TED Radio Hour
7:07 am
Fri June 7, 2013

What Are The Clues To A Good Story?

Originally published on Fri September 20, 2013 7:28 am

Part 5 of the TED Radio Hour episode Framing The Story.

About Andrew Stanton's TEDTalk

Filmmaker Andrew Stanton shares what he knows about storytelling — starting at the end and working back to the beginning. Earlier this episode, Stanton shared a story that does exactly that.

About Andrew Stanton

Andrew Stanton is a filmmaker at Pixar. He's the writer behind the three Toy Story movies, and the writer and director of WALL-E. Stanton wrote the first film produced entirely on a computer, Toy Story. But what made that film a classic wasn't the history-making graphic technology — it was the story, the heart, the characters that children around the world instantly accepted into their own lives. He has two Oscars, for Finding Nemo and WALL-E.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Hey, Andrew, it's Guy Raz here.

ANDREW STANTON: Hi, Guy. How are you?

RAZ: So, can I, like, test you for a sec?

STANTON: Sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: I say, Lawrence, you are a clown.

STANTON: (Laughing) I don't want to be part of your big push.

RAZ: It's a great movie, isn't it?

STANTON: I've definitely seen that movie more than any other movie that I have not worked on.

RAZ: That's Andrew Stanton again, the filmmaker who we heard from at the beginning of the show, the guy behind "Toy Story" and "Monsters, Inc." and "WALL-E." And when we reached him, he was right in the middle of working on the sequel to his film "Finding Nemo."

STANTON: I am now considered one of the old-timers at Pixar. I've been a writer and animator and director and story man, all at different times, for the last 23 years.

RAZ: And as you might be able to tell, "Lawrence of Arabia" is one of his favorite films of all time - one of mine, too. And "School of Rock." I love "School of Rock," too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STANTON: Put the two right together.

RAZ: Two of my all-time...

STANTON: Wow, that's a weird double feature.

RAZ: Anyway, Andrew's TED Talk is about a journey, his own journey, and the way he figured out how to tell a story.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

STANTON: The children's television host Mr. Rogers always carried in his wallet a quote from a social worker that said, "Frankly, there isn't anyone you couldn't learn to love, once you've heard their story." And the way I like to interpret that is, probably the most greatest story commandment, which is, make me care - please, emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically - just make me care. We all know what it's like to not care. You've gone through hundreds of TV channels just switching...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)

STANTON: ...switching...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)

STANTON: ...switching...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)

STANTON: ...switching...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)

STANTON: ...channel after channel.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MISTER ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD")

STANTON: And then, suddenly, you actually stop on one that's already halfway over, but something's caught you, and you're drawn in and you care. That's not by chance, that's by design.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MISTER ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD")

STANTON: So I got me thinking, what if I told you my history of a story - how I was born for it, how I learned along the way, this subject matter. And so if I were to give you the ending of this story, it would go something like this: And that's what ultimately led me to speaking to you here, at TED, about story.

(LAUGHTER)

RAZ: Do you think that you're a natural storyteller?

STANTON: I think - I think I would say, yeah. That's just always been - I'm an older - I'm the oldest of my siblings, and I can't remember a time that I wasn't trying to entertain them. And it's funny, I think that's come organically. My father is a chemical engineer by trade, and so he's very mathematical in his thinking, and his biggest asset is he's a problem solver. And my mother is very artistic. She's a singer and an actress. And the two combined started, now that I look back, make a lot of sense. It's like, my desire to entertain but my desire to understand how it's working, I think, come from both parents.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

STANTON: In our earliest days at Pixar, before we truly understood the invisible workings of story, we were simply a group of guys just going on our gut, going on our instincts, and it's interesting to see how that led us places that were actually pretty good. You got to remember that in this time, 1993, what was considered a successful animated picture was "Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin," "Lion King." So when we pitched "Toy Story" to Tom Hanks for the first time, he walked in and he said, you don't want me to sing, do you? And I thought that epitomized perfectly what everybody thought animation had to be at the time. But we really wanted to prove that you could tell stories completely different in animation. So we didn't have any influence then, so we had a little secret list of rules that we kept to ourselves and they were, no songs, no "I want" moment, no happy village, no love story.

And the irony is that in the first year, our story was not working at all and Disney was panicking. So they privately got advice from a famous lyricist who I won't name, and he faxed them some suggestions. And we got a hold of that fax and the fax said, there should be songs, there should be an "I want" song, there should be a "happy village" song, there should be a love story, and there should be a villain. And thank goodness we were just too young, rebellious, and contrarian, at the time; that just gave us more determination to prove that you could build a better story. And a year after that, we did conquer it. And it just went to prove that storytelling has guidelines, not hard, fast rules. Another fundamental thing we learned was about liking your main character. And we had naively thought, well, Woody in "Toy Story" has to become selfless at the end, so you got to start from someplace, so let's make him selfish and this is what you get.

(SOUNDBITE OF OUTTAKE FROM MOVIE "TOY STORY")

TOM HANKS: (as Woody): What do you think you're doing? Off the bed. Hey, off the bed!

DON RICKLES: (as Mr. Potato Head): You gonna make us, Woody?

RAZ: And, I guess, I should just mention...

(SOUNDBITE OF OUTTAKE FROM MOVIE "TOY STORY")

HANKS: (as Woody): No.

RAZ: ...that this clip that...

(SOUNDBITE OF OUTTAKE FROM MOVIE "TOY STORY")

HANKS: (as Woody): He is.

RAZ: ...you play...

(SOUNDBITE OF OUTTAKE FROM MOVIE "TOY STORY")

HANKS: (as Woody): Slinky.

RAZ: I mean, this is a rough cut.

(SOUNDBITE OF OUTTAKE FROM MOVIE "TOY STORY")

HANKS: (as Woody) Slinky!

RAZ: Of an...

(SOUNDBITE OF OUTTAKE FROM MOVIE "TOY STORY")

HANKS: (as Woody) Get up here!

RAZ: ...early version of the film and Woody is like this unlikable character.

(SOUNDBITE OF OUTTAKE FROM MOVIE "TOY STORY")

HANKS: (as Woody) Are you deaf? I said, take care of them.

STANTON: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF OUTTAKE FROM MOVIE "TOY STORY")

JIM VARNEY: (as Slinky Dog) Uh, sorry, Woody, but...

STANTON: And...

(SOUNDBITE OF OUTTAKE FROM MOVIE "TOY STORY")

HANKS: (as Woody) Am I hearing correctly?

STANTON: ...that was a huge epiphany was discovering in it - and, you know, it wasn't over a night, it wasn't over one meeting, it was over a year and a half. You can make somebody that has all the best of intentions, is actually very likable in almost every scenario, but let's start a story where that kind of person is put in that one scenario that shows their flaw.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TOY STORY")

VARNEY: (as Slinky Dog) Woody, what are you doing under the bed?

HANKS: (as Woody) Uh, nothing, nothing. I'm sure Andy was just a little excited, that's all. Too much cake and ice cream, I suppose. It's just a mistake.

JOHN RATZENBERGER: (as Hamm) Well, that mistake is sitting in your spot, Woody.

STANTON: Which told me that everybody is wired conditionally. In other words...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TOY STORY")

HANKS: (as Woody) This is my spot, see, the bed here.

TIM ALLEN: (as Buzz Lightyear) Local law enforcement...

STANTON: ...I mean, everybody has a condition wired up somewhere inside them, they just - sometimes we just don't know what it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TOY STORY")

HANKS: (as Woody) They'll see. I'm still Andy's favorite toy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

STANTON: In 1998, I had finished writing "Toy Story" and "A Bug's Life" and I was completely hooked on screenwriting, so I wanted to become much better at it and learn anything I could. So I researched everything I possibly could and I finally came across this fantastic quote by a British playwright, William Archer: "Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty." It's an incredibly insightful definition. When you're telling a story, have you constructed anticipation? In the short term, have you made me want to know what will happen next? But more importantly, have you made me want to know how it will all conclude in the long term? Have you constructed honest conflicts with truth that creates doubt in what the outcome might be?

RAZ: Can you talk about how you did that in WALL-E...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WALL-E")

RAZ: Because, I mean, for the first half, there's, like, almost no dialogue in that movie.

STANTON: Right. And we watched, for months, pretty much everything that Buster Keaton ever did and anything Charlie Chaplin ever did.

RAZ: Wow, really? You watched all these silent films?

STANTON: All of them, yeah. And we were already pretty much aficionados, but I wanted to make sure everybody on the crew was, and the thing that you walk away with is that there was nothing they couldn't tell. They were actually better storytellers - people got lazy when sound came in. But the big thing that was of an epiphany to me was, when you take out dialogue, all your senses are now relying even more on when the music's cues come in, what the lighting's doing, and you have to be that much more finely tuned, you can't be reckless with the other elements. It was like walking a tightrope.

RAZ: Wow, that's amazing how you prepared for that.

STANTON: Yeah, it was fun.

RAZ: Can you describe, like, a specific scene in that film that is sort of, to you, like, that - one of those examples of storytelling?

STANTON: Well, I'm a sucker for love at first sight. I'm a sucker for unrequited love movies and stories and I just loved - again it's the punchline for the joke, I knew I wanted to lead up to this moment....

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WALL-E")

BEN BURTT: (as WALL-E): EVE.

STANTON: ...where you were going to show how much he was not only in love with EVE, but wanted to do something about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WALL-E")

STANTON: You know, that moment that's pins and needles for anybody in life, like, I'm going to ask them to dance or I'm going to actually tell them how I feel. And you're like, okay, I'm never going to hear this guy talk, I'm never going to have him be able to say these words, but I did get to see him see her for the very first time, the minute she arrived on the planet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WALL-E")

STANTON: I did see him watch "Hello Dolly." And there was something about it that he was attracted to and he couldn't help but memorize the dance steps.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WALL-E")

STANTON: He did like collecting things. And so it was all in the design to make it all come together in this moment where he's showing her his world around his truck and he's put in the tape, it's playing in the background - "Hello Dolly's" playing in the background - and she's starting to look at all the material in his truck. And she comes across this one lighter. We thought, wouldn't it be fascinating that he's never knew that you could light the lighters.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WALL-E")

STANTON: And it just does this huge, powerful thing of making it completely electric - and everybody, the two characters and the audience are all focused on this light. And you've got his hopes and desires of the world being some funner place, playing in the ambience of the background. And he's seen in that movie, hands hold, so that's the only thing that he associates with that feeling, is seeing these two lovers hold hands. And so you've kind of teed up the audience with all these ingredients, so that you pretty much are in WALL-E's head right at that moment, before he ever does it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WALL-E")

BURTT: (as WALL-E): EVE.

STANTON: And that's, to me, the most satisfying place to be, when you're watching any movie, is to be that much in the head of the character at a moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

STANTON: Storytelling without dialogue, it's the purest form of cinematic storytelling. It's the most inclusive approach you can take. It confirmed something I really had a hunch on, is that the audience actually wants to work for their meal. They just don't want to know that they're doing that. That's your job as a storyteller is to hide the fact that you're making them work for their meal. We're born problem solvers. We're compelled to deduce and to deduct because that's what we do in real life. It's this well-organized absence of information that draws us in. There's a reason that we're all attracted to an infant or a puppy. It's not just that they're damn cute, it's because they can't completely express what they're thinking and what their intentions are, and it's like a magnet, we can't stop ourselves from wanting to complete the sentence and fill it in. When I was five, I was introduced to possibly the most major ingredient that I feel a story should have, but is rarely invoked. And this is what my mother took me to when I was five.

(SOUNBITE OF MOVIE, "BAMBI")

PETER BEHN: (as Young Thumper) Some fun, huh, Bambi? Come on, get up, like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

STANTON: I walked out of there wide-eyed with wonder. And that's what I think the magic ingredient is, the secret sauce - is can you invoke wonder? Wonder is honest, it's completely innocent, it can't be artificially evoked. For me, there's no greater ability than the gift of another human being giving you that feeling, to hold them still, just for a brief moment in their day and have them surrender to wonder. And when an artist does that to another artist, it's like you're compelled to pass it on. It's like a dormant command that's suddenly activated in you, like a call to Devils Tower, do unto others what's been done to you. The best stories infuse wonder.

And that sense of wonder/life affirm-ment is such a drug, and I don't know how to get it any other way. Maybe some really great pieces of music do it every once in a while, but it's just something that I just - if I can make anybody feel like that for a moment, let alone a whole film, then I can't think of a greater gift.

RAZ: But there's so many stories out there around us, I mean, you have thousands of choices and options, and...

STANTON: Yeah.

RAZ: ... I mean, you can watch, like, a whole series in a weekend.

STANTON: Binge viewing, yeah.

RAZ: Yeah. I just saw a "Portlandia" sketch on that, actually.

STANTON: I know. The "Battlestar Galactica."

RAZ: You saw that?

STANTON: (Laughing) It's hilarious and it's so true.

RAZ: (Laughing) It's so true.

STANTON: That's why it's so funny.

RAZ: I mean, but do you think, like, all those stories, all over the place, all the time, I mean, does it make it harder to tell a good story?

STANTON: It's more crowded, but I think that great storytelling is still rare. I don't think that the averages of home runs have increased that much more for that much more content coming into the world. So it still makes it special. And I think when you see something good, I don't think there's a limited appetite for great stuff. I think your appetite is as insatiable as it needs to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

STANTON: When I was four years old, I have a vivid memory of finding two pinpoint scars on my ankle, and asking my dad what they were. And he said I had a matching pair like that on my head but I couldn't see them because of my hair. And he explained that when I was born, I was born premature - that I came out much too early. I was very, very sick and when that the doctor took a look at this yellow kid with black teeth, he looked straight at my mom and said, he's not going to live. And I was in the hospital for months. And many blood transfusions later, I lived - and that made me special. I don't know if I really believe that. I don't know if my parents really believe that, but I didn't want to prove them wrong. Whatever I ended up being good at, I would strive to be worthy of the second chance I was given.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FINDING NEMO")

ALBERT BROOKS: (as Marlin) Daddy's got you. I promise, I will never let anything happen to you, Nemo.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

STANTON: And that's the first story lesson I ever learned, use what you know, draw from it. Doesn't always mean plot or fact, it means capturing a truth from your experiencing, expressing values you personally feel deep down to your core, and that's what ultimately led me to speaking to you here at TED today. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Writer and director Andrew Stanton. He's now at work on a sequel to "Finding Nemo." It's due out in November of 2015. When people absorb one of your stories, like, see one of your films, what do you want them to feel when they leave?

STANTON: The best compliment is that I forgot where I was, that time went away, and that the lights suddenly came up and I was just so engrossed in that world and that character's issues that I just wish I could go straight back and start watching it all over again. And to me, everything else is a servant of trying to achieve that goal.

RAZ: There's something almost genius about that opening, "Once upon a time."

STANTON: Yes, yes. It's like a spotlight in the dark. It's saying, this is worth your attention and it's so worth your attention that nobody's forgotten it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUT ON YOUR SUNDAY CLOTHES")

MICHAEL CRAWFORD: (Singing as Cornelius) Out there, there's a world outside of Yonkers. Way out there beyond this hick town, Barnaby. There's a slick town, Barnaby. Out there, full of shine and full of sparkle.

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to show this week. If you missed any of it, or if you want hear more or you want to find out more about who was on it, you can visit TED.npr.org. You can also find many more TED Talks at TED.com. You can download the show through iTunes or through the NPR smartphone app.

(CREDITS)

RAZ: I'm Guy Raz. You've been listening to ideas worth spreading here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUT ON YOUR SUNDAY CLOTHES")

CRAWFORD: Ride through town, in one of those new horse drawn open cars.

DANNY LOCKIN AND MICHAEL CRAWFORD: (Singing in unison) We'll see the shows at Delmonicos, and we'll close the town in a whirl, and we won't come home until we've kissed a girl. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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