For many writers starting out, it's easy to be discouraged by constant rejection and internal second-guessing. So it took Meg LeFauve a while to find her voice.
After studying writing and English at Syracuse University, LeFauve came to Hollywood to write but felt she was failing at first. So she took a job as an assistant and worked for ten years for Jodie Foster at Egg Pictures, who taught her to ask the question: "What is that big beautiful idea we are trying to communicate to the world?"
"She was my story mentor," LeFauve told me on the phone. "I approach writing and storytelling as she taught me, from a director and actor’s point-of-view, scene-oriented and character-oriented. I worked with a lot of writers to learn storytelling, from Janie Anderson to Keith Gordon."
LaFauve's friends thought she was crazy when she quit working for Foster to jump off the cliff and write screenplays. First she had the great distraction of two babies, but she kept writing scripts that no one would ever see. And she partnered with John Morgan; their screenplay "The Cavanaughs" was accepted by the Sundance Writer’s Lab. "It's like any great skill, it takes time and practice and experience to get those tools," she said. "It took me 3-4 years of intense work writing lots of scripts. To develop and analyze at a high level does not use the same part of the brain that writes."
After LaFauve sent "The Cavanaughs" to development executive Mary Coleman at Pixar, she and Morgan found themselves in the Pixar brain trust room where John Lassenter and Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich give notes. "I thought it was the most thrilling and frightening thing to imagine those great storytellers reading my work," she said, and I wanted to get in that room somehow. It was a beacon."
While LaFauve often felt in the years to come that she was going backwards, she now sees that "everything I did enhanced my skill set," she said. "Morgan was an actor, he taught me how to play and explore and have fun," while studio Warner Bros. taught her about "thinking big. Every script I wrote taught me something."
Eventually she went up to Pixar to meet with director Pete Docter ("Up") who was a year and half into "Inside Out," his story inspired by his daughter about what goes on inside the head of an eleven-year-old girl: "They had lot of great elements and five emotions, but the story was not coming together." She and Docter clicked. "I was really excited about the profound idea he had about Joy teaming up with Sadness and realizing that’s what connects us."
So LeFauve started working with Docter, co-director Ronny del Carmen and head of story Josh Cooley to find a new story, asking many questions to dig down into what Docter wanted. LeFauve was able to bring her own life experience as a woman and a parent to the personal conversations in the writer's room.
"All four of us were remembering what it was like when we were 11," she said, "or when we were parents. Everyone is participating at that level. It’s about driving toward the best story and characters. For me as a writer you have to make it personal, even though I don’t own it, it's Pete's movie. When Sadness sits down with Bingbong and asks him how he’s feeling, I remembered being at preschool helping kids to regulate their emotions. It's everything you've learned. Or when Riley comes home and says 'you want me to be happy but I'm not,' that's what I wanted to say to my parents when I was 11."
And yes, she had the nerve-wracking experience of meeting on her first day with the brain trust as Lasseter and Stanton gave notes. "I had learned working with Jody that when sitting with genius your first job is to listen. They are there to help and give notes and perspective. At some point I had a question and raised my hand and asked it. The brain trust experience was everything I had hoped it would be with this level of storytellers, as thrilling and scary as it is for very filmmaker at Pixar who goes into that room."
She remembers Stanton talking about the stakes of movie, as things start to feel desperate: "It's like a disaster movie." "That was a great way to look at it, in terms of plotting and stakes, as things are falling apart and there's a real emotional need to stop it," she said. "Having those people giving you notes is an important part of the process, as it is for any writer to get that kind of feedback on your work."
What's next: LeFauve is working with producer Ally Shearmur ("Cinderella") on a Disney live action movie about witches starring Tina Fey, as well as the first Marvel movie with a female superhero, "Captain Marvel," which she is just starting to write with "Guardians of the Galaxy" writer Nicole Perlman. "She’s smart and an amazing stylist," said LeFauve, "with incredible knowledge of the Marvel canon. Captain Marvel is a very powerful superhero. She's basically like Superman, part alien."
Does she worry about how men will react to such a powerful woman? "You have those thoughts," LeFauve said. "But Nicole and I are storytellers. We have to find the best story. You can’t write from that part of your brain, but from the part of you that plays and has fun. Nicole and I have committed ourselves to have fun. You gotta have fun, man!"