Raymond Singer and Eugenia Bostwick-Singer
After acting in nearly all of the most popular TV series of the '70s and '80s, a couple dozen TV movies and films such as Star Trek IV and It's My Turn, Raymond Singer turned to writing TV movies in the '90s with his wife, Eugenia Bostwick-Singer.
While awaiting a sign that would help them decide about traveling to China to adopt a daughter, they got just that when they were asked by Disney to work on the script for what became the 1998 animated feature about a legendary Chinese girl Mulan.
Although Disney sought them because it didn't want animation scripters, the Singers were reluctant to become "cartoon writers," but they agreed and the film grossed $121 million.
After completing work on Mulan, they adopted a girl in China that they chose not to name Mulan for fear that they would not receive official writing credit on the movie. (They did.)
The Singers figured Mulan would be a one-time animation project as they returned to live action projects for HBO and others. However, DreamWorks called a couple of years later asking them to work on the screenplay for Joseph: King of Dreams.
It turned out to be the first Video Premiere Award-winning animated movie of 2000, and they shared the best screenplay award with Joe Stillman and Marshall Goldberg.
They have since been called in for rewrites on Lion King III and work on several other animated projects at Disney, including Mulan III, for which they have suggested a character that would bear the name they chose to give their daughter, Ana Ming.
VP: What were the differences in writing for the animated video premiere movie Joseph: King of Dreams compared with writing for the big-budget theatrical feature Mulan.
EBS: It was very quick, much quicker than working in features. We did the script in something like three months.
RS: It was amazing. We wrote a draft of the story. Had a few meetings and then we had a big meeting and the draft was done. We wrote a major rewrite, and Jeffrey (Katzenberg) greenlit the script. On the feature side, Mulan was very carefully developed. We had almost daily meetings between us and the story department, everybody pitching in to make the thing happen. Even when the script happened, the storyboard artists came up with wonderful ideas on their own.
EBS: We wrote Joseph at home.
RS: Our experience with Joseph was not so much in coordination with the storyboard artists as opposed to Mulan, which was in complete tandem with the storyboard artists.
EBS: When they do [video premieres] now at Disney they have meetings all the time because everybody works there. They're all in-house writers and directors.
VP: Were the people you worked with at DreamWorks on Joseph, including Katzenberg, some of the same people you worked with on Mulan at Disney?
RS: No, Jeffrey had just left when we got to Mulan.
EBS: It was [Video Premiere Award-winning producer] Penney Finkelman-Cox.
RS: She had a live action and animation deal at DreamWorks.
EBS: She was the producer of Prince of Egypt.
RS: We went to see her about a pitch for a story we had that was a hybrid live action/CGI project. It died but later Penney called us about going back into animation.
VP: You wrote the first Mulan and did work on the third one. Why weren't you involved with Mulan II?
RS: We were unavailable for the second one because we were working on live action projects.
VP: How do you know where to take the characters and work on a story for Mulan III when Mulan II isn't even done yet?
RS: We had a rough idea; a two- to three-line description of the second one. We finally got to see some reels from the second one.
VP: In terms of writing, do you approach a video production differently than a feature?
RS: No project that we've been involved with is treated better or worse. We try to do our best on every project. The great thing about working with Disney and DreamWorks is that both of those studios really want to ring the bell. They don't look at [video premieres] as second class. None of them thinks about the video business as a stepchild business. It's always our impression that the production is a feature. The scripts all have the same elements.
VP: How much time do you spend on a video premiere as compared to a theatrical feature?
RS: We worked on Mulan for one year, and then it was two years before it came out. On Joseph, we were there a year; they were storyboarding and animating right off our first draft.
VP: It sounds as if there is more of a process and more writers and studio people involved in animated films.
RS: What they have at Disney now, which works really well, though not to the advantage of freelance writers, is they have really talented writers who are very, very savvy with the process and have the ear of everybody because they are in the office every day on staff.
It works very well for Disney and very well for those writers who are probably on contracts for a certain number of weeks. It leaves freelancers to be either a superstar or a clean-up man or something like that.
We submitted two Mulan III stories to them. It has to go through development executives, then a VP, then the president. When you get a story you like and you pitch it to the VP, they suggest changes.
They are very smart; they know the Disney way and they know what they want out of each story. They are very quick and very specific. You go home and you work on that pitch some more. You have a series of pitches.
Finally, you get to a point where those pitches are signed off by the executive. When the executive is pleased, it goes to the VPs, who take their turn at it, giving you notes and changes.
The idea is to get it all ready to go to [Disney Animation president] Thomas Schumacher. And then he gives his notes.
I'm writing a [live action] thriller feature. I'm having fun not having a deadline and needing to serve other people's ideas of something, of trying to fit my idea into someone else's idea of what my idea should be. At some level, you have to surrender to that process.
VP: With so many writers and people involved in the writing process in animation, how is the final credit determined?
RS: The credits are totally up to the studio in animation; it's not like the Writers Guild. There's no trail to figure it out. But they are very fair, and you have to expect that fairness will win out. If you come in last [to write], you have a very good shot of getting credit. If you start from the beginning, you probably have to go through the first draft to even be in the lottery.
VP: How about the difference between writing for animation versus live action?
RS: Our live action experience always was that, OK, we're buying you or buying this idea and we're all going to develop it together and just take it so many steps.
The animation deals that we've always had, whether they're on the feature or video side, have either been for a certain amount of weeks, like four weeks that can be extended to eight or 12. Or it could be something like a two-page outline that can be extended into a 25-page treatment, can be extended into several revisions, a first draft. It's all steps.
The wonderful thing for animation is that there are so many different layers. When you want to do jokes and comedy, you hire one writer; when you want something else, you hire a different writer. When animation writing is working well, you're like a kid at camp because the people are so creative and have such great senses of humor.
Live action is less collaborative. In animation, you're in a production meeting all the time. We like both.
EBS: The collaborative process is very important in the creation of both feature and [video premiere] animation. During Joseph we were left mostly alone, but there was a basic story that was ready for adapting.
In Mulan, there may have been character design artists and noncredited writers working for close to two years already. But those characters needed voices that would eventually attract talent.
At Disney, they're fond of saying that animation is like being in constant production, rather than for the few weeks between pre- and postproduction, as in live action features.
The writers, in that situation, very often are looking over the shoulders of the artists. At the same time, the artists are searching out the pages the writers have handed them to come up with something that's true to the intended spirit but as creative as each member of the team can make it. "Plus-ing," they call it at the studio, and it does seem to work.
VP: Aside from being confined to predetermined characters, are there any unique challenges to writing sequels?
RS: Sequels are easy but second sequels are hard. What I mean by that is that it will become necessary at some point for each studio or project/development team to eventually grapple with the difference between new episodes and adventures that simply extend a franchiseputting familiar characters into new and not-so-new plots, as in a weekly TV series, for exampleor whether, since sequels are based on feature films and so are more character-driven, the sequels will be about the changing world the character finds him/herself in as their world evolves.
There is a risk, it seems to me, of creating a set of videos that are not wholly different from a TV series uninterrupted by commercials. I think, philosophically, this is an area the studios will eventually investigate.
As a story teller, one who's watching some of my favorite characters go on in their lives, and as a parent, whose child finds value in characters and looks for good, positive role models as her life changes and develops, and as a creative person whose contributions depend on the success of the commercial environment, it's a question I think is important.
VP: I see exactly what you mean. It's the difference between the dramatic and enormously satisfying character development of Michael Corleone from The Godfather to Godfather Part II, as compared to Eddie Murphy's character in Beverly Hills Cop IIsame guy, new set of circumstances.
Just to take a position, I would say that while there are situations and characters that are fascinating to see grow, that's not always the case or the desire of the viewer, and you can only make one or maybe two sequels if you show that kind of growth.
For instance, I don't think consumers of The Land Before Time want to see Littlefoot mature into adulthood, and I don't think they want to see Axel mature or see a deeper development of his personality in subsequent Beverly Hills Cop movies. Same thing for characters like the Terminator or Inspector Clouseau or the family or dogs in the Beethoven movies.
If you take a character down that path, it's a short-lived gain. I'm thinking of characters like Fonzie on Happy Days and Archie on All in the Family. They became pop culture icons because they were one-dimensional and people liked seeing them that way. Once you presented an episode in which Archie showed how sensitive he really was and treated Edith nicely, it would be a great one-time episode, but while you respected and appreciated his character more, the writers could never successfully go back to his abrasive and insensitive personality.
Once we saw the warm and fuzzy Fonzie, it was not as fun to enjoy him as the hard-core greaser.
The points are well-taken. We might have to add something else to the
mix. Perhaps the character changes should be more circumstantial than
big. Archie Bunker, as you point out, is a very good example. I think
stories could grow from this kind of character conundrum without tipping
the apple cart of what we like about the character and his/her adventures.
Watching Archie grapple with being nice to Edith, or what happens after
his "nice" moment, would, I think, be interesting, even if he goes right
back to being the irascible sod we know and love.
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Joseph: King of Dreams