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'Elemental' director draws inspiration from his childhood


Earth, fire, water and air are all characters in the new movie "Elemental." And they don't always mix well.


MAMOUDOU ATHIE: (As Wade) Fire, fire, oh, fire.

LEAH LEWIS: (As Ember) Hey. Hey.

ATHIE: (As Wade) Oh, sorry. You're so hot.

LEWIS: (As Ember) Excuse me?

RASCOE: The feature was directed by Pixar veteran Peter Sohn, who took his inspiration from his childhood growing up in New York the son of Korean immigrants. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this profile.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: I recently met Peter Sohn in Chinatown, one of his old haunts. I thought we'd be talking about the ins and outs of filmmaking. And we did, but we talked a lot about his mom.

PETER SOHN: My mother's love for movies was this weird way that we could communicate 'cause she didn't speak English very well. Growing up here, I spoke English better than I did Korean, and so much of growing up was this battle to try to understand each other. But when it came to the movies, there's this Venn diagram where we could connect.

BLAIR: Sohn's love for movies led to a career. He's now one of Pixar's MVP's. He worked on "Wall-E," "The Incredibles" and "Finding Nemo." He directed "The Good Dinosaur."


RAYMOND OCHOA: (As Arlo) Where are you going? I need to get home.

PETE DOCTER: He's a genius story guy, a brilliant designer. He's an amazing animator. He can do everything.

BLAIR: Pete Docter is Pixar's chief creative officer. Sohn was a storyboard artist on the 2009 movie "Up," which Docter co-wrote and directed. He says Sohn designed a key scene in the movie. Grumpy Carl lives in an old house that developers want to tear down. To get away but keep his house, Carl finds a dazzling solution.

DOCTER: Carl floats his house with balloons up. He pulls it free of the moorings of the foundation and floats through the city.


ED ASNER: (As Carl) So long, boys. I'll send you a postcard from Paradise Falls.

DOCTER: That's almost shot for shot what Pete boarded.

BLAIR: Pete Sohn's colleagues have even recruited him to voice some of their characters.

SOHN: I'm not a great voice actor. Most of the characters all sound like this, essentially. And so Squishy in "Monsters University" would be like, hey, Mike.


SOHN: (As Squishy) I'm undeclared, unattached and unwelcome.

And then I played Emile, Remy's brother in "Ratatouille," and he would be like, hey, Remy.


SOHN: (As Emile) I can't believe it. You're alive.

PATTON OSWALT: (As Remy) I thought I'd never see you guys again.

SOHN: (As Emile) You made it. I figured you didn't survive the rapids.

BLAIR: Sohn clearly had a blast making those movies, but his new film, "Elemental," is on another level. It's deeply personal, partly based on the story of his own parents. His father emigrated to New York from Korea in 1969 with $150.

SOHN: Seventy-five dollars of that would go to rent in - I guess it would be, like, a prostitute apartment - 'cause as a kid he would just say hooker house, hooker house. And we're like, what is that? Like, we had no idea. And then the other $75 would go to renting a pretzel hot dog cart, selling pretzels for, like, 25 cents and icees for, like - you know, for nothing.

BLAIR: Eventually, Sohn says, his dad saved enough money to open a bodega-style grocery store in the Bronx.

SOHN: That's where he met my mom. After five weeks of them meeting, they would marry. Nine months later, I would be born and, you know, grew up in the shop. And my mother was the cashier. And my father kept working this, like, you know, 4 in the morning till 11 o'clock at night job, you know, seven days a week.

BLAIR: When times were good, Sohn's family would go to Chinatown.

SOHN: My parents used to take us here all the time when we were kids, especially to this restaurant. We're right in front of Hop Kee, this Chinese restaurant where my parents came to celebrate any sort of event. You want to go down...

BLAIR: Yeah.

SOHN: ...Into the restaurant?

BLAIR: Down some stairs, Hop Kee is a modest restaurant that's been here for almost 60 years. Sohn recognizes the waiter.

SOHN: My mom passed away, but her favorite dish here was this crab dish.


SOHN: Yeah, number 15. Where is it? When we were coming here, I don't even remember it being all in English, but there was Korean, too. And so that's the other reason my parents would come here.


SOHN: This Cantonese style - it is incredible. And, you know, the funny thing about my mom is that she's so loud eating the crab here.


SOHN: Yeah, like, she would be like, (imitating smacking sound).

UNIDENTIFIED WAITER: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

SOHN: Like...


SOHN: Yeah. It's very exciting.

BLAIR: That sonic attention to detail and a wild imagination have helped Peter Sohn a lot as a filmmaker. He got the idea for "Elemental" when he was in middle school science, learning about the periodic table.

SOHN: All I saw were apartment buildings. And these - each blocks and the atomic number and the name to me was like a family or a person that lived there. And so I would come up with jokes of, like, oh, copper lives next to helium, but don't trust helium 'cause they're gassy, you know? And so they started becoming characters, and, you know, I could only go so far with, like, boron or argon. And I started boiling that down to the classical elements with, like, earth, fire, water and air.

BLAIR: And with poetic license.

SOHN: There was a beautiful metaphor for me of, like, oh, right. In this table of elements, there are all these disparate cultures mixing together.

BLAIR: That metaphor became "Elemental," which is like a fantastical, kid-friendly "Romeo And Juliet." The Fire parents have emigrated to Element City, where they open a grocery store. Their daughter, Ember, meets a water character named Wade. He's weepy.


ATHIE: (As Wade, crying).

LEWIS: (As Ember) What the?

BLAIR: Ember is a bit of a hothead.


LEWIS: (As Ember) Dude, just get out of here. I got to clean this mess before my dad sees what I did.

BLAIR: Naturally, fire and water - not a good mix, unless, through the magic of animation, they can make it work. In one scene, Ember shows off how she can turn the landscape different colors.


LEWIS: (As Ember) It's the minerals. Check this out.

ATHIE: (As Wade) Awesome.

BLAIR: Wade responds by making a rainbow.


ATHIE: (As Wade) Watch this.

SOHN: This idea of two people from two different cultures coming together - fire and water - what would happen if they could get along? And that was stemmed off of I fell in love with someone that wasn't Korean. And my - I grew up in a family where they were like, marry Korean. I mean, my grandmother's dying words were, like, (speaking Korean), you know, and then - which is, you know, like, marry Korean. And she passed away. And there was a lot of pressure from that. But I fell in love with someone that wasn't, and all the fun culture clash stuff from that and also the dark stuff from that became ingredients to the film.

BLAIR: Heartache, family, falling in love. Sohn says "Elemental" is about finding connection.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.