Interview by Ryan Kelly for Script Magazine.
Rob Edwards wrote for some of the most acclaimed and popular television shows of all time—In Living Color and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, to name just two –and later transitioned from TV to film, with Disney’s Treasure Planet and The Princess and the Frog. He currently has several animated features in the works, including The Life and Times of Santa Claus and Amulet, in addition to developing his screenwriting education website, RobEdwards.net. I had the opportunity to sit down with Rob at The Writers Store and discuss everything from the art of animation to how the industry has evolved over the course of his remarkable career writing for film and television.
You have a few things coming out?
Life and times of Santa Claus is next Christmas—hopefully… That one was a fun one to work on. It’s Anthony Bell, who directed Alpha & Omega, and he had been doing the TV series of How to Train Your Dragon. He’s an expat Dreamworks guy. And John Eng, who’s head of story and just won an Emmy Award for How to Train Your Dragon. […] An Executive Producer was telling me about his conception of it. He said, “OK, I want to take this guy from being a street urchin and a pickpocket to becoming Santa Claus—and I was like, “That’s awesome—that’s a great arch.” A kid—any kid—and the theme being that any of us could be Santa Claus. That the spirit of Christmas could be anybody.
And then there’s Amulet?
Yeah—Amulet. Amulet is fun—it’s based on the graphic novels of Kazu Kibuishi. A really brilliant, fantastic, artful piece and this fantastic world where computers don’t exist. It’s like, what if we never figured out computers but got really great at Swiss watches that could be robots? Or grandfather clocks? It’s that kind of world, and there are these hybrid, human animals that walk around. The books were all fantastic...
And there’s the website—that’s my favorite thing, RobEdwards.net. I’m trying to eradicate bad screenwriting one writer at a time. For me, when I first got out to Hollywood, I was this 20-year-old kid, [saying] “Hey, I want to write.” I always expected people to say, “Yeah, right, kid—don’t bother me.” And the guys said, “Where’s your sample?”… “OK, great, I’ll give it a read and then let’s meet at Art’s Deli and I’ll tell you what I think.” It was a breath of fresh air—these guys were willing to mentor. And I wound up with guys like Sam Simon, who created The Simpsons, and I worked with Ken Levine and Dave Isaacs, who worked on Cheers. Thad Mumford, who worked on M.A.S.H.—these guys all mentored me. Not easy mentoring, you know. They would say, "Look, kid, this one joke was funny and that was it. But I’ll tell you, this one joke was very, very funny and here’s how you got to it; here’s what you did right—here—that you did wrong everywhere else”…
When I see kids coming out of college now, there’s none of that. I just don’t see it. More often than not, you see guys willing to take money and talk theory and dismiss you. […] Fortunately, I’ve been in some situations where I’ve been in some successful movies and won some awards and it’s not by accident—so here are my tools. It’s on the web and it’s free so everyone can look at it.
It’s interesting what you say—there used to be across all media of entertainment even apprenticeships, whether formal or informal. It was at least, “You’re going to learn from this guy.”
Yeah—there used to be somebody sitting next to whatever great—like, Jim Burrows, who directed Cheers—he had a person just standing next to him, just shadowing him all the time. You’d be like, “who’s that—well, that’s the next Jim Burrows.” And at the very least—who knows if that person is going to become great or not—but you know that they have spent 24 hours a day with Jim Burrows in the editing room, directing and they can write the book on the guy.
What kind of stuff do you have planned for RobEdwards.net in the future?
Robedwards.net is going to get more and more fun. […] It helps me learn because teaching is a great way to learn—I have to sit down and say, OK, “What is this?” I use my own site while I’m writing. Every essay I write gives me an idea for three more essays so that’s fun too. And as I’m helping other screenwriters, you see the same thing over and over. So you say, “OK, we need to have a discussion about this.” So that is fun for me.
I think, like any kind of evolution, I’m finding that this is my place, this my little chunk of the Internet where I think I have sole dominion over this little area. Because, I always tell people I’m not a guru, I’m a writer. When I read stuff, I don’t look at it as a producer—I look at it as “I don’t know how I would rewrite this.” In my job, a producer calls me up and says, “Hey Rob, I’m emailing you this screenplay. Take a look at it tonight and we’ll meet tomorrow morning at ten.” And my job is to read it—print it up, read it, make my notes, put my Post-It notes on it—break it down, figure out what it’s trying to be and then why it didn’t get there, and then in the most polite way possible, tell my producer friend what’s wrong with it and what I need to do to it. I survive on my ability to do that thing at 10 A.M. the next day.
So that’s the approach I take with the screenplays I read. I always read them as, “I know it’s wrong—we’re both signing off on the fact that it’s broken.” And If I were I to rewrite it, I would do these things to it.
How can I fix it by changing as little as possible? Where did it veer off path? Most screenwriters, in a perfect world, would be able to look at it before they even turn it in and say, “OK, what’s the worst note I’m going to get on this?” Andrew Stern says, "Be wrong as earlier as possible."
For people that want to get involved in animation. Is that how animation usually goes?
Studio to studio, it’s very different. [At Pixar,] essentially, the director says, “I’ve got this great idea, there’s this thing that just happened to me in my life and I want to explore it, storywise. And I think I can do it in this animated world.” So the story starts first, where the emotions and everything adds up to move an audience. And then they say, “OK, maybe it should be ‘clownfish’--” That’s the way they tell those stories. […] Occasionally, they’ll bring in guys—there’s Dan Gerson, there’s a couple of guys that will come in and help out, or they will together do something. But primarily, the director is the guy who says, “This is my vision for it—help me see it through.”
At Sony, it’s the polar opposite—where they say, “Here is a comic book, or here is a children’s book, or here is a toy, and bring back whatever you can.”
From me, what benefited me is Ron [Clements] and John [Musker] are writers. At a certain point, the demands of directing are just too much. Writing is a full-time job—directing is a full-time job and my job with them is too—I have time that they don’t have. So I can say, “I think this is what you would do if you had the time to do it; I’m going to add my secret sauce to it, and off you go and that’s it.”
But getting into it from scratch—you could very easily do it at some studios, like Paramount now, at Sony now, Warner Brothers is starting to get there.
Would that be through spec scripts?
I think so. Not knowing exactly what the demands at those various studios are, I know that there are demands—they are looking. They don’t have the stable of directors cranking out stuff and these lineups—you know, Ron and John’s movie is announced for 2018. They don’t have that. 2018 is not on the calendar yet. So you could probably have some fun if you walked in with a great idea; at least they’d hear you out.
And you eventually worked on pretty much every show that I watched growing up.
Yeah, I had a ball in TV. I just love TV—I just love watching stuff. Once I figured out how to write it—that was its own process, once I was in the club. The “inside baseball” of TV is that there were two major camps—when I came out—there was the Garry Marshall school and then the James L. Brooks school. And all the James L. Brooks guys—they’d come from Mary Tyler Moore to Taxi to Cheers to Frasier. A lot of those guys are on Modern Family now. And the Garry Marshall guys were Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Mork and Mindy, Full House, Family Matters, Perfect Strangers and then on. Once you were in one of those groups, you’re set. If you develop a reputation—there’s so many of those shows, they’re like, “Hey, you should hire kid—the kid’s really funny. Are you staffing up now? Grab that guy.” You don’t really even need an agent at that point. […] For me, The Cosby Show kind of straddled both worlds because Ed Weinberger created it and Ed was a James L, Brooks guy.
The good thing for me was that by the time I got to movies, I really felt like, OK, I don’t have to worry about, “Can I make a deadline and be funny?” “Does this scene make sense?”—all that stuff, I’d done it all at 3 A.M.
I understand the television world can be kind of grueling. Is that one of the reasons you wanted to move to movies?
No, I loved TV. When I was in college, one of the great pieces of advice I got was from Thad Mumford, just from writing letters back and forth with him—fan letters. He said read as much as you can, write as much as you can and get out to Hollywood as soon as you can. And for me, when I started reading, I read everything, I read a lot of biographies, and the guys that I liked, the Larry Gelbarts, the Woody Allens, the Mel Brooks of the world—they all have the same exact resume. They started as standups, they moved into TV, they wrote movies, and then they directed movies. Well, I thought, that makes a whole lot of sense. So in college I did standup—I did the warm-up on Fresh Prince so I kept up my standup—which is another of the most terrifying things you could ever do. […]
I went from there to writing TV, and the next stop was writing movies. And for me, I loved TV so much that it was a hard move to go from TV to movies. It’s also like growing up speaking Spanish and then having to learn French. The disciples of it, the machinery is all the same—I’m writing on the same computer, it’s still Final Draft coming up on the screen—but it’s a very, very different language, different structure. The biggest mistake I made was that I kept writing long episodes of TV when I wrote my first spec.
Funny, it seems now that people have the opposite problem. There’s so much material on film now that when new writers go to write television, it ends at the end of the episode and when you ask, “What’s happening next week,” they have no clue.
Right, exactly. Which is why I think TV is great college for writing—even for directors, everybody. Now there’s so much back and forth. Do the hardest thing while you’re young and elastic, and then once you’ve got that down, once you have the skill set, then you can move it into other things. Because the other part of that is you see a lot of screenplays where they’re long, they don’t go anywhere, the general narrative just drives. You know, Aristotle—the “intention obstacle” is just not there. And you want to say, “OK, I don’t know where to start reading this thing.” One of the reasons I started the website was I just got—not tired—but it’s a little frustrating to have the same conversation with every writer you meet. Now I can just point to the website and say “OK, five keystones”—do you know where you’re supposed to be at the end of Act II, do you know what’s supposed to happen in the middle of the movie?
Can you give a quick rundown of the five keystones?
They’re everybody’s – inciting incident, midpoint, end of Act II, the setback and then what I call the “Super Freak,” which I kind of stole from Michael Arndt. In Little Miss Sunshine, there’s that great moment where they’ve been telling her all along, there’s no use in competing unless you’re going to win. We’re only going there to do this one thing, and it’s obvious to the family that this girl not going to win anything—the whole crowd is booing—the routine that she’s put together, she’s dancing to “Super Freak” and she’s doing a strip-show. And the whole family jumps up on stage and surprisingly, starts dancing with her and throws caution into the wind. It’s this great moment—you burst into tears, and you’re smiling and crying at the same time, and it’s this great movie moment. It’s the same kind of moment as Luke Skywalker choosing to use the force instead of the tracking device—it’s that wonderful, unexpected moment.
I’m stunned at the amount of screenwriters that will write an entire screenplay—120 pages—and I’ll say “Great, where’s that moment?” and they’ll say “I couldn’t figure it out.” You start there—that should be on the first notecard you write before you start the process. […] So if can just walk through those five beats, whether you’re pitching, if you’re writing an outline—if I’m looking at someone’s cards up on a wall, I’m only listening for those five points.
So what is your own process? I was reading an article on your website, and it was talking about have you break it down into the 15-minute movies. Is that something you incorporate into your writing?
I kind of fell into that. Process wise, I don’t tend to do it that way. I just write. I like to play in the mud. I’ll write and write and write, and I’ll find what’s fun, and my scenes go on forever, and I’m just trying different stuff. And then eventually I see what I have—this is my section of the movie. I see what I have, and I say, “Oh, this is a good shape for this fifteen-minute chunk of the movie.” And then I start just looking at it like, “OK, well, how can I drive the reader from this page to this page in an effective way?” What kind of mini-event can I have and then, “Can I cover my beats?”—“How much fun can I have in this particular area?” I love Ted Elliott and Terry Roccio’s movies, and they write in sequences—it’s that animation thing that works so well. It’s “Here’s a section of the movie—ten or fifteen minute chunk of the movie, a reel, if you will—and here’s how much fun we’re going to have with it.” And it will have its own beginning, middle and end, and it will move your characters along significantly, and it will move your reader through it.” That’s a way I like to write—you can have your cake and eat it too.
Is that method something that came out of animation because there were a lot of people working on it all the time?
Yes. In animation it’s you and a story artist, and each story artist is working on a five to ten minute chunk of the movie. Each one of those story artists—it’s kind of hard to hand them something that doesn’t have a beginning, middle and end. Most story artists want to punctuate it in some way or another. So you wind up saying, “OK, well this is the scene where they land in the swamp, and at the beginning of it, they’re going to hate each other for everything, and at the end of it, they’re going to make a deal that if she can get the prince out of the Bayou alive, he’ll foot the bill for her restaurant. OK, great, that’s what we need to do. Ok, what are the elements, what fun are we going to have here?” Then you say, “They should be attacked by everything as soon as they hit the Bayou floor—birds, fish and land animals. How can we punctuate the thing? Alligators. There’s nothing more terrifying in the Bayou than Alligators."
So whatever they do, they end up in the middle of the thing, and she should probably get out of it, and he should be Alligator food. And then you just go from there—the dialogue is the last thing you do, that works its way out. It’s eminently animatable which is what a lot of writers miss. It’s all action—it’s all animation fun. I know that a big fish is going to attack, I know that a big bird is going to attack, I know that some land mammal-whatever is going to attack, and I know alligators are going to punctuate the whole thing. A lot of writers will write two people sitting in a diner and think that that’s animation, and it’s not—it’s just mouths moving. It’s boring for storyboard artists, it’s boring for an animator. Even if you sell it, it’s going to be boring for a family sitting in a theatre. I start with, OK, where’s the fun? Where are the planes, trains and automobile, the slippery slide?
I always heard that traditionally, animation was designed to have a lot of action lines during the writing process—to have a lot more than you would have in live-action—because if your characters are animated, they can’t show the emotion that a live person would. Of course, we’re getting into the age where, with technology, they can.
The thing that animation does better than anything else is that characters can do anything—they’re not bound by physics. You can stretch them, you can smush them, you’re not going risk some stuntman’s life. So why not? Why not let them? As an audience member, it actually draws you into it more because it takes you by surprise. You know, isn’t this great that it can’t be destroyed? And then grips you emotionally because humor is so disarming.
So in this day and age, are there are a specific number of things one should know to write for animation? How is animation different than live-action? Or are we getting to the point where the writing isn’t any different?
I think that the more live-action gets into the fantasy realm, the more there is this overlap. You look at a film like Gravity, and it’s hard to make the case of that being a live-action film. The first 20 minutes of it are done by computer—a face here and there and that’s it. […] Obviously, with a film like Avatar, you’re in animation land. The same dynamics are at play—this guy is not bound by the laws of the physical universe and by that, your imagination takes off, and you’re in that realm of writing. If this happens, if this fantasy thing happens, then the counter of it is this: You’re dealing with magic and all of that, and the more as a storytelling universe we’re in that area, the more everything becomes animation writing. Which I love.
That’s interesting—I always think of it in terms of animation becoming more like live action. Rather, live-action becoming more like animation.
No, animation didn’t calm down—live action just got nice and crazy. That’s what’s fun. If there’s just one important thing—the challenge of it is that as big as it gets, it’s still about people. It’s still about people trying to relate—those very simple father-son, man-woman, best-friend dynamics at play. The failure of some is that they lose that. They think that a great fireworks display and a lot of loud, loud things happening will be enough to make you say that was a great movie. But you’re never moved by just the spectacle. You get used to the spectacle really quickly. Two seconds later your like, “Oh yeah, men fly.” And you’re done.
You never get bored of the human condition—those are the things that make you cry and those are the things that make you want to go back. You have to care that Sandra Bullock will get back to Earth.
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