Steve Ryfle and Den Shewman

Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio on Shrek

Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio on Shrek
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In the first of a two part series, Elliott and Rossio discuss ego-less arguing, the nature of beauty, and comedic ground rules in Shrek.

During their 25 years in the business, Oscar-nominated screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio have made a name for themselves writing family-friendly blockbusters, the best known of which are perhaps Shrek and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

 

Princess Fiona, Shrek and Donkey in Shrek

Princess Fiona, Shrek and Donkey in Shrek

How do you divide writing tasks and responsibilities?

Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio

Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio

Ted Elliott:  Basically we figure out the outline—I hesitate to call it that, because it’s more than an outline—we figure it out using a bulletin board and cards, but not all the information about the screenplay can fit on a card; there’s a lot of it we understand just through our conversations about how we’re going to approach it.

A character may have one or two words that describe that character at that moment, at the start of the movie, but we know a lot more about what that character’s like. Once we know the outline and structure, what the story is, we break it up into sequences, so there’s usually about twenty to twenty-four sequences. A sequence isn’t a scene, but it can be a scene, or a series of scenes. And then we say, “Okay, which ones do you want to write, which ones do I want to write?” It turns out that I usually end up writing the first couple of sequences.

Terry Rossio:  I like Ted to write the first sequence, or a sequence that introduces a character, because he’s really excellent at establishing the voice of the script, or even the voice of a particular character. I can fill in and mimic once it’s been established. I lean toward trying to get the action scenes.

Elliott:  A lot of the way Terry and I work… is what we call “egoless arguing.” If Terry has an idea, he says, “Here’s the idea,” and from that point on, there’s no ownership of the idea. I’ll make arguments for or against it, Terry will make arguments for or against. The idea has to prove itself as being correct.

Rossio:  We put the ideas into an arena and let them battle, and in the end the stronger idea will win out.

What motivated you before you were successful?

Elliott:  Terry motivated me. Getting a writing partner is a good way to go. And don’t write at your house, write together, so you know the other guy is going to be at the coffee shop and if you don’t show up, he’s going to be angry.

When I hear aspiring screenwriters who talk about, “Yeah, I saw Godzilla and it was terrible. I can write better than that.” My feeling about that is, no, go watch The Godfather or Casablanca or Ghostbusters, and say, “Holy crap! That was great, I want to write something that good!” If you look at a movie and say, “That’s crap, I can do better,” then basically all you’re trying to do is write crap plus one. It’s far better to try to write the best thing you’ve ever seen, because at least you’re aspiring to a higher level.

Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather

Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather

When did you get attached to Shrek, and how long did you work on it?

Elliott:  We worked on it from about mid-1997. We were on the project for about two years, and we outlasted four or five different producers who came and went, three different directors came and went. And all the time, I must say, we were fighting for the movie that it is today.

That’s one of the things about the animation process. It’s not just about exploring the right story, it’s exploring every story. So it becomes very wearing on writers when you’re asked to write a scene that you just don’t think is right. And when it became obvious that it was going to be about a Shrek who decides to go be a knight to get people to like him, that was the point where we said if we stayed on the project as writers, we’re going to be standing in the way of what needs to happen to get this movie made. What’s really nice is that eventually that story proved itself to be as lame as we thought it would be, and it came back to this story, the one we’d been fighting for.

Rossio:  We have a co-producer credit and a co-writer credit on the movie. There are two other writers who contributed great stuff, things that are perfect for the movie. But I have to add that writing credits are not always accurate on animated films, and one of the reasons for that is they don’t include the storyboard crew. If they said, “screenplay by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio and the DreamWorks story crew,” then they would start to be more correct because it is a group experience that takes place over many years, with everybody in the room including the director, the story people, producers, the writer. They call it a story crew, and that story crew contributes significantly to these films.

What we think of as the screenplay doesn’t necessarily exist in the way you usually think of it in the live-action model. In fact, for many months all that exists are different sequences and script pages for those sequences, and the boards; the boards are the screenplay, and then the screenplay comes off the boards.

Quite simply, answers get in the way of solutions in the animation process. It’s a trap that we’ve always fallen into, providing answers before people were ready for them. What you have to do is step back, and let people ask questions and discover answers on their own…. The role of the writer on an animated project is not the traditional role. The actual role is to provide possibilities of what it could be, not to argue against everybody over what it should be.

Elliott:  That’s true in live-action too. We’ve seen examples where the right answer at the wrong time might as well be the wrong answer…. Good movies result when all of the problems become apparent and the solutions are there. What happens, more often than not in modern films, I think, is they just run out of time before they have to go shoot something, but they haven’t yet figured out the real problems that need to be solved.

Shrek

The eponymous Shrek

From a screenwriter’s standpoint, the process sounds disheartening.

Elliott:  The classic model—and this is what you think when you come into the industry—is that you write a good script, people read it and go, “This is a good script,” and they buy it and say, “We’re going to make this script.” And then you go to the movie and you say, “Wait a minute. That’s bad.”

This was our experience on Little Monsters, the first script we sold. Everyone said, “It’s a good screenplay, we like it.” A lot of problems happened there, but one of the big ones was that there was a writers’ strike just after we sold it, so we got to do one draft only with the director, and then we had to leave. So we go to see the movie, and we’re sitting there, and it stinks.

Our agent put it best: “They actually took out everything that made the story unique and have heart.” That’s just how it happens. There’s a different process for writing a great screenplay, or even just a good screenplay, and getting a good movie made from that screenplay.

Rossio:  I’ve actually come to the absurd conclusion—and this is advice that I give my closest writer friends—that the worst thing you can do with your spec screenplay is sell it. It’s the biggest mistake writers make, because selling it only ensures that it either won’t get made, or it won’t be made the way you want.

And of course they think this is crazy. How can you get a film made if you don’t sell your screenplay? I admit, it’s a paradox, but writers always celebrate the day their script sells, and then a couple of months later, they start to ask, “Are they really making it?” It’s one of 140 films in development, and other scripts that attract directors and stars are ahead. So the writer starts to say, “Well maybe somebody else wants to make it. I wish I could get it away from this place.” So the writer actually starts to rue the day that the script was sold, because they’re now frustrated that what they wanted isn’t happening, which was to see their film up on screen.

Actually, agencies are getting more and more savvy on this. They’re starting to say, “Selling the script is not our goal. Our goal is to get the film made.” And they will start to advise writers to look into packaging their screenplay. Look into aligning with a director or a star…. You essentially have to step into the role of producer on your own picture.

Shrek, by William Steig

Shrek, by William Steig

How did you go about adapting Shrek, which is a fairly short book, into a full length movie?

Elliott:  The book is a lot of fun. It’s just the simple idea of an ogre, this traditional fairy tale villain who really likes being an ogre. But he’s not a villain to himself. The book is actually this Jungian journey of self-discovery and self-fulfillment. It was that character that attracted us to the project—taking the traditional fairy tale villain, and, if not making him the hero, then at least the anti-hero who becomes the hero.

Rossio:  Our involvement was almost a reaction to the fact that Dream- Works didn’t get it. I think there was a preliminary approach, where it was the “woe is me” Shrek.

Elliott:  It was like “Shrek the friendly ogre,” where he goes up to people and says, “Hey, wanna be friends?” And everybody goes, “Aaaaah! An ogre!” And then he walks away with his head down, and his shoulders slumped.

That was one of our hardest battles, to [convince the studio] that people don’t think Shrek is an ogre simply because he’s ugly; being ugly is an aspect of being an ogre, but we tried to keep him from being interpreted as just another nice guy. His character had to be somewhat ogre-ish; we always said that because the point of view of the movie is on Shrek, you read him as the hero. But if the point of view had been over the shoulder of any other character, except the donkey, he would have been an ogre. That was how it had to work.

Rossio:  Our approach was also inspired by the fact, that if you take an ogre and put him in the lead and make him the hero, you’ve already overturned one of the main conventions of fairy tales, and we felt that’s what’s cool about this. You can actually do a comic fantasy where all those conventions that you’re familiar with are going to be messed with.

One of the really fun things when you’re working on an animated film is the process of characterization design, or what you could call character psyche design. It was really fascinating on Shrek, because all four main characters are organized around the concept of self-esteem, and appropriate and/or inappropriate reactions to appropriate or inappropriate self-assessment…

It’s best explained by example. Shrek is a person who thinks he’s just fine, but the world rejects him. How does he deal with that? Well, he decides he doesn’t need the world. That’s an inappropriate response to his accurate assessment of himself.

Lord Farquaad thinks he’s just fine too, but the world doesn’t accept him either, so his response is, “I’ll change the whole world.” So he assesses himself wrong, and reacts wrong.

Donkey doesn’t think he has any value whatsoever, except for that given to him by other people, so he’s desperate for a friend, for just one person to like him, and he chooses Shrek, probably the worst person in the world to choose because Shrek is rejecting everybody.

And Princess Fiona thinks there’s something not correct about herself and is also seeking external validation…

What you end up with is a unity among those characters, but the animation process is not necessarily going to provide unity in plot. That unity of characterization will help the entire animation team, when it collaborates, to stay on track thematically.

Princess Fiona in Shrek

Princess Fiona in Shrek

With all the variables involved, is it easier for the story to get derailed when you’re making an animated film, versus live-action?

Elliott:  In animated stories, the significance of each scene or sequence has to be understood within the scene or sequence itself, because if you design the story so that the setup for a joke takes place at the fifteen-minute mark, and the punch line takes place at the forty-five-minute mark, well, you might end up with the punch line still there but the setup, for whatever reason having been deleted.

You can’t rely on that sort of thing. You’ve got to make the story simple enough to be bulletproof to all the changes that will occur as it’s going through animation, but also flexible enough to allow all those changes to improve on the story.

It’s Disney’s concept of “plusing.” If it hits your desk, when it leaves it needs to be better than it was when it came in. But the real difficulty is making sure that it gets better appropriately, as opposed to better individually.

Rossio:  I should add that this is only true of the initial design of the story, because at a certain point, usually two or three years later, people will be completely exhausted by this process of exploring every aspect of the possible story. And then some people, when they come in later on in the process, will get to define the plot and make the final decisions that make things work.

On Aladdin, we were the lucky people who got to come in later and make the final decisions, and that’s a completely different thing. What we’re talking about here is the early stages of how you approach designing an animated movie.

Every protagonist needs something. What does Shrek need?

Elliott:  What he needs are friends. He needs a relationship with other people, but because he expects those relationships to all be negative, he’s cut himself off from any relationships. So basically it’s about those walls slowly coming down enough to accept the Donkey, accept Princess Fiona, accept the possibility that, yes, most people are going to react negatively to him, but not everybody will.

Rossio:  It is not the standard model. Here’s a lead character who actually needs to get something that is almost the opposite of what he would say that he wants.

Elliott:  I think it drives Jeffrey Katzenberg nuts that he actually has made an animated movie where a character starts off saying “I want this,” and in the end it doesn’t even matter. I think it just drives him crazy!

Why couldn’t Shrek be loved by a beautiful woman? Doesn’t the film inherently say “ugly people belong together?”

Reviving Ophelia, by Mary Pipher

Reviving Ophelia, by Mary Pipher

Elliott:  I had recently read a book called Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher, which is about the sociological pressures faced by teenage girls. It focuses a lot on expectations for appearance and behavior. That dovetails very well, I thought, with what was already in Shrek, which is about a character whose external appearance caused people to judge him in a certain way, which caused him to behave in a certain way that actually prevents him from getting what he genuinely needed in life.

Rossio:  There was about a six-month period where we had to fight for the notion of the shape-changing princess. Everybody thought “Oh, that’s too complex, you can’t do that.” I think that book helped give us faith that this was a legitimate and correct choice to make.

Elliott:  In the Shrek book, Shrek only finds the princess at the end of the story, and she is ugly, which works for a twenty-eight-page book. In the book, Shrek’s epiphany, his self-realization, comes in the form of a dream. Even then, he maintains in the dialogue that it was a terrible dream, but the illustration makes it clear that he is sad when the dream is over.

The métier of fairy tales is about how people should act and behave and even look. In our society, there is a built-in awareness of this—when Aladdin came out, there were comments like, “They’ve taken this Chinese fable and peopled with characters straight out of the San Fernando Valley.” So, all of those things came together and led to the aesthetic that formed Shrek.

Initially the whole idea of the shape-shifting princess was rejected on the basis that shape shifting doesn’t seem appropriate for fairy tales. And we said, “Wait, did you not see The Little Mermaid, did you not see Beauty and the Beast?”  The other thing we did in the screenplay was we described the princess’s other self as being “furry” or “hairy.” All we wanted was her “ugly self” to be uniquely ugly to her, to not be a female version of Shrek but to be a unique version of herself, as unique as her human appearance was.

Unfortunately that was not an argument that we won. The way we finally got people to stop objecting to the shape-shifting princess was a change in words. We realized that what we needed to do was to refer to her not as a shapeshifting princess, but as an “enchanted” princess. If we’d just done that in the first draft, I don’t know that we would have had any problems at all [Laughs].

Ariel in The Little Mermaid

Ariel in The Little Mermaid

Rossio:  Regarding the ending, what we did not want to convey was the notion that ugly people belong with ugly people. One thing that we explored was the idea that Fiona actually was somebody who, as her true self, was somebody who changed shapes. And the best moral to give would say that, “Even princesses who change their shapes can find love too.” And Shrek would love her in all of her varied forms. To me, that was the obvious right way to go, in terms of the message.

What’s amazing is that it’s one of those things that is fairly inarguable, and seems right. But there is some type of built-in resistance to the idea from “studio people.” They take up the mantle of trying to determine what people are going to be willing to understand and accept. Even if they get it, they think the audience won’t.

Elliott:  The question that’s naturally raised by the audience is, “Is her true form beautiful, or is her true form ugly?” And the answer we wanted to give was, “Her true form is beautiful by day, ugly by night.” That’s her true form, and she was trying to rid herself of part of who she truly was, because society maintained that was wrong.

One of the difficult things was figuring out how to dramatize that. There were explorations of that idea, but I think ultimately the group consensus was she should be ugly at the end—in which case, I still would argue that she should have been uniquely ugly. I believe they tried to find a character design that everybody could agree on, but unfortunately what I think happened was that you saw the actual prevalence of attitudes about appearance in society manifest themselves unconsciously in the story. How do you like that? [Laughs]

Rossio:  The resistance to that idea is fairly profound. It seemed like, in the sequel, that would be the natural next step to take; that maybe it was hard to dramatize in the first story, but the sequel would give ample opportunity to actually say, “Here’s what Fiona’s true nature is.” We tried again there, but nobody would have anything of it.

Elliott:  I think the idea that Fiona ends up as a female version of Shrek is a more conventional idea—”It’s not how you look, it’s who you are.” That to me is a great conventional message, but the reason that message comes through very loudly instead of “ugly people belong with ugly people” is because of the little throwaway moments between Donkey and dragon, where he kind of cuddles up to her. At that point, you have to say, “This is not about appearance whatsoever. Type does not attract type—that’s not what this story is about.”

Donkey and Dragon in Shrek

Donkey and Dragon in Shrek

The humor in Shrek is wide-ranging, but most of it seems to flow from the characters and plot rather than throwaway jokes. What comedic ground rules, if any, did you establish?

Elliott:  In my mind, the only rule was, “Any gag that violates the psychological underpinning has to go; other than that, the sky’s the limit.” I think Shrek is very funny, but there’s still that South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut pinnacle of a laugh every three seconds; you’re laughing so hard, you’re missing four more jokes.

We didn’t quite get there, but that was the goal for me—let’s make a rip-roaring funny movie. And this comes from the characters’ psychology. Even in scenes where they are arguing from their emotions, there is that opportunity for humor because of whose these characters are, and what this world they exist in is. We had always designed for that silent montage with the song as the moment to really put the screws on the audience emotionally.

One thing that I notice happens in a lot of animated movies…it even happened in Aladdin, is this idea that when you shift into the characters dealing with emotional issues, as opposed to plot issues, you lose the humor. It’s almost like you can only focus on one thing at a time. And yet, if you look at the great comic movies, that’s not the case. The emotion comes through because the humor is there, not because it’s absent.

I’ll give you the weirdest example. At the end of Ghostbusters, there’s a moment where they’re about to cross the streams and die. Dan Aykroyd looks over at Bill Murray and says, “Nice working with you, see you on the other side.” It’s perfectly in character, and it’s a funny line if you think about it. The moment is designed as a gag, and because it is in fact a joke, the emotion of that situation plays through very well. The characters didn’t have to stop being the characters to say those lines, and that was the goal with Shrek. We never wanted the Donkey to stop being Donkey simply because he had something to say that spoke to the heart of the character, the heart of the audience, the heart of the story.

Crossing the Steams in Ghostbusters

 

To take fairy tales and twist them around this way is quite amusing. This was not part of the original Shrek children’s book.

Elliott:  No, but it really goes back to William Steig’s decision to make an ogre the hero of this fairy tale. You’re taking this conventional concept and turning it on its ear. Everything grows from that idea. Early on, we decided we wanted other fairy tale characters to show up—Shrek lived not in “Shrek world,” but in a fairy tale world shared by other characters. Fairy godmothers, pied pipers, talking animals—and public domain characters, which are best known in their Disney versions [Laughs].

Rossio:  It is so important to choose as your arena something that has immense audience familiarity. So much of your work is done for you—you don’t have to provide both the context and then the punch line. I wouldn’t even want to try to write a comedy unless I felt like I was tapping into a lot of what the audience is familiar with.

As it turned out, one of the great things about Shrek was that the difficulty was to find something familiar and still fresh. What we found out was that audiences knew all this stuff already— they knew the fairy tale conventions and characters—but it really hadn’t ever been made fun of before.

From the time they’re two or three years old, kids are watching fairy tales. They know how the stories work. And they watch them over and over, because of how the stories work. So audiences go into a theater and all of sudden there are jokes being made about something they are intimately familiar with, and they’ve never been able to laugh at before. To find something like that is really rare.

Elliott:  If there’s anything that all ages are familiar with, it’s the stories they first heard as children. You can count on that. A forty-year-old knows 101 Dalmations or Peter Pan. So does a four-year-old. With Shrek, we didn’t have to explain to the audience that Shrek is an ogre, and an ogre is traditionally the villain. They already knew that; the audience brought that context with them. We didn’t have to explain why it’s funny for Peter Pan to be turning Tinkerbell in for a reward.

Terry and I always said the great thing about this was that we could do a movie that had almost all punch lines, and no setups, because the audience was supplying the setups for us, with that built-in familiarity. And it all goes back to that first image in William Steig’s book, when you realize, “I’m reading a fairy tale about an ogre.”

Peter Pan (1953)

Peter Pan (1953)

William Steig also didn’t take potshots at Disney. That’s also your handiwork, I assume.

Elliott:  I just want to point out that these kinds of jokes could be made in a Disney movie; in fact, they have been. If you remember, in The Lion King, the little bird starts singing “It’s a Small World,” and they say, “Shut up! That’s the most annoying song in the world!” In Shrek, we have this “It’s a Small World” type of song, and then Donkey says, “Let’s do that again,” and Shrek’s like, “No! Anything but that.”

What about the theme park jokes, like the turnstile and the velvet ropes?

Elliott:  Jeffrey was at first resistant to the flat-out anachronistic stuff, but once he came on board with it, he actually suggested the photo-op joke. That came from him, and that’s one of the funniest bits in the movie to me. It’s one of those things that’s incongruously congruous. It shouldn’t work, but it does.

But as for those scenes, I think people are looking at the narrative and judging intent. It is an amusement park, but we knew that people would assign it to Disneyland, and that’s what’s happened. But people have decided that the intent was to rip Disney—if we had wanted to rip Disney, the movie would have been way too mean and dark. I think it would have been distasteful.

These are jokes, but I think they’re very affectionate for the source material. I think people are ascribing Jeffrey Katzenberg’s relationship with Michael Eisner to what is going on in Shrek, and that’s unfair. In ten or twenty years, when that’s ancient history, those jokes will still be funny, and accepted in the spirit with which they were intended, not the spirit in which they’ve been interpreted.

Disneyland

Disneyland

Rossio:  One thing that never gets brought up, and I don’t know why not— there was a rather famous issue between DreamWorks and Disney where the term “midget” was used…

Mr. Eisner’s infamous reference to Mr. Katzenberg…

Rossio:  …And here we have a villain who’s actually short. I don’t know why that isn’t clearly interpreted as Katzenberg saying, “Hey, nobody’s safe here. We can make fun of everybody and anybody.” I haven’t seen that in print anywhere, and it seems so obvious.

Elliott:  All I can say is, Farquaad’s character was created as an antagonist to Shrek’s character. You have a misanthropic antihero with no regard for social niceties, so the best antagonist for that is the perfectionist who is all about appearance.

In dealing with some of the themes of prejudice, this is the one that seems obvious to me: Farquaad’s a self-hating dwarf! He is a fairy tale creature who is driving out fairy tale creatures. He is not acknowledging his own fairy-taleness. In my mind, that’s a more interesting aspect to Farquaad. People say, “Why is he short?” He’s short because he’s a fairy tale creature who thinks he’s Prince Charming, he thinks he’s the hero who looks like Tom Cruise. He’s not! [Laughs]

Lord Farquaad in Shrek

Lord Farquaad in Shrek

The theme of self-esteem, or lack thereof, applies to all the major characters.

Elliott:  Exactly. So you have a character who is insisting that his vision of perfection is correct, which ties in with what’s going on with Shrek, it ties in with what’s going on with Donkey and his self-esteem issues, and it ties in specifically with what’s going on with Fiona.

There are other kinds of jokes in the film, like the Matrix riff where Fiona fights the bandits. Won’t this make Shrek seem dated someday?

Elliott:  In our original draft, we wanted a fight between Shrek and Fiona in her monstrous form. Basically, Fiona’s hiding because it’s night and she’s become monstrous, and Shrek barges in on her. He sees this monster and assumes it has done something to Fiona; Fiona, not wanting to be found out, takes off; Shrek gives chase, and it results in a fight.

We had described it in terms of Hong Kong action movies, but unfortunately, at the time we wrote that, people weren’t familiar with those things. Matrix hadn’t come out yet, and nobody was familiar with the emphasis on action and physicality that Hong Kong action movies have, over the violence that American movies have. So no matter how much we described it, [the studio] saw “fight between Shrek and Fiona” and they imagined this violent, knock-down, Steven Segal-type, bone-cracking fight. There was a feeling, particularly by a couple of women on the production, that this was misogynistic, that you don’t show a man and a woman fighting. What then developed was that Shrek had a lot of admiration for Fiona’s monstrous side, which Fiona found appalling.

Rossio:  I think the Matrix joke will continue to be funny, because it’s actually a parody of the Matrix joke, not just an imitation. It actually has that little primping moment right in the middle of it.

Princess Fiona’s ‘Matrix’ fight scene in Shrek

 

Eddie Murphy’s Donkey is reminiscent of Robin Williams’s Genie in Aladdin, in that it feels as if much of his lines are improvised.

Rossio:  Yes, maybe if you actually counted up lines, you’d say seven to eight percent of the lines are improvised. Maybe they’re incredibly memorable, and they’re the funniest, but part of me wants to point out on behalf of the writers, producers, directors, storyboard artists, and animators, that it also means ninety-plus percent of the role wasn’t improvised. I want to say that improvisation is crucial to the process, but in the end, they walk in and they have character, they have a scene, they have a context, and they have jokes to work off of.

Elliott:  In creating the Shrek story, we actually intentionally created room for improvisation in the narrative—not just by Eddie Murphy, but by the storyboard artists.

I would love to be able to take credit for the idea of the fairy tale creatures showing up at Shrek’s swamp. Terry and I didn’t come up with that idea. In our original version, Shrek was actually burned out of his swamp, and then on the way, he runs into these fairy tale creatures. That restructuring of actually having the creatures show up in his swamp is absolutely brilliant and adds a huge amount to that movie. In the improvisation, the best possible version of the narrative has been found. I think that’s critical, at least in the process of writing for animated movies.

Eddie Murphy, voice of Donkey in Shrek

Eddie Murphy, the voice of Donkey in Shrek

Why aren’t you writing Shrek 2?

Rossio:  I don’t think we’ll be working on the sequel in anything other than a consulting capacity. Many great Shrek sequels can be made. We felt that all of the good versions had a similar quality, which is that you’d always begin with the fairy tale conventions, and out of those conventions you’d tell a dramatic and funny story. And the story that was chosen was actually one that does not deal with fairy tale conventions. As long as that fundamental choice is in place, it precludes it from reaching the level of the prior movie…

I don’t want to be immodest, but I think what Shrek became is something that Ted and I were championing, in that it was an opportunity to do a comic fantasy type of story that had been going on in novels for a long time, but hadn’t really been done in movies.

Elliott:  The Princess Bride was the only thing that came close to it… Here’s my turn to be immodest. I read through the book, and I immediately saw not the potential of what the movie could be, but what the book was really about and how perfect its form was. It really is a perfect little book in terms of story, because the subtext is perfectly suited to the subject matter of the story. It is just a perfect story.

What I realized was that everybody who had looked at the book previously seemed to be focusing on the text only, which was the story of this ogre who has to leave home and finds out there’s a person and a place for everybody. That’s the text of the story, but there is this marvelous subtext about recognizing what you need and making the changes necessary to get what you need. It was clearly written by somebody who was very familiar with Jungian fairy tale symbolism. It just clicked for me, in a way that I don’t think it did for everybody else.

Rossio:  Even the screenwriting teacher Michael Hauge, who did an analysis of the film, said the same thing. He read the book and didn’t see anything there at all. And then we started talking with him about it, and he said, “I can’t believe I missed it.”

The other thing that was key about the genesis of Shrek is that the book came along at a time when it had a context. The context was that the creators—the artists, the animators, and certainly the writers— were getting a little tired of the previous formulas. One of the things that Ted pointed out in the early going was that this was a story that stars an ogre, and an ogre is a traditional villain. Once you say that, you know we’re not going to use the usual formulas here.

That was a key aspect, and that’s what got the animators, the storyboard artists interested. That’s the potential that we saw at the beginning.

This interview first appeared in Creative Screenwriting volume 8, #3 in 2001.

 

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Before You Go

Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Don’t miss the second part of this series, check out Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio on Pirates of the Caribbean.

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