Archive for February, 2019

“After his first Broadway smash, Hart’s life morphed from the grim black-and-white of poverty to Technicolor.”
Meryl Gordon

I don’t recall the stock market crash of 1929 getting get mentioned in playwright/screenwriter Moss Hart’s autobiography Act One.. Perhaps because in 1929 he was in his 20s and had never had money in the first place. That was also the year when he was working on a play with established playwright George S. Kaufman in the daytime and directing small theatre plays at night.

Even though he and Kaufman’s play Once in a Lifetime debuted on Broadway in 1930, the Great Depression didn’t seem to have an effect on ticket sales of that show. Other shows didn’t fair as well and ticket prices drop to stay running.

As the Depression deepened, there were other ‘angels from within’ who fought to ease some of the suffering of the ailing system. Playwright Rachel Crothers helped to organize the Stage Relief Fund to assist actors in paying for food, rent, medical necessities and utilities. Dramatic actress Selena Royle helped to initiate and run the Actor’s Dinner Club, where hot meals were served nightly at $1.00 each to those who could afford it and free to those who could not. It is reported that during the leanest season of Broadway, over 120,000 free meals were served.”
Robert Rusie
Broadway 101

The Great Depression lasted until 1939. But for Hart the ’30s were incredibly productive and profitable.  Hart and Kaufman wrote the Broadway hits You Can’t Take It with You (1936) and The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939).  In 1937 Hart and Kaufman were awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for You Can’t Take it With You, and the following year the movie version based on their play won an Best Picture Oscar and and Frank Capra won the Best Director Oscar.

In the ’40s Hart also wrote screenplays including Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) for which he earned an Oscar nomination. In the ’50s he worked on the screenplay for A Star is Born (1954). There were many other plays and movies he worked on (including musicals with Cole Porter and Irving Berlin) but his last big production was directing My Fair Lady for which he won a Tony Award.

His autobiography was published in 1959 and since it’s titled Act One and only went up to 1930, you sense that he eventually planed to write the books Act Two, and Act Three down the road. But he died in 1961 at age 57 of a heart attack.

Something else he doesn’t mention in his book is is struggle with depression.

“He had terrible depressions. But I find that most creative people have creative depressions. . . . And he would go into these declines and it would sometimes be two weeks before he’d come out. But he never imposed that sort of thing on other people.”
Kitty Carlisle, Moss Hart’s wife
YouTube video 

Hart’s letter are keep in the Wisconsin Historic Society in Madison. There were off limit many years after his death. But according to a Vanity Fair article he does talk more openly about his depression and bouts of writer’s block.

Scott W. Smith 

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“Can success change the human mechanism so completely between one dawn and another? Can it make one feel taller, more alive, handsomer, uncommonly gifted and indomitably secure with the certainty that this is the way life will be? It can and does.”
Moss Hart

My favorite scene in playwright/screenwriter Moss Hart’s autobiography Act One is the day after he knew he had co-written a Broadway hit. It centered around what happened the next morning when he returned home to his family.

The day before had started with Hart not knowing what his future would be if the play failed. When the final curtain closed that night it appeared the play was going to be a hit. He stayed up all night with a friend and waited for the reviews to be printed before dawn. The reviews of three papers were read to him.

“The notices of Once in a Lifetime as I listened to them were a blaze of glory—each word incrusted with a special luster of its own. . . . When the last notice had been read, I took that second drink, for I knew now that my life was indeed changed forever—and I drank a silent toast to the new one.”
Moss Hart

If Hart’s life were a movie you could end with that scene. A close-up of Hart’s face totally content knowing that he’d achieved his goal of being a successful Broadway playwright. (There was actually a movie done in 1963 based on Act One, but I don’t know how it ended.)

But I wouldn’t end it there. There is a more satisfying ending. After having the reviews read to him Hart decided as the sun began to rise to take his”first ride to Brooklyn above ground”—meaning he had money now for a taxi to go from Manhattan to Brooklyn rather than taking the subway.

He arrived at the one bedroom apartment in the slums where he lived with his mother, father, and brother. They were all still asleep when he arrive so he made himself a cup of coffee, looked at the frayed carpet, and came up with a plan. He woke up his family and as they read the reviews he declared, “We’re moving into New York [meaning Manhattan] today—as soon as you have a cup of coffee—and we’re not taking anything with us . . . not even a toothbrush, a bathrobe, pajamas or nightgown. We buy it all in New York. We’re walking out of here and starting fresh.”

He was greeted with stunned silence. When they asked how that was possible, he told them that he was going to be making a percentage of the box office that he estimated at $1,000 a week. And astronomical amount in 1930. They loaded family photos and some mementos into one suitcase in less than half an hour later they left poverty behind.

And here’s how I’d end the movie (WordPress won’t let me use screenwriting format).  .  .


All four members of the Hart family are crammed Tom Joad-style into the back of a yellow cab. Moss looks out the window as his brother Bernie reads a newspaper review.

…judging from the audience response last night, it looks
like veteran playwright George S. Kaufman and newcomer
Moss Hart have this year’s hardest ticket to buy. They might as
well call the Music Box Theatre the Cash Box Theatre.

As the taxicab begins crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, the early morning sun hits the dazzling skyline of Manhattan. For a moment this talkative Jewish family is speechless.  The only movement is Moss Hart’s mother fumbling for a handkerchief and wiping her eyes.

They were not, I suspect, tears of joy for my success. They were
not tears for the beginning of something, but for the end of
something none of us could name.


Aerial shot of the Hart taxicab in the distance as it blends in with the other westbound cars and completes the transition from Brooklyn to Manhattan.


Sure those last two lines of VO are a little maudlin, but those are actually Hart’s words in the book–and I think he’s earned that ending.

I don’t know if producer (and former president of United Artists) Lindsay Doran ever met screenwriter/playwright Moss Hart—she was only a child when he died in 1961. But there’s a chance that her father D.A. Doran crossed paths with Hart when he was producing plays on Broadway in the 1930s at the same time Hart had plays on Broadway. Or later when they both worked in Hollywood.

But Lindsay did a TED Talk in 2012 where she talked about some of the top inspirational films (Rocky, The King’s Speech, Dirty Dancing, The Karate Kid) and how they really aren’t about the goal the protagonists are chasing (a goal they often fall short of achieving), but how those movies end with the main characters sharing their experience with ones they love.

“Positive relationships trump positive accomplishments.”
Lindsay Doran

“If there’s no positive accomplishments at the end of those movies, and no victory to be celebrated afterwards, then what makes these movies so inspirational? Why are people still jumping up and down on the Rocky steps 36 years later if Rocky lost the fight? And I think the answer is what’s being celebrated at the ends of those movies is something else. And it’s not as enormous as saving the world, and it’s not quite as simple as kissing the girl. What’s being celebrated at the ends of those movies is each other. It’s the tenderness and the kindness and the comfort of each other.”
Producer (and former president of United Artists) Lindsay Doran
2012 TED Talk, Saving the World Vs. Kissing the Girl 

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Here’s her entire talk for you to enjoy and contemplate.

Scott W. Smith



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“Very few plays are without faults of one kind or another, but few plays succeed with a bad last act. The best kind of fault for a play to have is first-act trouble, and the worst kind last-act trouble. An audience will forgive a slow or even weak first act, if the second act grows progressively better; and a third act that sends the audience up the aisles and out the theatre with the impression of a fully rounded evening, can sometimes make that hair’s-breath difference between failure and success. A bad third act or even a poor last fifteen minutes of a play can be ruinous. It can somehow wipe the slate clean of all that has gone before and completely negate the two acts preceding it, and if a playwright is not in control of his last act in the final week of the tryout, it is unlikely he ever will.”
Playwright/ screenwriter Moss Hart (You Can’t Take it With You)
Act One,
page 389 (of the original 1959 publication)

And to follow that bit of advice from a Pulitzer Prize winning writer, here’s Oscar winning writer Michael Arndt unpacking what he believes makes for a good ending. (Just click on the “Watch on Vimeo” button, or click here.)

Endings: The Good, the Bad, and the Insanely Great from Pandemonium on Vimeo.

P.S. Here’s a related quote that seems to belong here:

“I think all good stories have one thing in common. And that is they have an ending that— I don’t want to say satisfying, because some great stories have unsatisfying endings, which is why they’re great stories—but have an ending that transports you somewhere. You have to be at a different place at the ending than you were at the beginning. And if all the story has done is taken you right back to the very place you were when you read the first sentence, then it was a waste of your time. “
Malcom Gladwell
MasterClass/Selecting the Story

Related posts:
Insanely Great Endings
Insanely Great Endings (Part 2) 
Happy, Sad, Ironic & Ambiguous Endings 

Scott W. Smith 

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The night before 26-year-old Moss Hart’s first play was to open on Broadway he was given $100 by the show’s producer Max Siegel. That was a lot of money back in 1930. After a late night final rehearsal for Once in a Lifetime, Siegel encouraged Hart to get a hotel room instead of traveling home to Brooklyn since they had to be back at the theatre the next morning.

Uncertain if the play would succeed, Hart didn’t know when he’d see $100 again so he decided to spurge for the night and stayed at the Astor Hotel. From his room he was able to see his name in lights at the Music Box Theatre. He wrote that night he got “the kind of sleep that only babies and old dogs in front of fires are supposed to enjoy.”

In the morning he got a massage, a haircut, a manicure, bought a new shirt, and gladly overtipped whoever he could. It was the best $85 he’d ever spent and a great start to what would be the best day of his life up until that point.

There were additional rehearsals starting at 11AM, and then the wait to see how the New York audience would receive the play that he and George S. Kaufman had spent so much time working on in the past year. The play had gotten lukewarm receptions in Atlantic City and Philadelphia and it was time to see if their last minute changes had saved the play.

The play was met with laughter and applause from beginning to the end. And this is how Hart explained what happened after all of the actors took their final bows:

“To my amazement, I saw Mr. Kaufman step forward and signal the stage manager to keep the curtain up. I stared at the stage in disbelief. He was about to do something so implausible that I could hardly conceive of his doing—he was about to make a curtain speech. . . . The audience seemed almost as surprised an I was. The applause stilled immediately and an eager ‘shushing’ took its place. He came forward another step, peered at them over his glasses, and waited for complete quiet.

“‘I would like this audience to know,’ he said carefully and slowly, ‘that eighty per cent of this play is Moss Hart.’ That was all. He stepped back and signaled the stage manager to lower the curtain. . . . I stood staring at the stage and at George S. Kaufman. Generosity does not flower easily or often in the rocky soil of the theatre. Few are uncorrupted by its ceaseless warfare over credit and billing, its jealousies and envies, its constant temptations toward pettiness and mean-spiritedness. It is not only a hard and exacting profession but the most public one as well. It does not breed magnanimity, and unselfishness is not one of its strong points. Not often is a young playwright welcomed into it with beau geste as gallant and selfless as the one that had just some over those footlights. 

“A hand was tugging at my sleeve and Max Siegal was whispering some words in my ear, but I moved quickly away without answering. I did not trust my voice, and I was ashamed to have him see that my eyes were blurred.”
Moss Hart
Act One, pages 427-428

Related post:
‘Helping others rarely hurts anyone, particularly yourself’—Ted Hope

Scott W. Smith



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Back in 1929 a young Moss Hart spent months working with the establish playwright George S. Kaufman on the play Once in a Lifetime. On its way to Broadway the play opened in Atlantic City with much laughter in the first half followed by a less than enthusiastic second half.

They stayed up all night making changes. After that short run was completed they opened in Brighton Beach, but also received a mixed reception.  This is how Hart described reading one of the reviews from a local critic:

“‘It is probably unfair,’ the notice ran, ‘to infer that the good parts of the play are written by one man and the inferior parts by another, but judging by the records of both names listed on the program last night, the first act and a half of Once in a Lifetime, which is very good indeed, was written by George S. Kaufman, and the rest by Moss Hart. Mr. Kaufman’s witty hand is everywhere in evidence during the hilarious first part,  but he seems to have left the typewriter in the custody of Mr. Hart for the rest of the play.’”


Keep in mind that the play was originally written by Hart to begin with, and Kaufman coming on board to get it in shape for a Broadway run. Kaufman and Hart worked in tandem for months refining the play. Hart knew going in to that arrangement that he would be sharing any glory that hopefully would come, but I don’t think he envisioned harboring all the blame.

The sting of that review was sharp enough that when Hart wrote his autobiography Act One 30 years later he included the words of that critic.

The good news is they did solve whatever the problems were with the second half of the play and it went on to have a successful Broadway run. And Kaufman was magnanimous enough to say that the play was 80% Hart.

 Scott W. Smith

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“Poverty was always a living and evil thing to me.”
Moss Hart (on his childhood in the Bronx and Brooklyn)

Before Moss Hart become the wonder boy of Broadway at age 26, before be would buy a farmhouse on 87 acres in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and before he won a Pulitzer Prize in Drama, he was a young man working with the established playwright George S. Kaufman on the play Once in a Lifetime.

This is what he daily routine was like leading up to his Broadway premiere in 1930.

“By the end of the first month of our working together, however, I was in a state of constant weariness. . . . I was suffering from insufficient sleep. Out working hours were from eleven o’clock in the morning until five thirty or six in the eventing, at which time I would eat a walloping dinner and rush off to Newark or Brooklyn for my little-theatre rehearsals, which began at seven thirty and usually continued until midnight and sometimes past. By the time I reached home again, after obligatory socializing with the cast over coffee and cake, was usually three or four in the morning. Since I had to be up shortly after eight o’clock in order to allow enough time for the long subway ride, which would get me to 158 East 63rd Street at five minutes of eleven. . . .I did not dare give up my little-theatre work. Apart from the necessary weekly income that it provided, the basket I carried most of my eggs in was too precariously balanced to shake, even with a Broadway production in the offing. I knew well enough that failure is the norm of the theatre, not success.”
Playwright/screenwriter Moss Hart
Act One, pages 288-289

So Hart’s schedule looked something like this:

8AM—Wake up, eat breakfast, get dressed, take the subway to George S. Kaufman’s place
11AM-5:30/6:00—Work on play with Kaufman
6:00-7:30—Grab dinner and travel to Newark or Brooklyn for rehearsals
7:30-Midnight—Play rehearsals (his “day job”)
Travel home for a few hours of sleep

And keep in mind, that before his play caught the attention of Kaufman that Hart had devoured reading plays at the library, gone to Broadway plays nightly (a perk to being an office boy), and spent six seasons as a social director to several summer camps where among his other duties he directed plays to entertain the guest.

Milton Glaser’s phrase “Art is Work” comes to mind.

Scott W. Smith








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“If it is true that no more eager disciple ever sat at the feet of a teacher, it is equally true that no disciple was ever treated with more infinite patience and understanding.”
Moss Hart on his early collaboration with George S. Kaufman

I forget who said “All disappointment comes from unmet expectations”—but that would sum up one unusual less than 48-hour period in the life of Moss Hart when he was on the verge of becoming the well-known playwright Moss Hart.

After six year of writing plays with little success, Hart was in his mid-20s when a play of his was given to the established playwright George S. Kaufman. Moss was excited that Kaufman could be interested in re-working Hart’s play and thought this could be his breakthrough moment.

In today’s terms this would be like a young writer getting a chance to work with Aaron Sorkin. Hart was given Kaufman’s home phone number and encouraged to call him. That phone call resulted in Kaufman hanging up on him.


That night Kaufman did read Hart’s script and wanted to meet with Hart the next day at the Music Box Theatre. It turns out that Kaufman did want to work on the play with Hart and a deal was struck on the spot and Hart was even given a $500 advance on royalties. (Keep in mind this was in the 1920s and this was the equivalent to six months pay for Hart.) When Hart went into a sincere (semi-prepared) thank you speech to Kaufman, Kaufman walked out on him. Hart was told that Kaufman had no use for sentimentality.


Hart went home that night to tell his family the good news and share his victory with them.

“[M]y family’s reception of the news, when I stood in the doorway and announced in ringing tones that I had sold a play, in no way matched my own triumphant glow. They received the news with an air of amazed disbelief and infuriating calm. Even the [$500] check, which I unfolded carefully and placed in the center of the dining-room table to be admired by them and by myself all over again, was viewed with an irritating detachment and a quiet distrust.

“‘I suppose you know what you’re doing, taking all that money,’ said my mother warily, ‘but I wouldn’t touch it until you’ve worked with Mr. Kaufman for a while—in case he asks you to give it back.’”
Moss Hart


The next day Hart went to Kaufman’s home at 158 East 63rd Street and was unimpressed with the modest brownstone.  He was “a little disappointed” in the exterior of a home of the famous playwright. And he was even less impressed when he arrived in the room where Kaufman wrote.

“It was a small, rather dark room, furnished sparsely with a studio couch, a quite ugly typewriter desk and one easy chair. It was hard for me to believe that a stream of brilliant plays had come from this monk-like interior. I am not certain what I expected the atelier of Kaufman and [Marc] Connelly would be like, but it most certainly was the opposite of this.  There was no hint of any kind that this room was in any way connected with the theatre. Not a framed photograph or program hung on the walls, and except for an excellent etching of Mark Twain, it might have been, I thought regretfully, the bedroom and workroom of a certified public accountant. My initial disappointment was to deepen into an active loathing of that room. . . .”
Moss Hart

The play they were working on together was Once in a Lifetime that would go on to become a hit on Broadway. But long before that, this is how Kaufman began their collaboration on day one:

“The trouble begins in the third scene of the first act. It’s messy and unclear and goes off in the wrong direction. Suppose we start with that.”


Hart did not take Kaufman’s direct analysis well.

“I nodded, trying to look agreeable and knowing at the same time; but this like my disappointment with the workshop of the master, was my second blow of the morning.”
Moss Hart

These days every time an artist sneezes it’s called a master class. Every Q&A is a master class. But the truth is many of these master classes are just successful people giving interesting anecdotes on their careers. “Master class” has just become additional marketing buzz words. But what Hart got from Kaufman was even more than a master class—it was the opportunity to work side by side with a master surgeon of the theatre.


“If it is possible for a book of this sort to have a hero, then that hero is George S. Kaufman. In the months that followed that first day’s work, however, my waking nightmare was of a glittering steel pencil suspended over my head that sometimes turned into a scalpel, or a baleful stare over the rims of a huge pair of disembodied tortoise-shell glasses. I do not think it far-fetched to say that such success as I have had in the theatre is due in large part to George Kaufman. I cannot pretend that I was without talent, but such gifts as I possessed were raw and undisciplined. It is one thing to have a flair for play-writing or even a ready wit with dialogue. It is quite another to apply these gifts in the strict and demanding terms of a fully articulated play so that they emerge with explicitness, precision and form. All of this and a great deal more I learned from George Kaufman.”
Moss Hart
Act One, pages 281-282


In 1936, the Kaufman and Hart play You Can’t Take It with You premiered on Broadway and played for 838 performances.  The following year it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the movie version (screenplay by Robert Riskin) won the Best Picture Oscar. And this week, it’s probably playing at a high school or college near you. (For the past 80 years that play is consistently one of the top plays produced by amateur groups.)

P.S. So while there is a sense that Hart did teach himself how to write plays (as my post yesterday implied), Kaufman taught him how to do it well.

Scott W. Smith

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Playwright/screenwriter Moss Hart not only didn’t go to college, but he didn’t even finish high school. He grew up in “relative poverty” in the Bronx and at 17 was working in a fur vault in New York City spending his lunch breaks looking at the want ads. After 2 ½ years of pushing furs around he landed a job as an office boy for Broadway producer and began a career in theatre.

He also spent six years working as a summer camp social director with amateur theatrical groups (including Camp Utopia in the Poconos) in his early 20s and by age 26 had his first Broadway hit (Once in a Lifetime.) He would go on to be known for writing, with George S. Kaufman, You Can’t Take It with You and The Man Who Came to Dinner. He also wrote the script for the Judy Garland version of A Star is Born (1954) and received an Oscar-nomination for his script for Gentleman’s Agreement.

This is part of the self-eduction of Moss Hart received in libraries:

“I do not believe that play-writing can be taught any more than acting can be taught, and I am quite certain that I did not consciously think of play-writing seriously in relation to myself, for all during that time it never occurred to me to read a book on how plays are written. I simply read the plays themselves, I read the published version of plays that I had seen and then plays that I had never seen, sitting there day after day like a bacteriologist trying to isolate a strange germ under the beam of a new more powerful microscope. . . . I began to perceive and place proper perspective the distinction between plot and character, the difference between tricks of the trade and honest craftsmanship, and though I was hardly aware of it, I began to discern the gradual steps by which a play is built and, in the really good plays, the wonderful economy with which each salient point is made and not a moment on the stage is wasted.”
Moss Hart
Act One, page 125

P.S. Apparently being the social director at summer camps meant coming up with nightly entertainment. Something that Hart learned to do quite well at various camps in Vermont, Pennsylvania, and in upstate New York. So while Hart didn’t have a formal education, staging and performing plays by George Bernard Shaw, Eugene O’Neill, and George S. Kaufman nightly is arguably an education that colleges and universities can’t match. You’re learning what works and doesn’t work before a live audience. And as Hart pointed out, some of those theaters in the Catskills sat 1,500 people (attracting people from neighboring hotels).

Related post:
Can Screenwriting Be Taught?
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously)

Scott W. Smith

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When Moss Hart was an office boy in New York City before becoming a Pulitzer and Tony-winning playwright, one of the perks of his job was free tickets to Broadway plays. This was in the early 1920s when there were 70 theatres “going full blast” at peak season. By pulling a few favors, and because new plays were opening all the time,  Hart was able to go to a different play every night. And because the tickets were free, much of what he saw were the bad plays.

“I am not suggesting that witnessing a spate of appallingly bad plays is a creditable method of learning how to write a good one, but it has its points. Though I had no idea whatever of writing plays at that time—the thought never crossed my mind— I am certain that some of those expository first acts, some of the ineptitudes of those second-act climaxes, and some of the stunning lack of invention in those third acts must have somehow seeped into my inner consciousness. The big ‘hit’ of any season almost seems absurdly simple; so effortlessly does it unfold, that it almost seems as though it could not have been written any other way. Watch a failure on the same subject, and you will see by what slim margin the mistakes have been by-passed, the cul-de-sacs averted in the hit. I am inclined to think those wretched plays I sat through stood me in good stead long after I’d forgotten what they were even about.”
Playwright and screenwriter Moss Hart (A Star is Born)
Act One, page 48

Scott W. Smith



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This is a repost from a 2010 post:

“I’m considered the most cynical of the group here at Pixar. I’m the first one to say when something is getting too corny or too sappy. Yet, I’d say I’m probably the biggest sucker romantic in the group, if the emotion is truthful.”
Andrew Stanton
Co-writer/co-director, Finding Nemo

“We always pride ourselves at Pixar on matching the subject matter of our movies with the medium. I really did know when (Stanton) said ‘fish’ and ‘underwater’ that this film was going to be great.”
John Lasseter
Executive Producer, Finding Nemo

When Finding Nemo screenwriter and director Andrew Stanton was a child back in Rockport, Massachusetts his dentist had a fish tank that made trips to the dentist’s office more enjoyable. A seed of an idea was planted and proved to be humble beginnings for a film that would go on to earn close to a billion dollars at the world-wide box office.

The 2003 film Finding Nemo also won an Oscar for Best Animated Picture and is the second best-selling DVD/Blu-ray of all time.

“When my son was five, I remember taking him to the park. I had been working long hours and felt guilty about not spending enough time with him. As we were walking, I was experiencing all this pent up emotion and thinking ‘I-miss-you, I-miss-you,’ but I spent the whole walk going, ‘Don’t touch that. Don’t do that. You’re gonna fall in there.’ And there was this third-party voice in my head saying ‘You’re completely wasting the entire moment that you’ve got with your son right now.’ I became obsessed with this premise that fear can deny a good father from being one. With that revelation, all the pieces fell into place and we ended up with our story.“
Andrew Stanton
Finding Nemo, story/co-writer/co-director
CG Society, The Making of  Finding Nemo

(Bob Peterson and David Reynolds also are credited on writing the Finding Nemo screenplay, and Lee Unkrich as the other co-director.)

Stanton graduated with a degree in character animation from CalArts and also was a writer on Monsters, Inc, Toy Story 2, WALL-E,  A Bug’s Life, and Toy Story 3.

P.S. Just saw this this on Twitter (what a run):

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Scott W. Smith

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