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Posted at 10:00 AM ET, 06/17/2010

'Riffs Interview: How Michael Arndt went from celebrity assistant to 'TOY STORY 3' screenwriter in two moves

By Michael Cavna

toystory1.jpg

Michael Arndt is a skilled enough screenwriter to have already won an Oscar, but still you've got to wonder: Could he, for all this talent, write his own success story? Were he to script his real-life rise to Hollywood's top tiers, would it seem to stretch all plausibility? Especially when not even Arndt himself can quite believe his ascension.

One day you're schlepping scripts for Ferris Bueller. Not too many years later, you're being entrusted with one of the most beloved and successful franchises in Hollywood history.

Arndt likens it to getting a call out of the blue to play centerfield for the New York Yankees. He had never written a released film when the call came from Pixar. The offer: "We'd like you to write the final Toy Story."

"I'm as bewildered as anyone," he says. "I feel like an innocent bystander."

A little more than a decade ago, Arndt's strongest tie to Hollywood was his job as Matthew Broderick's personal assistant. It was in 2000 when he sat for three days and wrote would become his first filmed screenplay. He labored through 100 revisions. He mulled whether to make the film himself on the cheap. It was then his career began to take on charmed turns of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" dimensions.

The husband-wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris wanted Arndt's script for their directorial debut. Feature-film rookies joining forces. The creative result cracked Sundance, got bought, was released and built word-of-mouth and critical buzz. The next year, the whirlwind experience was capped by four Academy Award nominations and two wins.

Arndt, on his first swing in his first at-bat, had won an Oscar for writing "Little Miss Sunshine."

Yet that, perhaps, wasn't the most surreal part.

arndt1.bmp Mr. Arndt meets Mr. Oscar in 2007. (Disney/Pixar)

"I have to just give Pixar a lot of credit," Arndt tells Comic Riffs this week. "They read 'Little Miss Sunshine' when it was still being shot. They just really liked the script."

As if film observers needed further proof than the Pixar wizards have the air of being visionaries.

"I was hired in 2005 by Pixar. And the film could have been a disaster," says Arndt, who spent part of his childhood in Northern Virginia. "They took a huge chance on hiring me in the first place. ... [Pixar founder] John Lasseter took a huge chance. I felt like the proverbial kid from the sticks who is suddenly batting leadoff for the Yankees."

toystory2.jpg "Nice ascot"? Ken meets Barbie in third outing. (Disney/Pixar)

Arndt was teamed with Lee Unkrich to work on one of Unkrich's original ideas. Months later, though, Pixar tapped Unkrich -- who'd worked on the first two "Toy Story" films -- to direct the third film in the groundbreaking CGI franchise.

"Lee and I had already built a good relationship working together," says Arndt, who praises Unkrich's "ruthless focus" on craft. So voila -- the year before "Little Miss Sunshine" was even distributed, Arndt was helping steer Pixar's most prized property. In an entirely different genre of film. While transitioning from writing alone to entering one of the film industry's most collaborative studios.

"I was trying to think of the right analogy to describe" the experience, Arndt says. "You go from trying to write a screenplay on your own: It's like trying to paddle your own raft, when you're out in the middle of nowhere and you don't know where you're going and wondering why you're doing this with your life. Reasonable people are back on the safety of land.

"Then suddenly you're hired by Pixar: It's like a beautiful ocean liner. They're crossing the ocean ... and I find myself boarding this [talented] culture at Pixar."

Arndt is quick to credit his fellow passengers on a Lido deck loaded with talent. "This script is so dense and so ripe with invention, there's no way I could have written this by myself.... I'm just one guy on a large team. There is so much manpower and brainpower applied to these scripts -- it's like working for NASA," says Arndt, quickly shifting his transporation metaphors

toystory3.jpg (Disney/Pixar)

Beyond inheriting such collaborators as "Toy Story" writers as Unkrich, Lasseter and Andrew Staunton, Arndt also inherited characters rich in dense and complex backstories. A central challenge to making "Toy Story 3" was how to stay true to the emotional architecture of this world -- particularly with the boy toy-owner, Andy, now suddenly grown and heading off to college.

"The question has been throughout the story: Does Andy still care about his toys? We've had to keep Andy slightly aloof and opaque -- that was a trick of the thing."

Arndt and Unkrich quickly shared a guiding principle: The three "Toy Story" films need to feel like one grand story.

"That was Lee's central epiphany: We needed to make the third film as though it was a natural continuation of one arc," says Arndt, who attended Virginia's Langley High and the Potomac School. (Unlike Andy, who never "sees" his dad in the three "Toy Story" films, Arndt had a close relationship with his late father, who worked for the Foreign Service.)

That epiphany helped Arndt navigate what he calls "four years in a state of barely suppressed panic." Says the screenwriter: "You're just hoping the third film will live up to the first two films."

Arndt and Unkrich, though, found creative inspiration in those first two films.

"The overarching story is about change," Arndt says. "You look back at the first story, it's about Woody learned to share the spotlight psychologically. That tracked with a kid who's 4 or 5 [years old]. In the second film, Woody is learning about his mortality and is tempted to leave Andy -- that development is like a child who's 7, 8 or 9.

"With the new film, I was trying to think of what new epiphany Woody could have. I think the film speaks to him trying to keep things the way they are and learning to be able to move on. That's a more mature sentiment and tracks psychologically more as someone who's in his teens. In all three films, Woody is the hero, but there's also a single overarching psychological development -- from the very immature, selfish character to a fully mature character."

As Arndt describes how he invests characters with profoundly true emotions, it becomes clear why Pixar hired him on the strength of "Little Miss Sunshine" alone: He delivers humor and heart with a canny knack for audience connection.

In the case of "Toy Story 3" specifically, Arndt says: "You want the audience to be uncertain at some point about Woody's loyalty. You have to have had his love of Andy seem irrational. Part of the secret to screenwriting is to confuse the audience -- then give them a sense of clarity at the end."

And it is at the end, in the final scene, that Arndt and his fellow writers attempt an open risk.

"That was a scary scene," he says. "You finally have Andy open up. In the first two films, you get only glimpses of Andy -- quick moments of hands and feet. That's why we opened [the third film] with scenes of Andy. It's the first time you saw, full frame, the humans actually talking to each other. And you need that beginning to establish Andy as a thinking and feeling character."

Whether writing for lost and striving souls traveling in the "Little Miss Sunshine" van, or runaway toys coming to terms with loss and change, Arndt has a gift for writing emotional payoff. Which helps explain why he's risen so high on the strength of just two films.

"Working at Pixar has been like my graduate school for screenwriting," Arndt says. Which seems the perfect metaphor: Arndt, like the college-bound Andy, grew for years before "Toy Story 3" presented profound levels of change.

By Michael Cavna  | June 17, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Interviews With Cartoonists, The Animation  | Tags:  Disney Pixar, John Lasseter, Lee Unkrich, Little Miss Sunshine, Michael Arndt, Toy Story 3  
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