Stephany Folsom shapes Pixar’s bold and brilliant sequel

July 11, 2019 Danny Munso

For your reading pleasure, please enjoy this excerpt from our interview with Toy Story 4 screenwriter Stephany Folsom from the latest issue of Backstory.


When its flagship franchise was in trouble, Pixar called Stephany Folsom. While it’s true that every film the juggernaut animated studio produced has included a moment of crisis—we know this because of the studio’s amazing willingness to be so open about its creative process—the stakes were different this time around. If you’re going to make Toy Story 4, you have to get it exactly right, particularly given the already perfect ending crafted for the series at the end of Toy Story 3.

Yet the first few years of development for Toy Story 4 was a struggle. That’s where Folsom entered. She had recently finished work for two of the other tentpole Disney companies – she did work for Lucasfilm on the animated Star Wars Resistance and for Marvel Studios on Thor: Ragnarok – and showed up on Pixar’s radar even earlier than that thanks to her acclaimed 2013 Black List script 1969 A Space Odyssey: Or How Kubrick Learned to Stop Worrying and Land on the Moon. (Pixar’s head of development Mary Coleman has found writers for the studio through the Black List before including Finding Dory co-writer Victoria Strouse.) Folsom flew up to Pixar’s campus in Emeryville, CA and met with director Josh Cooley and producer Jonas Rivera to discuss the status of the script and where they were hoping to take the project. A few days later, she was informed she got the job and then was thrown into the proverbial deep end. Her first story meeting for the movie took place in front of the famed Pixar brain trust which includes past directors like Pete Doctor (who now runs the studio), Andrew Stanton, Brad Bird, Lee Unkrich and others. “They said here’s the treatment and here are some ideas we’re playing with and let’s just brainstorm for a few hours,” Folsom laughs. “I thought wow, they’re asking for ideas off the top of my head for the greatest film franchise of all time. I just kept telling myself to play it cool.”

The first question on Folsom’s mind was one that haunted the idea of Toy Story 4 throughout its development: Why make it at all? The ending of Toy Story 3 is one of the most lauded in the history of cinema. Why taint that legacy with a fourth entry? The answer stems from one of the men most responsible for the franchise—Stanton, who felt there was still an important story to tell. Before he helmed Pixar classics Finding Nemo, its blockbuster sequel and WALL-E, Stanton co-wrote the scripts for Toy Story and Toy Story 2 and helped craft the arc of the overall trilogy. He felt so strongly about the need for a fourth film that the whole project began with a treatment he wrote himself. Once Folsom read that treatment, she agreed a fourth film would be a necessary entry for the series, no matter the pressure that would be on them as they tried to top 3. “I looked at it as a challenge—it made myself and the team put our best foot forward because the bar is so high,” she says. “We had to surpass that. It was this unspoken understanding that was weighing on all of us in a good way, because it challenged us to make the best story out of Andrew’s lovely treatment.”

And yet somewhere in the film’s gestating development, Stanton’s initial story began to morph. His treatment detailed a tale about Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) setting off on a journey to reunite with long-lost love Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who appeared in the first two films but was inexplicably absent in the third. The film’s credits tell the development history better than any detailed explanation ever could. Though only Folsom and Stanton are noted for penning the screenplay, eight writers are credited as contributing to the final story, including Pixar’s ousted head John Lasseter, indie filmmaker Martin Hynes and writing partners Rashida Jones and Will McCormack. Along with the other story writers and Rivera, they formed the core team that would craft the final version of Toy Story 4. Folsom, Cooley, head of story Valerie LaPointe and Stanton floated in and out in a sort of, as Folsom puts it, godfather role. “He was the keeper of Toy Story knowledge because it’s so much a part of who he is and part of his DNA, since he was there for the creation of it,” she says. “We were able to pull from him all the history and everything we needed to go about this story, including a lot of motivations for characters and things that weren’t shown in the movies. That helped us dig a little deeper.”

Given that Folsom had never worked in animation, there was a bit of a learning curve in digesting the Pixar process. After she or Stanton worked on a scene, they would hand it off to a story artist to draw their own version of it, including the freedom to “plus” anything they desire or add jokes of their own. “It’s almost like boot camp for a writer,” Folsom recalls. “You’re with a lot of story artists that can do drawings very quickly but don’t quite understand that it takes you a little longer to type up what they need to do the drawings. It’s an open dialogue of, Okay, this wasn’t what I was thinking, but let’s talk about what you added here, so in a weird way you’re organically building this thing out of both the scripts and the drawings.”

One thing they built on was the expansion of Bo Peep, who was Woody’s love interest in the original film but has been otherwise underutilized in the franchise. In Toy Story 4, the porcelain beauty really gets a chance to shine. Woody finds her early in the film after she had been given away to charity and discovers that she landed in an antique store from which she soon escaped. Aghast, he deems Bo a lost toy, which in the first movie was the worst thing imaginable. This is a nice toss to the original, where Woody and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) get separated from their little boy owner, Andy (John Morris). To Woody’s great surprise, Bo is actually thriving as a lost toy, enjoying a sense of unbridled freedom, and it begins to make him see his own life from a different perspective. Folsom crafted and shaped the concept in part out of a horrible loss in her own life. Her mother had passed away suddenly not long before she began working on the film. “I was trying to redefine myself in the face of this loss and the world not making sense anymore,” she says. “I pulled a lot of that into Bo’s character. What do you do when the world hands you a tragedy, and how do you not become a victim? I was projecting my own personal journey onto her a little bit.” She credits LaPointe with helping to shape this thematic concept in a major way. “I think it’s a struggle women face in general. How do you deal with a society that projects certain things on you when you’re not feeling like you’re that on the inside? How do you define who you are in a culture that’s not always that kind to you? That’s where it’s coming from. I don’t think it’s just a female story, either. Everyone can relate to that. When something bad happens to you, you have the choice of whether it empowers you and takes you in a new direction or you just let it consume you.” Folsom and LaPointe were liberated to shape Bo’s narrative in this way because although Bo is present in the first two films, she is largely a blank canvas. She has a few interactions with Woody but is largely not fleshed out. “It was very freeing. So many of the characters, everyone in the world knows them inside and out, so there were boundaries and only certain places you could go with them. But Bo was a little bit of an open book. We could write whatever we wanted about her because she’d just had these brief charming moments with Woody. It was an opportunity to really expand that friendship and relationship in a beautiful way.”

Though the writers had complete autonomy with Bo, other characters presented major story challenges because they were so well known. Chief among them is Buzz, the franchise’s co-lead who could have easily been lost in the shuffle under a Woody-centric story. Folsom admits they struggled with finding a key role for Buzz to play in the film, yet they knew it wouldn’t be a Toy Story film without him having a large presence. “It was a complete concern for a long time,” she says. “Buzz isn’t with Woody for a lot of this movie. Woody is a friend he’s always looked to for guidance and leadership, and Woody is faltering at the beginning of the movie [in the wake of being given to Bonnie by Andy]. So what does that mean for Buzz? How does Buzz feel in their new arrangement [with Bonnie], and is he comfortable?” She gives kudos to Stanton for the key breakthrough in the space ranger’s story. “Andrew came up with Buzz and his inner voice. That helped us unlock what he was going through internally.” In the film, Buzz is struggling without Woody yet finds his inner voice in the form of a built-in voicebox that he begins to use for guidance. Several decisions made by the voice lead Buzz to his own journey that finds him meeting with Woody halfway through the movie. And as is apparent by the end of the film, Buzz’s realization that he can get along without Woody’s help is a major development for the character. “We liked seeing him not being so codependent. Woody had been Buzz’s internal voice and he was no longer able to be that for him. He was searching for leadership and guidance but all along he just needed to listen to himself.”

A new character who gets the most screen time—and is a catalyst for the entire plot—is Forky (Tony Hale), a spork with glued-on eyes, arms and legs made by Bonnie on her first day of kindergarten. Thinking he is trash, Forky keeps trying to dispose of himself, and Woody is the only toy that recognizes how important Forky is to Bonnie and takes it upon himself to be his protector. Forky existed when Folsom came aboard, but he was more of a one-off joke. As she, Stanton and the team were digging deeper into Woody’s psyche, they found a better use for the character. At the beginning of Toy Story 4, Andy was dependent on Woody in a way Bonnie is not, and he sees his relationship with Andy in the one forming between Bonnie and Forky. So when Forky gets away, he knows how crucial it is he return him to Bonnie. “We kept running into the issue of what’s going on with Woody is an internal existential crisis,” she says. “So Forky was a way to make his internal crisis external. He is the embodiment of Woody’s existential crisis.” Forky also helped Folsom solve a structural issue she was having. “Bonnie is not physically present in most of the story because Woody has to go out on his own. There needed to be some way that what Bonnie stood for could be present on his journey even though she wasn’t physically there. So Forky morphed into this much-needed device in order to really articulate Woody’s journey and what he was struggling with.”

Writers who have penned projects for Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm usually don’t stay out of work too long, and Folsom is no different, though she prefers not to say exactly what she’s penning at the moment. “My life is one big NDA,” she laughs. “It’s so ridiculous. I can say I’m working on several big properties that I can’t talk about and that I’m employed.” Even though Marvel insisted that she should, the WGA didn’t award Folsom credit for helping to write Ragnarok, so although she has forged a career as a working writer, it may be a surprise to hear that Toy Story 4 is Folsom’s first actual feature credit. This much is certain: It will not be her last.

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