Sunday, October 18, 2009

Fitting it into Dolly's Mouth

As you probably know, collaboration is the key to any successful project, but surprisingly it’s also one of the hardest skills to learn. Every writer, director or actor comes to a project with a specifc vision of what it could be. And most disasters occur when these highly creative (and sometimes highly stubborn people) are unable to reach a mutual accord on where their project is going.

The biggest lesson I ever learned about collaborating came a few years ago when I was brought in to rewrite what turned out to be the last of the big animated Disney musicals. After two rough years in development, the movie was finally in production when the studio decided to test the first 17 minutes of it in front of a volunteer audience in Florida. The test audience had come away utterly baffled and the project was almost shut down. A last minute reprieve was granted, provided that a new writer was brought on to replace the previous writing team (who happened to be the director and his best friend). Whoever got the job would have to start work immediately.

On Friday, I received the shooting script (which was a gigantic mess) and on the following Monday, I pitched a complete overhaul of the story to the film's creative team. On Tuesday, my agent called to say that although the execs had been impressed with my ideas, the director had not. On Wednesday morning, I got a second call. The director had been fired. I was in.

The next day, I was offered an eight-week contract to “collaborate with the creative team in order to fashion a new and workable story." Every eight weeks Disney would have the option to fire me on three days notice, but also retained the right to renew my contract for an additional eight weeks if they liked my work. My “weekly” rate was the most money I’d ever been paid in my career so I jumped on it.

On Thursday morning, I showed up for work and was ushered into a big conference room where I was introduced to everyone involved in the project including the original director -the same guy who'd hated hated my ideas but had apparently, in the last 24 hours, been rehired. The atmosphere was extremely tense. It was clear that the director (a former animator who had helmed one of Disney’s biggest animated hits) had been put through the wringer and loathed everybody in the room (including me).

I was briefed on the situation. The project (already hugely over-budget) was hanging by a thread and we had eight weeks to right the ship. A series of character sketches were spread out in front of me. I was told that the costly digital models for these characters had already been designed and stored in Disney's computers. I would have to write for these characters only. No new characters could be added.

Wisely, the execs had imposed a theme on the yet-to-be-written new story which was “Love versus Fear.” For the next three weeks the creative team (which consisted of me, the angry director, the producer, two Disney execs, three animators and a stenographer) sat in the conference room and talked and talked and talked. Ideas came and went at a staggering rate. Some were great. Some were garbage. Finally, when I couldn't take it anymore, I asked if I could scoop up the huge pile of ideas we’d accumulated so far and try to write a treatment of just the first act. I was cautiously granted permission to do so.

Two days later, we reconvened and everyone was delighted that I’d been able to shape a coherent 20-page set-up for our story. Even the director seemed to like it. Reinvigorated, we started hammering out a game plan for act two. And soon, it began to become clear what had happened to the original script.

The animators were an odd, but fantastically imaginative bunch of guys. No sooner was an idea presented than they started pitching all the many wonderfully oddball ways it could play out. Although inventive as hell, these notions often created weird digressions that pulled our story far into left field. Feeling like it was my job to be the bad guy, I started pointing out that these wacky ideas, although funny, were going to ultimately result in another convoluted and un-producible script. This didn’t win me any points with the animators, but I decided I wasn’t getting paid to be popular. I incorporated every idea I could, but stood my ground on issues of story structure. My contract was renewed. And renewed. And renewed again. Gradually, an actual script began to emerge as we all began to collaborate.

Another big lesson came about five months in, when the director, the producer and I were flown to Nashville to meet with Dolly Parton who was writing the music and also voicing one of the main characters. My job was to explain the new plot to Ms. Parton and to be present during the recording sessions in case there were any problems with her dialogue. At 8:00 AM, Dolly showed up at the recording studio, in full make-up and looking like she was on her way to perform a stadium show. After a few introductions, we all sat down and I proceeded to pitch her the new story. She listened politely, but I began to detect a distant cloud forming on the horizon. When I finished, Ms. Parton’s rather large personality filled the room. She looked me squarely in the eye. “Well, I kinda liked the original better," she said, "But I know how this goes. As soon as some new person comes in, they have to change everything just to prove how much smarter they are than the last guy.” My heart sank, but suddenly, she smiled. Having expressed her opinion, she was over it and ready to work. Cheerfully slapping her thighs, she stood up. “Okay,” she said, “I’m not the world’s greatest actress, but let’s do this.”

For the remainder of the day, the director sat in the studio feeding Dolly her cues as we recorded her dialogue for the first half of the film. Occasionally, she would trip over one of her lines and frown. Glancing into the booth where I was seated, she would pleasantly (but bluntly) express her opinion about the line in question. The first couple of times, I tried to justify or explain the line, until I realized that Ms. Parton had not become a superstar for nothing. She had a very keen sense of what worked for her and people who own their own amusement parks don’t like to fart around; they have money that needs counting. When the next troublesome line came up, she smiled patiently at me. “Sorry, honey, but this line just doesn’t fit in my mouth.” Realizing it was time to get onboard the Dollywagon, I replied enthusiastically, “No problem, Dolly! I’m sure we can come up with something that will fit in your mouth.” Luckily, she laughed and it became a running gag for the rest of the day. All in all, I rewrote maybe five of her lines. Did I think the changes were as crisp as what I had written? No. Did it matter? Not at all. By the end of the day, I was in love with her.

A few weeks later, we screened the first 17 minutes of the newly revised movie for Michael Eisner who heartily approved of the overhaul. He even shook my hand and congratulated me on my work. For a time, there was much rejoicing throughout the magic kingdom as the film was rushed back into production. Several execs privately assured me I would be working at Disney ‘til the day I died. Then, “Finding Nemo” opened and within a month, our film was shelved for good; deemed too old fashioned to succeed. I felt awful for the director with whom I had gradually become friends. He had invested three years of his life in the project. But musicals were out. Pixar was in. Mr. Eisner and the other executives who had promised me lifelong employment soon moved on to other companies and I haven’t had a single meeting at Disney since.

Needless to say, I was disappointed when the film went south, but I came away with some great lessons about collaboration. Although every project needs a strong central vision, it also needs a few dissenting voices to pull it off course for a day or two, just so it can (hopefully) right itself again. I was proud of my work on the film, but some of the best and funniest moments in that script came from the animators or from the improvisations of the voice talent. In my travels since, I always try to remember that many things that seem earthshaking on Tuesday are often resolved or forgotten by Friday. Working together is the only way to work.

Copyright 2009 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at


sarah p. miller said...

Best headline ever. I enjoyed reading this!

Woody said...

Another great piece. Having spent a good portion of my Sunday at the SAG membership mtg. I can only pray the lessons you learned can be learned by everyone in our union, as well. Please, let us all learn to work together and some fun doing it.