WKND first reached out to screenwriter Cinco Paul ‘86, best known for his work on the “Despicable Me” series, upon discovering that he wanted to stage his 2013 musical “Bubble Boy” here on campus. When we found out that Paul was also the wordsmith behind “The Lorax” and “Horton Hears a Who!”, we thought: Why not a Backstage? Paul chatted with WKND about his love for Bill Murray, his writing process, and his time at Yale.
Q: So what did you do while you were on campus?
A: I actually wrote for the Yale Daily News — I had a record review column, a regular weekly column where I reviewed music — and I was in the Yale Precision Marching Band — I played trombone, and I also wrote the halftime scripts. I was involved in the Yale Dramat Children’s Theater for several productions, and then I played piano for a lot of musicals.
Q: Did your musical background help you write “Bubble Boy” the musical?
A: Yeah, I actually started off as a music major at Yale and then — it’s a very demanding major and I felt like I was a little out of my league, so I ended up switching to English but I still took composition courses while I was there, and some other music classes. I had always intended to be a pop musician — that was my career choice. “Bubble Boy” the Musical was nice because it merged two of the things that I love: writing and composing.
Q: What made you think of wanting to stage “Bubble Boy” at Yale?
A: Well, because I’m a Yalie! I would love for it to happen there, because I learned a lot about musical theater here at Yale when I was playing piano for these different productions, like “Pippin” and “Godspell” and … and I don’t know if this is still the case but when I was there, there were theatrical productions all over the place. And I thought, it would be really fun if Yale did [“Bubble Boy”]. We started to get some productions here and there in high schools, but we haven’t really had a full college production — I thought it would be great to have one at Yale.
Q: I pulled this off your Wikipedia page — it says you used to sing story pitches to film producers. True?
A: Just to clarify, we wouldn’t sing the entire pitch. We wouldn’t go: [singing] and this is the story about a guy who … We wouldn’t do that, but we would often, because we loved music so much, put a musical scene in our pitch where one of the characters was crooning to the other, or they were singing some sort of duet. So, singing was almost always a part of our pitch but not the whole pitch because that would have been a nightmare.
Q: You had experience writing jingles, right? Did this help with your pitches?
A: I think so. I think all my musical experience — my desire to be a pop musician and writing jingles and all of that — made those pitches more fun. That was the goal because people in Hollywood have heard a billion pitches and so you want to go in and entertain them in some way.
Q: What is screenwriting with a partner like? Do you guys have a tag-team process, do you sit down side by side and go through each line together? How does that work?
A: We’ll get together and we’ll discuss a chunk of pages: for instance, the next 30 pages, we’ll talk it all through and get it outlined, and then we’ll assign the scenes. We separate to write. We’re able to write a lot more quickly that way rather than side by side, just like hovering over one keyboard. Ken will do half and I’ll do the other half. We go off on our own and write and then once we’re done, we’ll get back together and read them aloud. The goal is to prove that your pages were better — it’s very competitive. But that actually drives us in a positive way to get to where we need to go.
Q: You have credits for “Horton Hears a Who,” “The Lorax,” the “Despicable Me” series — how do you maintain that line between these positive, upbeat movies without becoming too saccharine?
A: We end up having to be told what is not going to fly in the movie. You want to push it. The idea is that you never write a movie for kids. Ever. You just write it for yourselves. I’m writing it to make Ken laugh and he’s writing to make me laugh — you sort of do whatever it takes, and then, if you need to pull things back, you do. But also, we’re both dads and so generally we don’t lean towards the dark side. That’s just not how we’re made.
Q: Why animated movies — how did that become what you’ve been writing all these years?
A: It was actually kind of an accident — we had no intention to write animated movies. We were really writing straight comedy, and then we got pulled into “Horton Hears a Who” because Chris Meledandri, who runs Illumination now but was at Fox at the time, read one of our scripts and really loved it. When he formed his own company, Illumination, he brought us in and the first idea he had was “Despicable Me.” We found it a comfortable and fun place. I think it’s actually been very fortunate for us because comedy is pretty much disappearing from motion pictures. These animated movies for the entire family are one of the last bastions of comedy — that way we’re able to still make comedy movies. The Pixar movies and the Dreamworks movies are pretty much the only non-R rated comedies out there.
Q: How is this different from writing live-action scripts?
A: It takes about three or four years to make these animated movies. It’s really a marathon because you have all this time, so you just continually rewrite all of the scenes. And that can be exhausting but also it gives you opportunities that you wouldn’t have with live action shoots, which only last 8–10 weeks. After that, there’s not much more you can do.
Q: What are your thoughts on the Minions taking a life of their own, especially this summer? I know you didn’t write the most recent Minions movie.
A: Yeah, we didn’t write that movie but it is amazing how these Minions have taken off. Never in a million years would we have imagined them becoming so omnipresent. Every store you go into, everywhere you look, there are Minions — there may be too many Minions now, actually maximum Minion-osity, but it is pretty fun to realize that this movie has impact all over the world now. It’s crazy. “Minions” was the biggest movie Mexico’s ever had, and no one expected “Despicable Me” to be even a modest hit.
Q: Have you had any starstruck moments?
A: I will tell you that Julie Andrews plays Gru’s mom in the “Despicable Me” movies. I grew up with just a massive crush on Julie Andrews. I loved her so much, and so when I got to be in the studio with her, I was totally starstruck. There is Julie Andrews, right there in front of me. That was pretty amazing.
Q: Speaking of celebrities, I also found this gem on your twitter: “Last night I dreamed I was hanging out with Bill Murray. We played Madden.” So, favorite Bill Murray movie?
A: “Groundhog Day” is one of my all-time favorite movies. My master’s thesis script at [the University of Southern California] was this genius idea I had called “Stuck in Monday.” It was a guy who ended up stuck in the same day over and over. I turned in the script and that night, I went to the movies and saw the trailer for “Groundhog Day.” It killed me. It was the most devastating thing that’s ever happened to me because I was so sure that this genius idea was going to be my ticket to success in Hollywood. I realized that there was no way I could do anything with that script, so I had to toss it out and I started from scratch and wrote a new script for my thesis. That one ended up being optioned, which got me an agent, and everything worked out okay, but it was a horribly low moment. When I finally saw “Groundhog Day,” I loved the movie. It’s one of my top 10 movies of all time — I just think it’s brilliant.
Q: What role would you write Bill Murray into?
A: In every movie Ken and I write, there’s always a part that we would love for Bill Murray to play. I would love him to be a villain in the next “Despicable Me.” He would be great. But the problem is that it’s impossible to get ahold of this guy. It’s like, he doesn’t have an agent, he just has an answering machine, and you leave a message. Maybe he’ll respond. You kind of have to know somebody who knows him or something like that. He’s working on the new “Ghostbusters” with Kristen Wiig so maybe we have an in that way. We’ll see.
Q: What do you think Yale students should take advantage of while we’re here, in terms of the theater or the film communities in particular?
A: When I was at Yale, there was barely any sort of film program at all. And there certainly wasn’t any program for making movies, or screenwriting classes, nothing like that at all. But there was a little bit of a movement to start that. George Hickenlooper ’86 was a big part of that — I knew him and some other people who were trying to get things going back then. But I think you just have to get involved in as many things as you possibly can. You’re only [here] for four years, and it goes by so crazy fast. If you don’t take advantage of it, it’ll be too late. I don’t know, that sounds grand, doesn’t it? I had the greatest time when I was at Yale. It was one of the best things that happened to me. Dive in; lap it up.