Join SBIFF for an in-depth discussion in this video The writer's journey (cont.), part of 2011 SBIFF Writers' Panel: It Starts with the Script.
Anne Thompson: Lisa, you ended up taking a long time to write The Kids Are All Right as well, some five years, and you got Julianne Moore attached very, very early on. Can you talk about how the original idea of the script changed over those five years, and whether the period of time that it took to actually deliver the movie made it a better movie in the end? Lisa Cholodenko: I'm so glad you didn't ask me how the original, original idea came about.
I feel like everybody in this room probably has heard that story. I started writing it on my own, based on experiences that I was going through in my own life with trying to start a family. I ran into my co-writer, Stuart Blumberg, who I wish was here, but he is on the East Coast. We had a great chance encounter in a restaurant near my house called the 101 Cafe where I would sit everyday and kill time and eat French toast. He walked in one day.
I hadn't seen him in quite some time. I'd moved to LA about a year or two earlier from New York, and he was still in New York, and he walked in, and it was just one of those old acquaintances that you know and admire but you don't have any real history with. And he sat down, and we started talking about what we're doing in our careers and next steps and this and that. I told him about this script that I had just begun, but here I was stalling and eating French toast and I guess I was hitting a wall early on.
And I told him that it was about this family and these teenage kids, and one of them was coming of age on her own and kind of in sort of secrecy was digging around to find her sperm-donor father. Stuart just sort of spontaneously said, oh wow! I was a sperm donor in college. And it was like one of those revelation moments, because I'd been thinking conceptually about sperm donors for a long time and never had met a real, live, animated, human male sperm donor, and there he was, right in my face.
I actually knew him and liked him and he is handsome and bright and the rest of it. And based on that and based on kind of things that we were saying to each other in this conversation, one being, unsolicited, he said to me, "You know, I think you come up with these great character studies and stories and stuff, but I would love to see you push out a little bit and kind of take your stuff in a commercial vein," which I, of course, took offense to. Lisa: And then I said to him-- Anne: Her first film was called High Art.
Lisa: Right--and a cult classic for those that live in Downtown New York. I said to him, "I think you've got great comedic chops, and I think that you do structure great, and here you are writing and rewriting studio films, but I really think it's time for you to start diggin deeper." So based on the sperm donor and what I was going through and this and that and trying to start a family and him needed to dig deeper and me needing to push wider, I just spontaneously said, "Oh wow! This could be an antidote to all this loneliness of screenwriting.
Hey Stu, do you want to write this movie with me?" And I guess he was in this same state of mind, and he sort of signed up right there in the coffee shop. So part of the reason why it took so long to write it was that he primarily was still living on the East Coast. So I was on the West Coast, and we would have to make these appointments. I didn't want to skype it in, and I didn't-- you know, the point to me of writing with another writer was the synergy, all the ineffable stuff that you get by sitting next to another human being and what comes out of that, just you know sort of energetically, beyond the words.
So I wanted to wait till when we could spend time together. So months would go by between these 2- to 3-week periods where we would plot out time to sit and try to push through a draft. So I am going to try to cut to the chase here, which is we got through a first draft. It was long. It involved a river rafting trip. It was very expensive. We liked it, but nobody wanted to make it, and we had to go back to the drawing board.
The next detour was I had a child. I had to take some time out to do that project. In terms of Anne's question, that was a great time out, because it really fortified my commitment to the subject and to the kind of machinations of what this couple was going through. It was my girlfriend and I, and we'd had this child with an anonymous sperm donor. So here I was finally living my part of the arrangement.
He'd already been a sperm donor, but I had to kind of fulfill my end of it. So you go on and on and you keep writing drafts and you keep trying to make them tight, and meanwhile, you're waiting for your partner to come to the next coast, or be able to travel, and things marinate and start the truth and the falsity of what you've written, the authenticity, the level of understanding of your characters, and of your plot, I think that's something that really time is the thing that brings that in to focus.
So while I was wringing my hands it was taking so much time, in the end, in retrospect that was kind of the biggest, biggest gift of it all that we had all that time to reflect on each draft. Anne: Yes, I am very aware that what I do as a blogger is very different from what you all do as to taking a very long time to hone and polish. And Michael, you're yet another example of this, after you did Little Miss Sunshine and won the Oscar for your first produced screenplay. (clapping) Lisa: No big deal. Anne: For which he was on this panel once before.
You then went up to Pixar, you went north and joined this sort of hive mind, and yet you still have a single screenplay credit for Toy Story 3. So what was the biggest-- you had these beloved characters that everybody really loved. You were writing a sequel, and you had to take this sort of pitch that they gave you and turn it into something real. What would be the biggest difference between what that initial hive-mind creation was and what you ended up with at the end? Michael Arndt: Just to sort of correct the chronology, I actually was first contacted by Pixar in the summer of 2005 when Little Miss Sunshine was still being shot.
So they called me up when I was an un-produced screenwriter. I first went up and interviewed and got hired by them in September of 2005. So that was before we'd even been accepted at Sundance. So I just felt very lucky to be there. It wasn't as though I won-- Little Miss Sunshine came out and then I joined Pixar. It was, I joined Pixar and then Little Miss Sunshine came out. I was just happy to be there. I mean I was so happy. I mean I sort of spent ten years sitting alone in my apartment in Brooklyn writing, and so to be invited to come up aboard this incredible company and just work collaboratively with other writers, I just thought, "I have to do this." And just to answer your question very briefly, they went away and they came back--the guys who had written the original Toy Story movies went away for two days and they had sort of a retreat.
And they came up with sort of the real strong foundation of the movie, which was at the beginning. I think that the smartest decision they made was the first decision, which was that they were going to let screen time elapse in real time, so that it would've been 11 years since the last movie, and basically, 11 years would have gone by, so that Andy is grown up and the toys are now facing a real problem. John Lasseter said that if you're a toy and you get broken, you can get fixed, and if you get lost, you can be found. But if your a kid that grows up, there is no sort of solution to that. And it's a great, great thing, because I think as a storyteller, you're always looking for a problem to give to your character that the audience doesn't see a clear, easy solution to.
And then they came back and they gave me--the middle was that they donate themselves to daycare, and then initially it looks great and then it turns out it's not so great. And then the end was--and this was also a really, really crucial--was to make this decision that the end of the story Andy was going to give all his toys away, sort of one by one, to this little girl named Bonnie. And that I just felt like I was so, so lucky at the beginning of the process, and we were all so lucky to have those three building blocks, and especially the ending, especially something that you always had a flagged point on the horizon, you always knew that you were going there.
However the detours we took, we always knew exactly where we were going. Just in a nutshell, like for example, the third act of the film, now, in the film they go to the landfill. That wasn't in the original conception; it was a scramble to get home in the third act, which we ended up throwing away. The hardest thing there was just figuring out what the arc of your hero's story is. I mean, Woody is essentially the hero of the movie. What does he learn in the course of the story? And it's really tricky if you're doing a third film of a character who is already sort of as well-defined as sort Buzz or Woody.
In the first film, Woody has to realize that he is sort of an only child or he is a favorite, he is Andy's favorite, and then he has to realize that he has to share the spotlight. And developmentally, that tracks with someone, a kid who is five or six years old. And then in the second film, he actually has to come in terms with his mortality; he has to realize, someday I'm going to get worn out. I'm going to get thrown away. And that developmentally tracks with the kid who is eight or nine years old. So it was really hard thinking, okay, what new lesson can this character learn in the course of the third story, because it has to feel like a real story.
It has to feel like you've really solved something, or he's really gotten a new perspective on life. And that, it took a long, long, long time and a lot of like conversations around in the story room to figure out he has always said-- It's funny. I always feel like--probably same with you guys; your answer is already almost always already there in a story. So in the original movies, Woody keeps insisting our job is to be there for Andy, our job is to be there for Andy, and he is equating love with always being there. So to make a long story short, we got to the end and Woody has to overhear his mom saying to Andy, "I wish I could always be there with you," and Andy saying, "You will be, Mom." And that way, you shift from sort of a literal sense of always being there for somebody to a figurative sense.
Woody finally learns that he can love somebody and let them go. He learns about the impermanence of things. He learns about moving on. But it took a long, long, long time and a lot of meetings to really figure out. The nice thing is that it developmentally tracks with someone who is older, who is essentially a teenager. So that now if you look at the arc of all three stories, it really feels like Woody has gone from being a very immature, sort of five-year-old, to being sort of a grownup.
Moderated by Anne Thompson from indieWIRE, the It Starts with the Script panelists talk about the development of their films, their research before sitting down at the keyboard, the evolution of the script, and finally, getting it to the screen. What's clear is that there's no formula, no easy path, and no shortcuts. The writers candidly reveal the obstacles each overcame on the way to seeing their vision realized. The anecdotes range from stories of triumph over adversity to remarkable collaborative efforts to just plain luck. Panelists are Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network), Scott Silver (The Fighter), David Seidler (The King's Speech), Charlie Mitchell (Get Low), Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right) and Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3).