Brenda Chapman on Writing BRAVE
Brave rocked the box office. Its themes of identity, responsibility, and family were equally appealing to boys and girls, adults and children. Its unique characters were memorable and brimming with personality, with pitch-perfect dialogue and solid arcs. And it’s technically brilliant.
Watching Brave, I found so much inspiring material, I wanted to watch it twice, so I could take notes the second time around. Because movies are a different medium from books--with different demands and limitations--they offer novelists some unique insight into writing. And there is a lot an author can learn from Brave--from how to design a resonant character to how to turn that into an engaging plot.
So, I was beyond thrilled when Brenda Chapman, writer and director of Disney-Pixar's Brave, agreed to do an interview on how she did all that magic. Because while there’s a lot you can learn from watching it and piecing things together, the chance to glean techniques from Brenda Chapman herself is simply irreplaceable.
Beware: spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen it. Otherwise, enjoy!
Susan: Merida, Elinor, and the rest of the cast of Brave are such unique and memorable characters, courtesy of their strong and distinct personalities. How did you go about creating them?
Brenda: I drew from my own life. Merida and Elinor’s characters are inspired by my relationship with my daughter. I think a writer needs to draw on truths for characters, and then expand on them. What is it you admire about that person that you could use? What is it about another that you can’t stand? Mix it up . . . it will just feel a bit more believable when the audience experiences those characters.
Susan: One of the hardest things for new authors is learning to allow their characters to make bad decisions, the better to make things interesting. What tricks have you learned for letting your characters do the wrong thing, without making them bad people--and without losing the audience?
Brenda: First you need to know what it is you want your character to learn over the course of the story. What is the arc of their story? You have to find ways to show that your characters are lacking in that one thing they need to acquire as the story progresses. Let them realize they’ve been wrong about something, which allows them to learn. That is one of the differences between a protagonist and an antagonist. The villain should believe whole-heartedly that he/she is right--unable to accept that they could be wrong until it’s too late (in many cases)--whereas the protagonist should be able to realize that they need to change their thinking to learn something in time for the happy ending (or whatever type of ending you choose). There are oh so many ways to twist and turn throughout that journey, but find the simple arc first before twisting it up for unpredictability.
Susan: Brave has a nonstandard plot. For one, it’s not your typical princess story: there’s no prince! For another, though Merida’s conflict with her mother is central to the story, her mother is not the enemy. What steps did you take to plot out Brave?
Brenda: Character is the most important factor in creating a story. Your characters should lead the plot. What do they need? Who are they? What do they want? (That’s different than need.)
For a plot, I try to plan what my beginning and end will be, then figure out the path between those two points. But many people like to write “straight ahead” figuring out what happens next as they go and know the end only when they get there. I find that approach sends me on too many wild goose chases and I burn out. Others love that discovery process. I think it just depends on the writer and what feels right to them.
The main thing I wanted to do was tell a story about a relationship where the audience could empathize with both characters, even though they seem to be at cross-purposes. I wanted Elinor and Merida to be right about some things and need to learn from each other on other things. Because isn’t that the truth of a parent child relationship? They love each other, but they have their own approaches to life--a parent sometimes has a hard time realizing that their child is an individual, and a child trying to express that individuality often doesn’t realize that they could learn so much from their parents. That was the basis for moving ahead with my characters and the plot.
Susan: Kids are the toughest critics--but they all seem to love Brave. What are your secrets for writing for kids?
Brenda: The same for writing for adults. Give them something to relate to! Don’t talk down to them simplistically--challenge them, but make it fun.
I tried not to go with the stereotypes of little boys and big sisters in Brave. They actually work out how to get along, yet have that mischievousness that little boys (and girls) can have. And Merida is smart enough to figure out how to keep the peace by bribing them with the sweets they love so much, instead of the big sister being annoyed and harassed all the time. I hoped that siblings could relate to that back and forth trade-off/bribery--yet done with love. And maybe it would give kids ideas on how to get along if they currently don’t.
Susan: Brave is a movie adults and teens seem to love as much as kids. How do you write something with that crossover appeal?
Brenda: It’s really the same answer as writing for kids--I specify as I write. I just try to create something that feels true, have fun with it--and make it something that people (grown ups and kids, alike) can relate to. When I try to specifically target the different ages, it always comes off as forced to me. That’s just me--maybe other writers are cleverer than me. I go a lot by gut.
Susan: Conflicts are central to every story--but in Brave, rather than the typical conflict of good vs. evil, or the alternative story of the antihero, the central conflict is between two characters who are both good--neither of which needs conquering. How does writing a story with such a plot differ from these other models?
Brenda: Well, I think many people would say that the bad bear, Mor’du was the villain, but in reality, he represented the darkness of the conflict in the mother/daughter relationship. Merida and Elinor were both good and bad--their journey is learning to know each other and listen to each other to conquer that darkness that is in themselves.
This was a hard story to get across--trying to find the balance so Merida and Elinor didn’t look worse than the other. I wanted the audience to relate to them both and feel the conundrum of their conflict. It was certainly more challenging, and ultimately more rewarding for me in the end. Creating a straight forward “baddy” is quite a bit easier, in my experience.
Susan: Have you ever thought about turning your talents to books?
Brenda: Most definitely. I have been working on a children’s book for two decades--mainly because I’ve been working full time for most of those years and had very little energy to give to it. But I do hope to finish it soon. It’s based on my 3rd year film at CalArts. It’s an old idea, but it still resonates with me. It’s about an old woman who is alone on her birthday--inspired by my Great Aunt Em, who was always worried she’d never see us again after we’d visit.
I’ve also been working on a memoir . . . but I’m considering turning it more into a novel. It’s still in very early stages. It has led me from my own life back in time to the lives of my mother and my grandmother--I would not be who I am without the choices that they made . . . So--I’m not sure I’m comfortable putting their lives out there so openly. Nonetheless, I’ve really been enjoying the creative process of discovery as I write. It is so freeing, rewarding and incredibly challenging! I love it! Just wish I could make money at it! I still have a daughter to put through college!
Susan: What are the different challenges of writing a movie script versus writing a book?
Brenda: Well, since I haven’t completed a book, I’m still working on that. But as I write, I am finding that I am editing myself too much for my book. I have been trained to be time conscious and economic for film: “show us, don’t tell us.” It has been hard to let myself describe a moment in a book, to talk about the environment and the mood of the thing that is happening. But I’m beginning to enjoy it . . . so that means an editor will start chopping away at my prose soon, I have no doubt!
Susan: How much did Brave change, from concept to the final film?
Brenda: Every animated film worth its salt goes through a lot of changes from concept to end. Brave is no exception. My original concept had a double mother daughter story--the witch had a daughter that had infiltrated the castle. But it was way too complicated and I ditched the extra characters and subplot very early on. But once I landed on the structure that is now what we know as Brave, we just reworked the details a lot.
As a story artist for many years, we called it sto-reboarding, rather than storyboarding. The same goes for writing--it’s rewriting . . . again and again and again.
It does get difficult when a project goes on too long. Brave’s release date kept getting pushed back after Disney bought Pixar to accommodate sequels of other Pixar films and other Disney animated films. Ideas that were once thought brilliant or funny started to feel tired and not so funny--not because they had changed, but because people got bored with seeing them so often. It’s heartbreaking some of the ideas that we lost just because people couldn’t remember their initial good reaction to them.
Susan: Humor is terribly difficult to pull off--especially across age ranges. But Brave was filled with humorous moments, like with the . . . uhm . . . “wood carver.” What tricks do you employ to keep people laughing?
Brenda: You keep yourself laughing.
Susan: What was the inspiration behind Brave, and where do you find inspiration?
Brenda: There are three of my loves that inspired Brave. My love of the old dark Bros. Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen faerie tales, my love of Scotland (I am a great American mutt, but for some reason my Scottish genes scream to be heard!) and lastly and most importantly the love of that bundle of passion, stubbornness and strength that is my daughter.
I find inspiration from life . . . wherever I can get it . . . whenever it speaks to me.
Susan: There are a lot of layers going on in Brave. First, there is the way that history informs the present. Second, the climatic battle was a perfect microcosm of the battle within Merida herself. When plotting your story, how do you make sure all these layers line up and enhance your story?
Brenda: That’s the way you just have to look at it--the story as a whole, working the layers together. Sometimes it works, sometimes you have to start all over and try again. That’s where the rewriting and sto-reboarding come in to it. There is no one way. Each story has a life of its own--layers of its own. You must always be able to stand back and look at the whole to make decisions on the minutia.
Susan: I think this is the first time ever where the climatic battle was fought--and fought physically, too!--between the “mother bear” and the villain. So often, the one who does the fighting is the main character--but it is so much stronger in this story with Elinor being the one to do the fighting. How did you know it was the right call to deviate from the typical plot and let Elinor shine?
Brenda: I’ll be honest with you--marketing made Merdia the “main character”, but in my mind, I always considered Merida and Elinor equal characters. Both of their arcs needed to be completed. This movie is a love story between a mother and daughter.
Think about a story like When Harry Met Sally. They both have their own story. We see them both go through their arcs--the completion of which brings them together. That is the same for me for Elinor and Merida.
Of course, I related very much with Elinor’s character. I wanted her to be able to show that she would die for her child, as I would for mine if the choice ever had to be made--as would many mothers. Earlier in the film, it seemed almost that she had forgotten that motherly instinct in thinking she could marry off her daughter as a diplomatic gesture--and it’s what Merida feels and is rebelling against--that her mother isn’t really there for her. When really, Elinor is trying to do the best she can to secure her daughter’s safe and prosperous future--she just doesn’t take what Merida wants into consideration. So when the test comes--she doesn’t have the strength of will to fight off the men holding her down with ropes when her husband is about to kill her, but when she sees that her daughter is about to die, suddenly, she has “the strength of ten men!” She proves her love for her daughter to Merida and to herself.
I know that doesn’t answer your question--but since I don’t consider Elinor a side character, that’s all I had.
Susan: You use a fair number of strong symbols and literal metaphors in Brave--and yet not one of them comes off as cliché or trite, and characters who serve as symbols don’t come off as caricatures or tools. What is the secret to using symbols effectively?
Brenda: It could have been so easy to fall into stereotypes of the Scottish culture, and we did on some levels, I’ll admit. But because the story is universal to parents/families--mothers and daughters in particular--it takes the focus away from relying on stereotypes of the time and place and people of Scotland. We used what came naturally out of those things and used them to support our characters and their arcs.
And in the relationships of the film, I did try to stay away from stereotypes as much as I could.
The secret? I’m all about guesswork and instinct, really. It’s amazing what you can stumble across that way!
Susan: Dialogue is at the heart of great screenwriting. How do you make sure each character has a unique voice?
Brenda: Hire a writer who is better at it than me! I’m only partially joking. I can create characters that are unique from each other, but I do struggle with dialogue a lot of the time. Steve Purcell and Irene Mecchi were so much better at it than me, so I tried to stay out of their way.
Susan: Pacing is key to movies and books alike. How do you maintain the balance of tension, conflict, and restful scenes?
Brenda: I always try to keep the whole--the entirety of the story--in my mind’s eye. If I get too bogged down with looking at a particular part or detail, it’s hard to know whether it will work in the context of the story--both in detail and in pacing. It’s instinct about knowing when you need to speed up into excitement or slow down for the audience to catch their breath. There is no hard-set rule that works every time. It’s all dependent on the story you are trying to tell and what you want the audience to feel at any given moment.
Susan: Do you have a favorite character or scene in Brave?
Brenda: That’s like asking me to choose which child I love most! I love all the characters! I relate the most to Elinor. I adore Fergus--he makes me laugh. Merida’s spirit inspires me. The triplets are just adorable. The Lords and their sons are a hoot . . . The witch! What can I say? They are all my babies.
I do have a favorite scene--one of a few--but this one was there from the get go and has not changed (except for a few things getting rushed through after I left)--when Elinor-bear is able to throw off her captors to save her daughter from Mor’du. That was my “Mom kicks ass” moment. All of us moms have that in us, that mother bear protective rage. What I like about it is that she doesn’t have the strength to save herself from certain death, but when she sees her daughter on the verge of being killed, Elinor finds an inner strength she didn’t know she had, and is a force to be reckoned with!! Fergus couldn’t take down his nemesis, but Elinor-bear’s protective rage could. I always loved pitching that part.
My other favorite is when both Elinor and Merida go too far after the archery scene where Merida wins herself. When Merdia slashes the tapestry and Elinor retaliates by throwing the bow in the fire, they both have gone beyond what they should have. Merida is too young and inexperienced to realize her mistake in the moment, but Elinor is quicker to regret and know she has behaved badly. Her remorse gives the audience reason to love her and sympathize with her. Haven’t we all at one time or the other let ourselves cross the line and know that we didn’t do the right thing--set the good example? I do regret how the scene was eventually cut--it was only a few seconds longer, but it gave the characters more time to feel and register their emotions--as well as the audience. It feels a bit rushed to me in its current version. Nonetheless, it still gets the point across, and does its job.
Susan: What do we have to look forward to from you in the coming year--anything you can share?
Brenda: I am developing some of my own projects right now, and considering whether to pitch them to a studio or try a more independent approach. I’m also considering offers to develop and direct at a couple of studios. I’m taking it slow--I’ve been enjoying my down time with my family.
I’m also going to be doing more speaking engagements and mentoring--I’d like to share the knowledge that I’ve acquired over the years. I’d like to get more young women interested in the film industry so that we can have more stories about strong female protagonists.
Susan: Any advice for aspiring writers?
Brenda: Find your inspiration from life . . . wherever you can get it . . . whenever it speaks to you. Don’t give up. Get back up when you get knocked down, for you will get knocked down. Love what you do.
Brenda Chapman is the writer and co-director of Disney-Pixar’s Brave. She started out as an artist, graduating from Cal Arts, and landing a job at Walt Disney Feature Animation Studios upon graduation. There she worked on many projects, including Roger Rabbit, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast. She was head of story on The Lion King. She left Disney after eight years to help launch DreamWorks Animation Studios, where she directed her first film, The Prince of Egypt, becoming the first woman to direct an aimated feature film for a major Hollywood studio. In 2003, she joined Pixar Animation Studios as a senior story artist, working on Cars, and then made history again as Pixar’s first female director with Brave, a film featuring Pixar’s first-ever female protagonist. Brenda is currently working as a story consultant and speaker, writing a memoir, and writing/illustrating a children’s book.