In 1990, magazine cartoonist, William Steig published an original “fractured fairy tale” children’s book, “Shrek!”.
The story told the tale of a vile, ugly teenaged ogre who is (literally) kicked out of his Parents’ den and told to make a living for himself, scaring people. Shrek sets out to go off on an adventure, joined along his journey by a talking Donkey named.. Donkey. Upon braving the perils of a castle, he discovers that she, the Princess within, is just as ugly as he! The two then wed and have a hideous family together.
This unusual story prospect attracted the attention of famed director Steven Spielberg, who along with business associates Jefferey Katzenberg and David Geffen had formed an independent production company, Dreamworks (SKG), purchased the rights to the project, as an animated feature, with Bill Murray being considered as the voice of the title character, and Steve Martin as the voice of Donkey.
Budgeted at around $20 million, in 1994, the studio brought in what they dubbed “The Propellorheads”. A team of student nerds and hackers, which included a young J.J. Abrams, who submitted a rough story outline!
by Jeffrey Abrams
June 7, 1996
Shrek is a cocky, medieval slacker who gets kicked out of his home, ventures out, only to find out that he is the ugliest slacker in the world. Miserable, he meets Boatt, a scheming donkey that convinces him to go along with a crazy rumor that’s bogus that he’s actually a brave, handsome warrior wearing the most effective suit of armor ever fashioned. When Shrek begins to lie, he becomes the hero of a kingdom, and the apple of the reclusive Princess’ eye, because they believe he’s arrived to save them from the yearly Dragon assault. Threatened by Shrek is Lord Hamilton, who, as ruler of the Kingdom, has a secret alliance with the Dragon that keeps him in power. As the lies increase, so does the trouble, for Shrek, and the Kingdom. Finally, Shrek must face the truth, himself, and the Dragon..
See the slacker and his parents.
Shrek’s kick in the ass.
Parents kick him out.
Shrek heads off. A Witch helps him out.
In a new town, Shrek realizes he’s hideous.
Shrek’s One Good Idea
Shrek sees a Knight and decides that’s a good way to live.
Shrek tries to become a knight, but can’t. He’s miserable.
The Legend Begins
A peasant sees Shrek breathe fire, and begins a rumor that Shrek is a valiant knight wearling a frightening, fire breathing, suit of armor.
The Rumor Mill
We see the rumor spread, and a donkey named Boatt overhears it.
The Turning Point
The donkey, looking for a gig as a horse, finds Shrek, learns the truth, and convinces Shrek to use the lie to his advantage.
Meet Lord Hamilton
Evil Lord Hamilton learns about this brave knight, and is visibly worried. He threatens to stop this hero if he ever arrives.
Shrek Shows Up Side
Shrek arrives. When the townspeople realize he is the famous SHREK, they welcome him, believing he’s there to “do the great thing”
The Inn Crowd
Here we learn that a horrible dragonbeast shows up once a year, Lord Hamilton (like an evil Santa Claus) chooses who will fight (and lose) the battle. Shrek, loving his acceptance, agrees to do it, much to Boatt’s dismay.
Hamilton Gets the News
Hamilton learns about Shrek’s arrival and loses his mind.
Shrek Gets the Invite
The Princess calls for Shrek, he goes to see her, but can’t (she’s in a veiled throne, in hiding out of respect for her Father, who died battling the powerful beast years earlier). She wanted to meet the brave man who actually offered to fight the dragon.
I’d Like A Demo, Please
Shrek demonstrates his abilities, then, when prodded, answers the question “What do you look like under there?”, with the heartbreakingly funny song “How Handsome I Am Really”.
The Town Empowered – Hamilton Concerned.
Thanks to Shrek, the Kingdom has a color and energy that has been absent for years. Hamilton hates this. He goes to see the Dragon (revealing they are in cahoots). The Dragon demands that Hamilton learn whatever he can about Shrek.
Shrek On The Edge
Shrek, in a panic, decides to leave in the morning.
Shrek Like A Log
As Shrek sleeps, Hamilton sneaks in and removes Shrek’s mask, revealing that he is just an ugly, and cowardly, man!
Princess Throne (?)
As Shrek’s about to leave, The Princess calls again. She confesses her love for him, and gives him her Dad’s medallion. Shrek, flattered, promises to fight the Dragon with everything he’s got.
Shrek and Boatt Get Help
Shrek and Boatt go to the Witch, begging for help. She gives Shrek a battlestone, which will freeze any opponent. Shrek’s parents hear about the approaching dragon fight with their son, and head out to save him.
As production began, with a screenplay written by Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot (Notorious for scripting Disney’s Aladdin), the producers at first decided that instead of being completely computer animated, the film would contain cgi motion capture characters projected onto live action backround models, as this blog post shows.
However, this was easier said then done. Animator Andy Weisler remarked:
“Nobody knew how to do this stuff. No one had ever produced ninety minutes of motion capture. We’d produced one minute… CGI was being invented every time anyone did anything.”
Animator Ken Harsha recalls the general feeling around the studio:
“When we started, we were the discounted production.”
Katzenberg insisted that only seventeen characters would be included in the feature in order to certify this. Morale wasn’t helped by the proposed storyline for the film:
“Shrek was essentially the story of the ugliest guy in the world who meets the ugliest woman in the world.. They get together and have the ugliest children.” Said one animator who had actually walked out on the pitch for the movie.
In the meantime, rival animation studio, Pixar, successfully released the hit film, Toy Story. The first ever computer animated feature length film.
The team at Dreamworks hoped to catch up, figuring on the Shrek property as a possible chance for a hit of their own. Along the road, things would take some very frustrating and tragic turns.
Now, with serious casting going on, producers decided that to fill the title character’s large ogre shoes, they’d need someone around the same proportions. Enter popular rotund Saturday Night Live comedian, Chris Farley.
Hot off the rapid commercial success of his debut starring film roles in Tommy Boy, and Black Sheep, and just recovering from the post-production mess of Beverly Hills Ninja, the portly comic was also struggling to overcome a crippling drug addiction, which had hounded him since High School. It also reared it’s ugly head during production several times, as the December 22, 1997 issue of The Philadelphia Daily News reported.
However, none of that was present in the voiceover sessions with Farley. Besides, it was just as Rossio had hoped, as he and Elliot had based Shrek and Donkey’s relationship on Farley and Spade’s in Tommy Boy:
“Chris was the number one choice, and everyone was thrilled that he’d agreed to the project. For animation project his voice was perfect, very distinct. Also, you know, Shrek kind of looked like Farley and Farley like Shrek. The recording sessions were essentially all of us in the booth rolling around, laughing our asses off at Chris’ antics.”
The story, changed to accommodate Chris’ talents and personality, now told the story of Shrek as an insecure, shy, good natured, teenaged ogre who lived in the garbage dump of a town called “Wart Creek” with his doting parents (Who were voiced by Tom Bosley and Marion Ross from TV’s Happy Days), who shelter him from an uncaring world.
Shrek has a dilemma, however. He has the physical appearance of an evil, hideous monster, and the prejudiced townspeople react to him in such a way.
A reputation he sets out to dispel. He gets his chance, when the wicked Lord Farquad (John Lithgow) decides to manipulate him by telling him of a captive Princess that is being held high in a castle’s fortified tower. If Shrek successfully rescues her, he will give the young ogre a swamp of his own.
Inspired by this, Shrek sees the opportunity to go against his family legacy, by becoming a heroic knight.
Along his journey, he comes across a wisecracking talking Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and together, they both begin to form a friendship of misfits.
Ultimately, Shrek would finally manage to infiltrate the castle, and encounters the mysterious Princess Fiona face to face, only to find that she is just as ugly as he is! Apparently The victim of an ancient curse, she would have also been a bit more snarky and sarcastic, voiced in this version by Chris’ former SNL teammate, Janeane Garofalo.
Somehow, all works out in the end, and the two ugly lovers live “Happily Ever After”..
As Shrek’s story evolved, so too, did his appearance. At first, he was oafy, with oversized hands and feet and a small head.
But he gradually took on more of Chris Farley’s characteristics. It had never gone quite like that in animation before. “Chris was a huge influence”, said Harsha. “He was the perfect role model.” Suddenly Shrek looked like “Chris as an ogre” a football player type with a big nose, “funky ears” and “Tommy Boy type hair.”
Various artworks from pre-production can be viewed here:
Director Andrew Adamson recalls:
“The character of Shrek is to some degree rebelling against his vulnerabilities. And I think that was the reason Katzenberg went to Chris, because there is an element of that in him, covering vulnerability in humor and keeping people at arms length. Within minutes of meeting Chris, you saw his vulnerability. Sometimes, he would switch on this very gruff persona, and you realized that it was because he felt he was exposing too much.”
Rossio concurred: “In Chris’ version of the story, he was unhappy at his place in the world, unhappy of being cast as the villain. A guy who had rejected the world, because the world had rejected him.”
A touching example of this can be seen in these storyboard animatics from this version that have surfaced:
However, after months of tireless attempts of experimenting with motion capture technology, including having an actor in a hideous Shrek costume with tracking balls attached to him who looked like a malformed Disney mascot, it was apparent things were already going downhill, not to mention the studio’s animation department having a hard time shifting to an extra dimension.
Not to mention, the Propellorheads and others were feeling the brunt of Katzenberg’s dissatisfaction with the project. The executive felt the story needed to be “edgier”.
Soon, massive layoffs began, including Kelly Asbury, former co-director.
“It was known as the Gulag. If you failed on “Prince of Egypt”, you were sent to the dungeons to work on “Shrek”.
The process became SO familiar, that the slang “Shreked” became commonplace around the office to refer to those workers who’d fallen under such a fate..
In fact, after seeing the rough CGI version of the following storyboard sequence in a test screening, he was furious with it’s poor quality.
To make matters worse, Chris Farley, the star of the film, died of a tragic heroin and morphine overdose at the age of 33 on December 18th, 1997..
“After Chris died, we all had personal thoughts about using his voice track, and find someone to impersonate him and finish the film. We definitely thought about whether that was the right thing to do, but ultimately we felt we weren’t far enough in the development of the character. […] Mike Myers was able to come on board. Chris’ Shrek and Mike’s Shrek are two different characters as much as Chris and Mike are two completely different people.”
Rossio concurs: “Mike created a very interesting character, a Shrek who has a sense of humor that’s not good, but it makes him happy. Chris’ was born out of frustration and self-doubt, an internal struggle between the certainty of a good heart, and the insecurity of not understanding things.”
In the years since Myers’ as the character and the franchise that followed, the desire to hear Chris’ take on the character continued. Until, by a fluke, the storyboard clip by producer John Garbett was discovered. Aside from the other pieces of artwork, more of Chris’ performance has yet to be heard, and this fairy tale has yet to reach a conclusion.
UPDATE: May 8, 2018
Recently, an early, June 1997 draft of the script has gone up for auction on eBay.