Screenwriting Lessons: Michael Arndt [Part 1]

November 12th, 2012 by

There has been a great disturbance in the Force these last few weeks with the announcement that Disney has acquired Lucasfilms and intends to resurrect the Star Wars franchise. Traversing a variety of media sources recently, it became clear to me the consensus among SW fans was whoever took on writing Episodes VII-IX needed to be an inspired choice.

Enter Michael Arndt:

Months before Lucasfilm was sold to Disney and plans for new Star Wars movies were announced, Toy Story 3 writer Michael Arndt was hired to write a 40-to-50-page treatment for Episode VII, sources confirm to The Hollywood Reporter.

Arndt, the Oscar-winning writer of Little Miss Sunshine, has completed a treatment for the new movie and is likely to pen a draft of screenplay. The treatment also will be used by Disney/Lucasfilm to court directors for the highly-anticipated project.

Indeed it has been confirmed that Arndt is penning Episode VII. And while no one is asking my opinion, I think this is a terrific decision. As I noted in this post on Friday:

* Little Miss Sunshine is a fantastic script, well-deserving of an Academy Award.

* In terms of the story, what Arndt did in association with the Pixar creative team with Toy Story 3 was incredible. We’ve seen sequels that topped the original [e.g., Godfather: Part II], but for a third installment of a movie franchise to work as well as Toy Story 3 did, providing entertainment, surprises and a hugely satisfying emotional resolution for all the characters involved is nothing short of miraculous.

* Arndt has also proved his chops with big spectacle franchises with his work on The Hunger Games series [“Catching Fire”].

But what really excites me about this apparent choice of Arndt for this gig: He is great with character. And if there’s one clear difference between the success of the fourth and fifth episodes of Star Wars [“A New Hope” and “The Empire Strikes Back”], and one through three, for me it was characters. 4 and 5: Interesting and compelling characters. 1-3: Not so much.

It occurred to me that I have posted a lot about Arndt over the years. Plus there are things I have wanted to dig into about his approach to screenwriting, but haven’t gotten around to as yet.

So why not do a series this week on Michael Arndt to see what screenwriting lessons we can glean from him? After all, he has just been hired to write perhaps the single highest profile screenwriting gig in Hollywood. If Disney, Lucas, et al deduced that Arndt was good enough for the Star Wars kingdom, you have to figure dude is just wallowing in midi-chlorians.

Today we start at the beginning. Join me below the fold to read what Arndt had to say about writing his breakthrough screenplay: Little Miss Sunshine.

Where it all began for Arndt:

On Tuesday, May 23, 2000, at 4:27 p.m., I sat down to write LMS [Little Miss Sunshine]. I wrote twelve pages the first day, thirty-seven pages the second, and–pulling an all-nighter–fifty-four pages on the third day. I finished the first draft at 9:56 a.m. on Friday, May 26. Then I spent a year rewriting it.

On July 29, 2001–a Sunday–I heard from Tom Strickler.

On December 21, 2001–the Friday before the holidays–the script was purchased by producer Marc Turtletaub.

Principal photography began on June 6, 2005, and ended–after thirty shooting days–on July 18.

The film had its world premiere on January 20, 2006, at Sundance, and was bought by Fox Searchlight the next day.

Little Miss Sunshine opened in theaters on July 26, 2006.

As of this writing (November 6, 2006), it has grossed $75 million worldwide.

So the film has “succeeded,” and I have (temporarily, at least) escaped from the jaws of failure.

In many ways, though, my life has remained much as it was in 2000. I still rent the same one-bedroom walk-up in Brooklyn, and I still spend my days sitting in a chair and staring at a computer (though the chair is more comfortable and the computer is nicer). The main difference is I don’t worry about having to get a day job. (Not yet, anyway).

A number of people who know my story have been quick to seize upon it as a rewards-of-virtue narrative–all that effort and persistence, they tell me, was bound to pay off. In this view of the world, character is destiny and success is the logical–almost inevitable–consequence of hard work, patience, and a shrewdly applied intelligence.

That is not how I see things.

From my perspective, the difference between success and failure was razor-thin and depended–to a terrifying degree–upon chance, serendipity, and all manner of things beyond my control. A thousand things could have gone wrong in the five years it took to turn Little Miss Sunshine into a movie, any one of which could have destroyed the project.

Yet at every turn the script was met with good fortune; every setback was revealed to be a blessing in disguise. I was lucky to stumble upon the right agents, who got it to the right producers, who chose the right directors, who cast (perfectly) the right actor and hired the right crew. A single misstep in this concatenation and the film would have been made badly or, more likely, not at all.

Which brings me–in a roundabout way–to Richard Hoover, Winning and Losing, and the underlying concerns of Little Miss Sunshine.

All of us lead two lives–our public lives, which are visible to others, and our private lives, which are not. Richard is obsessed with the values of public life–status, rank, “success.” His view of the world, divided into Winners and Losers, judges everyone–including himself–accordingly. These values have become seemingly inescapable–including himself–accordingly. These values have become seemingly inescapable in our media-saturated culture–from American Idol, to professional sports, to the weekend box office reports. Everything, it seems, has become a contest.

The problem with this worldview is that it neglects and devalues the realm of the private–family, friendship, romance, childhood, pleasure, imagination, and the concerns of the spirit. Our private lives–invisible to the outside world–tend to be far richer and more gratifying than the rewards of public life. We would do well, as poets and philosophers have long advised, to turn away from the bustle of the world and cultivate the gardens of our souls.

And yet–as I learned in July 2001–it is extremely difficult to set aside the judgments of the world and march to your own drummer. To “do what you love and fuck the rest,” as Dwayne says. That is a hard path, and not often one that leads to happiness or fulfillment (see van Gogh’s letters). I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone.

What I would recommend–and this is the central hope of the movie–is that we make an effort to judge our lives and the lives of others according to our own criteria, distinct from the facile and shallow judgments of the marketplace.

James Joyce once said we should treat both success and failure as the impostors they are. I would humbly concur–the real substance of life is elsewhere.

– Michael Arndt, “Little Miss Sunshine: Screenplay and Notes by Michael Arndt,” PP. x-xii.


* Follow your bliss. If you feel a creative call, somehow do it, follow it. You don’t have to give up your day job, but you do have to respond to your instincts and impulses. Yes, the odds against success are insane. The path you will have to take is fraught with peril, voices in your head whining, “What are you thinking… stop embarrassing yourself… you can’t be serious.”

But consider this: Each of us has one shot at life. If you hear creativity’s clarion call and don’t respond to it, what chance do you have — really! — of finding pure, existential happiness?

If you are called to write stories, somehow… some way… you need to carve out the psychic energy and physical space to do precisely that.

* Theme is critical. Stories are always about something. Little Miss Sunshine is about winning and losing, success and failure. The Hoover family is – on the surface – a bunch of losers. And yet on their Hero’s Journey, they discover commonality, even filial love in their shared state. Three characters in particular — Richard, Frank and Dwayne — confront the very idea of what is success / what is failure on a deeply personal level. In the end, the Hoover clan will go back to their deeply flawed world. But as a culminating act of supporting Olive in her catastrophic beauty pageant routine, where all of them get on stage and dance with her, they connect as a family. Flawed, fractured, fucked up, yes. And yet they have found at their core a profound sense of commitment and love to each other. They may be ‘losers’ in a beauty pageant view of the world, but they transform into ‘winners’ as a family.

* Writing is writing… and rewriting. Get a vision of what your story is, then do everything you can to jam out an initial iteration of it. Then rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite some more, honing the story until it really works.

Tomorrow more screenwriting lessons via observations from Michael Arndt.

6 thoughts on “Screenwriting Lessons: Michael Arndt [Part 1]

  1. Totally agree with so much if Mike’s views. My problem has always been: do I side with the system or keep telling to fuck off and die? Can I find a middle ground. Not against the commercial or money side of it…as long as those involved with are simply honest and hardworking and against using/abusing others. Refuse to believe the only way for success in the Hollywood system is through cheating, lying,backstabbing, etc. Especially in this digital world now…where the creators have closer access to audiences on a global level…directly to them thru HD distribution. Yes…it means more work/sacrifice on my part; if I go into self distrubtion or alligning myself and work with the right business – creative partners. But, I will always refuse to believe that the only way to success in Hollywood and the world itself is by using, abusing, cheating and crossing boundaries into unethical behavior. Maybe it’s because I’ve had some deeply personal, spiritual moments in my life that I never saw coming or expected. I don’t know. I just know and accept which lines I WILL NOT cross. For any amount of success.

    1. Scott says:

      Mark, I hear you. In fact, I posted something about this general subject: Two paths: Write what they’re buying or sell them your dream.

  2. Gabe says:

    Long time no post for me! I love the focus on Michael Arndt.

    Scott, I’m wondering if you ever came across the Questionnaire that Arndt sent out with his early drafts of Little Miss Sunshine. I would love to see what sort of questions he asked of his readers in order to better shape subsequent drafts.

    1. Scott says:

      No, Gabe, have never seen any questionnaires re LMS. But I will be posting on something Arndt has made several presentations about: Keys to a killer ending. Look for that later this week.

  3. Ken Glover says:

    Wow….this is ‘theme’ in a nutshell. We have our ‘destiny’ to fill, a passion of writing that out weighs all other endeavors. But we must never overshadow our private lives and disregard what makes us whole, our own family values and inner spirit. Thanks once more Scott.

  4. […] featured his ruminations multiple times through years including here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, <a target=_blank […]

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