How to create stories that last

Interview with Disney Writer and Director John Musker

I almost expect the bunny to start talking to me.

I stare as it hops silently into the greenery outside the home of John Musker, the man who brought to life a mouse detective, a blue genie, a frog prince, an ocean voyager, and a little mermaid. I’ve been listening to John’s words since I was three-years old. I walk past the hiding bunny to John’s door, remembering the first time his art affected my life.

I watched my Little Mermaid VHS repeatedly as a toddler; as soon as it would end I’d rewind and start again. There’s a home video of me dramatically acting out the scene where Flounder flubs and tells the Sea King about Ariel’s shark encounter and subsequent trip to the surface. I could recite it exactly: “This shark chased us - yeah - yeah! And we tried to - but we couldn't, grrrrrrrrr. Ah, and then we were safe. But then this seagull came, and it was ‘this is this, and that is that.’” Then there’s the video of me falling to the ground, kicking my feet up in glee after my mom surprised me with a Little-Mermaid-decorated birthday cake - small  orange fish carefully iced around the blue edges, Ariel in a boat on top.

John Musker spent a long career writing and directing Disney films like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules, Moana. He’s worked with people like Robin Williams, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Dwayne Johnson, Oprah Winfrey – and of course his inimitable writing and directing partner Ron Clements. Their words have reached millions. Their words launched films that made billions. And his words have inspired me for as long as I can remember.

I’m at his house.

His wife Gale greets me like we’re old friends, and John comes in from the left, where his office is located. We say hello like we are meeting again, even though it’s the first time (we’d only talked through Facebook messages up to this point, scheduling the interview).

John and wife Gale attend the Little Mermaid live concert at the Hollywood Bowl.

John and wife Gale attend the Little Mermaid live concert at the Hollywood Bowl.

Sometimes you have to use cliché, because it’s the only way to describe the truth: I feel like I’ve known him my whole life.

We start up the stairs and John wastes no time pointing out the framed vintage art prints that cover every open space leading up to his office. There is no wall, only art. And each one has a story.

John is good at loving things and showing other people how to love them too.

We get to the narrow hallway that leads into his office and we can barely walk through because of the overflowing memorabilia stacked against the walls, remnants from his recent retirement party at Disney. We laugh as we sort through caricatures, kind notes, inside jokes, and many pictures of John on film locations, which makes sense until you remember John directs animated films – not live action. But, alas, this is the research that makes these films special. Great animation doesn’t start at the drawing board. It starts in the real world. Getting close. Paying attention.

It’s hard for us to peel ourselves away, but when we finally turn towards his office door, I’m laughing again in delight. His door features a silhouette of an old-timey hard-boiled private investigator named “Johnny O.”

He then pulls out an old comic book featuring Johnny O and a beautiful woman; something he drew for his wife before they got engaged.

We walk into his office, the transition complete. I’m in another world, no longer the one where my Uber dropped me. The bunny is talking now.

Recently-retired John is Johnny O. He’s buoyant. He’s in his twenties. He’s excited. Thrilled.  

He has something I’ve experienced in many of the professional artists I’ve met: a small child-like part the artist has managed, against all odds, to keep unspoiled by the world.

This is an artist’s hardest work – to be vulnerable enough to let it all in but courageous enough to find joy despite the darkness, and share it.

It’s the secret I’m always trying to uncover. How to ensure the most special part of you never grows up.

We settle into two comfy chairs, surrounded by books.

John’s story begins with one of the most underrated privileges: encouragement from a parent.

“I always liked to draw, but I think all kids like to draw. Some kids have it unfortunately beaten out of them, or at least they don’t receive the kind of ongoing encouragement that they should get. But my mother encouraged me.”

John's mother, Joan Lally Musker.

John's mother, Joan Lally Musker.

John is one of eight children, and his mom cared for all of them while kindling her own creative spark – “She painted and she sang around the house. She was a very creative person,” John remembers. She even commissioned young John to paint a big tree around the picnic table that served as their dining room area, so they’d always feel like they were dining al fresco, even during brutal Chicago winters. “She was big on creating an alternate reality.”

John was having fun. Combine that with a little encouragement and a public library? Well, then, you have a recipe for igniting big dreams.

To date I’ve interviewed hundreds of people about their big dream, and I’m secretly pleased that many of those stories start with a book, the words of one person, passed on.

For seven-year-old John Musker, that book was The Art of Animation by Bob Thomas.

He stumbled upon it at the library, and read the whole thing, fascinated to learn how Disney animation was actually created by real people, drawing.  

He checked the book out over and over again.

That seven-year-old couldn’t have known how much that book would change his life, or that one day he’d be interviewed about his legendary animation career, that he would one day be part of the legacy of that book. John turns to the shelves surrounding us and tells me the Bob Thomas book is somewhere in this beautiful mess.

Inspired, John consumed everything he could on drawing. He even clipped every editorial cartoon ever drawn by Pat Oliphant - an artist he loved - and saved them in a binder.

And he kept drawing. But he didn’t feel like a “real” artist until he got external validation.

Some know in their bones, from the very beginning, that they’re an artist. That sounds nice. But for others, like me, like John, outside confirmation makes a difference.

For John, all it took was $25 and 10 albums of Jefferson Starship, prizes from a WXRT FM radio contest he won with a drawing in the early Seventies. It wasn’t about the prizes, but about the reaction. It was confirmation of something almost every artist needs at some point.

Someone out there is listening. Which must mean that you have a voice.

John’s not ashamed for needing this: “There are many artists who do it solely for the act of doing it. They could be in a room alone and paint or draw or create some work of art and it doesn’t matter if anybody else sees the creation of it. I’m not that person. I have to show it to somebody. I have to get a reaction.”

The reaction isn’t about ego. It’s about connection.

“If they don’t like it, I’m disappointed and if they like it, that’s good.” He says this with ease and confidence. I’ve always felt the same, but until this moment I hadn’t felt easy about it. I feel buoyed. It’s okay to create art for community, for change.

In college (where John majored in English) two legendary animators came to speak at his school: Richard Williams (animation director for Who Framed Roger Rabbit) and Chuck Jones (of Looney Tunes fame).

Richard Williams, during his talk, mentioned his studio in London, so when John went to London with his best friend Rick Garofalo after graduation his first thought was that studio. When he arrived in London, he called up Richard’s studio, cold.  

A woman answered.

John asked: “Hey, can we come by and see the studio?”

“Well, I suppose so, yes. You can pop by.”

So they did. “We just sort of showed up on the doorstep.”

He met all these working animators, up close. He was enthralled. What if this could be his job?

So when he learned that Disney was accepting animation trainees as a way to get fresh talent into the studio, he got right to work on his portfolio for his submission.

John thought a sample of animal drawings would be perfect for Disney. Only problem was, John was allergic to most animals. He never was around them, and didn’t have any drawings of them.

He went to the zoo.

He laughs as he remembers that February day in Chicago as he’s outside, trying to draw the monkeys, icy wind whipping the pages.

“I’m freezing. Then I think, wait a minute, why don’t I just go to the Field Museum of Natural History and draw from the animal exhibits there?”

He went. “It was nice and warm.” He drew the museum animals and sent in his portfolio to Disney, and the rest is history.

Kind of.

John Musker got rejected from Disney’s training program.

They shared why in the rejection letter: “Your animal drawings are too stiff.”

He laughs now. “Of course they were – they were stuffed!”

The stuffed animals were suspended in action, no weight, no gravity. “Animation can be that way too; if it’s not done properly it feels like it’s floating.

This sunkenness and movement is vital, John explains. It’s what makes things alive, holds us to the ground.

At the time, John didn’t know how to make his drawings seem alive. “I had only taken a few art classes.” He did another portfolio of comics and sent it off to Marvel. He got rejected again.

Weeks later, John got another letter from Disney. This time it was an informative letter about a new character animation program happening at CalArts, taught by veteran Disney animators.

John wasn’t sure. He’d never been to California. He hadn’t planned on graduate school. He was excited to work and didn’t want to be in school forever. But he knew that his drawings were missing something, and training seemed like the next best thing to do if he really wanted to make a career out of this. He applied.

This time, he got in.

He started in 1975, and today is still friends with many of the 25 people in his class. (The Los Angeles Times reported in 2012 that graduates of CalArts had collectively generated $26 billion at the box office.)

At CalArts, John learned how to express life in his work.

Two years later, he started as an intern with Disney, working alongside animator Eric Larson (who worked with Walt Disney himself and animated dozens of classic films from Snow White to Mary Poppins).

John soon met and became fast friends with Ron Clements, a young supervising animator working on The Fox and the Hound at the time. Like John, in addition to drawing Ron was also interested in writing too, and both were from the Midwest.

Ron enjoying a pineapple smoothie during a joint vacation with John and their families.

Ron enjoying a pineapple smoothie during a joint vacation with John and their families.

Ron had segued from animation into story development, a true passion, and was thrilled by the animation possibilities of The Black Cauldron, based on Lloyd Alexander’s fantasy novels. Unfortunately, Ron’s ideas for Black Cauldron kept getting rejected, so he pitched another film to executives that he and other frustrated artists like John (who had been tapped to be a younger voice on the directing team of Cauldron), could work on instead – Basil of Baker Street, inspired by Sherlock Holmes. John loved Sherlock Holmes too and once the film was approved the pair left Black Cauldron and began working together for the first time as directors and writers.

They, along with their team, spent six months on an early version of the film and showed it to the then head of the Studio and producer of Basil, Ron Miller (Walt Disney’s son-in-law).

Ron didn’t like their first version at all. He thought it was strange and didn’t “get” the comedy.  It lacked Disney warmth, an assessment John, in hindsight, finds understandable.

The first version of what would eventually become Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective, John shares, was more in the vein of Monty Python and what would later appear in The Simpsons. (Once you’ve seen the animator’s internal caricatures, it’s not at all hard to imagine this.) We laugh.  

The Basil team went back to the literal drawing board and reworked the film. John and Ron’s first movie together grossed $38 million in the US. (I loved watching The Great Mouse Detective on the TV’s at Sears while waiting for my parents to finish window shopping.)

While Basil was still in production, Ron pitched The Little Mermaid, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s beautiful fairy tale. It was initially rejected by Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, new bosses from Paramount who had been brought in by Roy Disney Jr. to replace Ron Miller and run the Studio. But a subsequent reading of Ron’s two-page treatment of the story rekindled interest, and Little Mermaid was put into “development.” At first the studio hired a live action writer to fashion a script, John shares, due to a general distrust at the time of in-house writers and animators who wrote.  

After that writer pulled out over his own concern that his take would be too dark for Disney, the Mermaid project sat stagnant for a while. One day, Ron approached John and said: “Would you want to write this script with me? What if we pitched ourselves as writers since it’s just sitting out there right now?”

So they went to Peter Schneider, who was running the animation department at the time, and said “Why don’t you let us write it?” According to John, Peter had very little to lose at this point, and said he’d give them a shot, let them write a spec script.

Ron and John wrote their first script together for The Little Mermaid. John calls it their first true collaboration.

How do two people write together? I wanted to know, because I’d only ever written solo.

They start with a treatment, a summary of the story.  

Ron and John took the original two-page treatment and developed it further together, expanding it into a 12-page treatment. More characters. More atmosphere.

John teases Ron endlessly both in words and caricatures, and, in this case, over his yellow, blue-striped shirt that looked to John like he was wearing a legal pad.

John teases Ron endlessly both in words and caricatures, and, in this case, over his yellow, blue-striped shirt that looked to John like he was wearing a legal pad.

Once they had a final treatment they both liked, John started the first script, with scenes and dialogue. He’s an improviser. He’d write a scene a dozen different ways. The scene where Ariel is introduced? John initially wrote 10 possibilities.

John sent the first improvised script to Ron. Ron edits all the options down, adds his own scenes, and then turns it into a full script. “He wouldn’t show me what he was doing until he got all the way through it,” John remembers of Ron. “Unless he had an idea that changed the story in some way.

“I just kept going and I gave him a lot of raw material, like clay. Then eight weeks later or something he hands me a 100-page script.”

With fresh eyes, John can edit the script. Eyes so fresh, in fact, that he often couldn’t recognize his own contributions. “I had done so many versions that half the time I couldn’t remember what I had written.”

This was a perk. He could be an objective editor. “There were even some times where I would say, ‘Why didn’t you use what I wrote for this part?” And Ron would say, “That is what you wrote.”

It took them about three months in the summer of 1986 to write the first draft of The Little Mermaid.

After it went through more drafts, it was turned into a storyboard – picture comic book frames laid out one by one on a giant whiteboard. The rest of the editing takes place visually: “That’s really where the movie comes to life.”

How do they know it’s coming to life? They pay attention to their own gut reactions.  “Really we made these films for ourselves. We were the first audience.” They didn’t sit around thinking what kids or what families would like. They prioritized their own reactions: Did this make me laugh? Did this make me tense? Did this make me cry?

If the artist isn’t emotionally involved, there’s almost no chance that the audience will have a great experience.

Once the artist feels as good as possible about the story, it’s time to get outside reactions to ensure it’s coming across the way they intended. “What you think you are saying and what you are saying are not necessarily the same thing.” This is the time for audience feedback.

But this isn’t about ego. Or opinions. Or about having others rip your hard work to shreds.

When done right, feedback is about revealing – peeling away any layers that are getting in the way of what you intended all along, of what you are really trying to say.

Good audience feedback can help you with that. They’re the only ones who can help you with that, because you’re too close to it now.

It’s still painful to get feedback. Always.

But this iteration process is key to Disney’s success.

Do you always listen to all the feedback, though?

Listen, yes. Act on it? No.

When The Little Mermaid, in pencil test form, played in front of a test audience of kids, the kids got antsy during Ariel’s song “A Part of Your World.” Jeffrey, John explains, wanted to cut it – it’s not working.

But Howard Ashman, the lyricist and a successful theater professional, fought it, hard. This was the key “I want” song – a pillar of theater. According to Howard, the whole film hinged on this moment – it was the moment we’d identify with the main character, want what she wants.

But Jeffrey remained adamant - the song had to go. It took a final plea from Ariel’s supervising animator Glen Keane to get Jeffrey to hold off until the sequence could be fleshed out with more animation and re-screened. Jeffrey agreed, Glen animated. The film was rescreened and the kids were spellbound. The rest is history.

The “Three Amigos”: Ron, John, and Howard, as caricatured at the time by John.

The “Three Amigos”: Ron, John, and Howard, as caricatured at the time by John.

Feedback brings conflict. Conflict teaches you what you feel strongly about. There are risks, always. Feedback can’t protect against that, but it may just show you what risks you’re willing to take, the ones that feel worth it.

After listening to early test feedback from films like Aladdin and Moana, John recalls that major overhauls were required. “Rewriting is part of the process.”

Easier said than done though. Sometimes rewriting can crush you, make you feel like you aren’t as good as you thought, or that your idea just doesn’t work anymore and never will. I asked John how to get through.

“Remind yourself what it was about this story that made you feel like you have to do this story – it has to be told. Get into the core of what it is you really liked initially. Hold that as your beacon.”

Just because something isn’t working doesn’t mean it won’t work. “Many of the best films went through periods where it looked like they were going to be the worst film ever made.”

What did they do to turn these “worst films ever made” around so that they could reach millions for decades?

“Stick to it. Fix things that don’t work. Look at it objectively. Keep reshaping it to make it work. Most problems can be solved, it’s just trying to have the emotional and intellectual resources to find your way.

“Show your work to people you really trust, who you think have a good eye. Be vulnerable and show it to someone and ask, ‘What do you get out of this?’ They may reject it. This takes a fair amount of courage. They don’t have to tell you what to do, but you’ll get that objectivity back that you’ve lost [because you’re so deep].”

This takes courage, as John promises, but objective feedback also boosts confidence – the people giving you feedback will also show you the parts of your project that are working, probably even better than you thought.  

What does make a story work? What are the common problems that need fixing during the editing process? How could I not ask a master storyteller?

Most story problems, John shared, center around getting a clear sense of the protagonist – who she or he is, what they want, what is standing in their way, and how all of that aligns with the central theme.

Finding the central theme isn’t easy, though. Sometimes you start with it, but, for John, the theme is something that evolves as the characters do. It’s challenging.

So is resolving the change your character incites: “Do they change or do they change the world around them?” It’s important for their arc to be clear, thematic, and complete.

The other big story challenge for the protagonist? Agency.

“You want to try to keep the story in the hands of the protagonist so that they are driving the story and not being acted on. Other forces can be acting on them, but the more active they are, choosing their own fate and fighting against whatever is opposing them, the more charged the story can be.”

The rest centers around asking this question over and over again: “What are the things that hold people’s interest and get them invested emotionally?”

The answers to that question are the solutions to the problems. It’s about heightening the things already getting that emotional reaction and deleting or reworking the things that aren’t there yet.

This is especially vital for beginnings.   

For the first moments of a film or any piece of art, your only job is to get them on the train with you, to see what excited you in the beginning, to see that it will be worth the ride, worth their time.

If you don’t get them on the train from the beginning, John says, the rest is torture for the audience (think about the last terrible movie you watched). It’s torture because the storyteller didn’t do the work in the beginning to make you care about the protagonist, to make you want what she wants.

How do you get your audience on the train? Howard Ashman knew it all along. He fought for it.

Show us who the character really is, what he or she really wants, with all their heart, and what’s standing in their way.

This is the magic of story – because this is the moment, if it’s done right, when the audience member gets on the train, becomes one with the protagonist for the next 90 minutes.

John knows a film is ready when “I really feel what that character is feeling. Their problems are my problems, and that if they don’t get what they want, I’m not going to get what I want.

How to you build that emotional connection as an artist? Where does that come from? You can probably guess…this is a story about Disney after all.

It starts with your imagination.

“Eric Larson said years ago," John remembers, “that one of the greatest things about the vast possibilities of animation as a medium is that ‘We are only  limited by our imaginations and our ability to draw what we can imagine.’

“You have got to dream a dream at the beginning. You’ve got to create something that seems as real to you and as relatable as the people that you know. The more you can see problems or situations from your own life the more it helps to make the work feel deeper, richer –more convincing, compelling, and engaging.”

(Some of your favorite Disney characters may or may not have some characteristics of Musker family members. We’ll never tell.)

John is retired now and gets his greatest joys from playing in treehouses and drawing with his grandkids. He still creates. At the time we meet he’s working on his own short film. He also shows me his sculptures (he’s learning sculpture). And in his office, across from an original hand-drawn animation desk, is his new computerized animation tablet. He picks up the stylus and starts some random characters for me – and for a brief second it’s like I’m not there; I’m watching an artist lose himself in what he loves, just playing – and it reminds me of something I’ve learned from all the professional artists I’ve met:

Growing up is for amateurs.

As I walk out of John’s office I see an original animation cel from The Little Mermaid, a frame from the scene when Ariel is perched on the rock singing “I don’t know when, I don’t know how, but I know something’s starting right now…”

We walk down the stairs and I call my Uber. I tell him the story of how my mom says I watched The Little Mermaid over and over again.  

I told him how Ariel’s fearlessness and love of exploration, ambition, and desire to go where she “didn’t belong” stayed with me as I grew up.

Then I told him a story I’d never told anyone.

About why I wept at the end of Moana, and what happened next.

When I saw Moana for the first time I was about to turn 30, and I was three years into my next book project – a project I thought was going to take one year, maybe two. I’d started to feel really stupid for going on this journey.

There is a scene at the end of Moana (spoiler alert), where she gives up. She’s so close to her goal and she’s given it everything she has, but it’s still not working. It’s taking longer than she thought and it’s so much harder, and there are so many legitimate forces working against her. She’s crushed. Self-doubt is her last resort. She resigns: “I'm not the right person.”

Right on the edge of the island she came to find, she walks to the back of the boat, ready to sail home in defeat.

Then her grandmother, who’d died in an earlier scene, comes to her in the ocean, in the form of a sparkly, triangular stingray. The stingray becomes a translucent form of her grandmother, and she sings (the words of Lin Manuel-Miranda) to Moana:

Sometimes the world seems against you
The journey may leave a scar
But scars can heal and reveal just
Where you are...

The people you love will change you
The things you have learned will guide you
And nothing on earth can silence
The quiet voice still inside you
And when that voice starts to whisper
Moana, you’ve come so far
Moana, listen
Do you know who you are?

Moana remembers, like John advised, what she loved about all this to begin with, what called her in the first place, and she turns back, creatively reaching her goal with renewed strength and fresh perspective from the outside.

I quietly wept in the theater.

Later that day, my mom hands me a small box.

“It’s from your Mamaw.”

I’m perplexed. My Mamaw died a few years ago. Her death rocked me. She was the first person I lost who loved me before I was born. She was the first person I lost who’d believed in me.

I open the box and gasp. Nestled inside are two small matching earrings – sparkly triangles that look just like a stingray.

My knees get weak, but this time, I don’t weep. I smile. I feel stronger. I keep going.

My eyes do get a little misty when I retell this story to John as we get ready to part at the door. But this time I’m feeling misty because of the great privilege I’ve just had – to say thank you to an artist who has affected my life.

“Wait here,” he says, and he disappears.

I sit on his concrete stoop and wait, the bunny rustling somewhere nearby.

He returns with two small, signed posters, one from each of the films I’d just told him about.

The Little Mermaid: “Isa - Thanks for being part of Ariel’s world…and mine.”

Moana: “Who knows how far you’ll go…”

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