Imagine being responsible for creating the Minions. Whether you love them or hate them, there’s no denying that the chubby yellow pill-shaped enigmas took over the world (and made a hell of a lot of money in the process). Cinco Paul, screenwriter of Despicable Me (and its sequels), along with his writing partner Ken Daurio, can claim responsibility for the Minions and the genius move of not just marketing an animated film but character creation — Despicable Me without the Minions probably wouldn’t have been nearly as successful. But ironically, nobody wanted anything to do with the little yellow guys initially as Cinco Paul explains in his recent sit-down with Yale Podcast Network’s To Live and Dialogue in LA.
The insightful conversation between Paul and host Aaron Tracy explores a number of topics on writing, not just Minions. Below are some snippets from their talk.
Finding Healthy Competition With His Writing Partner
Paul and his writing partner, Ken Daurio, have worked on a number of projects together and by now have really carved out a go-to routine that works for them. “Generally we know where our strengths lie,” Paul says. “We’ll pretty much divide up the scenes, he’ll take five and I’ll take five and then we go off and write them. And so by the end of the day, we each have, hopefully, our five pages or so. We’ll put them together and then we’ll read them aloud… And that’s the time when we’re revising each other’s or we’re pitching out other ideas… It’s very competitive as far as who has the better pages… and who ‘won’ the day.”
But it’s healthy competitiveness, all good-natured. As Paul goes on to say, “I’m really trying to make Ken laugh with my pages, and vice versa. And that’s really the audience we write to. Basically trying to write the movie that we really want to see but also to try to get Ken to laugh out loud… we’ve been writing partners for almost twenty years now… we’re both pretty easy going so we have very [few] disagreements…”
By the way, our friends over at The Script Lab have a great interview with Cinco Paul on their new streaming platform TSL 360. Sign up for a free 3-day trial and watch it today.
The Difficulties of Writing Animation
Because animated movies can take so long to make — three years typically, as was the case for Despicable Me — the process of writing the film is unlike anything Paul and Daurio were used to. “As soon as we start writing, the movie is getting made,” Paul explains. “And, you know, that’s pretty rare but I think that’s more common in animation. But right away, you know, we have artists who are doing character design as we start writing, and basically, as soon as we have the first act, we turn that in. And so immediately, they start storyboarding it, and we’ll… move on to act two but we keep getting pulled back to act one because as they storyboard it and we watch it like dailies, basically, three times a week… then we go back and revise it because you see it up there and you realize oh, this just doesn’t work…”
Paul admits, “As a screenwriter, I don’t really know what the movie is until I get to act three… and then you sort to start to have an idea of what it is, so often we’ll get to the end of the movie and we’ll realize oh, this is what it’s about, and we’ve got a third or sometimes a half of the movie already animated. And so you’re locked in and you have to do these surgical changes…. It’s exhausting, I will say.”
Advice On Keeping Your Writing Fresh
Paul, like all writers, is no stranger to hitting roadblocks — huge success hardly changes that, which probably comes as no surprise. What would a writer be without writer’s block? Paul’s practice is just to write — write different things, things that aren’t just different projects, but also not screenplays.
“I would recommend [dabbling in different forms of writing] to all writers,” he advises. “Spread yourself out. I’ve actually started writing musicals now… Our first movie was this movie with Jake Gyllenhaal called Bubble Boy, which was like a massive flop, but we turned it into a musical which was really creatively satisfying for me. So now I’m working on another one and it’s fun to stretch these different muscles. I think it does help keep you fresh.”
Straight Talk On Pitching
For any writer lucky enough to reach the stage of being able to “pitch,” this advice is for you. “You’re not just pitching the idea, you’re pitching yourself,” Paul states. Paul doesn’t look at it as cynically selling yourself but more so proving that you’ll be a good “co-worker,” in a sense.
“Do they want to work with you, do they want to spend time with you on this movie or TV show or whatever it is. That’s almost more important than the idea,” he admits.
Despicable Me brought success to Paul and Daurio that they never saw coming, obviously changing the trajectory of their careers. They were hired to write a sequel a few weeks after Despicable Me was released, once the studio realized what type of hit they had on their hands. They were able to write The Lorax after and a spin-off for the Minions. On top of that, they lent their talents to another money-making animated hit which has a sequel on the way, The Secret Life of Pets.
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But through it all, Paul stays humble and level-headed about it. “It’s sort of that once in a lifetime moment where lightning strikes which you have no control over as a screenwriter but when it happens, it’s just like, amazing because no one expected this movie to do anything really. We were a brand new studio, and I often tell this story but no one wanted to license Minions for toys or anything, no one had any interest in that. They approached everybody and I think there was like this small company in Mexico that made a few of them but then it exploded. And something like that is just so exciting.”
Travis Maiuro is a screenwriter and freelance film writer whose work has appeared in Cineaste Magazine, among other publications.
Photo credit: Despicable Me and TSL 360