Where They Are Now

The road to Despicable Me

A veteran screenwriter reveals the secret of writing comedy.

Julie Brown

Julie Brown

Cinco Paul ’86 and his writing partner Ken Daurio wrote Despicable Me, The Santa Clause 2, The Secret Life of Pets—and “a bunch of scripts that never got made.” View full image

Cinco Paul ’86 was known at Yale for, among other things, playing the ukulele. He’s now a Hollywood screenwriter specializing in animated children’s films. Among his biggest hits are Horton Hears a Who—an adaptation of the Dr. Seuss book—and Despicable Me, about a supervillain who turns out to be not such a bad guy. His next movie, The Secret Life of Pets, opened this summer. 

Y: Tell me about your transition from Yale English major to Important Screenwriter.

P: After graduation, I went on a mission [for the Mormon Church] to Japan for two years, got married, and worked in an ad agency. Then I got into film school at USC and got a master’s in screenwriting.

Y: What was your big break?

P: I sold a script on spec for $275,000—in those days you could do that—which was a big contrast to the 12 grand a year I was making writing furniture jingles at the ad agency. It was a comedy about a doctor entrusted with an heirloom ring. He accidentally sews it inside a patient, and in the process of getting it out, he falls in love with her. It never got made. 

Y: How did you meet your writing partner, Ken Daurio?

P: He was cast in a musical I wrote for the church. We formed a band, The Otter Pops. I had a movie idea and thought we should write the script together. 

Y: A lot of your screenplays did not become films, and the first one that did, Bubble Boy, was not a success at all. How did you bounce back?

P: Bubble Boy was a failure in every possible way. But we had finally written a script that had gotten made into a movie. Then Disney hired us to write a bunch of scripts that never got made. Then they brought us in to do The Santa Clause 2, and that was very successful.

Y: Why do you prefer working in animated films?

P: Comedy on the big screen has almost disappeared, in part because international dollars are so important. Animated movies are one of the last places you’ll find it. We love the fact that we can do movies that are for everybody and that they are watched over and over again. There’s something fun about knowing that a generation is growing up on Despicable Me.

Y: What’s it like writing with a partner?

P: We’ll outline the movie and make assignments—which ones are Ken scenes, which are Cinco scenes. We have the same sense of humor, but Ken is more visually oriented, and I’m more verbally oriented. A lot of times he’ll do the action scenes and I’ll get the emotional ones. There’s a real economy of writing in screenwriting. When you start off you overwrite, and the more experienced you are, the more you realize that less is more. In comedy, the way you make it funny is mostly just by cutting out the stuff that isn’t funny.

Y: Tell me about The Secret Life of Pets.

P: Our initial take was pets caught up in a Rear Window kind of plot where they witnessed the murder of a little old lady. And then it became a North by Northwest–type thriller. But it was difficult to sustain those plots. The big concept is, “What do our pets do when we’re away? They go on big adventures.”

Y: Do you still play the ukulele?

P: I could never quit playing the ukulele. 

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