How to world build from almost nothing: writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger on ‘TROLLS’

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Trolls_FFTVCourtney Howard // Film Critic

Most great jobs start because someone tells you to do something and you’re telling them why it won’t work. While you’re convincing them it won’t work, you’ve created a world you just have to be a part of.”

It’s been more than ten years since writing duo Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger first sat down to cinematically explore a whole new world with the KUNG FU PANDA series. However, with their latest innovative creation, TROLLS, they are showing no signs of slowing down their world-building practices.

In the glittery, effervescent animated musical extravaganza, perpetually positive Poppy (voiced by Anna Kendrick) and doomsday-ist Branch (voiced by Justin Timberlake) go on a rescue mission to save their fellow trolls from the evil goblins, the “Bergens,” who want to eat them in order to steal their happiness.

At the film’s recent press day, I sat down with the imaginative world-builders to talk about everything from where they came up with Poppy and her pals, to the Broadway show temp tracks they used as placeholders, to the importance of emotional moments in animated films.

Jon Aibel

Jon Aibel

Glenn Berger

Glenn Berger

When we last spoke, you told me to wait until I saw Poppy. I’ve seen Poppy and she’s incredible; I’d like to inhale life like her. Where does she get it?

Berger: I think it’s this sense of boundless sense of hope, possibility and optimism. In act one, that’s all she has because that’s never been tested. By act three, it’s real positivity because she now knows what it’s like to be tested and what she has inside. I feel like when we last spoke, we had this positivity that this movie would be awesome. TROLLS was a joy, which is awesome since the movie is about happiness and joy. We think that spirit came through on screen. It was also hard, but the fact that it could be both hard and fun is our own little Poppy journey.

As for world-building, there wasn’t that much mythology out there. Where did you even start creating?

Aibel: Luckily we started with Walt [Dohrn] and Mike [Mitchell] who said, ‘We’re doing TROLLS. Will you work on this with us?’ And we said what you said. ‘There’s nothing there – it’s a doll with hair. I don’t get it. What is this movie?’ They were very persuasive in saying, ‘That’s the whole point! We don’t have to adhere to a mythology. We could do whatever we wanted.’

Berger: We had just done SPONGEBOB with him, which is the opposite – coming into a project with a lot of mythology and 18 years of ‘you can’t do that because of this,’ which is fine as we were handed a world we got to play in.

Aibel: I think most great jobs start because someone tells you to do something and you’re telling them why it won’t work. And while you’re convincing them it won’t work, you say, ‘Unless you start doing this,’ and before you know it, you’ve created a world you just have to be a part of. I think within a week, we had outlined it and were pitching it. And here we are three years later.

We’ve known Mike and Walt for so long that there was a definite comfort. There wasn’t a lot of overthinking. There was a lot of, ‘Let’s put this up. Let’s try it.’ I think that spontaneity is the hardest thing to do in an animated movie because it takes so long. To be able to capture things as soon as they are fresh and recorded quickly and get it storyboarded, is a spirit that hasn’t been in as many animated movies as we’d like. That’s the joy.

Berger: The flip side of it is, having worked with Mike and Walt so much and having such trust, there’s never any mincing around. We’ve been on other projects when it’s been awkward to say you don’t like something because you think the other person would be defensive, or they will argue. We much prefer the, ‘Hey guys. Let’s do it again because of this.’

This is very much like a musical. When you’d write, would you leave spaces open for the musical numbers? 

Aibel: Yeah. We’re big fans of musicals. To have a chance to do a musical, and knowing the conventions of musicals helps. To be able to say, ‘This will be the song where Poppy expresses her view of the world.’ I think in some cases we’d make suggestions. There’s a song, ‘Get Back Up Again.’

That’s my current wake-up song!

Aibel: Oh is it? It started with one of our board artists, Claire Morrissey, who boarded that sequence to ‘I Have Confidence.’ We knew it wouldn’t be the song but it would be a proof of concept – the pace feels right and this is a moment where your audience wants her to sing a song. It then became, we’re going to find an original song and have it composed.  There were other moments where we came up with ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ and thought it would be so funny to see a young Branch singing that; everyone loved it. The song cleared. It’s in the movie. Mike and Walt were really into ‘True Colors’ so we worked that in. I think [producer] Gina [Shay] found Junior Senior’s ‘Move Your Feet.’ Spotify playlists were getting emailed.

Berger: The most satisfying was when we hit act three. ‘And then, we sing a song that’s so joyous that it changes an entire way of life and how everyone views happiness.’ And Justin went off to write that.

Aibel: But at first, it was ‘Hair’ from HAIR – same thing with the board artist. You could just see the energy, that if the right song were in there, the idea of a song changing all the people hearing it isn’t nonsense.

Any songs that didn’t make the cut?

Aibel: Chef had a song at one point. It will probably turn up on a iTunes extra, where we wanted a great villain song where she talks about her plans…Christine Baranski is amazing – she should have a song. And they had a song and it just stopped the plot. It kinda came to a halt.

Berger: And it’s the villain, who took three minutes to hear a song that told you what you already knew.

Poppy (voiced by Anna Kendrick) and Branch (voiced by Justin Timberlake) star in TROLLS. Courtesy of DreamWorks Animation.

Poppy (voiced by Anna Kendrick) and Branch (voiced by Justin Timberlake) star in TROLLS. Courtesy of DreamWorks Animation.

Stupid question, but I’m going for it: did you ever court Candice Bergen to play a Bergen?

Berger: We haven’t heard that question before. Huh. Can she sing?

I don’t know. I feel like she could probably speak sing.

Berger: If that came up, I probably would have said, ‘Never was a fan of MURPHY BROWN, but strangely love Candice Bergen.’

Aibel: We never thought of that.

I’m not giving notes. I’m just saying…

Aibel: If we’re lucky enough to have a sequel, we’ll talk to Candice Bergen.

Since you brought it up, have you already envisioned how this can be built into a franchise?

Aibel: We have our own thoughts but don’t want to be so presumptuous as to say we know exactly this will be a huge hit and everyone’s gonna want to hear more. the same way on the first PANDA when we first finished it. We felt these are great characters and we can tell more stories. We had no idea anyone wanted to hear them or that what ended up being the heart of the second movie with Po and his dad.

Berger: So we’re waiting to hear from the audience what the most important part of TROLLS we had not yet realized.

There are so many supporting trolls. How’d you go about name selection and characteristic? Like Guy Diamond, who farts glitter.

Aibel: A lot of it was the storyboard artists – the team were tasked with to come up with fun characters.”

Berger: Remember when we were writing, we came up with ‘The Baker’s Dozen?’

Aibel: We needed 13.

Berger: ‘Guys! When you’re writing it, come up with 13 supporting characters with distinct personalities!’ ‘What?! That’s insane!’ I think we rebelled against that enough that it became the Snack Pack, which could be an indeterminate number.

Aibel: A lot of it is the board artists who will come up with things that can be visually interesting – like Satin and Chenille with their hair. Some of it comes out of casting – like James Corden agrees to play Biggie, so then Biggie starts becoming James Corden-esque.

Any other characters change when voice talent signs on?

Berger: Sure. Oh yeah. Russell certainly. Anna was already cast when we came aboard. We had already written a draft or two when Justin came on and there the challenge was how do you overcome Justin Timberlake’s likeability? In a way, we had to over-engineer how much of a jerk Branch was – how cranky he was in the first half of the movie to compensate for no matter what the line Justin said it was likeable.

Poppy’s narration when she’s scrapbooking reminded me of a pitch meeting. Am I right?

Berger: [Laughs] In a weird way, not that we have our own tricks, but the first PANDA I’m really proud of the opening narration and here there’s a similar narration in which the narration itself is commenting on self-aware narration. Oh no! Maybe we have a gimmick!

Aibel: The trick was how over the top could you be so that the audience knew that we knew we were over the top. That we were not sincere that this was preposterously positive.

Berger: Do people worry the entire film is going to be like that?

I didn’t, but I like it when animation changes formats within one film.

Aibel: That was all practical. Someone actually cut all that stuff out and they scanned or photographed.

These are called “Good Luck Trolls.” Do you have a good luck rituals or talismans?

Aibel: I have a cup that’s been next to my computer for twenty years or so. We met at a management consulting firm. We had an offsite. I still have my plastic offsite mug that keeps my pencils in. We are fairly un-ritualistic in our writing and some of it is the nature of what we’re doing.

I feel like a lot of other animated films are hand-waving the emotion spots in their movies. What I like about your writing is that you stay there in the characters’ emotional space. I’ve seen a lot recently though that worries me, because I feel like kids may not get the impact of those emotions.

Berger: Something happened when PANDA 3 came out; We were comedy writers for years and loved laughs. After PANDA 3, people came out of the woodwork and talked about how they wept in PANDA 3 – people I hadn’t talked to in years. It was so gratifying to not just be the guy to make people laugh, but also be the guy to make people cry, or think, or initiate really important conversations with their adopted children. When we went into TROLLS, it was with the express interest of making people laugh and cry.

To get both in the same movie is – and this is going to make us sound old – but one of the first things we did when we moved to LA together, we went to a presentation at the Writer’s Guild Theater by Ganz and Mandel, who are still together. As we see writing teams split up, they’ve been our mentors for a long time. They talked about their body of work and mentioned in their movie, PARENTHOOD, they knew they could make people laugh. But can you make people care and think and cry? The thing that stuck with me was if you can make them cry, the laugh that you get after that is so much bigger than you’d otherwise get. ‘laugh, laugh, laugh, whatever.’ ‘Laugh, laugh, laugh, care, care, cry of relief’ is huge.

Aibel: I see a lot of family movies and I’m generally impressed by their commitments to their main characters. THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS could have just been animals running around, but took the relationships seriously. Pixar movies. The people making these movies understand the goal is to move the audience – not just entertain them. When animated movies don’t work, it’s because you don’t care about that characters.

Berger: Those hand-wave moments you talk about are explicit decisions on the part of the filmmakers or studios to say, ‘No, no. no. Funny funny funny funny.

Aibel: It’s a fear that kids won’t have the patience for it, which I’ve never understood. Kids will sit through anything. It’s the parents who often don’t have the patience. I know because I’m one of them. For us, we start by writing to amuse ourselves. If Mike and Walt are amused by it then we’re on the right track and then the kids, you’ll get them. You never want to write down to the audience.

TROLLS opens on November 4. Read our review, here.

Header Photo: Poppy (Anna Kendrick) sings “The Sound of Silence” in TROLLS. Courtesy of DreamWorks Animation.

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Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.