Hello, friends. It’s been a while since I posted. Here is a memo I wrote to some Disney execs when I was asked to look over a movie script for Pluto (Mickey’s dog… but how many of you remember that Pluto originally belonged to Minnie?!) The reason I am posting this memo is not to denigrate the execs, the screenwriter, or the Walt Disney Company; but rather to offer a rather good treatise on Storytelling. (A producer friend of mine still refers to this document when struggling with similar issues.) Enjoy.
NOTES ON THE PLUTO MOVIE SCRIPT
I have now read through the April 23rd draft of the screenplay, and I am compelled to share my thoughts with you. Your concerns over this script are well-founded — this is not a movie. There is no story here that can sustain 70 minutes. What you’ve got is the world’s longest Pluto short.
This script needs a complete ground-up reworking (which I will discuss in the next section), and there is no way on moist Mother Earth that you can have a draft to show to [your boss] in four weeks. This story will require hard thinking, a couple of meetings, a new beat outline, and a general consensus that this is the right direction. Only then can you think about going to script.
My guess is that the pre-script process will take two weeks. If all goes well (meaning, we all find an answer, agree on an answer, and approve the answer up and down the corporate ladder), you then could conceivably have a screenplay draft within three weeks (though that’s pushing it). So basically — five weeks minimum, and that’s assuming no sleep and no speed bumps.
I don’t know your timetable, but I’m sure you’re under the gun. So the question for you folks is: Should we do what’s best for the schedule and produce the script as is? (which means you don’t need a re-write) <or> Should we do what’s best for the property and re-tool our production schedule? Only you people can answer that. As you know, I am not lobbying to do this script; it has never been my burning passion to write for Pluto. But if you do want me involved, I would have to do a whole new screenplay.
As we all know, the Main Character has to have a Goal. (Get the girl. Rob the bank. Blow up the Death Star.) The Story is how the Main Character overcomes Obstacles to achieve that goal. Once the Main Character achieves his goal, the story is over, and the audience goes home.
In the present screenplay, Pluto’s goal is simple: He wants to be a dad. On page 14 Pluto gets a puppy. Wahoo! Story’s over! Good night, Gracie! From here on, there’s nothing more for Pluto to do. No wonder the rest of the script is filled with cartoon shtick and situational gags involving incidental characters. (What’s with Donald Duck?!) Now all you can do is play out a kidnapping story. There’s nothing more to learn about Pluto’s heart that we don’t already know. It’s an emotional dead-end. You have no audience involvement or identification. (And lovable, memorable characters have always been the hallmark of a Disney animated movie.)
So what’s the solution? Simple. Give Pluto somewhere to go. Give him lessons to learn and obstacles to overcome. Give him an Emotional Arc. A really easy suggestion is to CHANGE Pluto’s Goal. Don’t show him yearning to be a parent — make it the direct opposite. He wants to be the coolest mutt in town. Or he wants to be the star of the dog show. Or he wants to be the top firehouse dog. Then when you introduce the pups, they are the Obstacles to his Goal. (Think “Three Men and a Baby” or “Turner and Hootch” or “The Mighty Ducks”. In each of these, the baby, the slobbery dog, the hockey brats were all a pain in the ass to the Main Character.)
Now Pluto is in conflict — and Conflict equals Story! He’s stuck with puppies that interfere with his goal. But because of his inner goodness, he starts to like the pups. So Pluto becomes torn between his head (his conscious goal) and his heart (his unconscious goal). Now it’s a story unique to Pluto. If he weren’t sure a nice guy deep down, he would have abandoned the pups in Reel One! Like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life” he is torn between his dreams and his duty.
This way, when you introduce the threat to the pups (be it a freak show or a mad scientist), you up the stakes. Should Pluto save the pups or go after his Original Goal (which, suddenly becomes available to him through a clever plot complication). Now Pluto is really on the Anvil of God — which of the two polar yearnings is going to win out? And which will he abandon? He can’t be the coolest dog in town AND be a father! Something has to give, and that’s when you’ve got the audience hooked!!!
You’ll notice that I’m not going into details here. I’m just giving you the broad strokes of what could make this story work. If you decide this makes sense, then we need to go through that pre-script process I mentioned above. If this is too radical a change, then you need to move forward without me, because I really have nothing to offer you.
At any rate, I would be happy to sit down and discuss this with you. I will even go through the present script page by page and point out what I think isn’t working. The problems are legion. (Split focus, button-less sequences, ambiguous time period, no songs, stage direction problems, lack of understanding of the medium.) And that’s not even touching on the BIGGEST problem of all — how to tell an emotional story WITH A MUTE CHARACTER!!! (Though I think I have an answer to that one!) Anyway, look at your schedule and give this some hard thought. This film concept may have started with a cartoon short, but it’s now has to escalate into something worthy of a motion picture. The Story has to be strong enough to support Michael J. Fox or Sandra Bullock or even…. good ol’ Pluto.