WRITERS ON WRITING: Rob Letterman on Writing ‘Shark Tale’

Originally published in Script magazine September/October 2004

Rob Letterman is a director and writer, known for Monsters vs. Aliens (2009), Shark Tale (2004) and Goosebumps (2015).

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Oscar (Will Smith), Angie (Renée Zellweger) and Lenny (Jack Black) in DreamWorks Pictures’ animated comedy Shark Tale

This is my first time writing about writing, and Shark Tale is the first project that I have worked on that’s been produced. So, when I was asked to talk about the craft of screenwriting in a way that would be instructional for aspiring/beginning writers, I immediately got nervous because I still put myself in that category.

After pounding the pavement for seven years, I finally sold my first spec. The project was ultimately put into turnaround, but my foot was in the door. I received several writing assignments shortly thereafter, but still nothing produced—until, that is, the day I got a call to meet with DreamWorks Animation.

They were looking for a writer to work on one of their computer-animated projects—Shark Tale. In the beginning, they wanted to test me out on a short-term basis. I became a story consultant—punching up dialogue, writing scenes, etc. That quickly turned into a rewrite of the script; and when I say quickly, I mean quickly. The script had no third act, literally. It was thrown out, never written, missing. I don’t know, but it wasn’t there when I got to the project. So, I wrote one. The producers liked my draft, and suddenly I was in a room with DreamWorks Principal Jeffrey Katzenberg. He wanted me to rewrite the whole script. I said “Great.” He said, “By Monday.” I said, “No problem.” Then I left the room and realized it was Friday. I had promised Jeffrey Katzenberg I would do a rewrite in three days! Once you promise something to Jeffrey, you have to deliver. It’s not like he is going to forget. So I pulled three all-nighters and turned in the rewrite.

Once again I was in front of Jeffrey. He gave me his notes on the rewrite, and then gave me three more days. That’s been going on for two years now. The upshot being that I eventually became one of the directors of the movie.

But first, Jeffrey wanted to run the rewrite by Michael Wilson, the original writer of Shark Tale, to get his thoughts. It sounded like a good idea until Jeffrey volunteered me as the one to get Michael’s notes … in person … at his house. I was very nervous, to say the least. I had rewritten the guy’s script. I didn’t know how he would feel about that or about me.

I met Michael at his guest house/home office. The place was like a fallout shelter: everything you would need to survive a nuclear war, if all you needed was a warehouse full of yellow notepad paper and 3,000 boxes of multi-colored Sharpies. Michael said he liked to scribble down ideas in big block letters, and only a few ideas per page. His scribbling was everywhere. On the walls, counter tops … floors. I swept some of the papers aside, found a couch and we got to work. He actually liked my rewrite and started talking about ways to make it even stronger as he downed a Frappuccino  and commenced scribbling. He went through three notepads in under five minutes; then, because he was on a roll and didn’t want to dig around for a new notepad, he started scribbling on his pants, covering them in magic marker. He finally told me to grab a notepad and start pitching ideas with him. Then he handed me two Sharpies—an orange and a green. He said they were rare colors, and that I could keep them.

I remember thinking to myself as I grabbed the Sharpies, “This guy’s awesome!” We ended up collaborating on the next revision of the script and have been friends ever since.

THE PROCESS

I’m constantly asked what the difference is between writing for animation and writing for live-action. The writing itself is the same. You try to tell a great story with great characters, turn in a draft, get notes and do revisions. However, where in live-action a project gets a green light and the studio locks and loads, in animation a project gets a yellow, and they don’t lock—they just load.

Oscar finds an unlikely ally in a shark named Lenny PHOTOS: Courtesy of DreamWorks Pictures

While a script is still in development and not entirely ready for production, arguably some of its elements are. Pre-production crews are brought on: storyboard artists, character designers, production designers and animators. They render pictures and test animation. It always looks great. Everyone wants the project to go to the next level. They know the script is still being revised; but, by now, they also know who the characters are. Casting begins. Big name talent signs on. A release date is set. Unfortunately, the script still isn’t totally finished. So part of it is put into production, while the rest of it is worked on. Now you are in development, preproduction, production and post-production at the same time. Welcome to animation.

But all is not lost. They have a “process” for working through this problem. First, the script gets storyboarded. Then, the dialogue is recorded with the actors. Editorial assembles everything together into a story reel (the movie in storyboard form). The story reel is screened internally. Producers, directors, studio execs, animation supervisors, the kitchen staff … anyone who happens to be in the neighborhood, all give their notes. Then, the cycle starts over again. Only the next time, it gets a little tighter, funnier … better.

The drawbacks to this approach are the endless rewrites. However, there are advantages as well. You are able to try material with the actor, cut it to picture and see if it works. If it doesn’t, you can go back to the page, change it, shape it and put it in front of the actors again. As much as I love to complain about the rewrites, the opportunity to hedge your bet/get it right is powerful and unique to animation.

SIMPLIFYING THE STORY

Given that the process is a revolving door, as I worked on Shark Tale, I felt the best way to approach the script was to make the structure as tight as possible. For me, this primarily meant one thing: simplifying. Shark Tale is the story of Oscar (Will Smith), a little fish who takes credit for something he did not do: killing a shark. Suddenly, he rockets to stardom. Everything he’s ever dreamed of seems to come true. The only problem is, the shark he took credit for killing was the son of Don Lino (Robert DeNiro), the Godfather of the Great White sharks, and Lino wants revenge. Oscar finds himself having to become the hero he was pretending to be and stop the sharks, for real. Simple enough—but not really. Oscar has a best friend, Angie (Renée Zellweger). Unbeknownst to Oscar, she’s madly in love with him. But, he can’t see that because he’s distracted by Lola (Angelina Jolie). She’s the most beautiful girl on the reef, but she can’t be trusted. Then there’s Sykes (Martin Scorsese), Oscar’s boss. Sykes is a puffer fish who runs the South Side reef for Don Lino. That is, until he tells Lino that his son Lenny (Jack Black) is different from other sharks—Lenny’s a vegetarian. Add to this Lenny’s wiseguy brother Frankie, two Rastafarian jellyfish, an ancient Tiger shark with a flatulence problem, a dim-witted octopus and only 84 minutes of screen time. Now you have the whole picture.

So how do you avoid its spinning out of control and becoming the Nashville of the underwater kingdom? Our solution was to limit the points of view.

Early drafts bounced around from character to character. We were with Oscar, then Lino, then over to Sykes or Lenny. It was an ensemble movie that really wanted to be an Oscar movie, but we couldn’t tell the whole story just through Oscar’s eyes and properly service the shark side of the film. The first attempt at mitigating the points of view was to run Oscar’s story in parallel with Don Lino’s—after all, Don Lino was the antagonist. It almost worked.

The problem was Don Lino wasn’t the parallel story, Lenny was. Once we realized that, things started to fall into place. In the first act, Lenny and Oscar are on a crash course with one another. We kept the point of views switching between them at the start, servicing Don Lino and the other sharks either through Lenny’s direct point of view or in scenes that he entered.

At the turning point into Act Two, Oscar and Lenny meet and team up. From there, the point of view shifts to Oscar and stays with him until the end. It was an organic switch because Lenny’s story is still serviced through Oscar’s scenes, along with all the other characters, including Don Lino. Even though in some cases, characters didn’t have the same amount of screen time, they had more presence.

I know all this sounds obvious and academic, but it was one of the most difficult things to discover and commit to.

ENTERTAINING THE WHOLE FAMILY

Shark Tale from its inception was meant to be an underwater world that is an allegory to our own. Sharks play gangsters who threaten a nearby coral reef which resembles a fish version of New York City. Traffic jams of multi-colored fish fill its Times Square; uptown is straight up and downtown, straight down. It was a movie that was to pay homage to the gangster genre. But, how do you make a gangster movie for kids?

There was a lot of discussion with everyone involved in the film about this subject. The truth is we weren’t making a movie for kids. We were making a movie for adults that was appropriate, accessible and enjoyable for kids as well. Great, but what’s appropriate and accessible for kids?

We used to have a line in the opening of the movie where Frankie, Lenny’s bully older brother, catches him saving a worm from a hook. Frankie shakes his head and says, “You gotta be adopted, ’cuz there’s no way we’re brothers.” This caused a riot among the crew with the people who were adopted or had adopted kids. It was a telling sign of things to come. We couldn’t ignore the fact that what we thought of as funny might be considered insulting to other people. But, if we tried to make a movie for everyone, we risked the chance of making a movie for no one.

In the end everything came down to tone. We had to lighten it up, specifically in the shark scenes. Here is an example of a scene we struggled with. It is a moment in the film where someone confronts Don Lino and tells him his son Lenny is a little “different.” In the first version, a tough Killer Whale threatens to expose Lenny’s secret to the other families. Lino, in turn, unleashes his pet Piranha on him. The Killer Whale gets whacked (offscreen). The scene made it all the way through production. It was beautifully lit and animated, but it had to go. Not just because of the implied violence, but also the damage it did to Lino’s character. We wanted to end the movie with his character’s redeeming himself—a dad finally reconciling with his vegetarian son. But once Lino whacked the Killer Whale, his character could never recover.

In order to lighten the tone without losing The Godfather-esque nature of Lino, we made a decision: Never turn Lino into a caricature of a Don. Instead, we have him keep his dignity and let him go about his business as usual, but we make the characters around him silly.

Here is the final version of the scene:

INT. OCEAN LINER – STUDY – CONTINUOUS

ITALIAN OPERA PLAYS as we see DON LINO — a Great White shark, and Godfather of the ocean — feeding his pet fish.

ANGLE ON A FISH TANK: Cute little fish swim back and forth, waiting to be fed.

DON LINO
How are my little babies this morning?
You miss me? You doin’ good, huh, huh?

Lino drops a piece of food into the tank. Suddenly, the cute little fish turn vicious — THEY’RE PIRANHA!

DON LINO
(turns)
You see, Sykes, it’s a fish eat fish world.
You either take or you get taken …

Sitting in a chair at the edge of a desk is SYKES. He’s a puffer fish with SHAGGY EYEBROWS AND SPIKES FOR CHEST HAIR.

SYKES
(eyeing piranha, gulps nervously)
Truer words have never been spoken.
Is that it? That all? We done?

DON LINO
(takes a seat behind desk)
Now, you and me, we worked
together a long, long, long time –

SYKES
(ass kissing)
Please, Don Lino, it’s hardly been like work.

DON LINO (cont’d)
Let me finish — and you know —
SYKES I love that about you!
DON LINO Let me finish —
that I’ve lived my life for my sons.
Raising them, protecting them,
teaching them …

SYKES
You’re the best.

Sykes turns to LUCA — a thickheaded OCTOPUS reading a magazine on a couch in the corner of the room.

SYKES (cont’d)
He’s the best, right?
Am I right or am I wrong?
Huh? Am I right?

DON LINO
Sykes.

SYKES
(turns back to Lino)
Sorry.

DON LINO
That’s alright.
(continues speech)
It’s all been to prepare them
for the day they run the reef.
Well, today is that day –

Suddenly, the Italian opera music skips. ANGLE an old gramophone. The needle is caught in a groove.

DON LINO
Luca!

LUCA uses one of his eight arms to correct the problem. Suddenly, “BABY’S GOT BACK” BLARES. He quickly returns the needle to Italian opera.

LUCA
(dumb smile)
Hey, boss. I put the
record on the wrong song.

DON LINO
(rolls his eyes, sotto)
Oy-vei.
(back to Sykes)
Long story short, from now
on you work for Frankie and Lenny.

SYKES
(chuckles)
Lenny?! Frankie, I understand.
But Lenny? You can’t be serious.

DON LINO
I’m dead serious.It takes more
than muscle to run things. Now, Lenny —
(points to his head)
— he’s got the brains, and that’s
somethin’ special.

SYKES
(sarcastic)
Oh yeah, he’s “special,”
all right.

DON LINO
What’s that supposed
to mean?

SYKES
Nothing, nothing.
I’m just sayin’…

Don Lino’s eyes slowly squint, pissed.

DON LINO
Hey, I bring you in here,
look you in the eye,
tell you what’s what,
and WHAT?

BEAT.

SYKES
What?

DON LINO
What? “What!”

SYKES
What what nothin’.
You said “what” first.

DON LINO
I didn’t say what first,
I asked you what.

SYKES
No, you said, “and then what”
and I said what.

DON LINO
No, I said what what,
like what what?

LONG BEAT. Sykes thinks it through.

SYKES
You said what first.

DON LINO
(rises, furious)
Now you’re making fun of me?

SYKES
No-no-no,
you misunderstood,
you misunderstood.

Lino’s moments are undercut by Luca’s record player skip and Sykes’ constant interruptions. Even though Lino gets exasperated, sometimes outright angry, he never directly, or even indirectly, harms anyone. The scene works for adults and kids. At least, that’s the hope.

CREATING EMOTION

What would a movie be without heart? Even though we were writing an irreverent comedy, we wanted to care about our characters in a dramatic way. What makes them tick? Oscar wants to be rich and famous. He wants to be a somebody because he thinks that nobody loves a nobody. He’s wrong, of course. Someone loves him; and because he’s dreaming of being a big shot, he doesn’t see that. Not until it is too late. The scene below is one of my favorite scenes in the movie. It’s Oscar’s wake-up call …

INT. WAREHOUSE – NIGHT

ANGIE
Just tell me, Oscar,
‘cuz I’m curious.
Why do you think
she’s interested, huh?
Do you think for one
minute that she would even
be with you if you weren’t
the rich and famous Sharkslayer?

LENNY
C’mon, you guys, please don’t fight.

ANGIE
(to Oscar, ignoring Lenny)
Are you that blind?!

OSCAR
(defensive)
At least she treats me
like I’m somebody.

ANGIE
Yeah, but would she love you
if you were nobody?

OSCAR
Nobody loved me
when I was nobody!

ANGIE
(emotional)
I DID!

That catches Angie off guard as much as Oscar. She didn’t mean to tell him; it just came out. She turns her back towards him as she opens up the flood gates.

ANGIE (cont’d)
Before the money, and
before the fame …
BEFORE THE LIE.
To me you were a somebody, Oscar.
Now you’re nothing but a fake.
A sham. A con.
(beat)
You’re a joke.

LENNY (O.S.)
Here I come —

Lenny steps out from behind the curtain. He is covered in BLUE PAINT and wears a NOSE RING. He has transformed into …

LENNY
(strikes a pose)
TADAAA! Sebastian the
Whale Washin’ Dolphin!

Lenny dances and makes DOLPHIN NOISES, trying to defuse the tension.

A beat. Oscar thrown, Angie fighting tears, they just stare at each other.

OSCAR
Angie …

ANGIE
Forget it! Just go.
‘Cuz I’m tired of hearing how
everything you had in your
life wasn’t good enough –
(beat)
— including me.

Oscar backs away, turns, leaves. Angie drops her shoulders the instant he’s gone. Then looks up, notices Lenny staring at her.

LENNY
Angie?

ANGIE
Oh, honey I’m sorry.
Go back and do it again.

LENNY
(leans down, consoling)
Hey, come on. It’ll be okay.

As of this moment, the movie is two months away from its release. I still don’t know how the things I’ve talked about will be received. This could end up being an article about what not to do. Either way, from one aspiring/beginning writer to another, take it all with a grain of salt. Every experience is different. This was one of mine.

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