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How Pixar prepared writer Meg LeFauve for her next challenge: 'Captain Marvel'

Screenwriter Meg LeFauve at The Hollywood Reporter's annual nominees night.
Screenwriter Meg LeFauve at The Hollywood Reporter's annual nominees night.
Mike Windle

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Pixar's "Inside Out" goes inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley to follow her emotions, especially as joy and sadness fight it out. 

The animated film is nominated for two Academy Awards this year, including Original Screenplay. It’s a nomination that co-writer Meg LeFauve shares with Pete Docter, who directed the film, and writers Ronnie Del Carmen and Josh Cooley.

LeFauve comes from writing and producing for live action movies, so adjusting to Pixar’s intense production process and learning how to write for animation was a challenge. When LaFauve stopped by The Frame recently, she explained the most difficult part of getting accustomed to the Pixar way of working.

Interview Highlights:

It's sometimes true in any business that the only thing that a room of people can agree on is the most obvious solution. So when you're exposing your ideas to a room of people, and everyone has an opinion, how do you make sure that you don't end up with simply the consensus pick, which might be the least interesting choice?

It's something that I had to get used to in terms of the willingness to take it all apart over and over and over. As a screenwriter coming from live action, I always wanted to nail something down and say, This is it. And they would say, Maybe. Let's put it through its paces.

And you'd have people look through the boards, or pitch to them, and it would come apart again. So it was just this constant creative churn. And what that gives you is the uniqueness of their storytelling, but also the depth. 

Pete Docter is the director and he's obviously basing "Inside Out" a little bit on his experiences with his own daughter. You come into the project as a writer and a collaborator, but also as a parent. How does that dynamic change the story that you're telling, especially inside a studio that has never had a woman direct a feature film?

I also used to be an 11-year-old girl, so I had that slight advantage [laughs]. But it's not something I consciously was thinking of because the emphasis at Pixar is, Is this the best story? It's always about the storytelling. And with any writing and directing situation, my job is to dig down with Pete into what his vision is.

For "Inside Out," it's about the human condition and it's about being a human being. And when he [says], "I want this movie to be about sadness and how sadness connects us," that's such a profound idea. It's past gender. It's a profound idea about being a human being that we could put out into the world.

Now comes the hard work. You have to take that profound idea and make it something accessible and understandable and entertaining, and it has to have a plot and a world, and there are rules. There are layers and layers around that idea, but that's always the DNA — Pete wanting to talk about growing up, and part of growing up is wanting to understand this deeper idea about yourself.

Do you think you brought to the project something unique as a woman? Can you cite some specific scenes or approaches that you took that were influenced by being a woman?

It's interesting because my perspective, just from the very fact that it's as a woman in the room, is going to shape the story. For example, Riley was at first a figure skater. And in this creative churn you do at Pixar, everything is up for grabs: Is that the best idea? We really wanted something where all the emotions could play in it. But was this about me being a woman? No. This is about me being a little girl who got moved.

So, what is Riley missing? To miss a team is something more personal and deep. But I'm not the one who came up with hockey, that was Ronnie del Carmen. So sometimes, when you say being the woman in the room — it's not that you always have the best solutions. There are amazing storytellers in the room, but it's just a matter of raising your hand and saying, What if...? Can we think about this?

I've been in rooms — not in Pixar, but in Hollywood — where I've raised my hand and said, "If this character was a male, would we be having this conversation?" Or, "What would she do if she were a man?" Just to crack it open a little bit — even for the women in the room, by the way. I've had women creatives who can also do the same thing in terms of deciding what a woman would do. 

This movie is about a young girl who has moved, and while making this movie, you moved your children to the Bay Area. Did you see anything in them that shaped the way you thought about this movie? Did any of their behavior end up being part of the film?

I think that everything that I am as a parent went into that movie, but the biggest part of myself and my kids that are in the movie is that I sent them to a preschool in Van Nuys here in L.A. called Children's Circle. It was all about emotional intelligence. To teach a child at that age ABC's, 123's — they can learn that later once they can emotionally regulate and understand themselves deeper.

So that scene of Riley sitting next to Bing Bong and narrating for him, "It's gone. Your rocket is gone and that's sad. You had a lot of fun in that rocket." That's what I do with my children and what I learned to do at that preschool — that whole idea of accepting wherever you are and whatever emotional state you're in. Now, it's a little harder when you've moved them and they're mad at you [laughs]. I admit that. 

You're in the midst of writing the live action version of "Captain Marvel." As you're writing that script with Nicole Perlman, are you trying to take yourself back to Pixar and picture what that movie looks like? Do you learn anything from your experience in animation that you can apply to a movie like "Captain Marvel"? 

I learned so much from working at Pixar. I learned to not be afraid of that creative churn, to not be afraid of throwing things out, to know that a better idea will always be coming. You learn just inherent craft skills by thinking a scene works really well on the page, but when it goes up visually you realize, no, that doesn't work at all. And that's by osmosis of learning that — by watching and having it happen. I mean, what an incredible privilege, to have that experience as a writer. And Nicole and I are such at the beginning stages of "Captain Marvel." We're really just starting to put big blocks down. Again, as a kind of creative churn of, It could be this, it could be that. So I just think the bravery of letting that churn happen is what I've taken from Pixar. 

So "Captain Marvel" is a female-led superhero movie, which is news enough in itself. It's being written by two women. Can you talk a little bit about where you are in that process, and how exciting it is to be working on a movie with a female superhero?

Well, it's incredibly exciting, and I feel very lucky, and I feel incredibly lucky to be working with Nicole, who's brilliant. I mean, there's a bit of pressure. It's like working at Pixar. They've won a lot of Academy Awards. You better have your top game. But really, Nicole and I talked and realized that what we can control is that she and I have a good time and tell the best story we know how to tell. That's what we can control and contribute. And the rest of it, we're in really early stages: Who is she? Who is her antagonist? Where is she? The giant questions are still what we're working through.

And how do you insulate yourself from that overwhelming pressure that this is a big deal, and in some ways might even be seen as a referendum on whether or not a woman can carry an action film.

I think two ways: One is, Nicole and I have each other. So we can help check each other: Let's not get into that moment of paranoia and swirling. Let's just go back to the story. And I think, with any bit of writing, when you can get lost in the fear, my guiding line is always to go back to the character and fight for the character and who she is and what story she wants to tell. She'll be a specific character. There's no way she can stand in for every woman. That wouldn't be a very good character. So it's about keeping her specific and telling her great story. 

One of the things that's true at Pixar is you're working with a group of people. You're presenting your ideas and you're talking them out, and you're seeing these reels put together. When you go back to live action, it's a very different experience. You're kind of writing with a partner, but alone. And you turn your script in and it goes wherever it's going to go. How do you make that adjustment from the two different working environments?

It's been hard and I've been writing other things on my own. I'm writing again as a live action writer. I look around and I'm like, Where is everybody? Come on, let's churn this out together! Honestly what I'm starting to do is gather my people, my own brain trust. I'm starting to gather who's going to read my script, and I would love it if we could all sit down at the same time. And I think the other writers here have that same hunger. So it's not a hard thing to do. We want to all help each other. 

I have this dream of somehow creating a writers' collective. I think the best scenario is that everybody is helping each other write the best that they can, the way that Pixar does. That's a dream, I know. But that's what I'm doing. I'm having to create my own private little version of it. And I'm very lucky. I'll be honest with you. The way I'm doing it is, my husband's a really genius writer himself. So he helps me come to that sounding board, and be that idea churner and the spitballer with me.

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