Screenwriting Lessons: Michael Arndt [Part 2]

November 13th, 2012 by

Unless you’ve been living under a proverbial rock, you know that screenwriter Michael Arndt has been hired to write Star Wars: Episode VII. This week we are delving into Arndt’s observations about the craft.

Today: Arndt, Pixar and Toy Story 3.

Here is an excerpt from my exclusive interview with Mary Coleman, head of the story department at Pixar:

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.

This fact is echoed in another post I did exploring the magic of Pixar:

In a strange twist of fate, Michael Arndt found himself in a position enviable to any writer. The New York-based screenwriter was in Los Angeles for the production of his first screenplay, the indie dramedy Little Miss Sunshine. Unsure of his next career move, Arndt received a call from his agent with the surprising news that Pixar principals wanted to meet him. “It was like being summoned to Mount Olympus,” he says.

It turns out that Pixar’s story department head, Mary Coleman, asked Sunshine producer Ron Yerxa if he knew any great up-and-coming writers. Yerxa gave Coleman Arndt’s script and she was blown away. The amazing thing about this story is that despite the fact that Little Miss Sunshine would eventually go on to become a big indie hit — and win Arndt an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay — at the time Arndt was interviewing with Pixar, Sunshine didn’t even have a distributor.

Okay, so here’s one takeaway: The value of crafting a great script. It serves as a writing sample to – potentially – everyone in the business. But how to write a great script? In part it requires a deep understanding of character and narrative. Check out Arndt’s take on the Toy Story franchise:

Eleven films in, Pixar is very careful to not repeat itself and that adage certainly held true for the third installment of its landmark franchise. But if one is being held to the fact that these characters are only toys, their problems would seem to be limited. Arndt recognized this obstacle immediately, particularly when it came to Woody, the central character of all three films. Arndt explains Woody’s personal development by comparing his emotional progress in the films with that of a child. “In Toy Story, Woody is learning to share the spotlight with Buzz,” he explains. “He’s like a child who gets a new sibling and has to realize he doesn’t always have to be the favorite. That tracks emotionally with someone who is 5 or 6 years old.

“In Toy Story 2,” Arndt continues, “Woody has to deal with and accept his mortality. That tracks with a child who is 8 to 10 years old.” With the plot devised for Toy Story 3, Woody needed to progress to a more mature sentiment — that of a teenager — in order for the film to have the correct impact. “Woody learns about the impermanence of things and the necessity for letting go and moving on,” Arndt says. “So there’s an arc to his development across the trilogy. Even though there are common elements in all three films, I do think we’re telling a different story in each of them, as well as one big over-arching story that spans the trilogy.”

Takeaway: Arndt sees the Toy Story movies through the lens of character, specifically the Protagonist Woody and his metamorphosis, not only his arcs per each of the movies, but also his overall trajectory.

“People say that writing is re-writing,” he [Arndt] continues, “but that leaves out a crucial part of the equation: the feedback you get prior to your re-write. Pixar stories work because of the robustness of the story feedback system.” Arndt points to statements made by several key Pixar staffers who admit that, at some point in the process, every single film Pixar made was once the worst thing one might ever see. “It’s only by making the movie as a ‘reel’ seven or eight times, and failing repeatedly, and by applying the smartest and most ruthless criticism you can to the story over and over again, that the stories are able to take shape and come out feeling coherent and complete,” he says.

Arndt’s observations on his time at Pixar only confirm what many film pundits and fans have long suspected: Pixar’s films are such rousing successes because of the attention each individual at the studio dedicates to the screenplays. “Andrew Stanton’s rule of thumb is that it takes 10 man-years of labor to make a good screenplay,” Arndt explains. “Either two writers working five years or 10 guys working one year. For Toy Story 3, it was even more than that — probably the equivalent of 10 people working two or three years.”

“To me, this is what separates Pixar from almost everyone else,” Arndt concludes. “They realize how hard it is to come up with a great screenplay.”

Takeaway: Embracing the simple fact that coming up with a “great screenplay” is hard work. There are no secret formulas. No golden paradigms. No shortcuts. You have to learn the craft, then execute it well with every story you write.

For Part 1 of the series on Michael Arndt, go here.

Tomorrow: Another screenwriting lesson from Michael Arndt.

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3 thoughts on “Screenwriting Lessons: Michael Arndt [Part 2]

  1. Sanket V says:

    Michael Arndt’s success story is almost a fairy tale.

    However, as much as luck is indispensable, so is hard work. He mentioned in one of his interviews, he’s a believer of a mantra that in order to achieve the mastery of any skill one has to spend 10,000 hours practicing it. He spent that many hours reading and studying scripts as his job as a script-reader before writing Little Miss Sunshine.

    Would look forward to more posts on Arndt.

    Thank you.

  2. I simply adore the fact that “failing repeatedly” is such a huge part of the success of Pixar’s films.

    Failing is the “easy” and necessary part of what we do. It’s a common thread, a trait we all share. Whenever I meet a screenwriter who exudes ‘first draft bravado,’ I have to shake my head sadly. Because they just don’t get it. (Also because they remind me of me, 20 years ago.)

    I’m nearing completion on the first draft of a new for-hire indie horror film. Let’s hope it’s “the worst thing one might ever see!” 😉

  3. […] writing the screenplay? Maybe we can take a clue from his thoughts about Toy Story 3, as related at Go Into the Story by Scott Myers (spotted via Lightsaber Rattling): “People say that writing is re-writing,” he […]

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