Making is Thinking: Writing a Fantasy Screenplay for a (hoped-for) Animated Film
Right around 2004, I speculatively wrote a feature-length screenplay. In that earliest moment of what has become a very long-running project, the core concept, at the level of theme and character types, was determined. This has now been a fourteen-year process of imagining a family film in the initial form of a screenplay (and I subscribe to the view that the screenplay is definitely not the film). In terms of the role of fantasy in the story model for our screenplay, of particular value for me has been the understanding that the genre offers writers and audiences an opportunity to be immersed in the kind of archetypal themes discussed by fantasy film screenwriter Jim V.Hart. When I interviewed Hart for Sci Fi Now magazine several years ago, he discussed, in relation to his own work, that his screenplays ask: “What the cost of growing up is: that’s the thematic in my work. What’s the big deal about having to die?” (Hart 2016). It is these thematic nuances that fantasy offers through its capacity for metaphor that I am interested in exploring, producing a fantasy piece rendered within an understanding of the ‘tradition’ of the animated family movie; particularly as expressed in North American cinema.
In writing the screenplay, the project has, in part, been informed by my ongoing my interest in scholarship about animation. Some years ago I had published a piece about how animation can represent nature and wilderness. In developing the screenplay, my partial intention in terms of what I hope the screenplay can go some way to achieving in the intersection between fantasy and animation is the capacity of animation to vividly render and stage moments of physical transformation (as an outward sign of an inner change): the descriptive language that a screenplay can provide has certainly allowed for this to be done. As a more pragmatic sidenote, there’s an anticipatory recognition that, should the screenplay proceed successfully through the gauntlet of development, it will be further refined and morphed through the intervention and contributions of the story artists. The aesthetic aims of the screenplay, then, is to construct a plot that articulates ideas around a bildungsroman-inflected plot that plays out against a nature-focused fantasy scenario. Part of the satisfaction of working on the screenplay, then, has resided in the ways that it has allowed me to shuttle back and forth between the story being told and an engagement with scholarly writing about the genres of fantasy and the fairytale, and the medium of animation. This endeavor to stay on top of my awareness of these connections echoes what I have long been doing in teaching undergraduate students which is supporting them to engage with the cyclical relationship between ‘theory’ and practice in their screenwriting and filmmaking.
As the feature screenplay project has proceeded I have endeavoured to consciously inform the developing story with the example of movies, and some books, that had and would become central for me: Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki, 1997), Peter Pan (J.M.Barrie, 1911), Pinocchio (David Hand, 1940), An American Tail (Don Bluth, 1986), Peter and the Wolf (Suzie Templeton, 2006), The Illusionist (Sylvain Chomet, 2010), Azur et Asmar (Michel Ocelot, 2008), Epic (Chris Wedge, 2013) and The Man Who Planted Trees (Frederic Back, 1988). Much more recently, The Red Turtle (Michael Dudok de Wit, 2006) has reinforced the way that animation can so vividly offer the metaphorical visual language that expresses the particular act of transformation and the emotional landscape accompanying it. Certainly, I have long been aware of, and engaged by Paul Wells’ writing about animated movies and the potential for animation to operate at a metaphorical and symbolic level. That particular capacity of the medium has never left my thinking about, and writing of, the screenplay has been a point of consideration that I have been mindful of throughout the ongoing process of writing a screenplay across all of it numerous iterations. Wells observed that “…an animated film may be interpreted through its symbolism, whether the symbols have been used deliberately to facilitate meaning or not…the symbol in animation can operate in its purest form, divorced from any representation of the real world, finding its proper purchase in the realms of its primal source” (Wells: 1998:8).
Throughout its long term development, our screenplay has been a project about the relationship and connection between a young protagonist and nature. With that in mind, I have found it useful, during my work on the screenplay, to read David Whitley’s book The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation in which he comments that “To be sure, the role of the animal helper in facilitating the central protagonist’s progress is traditional within fairy and folk tales…but Disney’s massive expansion of the role of the animal helper…allows this traditional narrative function to acquire the weight of a fundamental value of central importance to the story” (Whitley 2008: 8). In conversations with my co-writer, in our story development meetings to refine the treatment, we have indeed returned to considering the dynamic that Whitley identifies. Indeed, so embedded has it become within the genre tradition that our screenplay is rooted in, that we have to consider it as part of i) the creative conversation between our work as screenwriters, ii) our reference to existing movies and filmmakers and iii) an engagement with scholarship there has been an acknowledgement of animated alternatives to the ‘Disney mode’. Films that have sustained us in this way have included The Iron Giant (Brad Bird, 1999), Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki, 1997), The Land Before Time (Don Bluth, 1988) and, to a slight, but important degree, The Plague Dogs (Martin Rosen, 1982).
The writer with whom I am co-authoring the screenplay first met, through a mutual acquaintance, four years ago. He described a feature film screenplay concept that he had been mulling over. He told me that it was based on a particular fairy tale and then sent me an initial paragraph of just about 200 words that really only established how the plot might begin. It was distinctly a ‘What happens next?’ situation and this immediately represented a welcome creative opportunity. My first stop, and it was the first of a sustained flip-flopping back and forth between ‘the writing’ and the ‘the thinking’, was to refer to my copy of The Oxford Dictionary of Fairy Tales and reminded myself of the story and immediately ideas of plot, theme, situation and characterization began to suggest themselves. For the purposes of appropriate ‘secrecy’ I am not, at this time, going to be able to define more specifically the elements of the story that I was seeking to develop (and therefore the particular entry of TODOFT) but I think that I can still offer a sense of the interplay between the evolving text of the screenplay, or rather the treatment, and my sense of an animated movie context and, indeed, something of a literary frame of reference. Four years on from that initial meeting we continue to develop the screenplay, having now been the beneficiaries of feedback and notes from a major American animation company that has prompted us to make a particular change of setting from America to Europe. In shifting the location of the story’s setting, we have entirely revised the ‘local colour’ that the story relates to and a range of visual cues and specifics of place and time: describing that material in such a way as to usefully suggest its visual potential. In turn, structural changes are required, too. In working on the treatment for our screenplay, the emphasis has been on characterization expressed through action and physical activity. Yes, there is dialogue indicated but that is not as vital to the structure of the story as are the choices and responses made by our characters through their actions. All of this unfolds within the generic demands of the fantasy adventure in which we are working. Those particular films evidence that the films’ producers have asked the question repeatedly of their characters: “Why are you doing what you are doing?”
Timing can sometimes be everything and during the earlier development of the treatment and screenplay that I have referred to here, I was commissioned by Sci Fi Now magazine to interview film and TV producer Duncan Kenworthy about his work on the Jim Henson TV series The Storyteller (1987-88). What was so encouraging about the conversation was a particular moment when the connection and interface between ‘theory’ and practice came to light as an overt part of script development and then of the eventual programmes. Kenworthy explained how when developing the scripts for The Storyteller he and Anthony Minghella consulted Stith Thompson’s book on folktales: they actively drew on the morphology of this. Here is the relevant excerpt from that published interview: “It wasn’t just dramatizing a narrative, as if a folktale or fairytale is nothing more than a series of events, it was bringing a tale to life in a visual, almost visceral, way that could render metaphorical language concrete.” As we talk, Duncan brings off the shelf a copy of Stith Thompson’s book The Types of Folktale and explains that in developing the scripts “This was our bible. We used this as a sort of reference point” (Kenworthy 2016).
The script, then, that I continue to develop with my co-writer continues to be informed by my ongoing viewing of animated movies. Kubo and the Two Strings (Travis Knight, 2016) has lately proven especially rich in providing an exemplar of genre dynamics and the structural opportunity to use flashback as a way of defining character. The fantasy genre mode of taking a character from the ‘real’ world, sending them into an alternative reality and then bringing them back from the wilderness with a more clear idea of themselves and the world around them is vital to the story that our screenplay tells. A particular thematic interest has typically functioned as my starting point in developing the work, and this has led me to reflect on those films with a thematic emphasis amidst their visual spectacle and fantasy. Certainly Kubo satisfies this approach and I have also repeatedly returned to the example of the movie Hook (Steven Spielberg, 1991) with its plot’s particular focus on memory as a healing power. The other genre element that others will surely articulate better than me is in terms of constructing a story about the empowerment of young people. In the case of this screenplay in progress: a boy and a girl, each teetering on the brink of adolescence.
It’s interesting to see just how much one’s lifelong enthusiasm and more scholarly fascinations have merged consistently in the crafting of the script. I never consider the script as anything more than highly detailed set of logically structured notes and I am rather a fan of the idea that a script might also be a way of defining animatics and pre-vis processes. The screenplay that my co writer and I are working on, then, still has a long way to go and who knows quite where. We have an idea of what we would like to happen with it of course. For me, the process continues to fascinate in terms of how much I have been able to incorporate and embed into the plot and structure, lessons ‘learned’ from my own enthusiasms for scholarship around animation and genre alongside unbridled fandom for the medium and particular genres.
Hart, Jim V. Interview. Sci Fi Now magazine 119 (May 2016)
Wells, Paul. Understanding Animation (London: Routledge, 1998).
Whiteley, David S. The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation (Hampshire: Ashgate, 2008).
Kenworthy, Duncan. Interview. Sci Fi Now magazine 117 (March 2016).
James Clarke has fourteen years of experience in teaching and course leadership in Higher Education. He is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. James has taught at a number of institutions, including at the University of Warwick, the University of Suffolk and the University of Sussex. Now combining freelance work with lecturing opportunities, James also writes film-literacy resources for A-Level teachers. Amongst other projects, James is currently at work on a new film-focused monograph. James can be followed at @jasclarkewriter