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How a south Texas childhood helped Mike Jones craft the story of Pixar's 'Luca'

The San Antonio native is increasingly becoming an important storytelling voice for the iconic animation studio.

SAN ANTONIO — For its next act (or 24th, to be exact), the massive animation house Pixar recently released “Luca,” a coming-of-age adventure set in the colorful Italian town of Portorosso that is more conceptually straightforward than the Oscar-winning “Soul” while striking a different emotional tenor as well. 

It’s all the more impressive, then, that San Antonio native Mike Jones had a hand in crafting the screenplays of both, jumping in to help shape the stories, cut out excess material and contribute to Pixar’s storied filmography that is as much about deciphering truths of life as it is advancing the latest in CGI storytelling. 

In the days after the release of “Luca” on Disney+, KENS 5's David Lynch sat down with Jones for a brief Zoom chat about how his south Texas upbringing influenced the camaraderie of Luca and Alberto, why Vespas were so foundational an element in their tale, and how an as-yet-unfilmed script led Jones to Pixar's door. 

This interview has been edited for clarity. 

David Lynch: First of all, congratulations on the release of “Luca.” I wanted to first ask about one of the very first things folks notice when they watch the movie...who on “Luca’s” creative team is so fascinated with Vespas and how did they become a foundational element for the story that you wrote?

Mike Jones: Well that was the director, Enrico (Casarosa). He grew up in the Italian Riviera, he had a very similar friendship that served as the model for our main relationship in “Luca.” He and his friend would go ride Vespas all up and down the Italian Riviera, stop and jump off rocks into the blue water there. It all sounded just so idyllic and beautiful. The Vespa really became a symbol for what these boys want, and what do they want? They want freedom. Their worldview is kind of limited, they’ve been under the water for (their whole lives). At least Luca doesn’t know the surface. And so we just thought, like, what’s the best object of freedom? And also what’s the best object for kids? And for me, I absolutely wanted a moped. 

Lynch: While you were growing up in San Antonio?

Jones: Yeah, for me it was a moped or a go-kart or a three-wheeler. And for them, it was a Vespa. 

Lynch: So as you mentioned, Casarosa was born in Italy, making him the right person to direct “Luca.” Can you tell me a little bit about what the collaboration was like between yourself, him and (fellow screenwriter) Jesse Andrews in shaping the story?

Jones: Sure, you know, all films at Pixar usually start with a personal story from the director and then the director brings on creative minds to help fill that out. We can’t help but add our own personal experiences to it. Jesse had been working and writing with Enrico for many years before I came on and they just wanted some help in terms of structure. Jesse and I got along really famously and we’ve become really close, so it’s interesting how that friendship kind of informed Luca and Alberto in some regard. So it’s a really collaborative process, and it takes a very long time to make these movies. That’s Pixar’s superpower; we’re able to make these movies for a really long time. And that means there’s just a mountain of unused material. It’s almost like the iceberg is the movie and underneath the water is all the stuff that that little iceberg is built upon. And all of it’s really important. 

So that’s just us sitting in rooms, talking, exchanging scenes. Artists will come in with drawings or paintings. And it’s also just us reminiscing and thinking about those important relationships in our lives. And so “Luca” really came from that, with Enrico kind of overseeing, as a composer, how it would all come together. But Pixar asks it of everybody. Pixar asks that everybody add their own personal touch. 

Lynch: And speaking of, you mentioned the desire to get on a small vehicle to roam around and embrace that freedom, but is there anything else you borrowed from your own childhood that we can spot in “Luca”?

Jones: Oh, sure. I think everybody has a friendship where they became friends with somebody who really pushed them. Who pushed them into risk, who pushed them out of their comfort zone, who showed them new stuff even if it was dangerous. Mine was my cousin, Will, there in San Antonio. Not only was he my protector – he was a couple of grades above me – not only would he protect me from all the bullies, he would also show me all this cool stuff. We would both want to make a go-kart together. We would both want to light stuff on fire, you know, all that kind of south Texas dangerous stuff where if my parents knew about it they’d have a heart attack. But I loved (and) I learned so much from Will. 

Lynch: And it goes to show, that feeling of wanting that freedom and liberation, it doesn’t matter whether it’s in San Antonio or if you’re growing up in Italy. 

Jones: It’s true. The thing about Texas is you can kind of get...I didn’t think I would ever leave. I have family all over Texas, I have family in all corners of it. So I never thought I would leave, but I did get into NYU film school. And the idea of leaving, I think I can trace right back to that experience with my cousin—of risking something, of stepping out and just embracing it. And, you know, I don’t know that I would have had kind of the faculties to do it without those experiences. 

Lynch: The movies that you’ve written have increasingly become more global in their scope. Your first one, “Evenhand,” was shot in San Antonio, and then “Soul” obviously is based heavily in New York. And now “Luca” goes international. Has that been a deliberate trajectory?

Jones: Oh that’s fascinating. No, but you’re right. Like “Evenhand” was San Antonio because in my early writing I really found such juicy stuff in my upbringing. I seem to write about the places I had just left. So “Evenhand” was written in New York, but (it encompassed) me looking back at San Antonio. “Soul” was me looking back at New York but living on the West Coast. So, no, I never thought about it that way, but it’s true (laughs). And I guess you’re right—there is something kind of simple and wonderful about “Luca” that appeals to an international audience that we’re starting to really see right now particularly with Twitter and tumblr, everybody’s posting about it. And everybody’s kind of bringing their own stuff to it, which is really great. That’s exactly what you want as a filmmaker. 

Lynch: In preparation for this I was going back and perusing the behind-the-scenes creative history of Pixar and it’s actually quite rare that a director or screenwriter works on subsequent Pixar releases like you have with “Soul” and now “Luca.” Given how Pixar’s movies tend to have quite long production cycles, I imagine there was some overlap when you were working on both at the same time?

Jones: Yeah, “Soul” and “Luca” kind of went through the development process at Pixar at the same time. “Soul” happened to come out before “Luca,” but we were neck and neck at times. We would share our work with “Luca” and “Luca” would share their work with us. I mean, I read some early scripts from “Luca” and they read my early scripts from “Soul,” so I had always been connected to that project. But, you know, these projects involve you so much that it’s really difficult to jump between them. So when I wrapped on “Soul” I went full-time onto “Luca” and “Luca” still had a couple years of production (left), so I was able to spend a little over a year with my hands in there. 

Lynch: One of the reasons I’m so fascinated by these two releases that you worked on being so close together is that they’re such different stories I think, told in such different tenors and almost for different audiences despite the fact they’re both Pixar films. “Soul” has these complicated storytelling devices and one of the reasons I really like “Luca” is because it’s a bit more elemental and a bit more straightforward. So how did your approach to crafting “Luca” differ from “Soul” in that regard?

Jones: With “Luca,” by the time I had come to it it had been in development for a number of years, meaning they had a number of different screenings they had put together. And there was a lot of great stuff in it. The problem was when I came on board it was a little too much. And that’s what happens to every movie at Pixar: If you’re involved in it for two, three, four years, by the end it just becomes this big thing that has like all of your greatest hits in it, but it isn’t really a cohesive story. 

So because I knew the story a bit but wasn’t so intimately involved, I was able to come in and go like, “I think that you can stitch these things together and with a little bit of glue I think there’s a wonderful story here that’s a bit simpler than what you want to tell.” And I think that’s what they wanted. I think you just sometimes need that extra voice. It’s not that it wasn’t there. It was more like, “I see what you have here but these things don’t really match up with the story I think you’re trying to tell.” And it’s not just me that does that. I think every project at Pixar looks for those new eyes. Because, granted, while we do spend years on these projects – and that’s incredibly important in the development of it – you can’t stop seeing it, the forest for the trees in a way. 

So that was kind of my role. I also love story mechanics. People call me the structure guy, I don’t even know if that...but I come in and I can kind of analyze the story from a little bit of a distance and be able to sometimes make those connections. Sometimes I’m not. (laughs) 

Lynch: At this point it’s been some time since you wrote a screenplay for a movie still in development called “The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break.” And actually it’s been over a decade since the director was hired for that particular project. I’m not going to ask you for specifics of where that movie is in the whole development process, but I am curious to know what it’s like to have written an adapted screenplay so long ago and it still being something the world hasn’t seen fully realized yet?

Jones: You know, that’s the story of pretty much every screenwriter. “The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break” was a book that I found on the shelf and I just loved the cover. And the cover had the minotaur sitting on a pickle bucket, smoking a cigarette with his head in his hands. And I loved that image. Because what that told me, just in that image alone, was that there is a tired, like, service worker who is at one point a monster. And now he’s kind of like the bus boy. 

I used to work those jobs there in San Antonio; I used to work at the 5050 bar and grill, I used to deliver pizzas at Volare next door. I used to work at Mr. Gatti’s when that was still a place. I know those jobs really well. So I looked at that and said, “I could write that.” So what that ended up being, I changed the book’s plot quite a bit and that became a sample of mine that I really wanted to make. It’s had various directors attached, it’s just never gotten off the ground. 

But what it became was this wonderful sample of mine that really showed what I could do. It was really about marrying these fantastical elements into more of a romantic comedy or a romantic drama, and making it believable and real and true. Pixar got ahold of that script years later without me knowing, I have no idea how they got ahold of it. And they called me about it and they said, “We love ‘Minotaur’ and we want you to come talk to some of our directors.” So it was that script that got me my Pixar job, essentially. 

And so while I certainly would love for it to be made that way, a screenwriter’s life is kind of built on their last best sample. And at that time, “Minotaur” was the thing that got me a ton of work but also got me the greatest job ever. 

Lynch: It’s not quite a 1-to-1, but it’s funny that you say the cover of that book is what popped out at you because I think you can say the same thing for the poster for “Luca.” You have the protagonist floating on the water, you see his human self and his merboy self below as he gazes toward freedom. I think that speaks to people on a really emotional, elemental level as well. 

Jones: Yeah, isn’t that poster beautiful? It’s just stunning. 

Lynch: It is. So, Mike, writers who work on Pixar movies tend to stay in the Pixar pipeline and some of them even go on to direct Pixar films at some point. Is that something you’ve thought about at all as you continue your filmmaking career and consider what stories you’d like to tell next?

Jones: There’s a bunch of things I’m involved with at Pixar. I’m their staff writer, which means I jump to a bunch of different things and help them out. (Maybe) eventually. For me it’s really about the project, I really don’t want to be a director for a director’s sake. I think I would like to be involved in something because I believe that story should be told. If there’s a better director for it, then by all means. I don’t believe anybody could have directed “Soul” other than Pete Docter and Kemp Powers, and the same with “Luca.” So it would depend upon the story, but we’ll see.