Cinematical writes: As I’ve mentioned before, Austin Film Festival has a screenwriters conference to accompany its weeklong program of films. In fact, the event used to be better known for its writing panels and sessions than for the films that screened. I’m not a screenwriter so I don’t attend many panels anymore, but this year I decided to sit in on on the “Writing Family Films” panel.
Why did I choose a panel on children’s and family films? I could have gone with some friends to a session down the hall about comedy writing, featuring Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black, which I’m told was quite entertaining. I don’t have any kids, and I’ve never written anything that was aimed toward a younger audience. But I’ve always enjoyed watching quality children’s films (although I often feel like the only unaccompanied adult in the theater), and I wanted to hear more about the ways in which writers approach material intended for kids.
The panelists (in the order pictured above) were Bob Dolman, who wrote the screenplay for Willow and adapted and directed How to Eat Fried Worms; Susannah Grant, who worked on the scripts for Pocohontas, Ever After (a favorite of mine) and the upcoming Charlotte’s Web; and Mike Rich, who wrote Finding Forrester, The Rookie, and The Nativity Story. University of Texas screenwriting instructor Stuart Kelban moderated the session. The small conference room at the Stephen F. Austin hotel was well-filled with writers and other film-industry people.
The writers began by discussing ways in which they prepare to write family films. Grant said one of her biggest influences was the late lyricist Howard Ashman, who “would bestow all his characters with ‘I want some,’ whether it was The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, even Little Shop of Horrors. That stuck in my brain as something helpful to have in a character.” Rich agreed, pointing out that “The older Disney films always centered on a wish that the characters had — very simple and very effective.”
The studio notes on How to Eat Fried Worms were often “fearful of the worms, that they’d drive away the girls from the audience,” Dolman said. He resisted all attempts to cut down this aspect of the story. “And then we tested it, and girls tested higher … they liked being grossed out.” These negotiations with producers and studios are “a battle you fight as a writer or director, every time.”
Grant cited Pixar films as an example of children’s films that are never dumbed-down. “They don’t compromise or pander and they’re really successful. That fear element — compromise — can hurt a movie. When you’re going with ‘what always works,’ you’re compromising your voice.”
When Grant was adapting Charlotte’s Web, she kept getting suggestions about adding more bodily-function humor. “I’m not sure I’m comfortable putting fart jokes in E.B. White,” she said. In one meeting, someone told her that cow flatulence was a huge environmental problem, so perhaps that could be worked into the movie. Because it was an environmental issue, of course, not because of the potential fart humor. Right.