By Alec Sokolow C’85 | Buzz Lightyear saved my life. I know this might seem hard to believe. I mean, I know that Buzz Lightyear is not actually a real star commander from the planet Zurtron. I know that Buzz Lightyear is actually (close your ears, Buzz) just a toy. Actually, if you want to get technical, he’s not even really a toy. Buzz is actually just a toy character in an animated screenplay that became a feature-length cartoon that I co-authored with my longtime writing partner Joel some time ago for Pixar and Disney.
But, several times in my life when all hope seemed lost and my very ability to press on seemed to hang in the balance, Buzz Lightyear somehow magically swooped in and rescued me from the depths of personal loss. Threw me a lifeline. Led me out of the darkness to the light. To safety and hope. To infinity and beyond.
February 20, 1992
A frigid wintry day in New York City. I’m sitting in the rent-controlled apartment I grew up in on the Upper West Side. Sitting Shiva.
The phone rings. It’s Joel offering me some badly needed good news. We got the “Toy Story” gig. My father had died five days before of colon cancer at the age of 58.
He never knew about “Toy Story.” I don’t think I even really knew about it to be honest. Joel and I were scrambling to keep our respective heads above water in the screenwriting game. We were throwing out as many feelers as we could.
Joel networked an old family friend who knew a young executive at Disney Animation. When Joel found out that Disney was looking to hire a screenwriter on an “out of the box” project, he contacted the exec and sent him two spec screenplays we had co-written together. Our first collaboration was a script called “Money Talks.” (It ended up being Brett Ratner’s first directing credit and starred Chris Tucker and Charlie Sheen, which is a whole other story worth telling.)
Our second screenplay together was a dark comedy called “The Wooden Policeman.” We never sold or optioned “the Wooden Policeman.” Never received a direct penny for our efforts. It still sits on a shelf somewhere. But, it was the script that caught the attention of Disney and Pixar.
In “The Wooden Policeman” we had a character named Buzz and a character named Woody. It was a happy mess of an effort with ideas on top of ideas. It was a live-action buddy-cop screenplay that had a guns in toy gun boxes plot. A calculated attempt to grab somebody’s attention. On page 11 a boy opens up what he thinks is a Christmas present and accidentally blows away his family. Page 11 got Pixar’s attention.
So, while I was back in New York with my fiancée Leslie dealing with the slow train wreck horror and tragedy of watching my beloved father lose his eight-year battle with colon cancer—watching my mom lose her life mate, my brother and sister lose their father as well, and my grandmother lose her son—Joel was out in L.A. tending to his life and our business.
And a mere five days after my father drew his last breath and I was still numb and in shock and lost through the haze of family and friends who were trying their best to reassure us all that life would continue, Joel phoned to tell me that Disney and some animation director named John Lasseter had picked us to pen their film.
Hearing this news from Joel shook me out of my state of profound grief and mourning. Gave me a reason to lift my head off my pillow and dry my cried-out eyes and press onward, back to the West Coast.
I carried all this raw vulnerableness back to Los Angeles, over the Mulholland Pass and into Burbank for my first meetings with the Disney and Pixar folks.
Disney Animation offices in 1992 were corporately sterile and over-crowded. Though history would prove that they were a “cel drawn” empire in decline, at that moment in their history they were still consumed with the roll-out of their yearly mega-hits. Classic “Princess” fantasies with theatrical songs and effervescent sequences that levitated the manic emotions of prepubescent girls around the world.
Beyond the requisite Ping-Pong table that every animation studio seemed required to have, there was no room in this Mickey Mouse clubhouse for the interlopers from Pixar and their secretive computer animation. Conference rooms needed to be borrowed or grabbed for Pixar meetings.
“Toy Story” was an outlier project and concept. Computer animation was in its nascent stages. Pixar under the guise of their tech genius Ed Catmull and the unbridled creative ambition of John Lasseter were still feverishly developing their proprietary software RenderMan. But, Pixar was an orphan of sorts when it came to the culture of Disney Animation at the time they hired Joel and me.
The only reason we got the job was because it was such a low corporate priority. No writer with any career would have wasted their time on a project like “Toy Story” at that moment in time.
Joel & I more than fit their M.O. They liked our spec work. We came cheap. So, we got the opportunity. But, we did not get rich. Joel and I were each paid $103,000 for our writing services.
I did not get any magic gift envelopes as a way of saying thanks from Disney or Pixar. No works of art or automobiles. I received my share. Minus 10% agent’s commission. Made possible by an air tight “we own everything you write, talk about writing or even think about writing” contract that Disney’s team of lawyers concocted and I willingly signed.
I did receive a nice gift basket of “Toy Story” toys, a large sculpted chocolate Mr. Potato Head, a Mickey Mouse-themed flower vase when we were nominated for an Academy Award, and an awkward phone call from Michael Eisner. I still have the frozen chocolate nose of my magnificent Belgian chocolate Mr. Potato Head stored in the back of my freezer next to some frozen peas and vodka.
But, money was not really on my mind when I took my seat in the borrowed conference room at Disney Animation back then. I was numb to the world. Angry at the Gods for taking my father too soon. Confused about the path I had chosen. And frightened about my future.
There is a moment most screenwriters have experienced when you sit down in a meeting and after the brief chatter and niceties, all expectant eyes turn to you for delivery. Delivery from a problem. What is the movie “we” are all committing our lives and careers to make. It is a feeling of terror when a screenwriter knows he/she does not have the answers. Dead air hangs over every exchange. Seconds can seem like hours.
In that first meeting the Pixar team and the Disney execs were all still looking for answers. They were all very excited about their technology. Computer animation and specifically RenderMan would allow for complex patterns to be stored and seamlessly exploited on film. So, backgrounds would be far more complex. Character’s clothes would pop. They were bad at soft material like skin and hair. But, toys and any shiny material were their sweet spot.
As the conversation began I was jolted out of my state of loss and self-loathing. All thoughts of my father’s passing receded and I found myself being challenged.
Two toys. One boy. What’s the movie?
Our work began. No more time to wallow in the mire. It was time to perform. To problem solve. To create. And with each topic, self-preservation and competitiveness stirred me back from my loss.
Two toys. But, they weren’t really toys. They were living creatures in plastic bodies. They were to have adult problems. Adult “Freuds.” Everything was in play. One toy had lived and lost. The other was deluded. They were living and they jolted me back to life.
The working title “Toy Story” was deemed uninspired. New titles were requested. “Crime Fighters of The Galaxy?” Back to “Toy Story.” “I’m With Stupid?” Back to “Toy Story.”
The placeholder names of the two toys did change. Lunar Larry and Dummy. Gone. Too generic. New names were needed.
Lunar Larry became Tecor, then Buzz Lightyear. Dummy became Woody.
The idea for the name Buzz Lightyear was not actually initially inspired by the astronaut Buzz Aldrin. The name “Buzz” was lifted from our spec screenplay. “Lightyear” came from a simple logic game. We needed a name like Luke Skywalker. Something that could be a verb or an adjective and connoted space travel. Armstrong was taken by Neil. So, Skywalker + Armstrong somehow came out as “Lightyear” and there you have it.
The very construction of a buddy movie was dissected. “Midnight Run” was watched and discussed. So was “48 Hours.” What were the rules of a buddy movie? What was the construction of the best of these movies where two polar opposites handcuffed together by events must learn to trust each other to win.
What do inanimate objects inherently feel? What’s their raison d’etre? Is a glass happy when it’s filled or when it’s sipped from? Is it sad when it’s empty?
How does a toy find its value and self-esteem?
Can the basic “Babes In Toyland” rule of the secret lives of toys ever be broken? If so, how many times? Then we were sent off to write our first draft.
We were given very specific instructions from Disney.
This was not to be a kid’s movie, yet. It was not even a G-rated movie, yet. It would become both of those things, but the first draft was supposed to hang over the edge.
We were instructed to blow it out as far as we wanted. The characters could curse if needed. Break the fourth wall. Attempt suicide. Anything and everything was in play. With the understanding that this draft was supposed to show everyone what the film could be, then it would be reined back in.
And that’s what Joel and I set off to do. We wrote an R-rated action comedy that starred two a cowboy and a spaceman who also happened to be toys. Two American archetypes.
I clung on to the obligation of birthing that first draft. Thankful for the distraction from my pain. Able to somehow push forward and reclaim a sense of purpose. No longer caring about following all the rules.
At one point, we had Woody look into camera and directly apologize to Jack Valenti, the powerful and omnipresent head of the MPAA for cursing in a cartoon. The dialogue was edgy. The barbs flew.
We wanted Woody to have a 40-year history of abandonment issues. We penned a montage in that first draft that shows Woody’s life story. How he did not know he was a toy at first either. His first kid used him in an act. He was supposed to appear on the Ed Sullivan show, but the act got bumped because it was the night that the Beatles appeared.
The kid, now comedian, got drunk and left Woody in the back of a taxicab.
The cabbie brings Woody home and gives him to his son. He grows up and has Woody in the back of a VW van heading to Woodstock. Woody gets left in the mud bog after the show.
Once again rescued. Once again delivered to a new kid. Who grows up and somehow manages to leave him on the floor of Studio 54. Then, on Wall Street.
Woody knew what it was like to love a kid and lose a kid. That was the key to his emotional state. And in the character of Andy Woody had found the greatest kid. A kid he would kill for. A kid who he never wanted to leave.
Tecor, on the other hand, was a newfangled toy. Like the kid brother. He just assumed he would be Andy’s favorite. He is in every way newer and better than Woody. And we made him the gift that Andy’s absentee dad had given Andy. So, naturally he would be Andy’s new favorite.
Later at Sid’s house, when Tecor finds out he is really just a toy we had him put his hand in a power outlet and try to fry himself.
This was some dark shit. And … everybody loved it. While knowing that it had to be completely changed.
Six more drafts followed. While Pixar was arduously laboring over their software and animation tests and need for more funding. The process was intense and seemingly never ending.
Notes meetings. New titles. New character names.
Billy Crystal was in and then out. Tom Hanks stepped in. Lunar Larry to Tecor to Buzz Lightyear.
Montages were cut. Scenes tightened. Meanness taken out and replaced by manic vulnerability. Andy’s father was cut out. So was another human character, Sid’s friend.
Midway through our writing and rewriting Joel’s father also passed away.
It was his turn to disappear into the darkness of loss while I tended to business. This was a raw and difficult period for the both of us. And we both hung on to the writing process in deeply personal manners.
The movie emerged on the page. The interaction with Pixar became less frequent and more distant.
August 11, 1992
Back in New York. Six months since my father’s passing and five days before my wedding. I had somehow survived and put myself back together largely thanks to Buzz and Woody.
Now, I was getting married. My fiancée Leslie and I had wanted to wed before my father passed. He talked us out of it. Said it was supposed to be our day of joy. He was right. As our date approaches, we are laughing again. Reaching for our future.
The phone rings. Our Disney executive informs us that we were being fired off of “Toy Story.”
One of the paradoxes of being a screenwriter is that you as a being are usually valued less when your work as a writer is being valued more. Most don’t want the original writer hanging around through the process. The excuses are usually something to do with being “written out,” or “the need for a new perspective.” But, in reality, I believe it tends to fall more on the side of history real and imagined. The first writer knows too much. Sees the significant players at their weakest states. When they have the desire, but not the answers.
Screenwriters are told time and time again that it is considered good news when you are replaced. It means that the company is willing to spend more money on your project.
At the same time, you have made the largest percentage of money on your work and can hopefully make more money writing on a new project somewhere else while also being protected in the credit process by being the first writer on your old project.
That’s what they tell you anyway.
It is obviously hard to get movies made and if bringing on a new writer (in this case, Joss Whedon) helps keep the momentum of the project, then that’s a good thing.
Assuming that you did not lay an egg, it is, I suppose.
We had given them the blueprint of structure and character definition and arc and a sense of what the movie could be. Then, we were no longer needed and we were dismissed.
Five days before my wedding. I didn’t care.
Buzz and Woody had done their job. I was ready to move on. Nobody from Pixar or Disney came to my wedding.
My life rolled on. Contact stopped. New projects arose. The struggle of being an unproduced screenwriter in a city of unproduced screenwriters dragged on …
June 10, 1995
I awake and go with my wife Leslie to take out some money from the local ATM for breakfast. It wouldn’t spit out any. We only had $11 in our account.
We stood at the ATM numb for what seemed like an eternity and talked through all of our options. I did have a check coming on a rewrite from New Line, but who knew when that would show up.
We did the only thing we could do at the moment. We retreated to our apartment and pulled out anything we thought we could hock. Peter Gabriel CDs, Depeche Mode CDs. (Why did I even own multiple Depeche Mode CDs?) A snazzy Radio Shack day timer (this was 1995 after-all), a Swatch. And we took ourselves into downtown Santa Monica to a Pawn Shop.
We were able to hock our way to a breakfast and enough change to last the weekend.
Five or so months before “Toy Story” was released I was hocking my shit to get some breakfast.
Another concussion in a seemingly endless string of humiliations and forced austerity that represented my career thus far. Another humbling moment in a string of humbling moments. A writer’s life sounds romantic until you’re actually struggling to live it.
I had been in LA for seven or so years and all I had to show for my efforts was $11 of reachable capital, though I did have a condo mortgage, back taxes due, and the requisite credit card debt that all Americans are encouraged to procure.
Oh, and a pregnant freelance-photographer wife who was paying our bills by shooting the covers of Gangsta Rap Albums (which is also another story for another time).
I was 32 years old and broke and had my first child due on March 25th of the following year.
But, I also had Buzz and Woody. Or at least the idea of Buzz and Woody. I knew the release was coming up. I fantasized about it being a hit. I worried that I would not get credit. But, I had it in my mind’s grasp.
And I could feel like finally I might be getting my time up at bat.
FADE TO BLACK: FADE UP:
November 13, 1995
Alone and numb and once again in tears. Leslie, my beloved, is in the operating room of Santa Monica UCLA Hospital having our never-to-be-born child taken from her womb. Technically a fifth-month miscarriage, but this was a being that was never supposed to live. 69 Chromosomes. Triploidy. A “thing” that never should have lived inside of her for the 20 or so weeks that it did.
But, we did not know that until a few days prior.
Until a few days prior, we were living in the blissful state of her pregnancy. Her morning sickness. The sonograms. Potential names. Getting ready to become parents.
Our finances had steadied. We were in Italy for our last “holiday” before the third trimester. In Florence when we received the horrible message from our Doctor. Something is not good. Something that must be attended to. When were we coming home?
We put on a brave face and got through the rest of our trip hoping that the news wasn’t too bad.
Returned to L.A. and soon found ourselves in a prenatal specialist’s office. Another sonogram. No heartbeat. Tears. Numbness. And forced counseling about genetic defects.
A quick trip to the hospital to force labor. A toxic reaction to Pitocin that turned the one day into three. A biological hostage crisis. And a D&E. Dilation and Evacuation.
There are times in life when you turn the corner and don’t see the truck barreling towards you.
Suddenly we were back home. No child on the way. The two of us. Back alone. And suddenly in mourning and adrift once again. March 25th, our due date, was haunting us.
And “Toy Story” about to open. Nine days away. Nine confusing and sad days.
Finally I had my name on a produced feature film, yet at this moment of potential joy there was suddenly new waves of grief.
Until Leslie, to her amazing strength and credit chose joy.
She declared that we had to, HAD TO, celebrate life. Enjoy the simple fact that finally through our courtship and our marriage and our poverty a movie was finally coming out.
Once again, Buzz Lightyear pulled me from a numb state of grief.
Great reviews. No, better than great reviews. Insanely great reviews. All leading with compliments for the screenplay. Joel and my screenplay. Worked and reworked. Polished and massaged. By us, Joss, and the Pixar boys. But, still ours.
A monster opening weekend. 38 million 1992 dollars.
A bizarre cold phone call from Michael Eisner that I first thought was a practical joke, but soon came to realize was the baritone man himself.
And action. Hollywood action.
CAA, who had only a year prior informally asked us to leave sent us official agency papers. Free lunches.
Meetings. Deals. Insanity.
Everybody wanted to talk about Buzz and Woody.
Leslie and I were happy to live in this fantasy. Happy to forget our loss. Buzz Lightyear was becoming ubiquitous. He was seemingly everywhere we turned. Winking at us. Laughing with us. To Infinity and Beyond.
Joel and I went to Universal for what we thought was a “meet and greet” and walked away with not one, but two screenwriting jobs. With one of them, “CATS,” we would be rewriting Tom Stoppard. Yes, that Tom Stoppard.
Debts were erased. IRS? gone.
Credit Cards? Paid.
Through the Christmas season I watched the world watch the movie. Box office rising. Disney ran out of Buzz Lightyears to sell. (Chew on that for a moment.)
And Leslie and I strapped on our seat belts and were happily swept away from our personal and private nightmare. It was only getting better.
CROSS WIPE TO:
February 17, 1996
5:30 am. Mid February again. Four years since my dad’s passing. The phone rings, stirring me from a restless night’s sleep. It’s my brother calling from New York.
“You got nominated!”
I tried to clear my brain. What?
Joel thought it might happen. The script was getting a lot of attention. But really? Nominated as in NOMINATED????
I have always been fundamentally opposed to award shows. I believe they are an unfortunate black hole of self- indulgence that sucks up every creative development decision throughout the calendar year. The Oscars forever filter what movies get made. How and when movies are released. Production. Marketing. Everything.
People obsess about their awards. People chase them like Ahab chased the White Whale. They distort and convolute every conversation that anybody has in Hollywood. Even when they don’t know it.
And they are completely and entirely subjective. Art cannot be rated and judged with any universal truth. And people should not be motivated to make art simply because they want a trophy.
That’s what I believed before my brother woke me up.
But then I got to live through the next six weeks. Six weeks where every moment was celebrated. Every conversation heightened. Odds continuously calculated and re-calculated like a tout at the track. Six weeks where everything I said or did also contained the thought, “Oh, and I’m nominated for an Academy Award.”
I now believe every human being should be nominated at least once in their chosen field for an award that allows them to float through a repeated cycle of self-congratulation and compliments.
A year prior I had sat in our living room throwing out mocking one-liners at the TV and now, suddenly I was going to the Oscars.
Champagne and flowers started showing up. But, only from people who had screwed me around. I found a direct correlation with the size and expense of the gift to how badly the sender had previously treated me.
If I opened the door and could not see the person behind the gift, I knew it had to be somebody who had recently fired me. More free lunches.
More everything. Then, the Oscar lunch.
Ridiculous fun. At the Beverly Hilton. Driving up in my Honda Accord. Escorted through the lobby like I was somebody. Through a set of doors onto a red carpet and a wall of press and photographers. I’m announced. Jack Valenti, who we had written into that first draft, was now holding out his hand to greet me.
The comic disappointment of the press when they realized I was a nobody. Cameras dropped. Jostling stopped. Valenti managed to dismiss me through his toothy smile, then I was in the big room. Reading name tags of the other nominees and their films. Each one more impressive than the others. A group picture of all the nominees.
I found myself standing next to Elizabeth Shue.
We were all lectured on the dos and don’ts if we won. How the Oscar is trademarked. How not to give an acceptance speech. (Don’t list names.) How you could lose your Oscar if you misbehaved.
Then, a comically ill-timed notes meeting at Paramount that I stupidly did not postpone. I fell asleep on the couch while getting notes from an executive at MTV films on a movie that will never be made.
March 25, 1996
Our due date for the child that was never to be. Now Oscar night.
A few weeks prior Leslie gets a nose bleed. A pregnancy test follows. Leslie finds out she’s pregnant again.
The Oscars fell on the day we were supposed to have our first child. Instead, we’re putting on formal wear at noon and waiting for a limo to take us to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
We were now on the Red Carpet. Leslie and me. Through the miscarriage and Cinderella ride. Now Leslie was pregnant again. (Our daughter Maya was born on November 13, 1996. One year to the date of the nightmare in the hospital.)
Whoopi Goldberg hosted. Elliot Smith sang. Buzz and Woody were even magically installed into a lame comic bit for the TV show. The show ran on and on and on. But the clock had struck midnight for my fantasy.
“Toy Story” did not win. “The Usual Suspects” did.
The Pixar guys went their way. I went mine.
Leslie and I found ourselves at the Governor’s Ball nibbling on Oscar-shaped confections. The tent adjoining the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion filling with the most powerful people in show business. Studio heads. A-listers. All networking each other. While a 20-piece band played swing music. And nobody was dancing.
I grabbed Leslie and led her out onto the floor. It was just the two of us. Holding on tight.
We had our own private dance at the epicenter of show business. The band seemed to play just for us.
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