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PHILIP LAZEBNIK: Art is the only thing that survives

The tutor of this year’s CEE Animation Forum in Třeboň also included Philip LaZebnik, screenwriter of Hollywood blockbusters such as Pocahontas, Mulan and The Prince of Egypt. He is also the author of Broadway musicals and the screenwriter for television series. LaZebnik relocated from the US to Denmark several years ago. He recalls his work for DreamWorks and Disney in an interview with ASAF, gives his opinion of Central and Eastern European animation and gives advice on what Czech animation needs.

You have collaborated with great American animation studios Disney and DreamWorks and now you live in Denmark, where the situation of animated films production is different. What’s your perception of Central and Eastern Europe animation with this experience?

This is my third time at the CEE Animation Forum and just like every year I am amazed at the amount of creativity and ingenuity of the films here as well as the level of their animation. There are really a lot of talented people in this region. I would say that this is an advantage, in a way, that in Central and Eastern Europe there is not so much money in animation. This gives the authors the creative freedom that you won’t get in a big animation studio, where it is all about creating a box office hit. Here the creators can fulfill their visions.

You are right that there is a lot of talent in Central and Eastern Europe. However, the animation industry is often underdeveloped – for example, it is difficult in the Czech Republic to fill some animation professions…

The problem is finance, which is true for all of Europe. Bigger projects usually have to stop for a while and wait for funding. In the meantime, the team members have to find another job, then the project starts again and so it goes over and over before the movie or series is finished. In such a situation it is very difficult to maintain creative energy and enthusiasm. In the big American animation studios, everyone has a contract for the duration of the film’s creation and you can spend a lot of time developing the story and storyboard. When a project gets the green light in a big studio, you can devote all your time and energy to it, and there’s usually the same team working on it from start to finish. But everything has its advantages and disadvantages. While the industry is a problem in Eastern and Central Europe in a way, you don’t need it that much for individual projects. However, the system of grants and state support for the film industry should be strengthened in all Central and Eastern European countries. Film is the embodiment of a country’s soul and culture, and it is very important for the state to support it. It is more important than constructing bridges, because they will fall down one day; culture and art, however, will remain. Short films are an art of their kind, but are also a great stepping stone for artists who then go on to feature projects. On a short, an author tries out a lot of of things, finds co-workers, and becomes known in the field.

When you compare animated films from Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, can you see any differences between them, or is it impossible to make such generalisations?

I see minor differences, because each country and even the region tells a slightly different story, and in a slightly different way. I don’t want to strengthen the stereotypes about these countries. In Norway, there is a joke that a typical Norwegian film is about a shy individual, unable to communicate with his surroundings. But this only supports some stereotypical view of films and cultures. In the first place, people are simply people and many movies are universal, as well as stories and topics. I feel there are more similarities than differences. It is always important to support an individual voice.

Can one say that there’s something specific about Czech animation?

I don’t feel like an expert in Czech animation, but many Czech films are based on folk tradition. You have a lot of fairy tales and Czech films are usually very distinctive visually. They often have a sense of humour, and at the same time there is a hint of something dark, shadowy. But just a hint. However, generalisation is always tricky.

What would you recommend to Czech animation today?

Money, money and money again. Not only from the state but also from private sources. It is necessary to explain to managements of businesses that animation is a value worth supporting. It is an individual, unique expression, co-creating the identity of the country. It’s easy to perceive art as a kind of luxury we don’t really need. But I believe there’s nothing more important than art. It’s the only thing that will survive. What is left of ancient Greece except a few ruins? Art as such, not just animation, needs more attention.

Is there any pitch at CEE Animation Forum this year that you find interesting?

Among the Czech ones, I recall Jan Míka and his project Husa, which didn’t lack humour even though it is a slightly tragic story. It’s a cute, very emotional thing.

What’s the standard of the pitching here in your opinion?

Artists generally hate pitching, but it is essential if you want to succeed with a project. Presentation needs to be practised and there’s never enough training. It is very difficult, because you only have a few minutes to express both the idea and the mood of ​​the film. In general, the level of pitches at CEE Animation Forum is very high. I always encourage people to try and present their films as much as possible. It is a way to find out how the audience reacts to their ideas. If I were to give a piece of advice, it is generally not a good idea to tell the story in detail, but rather base your presentation on individuality and emotionality.

Did you have to present your ideas when writing the Pocahontas or Mulan scripts?

In a way, I had to on a daily basis. When you work on a movie in a big animation studio, you don’t exactly have to sell it, but you do have to push your idea, your understanding of the character, or a replica of the dialogue. For example, DreamWorks head Jeffrey Katzenberg was presenting his ideas wherever he was. His visions and upcoming movies. This is a business where communication plays a great role. There’s a funny aspect about animation in this respect – animators are visual artists and they don’t always master words so well. They are usually introverts, who find it difficult to express their thoughts and ideas through words. At Disney and DreamWorks, there was a long and endless war going on between screenwriters and visual artists in this regard.

So how did you collaborate on films with visual artists?

Every film is different. There might be thirty people in a big project sitting around the table at a large studio and you, as a screenwriter, have to take into account all those thirty views, ideas, and comments and make them into a script. As far as writing is concerned, there are usually several screenwriters working on one film. There were three of us with Pocahontas, working as a team, even though we were hired separately. Mulan was different again – I wrote several versions of the script myself.

How did you share your work on Pocahontas when there were three of you?

First, we put together a rough outline of the story, then we divided it into three parts and each of us wrote a third. Then we tried to connect them and discuss it a lot. Finally, we wrote dialogues and we were also writing together in that final stage, I mean really together – sitting together at one table and writing. Then my two colleagues left the project and I finished the final version myself.

What was the storyboard collaboration like?

My first storyboard experience was crazy. I sat down with the storyboard artists, who presented a storyboard where nothing was left of my original script. They made their movie out of it. Someone in the team said to me then: Be patient. And he was right. Eventually, there was always something in the storyboard that could be used in the script. During the following months of work, the storyboard was moving closer to my script and I calmed down. Scenes were shifted, rewritten, but as a screenwriter you always have to remember how the whole story holds together. It’s chaos. I had a different colour for each stage of the script, ending with thirty, forty colours.

When you saw the finished movie, did at least the original idea remain?

I have already learned to drop my ego in studio films. It’s teamwork. You must find your creativity in something else, for example, in solving problems. With the story, the storyboard. Now I have written the script for a musical The Prince of Egypt based on the film of the same name, which will be staged in London. And there I have creative control. That’s different.

Were the storyboard difficulties typical of Pocahontas only, or did it happen with other studio films?

This is always the same.

All these films have to do with history and mythology. Is this your personal topic?

There is no personal topic in Hollywood! I was simply hired for these projects, and they happen to be similar in some ways. I didn’t choose the topics. Otherwise, of course, I’m interested in history. I’ll tell you a story – it also has to do with pitching. Walt Disney had three secrets of a successful film, three sort of criteria. The first one was that the audience must be familiar with the story in advance – it must ring a bell. Take Snow White… The second one, it must be a universal theme that does not speak only to a particular audience. And the third one was that the audience had to feel better when leaving the cinema than when they came in. When I was working for Disney, there were so-called “gong shows” where the animators had two minutes to pitch their idea for a movie or scene. Jeffrey Katzenberg and Walt Disney’s nephew, Roy Disney were always sitting there. Once, a young screenwriter, Mark Gabriel, had his gong show showing a picture of a young American Indian woman sitting in a canoe with animals. And all he said was: “Pocahontas”. At that moment Jeffrey Katzenberg spoke from behind and said, “This will be our next movie!” He immediately sensed that it contained all three criteria of Disney. It was actually one word pitching. Katzenberg’s strength was the ability to make a quick decision. This is essential in the film business. The Prince of Egypt was created under different circumstances – it was when Jeffrey was fired from Disney, he founded his own DreamWorks studio with Steven Spielberg, and Spielberg allegedly complained to him that his own animated films hadn’t reached the Disney level yet and asked if there was any rule for animated movies. Jeffrey told him about the three Disney rules mentioned above, and Spielberg replied: “Like the Ten Commandments?” And Katzenberg said: “This will be our next movie!” And that’s how The Prince of Egypt came to see the light of the world.

You live in Denmark. Why did you leave the US?

Because I have a Danish wife. For years, she had been persuading me to move to Denmark. The children were older, so we said to ourselves, “Now or never”. I’ve always said that moving to Europe was a family decision, but in retrospect I found it was the best decision of my career. It opened up new possibilities for me. Although you can work from anywhere with Skype and the Internet today, it’s only true to some extent. Nothing equals face to face collaboration.

You also started to work as a producer…

I asked myself why I should write films for others and not make my own movie. So I started producing films. But I realised that not only did I lack the talent for it, I didn’t enjoy it either. So I quit doing it.

What is your next project?

I’m working on a number of projects, The Prince of Egypt musical with my script will open in London soon, but I am also writing TV series scripts…. Events like CEE Animation Forum have the advantage that you meet a lot of interesting people in the industry. Other projects almost always come out of events like these. We’ve even come up with a few here, but I won’t disclose them yet.

Have you ever thought about writing a book?

You’re talking like my father now. He was a professor of English literature and wrote a book about his grandmother himself. And he kept forcing me to write a book. I never say never, but writing is different. Through his writing, my father probably inspired me to devote myself to writing in my life. But I have more experience with writing for musicals, films and series. My two brothers also make their living by writing – one even writes screenplays for The Simpsons and the other for television sitcoms. I started writing as a child, and I wrote musicals in college …

Does that mean you also composed music? Or just lyrics and scripts?

I wrote everything and composed music as well. I used to be a musician; I played the violin, I even did it for living for a while. However, I studied classical Greek and Latin at university and never attended writing classes. At the university we founded a company with my classmates that produced musicals. After university, we continued with musicals in Chicago, but we didn’t make a lot of money. We were successful, but the production of musicals is a costly thing. That’s why I had to have some common job to make a living all the time. I did menial jobs; I worked as a registrar for years. But then my daughter was born and suddenly I realised I needed money. My younger brother was working in Hollywood then, so I tried my luck there. I wrote a sitcom script, and it got me a job at Paramount. I even got a desk and a secretary. My theatre experience was useful in that I saw with my own eyes every night what works on the audience and what doesn’t. I never wanted to do things for a few spectators only. I love when people come to see my movies or musicals.

You had the great advantage of being able to try out what works on an audience. That’s possible when working on film…

Yes, that’s a big difference. With film, you have no idea what will work. There are seldom public screenings. But I recall one such screening of Pocahontas. We showed the movie to teenagers in a test screening, which is the most demanding audience, and we were watching their reactions from behind. There was one song at the end of the movie, and it was supposed to be a big hit, sung by Whitney Houston. The teenagers had fun throughout the whole movie, but when it came to the song, they got bored. So we decided to throw the song out. We didn’t rewrite it, we didn’t remake it, we just dumped it. But only a large studio like Disney can afford something like that.


Author of the interview: Kamila Boháčková

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