February 14, 2022

Columbia MFA Graduates Phil Johnston (FILM '04) and Jennifer Lee (FILM '05) discuss the Disney Animated Feature Wreck-It Ralph

CUE: What was your path from graduating to writing Wreck-It Ralph? How did you decide to team up?
PJ: About a year out of Columbia, I sold a movie and a TV show and had financing for a movie I was going to write and direct. The movie didn't get made, the show didn't get made and the financing fell apart. Hooray! In the following years, I finally got a movie made (Cedar Rapids) and a TV show (Ghosts/Aliens, which never aired). I came onto Wreck-It Ralph in 2009 after meeting with the director, Rich Moore. He and I worked alone for about nine months, figuring out the characters and the story.

Ever since meeting the first day of orientation, Jennifer and I have collaborated-- never co-writing but always reading and critiquing each other's work-- more honestly and harshly as the years have passed. So, over the years, we developed a shorthand of sorts. After more than 2 years on Wreck-It Ralph, I was finding myself getting too busy with a couple other projects to handle the day to day rigors of animation (which are profound and taxing!). Knowing Jennifer as well as I do, and trusting her implicitly, we brought her on as co-writer.

JL: While at Columbia, one of my scripts won the Columbia Film Festival, and that got me my first manager. A couple of years later another one of my scripts was optioned (then went into turnaround). My next script was optioned, too, by Leonardo DiCaprio's Appian Way. I was also hired to write a Steinbeck adaptation. Yes, there's a pattern here -- a lot of work, a lot of potential movies getting made, and a lot of variables working against it. So, when Phil called me up one afternoon and said, "any chance you'd want to up and move to California...like...tomorrow?" I was ready.

Our writing styles were nothing alike, but our sensibilities just fit. Even after graduating we met every week with pages. We pushed each other as writers. We pepped-talked each other when the industry was kicking our asses. But we'd never written together. It was a leap of faith for him to ask me to join Ralph, one I'm so grateful and honored he took.

CUE: Where did this project originate, and how did you land the pitch/get the job/stay on the project?
PJ: The idea for a video game movie had been floating around Disney for more than a decade. But when Rich and I started working on it, we were coming at it with fresh eyes-- new story, new worlds, new characters. Animation isn't like live action, in that you are constantly pitching and re-pitching the movie. In the early months, I probably pitched the thing to various people (John Lasseter, Bob Iger, different directors, animators, marketing people, etc.) at least 30 times. It's insane.

JL: I was a huge video game kid, so I loved the concept. When I read the first draft of the script I was blown away by the characters. Phil and Rich had created these beautifully damaged, lovable original characters -- the best kind.

When they first asked me to come on board, it was just for 8 weeks, to work on a rewrite and get them to the next screening. I was intimidated. Phil is one of the most talented writers out there, and here he was trusting me with his characters and story. Luckily, he was always there for me. We were on the phone, sometimes daily, discussing pages and ideas. He kept me sane in what was the most intense creative 8 weeks of my life. I got notes daily from a room of story artists (the harshest critics known to man). I was writing and rewriting constantly and sitting in on editorial sessions and recording sessions. It was like filmmaking boot camp. But I fell in love with it. After the screening, Disney extended my contract to stay on until the end of the picture and that was that.

CUE: Can you describe the process of writing for animation and how it differs from writing for live action? What was the timeline on Wreck It Ralph? At what point in the process was the script locked down?
PJ: I started in the spring of 2009 and was basically finished writing in August of 2012. Because different scenes and sequences are getting animated at different times, there's never really a locked script the way there would be in live action. Over the course of our movie, we screened 7 different versions. But getting it up in front of an audience is crucial. Because even with the crudest animation, you can tell when the story is working. Not much of our first screening ended up in the final movie-- maybe just a couple jokes. But the characters are very much the people we ended up with. You can see them change and grow with each screening, though, which is a really gratifying part of the process.

That said, the process is maddening for the very reason I just described. Nothing is ever finished. The written word is utterly disposable. And if you don't LOVE collaborating, this is not the medium for you.

JL: Phil described it really well; it's insane. As John Lasseter likes to say, "the story isn't locked until the movie comes out." On the plus side, unlike live action, writers in animation are a part of the process every step of the way. We are in the edit room with the director. We are in the recording room with the actors. We're able to test out various ideas with the story artists. We literally get to see our movie (in a rough form) up several times, learn from it, and really push ourselves.

CUE: Any advice for aspiring screenwriters?
PJ: Find people whose work you respect and befriend them. Having a friend who will read your work and tear it to shreds is invaluable-- all the more when you are working in the studio system (where notes can often be soul-crashing and idiotic!).

JL: I'll also add: learn to love rewriting and learn to listen to notes. Even the crazy ones are often a clue that something needs attention. And finally, get used to collaboration. No one person can make a film happen.