“What Is Truth?” Screenwriters Karey Kirkpatrick & Clare Sera Discuss ‘Smallfoot,’ Starring Channing Tatum & James Corden
The Warner Brothers animation project now known as Smallfoot had been in development for three years when Karey Kirkpatrick and Clare Sera came on board. The original idea came from a pitch book known as “Yeti Tracks,” written by Sergio Pablos which was inspired by Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner… When people ask, “What’s Smallfoot?,” the screenwriters like to say, “Oh, it’s Bigfoot in reverse.”
According to IMDb, the official description reads, “A Yeti is convinced that the elusive creatures known as ‘humans’ really do exist.” For projects like this, which often last for years, it can get a little fuzzy as to who should be listed as the story creator, screenwriter, and so on. In the end, however, the official “screenplay by” credits fell on Kirkpatrick (James and the Giant Peach, Chicken Run, The Hitchhiker’s Guide) and Sera (Blended).
“John Requa and Glenn Ficarra brought the project to the studio six or seven years ago,” said Kirkpatrick, who is also the film’s director. He also wrote and performed on a few musical numbers, making him a truly artistic hyphenate. At the time, various screenwriters and directors were in charge of upcoming studio projects. “They all had projects that they were championing early on. John and Glenn were originally working with Sergio, who has an animation studio in Spain,” added Kirkpatrick. “But that locational prudence proved to be challenging, so they amicablydecided not to do the project through Sergio’s studio .”
Back in Burbank, John and Glenn started to work on Smallfoot, but various credited and uncredited writers worked on the project over the years. “This happens a lot,” said Kirkpatrick. “I wrote a draft of Kung Fu Panda long ago.” Thanks to a shift in studio heads, Kirkpatrick was also asked to direct the film.
Relevance In Animation Storylines
With so many irons in the screenwriters’ fire, it’s curious how Smallfoot came to be at this point and time. According to Kirkpatrick, the story became more and more relevant in regards to the current political climate of the country. “It became very relevant as we were writing it, just because a lot of things happened in the world such as the search for truth,” he mused.
Sera added, “I would definitely say that the current culture helped us define our theme. We were probably headed there, but the events of the world definitely helped us hone in on what we wanted to say.”
“The idea of truth became a topic of conversation,” said Kirkpatrick. “What is truth? It’s still happening today. It’s not just in the United States. It’s things we were looking at around the world. Information and misinformation is readily available and spreading more rapidly, but ‘what is true’ and the ‘importance of truth’ became something we were all talking about.”
“I think the culture lends itself to pockets of communities that just tell each other what they want to hear. Our community in the film is definitely a small pocket that gets all of its news from one source,” reinforced Sera. “There’s no arguing. There’s no debate or relevant discussion on what may or may not be true.”
The Tyranny Of Storytelling
“Smallfoot is dealing with a village that has a set of unquestioned rules that are written in stone,” said Kirkpatrick. “They’re literally written in stone. Their leader wears a robe of stones that have all the rules of their world written on them. And, you don’t question the stones because all of the stones are true.”
One of the stones read, “There is no such thing as a smallfoot.” “In the story, you find out why there is this elaborate set of rules that informs their society.”
A writer friend of Kirkpatrick’s advised him to listen to a BBC Radio program known as “The Tyranny of Story,” which ironically relates to the animated film. The program dissected how story has been used to set up social structure. “America is a powerful story. Our founding fathers were very much aware what the story was. It’s a story that travels around the world and how the story of America goes around in a positive way, but also how creating myths—as a controlling device—is also a very powerful tool. That’s what we ended up exploring.”
According to the writer-director, Smallfoot is about “the truth as we make it up to be.” All of the characters in the Yeti village are naïve enough to unquestionably accept these rules. The screenwriters also quip that the Yeti village is about 1,000 years behind in terms of their evolutionary track.
As such, the writers decided to poke fun at creation myths from various cultures. Some examples include the world spinning on the back of a turtle (or the backs of a giant elephant) to create the rules of the Yeti world. Those myths and current trends made the movie feel both topical (as a miscommunication between two worlds) and classic, while still existing “with Looney Tunes-style humor.”
“The other thing Smallfoot ended up being about is ‘fear of the other’ and ‘the other encroaching and being a danger to your world.’ We’re not just getting political in terms of American politics. Everywhere you go, protecting your borders seems to be a super hot topic right now,” added the director. “We think they’re monsters. They think we’re monsters. How are we going to get past that?”
Sera elaborates “If you have a closed community that is just telling itself the same story over and over about what is truth, then anything on the outside will be viewed as a threat. Both groups are keeping these small truths inaccessible. We can’t challenge these truths, so anything on the outside that should be looked at as an adventure is looked at as a threat.”
The Animation-Writing Collaboration
Karey Kirkpatrick and Clare Sera originally met in the SAK Theatre trope in Orlando, Florida, back in 1988. By 1995, both of the creatives lived in California where they eventually sold a pilot to ABC. The series was meant to be an improv show, but it didn’t get picked up. This is when Sera decided to write, not act.
“I hate writing alone,” said Kirkpatrick. “We actually met each other because I got a string of assignments that needed quick rewriters. Clare was looking to learn more about screenwriting and so was Chris Poche (Over the Hedge, Flakes). Basically, I paid Chris and Clare to sit in a room with me so I had a sounding board.”
Sera and Poche got to see how the writing process worked in terms of paid assignments and Kirkpatrick got a much-needed sounding board. “They would be someone I could bounce ideas off and read pages I was writing, because I was doing production rewrites and things that needed a quick turnaround. I didn’t have the luxury of getting stuck with writer’s block.”
The accountability of having two people waiting in an office made Kirkpatrick show up and get the work done in a timely manner. “The offer I made in turn was, when an opportunity presents itself, I would pay it forward as a writer. I got offered Curious George and I asked the studio, ‘Why don’t you meet Clare and why don’t Clare and I do this together?’”
“Having Karey hire me to talk through his projects for a couple of years was like going to college for screenwriting—and getting paid instead of paying,” joked Sera. “It was amazing and very generous. After Curious George, I met Ivan Menchell (The Nanny, Blended), and we went on to write together for eight years.”
Eventually, Menchell went off to write Broadway musicals, which led Sera back to working with Kirkpatrick on Smallfoot. Meanwhile, Poche also left the project to go make an Indie film. Poche also worked on The Spiderwick Chronicles and Charlotte’s Web (2006) with Kirkpatrick.
Comedy In Context Of Character
As for novice screenwriters who would like to get in the room with a writing veteran, Kirkpatrick advises for people to be funny and smart. In certain situations, he looked for smart female writers to avoid any bad habits and traps. In the past, he’s also looked for individuals who had “smart ideas about character,” rather than an animation writing background. As always, character comes first.
“When you’re looking for somebody to come in on animation, it’s somebody who can dive into the process and be super collaborative and not precious about every word. You have to embrace how much you’re going to do that gets thrown out, along with these little gems that pop up and know that that’s being useful.”
“Animation is always going to need a comic voice,” said Sera, “but it’s not funny if it’s not in context of character. Animation is always about heart.” In addition, the writing duo commented how many would-be writers don’t understand what it really takes to get a movie or TV project made. “Cracking story is one of the most difficult things there is to do,” said the director. “It’s demoralizing.”
“Everyone I meet has, what they think, is a good idea for a movie. Oftentimes, a lot of people I meet think that I am someone who doesn’t have any ideas for a movie and am waiting for people like them to give me their idea that I will execute and they will get credit for it. What, I think, people don’t understand is, that it’s the execution of the idea, which is where all the work comes in,” joked Kirkpatrick.
He added, “There’s a part of me that enjoys working out the story puzzle. I know the best version of it is in there. I sort of live by that Dorothy Parker quote, ‘I hate writing, but I love having written.’ It’s more like, I hate how I am going to feel when I’m not cracking it,” he said about breaking a story.
“I love the satisfaction of, ‘We wrestled with that and now it works.’ Some work to better degrees than others, but there are so many times when every instinct is telling you to quit. When you don’t quit and you tackle it, it’s immensely satisfying. It’s a powerful, warm, fuzzy thing to see something that came out of your head impact others.”
“I love the humanity of writing,” added Sera. “Especially if it’s screened in an actual movie theater. We all go into a dark room and watch the flickering images and then we all laugh at the same things, cry at the same moments, and we all come out talking about this character or that theme. It’s such a shared humanity.”
Rewrite After Rewrite After Rewrite Of Smallfoot
“Screenwriting and animation are done hand in hand with a lot of storyboard artists. By the time I came onboard, there was a staff of storyboard artists that basically needed pages to storyboard. It was never a situation of, ‘You guys sit tight. We’re going to go off and write a draft,’” joked Kirkpatrick. “You’re laying track with the train coming right behind you.”
“In animation, you find the story through the story reel. You’re kind of working hand-in-hand with the story department. That’s the blessing and the curse of the animation department. But, they’re storyboarding it and you get to watch a version of the movie in black-and-white pencil sketch with your dialogue being said.”
Over the years, Kirkpatrick and Sera sat through six formal screening and countless informal screenings with the film’s animators. The challenge here was also remembering things that might have gotten lost from reel to reel. Kirkpatrick was in charge of keeping up with the big picture for Smallfoot.
In terms of making final creative decisions, Kirkpatrick suggested that any writers on his staff should use “subtle mind manipulation” if a debate should arise. As for the script, however, Kirkpatrick alleged that his team was not precious about every word. They actually encouraged improv from their actors where the best joke won. “I trust what bubbles up in the moment,” said the writer-director.
The duo confirmed that approximately half of the lines of dialogue bubbled up in the studio, rather than from the writing process. Sera said the energy of a comedy made improv important for the story. Instead of over-focusing on dialogue, the writers focused on tone and the movie’s big picture.
Kirkpatrick also said it was important to be the “guardian of the macro story.” Storyboard artists often work on one sequence, so they may not have the big picture in mind. Therefore, one storyboader may be working on a Looney Tunes version while another is slightly more serious. Kirkpatrick’s encouragement-based model, however, was, “You make me tell you that you went too far.”
“You’re always going, ‘Is that our movie?’ This may sound cheesy, but if you listen to the movie, it tells you what belongs,” he concluded. “Audiences are amazingly forgiving if you don’t abuse the privilege of the plausible impossibility. Pick a tone and some rules that you’re consistent with and they’ll buy it. Especially, if it’s fun. Comedy trumps everything,” added the writer-director. “If it’s a well-earned laugh, you can get away with a lot.”
In a last piece of advice for would-be screenwriters, Kirkpatrick counseled, “There will be many people who put obstacles in your way. Don’t you be one of them…”
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