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Posts Tagged ‘Up’

“We make the kind of movies we want to see, we love to laugh, but I also believe what Walt Disney said, ‘for every laugh there should be a tear.”
John Lasseter
Pixar director of Toy Story, Cars, and A Bug’s Life

“Come in! Come in, you’ve nothing to fear!”
The old lady in Hansel and Gretel

Several reviews of Toy Story 3 talk of the darker nature of the movie. The film just opened yesterday and I haven’t seen it yet, but I wonder if many have just forgotten the darker corners that Pixar has treaded in the past (and Walt Disney before them).

One of the whole themes of Toy Story and Toy Story 2 is the fear of outliving your purposefulness and being replaced.  Of ending up in the broken toy bin, or even worse— being sold for 25 cents in a yard sale. That’s pretty dark stuff. And it’s set up early in the first film when Buzz Lightyear arrives and Woody fears literally being put up on the shelf.

Here are some of the lines from those first two films:

“No one is getting replaced.”

“Yes sir, we’re next month’s garage sale fonder for sure.”

“Toys don’t last forever.”

“You’re broken, I don’t want to play with you anymore.”

“I hate yard sales.”

Facing your own demise is pretty dark stuff. And don’t forget in Toy Story there is the bad boy next door, Sid, who likes to dismantle and destroy toys and dolls. In Toy Story 2 there is a kidnapping and a threat of Woody being sold and shipped to a collector in Japan. Dark stuff.

Remember conflict is the life blood of movies and the gang at Pixar understand this very well. (Maybe I shouldn’t use “blood” and “gang” in the same sentence when talking about family friendly Pixar, but in the spirit of this post I think it’s okay.)

Being old, forgotten, and left behind is addressed in Cars. (“I’m in this little town called Radiator Springs. You know Route 66? It’s still here!”) Roger Ebert wrote of Cars, “It tells a bright and cheery story, and then has a little something profound lurking around the edges. In this case, it’s a sense of loss.” Cars is all the more poignant since it was the great Paul Newman’s last film. (Cars also happens to be Newman’s highest grossing film.)

And how gut wrenching is that montage of Carl & Ellie’s life  in Pixar’s Up? They meet and have hopes and dreams of a life adventure together. But their savings are depleted time and time again as life problems intrude—a car repair here, a house repair there. Finally, later in their life Carl buys tickets for a trip to South America, but before he can surprise Ellie she gets sick and dies. Dark stuff.

In the opening scene of Pixar’s Finding Nemo, Marlin’s wife and large family are killed by a barracuda. And soon afterwards his only son, Nemo, is captured by a scuba diver. Dark Stuff.

Fortunately the gang at Pixar also know how to balance some of their darker, somber themes by cloaking them with humor. They understand stand that life is a mixture of sadness and humor. They simply understand human emotions—even if their creations aren’t always human.

Certainly part of the magic of Walt Disney was not shying away from harsh and dark conflict. Think of Bambi’s mother being shot (“Mother we made it. Mother…”) or of Cruella De Vil who abducts puppies with the hopes of making a dalmatian coat. We’re talking Silence of the Lambs creepy.

Of course, Disney was just tapping into the tradition of fairy tales before him. Stories of a big, bad wolf who has eaten grandma, a witch who desires to put Hansel and Gretel in an oven, and a giant who yells to a poor, fatherless boy;

Fee-fi-fo-fum!
I smell the blood of an Englishman?
Be he ‘live, or be he dead,
I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.

In real life we may be scared to go into the woods, but as writers (even writers of children and family stories) into the woods we must go.

But don’t forget to pack a flashlight.

Post tenebras lux.

Related post: Everything I Learned in Film School
Toy Story 3’s Ohio Connection
Screenwriting Quote #129 (Bob Peterson)
Writing “Finding Nemo”
Screenwriting the Pixar Way

Update 6/21/10: I was one of the people who helped make Toy Story 3 a record Father’s Day weekend.  It continued the same theme of the fear of being discarded, of outliving your usefulness. Overall it is a super film with the best ending of the three movies. Had a little water in my eyes at the end and it wasn’t from wearing those 3-D glasses for an hour and a half.

I can’t help wonder how hard it is for people who are unemployed to watch that film with their kids as they face uncertainty of work in the future. Just read an article where 40 is considered old at Google. I could help but think of Woody, Buzz and the gang when I read the following rely in the comments section of the post:

My husband has been coding since 1980 and was plucked from college his junior year by IBM because of a shortage of programmers. He can code rings around most newbies who weren’t born when he wrote his first lines of PL1 and cobalt. The main problem as I see it, is that he doesn’t look shiny and new while he does it and that turns off a lot of employers.

Scott W. Smith

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Last week I was asked by Debra Eckerling to do my first ever guest blogging on her excellent Write On Online website. I appreciated the opportunity and wrote the following post after making the observation that there was a heavy dose of films made beyond what is known as the thirty mile zone in L.A. (As a side note, though Eckerling lives in L.A. these days she is part of the Midwest tribe invading Southern California, having been raised in the Chicago area and college educated in Wisconsin and Nebraska.)

The Oscars & Screenwriting East of L.A.

On my blog Screenwriting from Iowa I enjoy writing about screenwriters who come from outside L.A., not because I have anything against L.A., but because I think there are wonderful stories to tell from all over the world. The famous painter Grant Wood (American Gothic) was fond of talking about regionalism in painting. I’d like to think there is a regionalism brewing from a screenwriting and filmmaking perspective.

One thing that jumps out at me about this year’s Oscar nominations in both the original and adapted screenplay categories is every single one of the stories is set outside Los Angeles.

I haven’t seen all of the films, but after a little research I’m not even sure that of the 10 films nominated in the screenplay categories that there is a single scene even set in the state of California. Those are pretty staggering statistics considering that L.A. is the center of the film industry.

Original Screenplay Nominees:

District 9
Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell; set in Johannesburg, South Africa,

An Education
Screenplay by Nick Hornby; set in England

In the Loop
Screenplay by Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, and Tony Roche; set in England and Washington, D.C.

Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire
Screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher; set in New York City

Up in the Air
Screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner; set in various airports & airplanes around the county with key scenes set in Nebraska, Wisconsin and in the air over Iowa

Adapted Screenplay

The Hurt Locker
Written by Mark Boal; set primarily in Iraq

Inglourious Basterds
Written by Quentin Tarantino; set in France

The Messenger
Written by Alessandro Camon & Oren Moverman; set in and around New Jersey

A Serious Man
Written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen; set in Minneapolis

Up
Screenplay by Bob Peterson, Pete Docter. Story by Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, Tom McCarthy; set in South America

Just taking a cursory glance at all the films in every single Academy Award category and I don’t notice a single movie set in Los Angeles. There are films set in places like Michigan, Memphis, China, and of course, Pandora. This year’s films represent a global cinema.

Novelist and musicians have always been able to ply their trade in far away places that over the centuries has brought an original and rich texture to their work. It’s exposed readers and listeners to new worlds and experiences.

But because feature films usually take large crews and a good deal of equipment it has traditionally resulted over the decades in a good amount of stories that are L.A.-centered. And because of that screenwriters from all over have always been drawn to Los Angeles and end up writing more stories about L.A. (Or had their stories changed to be able to be shot in California.)

Perhaps we’re witnessing the end of a cycle that began 100 years ago when the movie industry moved from New York and Chicago to Hollywood. In 2008-2009 there was a lot of talk about L.A.’s runaway production and what to do about the shrinking number of films being shot on the streets of Los Angeles.

People can argue and blame it on the economy, unions, the high cost of shooting in L.A., tax incentives that are available all over the world, reality TV, the fact that people are tired of seeing the Santa Monica Pier, or the downsizing & democratization as the result of digital production, but the one thing this year’s crop of Oscars prove is that the door is wide open (slightly cracked?) for screenwriters who have stories that take place beyond the shadow of the Hollywood sign.

We may not be at that place where Francis Ford Coppola prophesied 20 years ago when he said that, “One day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart” by making a film on her father’s videocamera. But things are getting very interesting.

Mark Boal who wrote The Hurt Locker is a good example of a screenwriter who did not take a traditional route to break into Hollywood. Though neither fat or a girl he did go to a small college in Ohio where he majored in philosophy. As a journalist embedded in Iraq it led to writing the story that became the film In The Valley of Elah.Then he took the next step by writing his first screenplay (The Hurt Locker) which not only got produced, but has been nominated for a total of nine Academy Awards.

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In a related note, this year’s Oscars will be doing a John Hughes tribute. Hughes was born and raised in Lansing, Michigan until his family moved to the Chicago suburbs when he was a teenager.

You’ll be hard pressed to find a more successful mainstream Hollywood writer/director who was as much of an Hollywood outsider. Hughes, whose films include Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink. Planes, Trains & Automobiles, Christmas Vacation, and of course Home Alone, once told film critic Roger Ebert:

“I’m going to do all my movies here in Chicago. The (Chicago) Tribune referred to me as a ‘former Chicagoan.’ As if, to do anything, I had to leave Chicago. I never left. I worked until I was 29 at the Leo Burnett advertising agency, and then I quit to do this. This is a working city, where people go to their jobs and raise their kids and live their lives. In Hollywood, I’d be hanging around with a lot of people who don’t have to pay when they go to the movies.”

Scott W. Smith

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Today I was looking over the writing nominations for the upcoming 2010 Academy Awards and was looking to pull a couple quotes from writers I had never discussed before. I landed on Bob Peterson who was the co-writer/co-director (along with Pete Doctor) of the Oscar nominated script and film Up. Peterson was also one of the writers on the Oscar Nominated Pixar film Finding Nemo.

Turns out he’s another Midwestern guy. According to IMDB he was born in Wooster, Ohio and studied mechanical engineering at Ohio Northern University where in graduated in 1983. He then went Purdue in Indiana and earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. In school he had a cartoon strip and eventually joined Pixar in 1994.

“The great thing about this film (Up) and any film we work on is that it contains truths taken from our lives. Pixar lets the directors create an ‘autobiography.’ In other words, things that are important to us make it into the film. I do believe that the greatest adventures happen between me and my kids, my wife, and in small moments. A morning around the kitchen table eating breakfast is an adventure in my house!”
Bob Peterson
Interview with Domic von Riedemann

Later in the same interview Peterson offers some advice to those wanting to get into animating, but much of it applies to screenwriting;

“First of all, just start animating! Don’t wait for someone to say it’s okay. When I was younger I drew a comic strip that appeared everyday in my college newspaper – I got to draw a lot and get a ton of feedback from readers. This was invaluable to me as a storyteller today.

Always carry a notebook to do sketches. Watch and analyze animation. Go to conferences and get to know people – it is who you know sometimes that gets you the job. The best advice is to make sure to get good life experiences – we draw from our experiences every day in story and animation!”

Related post: Screenwriting the Pixar Way

Scott W. Smith

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