UglyDolls interview: Screenwriter Alison Peck on teaching kids big words and not to follow cult leaders

The UglyDolls are here!
Courtesy of STXfilms

I had not heard of UglyDolls before they got their own movie, but I think I’m into them now. The UglyDolls were rejected by the factory and live in Uglyville. Moxy (Kelly Clarkson) is the one who still wants to venture into the Big World and be a child’s toy.

Her journey takes he to Perfection, where Lou (Nick Jonas) trains dolls to be perfect. Lou may have met his match in the UglyDolls.

Alison Peck wrote UglyDolls. Peck went to USC and studied screenwriting at undergrad film school, and wrote the script from a story by Robert Rodriguez.

Peck spoke with Monsters and Critics about writing UglyDolls and her next film, a dance movie called Work It produced by Alicia Keys. UglyDolls is in theaters Friday, May 3.

Ugly is in the eye of the beholder. Courtesy of STX

Monsters & Critics: Did you meet with Robert Rodriguez about any previous work he had done?

Alison Peck: No, I mostly met with the studio. I had worked with them on another project that’s coming out, a dance movie that Alicia Keys was producing called Work It and so I had experience with the studio.

And then Kelly Asbury, the director, was hired a little bit after I came aboard so I was sort of in between the two.

M&C: What story elements had Robert already come up with?

AP: I think that he was primarily responsible for the world, the characters, kind of really finding the vision of the story that we were going to tell and the message of that .Beyond that, I’m not sure what were his specific things. I really focused on the nitty gritty of the story.

M&C: Who is the overlord of this factory that sends dolls to Uglyville and others onto Perfection?

AP: That is Lou voiced by Nick Jonas. He really is the villain of the movie and the faction who is upholding the standard of Perfection, this really almost unattainable level of trying to be perfect in this doll world and then in the real world as well.

Lou (Nick Jonas) is all style and no substance. Courtesy of STX Films

M&C: Lou must have a boss too, whoever created the factory.

AP: I think he’s the boss of it all. It’s a fun question that we did definitely discuss of who created all of this. I think it’s a mystery that maybe we’ll hopefully get to explore in the sequel.

M&C: Did you indicate where songs would go or have any say in the direction of the music?

AP: Yes, I was really fortunate to be able to work closely with the songwriters, so we went back and forth a bit on okay, this feels like a good place for the songs, and also with the producers as well.

This feels like a good place for a song. It should get across this message, so I would talk to the songwriters. Then send me their lyrics and I would adjust accordingly and go back and forth, which is a really fun, collaborative process I really enjoyed.

The UglyDolls frequently burst into song.
Courtesy of STXfilms

M&C: A lot of these children’s stories involve authority figures trying to prevent the main characters from discovering the truth and being disappointed, as if accepting the status quo isn’t disappointing already, right?

AP: Right, that’s true. It’s interesting. It’s kind of like the question of even being a parent, what things should you protect your children from? What things should you protect others from? Or should you just let them figure these things out?

I think in especially movies, the message usually is it’ll do more harm than good lying to someone to protect them even if it’s for a good intention.

M&C: And as if disappointment can be prevented? If you don’t get what you want, you have to experience that

AP: That’s true, definitely. First of all, I think you’re always going to discover the truth anyway so preventing it is sort of a futile task. On the other hand, yeah. You have to experience those things for yourself. It’s the things that ultimately make you stronger.

M&C: Moxy and her friends existed without the concept of ugly before, even though they live in Uglyville. Was that fun to explore?

AP: It really was. We really play with the idea that in their mind, ugly is a good thing. I really loved that moment during Lou’s song and the aftermath of it, them discovering that ugly might be a bad thing.

I think that’s something everyone can relate to. We talked about this a lot in the development of this movie of that moment where you think you’re “normal” in some regard, and then you go to school, you go to someone else’s house and you realize the way I do things isn’t the way others do it.

I think everyone experiences some form of that so it was a really fun thing to play with because I think it’s very relatable.

Moxy (Kelly Clarkson) teaches Mandy (Janelle Monáe) her glasses are cool.
Courtesy of STXfilms

M&C: Is there a historical metaphor to Lou, this blonde leader who wants to create his master race of perfect dolls?

AP: [Laughs] Well, one of the touchstones that I really kept in mind was I thought of him as almost like a cult leader in a way. He’s very charismatic. He has all of these followers who are hanging on his every word.

We wanted to not make him a straight scary villain. We wanted to have some humor in it and I think we played with that a little bit in just how ludicrous it is, some of the things he’s saying and how everyone is hanging on his every word in that regard.

M&C: You pick up on how exhausting it is for people like Lou to maintain that. Who needs that?

AP: Yes, it’s very true. He definitely seems a little worse for wear by the end just trying to maintain this facade.

M&C: You also got in there the idea that “he bullies me because he likes me” which we’re only just starting to talk about why that’s a bad message.

AP: Yeah, I think it’s interesting. You don’t hear a lot of that facet of bullying but on some level, it’s easy to tell ourselves that’s the reason these things are happening so I think we wanted to play with the idea of how damaging that can actually be.

It’s more fun being Ugly, Courtesy of STXfilms

M&C: Was it important that UglyDolls be diverse with black, Asian and Latinx voices?

AP: Yes, we definitely wanted this to be as reflective of the world as possible and just to feel like everyone had a voice in this movie and this story because I think it’s a very universal message that we didn’t want to feel exclusive or like we were ignoring anyone of any background because it really is about celebrating differences. So it was really important for us to tell a very diverse story reflective of our world.

M&C: Sycophant is a pretty big word for kids. Are you hoping parents will explain it to their kids?

AP: We wanted this to be something that parents bringing their kids, people of all ages could really enjoy so I think we played with that a little bit and had the joke of, “Sycophant’s a good thing, right?” I think it will hopefully be funny for the adults watching.

M&C: Was there an UglyDolls boot camp to fill you in on the toys?

AP: Yes, definitely. It was fun because there were so many different characters. We had a lot of fun figuring out how much we were going to match the original intention of the personalities of the characters in the movie.

I think we stayed pretty true to the existing characters which was a really fun thing of imagining how would Wage fit into this world, for example? What’s her profession? What’s her personality? It was really fun to figure out that and using the original toys as the inspiration.

M&C: What is Work It?

AP: It’s a teen dance movie that Alicia Keys is producing along with Alloy for STX. It’s in the world of a Bring It On/Step Up meets Tracy Flick from Election, about a girl who is basically a Type A kind of clumsy nerd who is rejected from college because all she’s ever done is studied and focused on academics.

So to give herself a leg up, she’s going to transform herself into a graceful dancer and win the state competition. It’s kind of a fish out of water movie as well.

M&C: Like the music in UglyDolls, do you leave space for the dance choreography?

AP: In the script I wrote certain moves that were really important to tell the story in each of the choreographed dance parts, and then described the feeling that you should get from the number, how well she’s doing and the type of music. I can’t wait to see how the choreographer puts it all together.

M&C: How involved was Alicia Keys?

AP: So she is a producer on it. She, I think, will have a really big voice in especially the music which I think will be great and the dance components of it and the story as well. I’m really excited to work with her.

M&C: Did she have any notes for you on the world in which it takes place?

AP: I’ve been working a lot with her and her entire team so I think she’s really supportive of the vision that I had and I’m sure she’s going to be a great voice in this, especially going forward as well.

M&C: In a world where there’ve been five Step Up movies, how do you take dance to the next level?

AP: The characters in the movie, I tried really hard to make them exist in a world that Step Up also exists. So there are references to it so it’s kind of like a self-referential dance movie in a lot of ways.

So I think it’ll just feel kind of like the next generation of a really great dance movie that Step Up built upon.

M&C: What else are you working on?

AP: I have another female raunchy comedy that’s in development. I’m taking a lot of meetings and pitching. There’s some stuff I’m excited about that I cannot talk about yet but hopefully you’ll be hearing about them.

M&C: In success have they started thinking about where UglyDolls could go?

AP: I always have. From the moment I got on board, I started thinking, “Okay, where do we take this after that?” That’s just my own private thoughts. I would love this to be an entire universe so I’m really excited about that possibility.

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