Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (Part 1)
Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio are one of the most successful writing teams in Hollywood, responsible for such blockbusters as The Mask of Zorro, Pirates of the Caribbean, Disney’s Aladdin and Shrek. They also run a terrific website for jobbing and aspiring screenwriters at www.wordplayer.com. In April 2000 Ted and Terry generously agreed to a joint e-mail interview about their work, concentrating on their most recent credit, The Road to El Dorado - a film which changed enormously between script and screen. A couple of years later, Terry kindly answered a few e-mail questions about the first Pirates movie.
Please describe the genesis of The Road to El Dorado. Where did this film come from? What was it like in its most basic, purest, original form? What made it stand out from other ideas?
Ted Rossio: “Before Dreamworks was announced, Jeffrey Katzenberg approached us with a big thick book in hand: Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes and the Fall of Old Mexico by Hugh Thomas. He wanted to do an animated film set in that world.”
Terry Elliott: “He also said something that appealed to us greatly. He said that the reason animated movies made by studios other than Disney tend to fail is because they try to make Disney animated movies. Of course, Disney already makes those movies, and they make them very well. What he wanted to do at DreamWorks was make good animated movies which Disney wouldn't make - specifically, he wanted to tell stories which Disney wouldn't tell.
“This dovetailed with something Terry and I had already been thinking about in terms of the main characters of animated movies. In most cases, the main character is a well-meaning innocent whose only real flaw is that they are innocent - perfectly appropriate to coming-of-age stories, which is what most Disney animated movies are. Plus, generally, they aren't all that funny in-and-of-themselves - the really strong comedy falls to the supporting characters, to the sidekicks.
“The key to the sidekick characters, I think, is that they get to be flawed. They get to be greedy, or venal, or stupid ... they don't always evidence the virtuous, well-meaning traits the heroes have to. In short, they are more anti-heroes than heroes.”
TR: “We had been interested in exploring classic comedic forms in animation; previously, working at Disney, we wrote a version of Sinbad that was a classic screwball romantic comedy. For Road to El Dorado, we hit on the idea of creating a comedy team. There aren't any real comedy teams around any more, and there had never been any animated films with duel comedic leads.
“So what if we let the sidekicks hijack the movie? What if the leads were allowed to be funny?”
TE: “That was the shorthand for: let's do a movie with a pair of comedic anti-heroes. Which was a mistake, I think; so was our citing the Hope-Crosby Road movies as examples. If we'd just said: let's do a dramatic story with anti-heroes who are funny ... well, maybe things would have gone differently.”
How, and to whom (and how long ago), did you pitch the film?
TR: “If I recall, the story was pitched in treatment form. This would be sometime around the spring of 1995.”
TE: “We were primarily working with Jeffrey, of course, but Steven Spielberg and Walter Parkes (with Laurie MacDonald, head of the DreamWorks motion picture division) were very much involved. The story we came up was one everyone liked very much.”
How many drafts have you written, and how many of those were you happy with?
TR: “Rarely was there a full and complete draft of the film. Occasionally the sequences would get assembled together. Mostly it was worked on in pieces, endlessly revising sequences. I can tell you, though, that I once added up all the pages in the computer, and in the end there were over 5,000.”
The big one: how is the finished film different from what you originally intended?
TR: “We originally intended the film to be good. And that's not a flip answer. When you work in animation, you want things to change, you want to make full use of all the talent that gets assembled. And it doesn't matter that stories or sequences or characters change, as long as it gets better. In this case, the film didn't get better.
“Being a bit more specific, I'd say the biggest change is that the original film was intended to be more ambitious, more complex; containing perhaps deeper characterisations, with an eye toward a more sophisticated storytelling to bring off a more sophisticated theme, and more compelling drama. The finished film was simplified in every respect.”
TE: “Like we said, we wanted to do a movie which had comedic anti-heroes. In the finished movie, the characters are pretty much the ones we created, but the story is such that they come across much more as comic heroes - it isn't necessary for them to overcome their flaws and change in order to do the right thing, they just have to decide to do the right thing. Stories which hinge on a character who has to make a decision - instead of having to change and take an action - are inherently dull stories for a movie. And The Road to El Dorado is ultimately just a dull movie.
“The problem, obviously, was that the milieu that Jeffrey had chosen - no less than the near-annihilation of the Mezo-American peoples and the destruction of their culture - didn't really lend itself to a flat-out comedy, we thought. There had to be enough depth in these characters to allow us to do a story which would allow for some real drama - tragedy, even.
“And the original story acknowledged the fundamental tragedy of the milieu - the city of El Dorado (which wasn't even the mythical El Dorado, it was just the first city Tulio and Miguel found, which they mistakenly believed was El Dorado) was not saved. The people ended up abandoning it to Cortes, and vanishing into the jungles - the people survived (barely), but the culture did not. This was also accurate to history - Cortes encountered a number of abandoned cities on his way to Tenochitlan (capital of the Aztec empire), and was our answer to the question ‘What happened to the Mayans?’
“When my fiancee and I were watching Three Kings, she leaned over and whispered to me, ‘This is the movie El Dorado was supposed to be!" And it is - it's more hard-edged, with no songs, of course - but in terms of the basic movement of the story and the development of the characters, the mix of comedy, drama and tragedy and how they flow from one to the other ... yep, that's it. If you want to see a story which is far closer to what El Dorado should have been, watch Three Kings.”
What changes are you least happy with, and are there also changes that you feel were improvements which you wouldn't have made without other people suggesting them?
TR: “I'm most unhappy with how the songs in the finished film simply don't work. At one time, there was a story design where they did work. The story design changed, the songs, for the most part, didn't. And that was one of our original goals - to do an animated musical where the songs had to be there to tell the story, in the best Howard Ashman tradition. It is, perhaps, the biggest failure of the movie.
“As for improvements ... you have to understand the evolving nature of the animation process. At a certain point, a series of bad decisions got locked in. Then some fantastic work was done by many people to try to rescue the movie around those bad decisions. But do those efforts really count as improvements? Past a certain point, there was always a limit to how good the film could be.”
TE: “There is nothing in the movie which wouldn't be there if not for our original story, but everything that is there is worse ... except for the animation itself, of course. I think the animation is beautiful, even extraordinary. I just wish it had been put in service of a story which was its equal.
“I would be remiss to not point out the animation on the Chief, though, and the work of supervising animator Franz Vischer - he is the one character which really has the depth that all the characters should have had. There's a lot going on below the surface there, and it comes through beautifully in the performance.
“I think the problem is that many of the people who make animated movies know the craft and art of animation backwards and forwards, far better than I ever will. But they seem to overlook the ‘movie’ part of it, or give it short shrift. Movies are stories, and stories are more than ‘Here's the characters, and this happens to them, and then this happens to them ...’ - and, unfortunately, in The Road to El Dorado, that's pretty much all the story there is.”
This is the moral one: obviously I appreciate that The Road to El Dorado is your baby, but let me play Devil's advocate and ask what moral right does a writer have to dictate the final screenplay used? (Or put another way: isn't there something in a director's or producer's point of view of: 'This movie could be so great if those writer dudes would just let go of it and let somebody else give it a spin?') (Or put yet another way, once an architect has sold a house, should he be upset if the new owner puts a conservatory on the back?)
TR: “The screenwriter's moral rights end when the writer accepts a payment, selling the work, without any contractual protections. It's always possible to try to negotiate to protect the work, in conjunction with a payment for use. We didn't have that in this case.”
TE: “Like he says. After it became clear that the movie was not going to be our story, we made the choice to remain and keeping working on the picture - because we still liked the characters, we liked a lot of the visual development that had been done, and we believed - if the right story solutions could be found - it could still be a good movie. Unfortunately, those story solutions were predicated on the ability of the people involved to understand what story is - or to listen to the people who did. Neither happened.”
Now we're onto technical questions: how is writing for traditional animation different from writing for live action? And how is writing for computer animation different from or similar to either of the above?
TR: “Storytelling in computer animation is not appreciatively different from traditional animation, in my opinion. The particular story needs overwhelm any small differences associated with technique. But animation is far different from live action. You've got to be faster, more efficient, more expressive. Because of time restrictions, you're essentially working with a two act structure, like a play.”
In writing a musical, how much say did you have in the songs' placing,style and lyrical content? At what stage are the completed songs added to the script?
TR: “We suggested most of the placement of the original songs - or you could say that Tim Rice picked which songs to write and where they would go. Once you construct a story, it's fairly clear what moments are candidates for songs.”
TE: “We would describe the story movement necessary in the song , sometimes in synopses, sometimes in long letters to Tim, sometimes in finished versions of the scenes, complete with dialogue - sometimes, all of those. Basically, we tried to give Tim as much information as we could, and let him shape the song to match the story. And then Tim would send the lyrics to Elton John, and Elton would do his brilliant thing, and then we would rewrite and rework the scene so that the story and song worked to best effect. Of course, since the majority of the songs were written for the story which got thrown out ....”
TR: “The songs kept moving and changing throughout the entire five year period. Once the choice was made to tell a non-dramatic story, a huge amount of effort went into trying to prop up that story, and make it work. That naturally involved new songs, moving songs to new places, cutting songs, and changing lyrics.
“Tim Rice and Elton John constantly came through with great lyrics and melodies. It's really too bad that, due to poor storytelling and placement, the songs don't seem nearly as good as they are.”
The Road to El Dorado seems to be the first thing you've written (or a least seen produced) since Little Monsters that isn't based on existing source material: what are the pros and cons of originality versus adaptation?
TR: “The biggest advantage to adapting a work is that when it gets screwed up, it doesn't hurt quite as much.
TE: “There's always a point on a movie where people begin talking about the characters as if those characters always existed - as if they were not the product of the writers' choices and decisions and creativity. I remember someone coming up to me and telling me that ‘Tzekel-Kan’ actually means ‘Yellow Skull’ in Mayan, and that ‘Yellow’ was the Mayan colour for evil, and ... and I'm sitting there thinking ‘Well, I'm glad he's excited about the name, and likes the name, and has discovered all this heretofore unsuspected depth, but geez! How does he think it all got there?’”
Everything you've worked on seems to fall into the fantasy genre (Zorro is borderline, but heck, he's a superhero of sorts; and The Road to El Dorado has a statue coming to life or something, judging by the trailers): so how important is the fantastic to your work and can you see yourselves ever writing something non-fantastical?
TR: “I think the essential attraction of storytelling is that it provides a fixed pattern of events in compressed form, which mimics people's experience with life: the future being random, the present being the moment of decision, and the past being choices made. Films in particular mirror life in that they show the end result of a whole series of decisions, hopefully excellent decisions, leaving a fixed pattern that is (hopefully) compelling and artful.
“It's the artful part that attracts people - there's an underlying curiosity that, armed with the insights of that particular story, one might be able to make one's own life more artful. And of course there's just the enjoyment of vicariously experiencing an artfully arrange series of events.
“All of which is long-winded preamble to this: what fantasy does it rip apart the basic nature of life, emphasise a particular aspect, in order to emphasise some particular truth. Yeah, you can accomplish the same thing without fantasy, but it's harder - and boy is fantasy a great tool to get to that 'truth' stuff quickly. That's why I like it so much - if your goal is to show underlying patterns of life, the real truths of life, why not play around with those underlying patterns in the story, too?”
TE: “I like fantasy and science fiction. My goal is to wed non-fantastical characterisation and drama - I guess I'd call it ‘real’ - to fantasy and science fiction stories. It's not an original goal, by any means, and it's been accomplished by others incredibly well - particularly in literature - but it doesn't seem to happen too often in movies nowadays."
Continue to Part 2 of this very long interview, where Ted and Terry discuss Little Monsters, Aladdin, Small Soldiers, Godzilla, The Mask of Zorro and Antz
Or jump to Part 3 where they talk about Sandman, Iron Man, Zorro Unmasked, Shrek, Treasure Planet and many other projects