‘Trolls’ Screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger on Creating the Colorful World

     November 7, 2016

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With the theme of happiness at its center and utilizing music to further the film’s narrative, the DreamWorks animated movie Trolls transports audiences to a colorful world of song-and-dance and hug time, as it follows Poppy (voiced by Anna Kendrick), the happiest Troll ever born. After Troll Village is invaded by the pessimistic Bergens who enjoy eating Trolls, Poppy enlists the help of overly cautious Branch (voiced by Justin Timberlake) on her journey to rescue her friends.

At the film’s press day, screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about what they started this story with, deciding on the songs, their writing process, creating a world with so many colorful characters, balancing the story of Poppy and Branch with Bridget (voiced by Zooey Deschanel), how much things changed and evolved throughout the process, why they like to make family films, not having any interest in directing, and that they’ve written another SpongeBob SquarePants movie. Be aware that there are some spoilers discussed.

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Image via DreamWorks Animation

Collider: When you sat down in front of the blank screen to write Trolls, where did you start? Were there specific themes you wanted to explore?

JONATHAN AIBEL: We had Poppy and the Trolls, and the idea of a movie about what happiness is. We started from there saying, “Here’s someone who’s the most positive, optimistic person. What should we have her do?” And it being a rescue story was already there. That just led us to say, “We need to send her on a journey where the worst things happen to her, like betrayals, near deaths, possible deaths and her own near death, only to have her come out on the other side, saved by her own optimism.” That was the most basic plot we had. From there, we just started building it out with (directors) Mike [Mitchell] and Walt [Dohrn]. We had to figure out who she should go on the journey with, and how to put songs into that and where. “True Colors” came in pretty early, so we put a pin in that and said that it should be an ending song, and then have a big celebration at the end. Three years later, here we are.

So, you were thinking about the songs throughout the writing and development of the script?

GLENN BERGER: It was a mix. “True Colors” was there so early that we can’t really remember a day that it wasn’t there. We knew that was a climactic beat that we were building towards. Others came while we were writing the script. With the question of, “Why don’t you sing, Branch?,” we knew we had to solve that. So, we came up with the Grandma being eaten and “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” but that was later in the process. In these animated movies, oftentimes Act 3 is that thing where you know what will happen, but the details of it remain to be seen. We all just trust that we’ll get there. In this case, it got to the point where it was really time to figure out Act 3, beyond just the abstract, and we knew there would be a song that was so happy inducing that it actually convinces all the Bergens to stop eating Trolls. You can’t just find a song like that. A lot of the songs we had picked were perfect, but when you get to that song, it has to be perfect and convey so much. So, you hire Justin Timberlake.

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Image via DreamWorks Animation

AIBEL: Poppy has her song, when she goes off on her journey. For awhile, it was “I Have Confidence” from The Sound of Music, as a temp song. You need something on the screen, and the idea was having someone sing with confidence while having horrible things happen to her. That helped, just in the storytelling. You see that and you get what’s happening. It felt like the right thing, which you want to make sure of, before you have a song written, recorded and produced.

BERGER: One of my favorite songs in the whole movie is “Get Back Up Again.” When you make these things over three years, you see them hundreds of times. With this one, we never got sick of it because it’s so filled with music. Even when you get tired of the jokes ‘cause you’ve heard them a hundred times, when the songs come on, they’re all so good and so well performed that it got me through all of those screenings.

What is your normal writing process like? Do you always work together?

AIBEL: We’re usually working together. Sometimes early on, we’ll split stuff up and each take a scene, just so that we can get something really rough to start working on together. Otherwise, we go word by word, line by line, writing it together. For comedy, it certainly helps to pitch jokes to another person instead of just thinking and sensing what would be funny. For our process, it means that by the time we’re actually turning something in, it’s maybe the fourth or fifth draft because we’ve been over it so many times.

Are you guys usually on the same page, especially when it comes to jokes?

BERGER: It’s so rare that the first thing one of us says to the other is the right thing. If that were the case, our job would probably take two weeks instead of three years. We spent probably 75% of our time, arguing with each other, or creatively disagreeing, and then the other 25% was trying to remember what one of us said that won the argument and typing that up.

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Image via DreamWorks Animation

With something like this, where the characters are so happy and optimistic, did you have to remind yourself to be happy enough?

AIBEL: It was actually really fun because we had just come off of Kung Fu Panda and, as fun as Po is, the movie is surrounded by a darkness. It’s heavy. So, to go from that to this was really fun. It was a palate cleanse. As writers, it was a challenge because we hadn’t done anything this light before. For us, it was fun to turn up the brightness, but we could also still keep a bit of that darkness. I think the brightness lets you balance it out and go a little darker.

This is the story of Poppy and Branch, but Bridget is so delightful, in her own right. How did you balance her story in the mix?

BERGER: That was a big surprise to all of us. In an early screening, some people worried and were like, “We’re in the middle of Act 2 and Bridget and Gristle take over the movie. What’s going on? You can’t do that!” And we all collectively decided that it’s a gift that somewhere in Act 2, where the movie’s energy usually dips, you suddenly have characters where people are suddenly leaning forward and saying, “Who are they? I wanna know more about them!” We realized that the answer was not to pull back on that, but to integrate Poppy and Branch and the main story into that story, as much as possible. That’s when we started doing more with that.

AIBEL: What also helped was that we wrote her very blunt. My favorite line of hers is when Gristle gives her the necklace and she goes, “It’s pretty, I guess.” Mike and Walt had the confidence to say that we could have a character who, unlike Poppy, is afraid of the world.

You have to have a great script to work from, but this film has such a great voice cast. What was it like for you guys to see and hear these characters brought to life, in this way?

BERGER: It’s a gift. We got super lucky. The Panda movies have their share of fine actors, as well, but the pure comedy talent of even the smallest parts is great. Everyone has their own reasons for wanting to be in a movie like this. The fact that it’s a musical appealed to a bunch of people.

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