'Frozen' Writer/Director Jennifer Lee Breaks Down the Story & Screenplay on ScriptNotes
As a father with two young kids, I see almost every single animated movie that hits theatres. Thankfully, I skipped out on The Smurfs 2. So when I saw Frozen with my kids on Saturday afternoon of opening weekend in a packed theatre, I was thoroughly in awe. Somehow, Disney had managed to publicize a movie for months and never reveal it was a musical. It's a really good musical, too, taking story risks not typically seen in Disney animated films. Now as screenwriters, we get an excellent opportunity to hear writer and co-director Jennifer Lee break down the entire creative process and screenplay of Frozen on the latest episode of ScriptNotes.
Before we go any further, if you do not already subscribe to the ScriptNotes podcast, stop reading and subscribe right now. I have said repeatedly that ScriptNotes is a weekly masterclass on screenwriting from John August and Craig Mazin that will make you a better screenwriter. For free. If you already subscribe, please go to iTunes and rate the podcast with a comment so more screenwriters can find this valuable resource.
Hopefully, you have already seen Frozen. If not, spoiler alert: John, Aline and Jennifer go through the movie beat by beat.
To play along at home, here's a link to the screenplay for Frozen for free and legal download:
- Frozen, screenplay by Jennifer Lee, story by Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee and Shane Morris. Based on The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen
This week's ScriptNotes is longer than usual (1 hr 27 min) because of the depth of the discussion and the presence of writer/co-director Jennifer Lee answering the questions of John August and guest co-host Aline Brosh McKenna about the writing process of Frozen in real time. You can listen below.
Here are just a few takeaways from this podcast that I found particularly helpful.
Never be afraid to rewrite your whole screenplay when you discover the heart of your story.
Frozen was already well into development with storyboards and animatics when Jennifer Lee got involved. She was finishing up her work as screenwriter on Wreck-It-Ralph when she attended storyboard screenings and started offering feedback. Soon, she was asked to write the screenplay for Frozen. After working for several months on the project, going through several iterations of the stories and characters, songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez played their song "Let It Go" for the creative team. Lee explains the moment was pivotal:
Lee: Let it Go came in about 15 months from finishing. It was the first song that landed in the film and was in the film. And it was an amazing moment. I remember, you know, we had spent a lot of time talking about Elsa and we were still going on the villain journey, which was killing me to try to figure out how to make that work and then redeem her. And have a love story. I was dying. [laughs]
And we just said, “Let’s talk about who she is. What would it feel like?” And Bobby and Kristen said they were walking in Prospect Park and they just started talking about what would it feel like. Forget villain. Just what it would feel like.
And this concept of letting out who she is that she’s kept to herself for so long and she’s alone and free, but then the sadness of the fact that the last moment is she’s alone. It’s not a perfect thing, but it’s powerful. And they came in with the demo of Let it Go and it’s exactly word-by-word the exact song --
[H]alf of us were crying. And then I just went, “I have to rewrite the whole movie.” I was just like I’m going to go lie down for a couple minutes. But it was the best thing. We knew we had the movie.
Look for common threads in the notes on your screenplay to identify the real problems that need to be fixed.
If you hand your screenplay to ten different people, you'll likely get ten different responses on what you could fix in your script. Figuring out which notes to use and which notes to ignore can be a challenge. Lee explains that the story note process at Disney under John Lasseter includes all of the directors from across the studio and even Pixar, plus other contributors, in what sounds like an intensive and ongoing conversation:
Lee: We’ll go in a room for several hours, you know, John Lasseter is there, Ed Catmull, and all the other directors at the studio. Sometimes some Pixar directors. They’ll come down occasionally. And the other writers who are in the studio. And we will sit there and get bombarded with every note under the sun. We joke, it’s like they take your car apart completely and then they walk away.
Brosh McKenna: They leave it on the lot.
Lee: And they leave it on the lot. And so you just have to take it. And what you’re looking for really are patterns.
It's no wonder Disney and Pixar films stand out in terms of story when they are worked over so thoroughly by master storytellers. But ultimately, the writer has to cull those notes down to identify the problems that really need to be fixed while maintaining the heart of the story.
When you know you are right about your story, you need to stand up for your ideas.
Going through the notes process can be intimidating, especially when you are getting feedback from several accomplished writers and directors. But if you don't stand up for what you believe to be the heart of the story, your screenplay will fragment as you try to please everyone. Lee explains how she took control of her story amidst all of the Disney and Pixar writers and directors:
Lee: [T]here was a day where I stood up with a little sheet of paper and I [said], "This is Anna, this is what Anna’s journey is. No more than that. No less than that. This is Elsa. This is what her journey is. This is what the movie is about and why I want to make this movie."
Brosh McKenna: Wow. I got a chill just hearing that.
Lee: But I had to do it. And it’s good when you have John Lasseter on your side, because I had met alone with him first and said, “This is what I want to say.” [laughs] You know, and he was very encouraging. But it taught me a lot about how [you] say it is just as important as what you’re trying to say.
Receiving notes can be intimidating, but if you know how to listen carefully and ultimately stand up for the core idea that is central to your story, you can make improvements to your screenplay without losing what matters most to you and the story.
Be sure to see Frozen, take a look at the screenplay and listen to the ScriptNotes podcast episode in its entirety. You'll find it's a rare opportunity to hear a complete story breakdown with the writer/director while a movie is still playing in theatres.
What do you think about the story development process at Disney as described by writer/director Jennifer Lee? What lessons do you takeaway from her story breakdown on ScriptNotes? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.