'Inside Out 2' filmmakers incorporated feedback from teen girls to 'keep the story authentic'

“I really could have used a movie like this when I was a teenager," director Kelsey Mann told Yahoo Entertainment.

A scene from
"Inside Out 2" brings Joy (Amy Poehler) back to Headquarters and introduces Anxiety (Maya Hawke). (Disney/Pixar)

Forget the parents. When it came to better understanding teens and their emotions, Inside Out 2 director Kelsey Mann and producer Mark Nielsen went straight to the source — teens themselves.

“We knew early on we wanted to surround ourselves with people that were going to help us keep the story authentic,” Nielsen told Yahoo Entertainment about the highly anticipated sequel, which opens in theaters June 14. “And because neither of us are 13 or girls, if you didn't notice, we thought it would be really important and helpful.”

So in January 2020, the team at Disney Pixar contacted a group of nine teenage girls who became informally known as “Riley’s Crew,” named after the film’s main character.

Inside Out 2 follows the original 2015 film about Riley and her spirited crew of emotions. This time around, Riley is a teen who’s trying to balance old and new friends while navigating a competitive ice hockey camp — all while feeling all the feels.

The five core emotions are still "at Headquarters" — Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Tony Hale, replacing Bill Hader) and Disgust (Liza Lapira, replacing Mindy Kaling) — but new, puberty-focused emotions led by Anxiety (Maya Hawke) have entered the chat. They also include Envy (Ayo Edebiri), Embarrassment (Paul Walter Hauser) and Ennui (Adèle Exarchopoulos). Nostalgia (June Squibb) pops in for a bit too.

Mann and Nielsen screened updated cuts of the film with the teens every four months for the next three years, and the girls, in turn, offered their feedback.

“We always asked them similar questions,” said Mann, who’s making his animated feature directing debut. “What resonated with you? What didn’t? What bumped with you? And what did you find confusing?”

The goal, Nielsen said, was to keep the story “believable and truthful to someone at this age.”

What resonated with Madwoa Hutchful, 15, from Oakland, Calif., was the friendship dynamics, she told SFGate.

“Making friends and keeping friends and having best friends can be really challenging, especially growing up,” Hutchful told the Bay Area outlet. “And feeling like you have to put on a show so that people think you’re cool and stuff, and not showing your weaker side. That’s well portrayed.”

In addition to consulting “Riley’s Crew,” Mann and Nielsen consulted with emotion experts including UC Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner (who fulfilled that role in the original film) and clinical psychologist Lisa Damour.

When they asked Keltner which emotions come on strong at this time, Mann said he told them, “It’s all the self-conscious ones.”

“This age is the time where you start to compare yourself to others, and you start to look at yourself and you're worried about what other people think about you,” Mann added. “And so those are the emotions we ended up leaning into.”

Enter anxiety — an emotion that’s taken hold in the cultural conversation around teens, and specifically teen girls. But that’s not all.

“We went into the pandemic and everything got worse,” Mann said. “And [anxiety] went up not only in teenagers, but really in kind of everybody, adults included.”

For a film that parents would be seeing with their kids, that connection made sense for the team.

What also made sense for Mann and Nielsen was casting Hawke in the role of the frazzle-haired and frenetic orange emotion, who walks into headquarters with literal baggage and essentially takes over.

After a Zoom call that Mann took with Hawke in a backstage business office behind the Mexico Pavilion at Disney World, where he was on vacation with his family, he knew he’d found their Anxiety.

“From that very first audition, I remember hanging up on that call,” Mann said, “and we're like, ‘Oh my God, she's wonderful. We found our anxiety. She's perfect.’”

With strong reviews and big box office predictions ahead of opening day, there’s a lot of anticipation for a film — a sequel, no less — that Mann said is the end of a long four-year journey.

“That's really where this began, [which] was looking at the way I felt at that age,” he said. “I really could have used a movie like this when I was a teenager.”

So what are the director’s emotions ahead of Inside Out 2’s opening day? Anxiety? Fear? Maybe even a little Nostalgia?

“I've worked with such a wonderful crew who have all poured their hearts into this movie, and now we have a finished film that we are incredibly proud of,” he said. “I can’t help but feel that Joy’s at my console.”

Inside Out 2 is in theaters on June 14.