Despicable glee: Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio brainstorm 3D animated tale of evil genius
“Make the other guy laugh.” That’s the litmus test for screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul. “If something’s good,” Paul says, “I can make Ken laugh.” After four years of writing and rewriting, the writers’ laugh-tested, 3D computer-animated Despicable Me will reach audiences via Universal Pictures on July 9.
Daurio and Paul don’t buy the idea of writing for kids. “We’ve always, since we’ve started writing together, written for ourselves. That’s a huge thing for both of us,” Paul explains. “What’s funny is funny. Even in Horton Hears a Who! or Santa Clause 2, we’ve never really written for kids. Kids are smarter than we all think they are. You don’t have to talk down to them to make a movie for them.”
Despicable Me, which is based on an idea from Spanish animator Sergio Pablos, follows super-villain Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) who is planning his biggest heist yet—stealing the moon. His scheme hits a slight speed bump when three orphans, Margo, Edith and Agnes, come into his life and try to adopt him as a father. Daurio and Paul, both parents themselves, turned to their own experiences to depict Gru’s travails with the three girls.
“There’s a scene where Gru is trying to have a video conference and the kids interrupt,” offers Paul. “Ken and I have had so many conference calls where we’re at our houses on the phones with studio execs…”
“You have to lock yourself in the bathroom so that you have a minute of privacy,” Daurio finishes. “Their fingers are slipping under the doors. They’re like little monsters that take over the world. We used a lot of those kinds of experiences in the movie.”
At a turning point in the film, Gru is forced to read the girls a “sleepy kittens” board book using kitten finger puppets (and ends up kind of liking it). “That sleepy kitten scene was totally inspired by our experiences reading those stupid board books to our kids,” Paul reveals. “Really? Do we have to read this book again? We were able to use a lot of that in this movie.”
The “sleepy kittens” book is also an allusion to the shoddy kids’ material out there that the duo doesn’t want to emulate. “We’re shooting for family entertainment that isn’t stupid, that isn’t just stuff that parents have to sit through. I think that “sleepy kittens” book analogy is the thing that every parent has had to do, but nobody wants to do, and that’s why we’re making these kinds of movies,” explains Daurio.
When the duo works on a script, they usually talk through a 30-page chunk of scenes and divide them up, writing separately. Then they read what each other has written, adding jokes or waiting for the laughter that means the other has nailed the scene.
“I think the best stuff comes from when the two of us are reading through something,” Paul reflects. “Sometimes we’ll just improv a scene back and forth and try to make it better by throwing out jokes, riffing and coming up with lines and jokes.”
The seasoned screenwriters, who first collaborated in 1999 and have been working together ever since, have learned to rely on each other’s strengths.
“We have specific kinds of scenes,” Daurio explains, “that we know, even before we talk about them, that it’s going to be a Ken scene or a Cinco scene. Cinco will generally do the scenes that have to do with the emotion and feelings and icky things like that, whereas I’m more into the physical parts. If there’s an action scene or a chase, that automatically goes to me. But there’s an in-between that we sort of split up and then each take a crack at things. I mean, I let him do the emotional scenes.”
“Ken’s afraid of those scenes, so I take them because I’m in touch with my emotions,” Paul clarifies, teasing. “Also, I would say I’m more of the structure person.”
“Cinco, he went to school for this,” Daurio adds. “There’s three acts and all that stuff.”
“And Ken is really a visually oriented person, so he’s great with action and sight gags and physical comedy,” Paul replies.
The two met when Daurio was cast as one of the leads in a church play Paul wrote. They formed a band (“obvious progression,” Paul deadpans) and “rocked the local outdoor malls,” according to Paul. Daurio had been directing music-videos for the prior decade, while Paul had been writing steadily since graduating from USC’s screenwriting program in 1993 (hence his emphasis on the three-act structure).
“The two of us hit it off and had similar senses of humor,” Daurio recalls. “One day, Cinco said we should write something together, and we did, and we have not looked back.”
The two have worked on movies such as Bubble Boy, The Santa Clause 2, Horton Hears a Who! and the upcoming Dinner for Schmucks, also with Steve Carell. But working on Despicable Me from start to finish has given them the most control over the final product.
“I think this is by far the movie that is most ours. We feel the most ownership with this one because it’s changed the least. Often you turn in your script, and there are many voices who have a say on what goes in, what goes out, and what gets changed. But since we first wrote Despicable Me, we’ve been there every step of the way.” Daurio recounts.
For example, when Carell was cast as Gru, they rewrote portions of the script to fit the actor’s interpretation. “Once we heard that voice, every time we would go back in and rewrite a scene, we had that voice in our head,” Daurio says. “It was so much fun to think of what we could do with it. So it really did help us to find and flesh out the character once he came in and had this great voice.”
“He is this incredible gift to have,” Paul proclaims. “He’s so funny. What’s great is he gets the script, he’s true to the script, he’ll say the lines—but then he’ll do little things to make them funnier, and make them play even better. It’s so great to have someone like Steve Carell and then we’ve also got Russell Brand, Jason Segel, Will Arnett, and a bunch of these guys that can make your lines sing.”
Daurio and Paul also praise the performance of young newcomer Elsie Fisher, who plays one of the little girls, Agnes. “She is just going to destroy,” Paul enthuses. Daurio adds, “In the casting, you hear some of these kids read, and clearly they’ve been on a million auditions and they’ve been coached on how to read certain lines. And this Elsie girl came in, and she was just so weird and real and like a real little kid. It was just so much fun to work with her and all the girls.”
The 3D in Despicable Me already has one fan, Daurio’s daughter. “One night at dinner my daughter, who was four years old, asked me, ‘Is Despicable Me going to be in 3D?’ I said, ‘Actually, it is,’ and she pumped her fist and said ‘Yes!’ I realized, okay, apparently kids like the 3D.”
“It’s great for comedy, it’s another tool you can use in a scene to get a laugh or get a response from the audience,” Paul adds.
“There are a few laughs that come directly from the 3D,” Daurio reveals. “There are some things that are going to play really funny as they float over the audience’s head. When you’re writing, instead of going across the screen, you’re thinking about how things can come out over the audience.”
One of the benefits—and hazards—of modern moviemaking is test screenings, and the two have already seen the movie in front of an audience many times. “It’s crazy how early they start testing these movies, because in some of these test screenings, more than half the movie wasn’t even animated,” Daurio explains. “People were looking at still drawings and temp music and no sound effects. About halfway through the testing process, when everything started to click, and you were seeing more and more of the animation, audiences just loved it. Every screening we went to, it was just great, great responses. It’s like, wow, this is all coming from a little animated movie with wacky characters and people are actually feeling something? It was really rewarding to go to those screenings.”
After Despicable Me, the screenwriters will be just as busy. They have two more projects lined up with Illumination Entertainment, the family animation division of Universal. Chris Meledandri (see our separate profile), with whom they had worked on Fox’s Horton Hears a Who!, brought the duo over when he started the company.
“It’s a great home for us,” Daurio enthuses, “because we’re really on the same page with Chris about the kind of movies we want to make, the kind of movies that should be made right now.”
“It’s rare as a screenwriter to find an executive that shares your vision and that you can work well with together to make stories better.” Paul adds.
If The Little Mermaid ushered in a second golden age of animation, Paul believes we are now in a third, which Pixar started with Toy Story. “In my top-ten list every year, at least two or three of the movies are animated. The top of the box office, too, every year there are at least three or four that are CG animation.”
The two recently wrote Hop for Illumination, which will come out next Easter. In a plot that sounds like The Santa Clause transposed to Easter, Russell Brand plays a man who must take on the Easter Bunny’s duties after he hits him with a car. The duo will also tackle another Dr. Seuss adaptation, The Lorax. This time, they’ll be sitting in the director’s chair.
“The Lorax is the way that movie should be told, to create a whole world that no one’s ever seen before,” Daurio explains. “You don’t want to recreate it in live action, because, as we’ve seen, that is not always successful. Animation is a place now where it’s almost a plus if you have a huge, big idea. You can go into that animation world and really make it come alive.”
But first, after years of writing for each other, the duo will give Despicable Me over to another audience—and if the pre-screenings are any indicator, it will be a laughing one.