In The Emoji Movie, we meet a smart phone-obsessed teenaged boy named Alex (Jake T. Austin), as he sits in history class at school. The lesson is on Egyptian hieroglyphics. When the teacher asks if the ancient picture-based writing system is similar to anything in our current culture, the kids can’t quite make the connection to emojis – our own modern way of expressing sentiment through pictograms on our phones. Luckily, the audience makes the connection and it conjures a big laugh.
There are many laughs in The Emoji Movie, especially as the simplistic, two-dimensional images get anthropomorphized by taking on voices, personalities, arms and legs. Sir Patrick Stewart voices the poop emoji and his proud chant with his son, Poop Jr. (Jude Kouyate),“We’re number two! We’re number two!” is hilarious.
Beyond the witty jokes is a story about the Meh emoji (T.J. Miller), struggling to fit in and carve out his own identity. We sat down with Eric Siegel, who wrote the film along with director Tony Leondis and additional writer Mike White. John Hoffman is also credited with adding additional screenplay material and doing a polish.
“Tony [Leondis] and I came up with the idea together in April of 2013. We happened to be neighbors, but we didn’t know each other very well before we started working together. We have a mutual friend in Kristine Belson, who runs Sony Pictures Animation. Tony and I worked on it for three or four months, then took it out as a pitch and Sony bought it.”
It was clearly the right idea at the right time. To come up with the actual story, Siegel said he and Leondis literally just looked at their phones.
“We realized that every emoji just makes one expression – the smiling emoji is always smiling. The frowning emoji is always frowning. But what happens to the guy or girl who can’t make the face they’re supposed to make and has more feelings than just one? So it’s really about what it means to be your authentic self and not be constrained by other people’s expectation about what you’re supposed to be.”
Sometimes the big money idea is literally right at your fingertips.
After Leondis and Siegel wrote a draft, Mike White wrote another draft in 2016. Siegel admits he never read White’s draft, but said the story is still the same.
Like many screenwriters, Siegel started out in front of the camera. Living in New York, both Siegel and his wife Anna Belknap were working theater and television actors. When his wife was cast as a regular on a TV series, they both headed to Hollywood. Siegel decided to start writing as he waited to establish himself as a West Coast actor. He connected with an old friend from high school named Eric Wasserman and the two became writing partners.
“We wrote a movie script that people responded to, then we wrote some television samples and we ended up getting work in television.”
Despite never going to film school, Siegel had spent his life reading plays, which he credits as what prepared him to be a writer.
“I knew a lot about dramatic structure and different types of theatrical forms from being an actor. Speaking dialogue helps you develop an ear for dialogue. Another thing that helped me was working for a film producer right after college and reading a ton of screenplays. So I have this sort of weird, self-made crash-course in screenwriting that was never directly the result of studying screenwriting.”
Siegel says one of the most important things any writer can do is pick the movies they love and read them. It also helps with confidence. “We’re always full of self-doubt and wishing we were better than we are. One of the things I try to do is read the work of people who are better than me.”
Siegel does have one regret about The Emoji Movie. “I think I didn’t enjoy the process enough because I spent a lot of time being anxious about it.”
Siegel admits he uses emojis in his own life but that his palette is very limited. “I use thumb’s up, hearts and heart-eye guy. The only person I text is my wife, and we text each other silly, sappy emojis.”
We give The Emoji Movie a hands-clapping emoji. The film opens July 28.