IF YOU’RE A TRUE FILM FAN — whether your cinephilic tastes run closer to “The King of Comedy” or “The Bridge on the River Kwai” — then you should probably be following Emma Coats on Twitter (@LawnRocket). Her thought-stream on film always flows perceptive.
Coats, 26, was storyboard artist on Pixar’s new hit movie, “Brave,” and is also a director in her own right. In recent months, she began tweeting some of the lessons she’s learned from working with such Pixar masterminds as Pete Docter and Lee Unkrich and “Brave” directors Brenda Chapman and Mark Andrews . Her observations and insights aren’t some formal Torah of official received Pixar wisdom, but rather — shared in an engaging manner — what she gleans day to day inside those Emeryville campus walls.
“We don't have a story bible,” Coats tells Comic Riffs of how craft is practiced at Pixar. “Everyone learns from each other. There's definitely a Pixar flavor, but that's less an intentional thing and more just the type of thing that develops if you have a consistent group of the same people.
“You pick it up and it becomes your flavor — or you don't. The tools are applicable to anything, though.”
Coats, who attended CalArts before dropping out after freshman year, is accustomed to picking and choosing what she can use professionally from many sources. “Basically,” she says, “[I] built my own curriculum for learning the skills relevant to storyboarding. The list is part of that as a continuing process — I'm passionate about developing as a storyteller, so it's all about discovering processes that work, challenging things and making more films.
“Constantly improving, you know?”
Coats, who has also worked on Pixar’s “Monsters University” and the indie films “Sweetpea” and “Horizon” — is leaving Emeryville for Los Angeles as of Friday, as she takes her Pixar-honed education south to “seriously pursue a path directing live-action films.”
So as our own type of “exit interview,” Comic Riffs asked Coats to go into detail as to how she has put a few of her “rules” (22 of them are listed at the end of this post) into actual creative practice. In her own words, they are:
TIP: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
“Indiana Jones fails at nearly everything he tries to do. The deck is always stacked against Ripley's survival. These characters move forward when there's no hope of success, miles after any one of us in the audience would have given up.
“Success without trials is meaningless, as you probably know if you've ever got something easy and then tried to share your triumph. If you tell people how you found $300 on the sidewalk and bought a second PlayStation, the response you get is going to range from, “Cool story, bro” to outright hate.
“However, if you spin the tale of how you bet your PlayStation on an arm-wrestling contest and lost to some guy and you trained and trained and faced him again and lost your whole home theater this time, and you went and studied with an arm-wrestling master who trod upon your dreams but you couldn't be dissuaded from facing this guy again and you lost again and now he owns your vacation home — you're still going to meet with outright hate because seriously, you have awesome stuff and you're making terrible decisions.
“The hate is laced with admiration, though, because you never give up.”
TIP: When you’re stuck, make a list of what wouldn’t happen next. Lots of times, the material to get you unstuck will show up.
Actually, this one was the prompt for the short film I'm finishing up right now. I heard it in an interview between John Cleese and William Goldman (one of my heroes — you may know him for writing a couple little movies called “The Princess Bride” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”), and to me it felt like discovering a cheat code for story. You have complete license to come up with off-the-wall, interesting stuff. And when something strikes your fancy, you move on to the next step, which is:
TIP: So that obviously wouldn't happen next... but if it did, what makes it plausible?
That's where I got the idea for my film “Sweetpea.” I'd been watching “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” a lot and wanted to do something like the ‘superposse chase’ — a bounty hunter tracking a mysterious outlaw across the desert. That's not interesting in itself, though — so I played with what wouldn't happen when the bounty hunter catches up to the outlaw, what wouldn't in a million years happen: The bounty hunter is after this outlaw because she stood him up on their wedding day.
[THE ‘BRAVE’ DIRECTOR: What the man wearin’ the kilt brings to Pixar]
EMMA COATS’s 22 “STORYBASIC” RULES FOR STORYTELLING:
■NO. 1: You admire a character for trying more than for her or his successes.
■NO. 2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.
■ NO. 3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about till you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
■ NO. 4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
■NO. 5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff, but it sets you free.
■ NO. 6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
■NO. 7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard — get yours working up front.
■NO. 8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
■NO. 9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what wouldn’t happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
■NO. 10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
■ NO. 11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
■ NO. 12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
■NO. 13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
■NO. 14: Why must you tell this story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
■NO. 15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
■NO. 16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
■ NO. 17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on — it’ll come back around to be useful later.
■ NO. 18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
■NO. 19:Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
■NO. 20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
■ NO. 21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make you act that way?
■NO. 22: What’s the essence of your story? [The] most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.