Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Frozen: Insights from the Movie's Writer

Frozen is an awesome movie.  I loved it.  My kids Loved it.  My husband said it was better than the Lego Movie (which was an awesome movie too).  I think there is a lot to learn about storytelling from it, and fortunately for us writers, here is a podcast from Scriptnotes interviewing the writer and co-director of frozen, Jennifer Lee.   The interview is an hour and a half, but well worth the time.  The insights into how the story developed were fascinating and very insightful.  But they discuss the entire movie, so don’t listen to it until you’ve seen the movie, and you want to see the movie, trust me. 

Below are several points made in the interview which I believe are important to think about when writing.  These also contain spoilers for the movie, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet, just walk away.  This blog post will still be waiting here for you when you are ready.

1.   Keep the love, but lose the memory of Elsa’s power.  When the trolls save Anna after she was struck by Elsa’s power, the trolls save the memories of the love her and Elsa shared, but remove all the memories of Elsa’s power.  This was just stated, and when I saw the movie, I just accepted it.  But the writers struggled with this a lot.  They had a hard time figuring out what to do.  If they removed all the memories, then Anna wouldn’t remember the love her and Elsa shared and there wouldn’t be anything for Anna to fight for, but if she remembered Elsa had the ice power, then Anna came off as selfish.  It was a real struggle to figure out how to find a logical reason for Anna to keep the memories of Elsa, but forget that Elsa had ice powers.

Then someone, who's probably a bigwig in the screenwriting world but I don’t remember his name, told Jennifer Lee (Frozen writer) that “sometimes you have to just do what you have to do and just make a real point of it” and that the audience would accept it.  Jennifer struggled with this idea, but once she went with it, everything else fell into place.   

I know a lot of times in writing my stories that I want everything to make perfect, logical sense, but I think there are times when you just have to “do what you have to do” for the story and hope the audience will be invested enough to suspend that belief.  I don’t think you can get away with very many of these per story, but sometimes you just have to do it.  

2.  “Let It Go.”  The writers struggled a lot with Elsa.  They had this idea to make her turn villainess and give her a redemption story arc.  They struggled with fitting all of the plot elements in:   turning Elsa evil, Anna’s romance with Kristoff, and Elsa’s redemption.  The story wasn’t working.  There was just too much for one movie.

Then the song writers (Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez) decided to stop thinking about Elsa as a villain, but just focus on what it would feel like to finally let yourself be who you really are, and they wrote that amazing song, “Let It Go.”  When they played the demo for the writers, Jennifer immediately thought, “I have to rewrite the movie.”  The song captured exactly what she wanted, but it didn’t work for the way they had written Elsa.  Elsa’s story had to be redone without her being the villain.

I know from my experience that stories to some extent develop as I’m writing them, and there have been times when things aren’t working and I get the feeling that I am going in the wrong direction.  As hard as it is to start over or even redo a section of the story, I think the story is always stronger for it.  Sometimes you just have to “let it go” and start over.

3.  There were no hints that Prince Hans is evil.  I knew it.  I watched closely for any hint that Hans was evil from the beginning.  I already suspected from commercials that Kristoff was the guy for Anna, so I knew the prince had to go somehow.

Jennifer confirmed my suspicions.  They purposely left out any indication that Hans was the bad guy.  They didn’t want the audience to know.  But in order to make Hans believable, they had to get into his calculating psychopathic head to figure out exactly how he was seeing everything. The way the saw him was that he became a mirror of whoever he was around.  So with Anna who was cute and goofy, Hans was cute and goofy.  With the duke who was Bold and aggressive, Hans became bold and aggressive.  He was such a good chameleon that he even hid from us savvy viewers.

I think this is an important lesson in characterization, how writers need to think about things through every characters’ point of view to make sure they understand how their characters would react to every situation, so that the characters feels like they have depth and consistency even if they are ultimately deceiving the audience.

4.  Earn that moment.  The moment when Anna sacrifices herself to save Elsa is big.  Jennifer was told from the beginning, “If you earn that moment, the movie will be fantastic, if you don’t, it will suck.”  So much thought and calculation went into it.  If you listen to the podcast, Jennifer goes into the things they did to earn that moment.  In the end, it was worth it.  I thought that moment was beautiful.

I think every story has that one moment that needs to earned, and I think it is important to identify that moment and make sure you earn it.  The story pretty much hangs in the balance.

5.  Sincerity.  There are so many messages that audiences see from Frozen, and the writers knew that this would be the case going in.  A lot of complaints have been made about Elsa being a little too sexy during the “Let It Go” song, but if Elsa had displayed no sexuality at all, that too would’ve been seen a statement.

Jennifer stated that they didn’t want to “preach or make statements” but let the story speak for itself.  They really tried to shoot for sincerity and let the characters do what they would naturally do.  One of the interviewers made this profound statement about how it was important to “go with sincerity and reality and saying what is emotionally sincere here and let that be your guide and not looking at it from the outside.”

I think this is an important take home message for all of us writers.  Many stories have been criticized for their messages, intentional or unintentional.   It can be very stifling in trying to make sure your story has positive messages that don’t glorify unhealthy relationships or choices.  I think writers shouldn’t be looking at their stories from the outside, but try to come from a place of emotional sincerity.  Let the characters be who they are and behave the way they would naturally behave, and not worry about what your hypothetical readers might think.  Be honest, be thoughtful, be sincere, and don’t worry about the rest.

Those are my thoughts on the interview.  There is a lot more good stuff on the podcast, so check it out.




  1. This is really helpful, MaryAnn. Thank you. I loved Frozen so much, and it's cool to see behind the scenes of it.

  2. I'm sorry it has taken so long for me to write a comment on this. Such a great podcast, and so much to learn from it. The most disturbing thing for me was realizing that if I was to take a Zimbio quiz, I would get Prince Hans. Sigh.

    1. Yeah, you seem to always get the manipulative villain type on those quizzes. Which is weird because you seem like the sweetest person in the world. I guess I better keep my eye on you. :)

  3. I didn't think too much about the memory loss, because to me love is something that you feel and memories aren't the only thing that creates love. I like to think that love transcends anything. I like to think that even if I got into a horrible accident that took away my a lot of my brain functions those connections would never be lost.

    I did think that Hans should have been more developed. I hate when character suddenly turn bad. It didn't feel natural to me.

    1. That is a good point about the love thing. As for Hans, I know what you mean, but I think it still works. Some people are very good at hiding that side of themselves. I really liked what the writer said about him mirroring people. I can't wait to see it again to look for that aspect of him.


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