Inside the Writing Process
Interview with David Schaub,
co-author of SPIRITS OF THE WESTERN WILD
David Schaub is a writer and Academy Award ® nominated Animation Supervisor working in the film industry for more than 25 years. He is the co-writer of SPIRITS OF THE WESTERN WILD (screenplay), and produced and directed the audio adaptation now on Audible.com. He also developed STORY COMPASS® smartphone app for screenwriters in 2016. Schaub received Oscar nomination for animation in Tim Burton’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND (Disney), along with nominations for BAFTA Award, Saturn Award and Critic’s Choice Award, and won the Golden Satellite Award for Best Visual Effects for his team’s work on the film. He was HEAD ANIMATION on Sony Picture’s SURFS UP – recognized with two Annie Awards among its ten nominations including Academy Award nomination and four Visual Effects Society (VES) award nominations.
ANIMATION DIRECTOR on AMAZING SPIDERMAN 2 (2014), CHRONICLES OF NARNIA (Disney), I AM LEGEND (Warner Bros.) and LEAD ANIMATOR on STUART LITTLE 1 & 2, EVOLUTION, CAST AWAY, GODZILLA, PATCH ADAMS and more.
ANIMATION DIRECTOR – Universal’s award-winning JURASSIC WORLD EXPEDITION (2019) VR EXPERIENCE. Exploring cinematic potential of virtual reality.
Would you call yourself a born writer?
Since I am not writing every day, I think the answer would be "no." With a multitude of projects underway, writing is just one part of the equation that plays into the larger picture from one day to the next. For me, writing is a means to an end. It’s a vital creative step toward manifesting some end result - whether it’s a fully executed screenplay, comedy sketch, or just a troublesome scene where the dialogue needs to be rewritten. It all evolved from my primary gig that got me into all this in the first place.
And what is that?
I’ve been working as an animation supervisor in production for over two decades now, so I really came in the back door on this writing thing. I spent years working with writers, directors and producers – fully immersed in that world. And when you are around those influences for long enough, it has a tendency to rub off. I’ve broken down hundreds of screenplays (for cost estimates and bidding purposes), and through that process became fascinated with the mechanics of story. I was exposed to some really great material, and some not-so great… I absorbed a lot over the years, and came away with my own perspective and instincts for what works and what doesn’t.
I realized that a solid story structure had a lot to do with the making of the screenplays that I loved. I did a deep dive into the subject, and developed an app called STORY COMPASS ® for screenwriters back in 2016. It was just a reference tool for myself in the beginning, but then it evolved into something more over time.
The backstory is here:
For SPIRTS [of the Western Wild], the app came in most useful at the back end, after all the broad strokes and creative elements were in place. From there, the app helped us fit together the larger puzzle in a way that ebbs and flows with a natural story rhythm. We were able to dial in those structural nuances in the rewrites, rather than fixating on structure up front where it can block the creative flow.
What was your inspiration for SPIRITS OF THE WESTERN WILD?
It was Roger [Vizard], my story partner who pitched me the idea for a buddy film with a young cowboy and a crotchety old ghost who refused to believe he was dead. It was mostly a character premise with some great drawings and situational gags. We kicked ideas around between ourselves about where the story could go. We ultimately decided to join forces to see if we could shape it into a fully executed screenplay that would sustain itself as an animated feature. It was the characters that inspired us, and that’s what drove everything down the story path.
How long did it take you to complete the screenplay?
I’ll confess to about five years. Crazy… right? But keep in mind that this project evolved during our downtime between various shows that we were involved in. Another obstacle was that our schedules and production commitments didn’t always align. But for us, this was a “passion-project” that helped us maintain some level of sanity while working on some grueling visual effects movies. The fact that we were chipping away over time was enough to keep both of us sane.
Are you disciplined? Describe a typical writing day.
I'm disciplined at a lot of things, but writing isn't one of them. Neither is Roger. I require a heavy dose of inspiration before I’m compelled to sit down and execute. I’ve also discovered that if the writing comes easy to me, then it means I’m not digging down deep enough. So with that in mind, I’ve got to be good and ready for some ditch-digging and suffering ahead! The good news is that once I start, I am unstoppable - OCD might be a better description. And those stretches can go for weeks at a time. There’s usually very little sleep involved, so it’s not a healthy routine.
But it’s all in the interest of capturing lightning in a bottle during those times of focus. Sometimes the marathon sessions pay off… other times I end up with a heaping pile of trash. I’m often overwhelmed at the endless possibilities and self-imposed forks in the road. Of course, I need to go down all those dead ends to see if anything is lurking in the dark before turning back empty-handed. I hate that nagging feeling that I might have missed an undiscovered treasure down that darkened alley — especially if I feel I might have missed it because I was just too lazy to go look.
What did you find most challenging about writing this story?
We started with some fun characters, but no sense of a real beginning, middle, or end from a story perspective. Definitely not the best starting point for the goal of a tightly woven screenplay! The process of dredging up a meaningful story from a simple lineup of characters took us down a lot of blind alleys. I lost count of our rewrites. But it was those rewrites that allowed us to find the real story that was buried down deeper. Over time, the characters became real to us - to the point where they just kind of spoke to us. So we let them do their thing, and it was our job to chase them on their adventure - getting them into deeper-and-deeper trouble as they went.
Ultimately, of course, we had to reel in that adventure and focus on structure, theme, and all that… But that came much later, where STORY COMPASS ® helped us fine-tune the beats.
Usually, the process is done in reverse — first the story idea, then find suitable characters to populate the story-world. It's also a good idea to know your ending before you start. We didn't have any of that.. The upside is that it resulted in a story that we would never have imagined had we gone the traditional outlining route. Had we conceived and built the story through conventional means, we would never have arrived at the same end result. Not even close.
What is the message you are trying to get across in this story?
There is a thematic thread that runs underneath this adventure related to that mysterious thing we call “destiny.” While we are indeed responsible for our own destinies, I like to believe that we are driven and moved toward our desires by forces beyond our comprehension. In this case, it is the “Spirits of the Western Wild.” It’s those nudges, coincidences, and synchronicities that mysteriously lead us to our heart’s desire. There is a magical and mysterious tone to this story that reinforces those ideas, and one character in particular who is the literal, but comedic embodiment of that spirit.
Do you have any writing tips that you could pass on to help others on their journey?
It's clarity above all that I seek when I write. I strive to make the scenes so clear - so visual that the reader never feels compelled to go back and re-read a sentence. I want the reader to keep moving forward at the pace of the film (unless they want to go back and re-read to appreciate the clarity)! To make that happen, you've got to write, rewrite - step away - come back and strip it down, write and rewrite again until the flow is natural, simple, and clear. It should feel effortless, but achieving that can be deceptively difficult. I also think that the words you write should have more meaning than something you can spout out off the top of your head. So don't stress about the time it takes to find "just-the-right" words. It's a process, so it's best to make your peace with that.
What do you love most about being an author?
Turning over that final page… fade to black… the end! There’s nothing like the joy that comes from completion. It’s from here that we have the potential to convert it from a stack of paper into a real thing. I personally hunger for meaning, and a great story leaves the audience with a revelation; an insightful, satisfying and meaningful reason for having engaged in this journey in the first place. I love the idea of leaving the audience with something to ponder.
Thank you again for this interview! Do you have any final words?
While this story is certainly framed up as a “Western,” that’s really just the façade for a deeper story. [Sergio] Leone said the same about his films – “they are westerns only in their exterior aspects. Within them are truths that belong to all parts of the world… not just the American West.” Using this genre as our backdrop, we can strip away modern distractions and focus on the deeper story of friendship, loyalty and the final ascension that occurs when our destiny is done.
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