When Trolls writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger met at a management-consulting firm 20-something years ago, they knew that that career path was not for them. Discovering a mutual love of writing and the ability to work well together on spec scripts, they eventually decided to head to Los Angeles and give full-time screenwriting a shot.
That ended up being a wise decision, and they’ve never looked back. Finding work almost immediately, the pair started off in television, and spent seven years on King of the Hill. They then transitioned into the movie business and are perhaps most well-known for the Kung Fu Panda series starring Jack Black.
Having found a home in feature animation, Aibel and Berger are also behind Monsters vs. Aliens, two of the Chipmunks films, and The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water. They’re clearly comfortable bringing classic characters to the big screen and their latest release, Trolls, is no exception. Starring Justin Timberlake and Anna Kendrick in the lead roles, the film is directed by Walt Dohrn and the writing duo’s longtime collaborator, Mike Mitchell.
Creative Screenwriting spoke with Aibel and Berger about writing for an established set of characters with no backstory, the role Spotify played in their research, and the secret to the success of their decades-long partnership.
From what I understand, this project has been under way for quite some time. When did you first become involved with Trolls?
Jonathan: I’d say at the start of 2014. The way it works is the amount of time you have to write expands to fill the amount of time it takes to animate one of these. The actual animation of the film is probably a two to two-and-a-half-year process.
That means that no one’s ever going to say “well we’ve got what we have, stop writing, we’re just going to finish the animation”. There’s always a chance of “well that hasn’t been animated yet, so how can we make it better?” or “how can we change that and improve it and add jokes?”
You sort of discover the movie and things in it as you’re making it, which is why I think as a whole, the quality of animated movies tends to be so high. You have so many chances to keep working on it.
You’re no strangers to working with classic characters – such as The Chipmunks, for example – and Troll dolls date back 50 years. How did you go about revamping this particular classic for a new audience?
Glenn: Well, unlike say Spongebob or The Chipmunks, which had not only a lot of characters but actual backstories and character relationships that we had to honor, Trolls is closer to something like Kung Fu Panda, in which you really aren’t starting with anything in the way of backstory.
The Troll dolls were just spongey toys with a lot of hair. Jon and I both knew them mostly as the things that go on the top of your pencil in the 80s. So that’s all we had to go with. We didn’t want to put pencils inside any of them, that’s the first decision we made.
With Kung Fu Panda, it was a panda who wanted to do Kung Fu. Here, these are Troll dolls – and what we had to start with, thanks to Walt and Mike, was this idea of positivity and optimism. And a pairing of an optimistic character and a pessimistic character on a journey together. So really, everything came out of that character dynamic.
Would there be any research involved with something like this?
Jonathan: It’s interesting. The research that was done on the movie was really about happiness. It was more of a thematic research than any sort of Troll – or hair – research.
Glenn: I know that Kendal Cronkhite, the Production Designer, did a lot of research into 70s aesthetics, Scandinavian aesthetic, and that kind of stuff. But on our side of things…
Jonathan: A lot of the research for us was musical research; just thinking of what songs were in that era and going through the songs we grew up with and what we wanted to put in the movie to evoke the era.
Given your lead actors, that must have been a lot of fun to explore.
Glenn: So much fun. It was the first time we’ve ever done something like this, where, in the writing, we had Spotify playlists from different eras. Early on there was a creative decision, collectively, that the music would only be from the 70s. But at a certain point we realized that was unnecessarily limiting.
Jonathan: It was probably about the time that Mike said “I want ‘True Colors’ in the movie”. So it was “OK…70s and 80s”…and then someone came up with the idea of using the Gorillaz song, which is 2000s. So then it was “OK…70s, 80s, 90s, 2000s…but all music we’ve heard before”.
And then: “OK, but here it would be great if Justin wrote an original song”.
I think what works so well is it’s a celebration of all of these different eras. And what Justin brought to it was to come in and, in addition to writing the songs, produce all of the other songs so that it all flowed and had a similar feel to it. So it didn’t feel like we were pulling songs from everywhere and they didn’t actually go together.
In a previous interview with Creative Screenwriting, you had said that when you’re creating these characters, it’s about finding a relatable human aspect. How did you do that with the characters in Trolls?
Glenn: In this movie it was particularly easy, because our two directors are Poppy and Branch. And we’re not talking out of school here, they would cop to it as well. Walt is an incredibly optimistic, positive guy. And Mike…
Jonathan: Mike is closer to Branch.
Glenn: Oftentimes we’d be sitting in a room with those two and watch the normal human dynamics between them…we would quickly jot on a pad an idea we’d have for Poppy or Branch.
But we all know there’s something so universal about optimistic people and cynical people. I think as writers…
Jonathan: We tend towards one of those two.
Glenn: When it comes to the Panda movies, not everyone is aspiring to pursue a dream for which they are not necessarily well-suited. But with Trolls, everyone has to battle with those ideas of “can I do this?” or “should I give up?” or “should I keep going?” “Am I foolish for being positive about this?” “Am I limiting myself by being cynical about this?”
Jonathan: And then I think for Branch, there’s this sort of ridiculousness of a person who has watched his grandmother get eaten by a creature and has lost his color and stopped singing. So the specifics are maybe a little bizarre, but we knew that we had to ground that in someone who had suffered something traumatic, and then decided to never love again or have a connection anymore.
So if you can think of the character that way, whether he’s a Troll or any other creature who sort of falls by the wayside, then you can think “well what would a human in that situation do and how would he act?”
You’ve written together for 20 years now. What do you attribute that success to?
Glenn: This is a joke I once used and it continues to be true: the secret of our relationship is 20-something years of us going “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”
Jonathan: Hey, stop with the cursing!
Glenn: It’s a relationship completely untested by adversity! We’ve been lucky. We moved out to L.A. and got work within three months. And we’ve rarely been out of work since.
So I’d like to say the secret to our relationship longevity is that things have gone so well.
It’s almost a Poppy story – our writing relationship is still the Act I version of Poppy, in which everything’s gone so well.
Jonathan: I think it’s unfair to say we’ve never faced adversity. But there are teams where one will say “well I do the structure” and the other says “he’s really better at jokes and dialogue”. We’ve never worked that way. We’ve said we’re either complementary or redundant but can’t figure out who the redundant one is.
Glenn: As soon as we figure out which one of us is unnecessary, he’s fired.
Jonathan: It enables us to write as equals, and feel like at any given time we’re on the same page – both literally if we’re writing and looking at the same screen, but also in our sensibilities and in our work ethic. The way we approach the work and get it done and keep going at it every single day.
Glenn: I’ve said this before and I continue to mean it: what we do is so collaborative. Not just between me and Jon, but with whatever project we’re on, there’s a ton of other people involved. And – this is not a dig at anyone we’ve ever worked with – it’s always nice in any given situation to look around and know that the smartest, funniest other person in the room is my partner.
It’s almost an unfair advantage. Clearly we all think that about the other for a reason, and there’s a reason we’re together. Mike, who has worked with us so much over the years that he’s almost like the unofficial third member of the partnership, has joked about that too. It’s unfair how the two of us are in such a mind meld that it’s hard for other people to win an argument.
Although we’re also fairly famous for not agreeing with each other.
Jonathan: I think that’s another thing – we’re not afraid to debate something. Internally of course, but also in front of others.
Maybe there are some teams who think “if they see that we’re not agreeing, they’ll think it’s a sign of weakness”. But we learned that the ego often stands in the way of good ideas.
Glenn will say “I really think it needs to be this” and I’ll say “I think it needs to be this” and we’ll argue and bring in a third voice; Mike or Walt or Gina (Shay, Producer)…and often what comes out of that is something that neither of us would have seen.
But to not put your idea out there because you’re afraid that other people are going to shoot it down just means the movie won’t get better.
Glenn: Here’s a nerdy process thing that we tell younger writers if they ask – and sometimes even if they don’t ask. We’re often asked about how we resolve a conflict if the two of us have different opinions about a joke, a story turn, whatever it is.
Our rule has become that if one of us says X and the other says Y, then unless one of us can very quickly convince the other and he caves, the answer always has to be Z. It’s always going to be a third option.
And I think that’s why, if our work is better for us being a team, it’s often because one of us will never win. The project wins because we come up with a third thing that we both like. I think that’s to the benefit of our projects.
You had your start in television writing and we seem to be in something of a golden age for TV right now. Have you ever wanted to go back to that industry, or are you satisfied with the groove you’ve found in film?
Glenn: If only to destroy the TV industry again. We do look at the timing of all that and wonder…
Jonathan: Maybe we just had to get out of there.
Glenn: Yeah, it took off after we left it. So I think that after we destroy feature animation, we’re going to go back and destroy TV.
Jonathan: I would say that every year or so, we kick the TV tires. But at the same time, we totally love what we’re doing and don’t feel creatively unfulfilled.
When we were doing King of the Hill, we were doing 24 episodes a season. It’s exhausting and you look at the blank chart and think “how are we even going to come up with 24 stories?” Somehow, eventually, you do.
But I think what we love now so much is the ability to just have that one story and see how emotionally resonant and how deep we can go with these characters. That’s the challenge we’re enjoying.
The model of TV is very different, and the speed of it is very different. I think we’re enjoying animation’s ability to let you continuously improve something for two-and-a-half to three years. Instead of the whole “it’s done, we have the table read today with the actors and we’re shooting it in three days” and off it goes.
Glenn: I will say there are two things that we really miss from the TV experience. One is getting to work with a large room of other writers. We work with really amazing, talented people in the movie business, but it’s very rare to interact with other writers, and I really do miss that. Because we’re a funny, crazy, cranky bunch.
The second thing is that, on a show like King of the Hill, we were there for seven seasons. We got to tell stories with the characters that grew through the years and that was really awesome.
But in a way, we’ve replicated that aspect any time we’ve had a chance to do sequels. Like in Kung Fu Panda, we got to watch Po grow over ten years of writing – which is longer than we worked on King of the Hill. So in a small way, we’ve been trying to get the best of both worlds.
What advice can you offer our readers?
Jonathan: The advice we often give is that people who say they want to be writers really just need to be writing.
It seems sort of self-explanatory, but we’ve seen people who like being able to say that they’ve written and like to say “I’m a writer” but don’t actually like sitting down in the morning, firing up their computer and starting to write. If you don’t like that, it’s a very difficult job and it’s going to be a long path you’ll be walking. If you don’t really enjoy sitting down and putting words on a page and creating characters and telling stories.
Not only that, but it’s a discipline, and it’s something you need to do every single day and learn to do professionally. And learn that when you turn something in that you think is perfect and you get notes, that you have to go through it again and improve it and keep doing that in an iterative process, as long as you can.
Glenn: I would agree. And even though this is a moment where we’re talking to you and other reporters and we got to go walk a rainbow-colored carpet at the film’s premiere, this is the one week every two or three years that it feels like we work in show business.
Because as Jon said, the job is sitting at a computer in your office every day for years before you get to do the glamorous thing. Which isn’t even guaranteed – we spent many years writing movies that never got made.
So you have to enjoy the process, and I know it sounds like the theme of one of our family movies…but if you’re not enjoying the journey, you’re never going to get to the destination.
Now we have to find a talking animal to build a movie around that. You just gave us our next idea…
Don’t miss our other great interview with Jonathan Aibel and Glen Berger!