The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August and this is Episode 356 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
This week Craig and I have switched places. He is in Europe while I am back in Los Angeles. Luckily I am not alone. Across from me I have Linda Woolverton, a screenwriter whose credits include The Lion King, Homeward Bound, Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent, and of course 1991’s Beauty and the Beast. She also wrote the book for the stage musical Beauty and the Beast for which she received a Tony nomination. Linda Woolverton, welcome to Scriptnotes.
Linda Woolverton: Well thank you.
John: I could have gone on for about another five minutes with your credits because they are so vast. And like these are just some of your feature credits, but you also had TV credits from before then and after then. You’ve done a lot of stuff.
Linda: Well, I’ve been writing professionally since over 20 years.
John: Yeah. Well, I’ve been writing for more than 20 years, but I don’t have anywhere near the credits that you do. It’s just remarkable.
Linda: Well, thank you. You know, it’s hard work.
John: I sort of want to start with that last credit because Beauty and the Beast, the 1991 movie, I looked it up on Box Office Mojo and I looked up the adjusted gross, all-time adjusted gross income for it. It ranks number 133 of all films adjusted gross income. And that is higher than Iron Man. It’s higher than Toy Story. It’s higher than five of the eight Harry Potters. And then, of course, that also spawned the live action movie from 2017 which made $1.2 billion. So I guess this may be an insensitive question, but Linda Woolverton you must have gotten so much money off of Beauty and the Beast. Can you just give a sense of how much money you’re really talking?
Linda: That is a really appropriate question given where we are right now in terms of the business and feature animation and feature animated films being made into live action films.
John: Of course.
Linda: So, the important thing to note here, we’re going to talk about financial gain, is that feature animation is not covered by the Writers Guild of America. Which means that there are no residuals. There’s only up front. And I was paid I’m going to guess $35,000 to write the script. Took me four years, as animation does. There was nothing else. Oh, there was a bonus when the movie was made that Jeffery Katzenberg gave us checks. Howard Ashman was there. Alan Menken was there. And the directors, Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise. He handed us a check for $100,000 each. I was blown away. I had never seen that in a check before.
So, I was like, “No!”
John: So many zeroes.
Linda: Really. Howard Ashman tore it up and threw it him.
John: Because that was a pittance. Even back then.
Linda: For him.
John: Yeah. At that time to be paid $100,000 as a bonus. So I want to make sure everyone’s clear. You were paid $35,000 up front for these four years of work on Beauty and the Beast. And your backend was zero. Well, $100,000, it was that $100,000 check.
John: Gift. That was what you’ve received from writing one of the biggest movies of all time.
Linda: Yes, now, luckily I wrote the theatrical version of Beauty and the Beast, which is a whole different ballgame.
John: Having done a musical adaptation, it’s a very different thing.
Linda: Completely different thing.
John: You control copyright in these stage play versions of what you’ve done. And that is probably a much more lucrative thing. I can guess you’ve made more than $35,000 off of that.
Linda: A little. Because the show ran 13 years on Broadway. Traveled around the world twice. And it just opened in China. So that’s very lucrative. Just a little note here, when we did the deal for the theatrical version, Disney – it was really interesting – they had ownership of the movie. Right? Because they owned the movie. So I had to proportion out my royalty as per all the new stuff I wrote. So my royalty, which if it had been a full royalty it would have been a wonderful thing. But it’s only partial royalty.
John: I am in the same situation with Big Fish. So I wrote the stage play version of Big Fish, having written the screenplay of Big Fish, but Columbia is considered the author of that. And so they could have brought somebody else in to have written the stage version of Big Fish and I would have had no participation in it whatsoever.
Linda: Right. Exactly.
John: It’s not a great situation. But, in your case and in my case we got to stay on those projects and that’s fantastic. But I think what’s so interesting is not only did you not get residuals on the animated version of Beauty and the Beast that you wrote, but while your name is listed in the credits for the live action Beauty and the Beast you don’t have a piece of that either because that is – animation is not covered by separated rights. Had the original movie been live action and covered by the WGA, you would have gotten a piece of the live action remake as well.
Linda: Probably. Because if there had been an arbitration, because I did not work on the live action. If there had been an arbitration I’m 99% sure I would have gotten at least shared credit, which means I would have had a participation. So, it’s unfair with a capital U. But it is what it is.
John: So let’s get into that. Why animation is not covered. Because Craig and I have talked about this before, back in Episode 317 a listener wrote in with a question basically saying “How could animation not be covered by the Writers Guild of America?” And the long answer is long, but the short answer is that back in the days when animation was new the WGA didn’t think it was necessary to cover that. And so the Animation Guild began covering the writing of animated features. The Animation Guild is part of a larger guild, IATSE. They represent animation writing at the major studios. And the WGA can’t just go in and take it back because it’s another union thing. So, US labor law is preventing us from trying to go in and get that.
So it is a real frustration. And I think also a real cautionary tale for people writing in other genres that don’t seem like important things at the moment, but will become very important things.
John: I look to videogame writing. And I look to people doing things that don’t yet feel like they are on the level of film and TV writing but could be one day.
Linda: Yes. Yes. It is definitely a cautionary tale. And I didn’t know. Someone from the guild Board of Directors asked me, you know, well you signed the paper. True. I signed the paper. But I didn’t even know that there was a WGA at the time. I was this Saturday morning writer. I wasn’t in a guild at that point. And I went over and wrote a feature film.
So, you don’t know what you don’t know.
John: So let’s go back into some of that history because you were a Saturday morning writer, but what were your first writing credits? What got you started? And what made the leap into being able to write a feature animation?
Linda: It all began when I wrote two young adult novels. I had just left my job at CBS. I was on a desk and I wanted to be a writer. So I wrote a spec Muppet Babies.
John: I remember Muppet Babies. It was a great show.
Linda: I wrote a spec. And I didn’t sell the spec but I got work off of it. I started writing Berenstain Bears for Saturday morning. And then my career just never stopped. I was writing Saturday morning for like four years.
John: That was here in Los Angeles?
Linda: Yes. Here. Really fun. Really fun. Great group of people. You know, it’s just a little group.
John: So, in that era of TV animation were you writing as a room or were you just going and pitching a show and being sent to write it? What was the process of writing a half-hour like a Berenstain Bears, or they aren’t even half-hours. You’re writing little smaller segments.
Linda: They’re like 15 minutes.
John: So Muppet Babies. Was that written as a room or was that written – each individual writer just went off and wrote it himself.
Linda: I have never written in a room. Ever. Don’t know how to do it. No, you know, Berenstain Bears, it was very funny. It was my first job, so they gave me an outline. And they said here’s the outline. We want you to write the script. If it’s no good we won’t pay you. And there you go.
John: That’s a non-WGA sort of situation.
John: Here, work on this for spec, and then if we like it we’ll choose to pay you.
Linda: Yes, we’ll choose to pay you.
John: But if not it’s a useless thing that you’ve spent weeks writing.
Linda: Yes, exactly. So, that worked out. And the process was here’s an idea. Pitch the idea. Just like anything else. Here’s the idea, pitch the idea, pitch a take, and then they hire you and you go write it and then you get paid. So, that went on for – I had a really fun time. And then I just couldn’t think of anything more for silly creatures to do. And I had just seen a Disney animated feature that I didn’t think was very good.
John: Are you going to say the name? This pre-Little Mermaid. Little Mermaid is the moment where–
Linda: Little Mermaid is the revolution, whatever it is, of animation.
John: It was a ground-breaker. And that’s a whole special episode of Scriptnotes. We had a whole episode just talking about The Little Mermaid as a breakout moment.
Linda: Oh really?
John: Yeah. So, it was a pre-Little Mermaid feature you saw which wasn’t especially good, and that inspired you to say, “I can do better than that.”
Linda: Yes. So I went to my agent. I did have an agent. And I said I would like to go try to work at Disney. And she said, “No. They don’t read animation Saturday morning writers, because it’s not real writing in an interview.”
John: That whole thing about it’s not real writing is an ongoing thing in animation, isn’t it?
Linda: Yeah. It’s an ongoing thing. Yeah. What real writing is? Real writing? So I said, but I have these books, you know, I am a real writer. Here’s a hard cover book published by Houghton Mifflin with my name on it. Does that prove anything? So I drove my book over to the lot and it there was no dwarf building. This is way–
John: Pre-dwarf era.
Linda: Pre-dwarf. And there was no guard. So I just walked in and put it on the desk and said maybe somebody here wants to read this. And I left.
John: Wow. I can’t believe that worked. But it worked apparently.
Linda: It worked. My phone rang on Sunday and it was Charlie Fink had picked it up. He was probably hanging out with the receptionist. Picked it up. Read it over the weekend and called me and said you have to come work for us.
John: Well that’s great. So they say come work for us. Was it a specific project already at that point, or was it just a general come in and pitch things? What was the idea?
Linda: I did have an idea. Several ideas and pitched them. I came up with an idea that they didn’t do. But they offered me a live action Winnie the Pooh.
Linda: I mean an animated Winnie the Pooh feature.
Linda: I wrote that. They didn’t make it. But it opened the door to Beauty and the Beast.
John: I think a lot of writers we talk with, they get hired to do something that doesn’t actually go, but they can demonstrate that they are a good writer who can work with people and that’s what gets them the next job. And one of those things becomes the assignment that actually happens.
Linda: Right. Exactly. So that’s OK. You know, you’re getting paid. You’re honing your skills. You’re proving what you can do. And you’re bringing what you bring, which is really important I think.
John: So at the time that you’re writing the animated Winnie the Pooh, or eventually you’re brought in to write Beauty and the Beast, are they bringing you in as a special like they’re assigning you this project and you’re writing this, or are you working on a weekly basis? What was the nature of your relationship with Disney at that time?
Linda: It wasn’t weekly. It was a contract.
John: So just like writing any other feature.
Linda: Any other feature. Yeah. Only I didn’t know how animation worked.
John: Let’s talk about how animation works, because this is so different. I’ve done three animated movies. And so much of the process of writing an animated film, like the script looks almost exactly the same, but the actual process of making it is so different from live action, not just in terms of the development of it, but then with the live action feature you are writing it, and then you’re shooting it, and then you’re editing it. And those stages are pretty distinct. In animation you’re sort of doing all those processes at the same time. You’re writing a script and you’re hopefully going off and you’re able to get at least one chance to write a script when it’s just a script. But from that point forward it goes through this process of being broken down into shots and storyboards and then into animatics. And it becomes this living thing.
And your script, while still important, isn’t as central as this animated thing that’s in this sort of raw form in front of them. And you have the ability to keep changing story things quite a lot later in the process than you do in live action. It’s a very different situation. It’s not like the editing room. It’s like the clay is still moldable a lot longer.
Linda: It’s moldable for years and years.
Linda: And what’s interesting about the process, you know, it’s sort of a given that the project will take on a different form from the written word to a different medium, which is usual. Then it will go from that to the next step. But it’s sort of a given that at some point in time the whole thing will get thrown out and you start again.
Linda: If you’re lucky. So, that’s just how that process works. And there’s a lot of, you know, I would say it’s difficult to be a writer in feature animation because they really – you sort of like aren’t on the same par as people who are artists. It’s an artists’ medium. It is not a word medium, even though it’s a story medium.
John: It is very much a story medium. But that story is being translated through artists’ hands who are doing some of the functions where in live action the actor would be doing it. The artists are the actors who are making this thing come to life.
John: And stuff changes through that process.
Linda: It does. It absolutely does. But, again, story is the most significant thing. And the story as a writer as the story-maker, you know, I still believe that we are as significant in feature animation as in a live action feature film.
John: Absolutely. And especially the movies that have done well have had their writers as an integral part of the process the entire time through because those are the people who just the keepers of story. The people who can see past that beautiful artistic moment that you created to this is the journey the character is on and this is how we have to get through this.
Linda: Because it’s so fragmented. And one person is in charge of this sequence and one person is in charge of this sequence. Which was so confusing to me when I first did Beauty. It’s like well how do you have a singular voice? How do you keep that singular voice? Because every sequence had a different tone as per the person who was boarding it.
So, you know, I fought. I had to fight. I had to fight for Belle. Because Belle was losing her way. She was going backwards, back to being the victim princess, and I had to kick and scream to make her not.
John: Also she’s in many situations the only human character on the frame. And everyone else is big and broad and special. And so that’s a thing that happens, especially in animation, but also in live action where the hero becomes the least interesting character on the screen because everybody else can be wild and crazy and be driven by their Id. And the hero has to be this sort of moral compass moving board. And I can totally imagine how Belle could be reduced to just princess of the castle.
Linda: Yes. So we couldn’t let that happen.
John: No. And you didn’t. Am I correct that Beauty and the Beast was the first animated film nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture?
John: And that was a crucial ceiling to break through, because to be able to think of these movies as not just like a good movie for children, but an actual good movie for adults and for everybody else.
Linda: That was a huge breakthrough. It was like on a par with all the other live action movies that year. Silence of the Lambs won.
John: Yeah. But Silence of the Lambs is a great movie.
Linda: It is.
John: Nothing to take away from that. But I think just to be on the same list as Silence of the Lambs–
John: Or these other sort of movies for adults is a crucial thing. And I don’t know if we’ve gotten to a place where Pixar movies could be Pixar movies if we hadn’t gotten an Academy Award nomination for Beauty and the Beast. I do think it was a ground change of sort of how seriously we’re going to take animated films.
Linda: Well that’s about the money, isn’t it? Isn’t it about the box office?
John: Well, yes. So, I think the box office is a crucial thing to be talking about though because we’re recording this as the Incredibles 2 has just opened and sort of set all sorts of records. Like everybody wants to be that movie. It’s a well-liked movie that is making a tremendous amount of money, so everyone wants to be able to do those things. And very few people can do those things. Disney can do it. Pixar can do it. They’re the same company now. Every once and a while Fox Animation or Warners will have something else that breaks through. But it’s really tough. And it takes a tremendous amount of investment and years of commitment to make an animated movie. Much more so than to make a live action movie.
John: Anybody could just write a check for $100 million and make a big live action movie. You can’t just write a big check and make an animated movie. Essentially the research and development on making it is just so much greater.
Linda: It is. It’s much greater. Yeah. And I’m writing one right now for a company called Skydance.
John: So Skydance’s logo used to be often in front of like Paramount Features. They’re a big pool of money that invests in movies and they’re starting animation now.
Linda: Yes. They’re starting a live animated feature division, but I guess they produce television now as well. And big budget live action features under the Paramount umbrella I guess. So, there’s three in the pipeline at this moment in time. My one was first, but we got put back because it’s a hard subject. Again, it was one of those like let’s throw it all out and start again. So, you just sort of like I had forgotten all this.
John: Well, you choose to forget that. It’s like having a newborn.
Linda: Oh, yeah right.
John: You forget the darkness of those first months. And then it’s like, “Oh no, but they were so cute. You look at the photos, like oh it was delightful.” And then you’re like, “Oh that’s right, this is what it’s like.”
Linda: That’s right. This is what it’s like. I forgot.
John: Here’s one of the differences is that making a normal live action movie you’ll go through those places where everything falls apart, but it will fall apart in sort of script land and then you’ll start shooting and then you’ll have troubles during shooting and there will be challenges and there will be a terrible first cut and you’ll get through it. But at no point will you be sort of like a ways into it and then just like, “OK, we don’t know what this is. We’re going to change who the lead character is of the story.” And that happens almost every time in animation. It’s just so regular to know that you’re going to have the complete upset.
John: And it’s still surprising. I will say the stop motion movies I’ve made with Tim Burton have been somewhat of an alternative to that because you can’t go back and rejigger things very easily. Because once you’ve shot a frame it’s just sort of shot. And so the most that could happen to us with is we could reboard and reschedule some things for sequences we’re not quite sure of yet, so like if there’s things where like we’re not quite sure how it’s going to work out we’ll put those towards the end of the schedule and so we can sort of see what we’ve got and then write towards those sequences which were not set on, but we can’t do that thing which they can do on Frozen and other movies and just like let’s change that entire sequence and let’s make Elsa a very different thing.
We can’t do that in stop motion the way that you can in traditional or sort of CG animation.
Linda: I had the best time of my life working with Tim Burton.
John: So tell me about your experience. What was good about that for you?
Linda: Working with Tim?
John: Yeah. I have my memories of Tim, but I’m curious what it was like from your side.
Linda: From my side it was, first of all I was intimidated by him. But he agreed to direct Alice in Wonderland. And I went to London to meet with him and I was intimidated. You know, it’s Tim Burton. But when we started talking, you know, he doesn’t make complete sentences because he finishes it in his head.
John: Absolutely true.
Linda: So he’ll say something and he won’t finish it, and then he’ll say, “But you know what I mean?” And I realized first of all I did know what he meant and I knew who he was.
Linda: Because he came from here. And it came from animation. So, I got it. And then I was able to kind of connect. And I found him to be so open and many directors I’ve found they want to put their stamp on it immediately. They want to just stomp on what was there and sort of show it around and make it theirs. And I didn’t find that with Tim at all. I found suggestions and he’d say, “Well try this,” and they were great suggestions. And he was very, very supportive. And, you know, we had to throw a bunch of stuff out for budget-wise, and I would say how about we throw this out. “No, no, no, we’ve got to keep that.” So I found him to be fantastic.
John: Yeah. What I love about Tim is that he treats a writer like a department head. You are the department head in charge of the script and the story. And he treats you with the respect that he would treat a costume designer, you know, a Colleen Atwood, or a great DP, or a production designer, and like lets them run with this thing. And will give them guidance, but like he sort of trusts that you know what you’re doing. And so often directors don’t trust that you know what you’re doing. And that makes a huge difference.
Linda: Huge difference.
John: Do you know the backstory? I had the competing Alice in Wonderland project. You know that there was a whole thing here right?
Linda: I don’t really know the whole thing.
John: Well, let’s go through it. So here’s what happened is at the same time that Disney approached Tim about your Alice in Wonderland, because you had written it first for Disney, right?
John: I was approached to do an Alice in Wonderland project for Sam Mendes. And Dick Zanuck was the producer of both movies.
John: Which is just an impossible situation for Dick to be in, but being the uber-producer he was and the wonderful gentleman he was he was making it work as best he could. But it became this crazy situation where like I was trying to write this movie for Sam and Sam was going off and doing another movie. Tim was going to do his movie. Mine was for Warners. Yours was for Disney. And it became a place where it’s just like “Well this is just silly. This is just not going to happen.” And so ours went away and yours went into production. And so the choice was made for Dick. He didn’t have to sort of choose between which of his directors he was going to work for. But it was nuts that there were going to be two live action Alice in Wonderland movies in the same space.
Linda: I find that when that happens, when you hear that there’s two competing versions of a project, one of them ultimately goes away.
John: But sometimes they don’t and it’s always crazy. So Deep Impact and Armageddon is an example of where both things happened. There is the other Jungle Book movie which is coming out. That’s crazy. Mowgli.
Linda: That’s right.
John: So it does sometimes happen that both movies exist, but you don’t want to be the second movie most times.
Linda: No. No you don’t.
John: And we were going to be the second movie. So I wrote a movie called Monster Apocalypse for Tim. And we were getting close. And Pacific Rim went into production and we looked – someone read both scripts and is like that’s too close. We’re going to be the second giant robot movie and we don’t want to be the second giant robot movie.
Linda: Right. So whoever gets there first.
John: Yep. First to cross the starting line is the thing. It’s tough. But, anyway, I’m glad your movie exists and you got it made and you got to make a sequel and that’s fun. I visited Tim on the set while he was doing your movie and it was in Burbank and they had – actually, no, it was down in Culver City. And they had this giant green screen stage and I’d never been in a space that was that much green. It was really painful to be in that set. And Tim had these special weird tinted glasses so he wouldn’t get headaches from it. But it was just so strange being in a space where I just had no idea what anything was.
Linda: What was up, what was down.
John: Yeah. I mean, the costumes were beautiful, but there was no set.
Linda: He kept having to leave and just get his perspective and reality in the blue sky and all that during that whole process. So, yeah.
John: But let’s talk about – that movie was a live action movie and there was a tremendous amount of CG and animation. But there’s other kinds of movies like Justin Marks and his Jungle Book that Jon Favreau directed which are essentially animated movies with like one live action element. And now you wrote the original Lion King, but now they’re going to do The Lion King as an all CG thing with real actors voicing those parts. We’re at a place right now where it’s really difficult to say whether that movie is an animated movie or a live action movie.
My understanding is its being shot as a live action movie technically under WGA, but we’re going to run into situations where is that animation or is that live action and we have to fight to keep them.
Linda: Who is going to make that determination though? Studios aren’t because it doesn’t behoove them to because they will have to give up something. So, who’s going to decide? What percentage of real people are in it? So, if it’s all CG, does that make it animation?
John: That’s the question. I mean, the original Lego Movie is a WGA movie because there’s a live action element to it. The second movie does not have that and it is not a WGA movie. And the difference for what a writer gets off of writing One versus Two is tremendous. And so my hunch is that there will be some movie that will come up, it will be a big enough fight to say this should actually count as a live action movie that WGA and SAG and DGA will all step in to say like this really needs to count as a live action movie. And whether that becomes a lawsuit or there’s some way that you intervene to say like “You have to be acknowledging this as that kind of movie.”
Zemeckis with his stop motion things, those have been WGA movies to date. And so hopefully that’s a good precedent.
Linda: That would be wonderful. So that’s it? So the last Jungle Book was WGA.
Linda: The Jungle Book. Is there a definitive–?
John: No, there’s not. It’ll be figured out at some point. Well, most people go by if there’s one live action person in it, if there’s a real identifiable human being in there that is filmed then it’s not an animated movie. But there’s going to be weird test cases where you’re just not quite sure what it is.
And what happens if the original Lego Movie, if they’d taken out the live action element would it still be a WGA movie? If something starts as a WGA project can it go into animation and come back out? These are difficult situations and you and I both know writers who are in those situations.
John: Folks who are being hired on to write projects where it’s not quite clear whether it’s going to be animated or live action or a combination of it. And they’re getting hired generally by the worst possible terms.
Linda: You know when you’re being hired to write a story, to me it’s like the furthest thing on my mind in the beginning anyway, when I was young and naïve, is how much I’m going to get paid, or how, or what it’s going to land as. I’m concerned about telling the tale. And I’m thrilled to be able to tell the tale. And much less for a big company like Disney that it’s going to be seen around the world. That’s huge.
Linda: So the last thing on my mind is like, “Well, do I get residuals for this?” Didn’t cross my mind. So, I think it’s really important for writers who are making a leap from live action to animation to be very conscious, especially the new marketplaces.
John: Absolutely. So we were talking about, so Skydance is a new marketplace. But there’s Netflix. There’s Apple. There’s Amazon. There’s new people who are making movies. And if those people make movies under a WGA contract that is so much better for writers like you and me who are trying to make a good movie and actually get paid for it.
John: Than if they were to do it under an Animation Guild contract or no contract like Pixar is done under.
Linda: Right. So, when I went to Skydance, you know, I understood intimately the unfairness of it. So, I said, “Well, if you want me to do this then you have to give me a contract that’s as if it’s a WGA deal.” And I actually foolishly didn’t sort of press them to join the WGA, because I actually didn’t know that I could do that, or had that sort of clout in any way. But they agreed. So my contract is as if a WGA contract.
John: Which is better. And so I think what we’re going to be looking for in the next ten years for feature animation writers is places where we can get an actual WGA deal, best case scenario. That’s fantastic. That’s great. But in places where we can’t, how do we get coverage there on individual projects, for individual writers, that give them some of the benefits of a WGA contract. That gives them some protection, some backend, hopefully some credit protection.
I looked at some of your credits and you’re listed as additional material by, which is not a WGA credit.
John: It’s madness that you could have worked on a movie and clearly would have gotten credit under WGA, but wouldn’t get credit because the studio decides.
Linda: The studio decides. Yes. So even in the Skydance project, it won’t be WGA arbitrated. If there are other writers, they’ll decide.
John: So ideally you want to get some coverage for that. The other situation which many writers find themselves in is that maybe you’re going back and forth, you’re writing some animation, you’re writing some live action, and getting your pension and health covered between those two things can be really difficult. And so a writer you and I both know said like “Well thank goodness I’m on my wife’s health insurance because otherwise I wouldn’t have health insurance because I don’t work enough in WGA projects. I don’t work enough in Animation Guild projects to get it covered.” And that’s foolish.
Linda: And that’s a really scary thing. Like I don’t get WGA coverage on this project and I’ve been on it for two years already. So, thank god I have points, the points system is still working for me.
John: So, we’ll explain to listeners that when you work on WGA projects you accumulate points which sort of count against times where you’re not working. So, because Linda and I could be on a project for two years without sort of new income coming in there to sort of pay your things, you have points that sort of carry you over those stretches where you’re not on a new project.
Linda: It’s like credits.
John: It’s like credits essentially.
Linda: Yeah. Then you use them up.
John: You use them up. Yeah. And so then you’re looking for the next WGA job because otherwise you’re going to be out of health coverage.
Linda: Right. Exactly.
John: Scary things. Well, let’s talk about other changes that are out there because just this last week it was announced that Jennifer Lee is taking over as Chief Creative Officer at Walt Disney Animation. Jennifer Lee was on here to talk about Frozen. She is fantastic. She’s a real writer, so it’s great that she’s taking that over.
Pete Docter is taking over that slot at Pixar. Again, a real screenwriter. I would hope that’s somewhat good news for writers overall. They’re both places that really value story. So, maybe there could be some progress made at those two places, at least in terms of we can’t get WGA deals, but at least we can get some better consideration of what it’s like to be a screenwriter working on these projects. A little bit more parity with what we’re getting for writing live action and what we’re getting for animation. I would hope.
Linda: Right. I would hope, too. I don’t know if he’s going to change the nature of Pixar, because they’re a non-union joint. So, who knows?
John: Who knows?
Linda: I hope though that can change a little. And I don’t know Jennifer Lee.
John: She’s great.
Linda: Well, that’s fantastic. It would not be anything I’d want to take on because, you know, being a screenwriter is one thing and being in charge of all the everything of animation is a whole different ballgame. So, I wish her luck.
John: I mean, yeah, it’s more like producing. Or, it’s running a studio really.
Linda: Yeah, it’s running a studio.
John: It’s all the management aspects of that, but also the creative choices. And so I have a hunch she’ll do a fantastic job of it, but it’s tough.
Like you, she’s also – she went through and adapted her own thing for the Broadway stage, so she’s got that experience too. So, we’ll see.
Do you have any regrets not having gone back and tried to sort of run the show? You haven’t directed any features. You haven’t produced other things. If you were to do it again would you have made different choices in terms of the kinds of things you – the kinds of other roles you would want to take on?
Linda: I produced. I guess I have a credit producing a few. You know, people ask me a lot if I want to direct. And I have a skillset. I have big imagination. I have a skillset. I’m a storyteller. I’m a world-builder. And just because I can do that doesn’t necessarily mean I can do something else.
Linda: And maybe I don’t have a director’s eye. Maybe I don’t know where to put the camera. And that’s OK. You know, I create the world, I put the people in it, and when I write I write really specifically, very specifically on the thing. I overwrite, which annoys directors. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m going to be a good director. So I have never taken that on. Because I think I know myself. I also know, I mean, here’s what the really horrible truth is: I get bored.
John: Totally. And to be stuck on something for three years on the same thing is so tough. At least as a writer you can dip in and dip out. A director, you’re there every day.
Linda: Yeah. I can dip in. I like to dip out. [laughs] And do something else, you know. So, if I were to go back and do it again I’d probably just write novels like you have.
John: Yeah, writing novels is – that sense of control you have writing a novel is great. So, after your YA novels you haven’t gone back to do prose?
Linda: I never have.
John: It’s so many words. Man, just so many words.
Linda: It’s a lot of words.
John: It’s a lot of words.
Linda: You have to fill up the white on the page. Right?
John: Yeah, you can’t just sort of sketch it in there.
John: That is a tough thing. But I’ve enjoyed it. But it’s much more work than I sort of anticipated going into it.
Linda: Really. Yeah. I might still try my hand at it.
John: You should. It’s fun. I had two listener questions that I thought would be great for you. So I’m going to start with Ben in LA who writes, “I was just wondering if there is such a thing as a bad character want. A character should always want something, but is there an example of something a character shouldn’t want?”
And I’ll sort of put parenthesis around this to say that we talk about want a lot on the show in terms of that driving force behind that character, and really I think animated musicals are a great example of character wants because so often that second song in a Disney movie is the I Want song. It’s basically them singing their wants.
As you’re working on one of these movies how early in the process are you articulating what that character wants? Is it from the very first pitch you’re describing that want?
Linda: The I Want issue holds true in musicals, but again I think that if you lean on one thing too heavily it becomes formulaic. And I live in fear of that happening. You know, so my protagonist wants something. And to make them proactive as opposed to reactive they have to proceed through the world with a desire. And however that’s not how everybody lives. So every single protagonist isn’t going to be like the person with I Want who has like I’m never going to stop until I get this thing. That’s not every character in the world.
You know, some characters – isn’t it interesting to have like a normal person who has something remarkable happen to them and then their want becomes to get it back to the way it was.
John: Absolutely. Return to normalcy. Yeah.
Linda: Return to normalcy, or to find happiness in another way. So, I fear the I Want and it’s also kind of like so getable and kind of easy. Land this I Want on this person and then like whatever obstacle comes at them. They still have this I Want. And then to me it seems like then all the characters become the same. It’s like this relentless pursuit of their desire. And the world is a big place filled with remarkable people who have different experiences and not all of them are the I Want. That’s my rant about the I Want.
John: I like that rant. I would say that sometimes I notice that if things aren’t working it’s that the character wants something that I don’t really want for the character. Or the character wants something that I feel like I don’t think the story is set up to give them that want. You know, an example of like it’s a medieval dragon story but the character really wants to sing, or really wants a moment in the spotlight. And it’s like, yeah, but it’s not really a good match for that. It doesn’t seem like you created your universe and your character to fit quite right together. What you’re saying in terms of like there’s characters who like they’re so want driven that it’s the only thing you can see, I get that. And it can be–
Linda: It makes it really one-dimensional, or two-dimensional, but it just becomes that. So, then story becomes really simplistic in my view. You just have this drive to get what you want no matter what and then the interesting sub characters come in and out. And then the villain stands in your way. And then you get rid of them to get what you want.
John: Yep. You know, some of the fascinating movies, it’s not that the protagonist is opaque, but they’re self-defeating in interesting ways. Like, you may be able to see sort of what they’re going after, but they’re making choices that interfere with their ability to get that. And that draws you in closer because you recognize that weakness in yourself.
John: I think also part of the reason why we’re so attracted to longer form great dramatic television is because it doesn’t have that pattern of like this is the one-time story that you’re going to see this character go on this one-time journey that’s going to epically change everything. It just doesn’t happen that way.
John: So they have a bundle of conflicting wants and you see them juggling those different things. And movies tend to be focused for better and for worse on that one road. You started here, you got there, and that is the path of this movie.
John: Second question comes from Tommy in Toronto. He writes, “At what point during the process do you break down story days? Is this something you tackle in outlining? I’m nearing the completion of a new draft and it’s occurred to me that certain story days seem extremely packed in terms of events while other story days are quite light.”
So, what Tommy is describing is like let’s say you’re watching a movie that takes place, it seems to take place over the course of a week. And if you really look at sort of like day by day by day you could figure out like this would be the Wednesday of the week. I personally don’t find myself thinking about that too much. Do you find yourself thinking about like what day of story this is in your projects?
Linda: No. I don’t. I can only think of that where it happened if the time clock was part of the plot, then you would think, OK, well like in 24, whatever it was, this is hour 23. We better get it together. I’m just really old school. I think in the three act structure. And I just do. Beginning, middle, and end. You know, Billy Wilder’s quote, “Get your guy up a three, throw rocks at your guy, get your guy out of the tree.” I think it’s pretty good.
I’ve also never read a screenwriting book, so I don’t know anything.
John: Then you’re Craig’s hero, because Craig hates screenwriting books. He rants about them endlessly.
Linda: Screenwriting books?
John: Yeah. Just like, again, it’s that frustration of formula in the sense that everything has to fit this one model for how things work.
Linda: I guess because you’re always looking, you know, if you want to start something you’re always looking for like, because there is no path. There’s no path to being a screenwriter. There’s nothing like if you do this, and you do this, then you’re going to be a screenwriter.
So you grab onto what you can that’s going to guide you through that process. And sometimes screenwriting books are a help, I think, to a lot of people. I steer clear because I don’t want to be on a formula. I don’t want to put – I don’t want to shove my stories or my ideas into this formulaic how to do it.
John: Yeah. Getting back to Tommy’s question, I feel like sometimes it is good, like after you finish a draft to just take a step back and look at like realistically could all these things happen over the course of this amount of time. And does it feel like this is happening over the course of a week or a year? And sort of where you’d fall.
A thing that happened in the first Arlo Finch as I got notes back from I guess it was the proofreader or the first production editor was pointing out like the week logic, the week’s logic didn’t really make sense. Like if this was September and this was January, we skipped over Christmas, and so we should at least acknowledge that we skipped over Christmas. There were some interesting things where she was pointing out like, “OK, time does still happen in a normal fashion.” So, trying to figure out sort of when roughly some things could have happened was really good.
And the same thing will happen in movies. At a certain point, you know, they’ll break down and go into boards, but I think even before that process you need to look at did characters wake up twice in a row. I mean, there can be situations where like, OK, that’s actually not possible. Where it went day to night to day again but it’s still sort of the same day. So you got to be looking at that.
Linda: I do look at that. It’s like are we at night now? And, again, the time of day, the weather, all plays into it.
Linda: Plays into whatever is going on anyway. So, I do step back at a certain point. I don’t realize I do, but I do I guess.
John: At a certain point in every project I have kind of a color scheme in mind for the movie or for the book in the case of Arlo Finch, and I sort of see myself moving from like, OK, I’m in here, and then into this new color, and then into this new color. And it’s a helpful way of me thinking about what’s changed along the way. I’m in the green section now. And so if I’m in this section it literally looks more green to me. It’s just the basis of how it is. But some of those logic things aren’t going to be such a thing because I’ve moved forward to a place where I’m in this section now and I know I’m in new days. I know I’m in new places. And even if I’m not like mentally changing the clothes on characters I know that they’ve woken up and gone to sleep again a few times. Things have changed in their life.
Linda: I know that actors do that. They’ll color code their script as per what emotions or whatever it is that they’re going through at the time. But that’s interesting. You’re in the green.
John: I’m in the green section now. Some interview I was listening to years ago was talking about My So-Called Life. And Winnie Holzman was talking about one of the crucial things she and ultimately the directors had decided is that they wanted her, the lead character’s wardrobe, to repeat. Basically like for her not to have new outfits every time, but to see that she would wear the same things again, because realistically characters do wear the same things again. And they never do on TV, but in this case they wanted to make sure that she was actually a middle class girl who has a limited number of outfits, which I thought was a genius choice.
Linda: That was good. Yes it was.
John: I’m thinking back to some of your movies and in so many of them characters don’t get a lot of wardrobe changes because they are theoretically just on one quest the whole time through. Like Belle–
Linda: Belle gets her yellow dress.
John: She gets her yellow dress. That’s crucial and iconic.
Linda: She wears her blue dress and then she gets her yellow dress. And then she gets her yellow dress. Or she goes home, and then she comes back and she has her yellow dress.
John: I guess with few costume changes each costume change is really meaningful and it really does, you know, it lands bigger.
Linda: Yeah. I think you’re right actually. And the yellow dress became such a big thing it needs its own agent. The yellow dress. That’s interesting. Alice shrunk, so she had to get a little mini wardrobe. What else have I written? In Lion King nobody wears clothes.
John: Naked people running around the whole time. Rafiki has some like beady kind of stuff, but that’s about it.
Linda: And let’s see, Homeward Bound, same thing.
John: Not a big wardrobe movie.
Linda: Yeah, yeah.
John: You know that Linda Woolverton, lovely. Won’t dress her characters at all.
Linda: Yeah, sorry, no clothes. You don’t get the clothes.
John: All nudists. We do a little thing on Scriptnotes called One Cool Things. Did I warn you about this? Do you have a recommendation?
Linda: You did. I was trying to think of – well, I guess, it is a recommendation?
John: A recommendation or something you like. If people want to check it out.
Linda: OK. Go to Shanghai.
John: OK, Shanghai.
Linda: Go to Shanghai, China. Go to Disneyland. Disney Shanghai, or Shanghai Disney, and go to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.
John: So why should they check out at that ride?
Linda: It’s so awesome.
John: Tell me.
Linda: If you know Disneyland and the Disney ride, they’ve completely re-envisioned it for like the new version of Pirates, the Johnny Depp version of Pirates, but the whole thing is three domes. And you’re in your little boat. And you go under the sea–
John: Of course.
Linda: In this little boat. And you’re still on the floaty boat. It’s real water. But these domes are sort of like above you and they’re moving the boat around in circles. And there’s like creatures and there’s a big fight between battleships, you know, the ships. It’s really so imaginative and so impressive. So get on that plane and go to Shanghai.
John: My One Cool Thing was almost a Disney Imagineering thing also. So, I’ll put a little bonus. I read a great article, I think it was called Adventure House, and so they were going to do sort of a sequel to the Haunted Mansion. So they have the Haunted Mansion ride or attraction at Disneyland. They were going to build a second one called Adventure House. And so they have all the Imagineering plans for it and what was going to be there and there was like a sleeping bear in a bed and it sounded kind of great. And so I sort of wish they had built that.
But my actual One Cool Thing is an article I read this last week about Climate Central. And I’ll put a link to the NBC News article and also the real website. But what this organization does is a non-profit and they provide information about climate change to local weather stations. So if you’re watching the local news they always have the weather man who is mostly talking about the seven-day forecast. What this group does is they provide charts and graphics and little video packages for local news stations to talk about how climate change is affecting local places.
And so like how pollen counts are going up. And the effect of climate change on pollen counts or on hops brewing and how it will change beer taste because of climate change. It was just a very smart way of getting local news stations to talk about climate change.
John: In ways they might not.
John: This was a really bleak news week and so this was like one of the few little moments of like, “Wow, there’s some really smart people doing some very clever placement of good information.” So, Climate Central, you’re a One Cool Thing.
That is our show. So, as always, our show is produced by Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is also by Matthew. If you have an outro you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions like the ones we answered today. For shorter questions on Twitter I’m @johnaugust and Craig is @clmazin. Linda, are you on Twitter?
John: Good. Safe. Stay away.
Linda: I know. Those knee-jerk reactions, not good. Yeah, no.
John: You can find us on Apple Podcasts. Just search for Scriptnotes. While you’re there leave us a comment. You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. We’ll also have transcripts up within the week.
You can find all the back episodes at Scriptnotes.net. It is $2 a month. And you can get all the first 355 episodes of the show.
Linda, thank you so much for being here. It was so great to chat with you.
Linda: I know. So much fun. Thank you so much for having me. Bye.
- Thanks for joining us, Linda Woolverton!
- Adjusted for inflation, Beauty and the Beast ranks #133 in domestic grosses, above Toy Story, Iron Man, and other huge films.
- In Episode 317: First Day on the Job, we talked about the history of why animation writers are not represented by the WGA.
- In Episode 92: The Little Mermaid, we did a deep dive on the animated film that changed the game.
- Shanghai Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride is amazing. This POV video of the ride is definitely a spoiler.
- Climate Central is an independent organization of leading scientists and journalists researching and reporting the facts about our changing climate and its impact on the public. It helps localize reports of the effects of climate change.
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