Alec Sokolow graduated from Penn with a B.A. in Communications in 1985. He began his writing career as a writer for National Lampoon Magazine and segment producer on The Late Show. Most notably, he is the author or co-author of 47 screenplays including Cheaper By the Dozen, Garfield, and Toy Story, which received an Academy Award nomination for screenwriting. Most recently, he co-wrote I am Jane Doe, a documentary on the sex trafficking of underage girls in the United States. This past Fall, Alec spoke at the Kelly Writer's House to a room packed with aspiring student writers.
Pursuing a Career in Writing
How did you decide you wanted to become a film writer?
When you talk about writing scripts, or anything in the arts, it starts with passion. It’s what you love, and I love movies. I’ve always had an almost encyclopedic memory of the movies I've watched since the time I was a kid. Growing up, going through high school, and even getting into Penn, which is a very linear institutional hierarchy, I was very good at chasing the wrong. I was also always the kid looking at the butterflies, staring out the window, and interrupting classes. I learned at a young age that I was an oral learner. I had to speak to learn, so I spent a lot of time being the class clown and talking a lot because that was my way of actually possessing information.
Everybody else seemed very content with their classes and the idea that you do work and then it's almost binary. You turn on a switch to turn it off. But for me, it was always like there were all these corridors opening up in my mind. I get to Penn, where I'm taking a lot of film theory classes, largely because I love movies. But there wasn't a screenwriting major. There was no major that allowed you to “make believe.” I'm doing it largely because that's what people tell you when you go off to college—take the courses that interest you. It's such a profound thought. But then you sit there with your advisor or your parents or friends and everybody's telling you that you should be doing this or doing that. I think in movies and I dream of movies. I live my life, not just as a writer trying to make movies, but of all the movies I've possessed.
In my mind, it's almost like I didn't have a choice and I didn't know it when I was younger. If anything, there were all of these voices in my head telling me to snap out of it. You're at an Ivy League school, so you should work on Wall Street or become a lawyer. When I was younger, nothing really satisfied me. I went to work in an office right out of college and within six months, I could remember crying in the office bathroom because I felt so claustrophobic and I didn't know why. if anything, my career and my life was less of a cognitive choice and more of a nervous system choice.
I had to get out to Los Angeles because I didn't have to explain myself there. In New York or Philadelphia, if I said I wanted to write movies, I would get this look back at me and people would ask, well when are you going to get a real job? In Los Angeles, at least there are so many people trying to do the same thing. Moving out to LA was a huge demarcation point to me where it could become more of a reality.
It definitely happens here where you have the pressure of being at Penn and if you don't go into law or banking or something that "pays off," or is a real job, people think it's a waste. You talked about how you almost went to a law school and succumbed to those pressures, can you talk more about that?
I get through my four years of college, spend summers working as a production assistant on movies and television shows, major in communications, and basically do all of the things that everybody says you're supposed to do. But, by the time I finish my four years, I have no idea what's coming next. It's like you're on a field with all of this fresh snow and you get to make all of the footprints, and that gave me anxiety. I took my last college exam and instead of feeling this exalted crescendo of my education I was like well, I guess that's it. And I went and bought a beer. I didn’t really have a clear sense of myself or my life. Then the frying pan hits me in the face and I realize that this is my life and I have to figure it out.
My folks were very understanding. After I graduated and went back to live in my childhood room for a couple months, I said I had to get out of there. At that time I was really drawn more and more into writing. The first two or three years after college was such an emotional struggle for me because there was no hierarchy. There was no, if I just go up this ladder, then something good is going to happen. So I start writing monologues and skits and my folks, they’re supportive up to a point, but about a year after college they said I should apply to law school and I did. I took the LSATs and I got into several law schools in the New York City area. And as that was happening, I was feverishly writing and trying to just get my toe in the door. Eventually I did so I put away that safety net and then commenced my professional career. For me, one of the great failures of my education was that it had no practical application to my life. It was all theoretical. Then when I got out of college, I realized I couldn't work in an office and survive emotionally. I didn't care about law in that way. Even now, when I'm writing I'm not on Earth. I'm in some other zone or some beautiful place in my head.
I don't know if I was capable of doing anything else and comically, I wanted to quit a million times. This is a hard life. You're being judged constantly and there's no security. Raising a family, you have all these other pressures. I had different points in my adult life where I reached out to people in academia asking what else could I do? l I found out my skill set is writing movies. That's what I do really well. I had the benefit of confidence and the grit and stubbornness to allow me to struggle, suffer, and ultimately learn the craft. Toy Story came out when I was thirty two so I spent a decade learning how to be a writer.
Toy Story obviously became really successful. Did you feel like all of the courageous choices you made were validated at that point? Did the career doubts stop for you?
I think so a little bit. Initially, I felt like I had to defend myself. I’m writing and I see people I went to school with at Penn and they were starting to really build their lives. They would ask if I was still writing, as if it was a choice. Then Toy Story happened and all of a sudden it changed to, well you're special, what other rays of genius will you provide? That was very hard initially because I didn't quite know what changed. The same people who were telling me I was horrible were now telling me I was great. I knew the second Toy Story came out and performed well that I didn't have to explain myself anymore.
The twenties were the hardest emotional decade for me because I wanted validation and a career. I wanted people to know what I could do and to be able to say this is what I've done. That doesn't mean writing gets easier and it doesn't mean that the business gets necessarily more satisfying, it just means I know who I am. It’s helped me a lot internally. And I think that when you do try to carve your own path, that sense of self validation is priceless. It allows you to discover who you really are.
Don't become a screenwriter if you want to do it, become a screenwriter because you have to do it. I think when I look back on my periods at college or even just beyond, it was almost like by default this was what I was supposed to be doing. Only through time can I look back and realize that. I tried a lot of things and I felt like I was drowning emotionally.
Talking about your journey as a screenwriter and knowing a lot more now than you did back then, what advice do you have for students who want to explore screenwriting?
I think the key to life in America and life in capitalism is to become a brand. I would say that's the real inner game if you’re going to work in the entertainment industry. That might seem cynical, but I actually saw it as revelatory because it was almost like it became a game. Instead of being judged personally as a human being, it was almost like no I'm an animation writer or I'm a family writer or I do the talking animal stuff or any of those things that's the real key. There's so many lessons that you learned by living it and doing it this you can hear somebody talk about it but until you experience it, you won't really properly learn that lesson. But having said that, what is a screenplay? A screenplay is a sales document. It's a business plan. It's a marketing tool, but it's also a work of art and a narrative. If I'm lucky, one of my screenplays will be read by 20 people or be seen by millions. I write these documents that can make people laugh, but also that actors and directors might think it's worth their time and career on. Executives and producers might say I know how to make money on this. The marketing people might say, yes I know how to sell this and ultimately, the audience will might experience it and say I'm enjoying this. I became very obsessed at a young age with looking at all of the other movies that succeeded. I would try to break them down and figure out why they succeeded on the page.
It started a whole process that was an abstraction that was far removed from just writing words. I would say to also write every day or every week. Writing does not happen by itself. But do it knowing that you ultimately are trying to make yourself a brand or a nice shiny object that the marketplace wants to exploit. But by doing that, don't lose your humanity or become too cynical, but still see it as as a game that can be fun.
Alec's Film Influences
Your brand has evolved over time with more comedic movies like Garfield and Cheaper by the Dozen and recently you did I am Jane Doe, which is a very raw, emotional piece. You mentioned before that there were a lot of movies that helped you build this brand. Were there some movies that influenced you the most and what were the factors that helped you decide what was a story worth writing?
I didn’t know when I started, but I initially fought those family movies. I fought the Garfield movies. I fought it in my head because when I was growing up and dreaming of being a movie writer, I didn't think I would be working in that sector of the movie business. Yet what I've come to realize is, it's kind of what I do best. I realize it's because I have this inner child inside of me and I've really been in touch with that voice, so it's easy for me to think like a character that would be entertaining to an 8 or 12 year old. Hopefully I’m contributing to a positive conversation that kids can have with themselves as they're discovering the world. And a chance for the kids has to like very simple life lessons. But it's safe and it's fun. And it makes you want to hug your family. It makes you want to feel the sunshine a little bit more.
When I was exposed to I am Jane Doe, which is about underage sex trafficking, I realized that I care a lot about kids and it angered me that this was going on. I realized that I care a lot about protecting kids and creating safety for them. It's not a coincidence that these are scripts I write.
One of my favorite movies of all time is a Buster Keaton movie called Sherlock Jr. It's just brilliant conceptually. It shows you everything that movies can be in a silent film form back in the 1920s. I'm a pretty empathetic guy, so I would watch movies up to every decade and they would hit me very deeply. I get out to Los Angeles and I'm working on some late night TV and doing this and that and then I'm trying to break into the movie business. Then I meet Joel Collins, who becomes a long term collaborator of mine. We started very thorough conversations about how to be successful screenwriters and it was like just two idiots on a park bench talking about what movies Hollywood has made throughout time and space and what are the movies that get you the best chance of getting your name on the credits. In our analysis, we decided on the buddy movie. Our first script became the comedy, Money Talks. Our second script never got sold or made, but it had the characters Buzz and Woody in it. That script became the writing sample that got us to Toy Story. Both of them were Buddy constructs. The basic rule of a buddy story is that you have these two polar opposites, a left brain character and a right brain character and they're not supposed to like each other. You have these two polarities and then you get a bigger force, a boss, or an event that handcuffs these two characters together. When you look at Toy Story, it was the two toys and the boy handcuffing these toys together.
A buddy story is algorithm of trust and ability. I focused a lot on that. But I love so many different movies and I get inspiration from so many different movies. Actually one of the guilty pleasures of living the life I'm living is to be able to read as much as I read and watch as much as I watch and know that it's actually investing in me is amazing.
If your life was a movie and there were two or three key events that really molded you to become who you are today, what would those be for you? Do you have one that changed your professional character drastically?
That seven years or so out of Penn was such a daily struggle for me. Five months before Toy Story came out, when my wife was pregnant, there was a moment where we had 11 dollars in the bank. I had to pawn some things just to get money for food to get through the weekend. It doesn't mean that I didn't know good things were coming. That in a way is probably the most defining thing as a writer is saying, “I have nowhere to go, but forward.” It still haunts me, but I'm proud of that.
You've got to live your life and when people said that to me when I young, I either understood or didn't but life is going to happen and everybody's going to face a million choices in their lives. For some people, going the more traditional, institutional career route is the only way to go. For some people it's not, and I was one of those other people. The real evolution started when I got out.