Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger are the writing team behind some of today’s most beloved and popular family films. To date, their movies have grossed nearly $1.5 billion dollars in worldwide box office. Aibel and Berger met right out of college while working as management consultants in Boston. It was there they both discovered their passion for comedy writing and lack of passion for management consulting. So they threw away their suits and briefcases and moved to Los Angeles. Since then, Aibel and Berger have written some of the most successful family films of the past decade, and have positioned themselves as two of the most talented and respected comedy writers in the industry. They pride themselves on scripting films that appeal to audiences of all ages, with a combination of character-based comedy, action, and emotion.
The pair recently finished writing and co-producing Kung Fu Panda 2, the sequel to their blockbuster film Kung Fu Panda, set for release on May 26, 2011 by Dreamworks. Their script for the third installment of the highly successful “Alvin and the Chipmunks” franchise, Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chip-Wrecked, is currently in production and set for release by 20th Century Fox on December 16, 2011. Other family film credits include Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, and Dreamworks’ first 3D film, Monsters vs. Aliens.
In addition to their work in film, Aibel and Berger were part of the original staff of the animated Fox hit “King of the Hill.” They remained at the show for six seasons, and rose to become executive producers, garnering four Emmy® nominations and one win.
Interview with Jon Aibel & Glenn Berger
Q: According to producer Melissa Cobb, KUNG FU PANDA 2 will be more serious and dramatic than some might expect. Can you elaborate?
A: There’s a tendency to assume that an animated movie about a kung fu fighting panda is going to be just for kids, and we think audiences were somewhat surprised that the first movie actually took itself and its characters seriously. We wanted to push that even further on the sequel, to put Po on a journey in which he has to confront some of his deepest fears about himself and his identity. That being said, we also made sure we preserved the humor and heart of the first one.
Q: How did the process of writing KUNG FU PANDA 2 differ from the original? Did you find it easier to write for characters you already knew well? Did you have more or less creative control over the sequel?
A: When we started work on the first movie, it had already been in development for over three years. The characters had been designed, and the basic elements of the story were more or less in place. So we were working with a fair number of limitations. For the sequel, however, we were the first on the crew (in addition to our producer, Melissa Cobb.) So we really had an incredible amount of freedom to put Po in just about any story we could imagine. We probably spent a year outlining, just trying to key in on what would be the best story to tell. Then Jen Yu Nelson came aboard as director, and we really began refining the story before we finally sat down to write the first draft. It’s hard to overemphasize how collaborative these movies are. The script is really just the first step. Getting a scene from script to screen involves hundreds of people, which means you have to be able to explain and defend your ideas to the storyboard artists, the voice actors, the editor, the animators, the production designer, plus Jeffrey Katzenberg and the Dreamworks executives. I’m not sure anyone can ever have “creative control” over that many people. But Dreamworks gave us the chance to make our voices heard, to be there at recording sessions, in the edit bay, at test screenings. It was an amazing, if exhausting, experience.
Q: You began your career writing for television and were part of the original staff of the animated FOX hit “King of the Hill.” Please discuss the transition from TV to feature film.
A: What we loved most about “King of the Hill” was the way it offered us a chance to write three-act, character-based stories that were more like mini-movies than traditional sitcom episodes. When we left the show, we realized there weren’t many places on TV where you could still do that sort of thing. But a really good place to write movie-style stories was, well, in the movies. We found it a really comfortable transition and discovered that the things we learned at “King of the Hill” – how to write quickly, how to surgically address notes, how to work with actors – were invaluable in writing movies, particularly animated ones.
Q: Walk us through your process as writing partners. How do you approach the project? The drafting process? Rewrites?
A: We do almost everything together. We know a lot of teams will split up scenes but we’ve found that doesn’t really work for us. Maybe we’ll initially divide stuff up just so we can get a really rough don’t-show-this-to-anyone draft of the script together, but it’s really just so we have something other than the blank page to face when we really start getting to work. Outlining, writing drafts, rewriting, we approach it all the same way.
Q: Your experience is primarily in writing for animation. Do you prefer animation? Do you have any interest in live action feature films or TV? If so, are there any projects in development?
A: Actually, although most of our produced credits are in animation, we’ve written a number of live action movies. We currently have an action comedy starring Jack Black in development, and we’re writing “Candy Land” for Universal. We like to write big budget, family movies, and many of them just happen to be animated or contain animated elements. It’s usually our interest in the story and the characters that attracts us to a project. The means by which the story is told (animation vs. live action) is secondary for us.
Q: Working on “King of the Hill” with Austin’s own Mike Judge (and AFF’s 2005 Outstanding Television Writer Award recipient), you’ve been to Austin before, but this will be your first time to the Conference. What are some of your favorite places to go? What are you looking forward to at Austin Film Festival?
A: Austin was like a second home to the King of the Hill staff. We would take annual research trips to town. Favorite places? Lockhart, where we hit the BBQ troika of Blacks, Kreuz, and Chisholm Trail all in one afternoon. Plus County Line BBQ and Stubbs. (Hank Hill sold propane, so eating BBQ counted as research.) Other highlights? Hearing live music at the Continental Club, and hanging out at the Driskill. Do they still make those little peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the shape of Texas?
What are we looking forward to at the Austin Film Festival? Aside from the numerous BBQ eating opportunities it will provide, the AFF is one of the few festivals that celebrates the craft of screenwriting. And it takes place in one of our favorite cities.