I hope you guys are enjoying your holiday season. Personally I had a fantastic time last weekend as a guest lecturer at U.C. Riverside. It was great seeing so many students who were eager to make their mark on the entertainment industry.
A few weeks ago, Ebony Gilbert, Masters of Fine Arts candidate at Loyola Marymount University approached me to do an interview about screenwriting. She asked some fantastic questions and I enjoyed the exchange so much that I wanted to share it with you. Joyeux Noel!
EG: What types of stories do you find yourself writing about most often?
Rob: I gravitate to the stories that resonate the most with me. I have two sons, so father and son stories are my favorites. I can turn just about any relationship into a father and son story. I also gravitate to stories about American tribalism. I grew up in Detroit and then boarded (in 7th grade) at an elite prep school (the same one Mitt Romney went to). I got to see both sides up close and I love stories that exploit those differences. That’s what drew me to “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air”… that and Will Smith. Every great writer will tell you, there’s nothing like a great actor to make your words look good.
EG: Do you think what you write about is influenced most by what you desire or by what you feel will sell today?
Rob: I think, if you chase box office, you’re going to end up heartbroken. Movies take a long time to make. They take years to develop, months to pre-produce, shoot and edit and then add more time to promote and distribute. If you’re trying to copy something that just did well at the box office this weekend, you’re just going to embarrass yourself and make a crappy movie that doesn’t do business.
Andrew Stanton at Pixar (FINDING NEMO, WALL-E) has a saying, “Be a filmgoer first and a filmmaker second.” Put yourself in the movie seat. Write the movie you and your friends would most like to see. If you’re writing your own favorite movie, you can’t go wrong. More importantly, you won’t get caught following trends with movies that mean nothing to you.
EG: My all-time favorite, THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG, captures the authentic voice of Blacks and their experiences, while also being able to have a universal message. What do you think contributes to your ability to capture such a story?
Rob: First off, thanks for the compliment. A lot of people worked very hard on that movie so I share credit with hundreds of incredible artists and craftsmen at Disney. I think all filmmakers are looking for that crossover between the intimate and the universal, so I’m glad you thought we got it right. For me, the most important part to get right is the specific emotional truth. The fun part was sharing those stories with the directors and story artists and finding out that everybody else is just as stupid about relationships as I am.
For THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG, I drew heavily on my courtship with my wife of 25 years. I was the son of a doctor. I was in my early twenties. A private school, sports-car spoiled kid. I think I’m easy on the eyes. She was working three jobs. Three crappy jobs. I was all play and no work (my job was writing jokes for television, how easy is that?) She was all work no play. Just transcribing our conversations and fights from memory (and adding a little flair) gave the movie a reality and a believability that it wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t drawn on my personal experiences. Black, white or purple everybody should be able to relate to Naveen and Tiana in one way or another.
EG: In addition to film, you have worked on television shows such as “The Parent ‘Hood”, “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air”, “In Living Color”, “A Different World”, and plenty of other shows that made an impact on television and American culture. Why do you think it was important for you to have a career outside of film writing?
Rob: Television is the greatest bootcamp in the world for movie writers. The demands are tremendous. The hours are ungodly. There were times on “Fresh Prince” when a joke wouldn’t work on the first take and we would have to rewrite a new one before the cameras were ready for the second take. And it had to be funny. That’s pressure! Movies are different. You write a joke and you have to wait years to hear somebody laugh at it. You have to be absolutely certain that it’s going to get a laugh. For me, I was glad I had all of those years in television to give me that certainty.
The fun question here is “why did I decide to write for television first?” I was a film student at Syracuse University. I should have gone right into features. The answer is simple. When I started writing I got the advice to read every biography I could…so I did. Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon…everyone I read had the same pattern. They all started as TV writers, so I did that. Some went on to do standup, so I did that. Then, after ten years in TV, they all broke out and started writing movies. Great movies. So, I figured, if it was good enough for all of the guys I admired, it was good enough for me.
EG: How has the business changed from when you first started?
Rob: Ha! It changes every 18 months. If you’re not paying attention, you’re going to get swamped. Every new movie has the chance to change the course of movie making. THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG was the first of the Disney princess road pictures. TANGLED and FROZEN followed in the tradition and improved on the model. Once Chris Nolan’s BATMAN came out, it changed superhero movies forever. BRIDESMAIDS owes a huge debt of gratitude to THE HANGOVER. So, to answer the question, everything has changed… I wrote my first teleplay on an IBM Selectric typewriter; now you can’t even buy one.
With all of that, good old-fashioned craftsmanship still rules the day. I still break stories on 3×5 cards. I still write my first draft with pen and paper. I go to the computer long after I’m done creating. The end product is much different, but I still use the tools that I’ve grow comfortable with over the past 30 years.
EG: What advice would you give to an aspiring screenwriter?
Rob: Forget everything they tell you in film school. Ha! Just kidding. Read as many screenplays as you can. Break them down. Study them. Rinse and repeat. If you want to be a great painter, you study the works of the great masters for decades. The same with musicians. Why writers feel like they can just start typing and have their work compete with somebody who actually knows what they’re doing is beyond me.
Also, there are a bunch of fantastic blogs out there, including mine — RobEdwards.net. I try to share everything I’ve learned about screenwriting as do a lot of other fantastic writers. These kinds of resources weren’t around when I started. I had to take guys out to lunch and buy scripts from bookstores. Now, all of that magic is a click away.