When Pixar first started working on “Wall-E” several years ago, the studio considered making the animated movie -- about a lovable robot on a future Earth -- without any dialogue at all. As the film’s screenplay evolved, a few talking humans dropped in, but “Wall-E” is still distinguished by what isn’t said, particularly in the movie’s opening act.
Although the film’s countless actions speak much louder than its few words, “Wall-E” is based on a fully formed script, nominated for the original screenplay Oscar.
“That was huge,” the film’s director, Andrew Stanton, who shares his screenwriting nomination with Jim Reardon and Pete Docter, says of the Academy Award recognition. “Because there’s still this lingering, knee-jerk response that animation is a subgenre or that it’s easier than live action.”
It is nevertheless Pixar’s fifth time in the original screenplay category, with earlier nominations for “Toy Story,” “Finding Nemo,” “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille.”
As a page of “Wall-E’s” nominated screenplay dramatizes, an animated script can be a complex document, particularly when you don’t have nouns and verbs to help explain a character’s feelings. The beeps in “Wall-E,” particularly, are not random sounds -- in fact, a look at the script shows that each beep can be translated into a specific line of dialogue. “Every sound he makes carries some meaning,” says Ben Burtt, who provided Wall-E’s voice design and was the film’s supervising sound editor.
Few of “Wall-E’s” scenes are as critical as what unfolds on page 16, the first time that the film’s lead characters share a romantic moment.
A sandstorm has driven Wall-E, a garbage-compacting robot, back into his truck, where he has brought the plant-searching Eve, whom he has just met, for safety. Wall-E shows her around his lair, which is crammed with pop-culture artifacts (a Rubik’s Cube, for example) that not only summon up Earth’s distant past but also illustrate Wall-E’s playful personality, as well as Eve’s advanced intellect (she solves it in seconds).
“To me, this scene was trying to capture what a first date is all about,” says Stanton, who imagines that Wall-E is the automaton equivalent of a 13-year-old boy, while Eve is the alluring college freshman. “They are meeting each other and becoming aware of the more subtle aspects of the other person. The whole gestalt of her is foreign to him -- how mysterious women are to men. They always seem more refined, they always seem more intelligent, they always seem more into it.”
More important, the brief scene had to establish Wall-E’s essential desire, which anchors the film’s emotional center until its final frames: that he wants to hold Eve’s hand.
“In his world, that is the equivalent of saying, ‘I love you,’ ” Stanton says, which is why the videotape clip of “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” from “Hello, Dolly!” is critical (Pixar cleared rights to 20th Century Fox’s movie early in the process). “Wall-E has learned visually from watching the movie what love is -- and that is holding hands.”
It’s not just the absence of dialogue that makes the “Wall-E” script so unusual. Most screenplays cram all of their stage directions into a dense block of type, a paragraph of instructions that many readers (from actors to studio executives) often skip past. Stanton felt the stage directions were inseparable from the implied dialogue and wanted to make sure they stood out. So he pulled out the script for 1979’s “Alien,” which broke its sci-fi action into one-sentence declarations. “It makes you appreciate all of the beats,” Stanton says.
As in any good script, the early “Wall-E” scene hints at some of what’s to come, and Eve’s memories of the first date affect how she behaves later in the film, especially when she has to mend a heavily damaged Wall-E. That’s why the scene includes Wall-E’s fixing his ruined eye and then playing with it like a Slinky.
“We knew that later in the movie he would be broken to the point of the edge of repair,” Stanton says. “So we had to make sure you were not going to forget the whole moment of repairing his eye. Because I don’t have dialogue, I have to make every action memorable.”
Ultimately, the first-date scene had to make viewers not only care about the characters but also give them a rooting interest in their being together forever. Furthermore, the scene had to make it clear that they were two halves of a whole and needed each other to complete themselves.
“It’s never explained, and I never wanted to explain it, but he wonders what life is all about,” Stanton says of Wall-E. “Eve is technically more developed, but when it comes to life, he knows more than she does. He is the keeper of the flame of what the point of living is -- to love one another.”
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How it looks on the page
An excerpted section of page 16 from the “Wall-E” script illustrates the screenplay’s interesting use of implied dialogue as well as its unusual stage direction.
[Come on in.]
She drifts through the sea of knicknacks.
Becomes spooked by a SINGING BILLY BASS FISH.
Threatens to shoot it, but Wally calms her down.
He is compelled to show her everything.
Hands her an eggbeater . . .
. . . bubble wrap (so infectious to pop) . . .
. . . a lightbulb (lights when she holds it) . . .
. . . the Rubik’s Cube (she solves in immediately) . . .
. . . his Hello Dolly tape.
Curious, she begins unspooling the tape.
He grabs it back. Protective.
Inserts it carefully into the VCR. Please still work.
The movie eventually appears on the TV.
Plays a clip of POYSC.
Wally is relieved.
[What do you think?]
Mimics the dancing for Eve.
Encourages her to try.
She clumsily hops up and down.
Makes dents in the floor. Rattles everything.
Wally politely stops her.
[How ‘bout we try a different move?]
Spins in a circle. Arms out.
Spins faster, and faster . . .
Accidently strikes Wally. He flies into the shelves.
Eve helps him up from the mess.
Wally’s LEFT BINOCULAR EYE falls off.
Dangles from two wires.
Eve GASPS with concern.
Wally placates her.