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Ratatouille Resonance

I’m going to tell you two stories so the third one will make sense… 2014-02-09Ratatouille-mod

First story…

My dad was a huge track & field fan. When I was a kid, he used to drag me to the National Indoor Championships at Cobo Hall in Detroit. I wasn’t all that big on watching people run around in circles, but I loved getting to spend the weekend with my dad. On this particular day, my father saw the anchor of the local Public Broadcasting Station’s 10:00 news. It was the closest we had to a Hollywood star in Detroit so my dad—knowing all about my showbiz aspirations, convinced me to go talk to him. I took a deep breath and dove in. I told the guy all about my plans to go to film school and then move to Los Angeles and be a writer. While various elite athletes ran and vaulted and Fosbury flopped a few yards away, the man with the golden throat stared into my eyes and proceeded to poop on my dreams. “There are no black writers in Hollywood, kid.” I pushed back and told him that I’d be the first. I didn’t understand the next thing he said to me so I had to ask: “Daddy, what are rose-colored glasses?” My dad was a pretty peaceful man. A doctor with a fantastic bedside manner. A kind soul. But after he got finished talking to the PBS 10:00 news anchor, the man returned to my seat, leaned down and said, “I’m very sorry for what I said, kid. Good luck in Hollywood.” As I look back on that moment now, I can only imagine what kind of thorny road that man had taken to wind up making a living talking into an unmanned camera on a public broadcasting studio at 10:00 every night, but whatever it was must have paled in comparison to whatever beat down my dad put on him that day.

Okay, here’s the second story…

Back in the 70’s there was a commercial where the great jazz singer, Ella Fitzgerald, breaks a wine glass just by singing a note. After a few moments a man pushes play on a tape recorder with a Memorex cassette tape in it and the glass breaks again as if Ella never left the room. Of course, when I look back on it, a Memorex cassette tape of Ella Fitzgerald would probably sound as clear as a cat in a duffle bag but the commercial had its effect. My mind was blown. I raced to the science teacher at L’Ecole Detroit, my bilingual French lower school, and begged how this could possibly happen. My teacher used a piano and a tuning fork to explain the whole thing in terms (and a language) that I could understand. All Ms. Fitzgerald had to do was match the pitch that the wine glass makes when you ping it and kaboom. Good-bye goblet. My next question was what would be on any 7-year-old’s mind, “Could Ella Fitzgerald’s scat singing blow up a person?” “Sure,” she said. Did I mention she was awesome? “Thump your chest. The sound you hear is your tone. If Ella matched that tone at the right volume, you’d blow up just like the wine glass.” I could have kissed that woman. She had opened up the mysteries of the universe. I felt like I had stood behind the magician and seen where the rabbit went. I had entered that classroom as a boy and left it as a man.

Now. Here’s the real story…

Every few months on THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG, we’d pack up the movie and the story crew and fly up to Emeryville, California to screen whatever version of the movie we had made in the few months since the last time we were there. All of the directors and some of the writers, of the Pixar movies would watch our movie and then give us notes all day. Yes, it’s the most amazing thing any human being could ever participate in, but that’s not the story. Neither is the fact that the catered lunch is so good it haunts my dreams. The story is that, during the lunch break, I ended up in the buffet line behind Brad Bird. After some chit chat, I told him that RATATOUILLE was the greatest movie ever made about racism. To me it was about a rat, like me, who wanted to go to Hollywood/Paris to become a writer/chef. But the mean PBS anchor/Health Inspector was telling him he was seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. Brad looked at me blank-faced for a second and then politely explained that his delightful comedy was not about America’s original sin per se. It was about feeling like an outcast, but he saw how I could come to my conclusion. Then he thanked me for the compliment and probably went somewhere to file a restraining order. You see, we’re all rats in the kitchen in one way or another. RATATOUILLE is probably a different experience for every person who sees it. The football player who wants to dance probably cried as hard as the woman who wants to race Nascars. RATATOUILLE is a movie that resonates with everybody. Brad Bird’s artistry was in finding the note that would crack every wine glass in the theater.

Here’s my point

As we look at themes, remember some resonate like crazy and can leave all 400 people in the movie theater sobbing…others just suck. 90% of your job when you’re breaking a story is to know the difference and come up with a theme that means something to you and that resonates with everybody from the producers who will buy it to the moviegoers who will buy tickets to see it. I hear a lot of pitches and most of them don’t even resonate with the writer pitching them. Knock it off! If we’re serious about eradicating bad screenwriting then it starts here. So go out there and find themes that are truthful, universal, and strong enough to break glass. Got it?

Read more on Theme here.


  • Bree Woodruff

    Scary smart

    • Nancy Bates

      I know Bree. Brilliant stuff. It seems so simple but I find that’s not always the case.

  • ChRiS

    I had to watch this again, it’s been so long. This time i read the script while watching

  • York Davis

    Thanks Rob! Loving your posts. This one clears up for me the different/same concepts of theme. Kudos oh great praise whore!