So I was lucky enough to tag along with my husband Ryan Rowe to Paris last week and attend a seminar at CEEA, Conservatoire Europeen D’Ecriture Audiovisuelle, a Parisian film school. The topic was “Family Films,” and the guest speakers were said husband, who has written multiple scripts for Disney, and my friend Meg LeFauve, one of the writers on the upcoming Pixar film INSIDE OUT. The moderators were Fabien Suarez and Julette Sales, French screenwriters of the hit family film BELLE AND SEBASTIAN.
The questions were focused not just on what it takes to write a great family film, but how to have a long career as a screenwriter. Meg and Ryan dropped lots of great advice, and because there were SO MANY wonderful nuggets, I’m turning this into a two-parter. This week, family films. Next week, the writing/ career part.
Here are my main takeaways from Meg and Ryan on how to write a great family film…
A good family film satisfies three audiences– the kids, the parents, and the grandparents. They often tackle subjects and include characters that involve these three groups of people. By creating characters that cross these demographic groups, you have the greatest chance of pulling in all “four quadrants” of the audience (both male and female, under and above 25.)
A good family film has jokes that adults like, and slapstick that kids like.
In writing a family film, ask yourself, “What’s the spectacle?” “How can the scale of the story be large?” Most producers will want to be assured that the movie feels “big,” even if it deals with intimate and specific emotions.
Your movie needs to be sincere, have “heart.” This doesn’t mean you can’t have moments of sarcasm, but you have to tap into your own childlike innocence when you write this kind of film.
Family films don’t always have kid characters. Meg, Ryan, Fabien and Juliette talked about how STAR WARS became a family film. It may not have been intended as a family movie, but many of its elements (coming of age theme, cool robots) and its popularity, allowed it to morph into one over time.
A great family film has a sense of wonder. As the writer you have to LOVE the subject matter, and tap into your own sense of wonder and magic. After rewriting numerous times, you might have to go back and try to remember what you loved when you first started the project. Most parents take their kids to these films because they want to share the wonder they experienced as a child.
Great family films have intense emotional elements. Kids want to be scared. CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG has a really scary scene, and there’s Maria, having to face the Nazis in THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Also, the bear scene in BRAVE is terrifying! Often family films, like fairy tales (hello Brothers Grimm) allow us to deal with our worst fears.
Beat the crap out of your character in ACT II. Your instinct will be to protect this character because they are psychologically “you” (and often under the age of 15,) but you have to force them into a choice. To change. You have to force them to take action and transform.
As in any film, it’s important that your family film protagonist want something very badly. Often, these films are about a child discovering his or her power.
Family films don’t have to be animated. If you’re trying to decide whether to animate your film, ask yourself, “Why does it have to be animated?”
Jokes need to be grounded in theme. And it often takes many drafts to figure out exactly what your family movie is about. Be willing to be open to the process, do multiple drafts, and let the comedy and themes evolve.
When asked, “Is anything forbidden in a family film?” Ryan jokingly said, “Incest?” But then added, “I wouldn’t start with that question. You can have a sad ending, but it has to be satisfying.” Meg talked about Lindsay Doran, the veteran producer who lectures on story. Doran says that in order to have a satisfying ending, the relationship that we’re following has to be satisfied. Understanding the primary relationship in your movie, and how it relates to the main character’s transformation, is hugely important.
Take Action! If you’re writing a family film, ask yourself these questions… Does it appeal to kids, parents and grandparents? Does it feature a main character who wants something very badly and is forced to change? Does it tackle a dark fear and have a sense of wonder? Is there SPECTACLE? Are you tapping into your own childhood innocence and passion as you write?
The panelists all agreed that the elements that make a great family film are the elements that make any movie great– a motivated main character, a sense of excitement, and a strong transformation.
If you have questions or a comment, please let me know in the box below!
See you next week, when you’ll learn from Meg and Ryan some secrets of great writing, and how to sustain a career.
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