Michael Arndt, 'Toy Story 3'

The only person to have won a best original screenplay Oscar for his first script (Little Miss Sunshine) then get an adapted screenplay nomination for his second (Toy Story 3), Michael Arndt looks to stay busy well past Oscar night: THR recently revealed he will write Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which reportedly interests Natalie Portman. (Toy 3’s story credits also include John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich.)

The Hollywood Reporter: What’s it like to be a struggling writer and then go to work for a major studio like Pixar?

Michael Arndt: Writing Little Miss Sunshine was like making little homemade rockets in my backyard, and going to Pixar was like joining NASA. You’re sort of doing the same thing, but not really. I’d been carrying around the idea for Little Miss Sunshine for three or four years before I started writing. I have ideas in my head that are 10 years old. At Pixar, I don’t have that luxury. You don’t have time to shilly-shally around.

THR: What’s a typical workday like?

Arndt: I wake up late, have breakfast, read the paper, procrastinate until I hate myself, and then I just start writing. At Pixar, I get to work around 9:30 or 10, procrastinate until I hate myself, and then I start writing.

THR: How do actors give notes on an animated film script?

Arndt: When you have Tom Hanks and Michael Keaton behind the microphone, you say, “Sure, do whatever you want.” A lot of times you’ll get something better from the actor than you ever imagined. Michael Keaton just threw in, “Folks, if I could share,” which wasn’t in the script but ended up in the movie. It just added to Ken’s delightful smarminess.

THR: Do you like being on set?

Arndt: Watching a movie being made is like watching someone carry your newborn baby across a tightrope while you’re sitting on the ground. You can’t do anything to help, but you just can’t turn away. I was lucky to watch Little Miss Sunshine get made and lucky to be around Pixar for the four years for Toy Story 3 to get finished. Your work is done, and you have nothing left to contribute, but you have a lot invested in the outcome, so it’s hard to turn away.

THR: What would surprise people most about your experience writing Toy Story 3?

Arndt: People who aren’t writers tend to think you have fully formed ideas in your head as inspiration, and the rest of the process of writing is just coloring in between the lines. The truth is that we did begin Toy Story 3 with a rock-solid beginning and a rock-solid ending, but almost everything in the middle either changed or had to be invented. We came up with a new inciting incident where they end up on the side of the curb when the trash truck is coming. That was something I had to come up with. Woody deciding right after they get to day care that he was going to turn around and go back to Andy — that was not in the original version of the story.

THR: What was your biggest challenge writing an animated film?

Arndt: Making the audience believe these characters. I read several reviews in which critics say they were flabbergasted to realize they were being emotionally moved by digital information on the screen. I think that there’s a spectacular level of artistry that has to go into inventing a character: wardrobe, production design and a set of lighting that will make audiences accept that these characters and this world is real. The end scene between Andy and Bonnie, when Andy’s giving his toys to Bonnie, and they’re in Bonnie’s backyard, and there’s a question of whether you’re going to light that scene. It could either be in broad daylight or in shadow, and what they chose is dappled sunlight going through the trees. It works so brilliantly, you practically don’t notice it. It helps to sell the sentiment of the moment. It’s done so perfectly and invisibly that audiences don’t notice it.

THR: Which of this year’s other Oscar-nominated screenplays do you wish you’d written?

Arndt: I’ll give you two — both direct competitors with Toy Story 3, but I think they’re sufficiently admirable. One is 127 Hours. What I really admire about that movie is that in the screenplay itself, they broke the screen into a triptych. If you look at the script, they have parts of the script that says left screen, right screen and center screen and describes what’s going on in each screen as they are going on simultaneously. That to me was an incredibly smart way of showing a character’s interior and making what could have been a very inert story into something really spectacular. The other one is The Social Network because Aaron Sorkin made smart people cool. For me, there’s nothing more exhilarating than smart people talking very fast.