“When it’s time to be funny, you have to be funny.” Kung Fu Panda 3
Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger discuss what television taught them about character-based stories, the most difficult step in the writing process, and how to write for a panda.
By Brock Swinson.
Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger are the minds behind the hit animated trilogy, Kung Fu Panda. With a cast including Jack Black, Bryan Cranston, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, J.K. Simmons, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, Kate Hudson and many more, the series has become a staple of the family films genre.
In the third installment, Po must face two epic threats: one supernatural and one that deals with his long-lost family and a kingdom of pandas. Underneath the colorful animations and intense fight scenes, the heart of the film deals with some tough issues, touching on feelings of exclusion, loss, and even what it’s like when someone new enters the family.
What led you into screenwriting and what sparked this ongoing partnership?
Glenn Berger: We were actually led into screenwriting because we both hated the same job. We met at a management-consulting firm in Boston right out of college. On day one, I knew it was not for me. On day two, I met Jon.
Jonathan Aibel: At the consulting firm, we didn’t know there were magazines like Creative Screenwriting. So, to us, there wasn’t really anything out there to tell you how to become a screenwriter or letting you know that you could become a screenwriter.
We stumbled upon a spec script on a co-worker’s desk that his friend from college had written. We didn’t even know what a spec script was, so he explained that it was a sample script from a show on the air that no one had paid for but could be written as a sample if you were trying to get hired. It was just basic stuff, but we didn’t know anything.
It definitely sounded better than what we were doing at the time, so we started writing nights and weekends, eventually sending out stuff out to LA and then when we got enough encouragement, we followed the cliché, packed up a U-Haul, and headed to LA—
Glenn: You skipped the part where you crashed the U-Haul into a parked car in the first five minutes of the drive.
Jonathan: Is there not a statute of limitations on that?
Glenn: Probably—it was my parked car and I forgave him.
When I heard you say that, it only occurs to me now how crazy it was that there was a Seinfeld spec on the desk of a management consultant at all. The guy who wrote that spec ended up on Seinfeld a few years later. How many Seinfeld specs do you see and how many of them actually got to write on Seinfeld? It was crazy.
That was Andy Robin (Bee Movie, SNL) by the way, who has no idea that he was the cause of all this.
You got your start in television. Can you elaborate on your beginnings and the transition into film?
Glenn: We got really lucky. I’ll skip the first couple of years of being on not-so-great shows that didn’t last very long. But, that’s what the big break really is—you realize your big break is just a series of tiny little breaks. So one of those bad jobs led us to a writing team that gave us the best advice we have ever gotten: most jobs are terrible; most TV shows get canceled; so if you ever find yourself on a TV show that is both good and commercially successful, stay there as long as you can because they are very rare.
There is a temptation to leave. We knew people on the first two seasons of Friends and they decided to parlay that into a development deal, or they had ambition to write pilots, and we’ve seen that go horribly wrong. It could go horribly right, but the odds are against you.
So when we were given the opportunity to work on King of the Hill, we stayed on from the pilot to season six. We would have stayed forever, but we both apparently had the same night off from work and ended up having children the same year. Having babies and working in TV do not mix. Working on King of the Hill, there were constant all-nighters and that’s fun in college or when you’re in your twenties, but after we had kids, we decided to start working on films.
We spent six years doing three-act structure with no laugh tracks, which meant we were honestly more prepared to write films than the sitcoms of that era. Television comedy was not Modern Family like it is today. It was multi-camera laugh track, which we were not prepared for or creatively interested in writing, so we started to make that transition.
Jonathan: When we first started out, the idea behind sitcoms were that there was a staff and it’s only forty-five pages so it was very manageable and formulaic in a way. There is a certain genre. There is a certain structure of the piece. I think it was a great way for us to learn by doing. We learned story structure and scene structure. We learned how to write jokes.
Glenn: We also learned collaboration and how to re-write—two things in short enough supply that when we have movie work, we are sometimes referred to as relentless. I think he meant that in a good way.
But essentially, we work by the TV mindset, where everything can be better. Keep rewriting. The jokes can be better. The story can be clearer. We don’t care where the idea comes from, but the best idea wins.
That’s all stuff we learned on King of the Hill and I’m eternally grateful to have that kind of experience early in our careers.
Jonathan: Ultimately, King of the Hill taught us how to tell character-based stories with deeper emotion—something better expressed in features. The fact that we ended up in animated features is more of a fluke than an intention.
We had been doing re-writes so there were things getting made, but they didn’t necessary have our names on them. Then there were other things that we were very proud of, but for one reason or another, we couldn’t get the green light. Then we got the chance to work on Kung Fu Panda and it had a release date with Jack Black attached and a great crew behind it. We signed on and that was two-year process and we’re still at it.
Jack Black’s character Po is somewhat of an Everyman who must rise to the occasion. How do you go about writing such an affectionate character?
Glenn: Whenever we do interviews in China, we are always asked, “How do you write for a panda?” We’ve never thought of him as a panda. He is Jack Black. He is this extremely wonderful combination of charming and vulnerable. That’s the key.
You find a relatable human aspect of the character and that’s the real gift. Jack brought so much of himself. He’s not in the greatest physical condition, but he always surprises me with how high he can kick or how high he can jump. He’s not the usual guy when you think of movie star / Grammy-winning musician, but his sheer passion and joy has made him a success in film and music.
That’s one side of Po—it’s this “I have a dream” mentality. Then the other half of that is just because Jack has succeeded, doesn’t mean that’s he’s not a human with vulnerabilities, fears or insecurities. That’s the other side of Po.
So once he gets past that first movie and succeed beyond his wildest dreams, how do you keep that character in a sense to justify more than one movie? It’s that heart. It’s those insecurities and vulnerabilities. That’s true in any of us. No amount of fame or money or dragon scrolls can change that.
Jonathan: I have nothing else to add to that.
Glenn: A lot of interviews on writing partnerships will say, “They finish each other’s sentences.” I want ours to say, “Jon and Glenn stop each other’s sentences.”
There are a lot of Eastern philosophies in these films. Can you elaborate on the research involved?
Glenn: A lot of yoga classes.
Jonathan: I wish we could say we went deep into the literature and all of that, but a lot of it does come from yoga class, coffee mugs, and the Internet. Glenn was an East Asian Studies major so he actually does have an academic background. The rest is just stuff we bring into it and we pull from everywhere.
Glenn: There are some great lines in the first two movies. One of them, which is about the history/mystery (“Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the present”) Jon got that from a yoga class, which is awesome.
Like I said earlier, who cares where the great material comes from? You have to recognize it and remember that it was good and use it.
I am proud to say that a lot of the Oogway stuff in this third movie comes from things that we thought of instead of found. I wonder if that’s just the nature of having done these kinds of movies for ten years now. Maybe that has helped us internalize some of these Eastern philosophies so we can actually manufacture some of that wisdom.
Jonathan: Or, you could say that Oogway represents the best part of all of us—knowing how to remain calm and or knowing exactly what to say in certain situations.
Glenn: Even if it takes us four years to come up with something. Unlike Mrs. Ping, the Jewish mother, where those lines come way too easy for us: the two Jewish boys from the East Coast.
You guys have mentioned yoga. Do you have any rituals to your writings or meditations to start the day?
Jonathan: I do need to be clear. That may have been the last time I went to a yoga class.
Glenn: Well, you clearly got what you needed out of it.
Jonathan: That yoga class was fifteen years ago…Basically, in terms of writing rituals, we just sit down and start writing. We don’t really have any rituals. We don’t need to be facing a certain way or working in a certain room. One of us could be in a coffee shop and the other could be on a plane.
Glenn: Solo writers have certain rituals to put them in that state of mind. One could argue that talking to each other is that thing for us. We live in different cities now so our work experience is largely over Skype without video, and I don’t see Jon as much but I think hearing his voice is signifies that the workday has started.
JA: When we first moved out here, we might have an idea at ten at night and we’d work all night. Now, it’s more like we know that we have certain hours and we must work the hours we’re meant to work.
Sitcoms train you with that. When it’s time to write, you have to write. When it’s time to be funny, you have to be funny regardless of what’s happening in your day or your life.
Can you elaborate a little more on the logistics? Now that you’re in two different areas, are there certain types of software you use or any other additional details you could add on long-distance writing with a partner?
Glenn: I’m going to nerd-out a little bit here. We’ve been in a writing partnership our entire career and for the first chunk of it, we were right across the desk from one another. We would alternate who sat at the keyboard one at a time. Sometimes we would alternate everyday, but now we usually alternate by project. We did use something on Final Draft Pro called CollaboWriter but it never really worked.
Then, I found this product called WriterDuet, which was designed to help writers collaborate seamlessly. We’ve used Final Draft for everything we’ve ever done, but during this down time after Kung Fu Panda 3, while things aren’t so busy, I’ve been researching new writing software and this may be the next big thing for our partnership.
To answer your real question though, we also write every scene together—from an outline to the first draft. We’ll divide that in half so neither one of us has to look at the blank page of a whole script. Basically, we take two days and write out a 15-page outline and then turn that into a really, really rough draft. From then on out, we view and go over every page together. We have friends who write as teams and split up scenes and then swap pages, but that’s never worked out for us.
Jonathan: Facing the blank screen is the challenge. Spend the time, getting down and dirty to get a really rough, awful scene written. As long as people are entering and exiting and the right characters are in it, then you can trick yourself to think you’re just doing a re-write the next time that just needs to get a little better. Get it down and then take the time to work through it.
What do you find to be the most difficult step in the writing process?
Glenn: The interviews at the end. No, I’m kidding.
I think as Jon put it, it’s probably a toss up between the blank page and the one-thousandth time we’re writing the same joke over a four-year span. We hope to be relentless but there comes a time when you’ve lost track of how many times you’ve written a given scene. You start to wonder if the best version of that scene was 83 drafts ago or a year and a half ago. Keeping that enthusiasm alive over the many years these movies take is a challenge.
Jonathan: Scripts are long. They take a long time to write. It’s hard to think about writing 110 pages when you’re first starting. It’s just a matter of doing your beat everyday. Doing your part.
We could argue every day about a scene and debate it, but then we realized it was better to just put down a couple of lines and think, “We could do this or we could do this.” Then, when we got back to that scene two weeks later or even two months later, that problem had usually solved itself.
Either the answer is obvious or you can’t even remember whose idea was which or we switch and argue the opposite side. Either way, it’s important to keep the process moving forward so you can come back later with a clear eye to iron it out.
When you began the original Kung Fu Panda, did you ever consider a trilogy?
Glenn: We know that Jeffrey Katzenberg (producer) has expressed ideas that there may be six of them. That’s been quoted in the press, but there’s never been anything specific. It takes so much time and energy just to do one of these and you’d never want to presume that it would be a success to the extent that you would get to do a sequel. You hope or you dream as much—
Jonathan: I don’t think we’ve ever been on a movie where someone hasn’t mentioned the possibility of there being a sequel. That’s the way the system is right now. That’s the business.
Glenn: If you have a good main character with human dimensions, then there could always be other stories to tell. We may not have had that idea while working on the first one, but when pressed to come up with an idea, it wasn’t that much of a reach for Po to have to deal with something new and exciting.
Is there anything else you wish you would have known—prior to Kung Fu Panda or even King of the Hill—or other advice that you would like to pass on to upcoming writers?
Glenn: Just what we mentioned earlier about staying on a good show if you get the chance. Then there’s that other agent’s line, “You can have good material; you can work with good people; or you can make lots of money; choose two at most.” Really you’re lucky to get one of those, let alone two. Never expect three. It’s worth a pay cut to work on good material. You need extra money to work with jerks. Or, the material is horrible. That’s my grizzled, cynical advice.
Jonathan: We’ve met many aspiring writers who don’t really like to write. It’s a very difficult profession for people who don’t like to write. You have to want to sit down to write jokes or to write scripts—part of that is just having the ability to sit down day in and day out and actually do it.
The other is willing to hear people’s opinions of your work. You have to convince yourself that it’s great just to get through the writing of it, but ultimately, anything can be better. Then you have to turn it in for notes and you have to honestly accept that criticism and then try to make your material better.
Glenn: We were very fortunate when we first started. A lot of great people gave us a lot of help. We’ve always tried to pay it forward. If we meet a writer at a film festival and they send us something, we always try to read it. But, on the flip side of that, when you have a working writer or an agent reading your work, make sure what you’re sending is as good as it can be.
Secondly, when I give notes to the aspiring writer, that’s part of the audition as well. One time, a writer sent me something and the script was good, but it was 170 pages long. I gave him one note: “It can only be 120 pages, max. That’s it. Figure out how to make that happen.”
Three weeks later, he sent it back to me and he had completely reworked the script. No ego. He accepted the fact that there are very few 170-page scripts that ever get made. So when the script came in shorter and better, I called up my agent and told him to sign the guy because not only was the writing great, but he didn’t have any ego so you could send him out on meetings without worrying about being embarrassed. There’s the art side but then there’s also the business side. “Are you going to be a pleasure to work with?” You have to be the kind of person that people aren’t going to get tired of working beside for years to come.
Are there any cinematic influences relevant to the world of Kung Fu Panda?
Jonathan: Tonally, we were all blown away by Kung Fu Hustle. It was comedically out there in terms of tone but it wasn’t a parody. That was the most important thing in the beginning was trying to figure out if we were making a parody or if we were making a real Kung Fu movie with comedy and following that tradition. We watched tons of Kung Fu movies, like Crouching Tiger, House of Flying Daggers, and the Tony Jaa stuff like Ong-bak.
Glenn: The Legend of Drunken Master. That’s a great example of how you can be funny with great action sequences. In the Kung Fu Panda movies, it needs to be somewhat realistic but also entertaining. Jackie Chan is brilliant. It’s a delicate balance. He clearly knows how to fight, but he also knows how to get a laugh. Getting to actually work with the guy in the movies was amazing.
I love that he’s in the movies.
Glenn: He actually plays the voice of Po’s father in the Mandarin version of the movie (voiced by Bryan Cranston in English).
Are you familiar with Eric Weinstein and his theory on Kung Fu Panda from the Tim Ferriss podcast? He’s a mathematician and economist known for his work with Peter Thiel, but he really resonated with the first film.
Glenn: Yes! I’ve actually become friends with him. I heard the podcast while driving to Oakland airport. I don’t do any social media. I’m an electronic hermit, but on the plane, I joined Twitter to say “Hi” to him and thank him.
What an amazing and thoughtful analysis. Since then, we’ve actually hung out. His version of the first movie is smarter than what we wrote and I wish we could take credit for it, but we can’t. So, God knows, if there’s going to be a fourth movie, we’ll be checking in with him before we write it.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about the film or any upcoming projects you have in the works?
GB: Trolls. It’s with a friend of ours that we’ve worked with through the years. Jon mentioned a lot of projects that we had worked on but didn’t get made. For a lot of those projects, there was a guy named Mike Mitchell (Deuce Bigalow, Shrek Forever After) and we’ve reunited at Dreamworks now to work on a movie Trolls, based on those Troll dolls from the 1950s and 1960s.
It’s a musical with Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake. We are really excited about it. And, we’ve always thought of Trolls as a 15-part movie franchise…
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