by Angela Bourassa
You may not have heard Brian Lynch’s name, but you definitely know his work. He’s one of the writers behind Hop, Puss in Boots, and Minions — the eleventh highest grossing animated movie of all time. Lynch grew up with a love of both film and comic books, both of which he works on today. His latest effort, The Secret Life of Pets, hits theaters on July 8, 2016.
Brian and I recently chatted about his own pets, why he loves writing animated films, and how his love of theme park rides led to one of the biggest jobs of his screenwriting career.
Angela Bourassa (AB): Can you tell me a bit about what led to your first screenwriting job?
Brian Lynch (BL): I wrote many scripts in college for fun, and I kept rewriting them once I was out of college. At the time, my friend Kevin Smith was producing low-budget independent movies, like $35,000 movies. This was in about 95, 96. So I gave him one of my scripts, and he really liked it. He said, “Okay, let’s try and do this.” It was a sketch comedy movie that had about 75 characters and hundreds of scenes. It was kind of like Sesame Street, but if Sesame Street was R-rated.
We shot it in 17 days, people watched it, and then started asking, “What else do you have?” And fortunately I had six or seven other scripts that I’d been working on, so things just kind of blossomed from there.
AB: I’m really curious about your career progression. So, you wrote Hop and Puss In Boots for Illumination, then you wrote the Despicable Me ride for Universal Parks?
BL: Right. Despicable Me is an Illumination movie, just like Hop and Puss in Boots, so they knew that I had the sense of humor they were looking for with the ride, and they knew also that I love rides! So the minute they told me they were going to make a ride, I said, “Oh my god, that’s so great. Will you do this? Are you going to do that?” I wasn’t even vying for the job, I was just excited about the ride and wanted to know what their plans were. So they said, “Do you want to take a shot at writing it?” and I said I’d love to.
I thought it was going to be maybe a 15-page script, but because of the mini movie that the audience watches while waiting in line and the set up before you go in, it was actually a 65-page script.
AB: Oh, wow.
BL: It was a longer process than I thought it was going to be, but it was fun. I loved it. And it’s basically like having a movie in the theater for a decade. I can go back and watch it anytime I want to.
AB: That’s great. So that lead to you getting to write Minions?
BL: Yeah. They liked the voice that I came up with for — well, didn’t come up with. I was able to not mess up what the first two movies had done. So they said, “Do you have any ideas for a Minions movie, because we would do one, but we don’t want to do it just to do it. We want to make sure that there’s a funny idea behind it.” So I pitched the idea of a villain-con that was sort of like a comic-con for villains, and they liked that. From there we all just kept adding stories and characters. If not for the ride I probably wouldn’t have had that opportunity.
AB: I actually read your script for Minions earlier this year because it seemed like a good case study in how to make characters active when you can’t rely on dialogue.
BL: [laughs] Yeah, it was a fun challenge.
AB: Can you talk a little bit about how you approached that?
BL: Well, luckily the voice of the Minions, Pierre Coffin, also co-directed the movie. So I talked to him nonstop, even though he was in Paris and I’m in California. We talked about what would happen, and I’d basically just write the action out as a normal script, but when it came to the dialogue, I would usually write their dialogue completely in English, and then he would find the best way to express it. Pierre would come up with funnier words than I would in Minionese, but sometimes I would try to do some Minion words. I snuck some in that I’m pretty proud of…
But sometimes I’d just write, “Kevin disagrees,” and know that Pierre was going to come up with the best version of that. It was very interesting — I think dialogue is among my stronger suits in terms of writing, so it’s funny that Minions is the first movie that I wrote with just my name as the writer, and the characters don’t really have dialogue.
AB: Well, the action is very clean in that script. I think it’s really well written, so congratulations on that.
BL: Oh, thank you.
AB: Was it daunting taking on such beloved characters?
BL: It was, but at this point I’d just spent six months on the ride, so I was really in the world of the Minions. And Chris Meledandri was there every step of the way — he really knows the Minions. Pierre who co-directed is the Minions, Chris Renaud who directed Despicable Me and Despicable Me 2 was producing… so I knew if I strayed too far, they’d reel me back in.
AB: Let’s move on to The Secret Life of Pets. This is definitely one of those “Why didn’t I think of that?” ideas. It’s kind of amazing that it hasn’t been done yet. So, I’m curious, how did this project originate?
BL: I think Chris Meledandri had the original idea. It was basically just, when he left for work and saw his dog looking at him, there was a curiosity as to what do they do while we’re gone? I was working on Minions when he first told me about it, and I thought, “Oh, who wouldn’t want to see that?” Everyone loves their pets and assigns personalities to them… I couldn’t wait to see the movie. I didn’t think I was going to be working on it, but then as Minions was proceeding, Chris asked, “You want to just come in and see how you would do writing it?” So I came in.
Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio were working on it in the beginning, and they did a great job, but then they went on to Despicable Me 3. I think that’s when I jumped in. They’ve seen the movie and they really like it, so it worked out well. It was the same situation with Hop, where they started the project and I jumped in and worked on it after them. I love those guys — they’re amazing at story and structure.
AB: Did you do any fun research while developing this idea?
BL: Pretty much my entire life has been research for this project. My parents had every kind of pet, and then I had every kind of pet. I thought once I moved out of my parents house, “Okay, I’m going to take it easy. I’m not going to do what they did.” And then the minute my wife and I moved into our first house, she was like, “We should go to the pound.” Our boxes weren’t even unpacked yet, so we had this new dog while we were moving into the house. Then we went and renewed our dog’s license two years later and, of course, we saw another dog at the pound, so he came home with us, too. Every word of The Secret Life of Pets was written with one of two dogs sitting next to me, staring at me.
AB: That’s great. So, I interviewed Rob Edwards (The Princess and the Frog, Treasure Island) a few years ago, and he said that budding screenwriters should steer clear of writing animated scripts because all the big animation studios develop their own ideas in-house. Here’s the quote: “If you’re asking if it’s a bad idea to write an animated spec script… Yes, I think it’s a very, very bad idea. To me it’s like writing a black and white spec because you want to work on a black and white movie.” Do you agree with that?
BL: I’ve heard that a lot, and I think it’s changing because there are so many companies that are making animated movies now. I think there’s more possibility that, if you do write an animated movie, it could get developed. If your goal is to get hired to work on other animated movies, write an animated script — I see no problem with it. My calling card for years was a Muppets script that I wrote for fun in a couple weekends. My agent sent it out, and for two or three years I got called in for every relaunch of kids properties just because of my Muppets script. So I honestly think it’s okay to do it. I think the times are changing.
But I totally get that if you want a job on The Simpsons, you’re not supposed to write a Simpsons script. But I think in terms of animation, if it shows that you can work within that medium, then do it.
I’m probably giving terrible advice, but I’ve written a couple animated spec scripts and I’ve sold a couple. The two that I’m thinking of did die during development, but they led to other jobs.
AB: Sure. It seems like with animated specs, you could write it to show what you’re capable of, but you’ll have very, very little hope of it ever actually getting made.
BL: I think that’s absolutely right. You put it way better than I did.
AB: [laughs] So are you interested in going back to live action at some point, or do you want to stick with animated?
BL: I’d love to be able to do both. Right now animated is fantastic, because you really get to work on each scene and redo a scene if it’s not working, whereas with live-action that’s a reshoot, and that’s a totally different thing. At the same time, I love working on a set with a crew and actors. But right now I’m kind of neck-deep in the animated world, and I’m enjoying it. Plus, I have a three-year-old son who refuses to watch anything live-action.
AB: What are your favorite movies?
BL: Of all time? I go to Back to the Future first, because I think that’s just a perfect comedy script. It’s so well done. Ghostbusters, The Awful Truth, Roman Holiday, the original Muppet Movie… It’s weird that none of them are animated, by the way. My parents never really took me to animated movies, so it’s kind of strange that’s where I ended up. So yeah, I think those are my favorites. And if you want to throw in any more that make me sound smarter…
AB: [laughs] Sure, some Citizen Kane…
AB: I have two standard questions that I like to end interviews with. First, what do you wish you knew when you were starting out as a screenwriter?
BL: Oh, that’s a good one. I don’t know if this is necessarily going to be good advice for people starting out, but I believe I sold thirteen or fourteen specs or full pitches before anything got made. And I think that if I had sold them now, I would bend a little more. I was so like, “This is my vision and this is what we’re doing, and if you don’t get it, then we just won’t do it!” And now it’s like, well, no — it’s a collaboration. You have to work with people, you have to make the person who bought the script as excited to make it as you are.
I definitely would’ve been a little less proud, and I know that sounds like the worst advice, but you do have to be ready to make changes. As long as you keep the thing that you’re most excited about — the heart of the script, or the theme of it, or a character that you adore — you have to be ready to make changes to the rest.
Man, I got in fights…
BL: Thinking back now, I remember at one point somebody bought a script from me, and they wanted to change the title. And I was like, “This is insane! I can’t believe this!” And now it’s like, first of all, who cares? And second of all, it was like the third meeting, so who knows where the title would’ve gone by the time the movie came out? Maybe they would’ve gone back to the original title. I was young and excitable.
AB: Sure. So, maybe you already answered this, but if you were starting your career today, what would you do to break in?
BL: You know what we didn’t have back in the day that I really love now is the Internet. YouTube, Funny or Die… I probably would’ve had way too much stuff on that. Not even in the desire to jump-start a career, but just because I would make so many of those videos anyway in college and just out of college. I would show them to my friends and that would be it. But now, I think it’s amazing that, if I wanted to, I could write a script and put it up, and people could see it, and depending on how good it is, a lot of people could see it. That’s pretty amazing.
It’s funny, Dana Carvey is in The Secret Life of Pets. We were talking, and he said, “How did you get your start?” I told him about the low-budget sketch comedy movie back in the 90s, and he said, “Yeah, I miss that kind of stuff.” Then he said, “If you ever want to do something like that, we should just do one. No one will pay us and we won’t get any money for it, but people could see it.” And it’s so amazing that that’s true. All these resources that weren’t available to us when we started out are now everywhere, and that’s amazing.
The Secret Life of Pets hits theaters on July 8.
Angela Bourassa is the founder and Editor in Chief of LA Screenwriter.