In this post from a writer’s forum (dug up by Variety blogger Anne Thompson), an anonymous writer describing himself as an uncredited screenwriter on Kung Fu Panda has a lot of fun things to say about what it’s like working at Dreamworks. It’s very reminiscent of some of our friend Allan Weisbecker’s experiences as a screenwriter, full of non-writers giving writers really helpful advice and such. From here on out, I’ll just let him or her speak for him/herself, because he/she’s pretty good at it. It’s a lot of words, but worth it.
And spend that month changing as much of the storyboards as they can, which is about 20 to 30 percent.
If the 30 percent change isn’t the right kind of change, people get fired. Maybe the director, maybe the writer, maybe both.
Sometimes, only the writer gets fired and an additional director is hired to help out. It all depends on who is better – at pointing a finger with one hand while covering their own ass with the other.
I came in about four writers into the process. It’s kind of hard to write a "better" scene than the last writer when the rules are that you can only change 30 percent of each scene or completely change 30 percent of the scenes, per Katzenberg screening. So, for instance, in this scene, the panda comes up a flight of stairs carrying a bucket of water, slips on a banana peel, says something to two geese and does an air guitar. The good news? There can be anything in the bucket. Your mission: make the movie better.
It’s harder than it sounds. Especially when the larger "bucket" that the movie is contained in cannot change: the fact that the story has to be about a panda who is informed he is the chosen one, destined to …beat up… a guy who has escaped from prison and who is spending the entire movie walking to town, in order to…try to beat him up, because that’s the prophecy. And I won’t spoil the movie, but the bad guy doesn’t win. Because he’s not destined to. But just to make sure he doesn’t win, and because there’s 70 minutes of time to kill before he gets there on foot, the panda is trained in the martial arts. it’s kind of like Karate Kid, but if Mister Miyogi had long ago banished the Kobras and was running the karate tournament.
That resonates, right? We’ve all been in that situation. Oh, yeah, but we weren’t the "panda." We were the "bad" guys, walking from Nazareth to Jerusalem, hoping to help people, only to get nailed to a fucking cross by the "good" guys. For instance, I had this job once at Dreamworks Animation…
I tried to divide my time there between the tasks of writing 30 percent of scenes, being hazed by storyboard artists because I didn’t know how to do 30 percent of my job, yet, and explaining to the producers that Messianic myths (like The Matrix, which seemed to have a slight impact on their story) usually resonate because in the beginning of the story, things are bad, not good, and the good guy is usually the one overcoming insurmoutable odds and attempting to reclaim something from systems that have the magical ability to beat the living shit out of them no mater what they do.
I said, could we please dedicate this month’s 30 percent change to making the bad guy be the ruler of the town, and the prophecy is that this panda is supposed to dethrone him.
Well, the prison scene is already drawn. And Jeffrey really likes it.
All right, can we make it like Demolition Man or Austin Powers or Cat Ballou, have the bad guy break out and everyone’s panicking and they go and get the guy that according to legend is the biggest bad ass, but he’s out of shape, out of his element and kind of a dick.
Hmmm, okay, but in that case, why is he coming up a flight of stairs, and what’s in the bucket?
I don’t know. There’s food in the bucket, because he loves food so much, and …he keeps his food in the basement, and he’s coming up to answer the door because the stork is knocking at it and beseeching him to be a hero.
Well, the stork never knocks on a door, though. And Jeffrey likes the stork not knocking on doors.
So we quit. Actually, I believe we were fired.
They do this cycle like 30 times and the end result is a movie created over three years by 7 terrified directors and 20 pissed off writers, none of whom get any back end because it’s an "animated" film, therefore no matter how bad it is, it turns like an 8,000 percent profit, and they make another one and another one and another one until Katzenberg is finally dead at the age of 117 because he uses all the money he saves to rejuvinate his body with the blood of poor people who die at the age of 50 because their hearts got clogged while eating Lion King Meals.
Which, honestly, sounds like the beginning of a great story. If someone would come along and blow up the whole god damn building and then piss on the rubble.
Unfortunately, it’s real life, and the rich guy is writing the story, so the stories are about rich people beating the shit out of everyone who wants the building blown up.
Which, Katzenberg assured me, is a story that’s been told from the beginning of time. And he told me I should get this book by Ted Kopell and Joseph Campbell called Hero of a Thousand Journeys or Something. Actually, he offered, because he liked me so much in our first meeting, to have his people send me a copy. To help me write his movie.
And I said "oh, that sounds great," because I had been coached for that meeting by the directors and producers, and one of the rules was that if Jeffrey said anything about story structure or Joseph Campbell, I was supposed to pretend I’d never heard of him.
Not kidding. Not exaggerating. Except for the Ted Kopell part.
Anwyays, 86% on Rotten Tomatoes, sounds like another hit. I hope there’s a shot where the panda leaps in the air and it freezes and orbits him. The storyboard guys love that stuff. And it’s their movie. I was under foot.
Oh, and I don’t know about Rob, but the reason I’m not credited on imdb is because I emailed imdb and pretended I had never heard of Kung Fu Panda. I figured I owed that to Campbell.
I know I’m a little biased and perhaps I generalize, but business execs are idiots and should never be in charge of anything. All they know how to do is see a good idea make money and go "Hey, we should do that!" Then they copy it, even if the first idea was creating an inexhaustible energy source. It worked the first time, right? Why wouldn’t it work again! Anyway, I know stuff like this because I had a job once.