John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Aline Brosh McKenna: And my name is Aline Brosh McKenna.
John: And this is Scriptnotes, the entirely Frozen episode of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Now, for the first time in forever Craig Mazin is not here. Craig Mazin is, well, what actually happened to him?
Aline: Well, if you mean not here, there are sounds coming from the closet. I think he might be waking up. But he’s not actually in front of a microphone.
John: A good hit with a heavy object will knock him out. So, Aline Brosh McKenna, our Joan Rivers, has stepped in to be a co-host. Aline, thank you so much for being here.
Aline: You are so welcome. I actually saw Joan Rivers last week.
Aline: Live. And it was amazing. And I’m going to work very blue today and I’m going to do a lot of celebrity clothing fashion stuff, just to add some Joan Rivers to it.
John: I think it’s an incredible choice. I have one question for you first, though?
Aline: It’s so exciting that the entire podcast Scriptnotes listenership can watch me tackle someone that I’m a huge fan of.
John: Our guest today is Jennifer Lee. She is the writer and director of Frozen and the screenwriter of Wreck-It Ralph. Thank you for being on our show.
Jennifer Lee: Thank you for having me. I’ve been a huge listener. Well, I’m a huge — that made me sound huge. I have been a listener for a very long time and love Scriptnotes.
So, previously on an episode Craig and I took a look at The Little Mermaid and we did a deep dive on The Little Mermaid and spent the entire episode on that. But we didn’t have the benefit of having the screenwriter of The Little Mermaid here to answer our questions as we talked through things.
So, I just want to sort of dig deep and really talk about the story and the really surprising things in the story, because Aline and I were both talking that there are things you would never anticipate being in a movie like Frozen in the movie Frozen.
And so warning to listeners: we’re going to spoil everything.
Jennifer: Oh, that’s so much. It’s so hard to talk about the movie and you can’t talk about the movie.
John: Because there’s actually a lot of twists that you don’t see coming in this movie and really starting with the nature of the underlying relationships.
I want to get a little sense of history about when you came into this project, because I know that an idea of doing a movie about The Snow Queen, the Hans Christian Andersen story, had been around for a long time. But when did you first get involved with the project?
Jennifer: Well, it had been, I mean, rumor is that Walt Disney wanted to do it way back and there’s a production number for The Snow Queen. That’s all we know. Nothing survived. There were some paintings by Marc David for a ride called The Ice Palace, I think, or The Snow Palace that had The Snow Queen. And throughout the decades people kept bringing it up again and wanting to try it.
And then finally Chris Buck pitched it five years ago to John Lasseter and Ed Catmull and it was just the — it was seductive, of course. The concept of a snow queen is seductive. And then setting it in ice and snow and he right away pitched it as a musical, which Disney hadn’t done a big musical since around The Lion King. They have done songs in, but not what a full musical has to be.
And they green lit it and then it got put on the shelf at one point for a whole year, and then brought out again, luckily. And right when it was brought out again I was writing Wreck-It Ralph. And what we do at Disney is anyone who has dealt with animation is very familiar with this. You screen the film and storyboard for them several times and you get a lot of notes from anyone in the studio. And I was giving notes on Frozen whenever they were doing a screening and they would give notes on Ralph.
John: Let’s talk about this. So, you’re watching an animatic. You’re watching the cut together boards for something and this was with temp voices, with real voices?
Aline: Not yet working on Frozen. You were working on Wreck-It Ralph?
Jennifer: I was on Ralph, yes. And we were pretty far into Ralph at that point. When I started giving notes on Frozen I think we were a year out on Ralph. And you go in and sometimes it’s temp voices, like Josh Gad hadn’t been cast but Kristen Bell had been. And she is so amazing. She was one of those rare actors who can do the entire script in one recording.
Jennifer: And over the course of a day and often we just bring them in in small chunks, but she’s incredible. So, her voice was there. But, no one else was cast. Even Idina, I think they wanted Idina but didn’t know if the character would be the right character for her. The Snow Queen was sort of spinning in this one-dimensional chaos of evilness, you know.
John: When you were seeing these animatics, going to these screenings, was it still called The Snow Queen? Had it already moved over to being called Frozen?
Jennifer: It was Frozen, when I came to Disney — I came to Disney in, god, when was it? Spring of 2012, no, ’11. I’ve lost all track of time with these two films.
Aline: Did the Frozen title come from Tangled? Was it inspired by that?
Jennifer: I think to some extent it was just in the fact that it was a great sort of all-encompassing title. But I think — and I’m kind of remembering back to what they’ve said — but the real reason was that they weren’t sure how true to the original story they were going to be. And, in fact, they were a lot farther away from the original story than we even ended up, which is saying a lot, because we’re still mostly just inspired by.
But they knew that the Frozen Heart was going to be there. That was a concept and the phrase, sort of an act of true love will thaw a frozen heart.
Jennifer: Absolutely. And that’s what kind of drove the story. We always knew that there was going to be — and this came right from Chris Buck — that we were going to look at true love in a different way. They weren’t sisters. There was so much that hadn’t been figured out, but that was, I think, really what got the movie going.
Aline: When you say look at true love in a different way did you know it was not going to be romantic love?
Aline: But you didn’t know it was going to be a sister thing?
Jennifer: Right. We hadn’t discovered that yet and we knew that Anna was going to save Elsa. We didn’t know how or why. And it was more of a redemption story at the time because Elsa was evil.
But it was a struggle. We were struggling a lot with tone. They were struggling a lot with good versus evil can take over the story. And it was just feeling — it was hard to make it fresh or different. And so they had a lot of problems, but at the same time you could see the potential.
And I had gone in to give notes. As I was winding down on Ralph I was sort of helping on other projects, just giving notes. And that was the first time Bobby and Kristen were a part of it. And we kind of really connected with what we were thinking.
John: So, at this point you’re watching these cuts and had Bobby and Kristen already written songs that were attempted in there.
Jennifer: They had done two songs which are not in the film. A portion of one, I think, is on like the deluxe soundtrack that you can hear. But one of them, there’s another song that someday people will hear, but it is so far from Elsa and who she ended up being, we found it hard to release it because we kind of, you know, right before you give the movie out — it feels like a betrayal of her, because she was so evil. And it was hard for us because we’re so protective of her as a real person, [laughs], which I guess you get right at that end before you give it to the world, you know.
Aline: I know you are trying to go carefully through the process, but I wanted to jump ahead just a little bit, because this idea of who is the villain in the movie is really interesting.
Aline: It’s really fundamental, because sometimes when you’re working on stuff with a villain they’ll push, push, push to make it darker and more stark and less human. And there are sort of several antagonists in the movie, but there isn’t really a single clear bad guy because she is so nuanced and you know her. So, even though she is sort of the engine of the things that are opposing, she isn’t really a villain.
And then there are the other two sort of villain-ish characters, but that’s so interesting. How did that come about?
Jennifer: I feel like that was one of the biggest breaks that took the longest to get to. And it was that the story would fall into the same sort of tropes, like you just — it was really hard the minute she became evil it would take over. And, plus, Elsa being the Snow Queen, any time she’s on the screen she owned the scene. There was no secondary character to her. And it became very difficult to balance the two sisters, the story, and Anna as an interesting character. Because Elsa was just, you know, she’s larger than life and she would take over.
And then you’d make her evil and it was like that was the whole film. And one of the things that was a really big challenge for us was we wanted to get to that ending where Anna makes her choice to help her sister. Well, in order to get to that you have to buy into her going to Kristoff and do it in such a way where she doesn’t seem fickle. Like, it was just a nightmare to have to have these parallel stories and to support both in such a way where it’s that surprising but inevitable thing.
Aline: Right. Well, the thing you have to do which is amazing is you have to build to both things.
Aline: It’s sort of like the end of Casablanca or all those famous — also in that movie Suspicion, in the Hitchcock movie Suspicion they didn’t know if he was going to be the murderer or not, so they had to make the movie so that both endings would work. And that’s a funny thing because I thought, okay, she’s going to kiss him and that’s going to be…I’m okay. I’m all right with that. I like him and he’s unusual and they had a nice courtship and I enjoyed enough about it. And I’m all right with it.
And I didn’t really see another avenue, frankly. So, I was thinking, okay, here he comes and there’s going to be… — And so then that thing which really, I mean, we talked about it on the other podcast, on the live podcast, that was really the thing that just blew my mind. But you did it by — I don’t know how — I mean, I’m really curious how the process affects that. Because I don’t know how you’d get that through a conventional studio process.
John: Yeah, I really want to get into the process because this is so different than how most screenwriters would work.
John: Usually you’re not seeing a version of something. There’s no sort of temp version of the movie that you’re trying to make. So, it’s all just the stuff on the page and then you hope it works on the page.
But you got to see something. You got to see something on the screen and say like, well that’s not working. And everybody sort of knew it wasn’t kind of fundamentally working.
So, what is the conversation you have with the people who have been making this thing up until this point to say, “This is what I think you need to do?” Was it a spoken conversation? Did you write up notes? What was your process?
Jennifer: Most of it is spoken and it was not me alone. Like once we show a screening, and we’ll show it to a lot of people, sometimes hundreds of people in the studio. A screening, just to give all departments a sense of what we’re doing because building the world is its own struggle in animation and takes a lot of time. So, they have to be working even when the story is not finished.
Aline: So, you need to carve out things that they can work on that you know are set.
Jennifer: Exactly, like building the environments and the artistry of it and the technology. So, they’re working on that simultaneously. But about 40 of us go into a room for several hours.
Jennifer: Oh, gosh. I hope to take a break. We’ll go in a room for several hours, you know, John Lasseter is there, Ed Catmull, and all the other directors at the studio. Sometimes some Pixar directors. They’ll come down occasionally. And the other writers who are in the studio. And we will sit there and get bombarded with every note under the sun. We joke, it’s like they take your car apart completely and then they walk away.
Jennifer: And they leave it on the lot. And so you just have to take it. And what you’re looking for really are patterns and you’re looking for sort of what is the — usually it’s you can tell this character is not well developed yet because it’s all about this character: “I don’t know who she is; I don’t know what she wants; I don’t believe her; I don’t care about her.” So, they will call you out on everything.
And then you’ll get the random question of like, “What if there are dogs?” You know, they will say anything.
Aline: This is a good thing that I think is relatable to listeners of this which is when you’re in a situation that all writers have been when you’re getting bombarded by notes, if you’re a nice person also you have a tendency to be like, “I’ll do that, and that one, and that one, and that one.” And they’re often so competing. How did you cull that feedback to know, yes, this is right, and yes, this is…
– Because sometimes people are pointing at something and that’s not, it’s like a doctor, their knee hurt but it’s because they have some other really unrelated problem in their arm.
Like, you have to also diagnose, okay, this is what they’re saying.
Jennifer: Absolutely. And I think that’s the key. Because what’s also interesting about animation is a lot of studios didn’t have screenwriters traditionally. The story artists together would form the story. And part of it you look at some of the stories were much simpler. What was needed to build a full feature was much more straightforward. And not to belittle them, but just say it was a different time.
What audiences want now is much more complex films and that have what a screenwriter brings. And it has taken a bit to convince animation of that, but luckily –
Aline: You had never worked before Ralph. That was your first experience with animation?
Jennifer: That was my first. And it was overwhelming coming in because there was this weird feeling of almost like the writer had the least authority in the scope of everything, and yet the writer was the one who had to solve the problems if they couldn’t be solved otherwise by a collective group. And that’s how it felt coming in.
The nice thing for me was that Rich Moore had worked in television. He really believed in the writer and I was working with Phil Johnston as well who is a nice strong, not afraid to stand up for things kind of guy. Taught me a lot. And so you really had to — my first experience with Ralph was a lot of time convincing a group of people that this is what the story needed.
And if I couldn’t knowing that’s not right. I mean, obviously if I can’t then there is something wrong with it. And it was a lot of — I had to trust that I was the one who knew the whole. I was the one protecting the characters. I was the one who that was my job and I had to do that, but then at the same time people would come in with this shiny new toy idea that if it’s entertaining or if it can add something unique you want to try to put it in.
And so you have to be flexible. And Ralph was like the best boot camp ever, but exhausting. And what made Frozen very different was two things. One is we had a very intense schedule. Ralph took about three years to make and Frozen, when I came on we essentially started over and we had 17 months. So, we were in a place of a lot of choices had to be made fast. And were given sort of –
John: Deadlines are a huge help. But what you’ve described though, the life of a screenwriter is often as much your ability to convince other people or to hear other people and echo back what they’re saying in ways that actually serve the story and don’t serve that other interest. So, most of your time as a screenwriter wasn’t spent with you at a laptop staring at it, “What lines should Elsa say?” It was figuring out these bigger things with other people. And that collaborative nature is crucial.
And I think that to me that was one of the biggest things I didn’t realize coming into the business, but I’m not afraid of anymore and I think thanks to Ralph and Frozen, but I think it’s crucial understanding that I think we — particularly when I work, because I was at Columbia just, I graduated in 2005, and how precious things are. And how dogmatic we can be about “this is my vision, this is what I need to hold onto,” and forgetting the side of it that to make a film is such a big collaborative experience, and there are a lot of stakes, and there’s a lot of money invested, and there are a lot of risks being taken. That if people can poke holes, and they will, it’s up to you to repair it.
And if you can’t, they’ll find someone who can. [laughs] You know, it’s like realizing that the writer’s role is tenuous.
Aline: But there also have to be moments where you say, “You know what? I appreciate that feedback, but I know that this is okay the way it is and I want to give this a shot and let’s see how this…”
You know, that’s the tricky balance because I do think most of us who do this were grade grubbers and we want that acknowledgment. And it takes a long time to say, you know, to think with your heart in addition to your head and sort of say to people this is what I feel.
Jennifer: But I think what John said, too, is the key, because he’s saying how it’s about convincing and getting better at that. I had an idea for Anna from the very beginning and it took almost a year to articulate it in the right way to get everyone on board.
And once I did, everyone was 100% on board. But what was driving me nuts is I knew it was right for her, but it was not resonating with anyone. And so I knew –
Jennifer: And part of it is I would try the other things because that’s the nice thing about animation. Because you put it up on reels several times you can try things and say, “Sure, we’ll make her want this,” and then you know that it’s not going to work but it might lead to the answer.
But for me there was a day where I stood up with a little sheet of paper and I had this is Anna, this is what Anna’s journey is. No more than that. No less than that. This is Elsa. This is what her journey is. This is what the movie is about and why I want to make this movie.
Aline: Wow. I got a chill just hearing that.
Jennifer: But I had to do it. And it’s good when you have John Lasseter on your side, because I had met alone with him first and said, “This is what I want to say.” [laughs] You know, and he was very encouraging. But it taught me a lot about how to say it is just as important as what you’re trying to say. And I like to babble and I think everyone is coming along for the ride and they’re not. So…
Aline: Well, one of the things I wanted to talk about formally and maybe this gets you into your John Augustinian pieces of paper that I see here. What I loved, because again, like John, I did not know what the movie was except that it seemed like it would kill some of the family holiday time. And then I was so blown away by it. But one of the things that I think is a lesson you keep learning and is really valuable to people is something happens in that movie right away, right away.
I mean, there is a little prologue with the ice, but something happens with them right away. She almost kills her. Her power is uncontrolled. And you see their relationship and how much they love each other and how much they like to play.
And then something really dramatic happens right away. And people forget about that and you’ll read these scripts where it’s like the thing that happens is on page 18 and you’re just asking so much of people and I thought it was so — you revealed some character, and then something disastrous happened, and then you continued to — and it’s very confident to not lay out everything you have, every card, every piece of silverware on the table.
You introduce them. Then something happens. There’s this amazing narrative event. And then you continue to reveal sort of what’s going to happen between the two of them.
And that was so confident. I just thought breathtaking story wise because that’s a thing that people really — they forget about in stories is that you have to start off with an event that really has pretty big magnitude, you know.
John: Let’s start with how the story begins. What I would love to do is just take a look at the movie as it is finished and sort of look at what’s actually up on the screen and go through sort of why it’s working in story and what the goals are. And if we need to sort of go back in time to talk about sort of how stuff happens, but let’s pretend that we’re watching this movie that’s on the screen in front of us and sort of what’s going on there.
The very first shot of the movie is a really strange shot. It’s blurry and you’re not quite sure what it is. And ultimately it’s a saw coming through the ice and it’s people cutting these ice blocks apart. And it’s setting up your world and also the colors of your world. Because you think of Frozen being blues, but it’s actually a lot of pinks. And it very much sort of sets up what the world of our movie is going to be like.
So, we start with a song. The song is Frozen Heart. And it’s not my favorite song in the whole world. And it’s very much a Fathoms Below kind of song.
Jennifer: That’s exactly what it is. Yeah, you’re right.
Jennifer: And the Dumbo song, the work song in Dumbo. Those are two sort of –
Aline: I missed completely that the little boy –
Aline: I missed it completely. And my kids were the ones who pointed out, “Oh mom, he was there in the very first scene.
John: So, in the very first scene we see these men carving up the ice blocks and sort of the idea that you would carve up ice. For some kids it’ll be the first time they see that as a thing that you could possibly do.
But we see this little boy and a cute little reindeer and we think they’re going to be significant characters because they’re adorable. They’re chasing after — but we’re essentially establishing them in the world because they’re going to become important later on.
Then we go to nighttime. We see Anna climbing up into Elsa’s bed. They’re adorable. They’re incredibly sweet. They’re sisters. “Do you want to go play?” That’s when we first learn that Elsa has these powers and it’s just sort of matter of fact. There’s not a big whole talk about it. Just suddenly she’s able to do all these things and that’s just the way of it. Talk me through that process about her powers and figuring out how to explain them in the world. How much you were going to try to articulate what the limits of her powers were.
Also, I’m curious, the decision about when to age them up and sort of how long to keep them kids.
Jennifer: Sure. I’ll back up just in the sense of the opening with that song was — what we wanted to establish, we wanted the audience to know is people are going to sing, first off.
Jennifer: It’s like you have to know what this world is going to be.
John: This is a world where people do sing.
Jennifer: They sing. And then the symbolism of ice. This is going to be — ice is going to be physically here and it’s going to be symbolically here. And so they’re singing this song about sort of beware the frozen heart and this concept that ice is more powerful than men. So, buried in it is a lot of sort of “this is the film you’re going to see” without saying it, you know? It’s just kind of — and then the setting of going up into the Northern Lights and saying we’re somewhere north. And starting to build this world without saying it was important to us.
And also with Kristoff, what’s interesting, we have little Kristoff in there because what I love that I always think if you do watch it again is that in a weird way Anna, the choice that she made that night leads him to his family.
Jennifer: And that there’s a connection between them, but yet it’s not in your face, but it’s just something that… — Because what I always loved about, particularly Pixar films for me, was that everything just added up. And everything had a special little, “Oh my god, oh my god, wait, and that, and that!” And it was my favorite thing and we wanted to make kind of every time we had a scene trying to say what is that that’s maximum, why is it here. If there’s anything extraneous we got to get rid of it.
But yet adding all that flavor, so that’s why. But to move onto Elsa, it was an exhausting process coming to the simplicity of her powers. At times we had a narration by a troll, who used to have a Brooklyn accent for no reason other than I miss Brooklyn. You know, no reason. But, we had this whole explanation like when Saturn is in this alignment with such-and-such on the thousandth year a child will be born and blah, blah, blah.
John: Ultimately you almost throw it away with one line. So, the line is just like, “Was she born with the powers or was she cursed?. And it’s born with it and that’s the last piece of it.
Jennifer: And that’s it. But I think part of what it was is if anything about us felt like it was like, “Oh, god, like okay, we have to say this,” then we didn’t want to say it. And then also we found the more you explained the more questions you had about magic and the rules. It was like, argh. You know?
Aline: That’s so interesting. Having worked on stuff that has that, you drop a tiny seed of that it goes kerplunk, it explodes and takes over very quickly.
Aline: So, you have so little of it but it’s so clear. And don’t you find that in the development process people are always trying to get you to explain, explain, explain.
Jennifer: Absolutely. Huge. And the first act was really what actually we produced last, except for the scene where Anna meets Kristoff, I mean Hans, in the boat. That was one of the earlier scenes that went into production, but everything else in act one was the last thing that we did.
John: Let’s move forward in time so we keep with the narrative of the actual story.
So, Anna and Elsa are playing. Elsa is building all these amazing snow things in the house, ends up zapping her sister. Her sister falls unconscious. Calls her mom and dad. You go and see the trolls and it’s the first sort of time we’re seeing there’s other magic in the world, so it’s not just the human world. There are trolls. There is something else that’s going on out there.
We get the warning about her powers. The one line of setup about her powers, that she was born with the powers. And the caution that they can save her this once, but she shouldn’t use these powers again. And she should be afraid of her powers. And really establishing the central theme of her journey which is to be afraid of who she is.
Jennifer: Well, and we always do, like to me that’s the scene. His name is Grand Pabbie, the troll, that he states the theme of the film. He just states it in reverse. He says fear will be your enemy. And in the way he has displayed it meaning fear will destroy you like as an external fear. And it makes her even more frightened. But what’s interesting about Pabbie and Bobby Lopez and I like to be slightly twisted sometimes, and that was one of our things where if you really listen to Grand Pabbie, he’s not telling her to not use her powers. He’s just saying you’re lucky it wasn’t her heart. And we’ve just got to remove it all because if we don’t there might be some left and that could hurt her, so I just want to remove even the memories. Let’s just clean her out.
And he says to her there’s beauty but also danger to your power. So, he’s just laying it out as it is and not saying you shouldn’t do this. But the humans go right there. And that tends to be — and as a parent sometimes you see it, because your instinct is my two children are together. One of them has issues controlling themselves and they hurt my other child. You start setting boundaries. And, of course, in this case it’s more extreme. But, what I like about the trolls is they kind of tell it like it is, but if you read into it it’s really the — if you look at it it’s really the parents making the decision for Elsa that we’re going to live in fear then. We’re going to do exactly what he just warned us about, which is fear will be your enemy, and we’re going to live in fear.
So, and it’s just, I think, a very human thing to do is to go to the negative reaction as the caution.
Jennifer: No. Although there’s a whole fan base that has decided they crash on an island and they gave birth to Tarzan actually.
Jennifer: Yeah, but that Tarzan — that’s my favorite of the connections.
John: So, one of the biggest narrative asks you make of the audience is that these memories are taken out, and so Anna remembers the joy she used to have with her sister but not that her sister has powers. And then as Elsa sort of essentially shuts the door and sort of gives her sister away, not wanting to hurt her, that Anna sort of loses her sister.
And so I’ve heard criticism both ways. Basically people saying like, well, that’s unrealistic, but I’ve also heard people say like that was my relationship with my older sister.
Jennifer: Well, it’s funny because that moment was the — I think every now and then we have to make these decisions where just have to do what you have to do. And I remember the screenwriters of Monsters Inc. and Monsters University, Dan and Rob, they — I was frustrated about dealing with the fact that I wanted to Anna to… — If the girls can’t remember, if Anna can’t remember the joy they had together, then there’s no reason to root for the relationship because it doesn’t mean anything.
But, we have to — if she remembers that her sister has powers people felt that she seemed selfish anytime she did anything for herself or stood up to her sister later. And so they said what I thought, it was the best thing just to get us through, was sometimes you just have to do what you have to do but just make a real point of it and the audience will go with it.
Jennifer: And it doesn’t always mean it. And I’ve always, like, “No, but…but…,” but the moment –
Aline: I think the best thing you can do in those situations is, you know, I’ve said if you can’t do it well do it quickly.
Aline: Just do it. And also what I think people do is sometimes when they reach a narrative thing where there is a big buy they add a lot of corollary details. You just state it. That’s the way it is. She can remember this and not that.
Jennifer: And let’s keep going. And that was the best advice just because even if it wasn’t — and I’m never going to think it’s perfect because I’m always going to personally bump on it — everything else went where it needed to go.
John: It was a necessary thing to do. And I think you couldn’t have done three of those in a row. We would have lost faith in you and the movie, but you got one and you used it really, really well.
Jennifer: That’s what they said. “Here’s your wild card. Go. We’ll buy it.”
John: And I think also it segues us nicely into the terrific first song, which is Do You Want to Build a Snowman? Which is both — this is really Elsa’s wish song. One of your protagonists, I’m going to say that — would you consider it a two protagonist story?
Jennifer: We do. We joke it’s a little, not to have the gall to say this, but just technically to say this, it’s a little Shawshank-y where it’s Anna’s story but it’s really about Elsa.
Jennifer: So, it is that. We go through her eyes, so she’s technically the protagonist, but the whole time it was that relationship.
John: But our heroine gets to sing her wish, which is Do You Want to Build a Snowman? And it’s a really terrific number. And my favorite moment that gave me goose bumps even as I was watching it and sort of like, “Well, that was well done,” at a certain point the mom and dad go off to sail to a foreign place and you see the waves, and you see the ship in the waves, and the waves come up higher and then the ship is gone. And that’s all you needed to do.
That shot plus really great music let you know that they were gone and that they were lost at sea. And you didn’t have to talk about it ever again.
Jennifer: But what’s so funny about that, and this is where I think Frozen is in this weird place, all of that wouldn’t — it’s like here is this story that kind of turns some sort of fairytale things on its head, and yet those fairytale things allowed us to do things that we wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do. You know, her falling in love immediately, we buy it –
Jennifer: Because it’s a trope. The parents dying, it’s a Disney movie. [laughs] And the parents are going to die.
Aline: They’ve got to be dead. I find it shocking they’re not already dead. Yeah.
Jennifer: And it’s like there are things that we were able to do that we didn’t have to overdo.
John: Well, I think talking about tropes and expectations is really crucial because it’s both a princess movie and it’s defeating the expectations of a princess movie, but it has to sort of be the princess movie so it can overcome it.
Aline: That’s what David Frankel’s term for this is. It’s the “cake and eat it, too” movie. Where you get to do all the things that are in the genre and then you get to completely spoof and work against them. And that’s a great gift because the genre expectations kind of — the audience likes them but dreads them in a way because it feels expected. And so the fact that you’re also working against them gives you that sense of inevitable and surprising, which is what you’re always working towards.
And, really, that was the thing that blew my mind about it was how many times it does that. How many times you think, “Oh, I’ve seen this before…oh, this is completely different.” That’s what blew my mind about it.
John: What’s also fascinating about Do You Want to Build a Snowman is that because it’s a song you can build a longer sequence. So, it’s not just a bunch of little short scenes. And so you can go through a period of many years. You can age the character up and so you go from the little girl Anna to a teenage Anna to the Kristen Bell Anna over the course of a song, which is just remarkable change.
Jennifer: What’s amazing to me, that song was cut and everyone missed it so much. And the reason it was cut was the first versions of it were so sad. The whole thing was sad. And it was so — there was so much exposition that we couldn’t split it up. And it was just too complicated. But, nothing was resonating and it was such an important sequence.
You had to establish so many things, like who is Anna, what kind of girl is she. What is Elsa’s life like now? Her shutting her out, what does Anna want? Like you had to do all of this. If it hadn’t been a song it never would have worked. But what the song had — what we had to do, I remember the day Bobby flew out for it, Bobby Lopez, and we sat down and said what does Anna sound like. And then it was the [hums], and then it’s like what does Elsa sound like?
Jennifer: And it’s got a little bit of Let it Go in it. And they were two separate things. And they worked with Christophe Beck as well. So, we had Anna’s story, Elsa’s story, and it was different music. So, we were able to start segmenting the storytelling. Then, with the first two first versus really what we were trying to show was Anna’s personality. Even though you know what her want is, the way she would sing into the keyhole –
Jennifer: And then how she would throw herself over furniture and that her friends are these portraits. All of that setup is what made us be able to save the song because we were all like “I want to kill myself” by the end of that song because it was so like –
Aline: So you made it less sad by making her sort of an imp.
Jennifer: Yes. And saying this is the girl that you’re going to go on the journey with. These are things about her that you can laugh in her loneliness, I mean, and that’s very Anna. But that was the hardest, I mean, a lot of songs came and went, but that one was the one we all believed in and couldn’t make work for the longest time. And it was because it was so much. It had to do so much.
John: But it ends up being a crucial song later on.
John: Because it’s the only song that you really reprise heavily and change the lyrics through new circumstance.
John: So, coming off of that we have the grown up characters, it’s going to be the coronation of Elsa. She is going to become the queen of this place. I’m sure there was talk at a certain point like who the hell was running the kingdom in all this time. There was some sort of regent –
Jennifer: Ha! We did have a regent. We had him. He turned into, and I love it because I wrote a character and I wrote it for what’s his name, Louis C.K. I wanted him so badly in the film. I just wanted him in the film. But the first act is so heavy, it’s still heavy. There’s so much in it.
One of the issues with the film, and this jumps to the end for a second though –
John: What are you defining as the first act? Are you defining when you she runs off into the mountains is the end of the first act?
Jennifer: The end of the first act is, yes, when she goes after Elsa, and right before Let it Go. And Let it Go is kind of this in between, because really the second act starts with Anna, as it should, but yet we have this song. But the end, that last moment where she sacrifices herself for her sister, I remember, Ed Catmull when I started on the film he said, “You can do whatever you need to do the film, anything you want, but you’re earning that moment.” And we still didn’t know how we were getting to it. At that point it was some big battle scene between snowmen. It was such a weird route to get to that moment.
But he said you can do whatever you want, but you have to earn that moment. And he’s like, “And if you do, it will be fantastic. And if you don’t, the movie will suck.” And that’s the only, he’s like, “Bye,” and it’s so him to say that, but I mention that because part of the reason the first act was so hard was because we were telling a much more complex story than really we felt like we could fit in this 90-minute film.
So, everything in the first act was over-analyzed, over-scrutinized. And it’s the maximum it can be without being more. And that meant things like who was in charge — we don’t have time for that. It’s not important to the story so we have to get it out. So, there are a lot of little things like that.
John: And that’s a case where I think Disney princess logic actually really helps you a lot, because you don’t have the expectation that anyone actually has to run the kingdom.
Jennifer: Yeah. And the funny thing to me. I’m like, she’s 21. Why not 18? Well, because I want Anna to be 18. You know, it’s like those little things that we just had to do to say what matters to the story versus being logical, but it’s hard because you’ve got 15 people who part of their jobs in the story room is to beat on the logic of your ideas. So, that was fun.
John: That was fun. But, for the first time in forever the gates are going to be opening up. There’s new people coming here. It’s the first time we actually see a bunch of people. It’s a busy city and you sort of see what the universe is like.
You establish Elsa’s fear. She’s trying to hold the scepter without it turning to ice. She’s worried she’s going to freak out. but then Anna meets the cute boy and they fall in love and they have a very literal meet-cute with a horse and a boat and all this stuff.
At what point did Hans become a villain? And, I mean –
Jennifer: [laughs] Hans is a villain from the minute he hits her with the horse, in my mind.
Jennifer: But I am slightly a sociopath, I think. He’s just calculating from that moment. Go ahead.
John: But I assumed in the second viewing — first off, I was really surprised at the ultimate reveal that he’s a villainess character. But I thought like I must have misremembered. And so then I watched it the second time through and it’s like you gave us nothing.
Aline: But you know what? That is another example of “cake and eat it too,” because the truth is some of those prince/princess romances are creepy. It’s creepy how generic those men are. And it’s creepy how fast the princesses fall for them. And it’s creepy that nobody questions it.
Aline: And it is amazing how in those movies often that’s the thing that makes you kind of roll your eyes is like this sort of instant connection. And there is something kind of, you know, if you met those guys there would be something a little too perfect and creepy about them. And so it has that thing where it does exactly what you want the genre to do, but it actually unveils this kind of seamy side to those guys.
Jennifer: Well, what’s interesting was it was a big — there was a lot of debate about that, not when to give it away. And John Lasseter particularly really didn’t want to. He loved it so much not to that he would push to the extreme sometimes where my sociopathic mind would break down because I’d be like, no, no, no, he wouldn’t do that because he’s calculating.
So, I had to literally walk through every scene, what’s going on in his head for real, and at least I could — like when he says, the first time when he finds out she’s princess and drops to his knees. Before that she’s just a girl. But the key moment is when she says, “It’s just me.” And he goes, “Just you?”
And that’s like inside he’s going, “Ooh, you don’t think very highly of yourself, do you? Well, I’m gonna…”
Jennifer: It’s all very sick and twisted deep down.
John: But clearly he’s a very talented sociopath.
Jennifer: He’s very talented. He’s charming. He mirrors everyone. And actually the original story had a lot to do with mirrors. And in many iterations of the story we talk about mirrors and we bring them up. And so I held on a little to that, what Hans is is a mirror as a lot of charming, but hallow or sociopathic.
Aline: That it’s like she’s falling in love with her reflection in the pond, yeah.
Jennifer: Yeah, exactly. And he mirrors her and he’s goofy with her. He’s a little bit more bold and aggressive with the Duke, because the Duke is a jerk, so he’s a jerk back. And with Elsa he’s a hero.
Aline: I really like it because their love song is so quick and so declaratory that I was thinking, “God, I mean, I’m buying this. I’m buying this because I’m enjoying this, but man this is awfully fast.” And then I thought, well, this is just a trope of the genre, so it’s okay. So, I’m thrilled that it turned out to be, because that really is –
Jennifer: It’s another song that we had to have and I was going nuts, because to me there was one too many songs in the beginning and I — if you talk about like can’t find your way out, I couldn’t my way out of it. I just couldn’t find a way that we didn’t need everything we had. So…
John: Because really For the First Time in Forever and Love is an Open Door, they’re the same kind of song overall.
John: They’re basically sort of like what it feels like to be me. But there’s the fun cute two-hander. We haven’t seen that kind of thing. Their chemistry was really terrific. You’re establishing sort of what it is. And you’re buying that this girl might say yes at the end of this song. That’s the crucial thing is she’s going to say yes to a proposal.
John: Because like, yeah, it’s a great idea. This is a fantastic idea. And the luxury you have is that not 20 minutes later someone is going to hang a lantern on like, “Wait, this is a stupid idea. How can you possibly do that?” which they never say in a Disney movie which is so remarkable.
John: So, Love is an Open Door, the proposal happens, they tell Elsa, “Oh, we’re going to get married.” “That’s a stupid idea.” She freaks out. Big catastrophic snow icy thing. Her powers are revealed and she runs off.
This is the moment where, I don’t know, I guess Hunchback of Notre Dame has the same quality where like he seems like the villain, the community believes that he is the villain. What was the discussion around this point?
Jennifer: It was another scene — the scene where Elsa flees, we call it, there was a lot of debate of that scene and then the one after where Anna goes after her about what needed to be and how much of a monster should she feel like, how aggressive should people be.
And really we ended up giving a lot of it just to the Duke as a representation. And this is where we talk about the villain and not having a villain.
Jennifer: It’s having these antagonistic forces and to us like the real villain is fear. And so what we did is take all the characters and as antagonistic characters they hang off of fear. So, he goes to the ultimate fear, she’s a monster, points fingers. And Elsa lives in fear –
Jennifer: Fears herself. And then there’s someone like Hans who exploits it. I mean, he exploits love, too. So, every character plays off of — I should say fear and love. And Kristoff is the honest goods. Anna is fearless, actually, and all her faith is in love but she has to learn what that is.
So, it was our way of creating the constant villainess forces. But we felt like just having the — people could be frightened, but just having the chatter of “Get her!” or something, it just was, it was too complex. And it was too like why are they going right there? Why do they hate her? And just giving it to the Duke just gave Elsa the signal to go.
And from there I don’t think she sees herself as –
Aline: Well she doesn’t know what she’s done, which is really interesting.
Jennifer: That’s why. Because she doesn’t know what she’s done.
Aline: Does not realize what she’s done for a good portion of that. She thinks she’s just going off to hide.
Jennifer: [Crosstalk] I think if Anna — if it were much more of an extreme reaction Anna wouldn’t have just thought, “I’ll just go and bring her back.” It would have been too complicated. So, I – just like, just keep it about this moment as the girls being divided and being separated from each other.
Aline: It’s gorgeous visually. It’s amazing.
Jennifer: Oh, thank you. I will say our head of story, Paul Briggs, came up with one of my favorite things in the movie which is the run across the water.
Jennifer: And turning into ice. And that moment. And that was the second sequence to go into production from the first act was that one because when we had that we were like –
Jennifer: We were like that has to be it. [laughs] It can’t be anything else.
Aline: The sound of the ball hitting the bat heading for the bleachers.
John: Let’s talk about Let it Go, because it’s clearly a crucial thing. Without that moment you don’t understand who Elsa is or sort of what her journey is. And what point in the process did Let it Go come to be?
Jennifer: Let it Go came in about 15 months from finishing. It was the first song that landed in the film and was in the film. And it was an amazing moment. I remember, you know, we had spent a lot of time talking about Elsa and we were still going on the villain journey, which was killing me to try to figure out how to make that work and then redeem her. And have a love story. I was dying. [laughs]
And we just said, “Let’s talk about who she is. What would it feel like?” And Bobby and Kristen said they were walking in Prospect Park and they just started talking about what would it feel like. Forget villain. Just what it would feel like.
And this concept of letting out who she is that she’s kept to herself for so long and she’s alone and free, but then the sadness of the fact that the last moment is she’s alone. It’s not a perfect thing, but it’s powerful. And they came in with the demo of Let it Go and it’s exactly word-by-word the exact song.
Jennifer: Exactly. And we — half of us were crying. And then I just went, “I have to rewrite the whole movie.”
Jennifer: I really, it was — I was just like I’m going to go lie down for a couple minutes. But it was the best thing. We knew we had the movie.
Aline: It captures such a moment for girls and women which is sort of the — really is the song where you go in your room and you close the door and you sing to yourself in the mirror, you know, “I’m going to be who I’m going to be. I don’t care about anybody else.” I mean, it really, really captures such a great I think particularly female moment.
I have a question about it which is in the sort of thing where she transforms herself she becomes so sexy.
Aline: And what I had sort of admired up until then was how kind of sporty they were, especially Anna, how sporty she was. And then all of a sudden she was sort of pageanty and she has the slit and everything. Tell me about that.
Jennifer: Well, I can tell you. What’s interesting, that actually we did a lot of push and pull. There were two things we were feeling. One is that freedom moment where you strut and you just go for it. And I was fine with that and that was great. There was a lot of pull of, I will say from the guys, of loving her as the — every man in the studio, and some of the women, were in love with Elsa.
We used to joke like just put Anna in a closet. Just push her. There was one shot where someone was like, “Can you push Anna further back, further back?” And I was like, “Just take her off, just get her out of the stick. Just go stick her outside.” Because Elsa was — everyone was seduced by her. And so there was this tug of war I think, a bit, of letting people have a little — people who wanted to have that a little and not be afraid of it, but not make it a sexual statement. It’s more a moment of, for me, it was like you strut and you say nobody is looking, this is what I’m going to — I’m not going to be afraid of my sexuality. I’m not going to be afraid of who I am. I’m not going to be afraid of anything about myself.
Aline: But her sexuality is definitely part of it. It’s text.
Jennifer: And it’s definitely become, I think what we have found is the reaction to it has been bigger than what we had thought it was. But, that’s okay. It’s a moment that was — so many people worked on it that it was, yeah.
Aline: It’s the way she’s walking and the way it’s lit, it feel different. The depiction of the women’s bodies feels different in that moment.
Jennifer: It’s so funny because also it was animated — half of it was animated by a woman, half was animated by a man. And my favorite thing about it though is the actual model for doing it was John Lasseter. Not a woman. Because we got him — he was so moved by Let it Go. He knew every line and what he thought it meant. And he was a huge help in talking through how we translate that emotional journey, not just with Idina’s voice, but with the animation. And for him he got up and he’s like, “Let’s, all that uptight, bottled up down and her hair goes, and she transforms, and she struts,” and he’s doing it. He’s acting it out.
Jennifer: Well, I have a lovely caricature by John Musker of John in that dress.
John: Well, what’s fascinating is it’s a sexual outfit, but she’s not actually a sexual character.
John: She doesn’t even talk to a boy other than Hans for a brief second. So, it’s not that she’s trying to seduce a man. There’s man around for her to seduce.
Jennifer: But I do think it was a moment that we weren’t hiding from the sexual aspect of it, but it wasn’t the statement, but people have seen it that way so I think we have to own that. Like saying, yeah, it was there.
Aline: Also, it’s the story of your older sister is coming into this time in her life and you kind of need to be separated from her because she’s going through things that you don’t understand and that your parents are sort of like that’s none of your business, honey, don’t look at that.
Aline: And then all of a sudden she’s coming to this flowering and the younger sister doesn’t understand it and there is this divide that happens. I mean, a 12-year-old girl and a 15-year-old girl –
Jennifer: And, you know, I didn’t want to shy away from — the thing is the original material is actually a lot about sex. And it’s about the sexual awakening.
John: Because all Hans Christian Andersen stuff is about sex.
Jennifer: I know. It’s true. It’s true. And we weren’t going there. I mean, that’s not the story we were telling, but at the same time I think my whole thing with this film was wanting sincerity. So, even though like I say we take tropes and then we spin them upside down, even in the tropes of sincerity –
Jennifer: Not spoofing. And that in every one of these things there is that mix. And I wanted these girls to feel real. I mean, even Anna’s sort of romantic relationships, it’s like the one with Kristoff, I like at the end that she kisses him first and he asks permission. And it feels a lot more real. But she’s not — I mean, she’s out in public. She kisses him on the dock. Like it’s a little — she’s pushing it. I don’t think there would be one second where she wouldn’t say, “We shouldn’t kiss here,” because that’s not Anna.
Jennifer: And I think we didn’t want to make these girls uptight, but at the same time I wasn’t certainly trying to make a sexual statement. But it just wasn’t trying to avoid, I guess you could say. But you could tell in the studio there was — the boys loved he I will say. Let’s just say that.
John: Let’s talk about Kristoff because we’re just about to meet him.
So, we sort of get into our Romancing the Stone aspect of the journey which is that she hooks up with a guy who can take her up the mountain to find her sister. And so this is Kristoff. He has his reindeer, Sven. Reindeers are Better than People. Does Sven ever talk?
Jennifer: Sven does not talk. Kristoff is talking for him.
Jennifer: That came…we wanted…because here’s the theory, and this I think came from Chris Buck is you only need one special talking thing per movie, meaning like if it’s all the animals the animals it’s all the animals. But you’ve got a snowman who’s magical and he talks. And it’s like — and then Sven talked, too. That’s where you say you put too magic on top of –
Jennifer: Hat on a hat. But we were saying how do we — we knew we wanted to have him pantomime and things. And you don’t want to not do that in animation. You want to exploit it. It’s so much fun to do. It’s like if you didn’t the animators would just be like, “Why am I even here?” You know? [laughs]
But were just talking one day about confessing how a lot of us talk for our pets. And I’m like, I talk for my cats. And Chris has different voices for his three dogs. And that’s the kind of thing a lonely guy who lived in the woods with his reindeer would do. So, that’s where that came from. And it was just something we hadn’t seen, you know, which is always the hard thing, I think, where you haven’t seen.
John: Absolutely. And this is also where we meet our second male character. We met our snowman…
John: Olaf. I forgot his name. Olaf is his name.
John: Olaf is so just odd and cheerful and his song is not necessary in any way, but just delightful. So, his song, In Summer, is one of my favorite things.
Aline: Oh my god. I really had one of those, you know, when you’re watching a movie where I’m like I’m really loving this, this can’t get any better. And then it goes into that. It was just…
John: It was like a clean South Park moment.
John: We have a character who is so deluded about how the world works, and yet is just completely chipper and cheerful.
Aline: Oh my god, and I have boys, a 10-year-old boy and a 13-year-old boy, and they just like, wow, when that happened. And just the spirit of him and the comedic strength of him. I just watched them just go like, wow.
John: On a second viewing I did look like, well, what if you took Olaf out of the whole thing. And there are ways you could write it, there is a way you could write him out of the movie completely. But yet he provided that extra sort of — that just extra little something that was so important. Because things would get so dark without him to just be happy, and bright, and smiling.
Jennifer: The thing about Olaf is he was by far, for me, the hardest character to deal with. And I say that because when I came on, when I went to see a screening, people are going to hate me, when I saw the screening — I wasn’t on the project yet — every time he appeared I wrote, “Kill the f-ing snowman.” I just wrote kill him. I hate him. I hate him.
And part of it was, you know, we didn’t have Josh yet. And that’s a huge thing, obviously. And it wasn’t the scratch artist, he was great, but it was that he was — he wanted to be a shoulder because Elsa had these guards. He was half-good and half-bad. He was acerbic. He was a little, I don’t know, he just was kind of mean at times. And I didn’t know why he existed and I didn’t like him.
Aline: He does a funny thing that I don’t think I’ve seen. This is not even a trope that I haven’t seen. He’s sort of doing Mystery Science Theater on the movie from inside the movie, and I can’t think — can you think of anything else like that where he’s sort of doing a running commentary on everything that’s happening?
Jennifer: And so what happened with him is we really had to start over and we said sort of how does a snowman think? You go that, like snow is pure, so we started thinking innocence. And that’s what led us to him being sort of a representation of the girls when they were little. That they create this, “Hi, I’m Olaf and I like…” They create the snowman together when they’re the happiest.
Jennifer: He’s that spirit. And so when she creates him magically, not realizing he’d come to life, he had to be a kid. And there was a while where we almost had, we were looking at younger, like is it a teenage boy, is it a young boy? But, I think we found just, no, when they built him they built this snow Man, so he’s encompassing what that fantasy play was for them.
Aline: But it’s another great fun thing of the genre which is, well, guys, we’ve got to have a sidekick, a comedic sidekick. We’ve just got to do it.
Aline: And so give that and given that that is such trammeled ground, you know, every animated movie seems to do that in a different way, I could see that you were looking for ways to use him in ways that he hadn’t been used before, because he doesn’t really deliver a lot of the sort of homilies that you think are going to come from that character.
John: He has no deep well of wisdom that’s –
Aline: Which normally that character would. Just to me it’s sort of like an alt comic that wanders into the movie and does this commentary. And it’s funny because I think it makes the movie safer for boys, for sure.
Jennifer: We wanted to get to him a lot sooner and have more of him. Obviously for those kinds of reasons. But, again, whenever, and I’m sure you guys find this, too. Whenever you try to force something on, it’s obvious for every second of it that you’re doing that. And he just didn’t belong until he showed up. And he belonged to me, him showing up was the moment for Anna of hope again. It’s that moment of like you’ve just survived this wolf chase. What are you doing? I hope you know what you’re doing.
And they walk ahead and there is everything of why she’s doing it. It’s her sister. I mean, that childhood innocence.
Jennifer: Totally. And to me it shows — that’s where you start to see there’s more to this guy. And he is not perfect. He doesn’t try to flirt. He doesn’t try to be anything but what he is, but the more you get to know him then you realize, like they say finally in the Troll song, he’s the honest goods. And I think Olaf helps with that.
So, for me he very much earned his place, and yet I was terrified because he is a character that I think — and Josh thinks this, too, we’ve talked about this a lot. He works when he plays off of other people. That’s just what he is. Because that’s his whole reason for being. He brings joy to other people. He exists because of this relationship. And then when you take him alone he just doesn’t have that same — you don’t feel the same thing. And so it took us a long time because wanted to say, “Let’s put Olaf and make him a host of this, and do this.”
And for us, both Josh and I were like, “We’re feeling wrong about it.” And the minute we add one of the other characters, it’s a joy. And so I love that we figured that out, because it was like we kept trying to say why where for so long did he not work for us and then all of a sudden he did. And it was like he just fits with this group and he is somebody who brings — it’s like he brings joy to other people. He’s not in and of himself some sort of iconic character.
John: So, one of the most surprising things that happens next is Anna gets to Elsa, which you sort of think of the quest of the movie, well eventually they’re going to get there and it will all be resolved by then. But at the midpoint of the movie –
John: They actually get there and they have the conservation and The First Time in Forever and then like things seem like they’re going to be okay.
Aline: God, another great tip for writers which is you can just go and do it.
John: Don’t delay it. Actually just start it. And it surprises you because you’re not expecting, you know, you establish a journey. So, like, oh, the journey is to get there. And like, oh, but we’re here. And so what else can happen? Well, she can shot in the heart with it and Elsa can refuse to change and shut them out and build an abominable snowman and sort of become more monstrous herself.
She doesn’t attack them literally, but she builds something that does attack them and sort of sends them down, back down a mountain.
Jennifer: Well, I think it shows you the part — for me it was like showing you the part of her that is still damaged. And like a lot of us, get damaged by moments in childhood. You know, being free felt wonderful, but she has right in the present “I could kill, I could hurt, and you have to go.” And then that fear takes over so much that obviously it hurts her and then it literally chases her out, in a way, if you look at it that way.
And that’s where you understand that, oh, we’re nowhere near resolving this relationship or, and wait a minute, things are — it’s the side of her powers that say there’s a great danger to them. And we had just done the beauty and we had seen her dangerous as a little child, but it’s still whimsical and accidental, but to see the fact that her emotions could create this spinning storm that hurts Anna you start to go, oh god, what more can she do?
And it is where I feel like her powers become villainess, but she doesn’t. But in having it — what’s interesting is the heart moment, where her heart is struck, was originally in the first act, and it was deliberate. And it was when she was evil and it’s when the girls were divided in a different way. But the whole second act was about Anna trying to get to Hans and to kiss him and then Elsa trying to stop her. And that was the whole second act.
John: That would have been a terrible movie. I’m glad you didn’t make that movie. That would not have worked.
Jennifer: [laughs] Well, the issue — the biggest thing I’ll say is it was an action-adventure film and that’s not — you can’t make a musical with that.
Jennifer: And so it had to change, but we loved the concept of Frozen Heart, symbolically, and when we moved it to the midpoint is when we were like, oh, we can keep it because we wanted it at some point.
John: It’s the right idea, just that wouldn’t have worked –
Jennifer: It couldn’t sustain a whole film. That’s what we found.
John: So, leaving here we go back to see the trolls again. We see Kristoff’s adopted family and that’s when we realize that this early moment we saw where the boy was looking at the stuff, they actually stayed with those trolls and the trolls are real to him and all that stuff.
We talked about sort of the alt comic who walked into the movie, this is another great moment with Olaf, you know, whispering out the side of his mouth, “We need to get out of here. I’ll stall. You run.”
Jennifer: Well, what’s good is that was another John Lasseter moment though. Literally to the point where — because we were saying the joke is — there’s no joke because we know that the trolls are going to wake up. We’ve seen them wake up. And there was a time where pitched sort of you never saw them wake up so when you go there you didn’t know. But it just was like — the beginning is so complicated and it raised too many other questions.
But we said watching Olaf misunderstand we can have a lot of fun. And John Lasseter is the one who literally acted out the side of his mouth. And I caught him in the hallway because nobody was getting it. I’m like, “Could you just do it?” And I videotaped him doing it. And the animator had that and watched that. So, we will all watch it and we see John in that moment. [laughs]
John: What I like about this moment, this is the moment when I first watched the film when I realized like, wait, do I want her to end up with Hans, or do I want her to end up with Kristoff? And that’s a strange thing to happen in a princess movie, because a princess movie there should be like one prince that she should be with. It should always be the prince. But there’s this other guy and they’re trying to push these two together.
Aline: Again, that’s a trope which is the you meet the perfect guy and then you meet the kind of weather-beaten, not as handsome guy, you meet Jon Cryer — with Andrew McCarthy and then you meet Jon Cryer.
John: Yes, but when those happen I should have already disliked the perfect guy. I should have already seen his flaws. I should have seen why he’s not perfect. And yet every time that we’re going back to see him –
Aline: But Pretty in Pink is a good example because initially she ended up with Duckie.
Aline: They changed that. They changed it. And so he was actually — whatever villainous stuff they had with Andrew McCarthy they must have pulled out. But he’s the same thing. It’s that slightly bland, handsome-y guy.
Jennifer: Well, what’s interesting about it for us is it wasn’t just about withholding Hans’ reveal. We knew where we were headed, which was her trying to get to Kristoff. But if you feel it too early then you’re just waiting for her to kiss Hans and it doesn’t work. Like you’re just waiting for it, and you’re not invested in it. But so it had to be this slow build where you really don’t feel — in my mind I never quite felt that moment until when she looks back at him and he looks at her through the door, right before Hans.
Aline: You don’t feel like you’re ahead of them like let’s just get together already. Yeah.
John: But by establishing the expectation in people’s mind that like, oh, she thinks she’s going to have to kiss Hans, but she should really have to kiss Kristoff, you’re not thinking of any other options.
Aline: That’s the great thing. You think that’s the twist.
Jennifer: You’re not thinking about the…that’s the key. And we needed to feel that –
Jennifer: What you need to feel is her feeling something but not quite understanding it so that she doesn’t then seem like, “Well he doesn’t love me, I’ll like him.” What it is is there’s an awakening and you’re sensing it, but it’s not 100%. Because the minute it is it deflated. And that’s what made, to me, the Fjord moment we were headed for so hard. It wasn’t literally until we screened it in June — that was our last screening — so the last change. And Ed hadn’t seen it, because we had done an internal screening but he wasn’t there.
And then we screened it in Arizona for two audiences and he was there. And it was still only half animated, but the story was there. And he came out and he just said, “You did it.” And I went, boom, I mean, not literally, but emotionally I collapsed because — and it was because it was so nuanced. Anything we tried, it’s like you tip it and then it would suck, and then you tip it and it would suck. And it was just like can we build it?
Aline: How do you keep your sense of what’s working and what’s not working after you’ve been exposed to the same material so much over time, over time, over time? How do you do that?
Jennifer: God. I guess, I don’t know. How do you? I feel like it’s just trust. Because there are things, like for me Olaf was so challenging that I never could get that out of my head as to — never say is this working. I only knew what it needed to be. And I had to have faith and people were reacting right to it. But, I think that — and that’s always a danger in animation because we joke it’s the “Shiny New Toy Syndrome.” You get tired of a sequence and you want to change it because you’ve seen it so many times. But I think it’s a trust of –
Jennifer: And it’s also a desperation of like –
Aline: Also true in comedy. You get sick of your own jokes. And then you start to look for other stuff. And they’re still –
Jennifer: And I’m still learning comedy. I mean, for me, I was a dramatic screenwriter. Everything that I’ve done is an independent, my options, nothing was a comedy. And Phil Johnston only worked in comedy, but we worked together all the time.
We met every week in school and then after school even, once we graduated, and we gave notes on each other’s material and we worked on each other’s stuff. So, there was this understanding of each other’s sensibility. But Ralph was the first comedy I worked on and then to have Frozen just me, without him, I was terrified.
And I still, you know, I still can’t — I cringe, I’m freaked out, and so I think comedy is the most insanely hard. It’s the craziest thing to have to do. It’s torturously hard. For me, anyway. I don’t know, maybe not for you.
Aline: No, it is. It’s very hard. But I think it is hard when you work on material over, and over, and over again, you have moments of being like, well, I don’t know. I have no idea.
And I’ve definitely had moments on stuff that was good where I tried to cut it, or get rid of it.
Aline: I saw an early cut of one of my movies and I went back and said, “Well this has to go, and that, and that, and that, and we’re cutting this and that and that.” It’s like I wanted it to be a 13-minute movie because there were only a few things that I liked. And I really admire, there are people who can read a script over again and watch a movie over again with fresh eyes and that’s very hard to do. It’s something you have to train yourself to do. Sort of like wipe out all your associations with something and try and feel it again. It’s tough. It’s tough.
Jennifer: I had a hard time. And it was always Olaf for me. He was the hardest. And I think possibly because he is a true comedic character and I’m not comfortable. I can do it, but it’s hell.
Aline: So, he improvised “I have no skull and no bones?”
Jennifer: No, that I did. I will say I did write that. [laughs]
Aline: Okay that, because I had read somewhere that that was improvised. That — if you wrote that — that is A+, A+.
Aline: That seems like it’s improvised. That is an A+…
Jennifer: How I could always get around, it’s a cheat I felt like, was because I love and I personally love — state the obvious humor that’s — and when you say it’s like he’s constantly, it’s like he’s doing this running commentary. I just personally like it. In Wreck-It Ralph I did a bit with Felix and with this character Gene.
Aline: That’s a joke that’s so good that I laughed through the whole scene. That scene ended and then the other scene started and I was still laughing about that line. When I watched it the second time I realized how much stuff I had missed just because I was so — it’s one of those things where you’re just really in the movie. You’re like so in the movie to be able to make that comment in that moment and to nail that character and have him say that in that moment.
Jennifer: Thank you. I’ll take that because there would be so many that — and there are a couple that I still would want to pull out and I see them and they fall flat every time. No one laughs. And I knew it and I wished I had pushed. But, what are you going to do?
John: Now, a strange thing happens in your musical at about this point. There’s no more songs. No more characters sing their songs. And it’s I guess common in movies where there’s fewer songs. You establish everything and then the action just resolves. But it is a strange thing where like no one sings –
John: I saw a cut where someone had built a version of Do You Want to Build a Snowman at the very end, like a reprise of it. Did you talk about adding more songs through the end?
Jennifer: What’s interesting, we worked with Chris Montan who is the president of music at Disney. He has been there for all the musicals over the years. Lion King. The most major ones, iconic ones as well. And Bobby and Kristen had never done a film before. They had done Winnie the Pooh, but that’s not a full-on musical. And that’s actually traditionally what happens. There are no more songs after the end of the second act.
Jennifer: And, I think for me the reason it’s so much more obvious in Frozen is because it’s so song-heavy in the beginning. It’s got one more, maybe two more songs than even the traditional musical does. So, it kind of exposes itself a little more. But the reprise, now, we had a reprise. It was not Do You Want to Build a Snowman. There was a different song that got cut called Life’s Too Short. And that had been the song at the midpoint that became a reprise.
And there was a reprise of that where the two girls are — Elsa is in prison and Anna is in her room alone and they’re singing. But what’s incredible, and this is why — and I love that watching that moment the fans created, but the reason it wouldn’t work for the film where we did it, and I know they put it in a different spot actually.
John: They put it with Elsa singing it, yeah.
Jennifer: The reason it didn’t work where we put it is it gave away the ending. The minute you retied the girls together the movie was over. So, then –
Aline: You need to keep that tension open.
Jennifer: You had to keep it. And as soon as she thought about regret for her sister I knew the solution of the film was going to be her sister. And that was — if the solution of the film is buried in the Fixer Upper song when she says, “People make bad choices when they’re mad, or scared, or stressed, but throw a little love their way, you’ll bring out their best.”
Well, that’s the answer to the film. The solution to the problem, but it’s hidden. And it had to stay hidden. But also the issue of had Elsa sung at that moment a lot of us felt it would start mocking itself.
Jennifer: We couldn’t do it. But to do it the way the fans have, I think we can enjoy it because you can always add after the fact and have fun. But, yeah, we did — at least we did talk about it, but it was that fear of –
Aline: That is true also with a lot of comedies, the first two thirds or three quarters have a lot of jokes, and then the resolution is a drama.
Jennifer: Yeah, yeah. And I think it’s also, too, you’re so invested in the story, that’s when you feel the stop of a song. You go, “Halt.” [hums] It’s like, no, you can’t do that.
Jennifer: Yeah. And Bobby and Kristen were very conscious of that and we would always do that.
Aline: But they also as a tribute to the fact that the stakes were really working so that you’re not really noticing, that you’re so immersed then in what’s going to happen and how it’s all going to work out that you’re sort of okay with being past that, because you’re trying to puzzle out how is this puzzle.
The two things that I think are really great about this movie. One is that you’re sort of emotionally invested, but you’re also thinking, I mean, maybe just writers are thinking, but I’m thinking, “How is she going to get out of this?” There are so many moving parts to resolve in that ending. And so I didn’t really feel the absence of the song because I was so immersed in seeing how is this going to work out. And the emotional/dramatic resolution of a love story, you know, I’ve said this a lot: there are so many love stories in the world that are not girls and boys, that are not a man and a woman. And I think we’re getting better about that.
But, I think people are just always so excited and grateful that there’s something that just isn’t just about idealized romantic love.
Aline: And this is what — almost everybody has a great love story in their family. And those sibling emotions, those sibling relationships are so deep. And almost everybody has that.
Jennifer: What was so weird for us with the — not weird, but it was a nice surprise was that with the — everyone we worked with, none of us can remember who said it. We were all in the room together. We all remember being together, and we keep saying you said, no you said it, said the “what if they were sisters?” And I remember that moment so distinctively because that was like when the film mattered all of a sudden to me.
I could not see this movie before it at all. I actually was very –
Jennifer: No, they weren’t sisters until about maybe one screening before I came on is when they tried the sisters. But the first screening I saw they weren’t related in any way. And part of why –
Jennifer: Part of why Idina was not cast yet is it was more of — Elsa was more of like a Bette Midler kind of character. She was that more iconic older Snow Queen. And they were not related or connected in any way. And it was making them sisters was the first breakthrough I think.
Jennifer: But what I loved was everyone suddenly could feel it. They could feel the film. Even if you don’t have a sibling, but just understanding that kind of — what you go through with your family is something you don’t go through with anyone, or rarely go through for anyone else.
Jennifer: But you get it. And part of because what happens as a child, you know, to you, that bond as a child even if it disappears you never let it go.
Aline: Right. But going back to that sort of subtext that I kind of see with the flowering with the older sister’s adolescence, you do feel when your older sibling goes through that. You feel like you’ve lost them. And as the younger sibling you just feel like, “I’m still here. I still want to be your friend. I know that I’m not wearing the right jeans and I’m not at the cool parties, but I’m still…”
So, I think that people really connect to that feeling of I want to do something. And I have two kids and the younger brother — the funny thing in our family, we are all younger siblings, except for my older son. My husband, and I, and my younger son are all younger siblings. So, that feeling of “let me prove myself to you, let me prove that I can be something and that I can do something.” And Elsa has been dealing with all of these issues on her own. And then the person that she doesn’t want to turn to — she doesn’t want to burden her, but yet becomes her savior. It’s just so incredibly moving.
Jennifer: And I’m the younger sister, too. I have an older sister. And she was a big inspiration for Elsa for me, because I think there was a lot of the shutting out. And like you said, it’s not that contrived. It happens even if it’s not for a big reason. It really does happen. And I remember a moment, too. We didn’t become close until I was in my twenties. And it was almost like one day, and I had gone through something very tragic and lost someone, and it was like she looked at me as a human being, an adult, and I became real again to her.
It’s like I’d lost her, and then all of a sudden we kind of arrived at the same place together. And then from that moment on she was like my champion. She was always there for me. And it was — that scene, having to like lose each other and then rediscover each other as adults, that was a big part of my life.
John: So, I want to focus on one last moment in the movie which was this reveal that Hans actually is up to no good. How nervous were you the first time you saw that with an audience with kids in it?
Jennifer: Oh, I thought they were going to hate me and Chris and hate us. It was a hard thing. Definitely.
John: Because it’s such a grown up moment. It’s that thing that I’ve never seen before in a kid’s movie where a character you assume is good completely pulls the rug out from underneath you. And that’s — it’s shocking.
Jennifer: What was interesting, I mean, we’ve gotten a couple — there have been a few Op-Eds of people saying how dare we teach as children not to trust anyone and saying good guys are bad. And I’m like, you know, I can’t — part of me is like, okay, I respect that people have that concern.
But for me what I think people always under — they underestimate children. And what we found is when we screen, it happened on Wreck-It Ralph as well and it was eye-opening for me, because you do a screening and it’s a family audience with real little kids and then you do older audiences to see how they react. And for both Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen the kids are like this is the theme. This is what they want. Well, he really loves her, but she doesn’t love him. Well, you know, she didn’t know him. Why would she marry?
And Frozen it’s like it’s about fear versus love. And, you know, well, she just met him and married him. Of course you don’t know him. He could turn out to be horrible. You got to get to know someone.
Aline: Yes, she’s made that mistake. And the funny is anytime you’ve ever dated anyone who turned out to be a creep, it’s not like in the beginning it was awesome.
Jennifer: It wasn’t like he was like, “Ha, ha, ha, ha.”
Aline: Right. No, in the beginning he’s actually — the creepy ones almost seem the most charming and the most prince-like. You’ve taught girls an important lesson.
John: To me the important lesson is that if you’re unhappy in your life and you’re feeling shut down and no one understands you –
John: You’re going to fall for the first guy who seems like he understands you.
John: And everything is going to seem wonderful and perfect, but it doesn’t mean that he’s actually a good guy.
Aline: That’s exactly right. She’s latched onto something for those wrong reasons.
Jennifer: And we all do. And I think — I have to say, I mean, I grew up on Disney. I was a Disney kid. Like, I wanted to be an animator. I was an escapist, so Disney was perfect. I could escape right into that.
But, as much as I love them — now I work for Disney — it would have been nice to have the one that says, “Don’t do that.” And for me, I mean, maybe I would have learned it a lot earlier in life and not at 40. [laughs]
Aline: I actually have to, when I look at those things, I actually have to force myself to look at the prince as something other than a man or a love story, because some of those movies which are so wonderful, they just are selling romantic love, so over-selling it to a point that you don’t really want to say that to girls.
Jennifer: No. I agree. I mean, I have a ten-year-old daughter.
Aline: That’s an aspect of the love you’re going to experience in your life, but there’s going to be –
Jennifer: I wish someone had said, “Your best friend is probably the one who’s right for you as the guy,” instead of saying, “It’s the hot guy who looks at you those ways.”
Aline: You said that to the tune of $765 million so far. And I do think, I mean, one of the reasons I was so elated when the movie was over is it’s just so rare to see a movie that tells a story about women’s lives and girl’s lives that has this other emphasis to it and doesn’t say — you know, she ends up kissing a boy. It’s not, because sometimes you have the other thing which is it’s a very empowering movie about women but they weirdly kind of end up alone and an addict somehow.
And other people go off and have boyfriends, but the Tom-boy heroine doesn’t.
Jennifer: Exactly. Well it’s the point of like not wanting to preach or make statements, but letting it evoke itself. And that’s the key I felt like with Frozen because anytime we — and even with Elsa like teetering on is she sexual, is she not, it’s like anytime we — if we had not given her any, too, there might have been that statement of like, “She has no sexuality. That’s a statement you’re making.”
Jennifer: It’s like we’re not making that statement. These are real to us. And it’s like these are real characters.
Aline: But that’s a great thing what you said. Another great thing for young writers to hear which is what you tried to go with was sincerity and reality.
Aline: And saying what is emotionally sincere here. And that is your guide. Not sort of thinking about it from the outside.
Jennifer: You can’t. And I used to say this thing, and we talk about in the room when you’re trying to sort of sift through all the notes, or fight for things. The key to me was always like you’re controlling her. Like don’t control Elsa. Don’t control Anna. Because the minute you do, the audience is gone.
Because I always feel that way. I can tell when I’m being manipulated in that the character’s motivations don’t — I don’t buy her. I don’t believe her. Or I feel like she’s turned for the sake of someone else, not for herself. And that’s the hardest thing to do, I think when you are doing something so collaboratively. And it’s to protect — your favorite moment is actually when you hear them go, someone else in the room go, “Elsa wouldn’t do that.” And you’re like, ooh, thank god! We’re here.
John: Jennifer, because you’re here I can actually ask you a question that was on my mind from the very start. On the podcast we’ve talked about the Bechdel test which is –
John: The classic statement of the Bechdel test is is there more than one female character with a name. Do these two or more characters talk to each other over the course of the film? And do they talk about something that is not a man?
Aline : The question here, does it pass the male Bechdel. Yeah.
John: Your movie actually barely passes the reverse Bechdel test, which is one of the first things I can actually say.
John: Within your film actually as I looked through it the second time, it’s very rare to find, it’s almost impossible to find a scene that has two men with names who talk to each other.
Aline: Well, Snowman is a man. Olaf is a man.
John: There’s a little moment at the very end of the story where they are throwing Hans and the [Briggs] and they talk about –
Jennifer: Yes. They talk about the brothers.
John: The brothers. But that’s the only time other than… — If Olaf really counts…
Jennifer: Do they have to be alone onscreen, because I’m like maybe the bargaining with Oaken, but Anna is there, so I don’t know if that counts.
Aline: She can be there. They just have to –
John: Or they’re talking about like going off to get Elsa, or something like that, so they’re really talking about a girl.
John: So, it almost passes the reverse Bechdel test which is just fascinating. Or it fails –
Jennifer: The thing I will say is that completely just happened to be that way. I have to say that even I didn’t remember. I know I’m like, I just assumed we were going to pass because we had two female leads, but I hadn’t thought about it through the whole thing until I was like, oh god, did we pass? But I never thought of the reversal.
I was happy that we were doing a film like this where it is two female leads. And there was a point where there was that concern of like is there anything in it for the boys, but people just really got around the girls and the story.
Aline: We also have to talk about the big snow monster.
Aline: Which the kids enjoyed also. It gives you some of that.
Jennifer: What’s interesting about him, and this talks about sometimes you’re asked to do these weird, almost impossible things. Is there was a test done with the Snowman chasing them, and it was just a test to learn the animation. We were so late in production, I mean, this movie was so tight. There was a time where they said, “Do you think you can make that scene work? So actually use the scene, because we might not have time to animate.”
Aline: It’s like you’re juggling six balls and someone gives you a banana.
Jennifer: Yeah. And we had to reverse into how Marshmallow would fit and why Elsa would make him.
Jennifer: And Olaf was a bit of an anchor with that. She’s like, if I can make that, I can make this. And if you won’t leave, I will make you leave. And so he’s kind of — we had to make him a bouncer, but then it had to be Anna who pissed him off or it would make Elsa too mean.
So, there’s all this stuff, but the funny thing was at the end of the day we had to actually go back and reanimate because we had changed Anna’s character so much that it was driving me insane. Because the first, the test version which went out at some point, and I was like, “No!” is Anna is at the edge of the cliff going, “Oooh,” you know, scared, holding her hands together. “He’s coming! Hurry. Hurry. No, I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go.”
Jennifer: An Anna version way back. And I was like it doesn’t fit in the film. If she’s fearless she can’t do it. So, we had to reanimate it anyway. [laughs] And they did it, though. But by that point luckily we had done much better in production than we thought we were going to do. We had scheduled a lot of redo’s that –
Jennifer: That we didn’t have to do. So, that allowed us to do it. But I remember begging for that moment I guess.
Jennifer: Oh my god. See, I told you I can talk. I just –
John: Well, between you and Aline, we got a conversation covered. But thank you so much for coming and talking. And, Aline, thank you for being our amazing guest host.
Jennifer: Thank you for having me. This is so much fun.
Aline: I hope it’s creepy that John and I have probably seen the movie twenty-five times combined. [laughs]
John: We have kids. That will be our excuses, that we have kids.
John: So, like all of our episodes, if you want to know about things we talked about, Frozen, oh, and thank you for putting the script for Frozen up online. That is so terrific and I’m so glad that people do that these days.
Jennifer: I love that, too. I love getting to read them myself, all the scripts.
John: So, we will have links to stuff about Frozen and the script to Frozen up on johnaugust.com.
If you are listening to us on a device that supports podcasts, like your iPhone, you can find us on iTunes. We are there. Just search for Scriptnotes. And we will be back next week with a normal episode featuring Craig Mazin.
Aline: I’m going to get Craig out of the closet now.
John: All right. I heard him stirring there a little bit. So, we’ll let him out.
Aline Brosh McKenna on episodes 60, 76, 100, 101, 119, 123 and 124
Scriptnotes, Ep 101: Q&A from the live show — Transcript
Scriptnotes, Ep 100: Scriptnotes, the 100th episode — Transcript