Toy Story 3: An Interview With Screenwriter Michael Arndt

Michael Arndt has related his ascendency in Hollywood to dreaming about “batting leadoff for the New York Yankees,” then it actually happening.

The screenwriter, who once worked as an assistant for actor Matthew Broderick, has an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Little Miss Sunshine, a small film he toiled years on, and once considered directing himself on digital video. But beyond the quirky 2006 road comedy that garnered four Oscar nominations and the Best Supporting Actor prize for Alan Arkin, Arndt now also has Toy Story 3 to his credit. While Pixar head John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and director Lee Unkrich are credited with the story, it was Arndt that penned the final draft and put all the ideas together. The third outing in the successful Pixar franchise has been gangbusters since it was released this past summer: high praise, over $400 million at the American box-office, and talk of forthcoming Oscar nominations. And let’s not forget its perennial success on DVD and Blu-ray.

Presented in theaters in 3-D (but not on DVD or Blu-ray–yet), Toy Story 3 finds the protagonist playthings’ owner Andy now of college age, with the intent of taking beloved cowboy figure Woody (Tom Hanks) to the dorm and consigning Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and the rest of the company to the attic. Through a plot twist or two, all the toys end up at a day care center, which appears at first to be the perfect place for them. But when the younger toddlers in the center abuse them, the place appears more like a prison, prompting the crew to join with some new toy pals and try to escape from what turns out to be a kiddie hellhole.

Arndt recently fielded questions pitched by Movie FanFare about his screenwriting career, his work on Little Miss Sunshine and with Pixar, and made us realize Hollywood success doesn’t always come as easy as it may seem from afar.

MFF: Pixar seems to be a company that thrives on collaboration, but with a definite idea of what their films should be like. Were you given lots of restrictions when scripting Toy Story 3?

MA: This was, to me, the most amazing thing about working on Toy Story 3.  We weren’t given any restrictions! Obviously, we were working on a family film, so we were aiming for something that would appeal to everyone. But beyond those general expectations, we were never given any directions or restrictions—just make a great movie.  I remember spending six months with director Lee Unkrich and Jason Katz, head of the story department, after we had spent months on our own, hammering out the bare bones of the film’s story. And I looked around and thought, ‘Shouldn’t there be a vice president or manufacturer or producer here telling us what to do?’  There was never any of that. We were encouraged to let our imaginations run wild. And I hope the film reflects that.

MFF: Did you come on board with the film from the get-go, or did they bring you later in on the process?

MA: I was completely involved with Toy Story 3 for the entire three years. Once the script was finished, it took another year to film. So I never felt shut out of the creative process of making the film, which is something that can happen to writers on a live-action film.

MFF: Do you consider yourself a big animation fan? We understand you went to NYU for filmmaking. And what is your favorite animated film?

MA: I’ve always been a fan of animation, and took some classes at NYU (on animation). And I made a couple of animated films, but I never thought I’d be working in it professionally. It’s hard to name a favorite, but Isao Takahata’s My Neighbors The Yamadas. Seeing that film in 2000 prompted me to write Little Miss Sunshine after years and years of delay. So I have a special fondness for that film, especially the Japanese language version. One of my favorite films is Ozu’s Late Spring. It represents film as art.

(NOTE: The 1999 film My Neighbors The Yamadas, from the director of The Grave of the Fireflies, looks at the anecdotal comedic exploits of a Japanese family; Late Spring. Yasujiro Ozu’s 1949 drama, centers on a 27-year old woman who rejects relatives’ attempts to get her married as she cares for her ill father.)

MFF: Are you looking to mix screenwriting for animated movies with live-action movies?

MA: I look forward to having any career at all. I would love to remain a part of the Pixar family for as long as they would have me. But I do want to make a variety of live-action films.

MFF: How did you first get involved with Pixar?

MA: They approached me back in 2005. Pixar was looking for a writer to work with Lee Unkrich on an original idea he was planning to direct. One of the development people at Pixar, Mary Coleman, bumped into Little Miss Sunshine producer Ron Yerxa at the Sundance Film Festival and asked if she knew any decent writers, and he recommended me. So I was at Pixar when Little Miss Sunshine was in the editing room. It’s a testament to Pixar that they were willing to hire an untested writer and trust him with one of their biggest movies.

MFF: Was there ever a time, while Toy Story 3 was being made, where you weren’t involved in the writing process?

MA: I worked on every draft of the script, of which there are dozens. But it was a deeply cooperative effort, with Lee guiding the process every step of the way. John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton kept us on course while the whole team of story artists offered up jokes and ideas.

MFF: Did you find yourself dealing with pressure in delivering a sequel to two of the most successful films ever made?

MA:  It was basically more pressure than I’ve ever felt—or that I imagined I’ve ever felt—in my entire writing life. There were never any moments of panic and despair—I really, really, really didn’t want to let anyone down. So the pressure was pretty agonizing for the entire four years during the making of the movie.

MFF: Did you get any input from children while working on the film?

MA: We did a test screening of the film nine months before it was released in front of a recruited audience of young children. I was afraid the film was a little too dark for a family audience. But all the kids who saw it really liked it, so we didn’t make any changes based on that screening. But it’s always smart to try to see the film through the eyes of people of all ages, just to make sure you are not missing something.

MFF: When you work on a screenplay, do you have any unusual rituals?

MA:  I like to start every screenplay with a burst of self-delusional self-confidence. It tends to fade pretty quickly, but for me at least there doesn’t seem to be any other way to write a script.

MFF: Do you work on different screenplays at the same time?

MA: I can write two concurrently. But I prefer to do one at a time. However, I have five or six story ideas percolating in my head at one time, so it can get crowded in there.

MFF: Anything about the whole Little Miss Sunshine experience that caught you off-guard? We know the film took a while to get off the ground.

MA: I was endlessly surprised…that I was able to sell it…that it got made…that it got picked up by a distributor…that audiences embraced it. I always thought it was a very small, very personal screenplay, so the fact it went anywhere was surprising to me.

MFF: Any words to aspiring screenwriters out there?

MA: You have to draw on everything you have as a person. That’s less about specific moments and experiences and more about remembering specific feelings, especially the things that seem private and particular.  But my experience is that the more you can be truthful about those memories and feelings, the more people will respond to them. The best writing really does come from the deepest, most private part of you.