Is Disney taking a Pixar-like approach to “Star Wars”?

November 21st, 2012 by

Late yesterday, Mike Fleming at Deadline reported this:

Here’s some tantalizing dish to chew on before the Thanksgiving turkey and trimmings. After hiring Michael Arndt to script the first installment of the relaunch of George Lucas’ Star Wars franchise, I’ve heard Disney has approached Lawrence Kasdan and Simon Kinberg and I believe it is to get the ball rolling on the subsequent installments mapped out by Lucas. Both of the scribes in question have franchise experience.

Then THR reported this:

Lawrence Kasdan and Simon Kinberg have closed deals to write installments of the new Star Wars trilogy, sources tell The Hollywood Reporter. The pair will write either Episode VIII or Episode IX — their exact division of responsibilities is yet to be determined — and also will come aboard to produce the films.

Today /film posed an interesting question:

For decades, film has been considered a directors medium. (Before the ’60s, it was usually thought of as a producer’s game.) Ask anyone now to name titans of the industry, and they’re going to list directors: Ford, Hitchcock, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg. And so, when the news of a new set of Star Wars movies was announced, the conversation immediately turned to directors. Who could possibly shepherd our unrealistic expectations of a sequel to Return of the Jedi?

At the only place that counts, LucasFilm, it seems they feel writers are more important than the director. While hiring Michael Arndt to write Star Wars Episode VII before hiring a director made complete sense (most directors would never commit to a project without a script), hiring Lawrence Kasdan and Simon Kinberg to write Star Wars Episodes VIII and XI before any directors are attached at all speaks volumes to how this trilogy is being handled. It seems to suggest that story is king and that’s a good thing.

And all of that got me wondering: Is Disney taking a Pixar-like approach to Star Wars? Thirteen movies, thirteen #1 hits, almost all of them critically acclaimed as well. The key to their success? Story.

If you haven’t read my interview with Mary Coleman, head of Pixar’s story department, you should [you can access each installment of the series here]. Indeed during the very first set of questions I asked Mary — about her background — she went straight into the importance of story at Pixar:

SM: As I understand it, you were working in theater before you started working at Pixar.

MC: Yes, I was a director at San Francisco’s Magic Theater in the 90s. Our mission was world premieres of new plays. I loved working closely with the playwrights to develop their work– actually more than directing the plays. Pixar recruited me because they thought my experience with new plays would fit well with their story development process.

SM: Could you unpack that a little more, why they thought someone who had experience working with playwrights might be a better fit than a traditional Hollywood development exec?

MC: Because the Magic workshopped multiple drafts before going into production. We stuck with the playwright through the process, knowing that there would be rocky drafts but if you hang in there, you can get to something you’re all proud to be part of. Pixar commits to artists the same way, knowing that there are going to be drafts and screenings that fall flat, but instead of panicking and firing people we commit to the long-term development process.

Workshop is really the right word. In the theater we workshopped a new play for months. At Pixar it’s years, literally 5 years, to get the stories right.

SM: Where does that obsession with story and getting it right originate?

MC: Mainly from John [Lasseter]. He’s a natural born storyteller, the kind of person who gets everyone riveted at a dinner party with a story of something that happened to him yesterday. Pixar’s founder Ed Catmull was working at Lucas Films when he met John. John had just been fired from Disney. Ed brought him to Lucas in the guise of developing computer animation technology, testing and pushing this new software Ed and his team were creating, but Ed really wanted the artist, the storyteller, and just needed a way to get John on the team that would eventually split off to form Pixar.

One of the things I love about this place is that even though we pioneered this technology, the technology is always a tool to serve storytelling.

SM: Does the fact that Pixar is an animation company affect the way you go about approaching the storytelling process?

MC: Much less than you’d think. A good story is a good story, regardless of the medium. I suppose the main difference is when directors here pitch ideas John is paying attention to which of them really call out for animation. If he feels as if an idea might be just as good or better in live-action, he won’t choose it.

But after that, we don’t think differently about story because of animation. Really the way we think about it goes back to Aristotle. We may have invented cool new software, but when it comes to story we rely on the deep foundations of good storytelling. We look to myths, to epics, to great literature. And when we look for writers we look first and foremost for great storytellers.

Five years. That’s how long Pixar usually spends making a movie. And most of that is spent working and reworking the story. By hiring Kasdan and Kinberg [if this is in fact true] so early in the process, putting them 5-7 years away from Episodes VIII and IX release dates, it sounds peculiarly similar to Pixar’s approach to time spent in story development.

Then there is the fact that to kick off the next SW trilogy, Disney hired Michael Arndt who wrote Toy Story 3. In fact, Mary Coleman was instrumental in making that happen:

SM: In that regard, weren’t you the one responsible for bringing in screenwriter Michael Arndt to write Toy Story 3?

MC: I was. We found him before Little Miss Sunshine was released. We hired him based on the strength of his script, not based on the success of the movie or the buzz around him.

—-

SM: When does the screenwriter get involved in the process?

MC: Historically they’ve been brought on at many different points, but my strong preference is to bring them on as soon as the idea is chosen. Not only for all the outlining, but also to join in the in-depth research and become part of the team. Dan Fogelman got to know the Cars team on a road trip across route 66.

Mike Arndt, I’m really happy to say, was with us from the start of Toy Story 3. Having one writer through the whole process, there from the ground up, really shows in the final movie.

Reportedly Arndt has created a 40-50 pages treatment for the next three SW movies. That suggests Kasdan and Kinberg will be working from those overall storylines. And that suggests these three screenwriters, along with execs [and probably Lucas] will be working as collaborators on the stories. If so, that would be another example of working like Pixar. When I asked Coleman about the Pixar story development process, she zeroed in on this point:

But the most important work of that first year is finding the core of the story… That starts with very rough outlines. You pitch those to the Brain Trust — a group of the other Pixar directors. One of the most unique aspects of our studio is that you get feedback from their peers. And peers who are very committed to your success, as much as you are to theirs. You get this incredible input before there’s even a first draft. You can call on individuals or the whole Trust at any point to get the feedback you need. In that first year you’re pitching twenty minute overviews of the story, getting feedback, and rethinking it. We often spend a whole year in outlining before going to a first draft. A lot of time laying that foundation.

Finally there is this: Pixar’s approach to story is a character-based one.

Is it fair to say that this represents Pixar’s instinct, to find story through character?

MC: Yes. So when I talk to agents and managers about prospective writers, I lead by saying I need to read character-driven scripts. I don’t find what I’m looking for in high concept. What I need from a writer is emotionally dimensional characters.

Arndt, Kasdan, Kinberg, each of them has established bona fides in writing action-adventure movies featuring strong, multidimensional characters.

To sum up what we have learned from various news reports re the upcoming SW trilogy:

* Disney’s decision to hire and work with writers first before naming directors is a sign of their focus on story.

* Disney is allowing for ample time, as much as 5-7 years, for story development.

* Disney hired Mike Arndt who worked at Pixar on Toy Story 3 to write Episode VII and an overall story for the trilogy.

* If the writers will be working from Arndt’s treatment for the three movies, that suggests a collaborative, team effort to story development.

* Disney has hired writers who are strong with character.

Oh, I suppose there’s one more thing: Disney owns Pixar.

In my conversations with Mary Coleman, she told me how multiple time execs from Hollywood had traveled north to Pixar’s headquarters in Emeryville to learn the “Pixar secret,” but always came away with the same answer: A lot of hard work, an absolute focus on story and story development, and ample time [typically 5 years] to make each movie. That is simply not a viable approach for a major Hollywood studio’s business model.

However the Star Wars franchise is unique. This is a trilogy with one coherent narrative, not an entire slate of films covering different genres. So if there is a live-action movie franchise that could use a Pixar-like approach to story development, it would appear to be Star Wars.

My question: Is this what Disney is doing?

3 thoughts on “Is Disney taking a Pixar-like approach to “Star Wars”?

  1. nld33 says:

    Great article. Lucas’s main problem with Episodes 1-3 was the fact that he had little to no help with the scripts. I see he has either learned this lesson or Kathleen Kennedy has. Did Disney present this plan to Lucas to ensure him that his franchise will be in good hands. In George Lucas’s defense. He asked Lawrence Kasdan to come back & co-write Episodes 1-3 but Kasdan turned him down. So Lucas knows he needs help.

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