The Toy Story movie franchise, which launched Pixar Studios into the critical and fan appreciation stratosphere, continues to astound the cinema-going public. The first two films focus on the relationship between a boy and his toys, where the third shifts to a new owner for the toys. According to screenwriter Stephany Folsom, the fourth installment kicks off moments after the third ended. Toy Story 4 “starts soon after the toys have been given away by Andy and they’re not in Bonnie’s room. They’re getting to know life without Bonnie.”
Folsom shares her Pixar experiences with Creative Screenwriting Magazine.
The Pixar Story Machine
Ironically, Stephany took the meeting with Pixar without knowing which project she would be working on. In an effort to ensure secrecy, the company had her sign an NDA before their meeting. “Then they declared the secret project is Toy Story 4 and went on to describe what they had in mind for the sequel.”
Pixar brought in Folsom to work on the story idea for Toy Story 4 and flesh out any missing pieces. “You just roll up your sleeves as a story artist and try to figure it out,” she announced. “It’s a completely unique process. I had written some live action projects that didn’t get made, along with a production draft of Thor: Ragnarok, some ghostwriting and animation for Star Wars, and then I got to meet with Pixar for this “secret” project.”
Folsom was asked about the major differences between developing animated and live action films. Being on set has different meanings in each world.
“When you’re going into animation, it’s very different than being on a live-action set. On set, you’re sort of stuck with what happens there unless there’s a reshoot. With animation, you can put anything in the frame and re-do it as many times as you want, which is both liberating and maddening,” recalls Folsom.
At Pixar, it’s also a “team effort.” Stephany would go in and write her scenes, then meet with a storyboard artist for rough sketches, then everyone would watch what’s called ‘The Reel,’ which is a mock-up. “We keep doing that over and over again until we get it right.”
Instead of seeing script notes on paper, the screenwriters actually get to see what’s working or what’s not in a moving picture format. It’s rewriting in real time. This is also true for the cutting room floor. Scenes really removed or lost, but there are moments where scenes morph into other scenes. No story idea is ever wasted.
Creating Toy Story 4
Folsom was asked about her preparation for penning the next installment of the billion-dollar Toy Story franchise. No pressure!
“I’ve always loved Toy Story and I grew up on it. I went back and refreshed myself with the characters and talked to the guys about their thought process with the other movies. Toy Story was the first movie Pixar ever made and they all did it together, so I spoke to Pete Doctor and Andrew Stanton to get their process, their character ideas, and then craft new characters for fans.”
Through the collaboration, it was vital to make sure everyone was on the same page. There weren’t really creative differences, as everyone was working hard to make the best movie possible.
“Andrew Stanton was fantastic. I think it was so important to have him there for the process because he was there from day one. That insight and knowledge were invaluable. He’s one of the founders of Pixar, so it was great to have him there,” said Folsom.
Over the course of two years, the screenwriters worked on the new Toy Story. “I think the biggest thing I learned from him was to make the audience lean forward and make them feel something. That’s all you really need. What’s going to happen next and make me feel an emotion? It’s that simple… and that hard.”
“A lot of discovery came from working closely with the actors and seeing what they brought to the voice performances. At Pixar, with the writers, you get to see Keanu Reeves in his role as Duke Caboom. That role is crafted around his personality and the jokes he was cracking. It’s important to see the actor working with the story.”
Planning Folsom’s Screenwriting Career
Folsom describes her career as hard work in the dark. She didn’t have an exact screenwriting career plan that led her to work with Pixar. She made sure to focus on each screenwriting job and write the best screenplay she could. Then, through the ongoing honing of her writing craft, she got the privilege of working on larger and larger projects.
However, there is a driving force behind each screenplay she writes.
“If I can’t get invested in a story, I’m not good at what I do. I wrote a script several years ago that made it onto ‘The Blacklist’ which got me a lot of opportunities and writing assignments. Finding projects that I love and believe in has really been my guide in deciding my next screenplay. Everything else has just stemmed from following my passion and working hard.”
Folsom’s Blacklist script – 1969: A Space Odyssey, or How Kubrick Learned to Stop Worrying and Land on the Moon – dove into the idea behind the conspiracy that Stanley Kubrick directed the moon landing, for those who believe America faked the historic event back in the late 1960s.
When asked what led to this unusual screenplay, Folsom joked, “frustration.” She continued, “I had written some TV pilots and some other screenplays, but nothing was really clicking. I didn’t have a Plan B, but I was thinking this writing thing wasn’t going to work out. So I came up with a crazy idea that I thought only I would care about.” This self-advice proved to pay off.
As a solid fan of Stanley Kubrick and space, Stephany decided to write a story about a female going up against all odds, wrapped in a conspiracy story about Kubrick. “I was past the point of making it work, so I thought this could be a last-ditch effort in screenwriting that might lead to me working in my parents’ basement.” She persevered writing her notable screenplay despite her doubts.
Her Blacklist screenplay led to an agent, a manager, and eventually, a job at Warner Brothers, where she adapted a novel and then started to work on various other adaptations and eventually work with Disney and Pixar. When asked about what makes her stand out as a screenwriter, Stephany responded, “I think I’m good at characters. I’ve written genres, thrillers, and comedies… I think I can bring a sense of life to characters.”
“I think I have an innate curiosity on what makes people work,” she mused. “It’s an investigation of why this person does that or how does this work and why things are the way they are. That’s sort of the path that I’m on.”
She also sees her screenwriting strengths in world-building and also finding emotional connections within these large, cinematic worlds. We also asked Stephany what the future holds for her in terms of format, her style, and writing voice.
“I think I will always focus on what’s interesting to me. Working with Pixar and Marvel, I now want to see what TV is like. TV looks like a fun playground, so I’m playing with that and I have a small Indie movie with Amazon called This is Jane. It focuses on Chicago women who defy the system.)
“I don’t think my writing voice has really changed all that much, but I’ve been doing it so much that I’ve been able to define my voice draft after draft after draft. I’m able to get to a readable draft faster,” she joked.
State of the Film Industry
The screenwriter described the current industry as “bonkers” since there are so many opportunities and new paths for screenwriters. “I think if you’re willing to go out there and fight for success, you have opportunities to reach an audience in a way that nobody really has before. There are problems, but if you’re willing to do the work, you have more access to opportunity than there has been in the past.”
With opportunities, however, there are also pitfalls. “So many companies are relying on IP because they’re trying to get people’s attention. If it’s an existing property, the thinking is that people are more likely to watch it than something they don’t know. It’s a competition for eyeballs. That can be cutthroat, but if you’re willing to do something that stands out, you can also find success.”
“We’re seeing more diverse voices, more female voices, which makes me very happy. When I was growing up, I had to graft my journey on a story starring a man, but younger generations are increasingly seeing stories about people that look like them. There is something beautiful and powerful about that. Everyone wants to go on an adventure.”
Personally, the writer believes that “good storytelling that has something to say in a way we haven’t seen it before will win out.” With this in mind, she mentioned Jordan Peele’s career, in terms of Get Out and Us. With this mindset, the battle of IP versus original isn’t a battle if the focus is originality and story. “You just grab people by the throat and make them watch.”
Audiences aside, Folsom’s main focus is to work on what excites her. When she does feel complacent or uninspired, she cites travel, museum visits, and watching old movies as forms of inspiration. “Anything you can do to experience the world will make you a better writer,” she said.
Over the years, the screenwriter has read an array of scripts. Her advice for novice writers is to make readers want to turn the page. “It’s sort of sleight-of-hand, but it takes a while to master. Beautiful, juicy dialogue also works. You have so little time to do what you need to do in movies, so any little thing done quickly and beautiful is the name of the game.”
Stephany concluded, “when a writer can have a character do one action and define that character as a person, I’m in awe of that talent. You have more time with TV, but in film, if you can tell who your character is in a slight movement in a couple of frames of film, then that’s great writing. Otherwise, do your best and be fair.”
“The best advice I ever got as a screenwriter was, ‘don’t worry about getting work, because you are hired for who you are and you as a writer can always generate your own work. No one is going to hire you to make something to get sold.’ To me, that is powerful and beautiful. Your unique perspective is what makes you tell that story.”