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Who is Jennifer Lee?

jennifer leeLast week, Frozen became the top-grossing Disney film of all time. Bigger than The Lion King. Bigger than Finding Nemo. $1 billion big! Little girls everywhere are singing “Let it Go” and standing in line 6 hours to see Princesses Elsa and Anna.

 

Did you catch the movie’s closing credits? Jennifer Lee is all over them. Jennifer Lee, Director. Jennifer Lee, Writer. So I had to know – Who is she? Where did she come from?

 

I’ve got a good story for you. It kind of reminds me of what Tony Hsieh said about serendipity: “Meet lots of different people without trying to extract value from them. You don’t need to connect the dots right away.”

 

Jennifer Lee spent her twenties working as a graphic artist in NYC before she was accepted to the Columbia Film School. There she met another writer, Phil Johnson. They were about 10 years older than the average student, married, and “driven, because they were both paying for it.” Flash forward a few years, Phil calls up Jennifer to help him co-write another Disney film (Wreck-it Ralph).

 

It was only intended to be an 8-week gig, but the Ralph producer likes Lee and passes her on to the Frozen producer, and…

 

Lee ends up writing the screenplay and co-directing Frozen, becoming the first female director at Disney. (The company’s 91 years old. I wondered that too.)

 

Serendipity.

 

That’s what I love about this story. Lee wasn’t born into Disney, slogging away invisibly for years until she was given some mediocre role on Frozen as a reward for her tenure. No. She took the small assignment she was given and turned it into a really big deal. She showed up and kicked ass. She was authentic with people, built enduring relationships, stayed true to her vision and also proved a master at keeping the team on track.

 

How? Here’s something everyone who has ever written a creative brief can appreciate:

 

“… But usually the foundation of a film is on one great idea. I always think if you can’t speak clearly to your vision, then you don’t have it yet. And when you don’t have it yet, you’re going to expect a lot of notes, and you should listen, because usually it’s about honing that idea.

 

On Frozen, we knew it was going to have something to do with an act of true love. We knew it was going to be a different kind of look at love. We knew the sisters were going to be there, but we didn’t know how we were telling the story.

 

It wasn’t until I went back to the original story and said, you know, the most exciting thing about this to me is the concept of the power of love over fear. I said, Anna represents love and Elsa represents fear, and this is how we play that out in the film. Everyone got it and everyone was on board. Until I articulated that, there was a lot of: What if? What if?, they’d throw around the room. And then once we said it, we put it up on the board, and we never let it go. So it’s about letting it be a little muddy and gray at times, when, you know, you lose all the color, and then you find it again. (Fast Company, February 2014)

 

Getting people to buy into her idea, blasting through the typical someday-my-prince-will-come Disney fairy tale is what makes Frozen different and better than films before it. The love story isn’t about a prince but the bond between sisters. And also the rivalry, competition, envy and rejection between them… All things that siblings can easily relate to. It was a gamble to make these the central themes and not cave to the 91-yr old Disney formula.

 

There. That’s who Jennifer Lee is.

 

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