An Animated Discussion with Writer Rob Edwards (The Princess and the Frog)

Rob-Edwards-2-200x300by Angela Guess

Through constant dedication to his writing development, Rob Edwards has built an impressive career spanning some of the best sitcoms of the 90s to beloved animated features of today. He got his start writing for such shows as “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “In Living Color,” and “Full House.” Since making the switch to film, he’s penned Treasure Planet and The Princess and the Frog, and he’s also had the chance to consult on such hits as Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen.

Rob made his way up the Hollywood ladder starting at the ground floor and pushing upward with hard work, determination, and dedication. Now, he’s helping other writers do the same through his website, robedwards.net, which features insightful articles full of practical writing advice. I particularly recommend his five-part series on how to break a story.

Rob and I recently discussed what it takes to succeed in the film industry, why it’s a bad idea to write an animated spec, and the benefits/banes of getting pigeonholed as a writer.

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LA Screenwriter (LA): You have a great story on your website about how you got your start as a writer. If you were starting out today, would you do the same thing?

Rob Edwards (RE): The first thing I did when I got to Los Angeles was grab the Thursday edition of The Hollywood Reporter. It had a section that listed all of the TV and movie productions in town. I’d call every office every day. When people answered, I’d either tell a joke or I’d have a juicy piece of gossip and then I’d ask if they were happy with their current Production Assistants. I figured, if I kept calling, somebody would eventually say yes but, if I never called, it would be the same as everybody saying no. After a few hundred calls somebody said yes and I was in showbiz.

If I was starting over now, I’d probably go about it the same way but I’d add one thing. I’d make a ton of YouTube videos. At Syracuse I loved making short films. I got pretty good at them, but I haven’t made one in years. You have to work on two parallel tracks all the time. One, to get your foot in the door. Two, to make sure you’re ready when the opportunity comes. Short films, standup comedy, short stories, spec scripts… do whatever it takes to hone your skills so you’re ready when you get “lucky.”

LA: You also say on your website that coverage services aren’t a good idea because all new writers struggle with the same problems. Knowing what the issues are, how would you recommend a new writer improve their skills?

RE: I hate coverage services. Hate them. Unless they take out a checkbook and buy your material, they’re just noise. The best case scenario with those guys is that you rewrite your original material until that one particular person likes it. And then what? What happens when you find out that your original idea is the one that would have sold? What happens if you put your money down and then find out your taste in movies doesn’t match the reader’s? You’ve written BLADE RUNNER but the reader’s favorite movie is PORKY’s? Now your wallet’s empty and you’ve got a bunch of useless notes to show for it. Hate them.

I know a lot of readers and producers and I’ll tell you what William Goldman told everybody in Adventures in the Screen Trade, “Nobody knows anything.” The best thing you’ll get from one of those services is an opinion and you can get that from anybody who knows you. Preferably somebody you go to the movies with. Somebody who understands your taste in movies and what you’re going for. Then comes the hard part. The fixing. And that’s why I set up robedwards.net. To give you the tools that I’ve been using for 30 years.

While we’re on the subject, I’d also recommend reading scripts yourself and seeing as many movies as you possibly can. The classics and the crap. And, if you have friends that write, read their stuff, break it down and give them notes. Then, when you have a draft to read, they’ll owe you one. Problem solved.

LA: You made the transition from television to film, which seems to be a pretty popular career path. Do you prefer writing for film or TV? Which do you think is more challenging?

RE: I’m not sure if it was all that popular a decision but it was one I had to make. I love TV but I’m a pretty visual writer and, at a certain point, I had to write something other than people sitting on couches and trading witty banter.

As far as which is more challenging, I think movies and TV shows are different types of puzzles. On sitcoms you’re always aware that 350 people are going to load in on Friday whether you’ve figured out the episode or not. So you’re there all night trying to make sure you’re going to give the audience something fun to laugh at. TV writers are gladiators.

With movies everything has to tie together over a longer period of time and be entertaining and dynamic in its own way. You want people to laugh, cry, be scared, the whole thing. And, on top of everything, it’s also easier for things to look fake in a dark movie theatre with digital sound so you spend a lot more time getting every detail right.

LA: Your two big feature films are both animated. How did you end up writing animated scripts?

RE: I’ve always loved animation. When I was a kid, my favorite book was The Art of Animation by Bob Thomas. Later, in high school, I had a comic strip and I made a few animated short films. So, when I got a call from my agent saying that the directors of THE LITTLE MERMAID and ALADDIN liked my writing and wanted to meet me, it didn’t take a lot of convincing.

TREASURE PLANET was a blast to work on. I’m very proud of that film. I also get a kick out of the looks on people’s faces when I tell them I wrote THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG. While I was at Disney / Pixar I got to consult on TANGLED, WRECK-IT RALPH, FROZEN and work extensively on an adaptation of a Philip K Dick short story, so my odyssey in animation has been a ball and I’ve learned volumes from working with the best directors on the planet.

LA: New writers frequently ask me if it’s a bad idea to write an animated spec script. What would your answer be?

RE: I would never want to talk anybody out of writing what’s in their heart so, if you’ve got an idea for a brilliant animated film, go for it. But, 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.

I don’t know a single animation writer who has been hired off of an animated spec. I was hired on TREASURE PLANET after Ron Clements and John Musker read a live action spec I had written that had fantasy elements. Also the fact that I wrote for “Fresh Prince” and could get into the head of a teenager helped.

Think of it this way, the studio wants to do a story about a boy and the quirky relationship he has with the monster under his bed and you’ve written a brilliant animated screenplay about migrating ducks. Sure your script is great but writer X has a sweet live-action comedy about the quirky relationship between a guy and the ghost of his father. The characters are real and personal and writer X has a clever way of blending fantasy and reality. Now be honest. If you’re the producer, you’re probably going to hire writer X because the migrating duck story is missing the one element that will make it awesome, the animation. So be writer X… and, if writer X walks into the office with an entertaining pitch about migrating ducks, that’s good too.

LA: I recently went to a presentation on Pixar’s story development process, and Mary Coleman, the head of the story department said that Pixar doesn’t write movies for kids. When writing an animated story, how do you create scenes and characters that adults and children alike will enjoy?

RE: Andrew Stanton (FINDING NEMO, WALL-E) says “Be a film-goer first and a filmmaker second.” I love that quote. So, I put myself in the movie theatre with my popcorn and my diet Coke and I put my mom on one side of me and my son on the other. They’re both the biggest laughers in the family but they’ll bail at a moment’s notice if they think the movie is lame. Mom wants meaning. Sammy needs a good reason not to go out to the lobby to play video games. Frankly, there’s a little of me in both of them so I totally get where they’re coming from.

In the end, I’m writing what I want to see. No focus group. No guessing. Just me in the theatre writing what I want to see next on the screen. THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG is a very personal film. My wife was elbowing me in the ribs all through the premiere.

LA: Now that you’ve had two successful animated films, do you get pigeonholed within that genre? Or alternatively, have you created that niche for yourself? How important is it to be known for a certain type of writing?

RE: The thing about pigeonholing is that it can become your best friend or your worst enemy depending on your mindset. It would be impossible for a producer to look at a list of 20 writers and know everything about every writer. It’s easier for them to look at us like fantasy football players (good hands, fast, etc.) It’s great to be near the top of the list of writers who are considered for animated projects instead of way down towards the bottom of 10 lists.

The fun for me is I’m about to try to jump from one list to another. Now that my kids have grown up, I’m developing a few action thrillers with Reginald Hudlin (who produced DJANGO UNCHAINED). In a few months we’ll see if I’ve been able to make the move.

Guys like Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (ALADDIN, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN) have been able to make the transition, as has Susanna Grant (MULAN, ERIN BROCKOVICH). Good writing is good writing and the fact that you can write lovable frogs in the Bayou doesn’t preclude you from writing police officers in New Jersey. In a perfect world every writer wouldn’t have to prove it every single time.

LA: What do you wish you knew when you were first starting out?

RE: When I started out I did everything, standup, tons of spec writing, lunches soliciting advice from everybody who had ever written anything… It would be easy to look back on all of that and try to find a shortcut around it but I think it’s all given me a sure-footedness that I don’t think I’d have otherwise.

LA: What’s the best thing a young writer can do in order to be successful?

RE: Write, write and write some more. After you’ve written, show it to people whose opinions you respect, get beat up, rinse and repeat. Embrace the ice cold terror that comes from giving a friend a script you believe in with all your heart. Then enjoy the process of tearing it apart and starting over. Have fun getting better. That’s what it’s all about. Eventually you’ll be able to write screenplays that will have your readers laughing and crying when and where you want them to. Then it’s just a hop, skip and a jump to getting agents, managers and producers to feel the same way.

I hate to keep harping on my website but (harp harp). I set up robedwards.net so writers could easily find the tools to fix their screenplays without having to start from scratch. It used to be scary for me to get notes and not know how to fix one thing without destroying another. Now I do it all day, every day and it only makes sense to pass that knowledge along. I’m pretty sure most writers will find the stuff on the site pretty helpful.

When writers put more emphasis on getting better, getting work is a fait accompli.

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