Tuesday, January 27, 2009
TO INFINITY - THE TIM ALBAUGH INTERVIEW
By Jim Cirile
Quick – name a production company that’s been around for 15 years and every movie they’ve ever made was not only a huge critical hit but grossed hundreds of millions of dollars. Stumped? It’s Pixar, of course. Last year, the Emeryville company tapped writer/producer and UCLA Professional Program instructor Tim Albaugh to teach at “Pixar University” – a unique and amazing opportunity to work with some of the most talented folks around. Tim was one of my instructors at UCLA, and he and his partner Sean Sorensen own production company Popular Films, which handles high-end screenplay consultations in conjunction with Coverage, Ink. I was excited to find out how the experience went. I caught up with Tim to find out all about what it was like to work with Pixar.
Jim Cirile: Tim, in the screenplay of your own life, can you tell us a bit about your protagonist’s backstory?
Tim Albaugh: I got my undergrad degree at San Francisco State. My last quarter there, I took a screenwriting class as an elective. I was going to go to law school. I wasn’t interested in writing at all. But in that class I had a wonderful professor who’s a producer here in town named Peter Almond, who produced “Thirteen Days,” the Kennedy missile crisis movie. I wrote a script in his class, and that script won the “Bay Guardian” screenwriting competition -- it’s the Bay Area’s “LA Weekly.” That put me in touch with (UCLA’s) Richard Walter. He was one of the judges of the competition. He invited me down to UCLA to sit in on one of his classes. Next thing I knew I was at grad school at UCLA. I spent three years there, and one of the scripts I wrote as a student there was the first thing I had produced (“Do Me A Favor”), and that was kind of the things that got me going. I wrote for about 8 or 9 years and was teaching at UCLA as well. Sean Sorensen was a student in my class.
JC: How did you wind up teaching at UCLA?
TA: I had a movie produced. They’re always looking for people to teach there, especially who are alumni, who’ve had some success. They contacted me after I had my first film produced and asked if I wanted to teach a class. Lew Hunter was my mentor at UCLA, and I always admired his approach. He was working professionally as a writer and also teaching, and I thought that that would be a good gig. I thought it would be a 1 or 2-quarter thing. Cut to 12 years later and I’m teaching a class there every quarter. I love it, and for me it’s been very good professionally, too, because that’s how my partnership with Sean came about. We started our own company, and many of the projects that we’ve been able to set up have been things that I’ve discovered through students in my classes or through other students at UCLA.
JC: I imagine being in that academic environment constantly helps your own writing and creativity, too.
TA: Yeah, and it’s just fun to be in a room with people who are working towards the same thing that you are.
JC: And you teach elsewhere also, right?
TA: Yes. The last two summers I’ve gone back to this wonderful place called Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia (www.hollins.edu), and they have an MFA program in screenwriting that only meets in the summers. Students come together for six weeks during the summer. They have an extensive 6-week term, and they get their MFA over a 4 or 5-year period.
JC: That’s crazy. Six weeks a year?
TA: Yes, but it’s been fun to spread the gospel back there. It’s a fun program. It’s modeled after UCLA, but it also has a very strong European influence. So it’s been fun to kind of be the Hollywood guy there.
JC: How does your style mesh with that? Do you wind up butting heads with these guys sometimes?
TA: We’ve had spirited discussions, sure. Ultimately it comes down to telling a good story, obviously. There are many ways to tell a good story. I just tend to practice the way that’s used by the major studios because that’s who I do business with.
JC: So how did this Pixar association come about?
TA: Again, a UCLA connection. I was teaching a course for the UCLA Professional Program online, which is very popular because you can get a UCLA class without actually having to go to UCLA...
JC: Or pay the $11 parking...
TA: Exactly, and hassle with traffic and all that. And of course it opens up the Professional Program to the entire world. There was a gentleman in my class named Stephan Bugaj who works at Pixar, a very good writer, and we forged a friendship. He told me that they occasionally bring in people to teach writing courses for the people at Pixar. “Would you like to be considered for that?” I said, sure. It took a little while to iron things out and go through the approval process.
JC: I would imagine the screening process was fairly rigorous, right? I mean, this is Pixar, where story is king. What did you have to go through, what kind of hoops?
TA: Uh… Stephan liked me, so they liked me. (laughs) Okay, well, obviously, my ten-year teaching record at UCLA, the track record of my students, and my ability to set up projects written by my students, all those things came into play. And they do have a relationship with UCLA. Linda Voorhees, a UCLA instructor, has taught at Pixar before, as well as, I believe, Fred Rubin.
JC: So what was the whole experience like?
TA: It was great. They’re up in Emeryville, so it was decided that I would teach two courses -- a general ‘write a script’ class, and then I also taught a class on how to approach rewriting. It’s part of a component they have called Pixar University, something that was started by, I believe, Steve Jobs. Happy employees make good product, so to speak. They definitely support people pursuing things other than what they do every day. A lot of the animators were in the course, generalists, technicians, IT people, one of the attorneys, one of the modelmakers who does all the models for the films… a wide spectrum of people. Obviously, the goal within Pixar is to tell the best story they can tell. The feeling is if you teach these storytellers how to tell their stories, even—well, you can’t say better than they already do, because they’re the best. But the idea is to keep everybody involved in the creative process.
JC: Were these taught during the work day?
TA: I believe that each Pixar employee is allowed four hours per week to take Pixar University classes. I taught one course on Thursday evenings from 6 to 8, and they would bring dinner into the class. I’d spend the night Thursday and then I would teach another course on Friday at noon, and that one, half of it was their lunch hour, and the other half was their P.U. time.
JC: Was what you were doing similar to your UCLA class? Were people bringing in pages?
TA: It was a workshop format. People had written many scripts. It’s funny. A lot of the people at Pixar want to be writers, too. Or some of the animators want to direct, and so they’re trying to develop a script they can use to direct a film. Everybody’s working towards the same thing, I think. What’s exciting for me is to work with smart people, and obviously, anybody who works at Pixar is pretty smart -- the best at what they do. So it was pretty exciting for me to go into a room each week and take what were already good ideas and try to make them better. They were people who were eager to learn and taking time out of their busy schedules -- these are people who work 80, 90, 100 hours a week already -- yet they’re pursuing these other things as well because they’re just passionate, driven people. And of course it’s a place that nurtures creativity and risk-taking. It’s just like a huge family. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
JC: For my money, Pixar makes the best movies around bar none. But it seems like there’s still a certain stigma involved, at least with some people, because they’re animated films. They think that this is second tier stuff, that it’s not as “real” as other types of filmmaking, and to that I say: bullshit. You know, I was blubbering like a toddler during Act 3 of “Wall-E.” It touches you on a deeply emotional level. All of their films speak to something human in all of us; they just happen to work in an animated format.
TA: I totally agree. It’s amazing when a movie that only does half a billion dollars worldwide is considered a disappointment in terms of a company’s track record. It’s an amazing place, and they do amazing things. “Wall-E” to me is the most romantic movie I’ve seen in 20 years.
JC: Thanks for taking a few minutes, Tim. I’m sure lots of folks reading this list wish they could take that class at Pixar! Although one can get pretty close to the experience with your UCLA online class I’m sure. Can you give our readers some parting advice?
TA: Sure. Coverage is a great way to start off. It’s a great way to find out where your script stands in the larger world of things. And then when you want to take it to the next level and you want to go through a consultation, Popular Films is here. Just make sure that you’ve addressed all the issues that have been brought up in the coverage. I think people are in too much of a rush, and send out material without having (developed all the problems out first.) With our consults, I approach it just as if I was producing the movie. Let’s find your take, your point of view, the message that you are trying to get across and pull that to the forefront. That’s what’s going to make it different. You’ve got to find your voice. And your voice comes from your attitude, I think. You have to have a unique take on the world and the human condition.
You can bring the same firepower Pixar uses to your scripts. Check out the Popular Films page at Coverage Ink HERE.
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