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Mike Cooper • Aardman Features, Mark Burton • Freelance Writer
Scriptwriting

by 

Copyright Cartoon, the European Association of Animation Film Cartoon Master Postdam, Germany, November 2005

Case Study: Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were Rabbit

Mike Cooper has worked closely with Nick Park and Steve Box on the recent Wallace and Gromit feature film, and has worked at the heart of Aardman’s development relationship with DreamWorks Animation.
Mark Burton is a UK-based comedy writer with a varied TV and film career on both sides of the Atlantic. He has written extensively for many of not most Brit comedy shows, and is a winner of the British Comedy Award and the Premier Ondas Award. Mark Burton co-wrote «Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of The Were-Rabbit». He is currently developing an original animation for Disney, «The Byrds».

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How did you split the work between you and DreamWorks during the development process?

Mike Cooper: To say a little bit about those two guys in their studios cooking up a lot of comedy ideas to the first draft: all the visual elements are kicking in, the guys' attention is starting to be split and we're trying to move the draft forwards and gain confidence for the guys first but also for our partner DreamWorks. We had negotiated that process of exchanging the drafts between the two development department of the two companies and that proved to be quite a difficult time in the relationship at the beginning.
We were kind of defensive at the beginning; we had a tough job to pull off the deal. Jeffrey Katzenberg had suggestions and gave opinions about ways to do things and we had to, politely but very firmly, resist. Just one example: in the design of the character of Lady Tottington, he couldn't understand why we didn't want to make her more conventionally beautiful. And we said she was beautiful as she was!
What happened later on is that once the kind of boundaries withdrawn and we started to understand each other, it actually became very fruitful since they could come in and identify problems. Although they didn't always have the solution, they were able to pick up script problems. They were also like catalyst since things were not always perfectly clear between all of us, but they helped putting the whole thing forward. There were moments of great luck and moments of difficulties.

Mark Burton: DreamWorks were good at asking tough questions. There was a line to be drawn and sometimes they crossed the line by interfering into content, but to be fair we can say Jeffrey understood that Nick was the author. On the other hand, it's great to have people knowing a lot about what they're doing. I'm going to give you a couple of example.
One occasion when I think they were wrong is the scene in the film where Gromit chases the beast. DreamWorks almost begged us, they said: "please, he's got to go back, he loves his master, he's heard the beast, he's got to go back to his master." We said we could solve it, and Nick and Steve solved it very well in the film, and I think DreamWorks were totally wrong.
On other occasion, when I think they were right, is the middle point of the film, the moment that brings you in act 2, when Wallace is becoming the Were Rabbit in front of us. Then Gromit finds out it is Wallace, the audience finds out it is Wallace, Wallace transforms into the beast and then Victor, the bad guy, finds out it is Wallace. We had the idea it would be great if that was all one lump. What a fantastic moment in the story! So we had this version when Gromit is in a van and he comes out, the moon is coming out and Wallace transforms. What a great moment in a film that would be! But DreamWorks said, "hang on a second, that idea is very well but you're scampering the scene before which is in the conservatory. And if you don't have that idea that Gromit knows it is Wallace in the conservatory, it becomes a dead scene." We thought about that and agreed and we actually reworked on the script. They were right to ask the question and we fixed it.
DreamWorks also had a problem with the Wallace and Gromit relationship. They were saying that if one doesn't know the characters Wallace looks quite harsh to Gromit. DreamWorks had a point saying it would be a moving moment to put them apart and rejoin them later. We made it a warmer film for those moments. I think we were right not to go perhaps as far as DreamWorks wanted but to take their opinions and do it our way.

Mike Cooper: We can go into further details to give a better insight on how chaotic that back and forth collaboration on the script can be. The teams worked very closely with some disagreements among us. DreamWorks came with a big tradition of "story real" while Steve and Nick purposely kept our story team very small, with only two guys, and it was because they were so definite about the ideas they wanted in their film. A story team is used at DreamWorks to generate more material but Nick and Steve had generated so much themselves that we actually had too much. We had to lose some!

Mark Burton: The DreamWorks view is that you don't necessary need to have a theme but if an animation movie has one it can elevate as a piece of drama. We followed this idea and had a good idea which was "you shouldn't try to change people who don't want to be changed". We started to use this idea in the part with Lady Tottington who is trying to change Wallace. We also had a kind of a learning scene with Gromit thinking he shouldn't have tried to change Wallace. We tried it a few ways but it just didn't fit in the film. We took it out.

Do you think the film has an international appeal?

Mike Cooper: Basically we made the film we wanted to make. A lot of that had been proved by the shorts, that there was a good acceptance of it.

Mike Cooper: It's part of marketing people's job to sell the film internationally. We have a very strong team very close to Nick and Aardman's sensibility. They had to work with an equivalent team at DreamWorks and with the distributor UIP for the rest of the world. There was a kind of triangle for the marketing together with an independent PR agent. Marketing is a kind of obvious thing, if you know about the film, you have been marketed to. There are posters and trailers, stills, international casting in each country. There were a lot of materials for the media to talk about the film.
The film is an incredible success, critically and box office wise. The UK box office equalled the US box office which is practically unheard of. The international result is fantastic and the film hasn't been released in Japan yet. The marketing seems to have worked.

Mark Burton: Towards the end of the process, there were some more little tricky moments between DreamWorks and us. DreamWorks started making screenings which is important for the marketing but of course it was kind of dangerous since you can't change the film at that stage. We had a lot of let's say "saucy jokes", and they did a screening in Salt Lake City and the audience had problems with them. No surprise! But we kept them. DreamWorks knew what they could ask us and we knew what kind of film we wanted.

Where the two characters known in the US? And did you have the discussion with DreamWorks on how to introduce them in the US market?

Mike Cooper: On both coasts of the US there were a kind of presence of Wallace & Gromit but they were not that well known. In term of introducing, we were very conscious about presenting the world of Wallace & Gromit, their domestic arrangements, the kind of relationship they have.

Is Wallace going to find his true love?

Mark Burton: That was a big debate within the film. I think Wallace's true love is Gromit!

How different were the trailers in the States and in the UK?

Mike Cooper: We had a right of approval over the marketing material. It was kind of difficult because the DreamWorks marketing people wanted to cut their trailers in a particular way: they knew their market and they knew how to market the film there. Nick was very reluctant that anywhere in the world a trailer would reveal who is the Were Rabbit. But he was put under a lot of pressure and he gave up on that point for the US and that's a thing Nick has regrets about. Basically there is a difference in the approach between the US and Europe.

What about the voices?

All discussions about that point were tensed. Nick and Steve wanted Frances de la Tour to do Lady Tottington but she's not very famous outside of the UK. They were forced to make another choice and when they looked back on that decision, they didn't regret it. But the stars of the film are Wallace & Gromit!
You have to re-dubbed the film in each country to adapt to each local market. The control is made by DreamWorks that has the network in each country to do it.

What about the music?

The theme had been set in previous episodes and Nick wanted to stay with the original composer but very late in the process Jeffrey from DreamWorks had another opinion. At the end the music is a collaborative work and some good things came out of that but it was painful when it was happening.
In the German version even things written are changed into German. Was it a concept from the production?

The local distributor with DreamWorks took the decision. The thing is that one joke in the UK might not be funny I another country.

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