Screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger discuss Kung Fu Panda 2, hatching the story of Po's background, Chuck Norris possibilities for Kung Fu Panda 3, and more
Screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger first started working together on The George Carlin Show in the mid-90s, and they've been a writing team ever since. They both worked on TV shows such as Platypus Man, MadTV, and King of the Hill, before being brought on to revamp Kung Fu Panda, which made $215 million at the domestic box office and over $630 million worldwide. After writing another DreamWorks Animation hit with Monsters Vs. Aliens, the screenwriting duo returned to the lovable saga of the powerful panda Po with Kung Fu Panda 2, which hits 2D and 3D theaters nationwide on May 26.
This time around, Po (Jack Black) is enjoying his newfound success and popularity as the Dragon Warrior, although, much to the chagrin of Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), Po has yet to master the art of finding inner peace, which becomes increasingly difficult to master once Po discovers the true nature of his childhood. Po and the Furious Five must also square off with an evil peacock Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), who possesses a powerful and mysterious weapon that may destroy all of China... and who also holds the secret to Po's upbringing.
I recently had the chance to speak with Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger over the phone about this fantastic animated sequel (keep an eye out for my full review very soon), and here's what they had to say.
I know the original script for the first Kung Fu Panda was written by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris. Can you talk about when you came onto the first movie, and when they started discussing the sequel with you?
Jonathan Aibel: DreamWorks originally had the idea for Kung Fu Panda, and Cyrus and Ethan came in and pitched a take, and wrote a first draft. By the time we had came on, I think it was two years after that. While the idea of a panda and kung fu and a master and the Furious Five were there, I'm not sure much more. Maybe the basic story of someone who has to be chosen to go up against the baddest guy. I'd say most of our interactions with those guys were after the movie came out and we finally met them, at the premiere. The animation process is that there will be a script and that is usually just a launching off point for the movie, for the exploration, and, in this case, after they wrote that script, there was about two years of exploration and figuring out what this movie could be, before we came forward. When we came in, it was a combination of writing a new draft of the script, and co-producing through the end, which involved recording sessions and being in the edit bay, working with the storyboard artists. We were a lot more involved in the process. They weren't involved in the sequel at all. It has been six or seven years since those guys were a part of it.
I loved the first movie, but it was kind of obvious that you would have to deal with Po's upbringing in the sequel. Were there other ideas you were kicking around to explain where Po came from, before you settled on this idea?
Glenn Berger: The specifics changed quite a bit over the three and a half years we worked on it, but the general concept of how he ended up at his dad's restaurant, and what might have caused him to be there, were pretty fully formed from the beginning.
Jonathan Aibel: When we first started writing, I don't think we knew it was of interest to people. Soon after the first movie came out, we were on a research trip to China, with the crew of the new movie. When people found out we were the crew of the movie, that was the first question they inevitably asked: 'Why is Po's father a goose?' We started realizing that something that was a bit of a throwaway joke in the first movie, something used to tell the audience that this character felt a lit excluded, and a bit on the outside, because he didn't even have panda's for parents, became something people were intensely curious about. As we got into the story, we realized one of the stories we could tell is an identity story for Po, what actually happens when you get everything you want but you're not actually sure who you are? We already had the idea of Po going on a journey, and this peacock who uses fireworks to invent a weapon. Then we started working in all these other elements, layering in this identity story.
After you heard people asking about that, did you see if that was also mentioned online? It seemed like something people were always curious about after the first one.
Glenn Berger: We knew about it, but we also assumed that, in a world of animation, with talking animals who do kung fu, there is all sorts of fluidity. In the Madagascar movies, a giraffe can make love with a hippo (Laughs). We just thought we'd go along with it, but I think it was really that China trip that did it. The first thing everyone would say was, 'We loved the movie so much that we actually paid to see it in a movie theater after watching it for the first time.' There was that complement, and then the question of his heritage. That's what really pulled us to dig deeper there.
There are some really wonderful animated fight scenes in both movies. I was wondering how much of those scenes start on the page, and how you handle these sequences?
Glenn Berger: It really depends on which fight sequence. Sometimes, the idea of a fight scene will come from the story saying, 'At this point, he needs to get in there with this, this, and this.' Sometimes, it's just we know this is a part of a kung fu movie where you need to have a fight, so go for it. The storyboard artists and animators are fully qualified to do that without any of our help. The third act of the movie, was a very tough nut to crack, conceptually. We could say, only by resolving his inner issues, will Po ever be able to overcome the physical obstacle that he has in act three, just to be vague. It's one thing to say that, but then there's the giant question of what does being capable of doing that look like? That was just a result of so many different efforts and dead ends and starting all over again, and hard work.
Jonathan Aibel: There is sort of a general assumption that writing in animation is just the dialogue, but, in many ways, that's the least important of what we do. So much work has gone into it before you even get to the dialogue, just figuring out what story you're telling, and how to you break that down scene by scene, and what has to happen in each scene. Then, finally, what are they saying, or even if they need to be saying anything. Can it be done wordlessly? Can it be done just through the animation? So much goes into the writing before we're even putting words on the page.
You said earlier that you were present at the recordings of the cast members. Were there any cool parts in the movie that sprung from your interactions with Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, or any of the other cast members?
Glenn Berger: The easiest one to come up with is from the first movie, when we had the climactic moment in the fight between Po and Tai Lung. Jack recorded what was in the script, but then he ad-libbed "Skadoosh." It made us laugh at the time, and it stayed in the script, and it's one of those things that you couldn't pan that or write that. You couldn't say, 'Oh, skadoosh, that can be a catch phrase.' He just did it, and we're happy he did it. In the second movie, I think Seth Rogen, and what he was doing with Mantis. In the first movie, they were very underserved, because we had so much do to, and we got to do more with them in the second movie. I still think there's so much more we can do with them, but the whole idea - I don't know how much of it comes out in the finished product - but this idea that he has this chip on his shoulder about his size, that came out of his ad-libbing.
You also have quite a wonderful opening for a third movie as well, without giving anything away. Have you talked about a third movie yet?
Jonathan Aibel: The most talk we hear about it is people asking us about it. Internally, the hope at DreamWorks is that this is a franchise that can continue, but right now, we haven't been asked to start writing. Everyone wants to wait and see how this one turns out. I think we're confident that it will deliver something that audiences will find entertaining and moving, but we're not going to rush to get to work on the third. One of the things we learned from the first one, is put it out there and sometimes it's great just to see what people respond to, before deciding what the next chapter to tell should be.
That definitely makes sense.
Glenn Berger: Yeah. We have to wait and see what unintentionally confusing aspect of this movie can be spun into a third (Laughs).
I noticed when the first movie came out on DVD, they had a separate animated movie called Secrets of the Furious Five, a short animated movie. Are there plans for another short animated spin-off for this one?
Glenn Berger: I know there is... but are we allowed to talk about it? Well, there is, and it's really cool.
If you guys do get asked to do a third movie, is there a particular actor or actress you would like to come in as a new voice?
Glenn Berger: I'll say it. We have tried in the past, but I think Chuck Norris needs to be in this. We've got Jean-Claude Van Damme in this one, and that's pretty cool. It would be awesome to have Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal and Chuck Norris all in a fight together. Hopefully we'll have another chance.
We'll have to start a petition online for that.
Jonathan Aibel: Yeah, that's a great idea.
"Bring Chuck Norris to Kung Fu Panda 3!"
Glenn Berger: What animal would he be? Maybe we just haven't approached him yet with the right animal.
Oh, yeah. You can't just put him as a crane, or something. You need something with teeth, something big.
(Laughs) Hatching stories already. That's good.
Jonathan Aibel: Maybe his mustache, though, could just be the legendary kung fu mustache of lore.
Glenn Berger: You have a scoop now!
Is there anything else you're working on right now that you can talk about?
Glenn Berger: We've decided to take the next three-to-five years off (Laughs). No, we've got Alvin and the Chipmunks 3D coming out in December, and then we're writing Candy Land, which will be a live-action and CG thing with Kevin Lima, who directed Enchanted.
Is there anything you can say about the story of that? I know a lot of people are curious about how these board game movies, how the story is going to work.
Glenn Berger: I don't know if I'm supposed to say this, but it's going to be four people, two girls and two boys, and they're all five years old, just playing the board game for an hour and a half. You just watch them play the game, and see how it turns out. No, it's a giant Lord of the Rings-style action-comedy, which just happens to be set in a world made of candy. I think what we're saying about it is, our intent is to take the same approach we did with Kung Fu Panda, which is a movie that could have easily been silly, and just take it seriously and honor the genre and defy people's expectations. We want to make the action amazing and the comedy character-based and not just reference humor, and showing an emotional journey for the characters. It sounds boring to talk about, and it's really hard to do, but hopefully when it comes out, people will be happy.
Just to wrap up, what would you like to say to fans of the first movie and anyone else who might be curious about Kung Fu Panda 2 about why they should see it in theaters on May 26?
Glenn Berger: If you like the action and comedy of the first movie, there's more of both in the second movie. If what you're really, really craving are deeper emotional scenes, you'll have more of that too.
Jonathan Aibel: What a nice quote. Our goal in making this was to create something that whole families can go see. Even though it's called Kung Fu Panda 2, it's definitely a movie where we aimed to entertain the parents as well. There is a lot of emotion in it that, both of us as parents, find particularly applicable and moving, but, at the same time, there is definitely enough in it that the kids will be entertained. From our point of view, it isn't a kids movie at all. It's an adventure, kung fu comedy that kids will enjoy.
Excellent. Thanks so much for your time. I really loved the movie. I thought it was better than the first.
Jonathan Aibel: Oh, wow. We'll quote you on that.
Glenn Berger: My nine-year-old said that too, but I didn't believe him. I thought he was just trying to get dessert. I'll take your compliment at face value, though, so thank you.
Jonathan Aibel: We'll send you a dessert.
(Laughs) Thanks so much, guys.
Jonathan Aibel: You're welcome.
Glenn Berger: Thank you.
You can check out the fantastic animated sequel Kung Fu Panda 2 in 2D and 3D theaters nationwide on May 26.