Kung Fu Panda 2 Writers on Future Sequels, and Their Pixar Rivals
What does Kung Fu Panda 2 have to do with King of the Hill, Midnight Run, and Animal House? Ask screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, who co-scripted and co-produced the Oscar-nominated 2008 global hit Kung Fu Panda and its sequel, in theaters this weekend. After working their way up the ranks with TV comedy gigs, the duo has emerged one of DreamWorks Animation's strongest writing teams -- and to think, it all started with a stuffy office job in Boston...
"It was a once in a lifetime opportunity... that we only wanted to do once," cracked Aibel of the post-college consulting firm job that first brought the pair together. Taking a chance on their big Hollywood dream, Aibel and Berger ditched the gig to move to Los Angeles -- their first credit was writing for The George Carlin Show in 1994 -- and, 17 years later, that decision has paid off in spades: their first three feature films (Kung Fu Panda, Monsters Vs. Aliens, and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel) have grossed over $1.4 billion worldwide combined.
Movieline spoke with the scripting duo about their writing philosophies and influences, the future of the Kung Fu Panda franchise, their upcoming Candyland adaptation, and lessons learned from some of their favorite comedy films and credits. Most importantly, the writers set the record straight about the DreamWorks vs. Pixar rivalry and shared their friendly advice for youngsters hankering to see The Hangover Part II in theaters this weekend.
You two have worked together ever since your first screenwriting credit on The George Carlin show. Take me back to the beginning of this partnership.
Glenn Berger: Our writing partnership actually started in Boston at a management consulting firm. We had graduated college and both of us got what objectively was an amazing job at a management consulting firm.
Jonathan Aibel: It was a once in a lifetime opportunity... that we only wanted to do once. [Laughs]
Berger: It was nice -- a bunch of really smart people doing interesting stuff in business, which would be great if it had turned out we really wanted to be businessmen. We were wearing suits every day and carrying briefcases, and it's ridiculous to look back at the two of us doing that at 21 years old. We very quickly realized it was not going to be it for either one of us, and we were the two funny people in an otherwise not funny place, and we decided, without realizing that it was a huge cliché, to move to L.A. and try to be T.V. writers. We got a job fairly quickly at MTV, which led to a job at Nickelodeon, which led to the George Carlin sitcom job, which led to a staff job at another sitcom. Really, for us it was a series of little breaks. But it all came together for us when we got the job on the first episode of King of the Hill, with Greg Daniels and Mike Judge, and we spent six seasons there, ultimately showrunning it. And that was an amazing learning experience.
Do you see a throughline between that early work and your film writing work?
Berger: We keep giving Greg Daniels credit for this and he's never called us to thank us for giving credit, but it was his emphasis on character-based comedy. I think we're funny guys, but we've never been punchline-driven guys. To us, the best possible line is, say, a Po line. A good Po joke can only be said by Po, when that character is doing that and in a very specific situation. There are too many scripts in which the jokes are truly very funny but can be said by any characters in the movie and are just very punchline-y, and I think the shelf life for that kind of movie is much shorter.
Aibel: On a more practical note, Greg was very good about realizing that he couldn't do it all. So from a very early place on the show, if it was your script you would be at the recording session, you would direct the actors, you would supervise the storyboards and the editing. So when Kung Fu Panda came along we were asked not just to write but to be co-producers on it, and we already had the basics -- how to read a storyboard, how to be in a recording session and know what an actor needs to get a line across.
Well, Kung Fu Panda 2 made me cry. So good job, guys.
Aibel: As comedy writers, that's our ultimate goal.
Berger: We should actually clarify; it was during the second half, right, not the first half? [Laughs]
Yes, I cried when I was supposed to cry. This story is about letting go of the past and finding inner peace; why was this the right next step to take in the evolution of Po's story?
Berger: I think mostly because we wrote ourselves into a corner in the first movie, which is a movie about a big fat panda who had a dream of being the greatest kung fu warrior in all of China. So by the end of the movie in order to successfully finish that movie, his dreams came true. Then the question became for us, "What do we do next?" This character seems conflict-free, his dreams came true. That led us to think about what obstacles exist still for him and that led to more of an inward journey, one of identity, that he may have the external trappings of success and may have achieved his goal but until he knows who he is and has discovered the mysteries of his birth and his upbringing, he can never fully be happy.
Where do you see Po going next in possible future sequels?
Aibel: [Laughs] Even Jeffrey Katzenberg lets us wait until the morning after the premiere until he asks us that question. But there's a little tag at the end, I don't want to give anything away, a little scene that suggests that at the end of this movie Po is finally at peace and knows who he is. There's a little piece that suggests he still has one big challenge ahead of him in life; hopefully more than one. But you get to a place where you go, I know everything, I'm at peace, and something new always comes up that makes you question everything. In Po's case, and in everyone's case, it's always a journey and certainly in the philosophies of the East, the feeling that things are always in motion, things are always evolving. None of our stories end.
Berger: The virtue of these movies taking so long to do is that it's now seven years after we first started working on the first one and we've changed. We now have more children, we're older, at a different stage in life, and it's really nice. It comes back to our experience as T.V. writers for the first chunk of our career -- the joy of following, in our cases, King of the Hill for six seasons. Following the same people who you fell in love with and watching them grow, helping them grow. We may not know right now where Po may be in a hypothetical-but-still-hoped-for third movie, but we also know it'll be interesting and fun to figure out.
At which point did you begin fleshing out the details of this second film?
Berger: About six months before the release of the first movie... Jeffrey came to us and didn't just say, "Hey, start toying with an idea for the first sequel," he said, "Start thinking about -- I don't remember what the specific number was, it was something like 5 or 6 [movies] -- what's a real arc, a real long-term goal?" He starts out as a noodle shop waiter and what if someday, at the very end of the journey whether it appears in a movie or not, he's effectively [kung fu grand master] Oogway. It's laughable to think the Po of the first movie would be an Oogway at the end of his journey, but it established a trajectory for us and it would be such a lengthy journey that it suggests many, many stories in between. So from there, we backed off and started trying to address what the immediate questions were.
Aibel: Pretty early on we came up with the idea of Po having to go on a journey and having to battle the peacock who had taken fireworks and turned them into a weapon. We had that very basic structure and there were different reasons, different things he was learning on this journey, all with the idea that, if he have kung fu and that defines him, what happens if you take that away from him?
Berger: The happy resolution of the first movie was the essential problem of coming up with a sequel idea. He's now the greatest kung fu warrior in the world; what do we do, invent a bigger version of Tai Lung? That wouldn't be satisfying. It would just seem like a repeat of the first movie.
With Po investigating the truth of his lineage in the sequel, even Angelina Jolie, speaking about the film in Cannes, related how closely the adoption storyline spoke to her personally.
Berger: That was really gratifying, because in the three and a half years of this from moment to moment we'd all be terrified that adoption was such a central element of the story and here you have one of the major cast members very personally involved in that issue. We thought, we really need to handle this well -- otherwise we're going to get to a recording session and Angelina's going to say, "I just don't buy this. I won't act in this because I don't think your depiction is fair!" We were motivated by fear. [Laughs] We wanted to handle it well because we know there are many people in the world who are adopted and we didn't want to say that Po is in any way a damaged character because he's adopted. And it was really important to us to say that the issue isn't "adopted or not," but what was most important is that it was the not knowing that was the issue. And in the absence of actual information it's the faulty assumption he makes that turn out to be his real problem. That's where you get into the more philosophical message of the movie, that we are not our past; we are who we choose to be in the story.
Speaking of being motivated by fear, and I don't know if you were in this case -- how did you address the challenge of interpreting a culturally Asian story for an English-speaking audience?
Berger: I'll take that because I actually majored in East Asian studies in college.
Aibel: He got over that fear a long time ago.
Berger: I studied in Japan, I've done martial arts my whole life, and I just have a love for Asia in general and a certain amount of knowledge. And we all did a great deal of research, from us to the director to the artists, who were just painstaking in their devotion to accuracy. A bunch of us got to go to China for research after the first movie, and took thousands of photographs of bricks and roof tiles that played into the production design... I don't think they were too explicit with the Daoist references in the movie but certainly that played an important part in the philosophy of the movie, especially as espoused by Shifu and the soothsayer character. But I feel that everyone involved made a big effort to be faithful and respectful. And I don't know that we ever said that we were making this for an American audience, I think there's something about the characters being animals that allow the movie to speak to every part of the world. We never really thought of this as a movie set in China for Americans; it's a movie set in an mythical, universalized China for everyone in the world.
Jennifer Yuh Nelson came onboard as director after you began work on the story; how did the creative process change as the team grew?
Berger: It would take many words for us to describe the emotional journey we think Po would go on, and some of the emotional truths he would discover along the way, and she would reduce it to very, very evocative drawings. She can take them and reduce them to essential images that would blow your mind or make you cry... I can guess some of the moments that you might have cried at, and I can tell you that even years ago when we saw a rough Sharpie-on-paper rendering of that, it was just as emotional.
Aibel: I remember one of the very first meetings we had with Jen -- of course, we had worked with her on the first movie where she was the head of story -- there was a drawing she had done from baby Po's point of view. The emotion of the moment was questioning, is this a moment of abandonment or sacrifice, or of love or disappointment, and the ambiguity of that is definitely the feeling the whole movie wound up being hung upon.
Berger: Even to have that kind of thing to communicate to others... there's the core creative team making the movie, but you also have to sell it to Jeffrey Katzenberg and the other executives and to cast members. And once you have something like that, what you're using as a sales tool is to show a couple of key images and say, "You know Po, you know he's going to be funny, but what is it really about? It's about this."
Aibel: This makes it sound like the movie is heavy and ponderous, but one of the things Jeffrey Katzenberg is always saying is, "The funny will come, but make sure that what's underneath it is as meaningful and as emotional as it can be."
Next: Aibel and Berger on executive producer Guillermo del Toro, Candy Land, and the Pixar-DreamWorks rivalry
Pages: 1 2