Screenwriters Josh Klausner and Darren Lemke share their Shrek experiences and offer screenwriting advice, tips, and techniques to the StoryLink community.
How did you get the job writing Shrek Forever After?
Klausner: I had written an original screenplay called (Saint) Peter that people at DreamWorks Animation had read and really loved. It got me an interview with executive producer Aron Warner, where I was able to present him with some of my ideas.
Lemke: Luckily, the director, Mike Mitchell, really responded to my script Jack the Giant Killer. I never wrote animation. I never wrote comedies. The day I got the call from my agent about the job, I asked with all sincerity, "Are you sure they have the right Lemke?"
How does it feel to write the last chapter of the Shrek series?
Klausner: When I first came onto the project, it wasn’t supposed to be the final chapter – there were originally going to be 5 Shrek movies. Then, about a year into the development, Jeffrey Katzenberg decided that the story that we’d come up with was the right way for Shrek’s journey to end, which was incredibly flattering.
Lemke: Pretty amazing to tell you the truth. It’s been a real honor to be part of such an incredible franchise. Hell, man, I grew up on Shrek.
What challenges and benefits were there in continuing such a popular brand?
Klausner: I think the benefits were the same as the challenges - you have these well fleshed-out, strong, and beloved characters and an extremely loyal audience that you don’t want to disappoint. We needed to find a story where Shrek, Fiona, Donkey, and Puss (as well as all the others) could act in the established ways that we all know and love, but still surprise and excite us on their fourth adventure together.
Lemke: Challenge: Making it feel the same, but different. Benefit: You have three previous movies to answer the much pondered question: What would Shrek do?
How do you make Shrek Forever After different while keeping the conceits of the brand?
Klausner: Well, the storyline we came up with obviously went a long way toward doing this – Shrek’s deal with Rumpelstiltskin gave us the opportunity to present a new slant on all our characters and place them in a different world. Beyond that, Shrek has also changed a great deal over the course of the three previous films, so he’s now faced with different issues. His character’s gone from a feared and reviled hermit to a hero surrounded with family and friends. In this chapter, we wanted his perception of himself to mirror the way the audience has come to feel about him after 3 movies. If he’s no longer a “scary” Ogre to the world at large and is instead a domesticated family man surrounded by friends, what's happened to his identity? It’s a much different problem than he faced in the first movie. So I would say the way we kept it different while keeping the conceits was being true to the idea that these characters evolve over time, so their struggles and issues change as well.
Lemke: Two words: Alternate reality. Thank you, Josh Klausner.
Do you use a different approach when writing animation as opposed to live action? Are there similarities in your writing and creative processes?
Klausner: As animated movies at DreamWorks are essentially “in production” from the moment the director and screenwriter and storyboard artists come on board, it’s a much more collaborative process while you’re writing.
You’re essentially “on the set” every day, working with everyone. Often, you’re focused on writing or rewriting sequences as opposed to doing passes on the screenplay as a whole. Working in animation also offers the unique and invaluable opportunity of sitting down and screening entire different versions of the movie (in storyboard form) as you go, so you really get to watch the whole movie, see what works and doesn’t, then go back, revise, and screen it again. It's taught me so much about my writing.
Live action writing is a much more solitary process, where I go off for an extended period without much outside influence and create a whole journey before presenting it. I'll hand in the draft, get a whole series of notes, and then go off to work on it again. In some ways it’s more satisfying as you feel you can really flesh out and explore your ideas fully before others come in with their opinions. Inevitably, however, whichever one I’m doing, I miss the other…
Lemke: Writing animation is like writing in a blender set on puree. Everything is torn apart, mixed up, and, then, in the end, somehow comes together. It’s an experience every writer should have.
What was your "big break" and how did you get it?
Klausner: I’m not sure what my “big break” was… it’s been a strange and serpentine path. I’d have to say that getting the chance early on to direct 2nd Unit on the Farrelly Brothers’ films gave me an incredible amount of knowledge about writing and filmmaking. I’ll forever be grateful to them for taking a chance on me.
Lemke: I lived in Jersey (still do), I knew no one (still don’t), and I made my living pushing up shopping carts and writing murder mystery dinner theater. Fortunately, I’ve been writing spec screenplays since I was 14, so by the time I was on my 25th script, someone finally took notice.
How do you approach the blank page?
Klausner: I try to NEVER approach a blank page… I often simply transpose my outlines, rough notes, bits of dialogue, and other loose ends into the Final Draft document and then slowly flesh them out into scenes or sequences. Much of writing is about rewriting, so I like to throw everything I've got on the page then slowly take the pieces and ideas and shape them into what becomes the screenplay.
Lemke: With great caution and a cup of tea.
What are the "pros" and "cons" of being a professional screenwriter?
Klausner: Both a “pro” and a “con” is that everybody’s interested in and has an opinion about what you do for your profession. Your work is everyone else's entertainment, which is flattering, but sometimes talking about movies is the last thing you want to do after a day of struggling over scenes at the computer. There can also be a lot of pressure because of strict deadlines to be brilliant and creative and funny on command when frankly, you just aren't feeling it. That being said, I'm incredibly grateful to have people interested in the stories I write, let alone to be able to make a living doing it.
Lemke: Pro = I get to work from home. Con = I get to work from home (by day five I usually look like Howard Hughes on an oxycontin bender).
Can you share any screenwriting tips or techniques with our readers?
Klausner: The first is probably what every working screenwriter says – ass to chair. I constantly have to remind myself of this. There’s always a reason to procrastinate (not always a bad thing to clear your head, by the way), but the only way it’s ever going to happen is if you simply sit down and write it. Don't wait for everything to be perfectly laid out in your mind before you start... Get it down on paper in whatever rough state it's in. Then it exists, and you can revise.
I always try to think about making the experience of reading my scripts similar to what the reader would experience as an audience member at the movie – I keep all my descriptions about location, character and action to what is VISUALLY seen. I also try to keep my descriptives as concise as possible, so that the experience of reading my script more closely approximates the pace of watching the movie.
A random trick that I learned years ago from a playwright named John Steppling that I use constantly is when editing any long character monologues, I see what happens if I simply remove EVERY OTHER LINE. Inevitably, the speech is better. It seems like such a dry and crazy way to go about it, but what I’ve found is that often I write connective sentences to get from one idea to another that aren’t really necessary.
Lemke: Write your favorite scene first. Trust me on this one.
What advice would you give to someone trying to "make it" as a screenwriter?
Klausner: I think it’s incredibly important to find some way to get your writing read out loud by others. Stage a reading, even if it’s just with friends. Besides exposing a larger group of people to your work and creating an event you can invite possible connections to, you learn so much about how your writing translates when it's performed. If you can, find a way to work on film sets, even if the work isn't directly related to writing. You'll get to see firsthand how and why scripts change as they go into production. I’d also be lying if I said that connections didn’t matter. I would recommend finding any way to start working and socializing in the film community, even if, at first, what you're doing seems to have nothing to do with your ultimate desire to be a screenwriter.
Lemke: Live at home until your parents throw you out. Seriously. If you don’t have to pay rent, you can spend more time writing. At the end of the day, that’s all that counts. Have as many spec scripts in your back pocket as you can possibly fit. You’re going to war. Make sure your arsenal is well stocked.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
Klausner: Not to treat any scene that “works” as being precious. Often, clinging to those moments have killed things I was working on as I tried to force everything else to work around them. Also, for so long I tried to avoid "pitching" because I thought it had nothing to do with being a writer. While it is still an agonizing process for me, I now believe that pitching is one of the most essential tools for me to discover what's working and what's isn't in the plot and pacing of my story. When I tell my story out loud, I learn so much from the reactions I get. And, of course, I've discovered it's an essential skill to learn as it's the way most of us end up getting our writing jobs.
Lemke: Jeffrey Katzenberg’s e-mail address.
Klausner: I’m currently working on a live-action adaptation of Thomas the Tank Engine for HiT Entertainment, an adaptation of Adena Halpern’s The Ten Best Days of My Life for Shawn Levy’s 21 Laps to star Amy Adams, a Houdini project for Mark Waters and Walden Media, and a collaboration with Sir Paul McCartney to adapt his children's book, High in the Clouds, into an animated feature film. And I'm working hard as the personal assistant to my two sons.
Lemke: An animated racing film at DreamWorks Animation and The Nutcracker over at New Line. After that? Whatever it takes to keep the shopping carts at bay.