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‘Trolls’ Writing Duo Toons Into the Characters

Screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger have been working together so long, they not only finish each other’s sentences, “We begin each other’s sentences,” jokes Berger as they sat down at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles to talk about their latest film, DreamWorks Animation’s boisterous “Trolls.”

It’s their second film to open this year, along with DWA’s “Kung Fu Panda 3.” And they just may be the go-to guys when it comes to writing animated films — they certainly are for DWA. “Trolls” is the fifth animated film they’ve written for the studio so far. They’ve written all the “Kung Fu Panda” movies as well as 2009’s “Monsters vs. Aliens.”

They’ve also written live action/animation hybrids for other studios: Fox (“Alvin & the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel” and “Alvin & the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked”) and Paramount/Nickelodeon (“The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water”).

They didn’t set out to be animation writers.

After meeting at a management consulting firm in Boston soon after graduating from college, Aibel and Berger “loaded up a U-Haul and headed to L.A. filled with youthful enthusiasm and naivete,” Berger says. “We had no idea what a cliche it was to move to Hollywood and become screenwriters.”

They wanted to become sitcom writers, and they did just that, eventually landing a writing gig on hit animated series “King of the Hill,” which turned out to be an excellent training ground.

“Since neither of us had [gone to] film school, that served as our film school education,” Berger says. “It was awesome having [showrunners] Greg Daniels and Mike Judge teach us writing, specifically character-based writing even though it happened to be animated. They taught us that in animation you can do anything, but people aren’t going to care unless you care about these characters as people.”

After several years on the show, they got a TV development deal, “where you write pilots that don’t get made,” Berger says laughing. After trying that for about six months, they moved on to live-action features.

“Then we were in the nice position of writing movies that weren’t getting made,” Aibel says.

But that didn’t last too long. “One day we got a call to meet on ‘Kung Fu Panda,’” he says. “And the two things that really got us interested was that Jack Black was attached and it had a release date. We said, ‘This seems like this is something someone is actually making.’”

“Even though that release date was three years in the future,” interjects Berger.

“That’s how our relationship with DreamWorks started,” Aibel continues. “We realized that we thought about movies the same way.”

The particularly collaborative way animated films are made really drew the writers. “Our entire training — one, as a writing team, and, two, as TV writers — was extremely collaborative. So when we got to DreamWorks, they commented on how open to working with other people we were,” says Berger. “The traditional screenwriter is the kind of person who sits alone in an office until they deliver a script. For us, we know these movies take a group of people and we’re just two of them. The best movies come out of that give-and-take.”

For Aibel and Berger, making “Trolls” was a particularly happy collaborative experience. “We enjoy making movies collaboratively with people we really respect. On ‘Trolls’ we got to do that,” says Berger. “We’ve worked with [co-directors] Mike [Mitchell] and Walt [Dohrn] for years on separate things, and to get to all work together on this thing was such a joy, which I think, not coincidentally, makes the movie so joyful. We’ve never worked on a film that was so fun to make, and I think it comes out in the movie.”

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