Before we all become immersed in the holidays, I want to share my illuminating conversation with Lorien McKenna who worked deep inside story development at Pixar for more than 10 years. She offers some valuable insight around how to think about and approach story structure. Lorien is now based in Los Angeles and offers story and script consulting services. So if you are looking for feedback on a completed screenplay, I highly recommend reaching out to her!
LORIEN McKENNA is a screenwriter and story consultant. She specializes in Story and Script Development for both studios and writers, helping them find the best version of their story. Her studio experience includes 10 years at Pixar Animation Studios in Story Development (RATATOUILLE, UP, BRAVE, INSIDE OUT, THE GOOD DINSOSAUR), Paramount as a Development Producer, and REELFX Animation Studios as a Story Consultant.
In 2015, along with Meg LeFauve and Chris Whitaker, she sold and wrote a TV Comedy based on the foibles of parenthood for WBTV/NBC. She is also a mentor and judge for the Cinestory Foundation in both the TV/Digital and Feature Retreats.
Lorien has a BA in English Literature & Performing Arts and an MFA in Playwriting from St. Mary's College of California.
Karin: Could you share a bit of your background before joining Pixar?
Lorien: So I got my MFA in playwriting at St. Mary's College and I studied with Octavio Solis; and right after school a group of us wanted to keep writing together so we formed our own little writing group. Octavio would come and run a group for us. I think we paid him $25. We had a free space in the Mission in San Francisco. As women playwrights in San Francisco in 2001 it was hard to get our work out there. You think, “I'm going to get my MFA in playwriting and the world will open up to me.” Ha-ha-ha. Right? So four of us formed a theater company called Guilty Theater and we wrote and produced our own work, which was great. And I started teaching at St. Mary's; I taught theater and Shakespeare and writing and lots of drama classes in the Bay Area, to kids and this amazing class of retired people at Parks and Rec in Pleasanton. Teaching them Hero's Journey was a mind-blowing experience. It was the best. I loved it so much.
Because they were so willing to be students and they were so willing to be seen; their hunger to be seen was so beautiful and tragic at the same time. I think we all have that as artists. But these 70-year-old people wanted to be writers and so I would see them as writers, and they showed up and did the work, which for me is one of my baseline requirements in storytelling. You must show up and you must do the work. I'm not going to do it for you, and you cannot let other people do it for you.
And meanwhile I was working full time in San Francisco and acted in community theater plays. A woman in a play worked at Pixar and she said, “There is a job available, we need a temp.” There was an intern who only worked on Fridays and she was taking six weeks off. So they needed a temp for an intern who only worked on Fridays.
And I was like, “Excuse me but I am a 34-year-old adjunct professor at St Mary's College. I am not a temp.” But I went home and my husband said, “You better turn around and go work at Pixar” because he loves animation so much. So I was like, fine. So I worked in marketing temping and then I applied for a job. They wanted me to apply for the director's assistant position on Ratatouille. And I said, “No way, I don't want to be an assistant.” So my track at Pixar is everything they wanted me to do, I said “no” to, is what happened. I'm just like Elizabeth Bennett, the power of no. So I was the director's assistant and then I was the script supervisor on 'Up' which was my first movie, and I did 'story' on Brave, Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur.
What are you biggest takeaways from working at Pixar?
So in theater I hated rehearsal. I loved performing. I just hated doing the work of going to rehearsal but I loved being on stage. What I learned at Pixar is that it's about the work; it should be about the rehearsal. It should be about learning the craft and understanding the craft; that it's not just about the thrill of finishing and being on stage. At Pixar these movies take so long, you have to show up every day and pay attention. And at the time Pixar hired incredible people; everyone was gifted. So I was used to showing up and being like, “Oh my god you're the best.” And they're like, “Great, what do you got?” I had to elevate my game at every turn. So I always had to be learning, always had to be paying attention.
I got my MFA but I didn't understand story structure until I started working at Pixar, because as a playwright I took workshops from Marie Irene Fornes and Cherrie Moraga... it's very like 'just write your pain, write the poetry of your feelings', which is not about story structure.
With each film I worked on it just became more and more ingrained in me. At first I resisted, right? Structure is a formula. But really what I learned, and as I continue to learn more about structure... as a writer it's your contract with your audience. You're saying, “I'm going to take you on a journey, I'm going make you cry, make you laugh, I'm gonna rip your guts out, but I've got you. I'm in control. I'm going to bring you back safely.” And so that was the gift of Pixar for me. Nobody there whips out Save the Cat or Joseph Campbell. We talk about Star Wars. We reference films, we reference characters and journeys that resonate with a particular film a lot. Star Wars comes up every day. There's a Star Wars jar; if you mention it, you put a dollar in the jar.
It's interesting because storytellers at Pixar tell those stories from their pain and their personal experience, and yet there are so many checkpoints in process and so many people who understand storytelling just so fundamentally that it just sort of naturally happens. There's a way that it just becomes part of the language. I didn't even know I was learning it until I actually did. I learned structure in such a way that was so inside the process, as I was doing it; the exercise of building these films and rebuilding them and rebuilding them and rebuilding them for years in story is what taught me what I know about structure as opposed to reading a book and trying to apply it to what I'm writing.
So would they talk about structure in terms of a character's journey?
It's all about character; it's always all about character, because you're creating the character out of nothing and then someone has to design the character and then build the puppet in the computer and then rig it, make it come alive. The Pixar movies, they're all character driven. When they say 'story is king' at Pixar that means the storytelling process and that it's rooted in character.
It gets pretty intense what goes on at Pixar in the Story department. I mean it is emotional and personal and specific to someone's story. And at the peak there's like 350 people working on that movie. So all those people are working on that one person's story. So it's really vulnerable and precious and terrifying.
Does it really come down to what's personal to one person or are there other people chiming in?
Of course other people are chiming in, but it's that singular vision. Like Pete Docter's daughter who is this goofy, charming kid who liked old 50s and 60s movies and Disneyland. Pete's exactly like that, they're passionate artist people. And then his daughter turned 12 and shut him out. And so he was like, “What's happening in her head? What happened?” And that is what Inside Out is about; it's literally a moment he had and his story. And of course all of us were parents on the film, and you know, everybody's been a kid so everybody brings something to it that magnifies it and amplifies Pete's vision. I always thought things were the most healthy at Pixar when people were able to amplify that vision; and of course that amplification can be as a challenge as long as everyone understands what that vision is. Usually the director comes up with an idea and then that's the movie that gets made, which is what I loved about theater too. And which is why Pixar felt great to me because it's collaborative and loud and messy and fun and challenging and personal. It's all the things that are about being in a play. Some of the people get to be on stage; some of the people are backstage. You know, there are people making costumes and people who are the actors and there's somebody who's written it. And you work out the kinks and it felt a lot like theater to me, which is why I loved it so much. Some of my best friends I met at Pixar because of what you go through there.
So now you're living in Los Angeles, and in addition to writing and consulting for studios, you coach screenwriters. What is your approach?
When I work with writers I'm developing the writer as much as the project because I'm interested in developing their skillset not just fixing the screenplay. That for me is really important because what I'm saying isn't groundbreaking, like “Your midpoint's in the wrong place or your third act isn't earned.” Nothing I say is new. But I think it's my connection with the writer, how I'm delivering the message and making it personal; I think that's why people want to work with me, because they can learn stuff about themselves. I mean some people are literally writing about their own personal stories and don't realize it.
Do you work primarily with screenwriters?
I have so far only worked with screenwriters, TV and feature screenplays, and I prefer for someone to show up with a script. I really like to respond to a piece of work. I read so many screenplays, I guess I'm most comfortable with that.
What about playwriting?
Playwriting, yes, I love to work with playwrights. I read a screenplay recently, and I'm like, “This is written by a playwright,” I can just tell. I love plays.
You also offer something unique called 'story hikes' where you read the work and discuss it out on the trail. How has that been going?
I did quite a few of them and they were amazing. I learned a lot because I am not an athletic person, I don't hike. I think I've been on one hike on purpose before I started story hikes. So it was sort of an interesting way that came about. I have high cholesterol and so to change my lifestyle I thought, I'll take people on story hikes and do what I do and get exercise. I kind of thought it was a silly idea, but it's actually really cool because normally in a story consult you sit across the table, you're looking at them. It's a little confrontational, right? They show up open and vulnerable to you and you critique their work which is essentially about them. I mean no matter what the work is you are talking about them as a writer and artist.
So what's interesting about the story hikes is that you show up in your workout clothes, which is different than a regular meeting. It's great because you can talk about things and you're not looking at the person. So they're looking over there, I'm looking over here. I can be talking, they're listening. Everyone that I hike with gets emotional, some people cry, because we end up talking about complicated stuff about their writing and themselves as writers. The most profound thing I noticed, though, is when we're going uphill you're leaning forward and you're working harder and trying to talk and breathe, that's when the problems come out. That's when we're talking about what needs to be fixed, what the notes are, questions. And then on the downhill, because you have to lean back a little bit, your chest opens up and you're sort of looking up, it's when people start finding solutions. It's really interesting and it's kind of beautiful.
What advice do you often find yourself giving writers?
You know I'm a mentor at Cinestory, and on this last feature retreat, it was the final day and everybody was giving advice, and I just had this moment of like, “This is really hard. I still struggle with whether or not I'm a writer. What does it mean to be a writer?” I'm a mentor there, and I think for me it was important to share that. For me being a writer is such a vulnerable and powerful thing, I'm getting emotional right now talking about it. I think I will struggle with it always, no matter what happens.