Frozen: Do You Want To Build A Screenplay?
By Jacob Krueger
Listen to the podcast of this article
The structure for Disney’s Frozen begins with a piece of terrible advice. Confronted with a child with an extraordinary talent, the Grand Pabbie of the trolls tells her that until she learns to control her gift, she must hide it from the world.
If you’re a screenwriter, you probably know what that feels like.
You know what it’s like to feel like you can’t control your own gifts. And you know what it’s like to fear how people would react if they read your raw voice in its purist form. Ultimately, our job as writers—like the job of any ruler of a fairy kingdom—is to capture that wild talent of our natural voice, and shape it into a form that other people can understand. And like most producers, screenwriting gurus, coverage readers and other experts, the goal of the Grand Pabbie’s advice is a positive one.
It’s just his execution that’s so darn problematic.
He’s trying to get her to the end point, without ever allowing her to experience the beginning. And the results are like a shot of ice right into the heart, turning the one thing that makes Elsa truly special into a source of shame and fear, that cuts her off from everything that truly mattered to her. You can imagine that Elsa’s journey is probably similar in many ways to that of Frozen’s writer, Jennifer Lee, a writer of unique gifts, thrust into the gig of a lifetime, and a seemingly impossible challenge: to hold onto that unique voice that made her debut feature Wreck It Ralph, while adapting a nearly impossible short story (Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen), into the most formulaic model of all: a Disney Princess musical. A form that had to please not only a bevy of powerful executives, but also a very specific audience with very specific expectations. Disney had been trying to adapt The Snow Queen into an acceptable form since 1943. And until Jennifer Lee came around, every attempt had failed. So how did she succeed where so many writers before her had failed? Not by playing by the rules, but by breaking them. That’s because Jennifer Lee knows a secret she shares with her character Elsa. The way you learn to control your gift is not by hiding it away.
You learn to control your gift by letting it go.
If you think of that early scene in Frozen, where Anna and Elsa are playing together, it probably reminds you of the games you used to play as a child. Most of us probably couldn’t turn air into snow, but we could imagine things that were fantastical and magical and unique to us. And playing felt free and easy. We didn’t worry about whether we had the perfect structure, whether we were playing right, whether all of our playful decisions made sense. Instead, we were dancing with our characters, we were exploring. And yes, every once and a while we did fall and get hurt. But that was part of growing up and learning who we were as people. Unfortunately, as we get older, it gets harder and harder to play in this way. Our ambition becomes our enemy. And for so many of us, the well-meaning advice about how to control our gift that we’re given by our own “Grand Pabbies,” – whether they’re friends, family, teachers, coverage readers or producers – is like a shot of ice right into the heart.
We’re told to focus so strongly on all the elements of control, following the formulas and playing by the rules, that we end up dulling down all the elements that could truly allow our stories to stand out from the pack: the unique way that we see the world, the things that are in our screenplay that are weird, that are socially unacceptable, that don’t make sense, that we might be judged for. And we end up losing that wonderful, playful experience that we have when we’re children creating and replacing it with a fear-based writing that is not only boring for producers, but isn’t even pleasing for us! In Disney’s Frozen, Elsa’s desperate attempts to control her gift ends up driving a wedge between her and Anna – the one person she really cares about. And similarly, so many writers end up unwittingly driving a wedge between themselves and their characters; trying so hard to force them to conform to a predetermined formula that they never give them a chance to breathe on the page.
Like Elsa, we make this mistake with only the best of intentions. We want to succeed. We want to write something that others will understand. We want to write screenplays that can hook an audience, attract a star, and capture the attention of a producer. But what we actually end up doing is turning over the keys to the Kingdom to people like Hans and The Duke—who may seem like they have all the answers, but whose vision is limited by their commercial goals and their own repressed fears.
Let’s face it, breaking into screenwriting is hard.
This is an extraordinarily competitive industry. And if you’re writing the same formulaic screenplay everyone else is writing, you’re not going to make it. If a producer wants to buy a formulaic screenplay, there are hundreds of writers they can choose from. Writers who have better credits than you do, who have stronger connections than you do, who have more friends who are willing to pull in a favor than you do, who have more powerful agents than you do. If you want to break into this industry, you’ve got to write the way that only you can write. You’ve got to get your unique voice on the page, the voice that they can only get from you. It was because of the unique voice that Jennifer Lee showed on her very first movie, Wreck It Ralph, that she was given a chance to write a blockbuster like Frozen in the first place. And it was because she held on to that unique voice that she succeeded. That doesn’t mean that she ignored the needs of her producers. It just means that she arrived at them in her own unique way. And this is the beautiful thing about being a writer. We all do have a strange gift. We all do have that unique voice that allows us a chance to distinguish ourselves in this industry. And we can all learn to shape that gift, just as Jennifer Lee does in Frozen, into a form that can succeed commercially in the industry.
But first we need to let it go.
We need to allow ourselves to play like we played when we were children so that we can get that unique gift that we had when we were children. So that we can get that piece of us onto the page; that piece of us that nobody else can capture. Just like Elsa, often that unique part of you—the part that gives you your real chance of breaking into this industry – is the one of which you are most ashamed. That great line in your screenplay – the very best line you’ve got – is often the one that you want to cut out. That beautiful moment that doesn’t quite make sense is the one we fear. It’s scary to put yourself on the page. And the reason it’s scary is because when you put yourself on the page you are opening yourself up to judgment. You are taking the risk that some people won’t like you or that some people won’t understand. And it’s true – some people won’t understand. At least not in the early phases. But by getting that raw material onto the page – that early draft that’s “a bit of a fixer-upper” – we discover the elements that really matter to us and the ones that are worth shaping into a form that others can connect to.
Frozen: The Screenplay
If you look at Jennifer Lee’s screenplay for Frozen, you can see that the idea of letting it go, goes beyond just Elsa and Anna’s journey. That the idea of letting it go is actually present in the structure of the script itself. Because what Jennifer Lee does in this movie is to let go of all of the conventions of what a Disney musical is supposed to be, to ditch the formulas that Disney has relied on for generations: She gives us a powerful female lead who doesn’t rely on the handsome prince to save her but who earns his own happy ending and saves herself. She gives us a real look at what love looks like and totally explodes the Disney princess myth of love at first sight. She gives us a thematic exploration of the creative process, and a message to children to be themselves rather than trying to be like somebody else. And she still arrives at a musical that feels more Disney than anything we’ve seen in years. And this is what I mean when I talk about learning to control your gifts by first letting go.
Once you have the raw essence of the story onto the page, you can shape that story into the form that you need, into the form that other people can understand, and into the form that meets the needs and the genre preferences of your audience, your producer, your distributer and your agent. So, in your own writing, what I’d like to encourage you to do is see what happens if you set aside (just for a few minutes) everything everyone has told you about what a movie should be and start thinking about what this movie could be.
I’d like to encourage you to allow your characters to take you where they want to go. To allow yourself to build the playful relationship with your characters that doesn’t require them to play by the rules. And that doesn’t require you to play by the rules.