A Conversation With Alec Sokolow

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By Stephen J. Kotz

The screenwriter Alec Sokolow, who co-wrote “Toy Story,” the first computer-generated animated film with his long-time writing partner, Alec Cohen, talks about the film and the Sag Harbor Cinema restoration project.

“Toy Story” has been included in the Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center’s “American Values” series, joining films like “All the President’s Men” and “Casablanca.” Isn’t that heady company for an animated feature?

There are serious themes in “Toy Story.” Go back to “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” the oldest recorded story that’s ever told. It’s ultimately a buddy story. In the case of Gilgamesh, he learns the importance of friendship and camaraderie, that they are more important than selfishness, empire building and war. Buddy stories are a wonderful template to explore certain themes about community and core human needs. There’s also a sort of Cain and Abel idea, a Biblical kind of idea, two toys and one boy: What’s the real value? We’re better together than we are apart. Then you’ve got Woody, who is a cowboy, and Buzz Lightyear, who’s a spaceman. Those are two classic American archetypes.

So I take it, you like the film?

Absolutely. The movie is a life-and-career defining moment for me. Like a lot of things in life, you don’t realize it when it’s happening. You only realize it afterward. But I stand in awe that somehow I was involved in the birth of that film, which has stood the test of time. The characters are well defined and the themes are well defined.

Isn’t Sid a dark villain for a children’s movie?

One of the key moments is when Andy’s toys look out the window and see Sid blow up an army toy. It was important to establish this early in the film as the ultimate evil for a toy.

In “Star Wars,” there’s a moment when Darth Vader and the Death Star blow up a planet, and you get to see that through Luke and Princess Leia’s eyes. We stole that idea for Sid. So, if you look at him purely as a function of Buzz and Woody’s needs as characters, he was the perfect villain, but yes, very dark in his underpinnings.

Why did you have the toys reveal their hidden lives to Sid?

We had long debates about what the rules were with the film. One of them was the toys are alive and functional only when the humans can’t see them. And can you break any rules and if so, how many times? We decided we could do it once. So at the very end, Woody looks at Sid and talks to him. Think if Sid was an actual human being and he had the experience of a toy talking to him and he had to go back to his family and try to explain!

What does the Sag Harbor Partnership’s cinema project mean to you?

I so loved that horrible, old, stinky movie theater. I so loved that place, and the fire was such a shock. It was just such a loss to me. When I moved here full time, that theater was one of the places I knew to give me comfort — the movies that were going to show up there, the foreign movies, the independent movies, that Sag Harbor had this funky little cultural place that had this crazy cultural history. It was just so sad.

And now I look at what April [Gornik] and the group have done. Even from the peanut gallery where I sit, I’m just in awe of it. There is this heartbeat of culture in Sag Harbor. I feel it as a writer. I feel it as a person. I feel that Sag Harbor is just oddly funkier and cooler than some of the other surrounding towns because of its history and its culture. Now, there’s an opportunity to show the movies that might not get screened elsewhere. The idea I can be part of this in the smallest way that helps get that theater back up and running is really cool to me. It hits at my core.

“Toy Story” will be shown as part of the Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center’s “American Values” series at Pierson High School at 2 p.m. on Saturday. Mr. Sokolow will be on hand to answer questions about the film. Admission is free. For more information, visit sagharborcinema.org .

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