Previously Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger wrote the original Kung Fu Panda, as well as Dreamworks’s Monsters vs Aliens. Then I made them talk to me for 20 minutes. Bwah ha!
Josh: Let’s contextualize you guys a bit here for our readers. Tell me a little bit about how you guys came together as a writing team and what path your careers took leading up to Kung Fu Panda.
Jonathan Aibel: You want to start, Glenn? You want to tell our origin story?
Glenn Berger: Okay. I’ll do that first part very quickly. Jon and I met right out of college, as management consultants in Boston. Where we both hated that job. A lot. And decided – without knowing how big a cliche it was – to put everything in a U-Haul and move to LA and try to be TV writers. And I’ll just fast-forward to after many, many little breaks – we never felt like we had any big breaks; like we got our first job at MTV, then we got a job on a sketch comedy show on Nickelodeon, then we got a freelance sitcom job on UPN, which doesn’t exist anymore; it was the Paramount network; then we got on a Fox show, then our first real big break was on the pilot of King of the Hill, the Mike Judge, Greg Daniels animated series. And we stayed there for six seasons. About six and a half years. Which was an amazing experience, a great learning experience. And when that ended we had kind of an overall deal at Fox to write pilots. None of which [got picked up]. Having gone from twenty people working on a show for six and a half years, to just being alone in a room working on pilots that never [got made] was a pretty lonely, unsatisfying creative experience. So we decided to start doing some screenplays, in the meantime. And we found that we really loved working in film. And that King of the Hill, because it had a three-act structure, actually equipped us more to write for features than it did to write for other sit-coms, which at the time were very multi-camera, two-act kind of things. Of course, we completely missed the resurgence of newer shows like Modern Family and The Office, which are great single-camera shows. But at the time that wasn’t really an option, so we felt creatively better equipped to write feature films. That’s what we started doing. Then after doing the movie equivalent to writing pilots that never go, which is writing movie screenplays that are well-received but never made, or doing re-writes on movies that get made but you receive no credit, we finally took a job at Dreamworks on Kung Fu Panda and aside from the fact that the material really appealed to us, it was not a small issue that the movie had a release date. And we knew this movie was going to get made, and that was a big part of it for us. We left TV vowing we’d never be complaining, that we’d always only care about the work and the process of writing. We’ll never complain if the movie gets made or not. That’s out of our hands! But after a certain number of years that gets to you. Especially after you’ve been in TV and you’ve done hundreds of episodes of television and people can watch it every week, and people come up to you and want to talk about your work, and have laughed at your jokes, it gets a little draining creatively to write stuff that you’re proud of and no one will ever ever see. So that was exciting for us to know we were coming to Dreamworks and working on a movie that was gonna come out. And Jon you can take if from there.
Aibel: I don’t know where to take it!
Berger: And everything went horribly right!
Josh: How much was already finalized when you came on board Kung Fu Panda?
Aibel: There were the characters. Their personalities weren’t necessarily defined, but they were created. You had a Po and a Shifu and a Tai Lung, because they had been designed –
Josh: There were already drawings?
Aibel: Beyond that. They were already in computers and rigged and test animated. And there was a basic framework of: Tai Lung is breaking out of jail and he’s coming and Po is supposed to fight him. And Shifu was his master, and there was the Furious Five. But within that framework it was still up for grabs. We didn’t know when the battles would be, who would be fighting, we didn’t know a backstory, we had to invent Po and his dad, and Shifu’s past with Tai Lung and how that all tied in. So it was sort of like a plot in search of characters, in a way. And once you define the characters the plot starts changing and becoming more specific. It was still two and half years of figuring out who these characters were, which is why when you get to a sequel it is so nice that that work is done. You know who the characters are and you’re just trying to figure out the other layers to them. And you can focus on the plot and the action and how to make that bigger and more interesting.
Berger: Are any of your readers writers?
Josh: Yes. Or wanting to be writers at least.
Berger: Can we nerd out on writing a little bit?
Josh: Oh ho yeeeah. By all means.
Berger: The distinction – because as Jon said the characters were built in the computer already, and we knew basically every animal that was in the movie was already designed – but the distinction between character and characterization… I’d say the biggest thing we had to do when we got there was say, well we know that there is a panda. And we know he wants to do kung fu, but he’s fat and can’t do kung fu. That’s character. The characterization would be… and they had explored many versions before we got there. Po was cocky. You know, not hip hop, but kinda wise-crackin’ panda, which was ultimately seen as very unsympathetic. How are you going to root for this guy to go on this journey if he’s so full of himself? As Jon has said, in the past, he was closer to the Jack Black in High Fidelity. The one who knows it all, who can’t be told anything. Well, they’d gone down that path and I think one of the big things that we helped bring to the character of Po is the idea that he’s an enthusiastic fanboy. He’s just not physically equipped to make his dreams come true. But he never stops dreaming and he never gives up. And that’s endearing ultimately. And that allows him to be a buffoon at times. But the audience will never stop caring about him. That was a huge leap for all of us, to understand that it is ultimately his vulnerability that will make him likable.
Aibel: And he was also – and this is something we had played with a lot – he was a character who had this dream, but was aware how ridiculous it was, which is why he didn’t tell anyone. Versus the character who’d say “I’m going to be the kung fu warrior!” and everyone laughs at him. That creates a different guy, whose is putting something out there. But is he aware of how ridiculous it is? As soon as he became aware of it and didn’t say it, he becomes that much more self-aware and then you root for him even more, because you know he’s not an idiot. He’s not deluded. He’s a guy who gets and understands how ridiculous this is. And self-censors himself. Especially with his dad.
Josh: Was Jack Black always going to play Po?
Berger: And I think that was the source of wrong directions for a long time. Because when you’ve got Jack Black it’s very tempting to go with the exuberant, high-energy Jack Black, which in the context of this movie comes across maybe as obnoxious and unsympathetic. But then the most gratifying thing for all of us was, late in the process of the first movie, it was Jack Black saying that he really, really identified with Po, more than any other character he’d ever played. Because he himself is a, you know, he’s a chubby kid who grew up to taking taekwondo classes and he’s made his dreams come true; all his childhood dreams of being a musician and comedic actor. But that doesn’t mean that all your childhood insecurities just go away. And so he really responded to the emotional vulnerability that Po has in these two movies.
Josh: Moving into the sequel… I don’t want to get into any spoilers here. How much are you guys revealing regarding the sequel’s look at Po’s past?
Aibel: At first when we saw adds that were talking about adoption we said, “No! That’s the first big spoiler!” But Angelina has talked a lot about it. So that’s definitely out there, that part of Po’s search is his identity and who he is. And I think we can say that without revealing who he is or how he got there. But for us it’s worth talking about and giving that up because that’s what we struggled with – with what should a sequel be. Because Po’s gotten everything he wants. So what next? And we realized, well here is a guy who seemingly has everything, but that’s really just trapping. It makes him think, “Ah, I’ve made it.” But inside there is still this feeling, “But who am I?” And when that’s threatened, and his kung fu is threatened to be taken away, he realizes that he still doesn’t know who he is deep down inside. And if he doesn’t have kung fu, he’s going to be left with nothing.
Josh: There’s that funny scene in the first film, where you think his dad is going to reveal something about Po’s identity, but instead reveals the secret to his noodle recipe. Were you guys already forward-thinking about something to explore in the sequel, or was this a total happy accident?
Berger: I don’t know if you remember the joke from the first movie, but it’s Oogway saying, “There are no accidents.” The number of times we’ve said that internally! I can say that the entire sequel is built around the idea that Po is searching for his identity and that it turns out he was adopted by that goose dad and yeah, it started with one joke in the first movie. And then there was a callback to it, and that was really, really funny. And there was a definite conscious attempt to establish in the first movie that Po probably knows. We don’t want to make Po stupid. So there’s that scene you mentioned with the secret ingredient. It’s clear in the face acting that if Po were to hear at that moment “I’m not really your dad” he wouldn’t be too surprised. But the nice thing about that moment, it shows that both Po and his father are repressing something. Clearly they don’t want to talk about it. And that was nice. In the context of the first movie, that’s all we needed to show that there is clearly something going on with Po, but they’re not ready to talk about it. And that’s fine. When it came to the second movie, it was only when we went to China and everyone on the street would stop us and say – not stop us cause they recognized our faces; we’re huge in China! – they would say, “Why was the father a goose? How does that makes sense?” We realized that really opened up the possibility of exploring some pretty deep, heavy issues. And we took that and ran with it.
Aibel: We already had the basic idea of Po and the Five going on a journey against this peacock who has developed a weapon that threatens kung fu. But then we realized that the bigger part of that was if he found out the truth of his origin, what would that do while on that journey.
Berger: The real question was, what’s a threat to kung fu. Is it the secret weapon that Shen has created? Or is it the deep seeded insecurity about Po’s own identity? And that’s the cool thing we play with. What’s going to effect Po more? What’s the bigger risk to China?
Josh: Going into this, did you guys have a philosophy about how to craft a good sequel?
Berger: What’s wrong with sequels is what’s wrong with movies – a bad movie and a bad sequel are just bad. To single out sequels, I think is unfair. Maybe the disappointment level is higher with a sequel because there is only a sequel, presumably, because the first movie was successful enough or beloved enough to warrant one. So there is more disappointment if the second one or third one is bad. Cause it comes in with such good will. But all we were setting out to do was make sure we kept all the elements of the first movie that people responded to, and that we loved, without just repeating ourselves in the second movie. We want to do these movies as long as we feel like Po has something to learn and has room to grow. If that ever stops happening, and we’re just retelling the same movie, then I’m sure those sequels will fairly be unsuccessful and panned. But until then, we’re happy to grow along with Po.
Josh: Does that mean you’ve mapped out more sequels?
Aibel: We have in our heads where Po will eventually go in his life. We haven’t said “In the third movie he’s at this step, and the fourth this” but just knowing where this character can go eventually is what we have. And I’m sure if someone said, “Start writing the third one now!” we’d say we had no idea. We all have ideas in our heads what it should be. But the lesson we learned on the first one is, what you find interesting and what the world finds interesting aren’t necessarily the same. And it is great to have an audience finally respond to something and pick things out that maybe you didn’t even intend, and realize “Oh, that’s what people are fascinated by.”
Josh: Do you have an example of something that was just a random throwaway detail that audiences really picked up on?
Aibel: I mean, the biggest thing was just that Po’s dad was a goose. Which is funny, because when we came on the project we said that Po should have a parental figure. Just to have someone to talk to in the beginning, and so you knew – does he live at home? What sort of world does he live in? And we thought, well can he have a panda dad? A panda mom? But they hadn’t built these characters. And it takes time and money to do that. So we said, what do you have? And they said, well there’s the goose. We had this goose character who we thought would be his boss, and we said, well maybe that’s his dad. Let’s just try that. We figured that it show’s Po is out of place, because clearly he feels different. That was just a lucky thing that we didn’t think anything of. And then it start growing, and suddenly that’s the thing that people find resonant. And you just go with it. You lose perspective sometimes. You’re spending three years on this thing, you don’t know how the world will perceive it at all. You’re always surprised.
Josh: Wow. That’s actually hilarious. On this huge budgeted film, that something as pivotal to the franchise as Po’s dad being a goose came about simply because they didn’t have any other pandas lying around.
Aibel: People think in animation you can do anything, that the whole world is open to you. It is at some point, and then eventually it isn’t. Because it takes so long. You can’t build new sets anymore. You can’t create new characters anymore. So you’re actually working with some pretty serious limitations, even though you kind of can do anything.
During this back and forth with Aibel, Glenn Berger – who had been futuristically present for our interview via skype on a laptop sitting between Aibel and I – lost his connection. Aibel and I gabbed a little bit about their next project, Candyland (nothing to report there that hasn’t now popped up in the trades, except hearing it from the horse’s mouth I’m not as pessimistic about its chances as others are). Finally we get Berger back.
Berger: I knew it crashed at the best possible time, because I could tell you guys were wrapping things up.
Aibel: You missed it. I gave some incredible advice to the readers of CHUD.
Calling back to the fact that there are a lot of aspiring and working writers who read CHUD…
Aibel: You know what all these guys have that we didn’t have? The Internet! We were in Boston and we had no idea how you became a writer. We had to get terrible books out of the library.
Josh: Syd Field?
Aibel: Yup, read Syd Field, and it was sort of impenetrable what he was talking about. “This page should have this happen.”
Berger: Remember Lew Hunter?
Aibel: Lew Hunter had Screenwriting 1… 134? Or is that the freeway? 431? [it’s Screenwriting 434, named after a graduate course Hunter teaches at UCLA] And then there were terrible books like, “How To Write a Sitcom,” from people who had written on Perfect Strangers. Really old school stuff. And we were just like at sea. Now I think it is great that people can more easily learn this stuff.
Then I insulted Aibel’s wife and he came at me with a knife. I regret having to kill him, but he left me no choice. The worst part was hearing Berger’s screams as he watched me kill his old friend, via Skype, impotent to help. In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have insulted Aibel’s wife. It had nothing to do with what we were talking about, plus I’ve never met the woman, so that made my comments extra rude. Now she is a widow. Alas.