soul movie still
In the movie "Soul", music teacher Joe is about to play his dream gig, but a near-fatal accident puts him in "The Great Before" where he meets an unborn soul named 22 who is afraid to become a human. Here, Joe and 22 check out a restaurant.

When Jones became an avid movie fan, he took a few film classes and chatted with his friends.

"The idea of writing a movie and being involved in movies was floated by somebody -- let's all apply to film school!" he says.

He transferred to New York University, known for its strong film program, with the intent of becoming a cinematographer, but a writing teacher took him aside and told him, "You ought to think about writing."

"That got into my head," Jones says. "When somebody tells you you're slightly good at something, I need to do something."

After graduation, he began writing screenplays and editing Filmmaker magazine. He kept writing for years. Studios often bought his scripts, but the screenplays didn't get made into movies.

Soul movie stil
Joe plays his dream gig.

But he never gave up.

"You have to con yourself into believing that 'this one' is going to get made," he says.

He really knew that possibility could become reality four years ago when he landed at Pixar, the Disney studio known for its animated works like Inside Out and Toy Story.

Director Pete Docter had an idea for a movie after the birth of his son, who seemed to be born with a personality already intact -- "what if there was a place and time where souls are given a personality?"

"Together we came up with a story idea -- a soul who doesn't want to die meets a soul who doesn't want to live," Jones says.

Lessons learned

The movie depicts a music teacher, Joe, who is about to play his dream gig, but a near-fatal accident puts him in "The Great Before" where he meets an unborn soul named 22 who is afraid to become a human. They both travel to Earth so Joe can perform that gig -- but not without a few adventures along the way.

Does Jones consider himself similar to Joe?

"I feel like I am constantly trying to learn the lesson that Joe learns at the end of the movie -- a measure of fulfillment of life is not one thing, but many things," he says. "We didn't want Joe to be fulfilled (with the gig). It didn't mean everything for him. While I wrote that lesson, I'm trying to learn from the lesson."

Jones worked on the project for four years -- and it was always changing. For example, in an early version, Joe didn't go back to Earth.

"At Pixar, that's all we do," he says. "We redo and redo for years and years."

While he never grew tired of it, he would lose focus on it.

"Is that joke funny anymore?" he says. "I was on pins and needles. Do people get it?"

That validation came when the film was released on Christmas on Disney+, and he became inundated with texts, emails and social media posts from fans who loved the movie. Fans also wondered why Lisa, a potential love interest, didn't come up at the end of the movie.

"They care so much about Joe, and they want Joe to be happy," he says.

His next movie, called Luca, will release this summer. It's about two boys -- who are sea monsters -- as they experience their most memorable summer while living in the Italian Riviera. He describes it as one of Pixar's most beautiful movies.

And even though not everyone can go to the theater during this time of COVID, Jones is ready to return to that magical experience of the movies.

"There's something in particular about the movie theater," he says. "You can't tweet, you can't get up, you can't pause the movie or rewind it. The experience forces you to get to the next moment. Your attention is directed to that screen."

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