Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Reader question - Does INSIDE OUT prove that more writers is better?

Yes, I know. I've been gone a while. Let's dive into the mailbag and see if I can't make some headway on questions....

This one's from Ryan:

I just saw Pixar’s INSIDE OUT, and I can only say one thing: Brilliant. The writing was the best I’ve seen in recent memory. The concept was truly original and off-beat; the launch was solid, straight, and captivating; and the story arc beautifully threaded ten needles to hit the bull’s eye at the end. Walking out of there I thought, “I couldn’t have come up with a fifth of that myself.”

So I looked to see who wrote the script. It was Steve Docter’s (spelling correct) brain child, and he got writing credits with Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley. And Ronnie del Carmen helped with the story. And Michael Arndt from “Little Miss Sunshine” fame was on board at one point. And they got suggestions from other film makers and the creative leaders at Pixar and …

Wait a minute, one person DIDN’T come up with this all by himself! But I should have guessed that. People don’t design automobiles or airplanes all by their lonesomes, why screenplays? If one guy is great at writing dialog, another is gifted at story arc, another at story concepts, another at characterization and so on, it seems that a table full of geniuses working as a team will be able to craft a better script than even a singularly superior screen writer working by him/herself.

So my question is, are we all wasting our time banging out spec scripts as sole proprietors? Won’t a team (properly working) always beat out an individual? And if so, won’t that push solo screen writers into obsolescence? Shouldn’t anyone serious about this business work in a writing group? It seems the only logical way to achieve the best possible finished product.

The fallacy here is assuming that there's only one single way to skin a cat. The correct answer to any question about the creative process usually involves some variation of "Whatever works for you."

Pixar's process is rather unique because the animation production allows them to screen early test versions of the film and get a sense of what's working and what isn't. They can refine scenes, remove others, scrap entire storylines and completely rebuild the story from the ground up. It's this process of evaluation and revision where most of the other voices seem to come in.

Live action does not and cannot work that way. Maybe if you're talking about a George Lucas or a Robert Rodriguez film that's shooting on green screens, it might be possible. In that case, you're not bound by the massive expense of building sets and spending weeks and weeks shooting sequences. All you need to do is get your actors on a green screen for a couple days and build everything around them. (And in fact, this IS what Lucas did on Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.)

That's a pretty significant distinction. Sometimes there are problems on the page that you can't really spot until they're on screen. With the production process in most live action films, it's really not possible to make the sorts of course corrections you do in animation. (To say nothing of the terrible press that live-action films get when reshoots happen. Suppose tomorrow it's revealed that Batman v. Superman is reassembling the cast for three weeks of reshoots. How much do you want to bet that'd be reported with the attitude of "See? WB doesn't know what it's doing! This movie's gonna suck!")

Putting that aside, there's a pretty significant history of studios bringing in multiple writers and rewrites on projects during both the pre-production stages and also while shooting. The movie Catwoman had 28 writers. The Flintstones supposedly hired 35 writers. If you've seen either of those films, you probably would share my opinion that more isn't always better.

It's not the number of arrows in your quiver - it's how well you use them.

In television, it's pretty standard for there to be a writers room that could have anywhere from 6-12 writers contributing ideas to the series. Different shows use these writing staffs differently. A non-serialized show like Law & Order: SVU might have most of its writers working individually on their own episodes while sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory literally write every line in the room collaboratively and rotate credit among the staff. This gives the advantage of a large brain trust of ideas, though perhaps at the expense of an individual writer's distinct voice and quirks.

Lately, we've seen some franchise films adapt a version of this process as part of their world building. Both Transformers and Avatar have "writers rooms" where a team of writers will work together in breaking the stories for several flims and then individual writers will splinter off to write features on their own, based on the work of the think-tank. It's not how I would have likely done this, but I'm curious to see the results.

But I don't think I've yet address your question of "should we become sole proprietors?" That's really a decision only you can make. I know writers who thrive in a writers room and really benefit from having that chemistry and that sounding board to react to.  There are others I know who just can't share their process with others. It becomes a hindrance to their creativity to bring another voice in at this stage.

Work however works for you. A writing team isn't always more than the sum of its parts.


  1. This also oddly ignores the fact that virtually zero studio films are ever produced with a single writer throughout the process. Nearly every movie has more than one writer on it, and most several. A lot of times the end credit is not even half the story. And this is how it's always been, so the notion of "sole proprietorship" is, at best, a confused and naive construct.

  2. I have to groan every time someone called "Inside Out" original. It's NOT original. Herman's Head has already done this concept - and did it way better IMHO.

  3. Don't forget that WORLD WAR Z was famously stopped while they had Lindeloff create an entirely new third act and rewrite the second part of the movie... which they did because, when they were screening it, they realized the ending and the second half of the movie didn't work on screen.

    and they made it work, in a big way, they fixed it.