An incredible amount of detail goes into writing animated films, particularly at Pixar: years of rewrites, then more rewrites when the voice artists are signed. David Reynolds, co-writer of Finding Nemo, gave a Page To Screen session at the London Screenwriters’ Festival in which he talked over a screening of the film to give some fascinating insider insights into its creation:
1. Marlin shows his wife Coral their new home. Andrew Stanton had written the original scene – they’re on the edge of the reef and Coral was so happy about their new home and Marlin was nervous. I said, what if we flip it? So that Marlin proudly says, “Did I find you a house or did I find you a house?” So now, when the barracuda comes, it’s his fault. That’s why he’s so nervous [for the rest of the film].
2. “You’re a clownfish, right? Tell us a joke.” Albert was hilarious, ad-libbing this really bad joke for five minutes. They originally had William H Macy who’s a fantastic actor and who was getting the laughs, but it just wasn’t working. So they got Albert Brooks instead, and he did some improv in a recording studio and was just great. So they said to me, take the script and rewrite every line to suit Albert Brooks. But one of the keys we learned early on was that Albert Brooks could not be allowed to be funny, after that opening. His son has been kidnapped, and I said you can’t stop and tell a joke.
3. Marlin tells Nemo not to swim out to the boat, and Nemo says “I hate you” just before being captured by a scuba-diver. The inspiration for the film was that Andrew kept saying to his own son “don’t climb on this”. He said, “I loved him so much I didn’t want to be a kid, I wrapped him in blubble-wrap.” And when Andrew was growing up he had a fishtank, and always wondered what the fish were doing. The last thing Nemo says to his father is “I hate you.” When he finally comes back, that’s the first thing he addresses. Apparently, boys watching the film are like “He’ll never find his son” whereas girls were like, “the Dad will find a way”.
4. They meet a fearsome shark called Bruce, who luckily is trying to give up eating other fish. The Pixar guys are movie junkies, they take a day off when a new James Bond movie comes out. It gets kind of geeky, but yes, Bruce the shark was named after what they called the mechanical shark when making Jaws.
5. They’re trapped by a submarine, and the diver’s mask they are chasing falls into a chasm. We just kept pushing the story, one impossible obstacle after another. Any one of those problems should have stopped him, but he’s looking for his son, so he just carries on.
6. They meet a school of fish that make shapes, with the voice of John Ratzenberg. John Ratzenberg is the Pixar good luck charm. John Lasseter will not make a movie without him, he’s superstitious that way.
7. The turtles take Marlin and his friend Dory surfing a current. Crush the turtle was voiced by Andrew, the director. We had wanted Sean Penn to do that voice from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. He came in and saw the movie at Pixar, but he wanted too much money, or something like that. We all thought Andrew was the better voice anyway.
8. Nemo is imprisoned in a dentist’s fish tank. Everyone at Pixar had this little joke on me: they wanted to surprise me at the premiere. They secretly recorded this bit, about a kid in a dentist’s chair, where the dentist goes, “Well well, if it isn’t little Davey Reynolds.” I was sitting in the premiere, and when that comes up I go “Whaaaat?!” And they all turn round and go “Gotcha!”
9. Dory, the fish with a hilariously short-term memory, is the first to find Nemo. “Really?” she says with delight, when he introduces himself. Then, “that’s such a nice name”, obviously having forgotten their whole quest! I snuck into a movie theatre showing the film and sat at the back, and at that bit I held my breath: could we pull this joke off again? The audience loved it.
10. They all live happily ever after under the sea. There was a point in the animation where they created sea flow and coral that looked so real, it was like a nature documentary. So they had to mess it up a bit. They didn’t want it to look real, but with cartoon fish!