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USC makes way for the minions

Allison Engelby Allison Engel
Despicable Me 2 screenwriters Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio (USC Photo/Dietmar Quistorf)
Photo: Despicable Me 2 screenwriters Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio (USC Photo/Dietmar Quistorf)

When Despicable Me and its army of bug-eyed yellow minions became an enormous hit in July 2010, it took producer Chris Meledandri about two weeks to call the animated film’s screenwriters, Cinco Paul MFA ’93 and Ken Daurio, and ask them to start thinking about a sequel.

Judging from the reactions of USC students at the packed screening of Despicable Me 2 on June 27 at the Eileen Norris Cinema Theatre, the duo can start writing the third installment immediately. (The film opens July 3 in the United States and has a staggered worldwide release.)

The audience of 365 fans, clad in 3-D glasses, laughed frequently throughout the film and gave the two screenwriters sustained applause as they entered for a Q&A session.

The low-key friends, who got their start literally singing their pitches to studio bigwigs, explained the multiyear process of writing, storyboarding, constant rewriting, drawing and voice work that goes into an animated feature. Unlike most screenwriters, they are fortunate to be involved from beginning to end in a film, they explained. However, the length of production does mean that some bits wear out their welcome.

“About a year into the movie, nothing’s funny,” said Paul, causing the duo to explain to executives — usually unsuccessfully — that a joke truly was funny the first time it was spoken.

The two do not write in the same room, with one looking over the other’s shoulder. Rather, they assign scenes to each other, with Paul often getting the more emotional scenes and Daurio the ones more reliant on visuals. These assignments becomes a friendly competition, with each doing his best to make the other laugh. The veterans of numerous children’s films (Horton Hears a Who!, The Lorax, The Santa Clause 2) and a parent of three children each, said they deliberately do not write scripts with children in mind.

“We really write for each other,” Daurio said.

Animation allows them to imagine anything. The only scenario that animators balk at depicting is water, Paul said. Turns out that drawing water is very expensive. However, Despicable Me 2 has a lengthy water scene, so even that limitation evaporated for the successful writers.

The film contains visual homages to some of the writers’ favorite movies. Look for tips of the hat to Return of the Jedi, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Pharrell Williams returns to help with the score, and there are songs both relatively recent (“I Swear”) and vintage (Mungo Jerry, anyone?)

The screenwriters talked generously about the contributions of the comedians hired as voice actors. When Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Russell Brand and others ad libbed, the writers were pleased, not miffed.

“You want their improv skills,” Paul said. “That’s why you hire these guys.”

Even co-directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud added dialogue. Coffin is responsible for creating and voicing the language of the lead minions, a nonsensical patter that somehow can be perfectly understood. Paul said the patois is a mix of French, Spanish and “stuff from restaurant menus. I think ‘chicken tikka masala’ is in there.”

To see a trailer for the film and an account of the screening on the USC School of Cinematic Arts website, visit bitly.com/despicablemescreening

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