The day after putting away their Halloween costumes, USC students had the privilege of meeting the creator of some of the Halloween world’s most popular fictional characters: Jack Skellington and Edward Scissorhands.
On Tuesday, screenwriter Caroline Thompson paid a visit to the Ray Stark Family Theater, a feature of School of Cinematic Art’s “Writing Presents…” series. The theater was jam-packed with adoring fans and aspiring film writers as Thompson was interviewed by Professor Mary Sweeney of SCA’s Screenwriting Department.
During the event, Thompson, who helped write The Nightmare Before Christmas, Edward Scissorhands and Black Beauty, shed light on her career.
“I always wanted to be a writer even before I was a reader or a movie watcher,” Thompson said. “I’m not quite sure why, but I always knew that it was what I wanted to do.”
Thompson’s screenplays are distinguished for their gothic elements, such as characters who don’t belong and storylines that don’t typically conform to the Hollywood ideal. In Corpse Bride, Victor is transported to the Land of the Dead where he nearly marries a dead bride-to-be. In Edward Scissorhands, a character with scissors for hands tries to adjust to life in sunny suburbia. In Homeward Bound, a remake of The Incredible Journey, a group of abandoned household animals tries to find its way back home.
Though Thompson’s movies have unique plots, they all feature similar underdog characters — an idea Thompson is drawn to.
“My mission on this planet is to tell people what it feels like to be a dog,” Thompson said, “That means what it feels like to live in a world that’s not made for you, and that’s sort of what I love to write about. It’s that feeling of being left out.”
After graduating from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and Amherst University, Thompson moved to Los Angeles to begin a literary career. She wrote her first novel, First Born, in 1983, and later worked with director Penelope Spheeris to adapt the story for the big screen.
Moved by the director’s work on the documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, Thompson built a close relationship with Spheeris, and ultimately discovered her passion for screenwriting. Though First Born was never turned into a movie, Thompson found a new avenue for her creativity.
Shortly after working with Spheeris, Thompson wrote Edward Scissorhands. Working with composer Danny Elfman and director Tim Burton, who was also just beginning to work in the film industry, Thompson drafted a plot for a protagonist with scissors for hands based on some high school drawings Burton had shown her.
“I thought that was the stupidest f–king thing I ever heard,” Thompson said, reflecting on Tim Burton’s drawings. “And I knew it was genius. It lends itself to so many layers of understanding and misunderstanding in the world.”
After working on Edward Scissorhands, Thompson crafted screenplays for The Addams Family, Homeward Bound, The Secret Garden and, later, one of the most popular animated films of all time, The Nightmare Before Christmas, where she again joined forces with Burton and Elfman.
Following The Nightmare Before Christmas, Thompson had her directorial debut with Black Beauty. Thompson wanted more freedom with her writing and used the success of Homeward Bound as leverage to direct her next film. As a writer who preferred solitary work, she ultimately found that taking a role as a people-friendly director was difficult.
“I found that parts of my personality that I had no idea existed came out while I was directing,” Thompson said. “I love prep, and the cutting room and mixing stage, but I just didn’t like the floor. You hear a lot of stories about writers wanting to direct, but there are a couple of ironies.”
Though she found her temperament was unsuitable for directing, Thompson’s screenwriting career still soared. She wrote scripts for Buddy, the Hallmark version of Snow White, Corpse Bride (where she again worked with Burton and Elfman) and City of Embers.
Finally, in 2006, she founded an online blog “Small and Creepy Things” with partners Steve Nicolaides and Micah Van Hove, where filmmakers and photographers post dark yet poignant art in a Tumblr-esque fashion.
“My husband and I were overwhelmed by the proliferation of material for the web and we thought, ‘If we can make a venue for our sensibility and that of others and showcase the work of young filmmakers, that would be a really cool thing to do,’” Thompson said.
Before ending her visit at USC, Thompson gave advice for the aspiring screenwriters in the audience.
“Truly it is not worth writing anything if it doesn’t come from inside you,” Thompson said. “There’s a sort of cynical attitude out there that, ‘Let’s give the studio what they want because I want to get my movie made.’ Well, what they want today is not what they’re going to want next week. It’s kind of soul-draining on a writer’s part to think you can give them what they want when they don’t know what they want.”
Thompson’s next projects are adaptations of Melissa Marr’s bestselling Wicked Lovely series and Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita for the silver screen.