Michael Arndt: “Beginnings: Setting a Story Into Motion” (Part 2)

April 8th, 2014 by

I have been a big fan of screenwriter Michael Arndt ever since I read his script Little Miss Sunshine, then saw the movie. And, of course, there’s Toy Story 3 which Arndt penned. My admiration goes beyond his writing, it extends to how Arndt thinks about writing as clearly he has done a great deal of reflection about the craft. Fortunately for us, he has gone public with at least some of those thoughts. I have featured his ruminations multiple times through years including here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. So I was interested to see this recent blog post by John August referencing this video:

In his post, John wrote this:

When I saw this video, I immediately wondered what it was from. It’s clearly professionally made, so why is it on some random guy’s YouTube account?

I emailed Michael Arndt, who wrote back that it was originally a bonus feature on the Blu-ray for Toy Story 3. He gave me his blessing to link to it.

I’m aware the model I set up here applies imperfectly to TS3 itself. (It applies much more cleanly [for example] to TOOTSIE, which I consider one of the best comedy first acts of all time.) The broader point is that the emotional fuel for your first act break is largely set up in your inciting incident — and that is something that does apply to TS3.

Disney and/or Pixar own the copyright on the video, so they could pull it down. But I hope they won’t. This kind of lesson celebrates what’s made their films so successful, and deserves wider exposure.

Knowing the whims of the Internet gods, I forwarded the link to the video to my stalwart development assistant Wendy Cohen and she was kind enough to produce a transcript, so we would at least have Arndt’s words down in print in case the video got yanked.

While I encourage you to watch the video – which is great – I want to dig deeper into the content of what Arndt says. So I will divide his observations into two parts. The first part I posted here yesterday. Here is a transcript of the second half of the video:

So, you start with your main character, you have what they’re defined by, you have a hidden flaw, you establish storm clouds on the horizon, and then BA-BOOM! Something comes in and totally blows apart your hero’s life and turns it upside down. So in the case of “Toy Story,” Buzz arrives and Woody gets displaced. And in “Finding Nemo,” the barracuda shows up and Marlin’s family gets killed except this one last little egg. In “The Incredibles” Mr. Incredible saves this guy, but then he gets sued and superheroes get banned. And in each of these cases, if you go back and look at what their grand passion was: Woody being Andy’s favorite toy, Marlin and his family, Mr. Incredible being a superhero, that’s the thing that gets taken away from them. It totally changes your character’s sense of what his or her future’s gonna be. But that bolt from the blue isn’t enough on its own. It’s not enough just to ruin your character’s life and take away their grand passion and change their whole sense of what the future’s gonna be. You gotta add insult to injury. You gotta add something that’s gonna make the world seem a little bit unfair. So not only does Woody get replaced, but he gets replaced by this total doofus, this imbecile who doesn’t even know that he’s a toy and they get in this whole argument about whether Buzz can fly or not. And Buzz jumps and bounces and flies around the room, and all the other toys go “Oh my God, he really can fly.” And the key thing here is that everyone is impressed for the wrong reason. In the case of “Finding Nemo,” you don’t need to really add insult to injury. We already understand that the world Marlin lives in is unfair. But on the other hand, with “The Incredibles,” the reason superheroes get banned is because Mr. Incredible was trying to do the right thing.

So now, your main character’s life has changed, her grand passion has been taken away, the world has revealed itself to be unfair, and she comes to a fork in the road, and she’s gonna have to make a choice on how to deal with her new reality. There’s a high road to take: a healthy, responsible choice, or a low road to take and make an unhealthy irresponsible choice. And remember, if your character chooses to do the right thing, you really don’t have a story.

For Woody, the healthy choice is to say, “Look, I had my day in the sun. I was Andy’s favorite toy for a long time, and I have to cede the spotlight at a certain point.” But what happens is that Woody makes the unhealthy choice. Woody tries to push Buzz behind the desk. And the key thing here is that we’re rooting for Woody to do the unhealthy, irresponsible thing because we feel his pain at getting replaced. So your character’s unhealthy choice, Woody’s unhealthy choice, creates a crisis, Buzz getting pushed out the window, which leads to all the other toys confronting Woody and saying, “You can’t stay in Andy’s room until you go find Buzz and bring him back here safe and sound.” And that’s your first act break. You see a similar thing in “Finding Nemo” when Marlin finds Nemo at the edge of the open ocean. Marlin’s unhealthy choice, his overprotectiveness, comes out of his grand passion, his love for his son. And his unhealthy choice provokes a crisis: Nemo saying “I hate you,” swimming out to the boat to prove his independence, and then getting caught by the diver. And now Marlin has a goal that’s gonna take him all the way through the rest of the story. With “The Incredibles,” the responsible choice is for Bob to do what his wife tells him to do, “save the world one policy at a time,” but that would be boring, and you’d have no story. So, the irresponsible choice for Bob is to lie to his wife Helen and go moonlighting with his buddy Frozone. And we’re totally rooting for Bob to make the irresponsible choice, because we saw how much he loved being a superhero, we saw how good he was at it, and we saw how unfairly it was taken away from him. And that unhealthy choice — sneaking around — leads to a crisis — Mirage tracking him down — which leads to Symdrome bringing Bob on retirement and you’re off into your second act.

So, your story is coming out of your character’s deepest desires and their darkest fears. The thing they love gets taken away from them and the world is revealed to be unfair. To put things right, they have to make the journey that is the rest of the film. And by the end of the journey, hopefully they’ll not only get back what they lost, but they’ll be forced to fix that little flaw they had when we first met them. So, that’s what I learned at Pixar, and I’m not saying that all stories have to start this way, but if you’re writing a script and you’re having a hard time getting started, I hope these ideas are helpful.

This is an interesting insight. And it occurred to me you could apply this take to The Wizard of Oz. What’s Dorothy’s grand passion? Daydreaming about a better life ‘somewhere over the rainbow’. An orphan, she doesn’t feel like her home in Kansas is her home. When Miss Gulch takes away Toto, but the little dog scampers back home, Dorothy could take the high road: Do what is legal and return Toto to Miss Gulch. But, of course, she can’t do that, we all sympathize with her as she takes the low road: running away from home.

Once in Oz, her experiences there are in effect her grand passion — daydreaming about a better place — on steroids with several obstacles and tests along the way. By story’s end, she has overcome her “little flaw” by realizing: “There’s no place like home.”

I’m sure there are plenty of other movies where this approach works. However there are many movies where the setup is considerably different. Here’s how Joseph Campbell describes the beginning of The Hero’s Journey from the wonderful interview series he did with Bill Moyers, “The Power of Myth”:

The Hero is found in the ordinary world…
In ancient myths it used to be the cottage or village…
In films, it is usually the suburbs or common urban environment.

The Hero is making do, but feels something missing, a sense of discomfort or tension.
The Hero needs to change, even if they are unaware of that need.

Oftentimes in a story’s beginning, the Protagonist is not doing what they love most. Indeed, Campbell asserts the whole point of the Hero’s Journey is about transformation and that change is generally about the Protagonist finding their Authentic Self. As Ovid says, “The seeds of change lie within.” The Protagonist may begin the story just “making do,” so they need to change, “even if they are unaware of that need.”

Consider this Protagonist:

Young Luke Skywalker, stuck on the edge of the galaxy, working on a moisture farm. At the beginning of the story, he is doing anything but engaged in his grand passion. But the seeds of change lie within: He has Jedi blood coursing through his veins. And by story’s end, he finds his grand passion as he becomes in effect a Jedi, aligning himself with The Force to destroy the Death Star.

The lesson Arndt gives is a fantastic one, not only in the substance of the content, but in demonstrating how a professional writer thinks about crafting a story, engaged in looking at structure and characters within that structure. But as Arndt himself observes, “I’m not saying that all stories have to start this way.” It’s a reminder that the best stories feel organic, they have a soul and a heart, a spontaneity and surprise to them.

As Arndt points out, we have certain things we need to accomplish in a script’s first 25 pages or so, it’s hard to break away from those requirements, and there are certain patterns and paradigms we see in this or that type of story. But as the three examples Arndt refers to from Pixar demonstrate, it’s not just about an approach to structure, it’s about creating characters who make sense, who have multiple layers to their psyches, who have feelings we can understand and identify with, and who we care about enough to join them on their adventure, whether they are participating in their grand passion at the beginning, disconnected from their True Self and due for a change, or anywhere in between.

Let’s carry this conversation to comments (click on Reply). What do you think of this approach to a story’s beginning?

Michael Arndt’s IMDB page here.

Follow John August’s blog here.

Follow John and Craig Mazin’s podcast Scriptnotes here.

Michael Arndt: “Beginnings: Setting a Story Into Motion” (Part 1)

April 7th, 2014 by

I have been a big fan of screenwriter Michael Arndt ever since I read his script Little Miss Sunshine, then saw the movie. And, of course, there’s Toy Story 3 which Arndt penned. My admiration goes beyond his writing, it extends to how Arndt thinks about writing as clearly he has done a great deal of reflection about the craft. Fortunately for us, he has gone public with at least some of those thoughts. I have featured his ruminations multiple times through years including here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. So I was interested to see this recent blog post by John August referencing this video:

In his post, John wrote this:

When I saw this video, I immediately wondered what it was from. It’s clearly professionally made, so why is it on some random guy’s YouTube account?

I emailed Michael Arndt, who wrote back that it was originally a bonus feature on the Blu-ray for Toy Story 3. He gave me his blessing to link to it.

I’m aware the model I set up here applies imperfectly to TS3 itself. (It applies much more cleanly [for example] to TOOTSIE, which I consider one of the best comedy first acts of all time.) The broader point is that the emotional fuel for your first act break is largely set up in your inciting incident — and that is something that does apply to TS3.

Disney and/or Pixar own the copyright on the video, so they could pull it down. But I hope they won’t. This kind of lesson celebrates what’s made their films so successful, and deserves wider exposure.

Knowing the whims of the Internet gods, I forwarded the link to the video to my stalwart development assistant Wendy Cohen and she was kind enough to produce a transcript, so we would at least have Arndt’s words down in print in case the video got yanked.

While I encourage you to watch the video – which is great – I want to dig deeper into the content of what Arndt says. So I will divide his observations into two parts, the first part today, second tomorrow, then follow with some reflections and open it up for discussion. Here is a transcript of the first half of the video:

The number one metaphor I have in my mind for writing a screenplay is that you’re trying to climb a mountain blindfolded. And the funny thing about that is, you think, “Okay, that’s hard because you’re climbing up a rock face, and you don’t know where you’re going, and you don’t know where the top is, you can’t see what’s below you.” But actually, the hardest part about climbing a mountain blindfolded is just finding the mountain.

Hey everybody, I’m Michael Arndt, the screenwriter of “Toy Story 3.” Now, at Pixar, there’s a lot of people who contribute ideas to the story, but I’m the guy who actually has to sit down and type them into a computer. So when we started working on “Toy Story 3,” we had a hard time getting the story set up in the right way. And I think this is a common problem in screenwriting. A lot of times when a film doesn’t work, it seems like the problem is with the ending. But in fact, the seeds of failure have been planted at the beginning.

So, on “Toy Story 3” after several months of some floundering around and going in circles, I finally decided to go back and look at “Toy Story,” and “Finding Nemo,” and “The Incredibles” and figure out, “How do they set up their characters, and their worlds, and their stories?”

So, this is something I learned at Pixar: how to write a good beginning. Usually a script is about 100 pages long with three acts. And the first act is about 25 pages long, the second act is about 50 pages, and the third act is the last 25. Now, you start your first act by setting up your hero in his or her world. And by page 25, you’ve given your hero a goal and set them off on the journey that they’ll take in the second act. So let’s begin at the beginning, page one, introducing your main character. So, usually what you do when you’re introducing your main character is you show them doing the thing they love most. This is their grand passion, it’s their defining trait, it’s the center of their whole universe. So, in Woody’s case, he’s introduced playing with Andy. And that’s his favorite thing. That’s the thing that defines who he is as a person. With Marlin, Marlin’s a family man. He’s just moved into a new house with his wife, they have a whole new brood of little eggs and he couldn’t be happier. And then with “The Incredibles” you introduce Mr. Incredible being a superhero. So you start with your main character, you introduce the universe they live in, and you show your hero doing the thing they love to do most.

But then your character needs one more thing: she needs a flaw. Now, what’s key here is that your character’s flaw actually comes out of her grand passion. It’s a good thing that’s just been taken too far. So in Woody’s case, he takes pride in being Andy’s favorite toy. He loves being Andy’s favorite toy so much and he doesn’t want to share that with anyone. In the case of “Finding Nemo,” Marlin wants so badly to be a good parent that he’s a little bit insecure. With “The Incredibles,” Mr. Incredible’s a little bit like Woody in that he takes pride in his place of being Mr. Number One, and he doesn’t want to share that with anyone. Like you see when he bumps into Buddy. And you see it again when he bumps into Elastigirl on the roof. So you establish a character, you establish the world they live in, you establish the grand passion that they’re defined by, and you establish a hidden flaw that comes out of this grand passion. And then you want to establish storm clouds on the horizon, which is your character’s walking down the road of life, it’s a nice, bright sunny day, but off there on the horizon there’s some dark storm clouds gathering. So in the case of “Toy Story,” it’s Andy’s birthday party. And all the toys are fretting about being replaced and Woody has to say, “No one’s getting replaced.” And with “Finding Nemo,” you set up the fact that there’s an indoors inside the anemone where they’re safe, and there’s an outdoors, the rest of the ocean, which is implicitly dangerous. And then for “The Incredibles” Helen is saying to Bob, “Things are going to change after we get married,” and then you have Buddy showing up and being jealous of Mr. Incredible. So you’re establishing that there’s a resentment out there from normal people against superheroes and you’re establishing Helen saying to Bob, “Look, things are gonna change.”

Some observations:

* “A lot of times when a film doesn’t work, it seems like the problem is with the ending. But in fact, the seeds of failure have been planted at the beginning.” Reminds me of Billy Wilder’s quote:

“If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.”

I doubt there’s a professional screenwriter alive who would argue with this point.

* For those supposed screenwriting gurus who decry three act structure, here is yet again another professional screenwriter who subscribes to the theory. If it was good enough for Aristotle and Joseph Campbell (Separation / Initiation / Return), it’s good enough for most of us.

* Speaking of Campbell, he would refer to this first part of a story as setting up the Old World or Ordinary World. As Arndt says, “you start your first act by setting up your hero in his or her world.” This is critical to establish a baseline of understanding where the Protagonist begins their adventure. You cannot measure their metamorphosis if you don’t know where they start out.

* Arndt adds this: “And by page 25, you’ve given your hero a goal and set them off on the journey that they’ll take in the second act.” The Protagonist’s goal not only creates an end point for the plot, it also — per Arndt’s language — generates External Stakes. The goal is important to the Protagonist. Not achieving that goal would be a significant blow or sense of loss. Hence, stakes. Hence, drama.

The most interesting idea here is this: “So, usually what you do when you’re introducing your main character is you show them doing the thing they love most. This is their grand passion, it’s their defining trait, it’s the center of their whole universe.” If you think this pertains only to Pixar movies, how about this:

Meet Charles Foster Kane as a youth, having a wonderful time in the snowy climes of Colorado. Couldn’t be happier. Then yanked away to live in New York City. Never happy again. Indeed, always – at least subconsciously – attempting to make up for the loss of his idyllic childhood home which is, of course, where Rosebud comes in.

While we’re on the subject of beginnings, let me toss out this idea: The story’s ending is implied in its beginning. I call it the narrative imperative. When you reach the ending of a story and it feels emotionally satisfying, that means it has been set up well in the beginning.

We shall continue with Arndt’s musings tomorrow in Part 2, but let’s carry over this conversation to comments (click on Reply). What do you think of this idea: As part of a Protagonist’s setup, show them reveling in their “grand passion”.

Michael Arndt’s IMDB page here.

Follow John August’s blog here.

Follow John and Craig Mazin’s podcast Scriptnotes here.

Screenwriting Lessons: Michael Arndt [Part 5]

February 28th, 2014 by

Back in 2012, I ran a 5-part series of screenwriting lessons based on what Michael Arndt says and writes. Here is Part 5 which gets into story beginnings.

I don’t know who went to the trouble of creating this doc — if someone out there can find the source, I’ll be more than happy to update with an attribution. In the meantime, I am reprinting this in its entirety.

Michael Arndt

Eight Steps for “Setting the Story Into Motion”

One of the hidden gems on the 4-disc Toy Story 3 Blu-Ray package from Disney is a ten-minute short film by screenwriter Michael Arndt. In it, Arndt reveals the eight step process that he found in films like Toy Story, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles that helped him in writing Toy Story 3. Despite its short length, Arndt’s theory is an excellent contribution that deserves a closer look.

1. Show Your Main Character

Introduce the audience to your main character. As most of the story follows their perspective, you need to establish him in the mind of the audience. In the case of Toy Story, this is Woody. He is a toy that comes alive when humans aren’t watching.

2. Introduce the Universe that They Live In

Give your audience a chance to see the world that the protagonist lives in. In the case of Toy Story, we see that Woody lives in Andy’s room with the other toys.

3. Show Your Character’s Grand Passion

Show your character doing the thing that they love the most. What is their Grand Passion? In Woody’s case, his grand passion is his place as Andy’s favourite toy. He has the favoured position Andy’s bed and the introductory playtime sequences always show him as the star of Andy’s imagination.

4. Show Your Character’s Hidden Flaw

Only boring protagonists are perfect. Show the audience your main character’s flaw. Give them a flaw that comes out of their grand passion, that comes out of the thing they love doing the most. In Woody’s case, it’s pride. As Andy’s favourite toy, he has a lot of pride about his place in Andy’s bedroom. It is only natural that he gets his comeuppance.

5. Hint at Storm Clouds on the Horizon

Very subtly, hint to your audience that there is trouble out on the horizon. In the case of Toy Story, those storms clouds are Andy’s birthday party. All of the other toys are afraid of being replaced. Only Woody, proud of his status as Andy’s favorite tool, is unworried.

6. Turn Your Character’s World Upside Down

Something comes into your hero’s life and turns it upside down. It takes away their grand passion. In the case of Woody, the introduction of Buzz Lightyear changes everything. Because Buzz is such a cool tool, Andy and all of the other toys prefer him. Woody finds himself relegated to the Toy Chest while Buzz gets the preferred spot on Andy’s bed. Woody has lost his greatest possession: his status as Andy’s favorite toy.

7. Add Insult to Injury

If that is not enough, you have to add insult to injury. It is not enough to take away your protagonist’s grand passion, you always have to humiliate him in the process. In the case of Toy Story, not only does he lose his place as favorite toy to Buzz, Buzz has no idea that he’s a toy! As Woody loses favour, you can see his frustration at Buzz’s cluelessness. He’s being replaced by an imbecile! This step is important to show your character’s frustration at a world that is completely unfair.

8. Have Your Character Make the Wrong Choice

This is the big one. Bring your main character to a fork in the road. At this fork, they have two choices: a right choice and a wrong choice. Of course the character makes a wrong choice. Having seen what he has gone through, we understand perfectly why he makes the wrong choice. We even WANT him to make the wrong choice. This wrong choice comes out of his grand passion and provokes a crisis that sets us on our way to Act 2. Let’s take Toy Story again. In Toy Story, Woody, having been displaced and insulted by the deluded Buzz Lightyear, decides to try to knock Buzz behind the dresser so that Andy will have to take him to Pizza Planet. The plan goes awry, Buzz is knocked out the window, and the other toys blame Woody, leaving him no choice but to find and return Buzz to Andy’s room. That leads us right into Act 2.

Arndt shows us the same structure at play in Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. The structure works well because the plot develops from the hero’s internal character, making it more personal. It also gives us something that character, alongside the main plot, must resolve inside himself. In the case of Toy Story, Woody not only brings back Buzz safely, but he also learns how to overcome his flaws and earn the friendship of Buzz. The hero’s journey becomes as much metaphysical as physical.

When you boil it all down, Act One is fundamentally about two things: (1) Setting up your story. (2) Setting the plot into motion. We can see that here in Arndt’s eight items:

Setting Up Your Story

Show Your Main Character
Introduce the Universe that They Live In
Show Your Character’s Grand Passion
Show Your Character’s Hidden Flaw

Setting The Plot Into Motion

Hint at Storm Clouds on the Horizon
Turn Your Character’s World Upside Down
Add Insult to Injury
Have Your Character Make the Wrong Choice

And if you follow Arndt’s approach, which is knowing your ending first, then you craft a story beginning that is tied directly to the ending. The Protagonist’s “grand passion,” the Protagonist’s “hidden flaw,” the storm clouds, the wrong choice, all of those need to be linked to your story ending.

Just like Billy Wilder said: “If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.”

I trust you have enjoyed this week’s foray into Michael Arndt’s approach to the craft of screenwriting.

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

For Part 2, go here.

For Part 3, go here.

For Part 4, go here.

Screenwriting Lessons: Michael Arndt [Part 4]

February 27th, 2014 by

Over the years, I have featured screenwriter Michael Arndt numerous times. Two reasons. First, he is a terrific writer witness two films he wrote: Little Miss Sunshine (2006) and Toy Story 3 (2010). Second, evidently he has spent a good deal of time reflecting about the craft of screenwriting witness his appearance at the late, great Cody’s Bookstore in Berkeley, California:

Back in 2012, I ran a 5-part series of screenwriting lessons based on what Michael Arndt says and writes. To see Part 4 which delves more deeply into the subject of story endings, click More.

(more…)

Screenwriting Lessons: Michael Arndt [Part 3]

February 26th, 2014 by

Over the years, I have featured screenwriter Michael Arndt numerous times. Two reasons. First, he is a terrific writer witness two films he wrote: Little Miss Sunshine (2006) and Toy Story 3 (2010). Second, evidently he has spent a good deal of time reflecting about the craft of screenwriting witness his appearance at the late, great Cody’s Bookstore in Berkeley, California:

Back in 2012, I ran a 5-part series of screenwriting lessons based on what Michael Arndt says and writes. To see Part 3 which focuses on story endings, click More.

(more…)

Screenwriting Lessons: Michael Arndt [Part 2]

February 25th, 2014 by

Over the years, I have featured screenwriter Michael Arndt numerous times. Two reasons. First, he is a terrific writer witness two films he wrote: Little Miss Sunshine (2006) and Toy Story 3 (2010). Second, evidently he has spent a good deal of time reflecting about the craft of screenwriting witness his appearance at the late, great Cody’s Bookstore in Berkeley, California:

Back in 2012, I ran a 5-part series of screenwriting lessons based on what Michael Arndt says and writes. To see Part 2 which focuses on Toy Story 3, click More.

(more…)

Screenwriting Lessons: Michael Arndt [Part 1]

February 24th, 2014 by

Over the years, I have featured screenwriter Michael Arndt numerous times. Two reasons. First, he is a terrific writer witness two films he wrote: Little Miss Sunshine (2006) and Toy Story 3 (2010). Second, evidently he has spent a good deal of time reflecting about the craft of screenwriting witness his appearance at the late, great Cody’s Bookstore in Berkeley, California:

Back in 2012, I ran a 5-part series of screenwriting lessons based on what Michael Arndt says and writes. To see Part 1, click More.

(more…)

Writing “Star Wars” with ‘Michael Arndt’

October 26th, 2013 by

You may have heard that Michael Arndt is no longer writing Star Wars: Episode VII:

As Episode VII continues pre-production, Lawrence Kasdan and director J.J. Abrams have assumed screenwriting duties for the film. Kasdan, who has been serving as a consultant on the film, is a veteran of several classic Lucasfilm productions, writing the screenplay for Raiders of the Lost Ark and serving as co-screenwriter for The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Acclaimed director and screenwriter Abrams’ credits include Super 8, Mission: Impossible III, Fringe, and Lost.

Perhaps it has something to do with this:

Or not. This Huff Po article reminds us there have been SW script shake-ups in the past:

After the success of Star Wars, George Lucas tapped Leigh Brackett, best known for co-writing the Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall classic, The Big Sleep, to write the script for the sequel. Brackett was also an acclaimed science-fiction writer. Unfortunately, what she turned in was not what Lucas wanted.

To be fair, unlike Arndt’s situation, Brackett would have most likely been allowed to revise her own draft. Sadly, Brackett died from cancer before she was given a chance. This left Lucas with an almost unusable script and no writer.

Lucas doesn’t get near enough credit for turning Empire into the movie we know today. It’s become the norm to blame Lucas for writing the sterile prequels (and, yes, he deserves his share of blame for that), but Lucas is mostly responsible for writing Empire as well, even though Lucas did not award himself a writing credit. It was only after Lucas finished his draft that Lawrence Kasdan was brought in to polish up some dialogue. (Kasdan played a much larger role on Return of the Jedi than he did Empire.)

Probably no great disturbance in the Force here, just the usual chaos in the creative process.

By the way, you can download the original Brackett script here.

NOTE: Saturday Hot Links will return next week.

Script To Screen: “Little Miss Sunshine”

June 5th, 2013 by

The climax of the 2006 movie Little Miss Sunshine, written by Michael Arndt.

Setup: A family determined to get their young daughter [Olive] into the finals of a beauty pageant take a cross-country trip in their VW bus. And now it’s her turn to perform…

However, when the first verse begins, Olive turns and
strides up on the stage -- hands on hips, shoulders swinging
-- with an absolute and spectacular physical self-confidence.

She rocks out, busting crazy moves this stage has never seen:
shakes, shimmies, twirls, dips, undulations -- a melange of
MTV rump shakin', Solid Gold Dancers re-runs, and
out-of-left-field inventions of her own. Other moves are
clearly drawn from Grandpa's sixty-year career of strip-bar
patronage.

She dances with a total command -- an exuberant, even witty
mastery of her body, the music, the moves, everything.

Most of all, she's doing it for herself -- for her own sense
of fun -- and the judges are instantly irrelevant.

Here is an extended version of the scene:

As an added treat, here is Arndt discussing the importance of this scene:

Here is a transcript of his introduction:

This scene you’re about to see is the climax of the movie. And it’s really the thing I’m most proud of because as a writer, I’m a big believer in endings. I think that the ending of your story is when the meaning of your story is revealed. But I also think in setting up the story… a good story for me is for a character, right before the climax, taking a decisive action, making an important decision. And usually you’ve got to make that decision as difficult as possible.

So what I was trying to do here was push Olive into this corner where she has to decide if she’s going to go onstage or not. At that moment, she’s weighing two value systems. One is her dad who says there’s no sense in entering contest if you don’t think you’re going to win. She’s already overheard her dad go back and say, “There’s no way she’s going to win. I don’t want her going on.” Then on the other shoulder is her grandpa who’s said, “We’re gonna have fun tomorrow, we’re gonna tell them all to go to hell.” And also, “A real loser is someone who doesn’t win, it’s someone who doesn’t try.”

To be didactic about it, you’re trying to have your character make a meaningful decision and really push them into the corner. And I always thought when I started writing this, the external stakes of the story, which is whether Olive wins the contest or not, is about as low a set of stakes as you can possibly get: a child beauty pageant. But I wanted to try as a comic strategy to jack up the emotional stakes of the story and also the philosophical stakes of the story, so they were absolutely as high as possible. So that when she was sitting there trying to make this decision what she was going to do, you were like a hundred percent invested. What this little girl decided next was a really, really important decision, and that you wanted to see how it turned out.

I love the scene description Arndt crafts. It doesn’t get bogged down in the specifics of the dance. Let the choreographers worry about that. The screenwriter’s job is convey mood, feel, action and entertainment. Arndt does that in spades here.

One of the single best things you can do to learn the craft of screenwriting is to read the script while watching the movie. After all a screenplay is a blueprint to make a movie and it’s that magic of what happens between printed page and final print that can inform how you approach writing scenes. That is the purpose of Script to Screen, a weekly series on GITS where we analyze a memorable movie scene and the script pages that inspired it.

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?