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‘Secret Life of Pets’ Screenwriter Brian Lynch Looks Back on His Journey Into Animated Film

If family animation often struggles to earn respect in the film industry, and screenwriters often struggle to get respect in film’s creative hierarchy, then where does that leave a screenwriter who specializes in family animation? In the case of Brian Lynch, the answer is this: thriving, and contributing to films that have accumulated more than a billion dollars at the box office.

Over the past decade, Lynch has become a go-to screenwriter for a slew of Illumination’s biggest animated kidpics, from “Hop” to “Minions” (follow-up “Minions: The Rise of Gru” is on tap for 2020) to “The Secret Life of Pets,” with “The Secret Life of Pets 2″ having  topped last weekend’s box office. But Lynch’s evolution into an all-around children’s scribe wasn’t something he could have predicted.

“Other than the Muppets, I really didn’t watch many kids’ movies as a child,” Lynch says. “So I think the family scripts I did still had an element of comedy that was inspired by more adult movies. I wasn’t inspired by old Disney movies when I wrote my kids’ movies, I was inspired by ‘9 to 5,’ ‘Tootsie,’ even ‘Wayne’s World.’”

Nor was his path to Hollywood a typical one.

“I always knew I wanted to write movies,” Lynch says. “But I didn’t think it was a real possibility until I saw Kevin do it.”

The Kevin in question is Kevin Smith, whom fellow New Jersey native Lynch met through Vincent Pereira, a childhood friend who worked with Smith at the convenience store-video store location he immortalized in his breakthrough debut, “Clerks.” Smith immediately sought to spread the wealth after “Clerks'” success, giving Pereira funding to shoot his own microbudget debut, “A Better Place.” Pereira called in his old friend Lynch as an all-purpose assistant during shooting.

“I think I got an associate producer credit, but that was kinda glorified — I was more like the gofer,” Lynch says. He did, however, get a small role in the film, as a “nervous Tom Arnold type” playing comic relief in the otherwise gritty drama. He also had a similarly small part in Smith’s “Chasing Amy,” and those two appearances were enough to attract the attention of Fox comedy scout Lisa Harrison, who asked him if he was hoping to become an actor.

“I said, ‘no, no, dear Lord no. But I do write.’ So she asked me if I could show her scripts, and she said this about me as a writer and it stuck with me, and it still makes me feel better when I doubt myself: She said, ‘I don’t know that you’re a genius, but I think you could pass for one in Hollywood.’”

Lynch eventually landed representation, moved to L.A., and tried his hand at all sorts of writing work — devising screenplays for R-rated comedies, horror films, even a successful comic book spinoff of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” with Joss Whedon — but sold his first spec with something that was particularly dear to his heart: the Muppets.
His screenplay was never filmed, but the Jim Henson Co. liked it enough to buy it, and it became his calling card.

“That got me jobs for years and years; and I kept getting offered family stuff because of it,” Lynch says. “Even 15 years ago, I had a meeting at MTV Films to adapt a comic book, and the reason I got that meeting was because the executive had kept that Muppets script from back when she was a reader at DreamWorks, and I wound up marrying her. So even though it never got made, that Muppet spec ended up giving me my life in every way, from my job to my wife.”

The most professionally advantageous door it opened was the one to Chris Meledandri’s office, from which he was hired to do punch-ups for Blue Sky’s “Robots.” Shortly after leaving Blue Sky and starting up Illumination, Meledandri asked Lynch to come take over screenwriting duties from key Illumination screenwriters Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio for the nascent studio’s second film, the animated Easter comedy “Hop.” Lynch, used to being hired for rewrites and punch-ups, assumed it would be a quick four-week gig. But he ended up staying with the project through release and beyond, even writing and co-directing the shorts for the home-video release. Plus he got a crash course in studio animated filmmaking in the process.

“I stayed on that movie every day from when I signed on, being on set, sometimes even acting against the voice actors when [star] Russell Brand couldn’t be there. I got to sit in on editing, I was with the director every day, I watched him in post-production. It was a great experience, and I was really afraid I was gonna get dropped from it the whole time.”

With that experience in his bag, as well as a credit for DreamWorks’ “Puss in Boots,” Lynch secured his first solo screenwriting endeavor, and it was a big one. A spin-off of the “Despicable Me” franchise, “Minions” ended up becoming Illumination’s highest-grossing hit to date, with over a billion dollars in worldwide box office. But it presented quite a screenwriting challenge, centered as it was around the title characters, who speak in their own invented language.

“I tend to think my strong suit is dialogue, so when they asked me to write the Minions movie I said, ‘Are you guys sure? Are we going to have subtitles, or …?’”

However, subtitles were not in the cards, so Lynch turned to an unusual set of inspirations to craft largely wordless character arcs and comedy.

“I was watching a lot of the movies with physical comedy that I grew up on. Some of them were obvious. Charlie Chaplin, of course. The Three Stooges, definitely. That’s all in there. But even ‘Perfect Strangers,’ I watched a ton of that, just because growing up I thought those two were the funniest physical comedians ever.” Here he pauses for a moment. “I really hope I’m not the first person to ever mention ‘Perfect Strangers’ as an inspiration in an interview about their career. Because Mark Linn-Baker is a genius.”

The seeds of the first “Secret Life of Pets” film were also starting to germinate as Lynch worked on “Minions,” though the film underwent quite a transformation before he was brought in to write it.

“Before I came aboard, Cinco and Ken had been working on it, and at one point it was a straight thriller,” Lynch says. “It was ‘Rear Window,’ where the dog sees a murder, basically, and he can’t express what happened to his owner, so he and his pet friends have to go do something about it. And I remember watching [early tests] in the screening room while I was doing ‘Minions’ and going, ‘wow, this is gonna be a dark movie.’”

By the time Lynch was brought on to the project, the film had been retooled into a more traditional buddy comedy, albeit one with some intriguingly bleak grace notes. For the sequel, however, in which lead pup Max has to deal with new anxieties after becoming a father, Lynch drew on very recent personal experience.

“My son was born while we were doing ‘Minions,’” he says. “And I remember I always used to see kids at amusement parks and think, ‘I’m gonna be such a fun dad, we’re gonna go on every ride, we’re gonna do everything together.’ And then the minute I had a kid, of course I became terrified of everything.”

Lynch says his approach to writing family fare hasn’t changed completely since becoming a parent himself, though there were some moments: “It certainly did make me write younger for a while, and Chris Meledandri would have to say once in a while, ‘Brian, you’re not just writing for your 3-year-old, go a little older.’”

Looking back on his unexpected career trajectory, however, Lynch finds it all both surprising and somehow ultimately logical.

“I always knew I’d be working in comedy, and there was a while where I thought I’d be doing something more like ‘Airplane!’ or ‘South Park,’” he says. “Did I think I would be doing animated movies? No, but right now that’s kind of all that’s being made in terms of comedy, and I’m fine with that. Because when you watch the first ‘Secret Life of Pets,’ it is kind of ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ but with talking animals. And ‘Minions’ is sort of ‘Dumb and Dumber’ with these animated guys. So no, I didn’t see this coming. I’m very happy it did, though.”

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