What do you do when Jeffrey isn't jumping for joy after the first test screening? Go back to the drawing board? No, go back to the script. Co-director Robert Ramirez recounts his experience wrangling together the timeless story of DreamWorks' new straight to video release, Joseph: King of Dreams.
Editor's Note: When I sat down to watch DreamWorks' Joseph: King of Dreams, I expected a typical direct-to-video production. In fact, perhaps I was even more skeptical due to the subject matter that could have been dry and stilted, toeing a careful line so as to not upset anyone. However, what I saw on my little screen was so much more than I expected. The story was vibrant and touching, the relationships real and the lessons learned an organic experience, not a preaching morality tale. From the imaginative dream sequences to the stylish design work, I was impressed! Luckily, co-director Robert Ramirez was willing to share his creative experience...
It was a Tuesday afternoon in September when I heard the thud on my front porch. Before I opened the door, I knew what it was. DreamWorks' Publicity Department had messengered over a compilation of early press reviews on Joseph: King of Dreams, a film I had spent almost three years working on. I nonchalantly took the package, slowly went upstairs and closed my office door. The moment I sat at my desk, I cut the act. I shredded open the envelope the way the Tasmanian Devil tears through trees. What did the first non-animation industry movie critics think? Did the story work? Were the characters interesting? Whoever tells you reviews are not important is not being realistic. Of course reviews are important. An honest movie critic with no agenda can give a filmmaker something he or she has lost a long time ago: objectivity. Because of the process, a filmmaker might sit through a film well over a hundred times. After a while, scenes that once felt dramatic feel flat and jokes fizzle. So what did the early press reviews reveal?
The reviews for Joseph have generally been very good, but instead of going on about the positive press it's received, I'd rather dive into a period years ago when the film was not working very well, when the storytelling was heavy-handed, klunky and what we discovered as a crew that made it a whole lot better. But first, a brief synopsis.
Joseph: King of Dreams is based on the Bible story found early on in the Old Testament (not the campy Andrew Lloyd Weber musical). Joseph was a spoiled seventeen-year-old boy who was adored by his father, Jacob, and loathed by his brothers. Who could blame them? While they had to work all day in the scorching fields, Joseph learned to read and write, and pranced around in a luxurious coat his father had given him. To make matters worse, Joseph had vivid, wild dreams that foretold his rise to greatness above his family, so his brothers did what any group of sniveling siblings would do. They sold him into slavery, tore up his coat, doused it with sheep's blood, and told their parents that Joseph was killed by wild animals. (Very Jerry Springer.)
In Egypt, Joseph's charm and dream-reading talents allowed him to prosper and eventually rise up to be second in command over the great nation. His life seemed complete once he found a loving wife and started his own family, until a great famine struck all of Egypt (as he had predicted) and a familiar group of strangers showed up begging for food. These "strangers" turned out to be his brothers. Now it was Joseph's turn. Would he follow his initial gut instinct and enslave them? Abuse them? Kill them? Or would he rise above hatred and forgive them? In a nutshell, that's what the crux of the story is about: forgiveness
December of 1997 was a great time on the production. While the script was being fleshed out, Paul Duncan (the head background painter) and Brian Andrews (story artist) were creating some phenomenal conceptual artwork. Francisco Avalos and Nasos Vakalis were doing storyboards based on a rough story outline. Weeks later we started assembling a very talented story crew that included artists that had both television and feature experience. We had a script that was well-structured and followed the Bible story fairly accurately. Once the First Act was storyboarded, we filmed the panels, recorded a temp vocal track with music, and edited it all together to create the storyreel. We were excited and ready for our First Act screening for Jeffrey Katzenberg, which was set for an early weekend morning in the New Year of 1998.
After the Screening...
When the lights came on in the screening room, the silence was deafening. All the execs put down their yellow legal notepads and headed down the hall to the conference room (which for me felt miles away). When we all sat down, Jeffrey looked up and said three words: "Nothing made sense."
He was right. Nothing made sense. We followed the Bible story tightly. The script had structure. We storyboarded it word for word, yet it fell flat on its face. It all suddenly felt like a horrible, horrible disaster, and the worst part of it all was that I didn't know how to fix it. I was deeply confused, and our aggressive production schedule didn't allow for the story re-working that usually takes place on a theatrical feature. Share Stallings, one of our creative executives on the project, was very supportive and offered encouragement to the crew. She assured me that at least two sequences could be saved by clarifying some visuals and re-writing some dialogue. I couldn't see it at the time, although she turned out to be right. The only thing I could think about was that "nothing made sense."
The following Monday morning I was going over the notes compiled after the First Act screening, when I heard a group gathering outside my door. It was the story crew. They were dying to know how the screening went. I wasn't sure how to approach telling them the bleak news. Should I sugar coat it? Should I tell them it was a disaster? I was well aware of the fact that morale was high prior to the screening, and I didn't want to send it suddenly crashing down. (It's been my experience that unhappy crews don't make good movies.) Yet still, I had to tell them the truth.
"What do you mean, it bombed?" asked a board artist who two weeks prior to the screening had pitched a successful sequence. "The sequences are based on good ideas...good concepts, but when we cut them together they don't connect," I responded. "Something's missing."
After having some intensive story meetings with Steven Hickner and Penny Finkleman-Cox (Executive Producers), I knew we had to throw away 90% of what we had. They both brought great knowledge and experience, and proved to be the driving forces behind the project. They directed our attention toward focusing more on the characters and their relationships to each other, instead of always thinking in terms of plot and structure.
Character: The Missing Piece
What is a story? To break it down to its simplest definition, a story is a character who wants for something so badly, that he or she is willing to do anything to get it. That's what stories usually come down to: satisfying a want.
When we started analyzing the characters in Joseph, we began to work from the inside out as opposed to just putting together a story. I learned that stories just don't happen. Characters make stories happen. Once we delved into the minds of these characters and dissected their personalities, we started making some important breakthroughs. It all starts with asking the right questions.
What does Joseph want? To be a part of his brothers' lives and reunite with his family. What does Judah, Joseph's older brother, want? He wants the love and positive attention that his father Jacob reserves only for Joseph. What does Jacob want? Jacob wants to show the world how much he loves his favorite son, Joseph. Why does Jacob love Joseph so much more than his other sons? Because Joseph is the spitting image of his favorite wife. He's the first-born son of the woman he waited for all his life to marry.
Once we discovered the "wants" of the main characters, it was simple to figure out what actions they would take to satisfy them. Different characters often have opposing wants to each other, which leads to conflict. How the conflict is resolved is the story, the heart of the movie.
Another important discovery was finding the voice of each individual. Dialogue is action in its purest, simplest form. Think about your own voice for a moment. How do you speak? Do you generally give long, rolling answers to questions, or do you prefer to give short, curt responses? The way we speak says something specific about our nature. Do you like to use soft sounding words, or do you generally use sharp sounding consonants? When writing a character, it's not what a character says that tells us the most about their personality; it's how they say it.
Once we had a deeper understanding of our characters and what made them tick, the scenes had a new spark of life that had been missing all along. The characters were now driving the scenes, instead of vice versa. In time, ideas that were born out of character helped blend sequences so that they flowed into each other instead of feeling disconnected.
There is an unfortunate misconception that plagues many animated productions. Whenever a script isn't working, the usual plan of action is "fix it in the storyboarding process." Oftentimes, this leads to giving the board artists the burden of fixing the holes in the story. From there, the baton gets passed down to editing. "We can move things around in editing," is an overused mantra that gets dumped on the smallest department with the least amount of time. The lead editors on Joseph -- Mike Andrews and Greg Snyder -- often had only a few days to cut music and edit many sequences that were constantly being rewritten even as they dropped in the last few sound effects for the next day's screening. Although these last-minute procedures are part of the production process, a great deal of time (not to mention a film's budget) could be saved by starting out with a tighter, more thought-out script. We've all heard it before: "If it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage."
The next time I'm on an animated film and run into the inevitable problems that come up in the story process, it's good to know where I might find some answers. In this age where the development of digital technology is growing at a mind-boggling speed, I hope that we don't lose sight of our main objective as filmmakers: creating compelling characters and telling a story in the best way possible. It may be that it'll take more production time up-front in the script development stage but, as experience has proven, it'll save a great deal more down the line.
Joseph: King of Dreams will be available November 7, 2000 in U.S. retail outlets, with other territorities soon following.
Robert Ramirez has directed three feature-length animated films including Joseph: King of Dreams, Brave Little Toaster to the Rescue and Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars. He is currently developing a screenplay in the UCLA Master Sequence in Screenriting Program.