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Interview: Michael Arndt, writer of Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3

April 12, 2014

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The Toronto Screenwriting Conference is an annual two-day event held in the early Spring that brings together professional writers with aspiring screenwriters looking to break into or expand their skills in film, TV, and video game writing.  I’ve attended the conference the last three years, and it is always fresh and interesting.  

This year (on April 5th & 6th) I had the opportunity to attend two sessions put on by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine).  In the first on Saturday, he spoke about the process of working on the script for Toy Story 3 and how they overcame early scripting problems.  The second panel on Sunday was ‘Endings: The Good, The Bad, and the Insanely Great‘ in which the insanely great endings of Star Wars, The Graduate, and Little Miss Sunshine were analyzed and broken down with notes and clips from the films.  

MV5BMTgzNTgzODU0NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMjEyMjMzMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_Both panels were incredibly informative and entertaining and had a lot of clips to augment the information.  They were also ‘blackout’ sessions, which meant no photography, audio, or video recording was allowed.  The panel ‘Toy Story 3: Mistakes Made, Lessons Learned‘ is actually a presentation that was originally put together only to be shown at Pixar.  

After Michael Arndt’s first panel, I had the opportunity to do a brief interview with him, in which we discussed everything from when he first wanted to become a writer, to where he gets inspiration for original characters.  Enjoy reading it below!  

– Erin V.  

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So first off, when did you first know that you wanted to become a writer?  God, man, that’s a good question.  I think that… I didn’t want to be a writer, what I wanted to do was be a director, but the directors that I really admired were also writers.  So I figured I should learn how to write before I can direct, and it was really when I was in high school…  I was a sophomore, and just super, super unhappy in high school, and as soon as I found out there was such a thing as film school, I was like, ‘well that’s it.’  Like why didn’t anyone tell me, you know, before.

But I had an aunt who lived in the village and she sort of casually mentioned the film students at NYU, and I was like ‘film students?  What the hell is a film student?’  But once I decided to go to college and study film, that was kind of it and I wanted to be a director and just thought that writing was the way – I wanted to be a director who wrote so I figured I needed to teach myself writing first.

So are you ever planning on directing?  I’m planning on directing – well, I don’t know, we’ll see.  We’ll see what happens, but the long term plan is to direct.  And it’s funny because you… when you first get out of film school, you’re full of confidence and you feel like ‘I can direct a movie’ and then the longer you’re in it, the more it seems like an impossible job.

And where do you get inspirations for characters, when you’re writing original characters (not like Toy Story 3 where they’re already laid out)?  That’s a great question.  The kind of characters that I like, especially for original stuff, is people who are passionate to the point of being crazy, you know?  And I won’t say specifically what it is, but I was reading a magazine profile of a character who was super passionate about what they were doing, but like passionate borderline crazy about what they were doing.  And you go, ‘that’s a great comic character, because anybody who’s that passionate about what they’re doing, is going to have blindnesses, and you can put a super passionate character into a normal situation and it will automatically be absurd, because they’ll be blind to anything other than what they’re obsessed about.  So, a lot of times it’s just looking for characters that you go, ‘I want to see that character pursue something’.

And to me, the more crazy and sort of slightly out of control (and again passionate) your character is, the more fun it is for me – I mean the more fun it is to write.  So that’s kind of what I’m looking for, and then you just want to figure out what the venue is, like is is set in the world of sports, or the world of cooking, or is it set in the world of magicians, or what ever it is.

But you know that’s usually a thing that really triggers it for me, is it’s just finding a character who is passionate.  And this is really interesting – I thought a lot about this – at Pixar, or a lot in my own work, there’s always this question of like ‘how do you get your audience to like your character, or care about your character, or be rooting for your character?’  And conversely, how do you get your audience to hate your villain?  And one of things that’s interesting is that your villain doesn’t have to be a bad or malevolent guy, especially like a romantic comedy, a lot of times, what the villain is, is the villain’s kind of the voice of reason.  Like the villain is this cool, calculating guy who’s playing all the angles, and he’s not following his heart.  And your hero is the guy who’s totally following his heart, in an almost crazy or self-destructive way.

And I feel like audiences like passionate characters, just because we all feel like secretly inside ourselves that we are all crazy and desperate and out-of-control – we wear this mask of normality you know, but inside us we’re all just barely holding it together and we want to feel as though the people who are crazy, and follow their passion in life, are going to be able to succeed.  And conversely what we don’t want, is the one’s who are like the calculating cool customers who are manipulating people, we don’t want those people to succeed, because we want to feel as though people as crazy as we are can actually succeed in life.

So a lot of times that’s what you’re doing in a story, is just creating a villain who like Mr. Potter in It’s A Wonderful Life, says, ‘well hey, I own slums and I make lots of money, and you try to help people with your Savings and Loan and you’re poor because of that.’  And you don’t want Mr. Potter to win, but it seems like he’s going to, just because he’s sort of the more heartless and calculating.

…He’s the one that tells you screenwriting’s a pipe dream.  

(Laughs) Well that’s why the ‘plastics’ line in The Graduate works so much, because what would be the worst thing to happen at the end of The Graduate?  It would be for Ben to go get a job working in plastics, you know?  So yeah, that’s why that line works.

MV5BMTgxOTY4Mjc0MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTA4MDQyMw@@._V1_SY317_CR5,0,214,317_So you’d mentioned in the panel, really wanting to know where the story’s going to end up… How important is that, and when do you really nail down down the ending – or how important is it before you start?  It’s a tricky thing because I am… I know there’s a lot of writers – and I’m not saying this is the only way to do it, this is just my process – there’s a lot of writers who just plot forward, plot forward, and you know, you get a very nice dream-logic that way because you’re just following a single character and they go through a series of situations.  I’m just the opposite in that I like to know what my ending is going to be before I get there.  Toy Story 3 is actually a fairly good example because we knew externally what the ending was going to be, which is the toys find a new home with a little girl named Bonnie.  And you go ok, that feels right, that feels like what it should be.  What you don’t know is exactly all the resonances that are going to get you there.

But yeah, at this point in my writing life, I really don’t want to start writing a screenplay until I know (I’m going to give this talk tomorrow about endings, and the two minute climax of your story) and I just don’t want to start writing – like to me, the ending of the movie is when the meaning of your movie is revealed, so if you don’t know what your ending is, you don’t know what your story’s really about.  So to me it’s not even worth starting to write until you know exactly what that ending is going to be.  And it may change as you start writing and you discover new things about your story, but I just always feel like, I mean to me I just need that flag planted on the horizon as a writer so that I always have a north star to go back to, to mix metaphors.  And as you’re going through the first or second act, you’re always going, ‘how is this either serving or not serving the ultimate goal of your story?’

So you come up with almost like an idea but then sort of have to know where the idea’s going to end up.  Well, all my stories don’t work this way, but usually a lot of times what you’re trying to do, is you’re trying to get your hero to a moment in which it seems like they’re completely defeated and there’s no escape, you know?  And then in the most artful way possible, have everything turn around in one moment, and have them get everything they want, in the best possible way.  And that sort of – if you can engineer a reversal like that, you just get this huge burst of euphoria in your audience because that’s how a good ending works.

And I guess I have other different stories that don’t work in that way, but you just… It’s funny how a story is made or broken by the ending.  And if you have a good movie all the way through and you get to the last two minutes and it’s just like a mechanical, ‘I could see that coming’ ending, it just diminishes the whole movie.  And conversely, you could have kind of a mediocre film all the way through the story, but if you have a good ending, it redeems everything.  And so yeah, I feel like I just always want to know where I’m going when I start writing.

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Thanks so much to Michael Arndt for taking the time to speak with me at the conference – hope you enjoyed reading this interview, and you can check out his full list of credits on IMDb here.

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