“Despicable Me” creator on Mormonism, Minions, and “the best calling in the church”

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Despicable-Me-2-Poster-HD-Minion-Wallpaper_Vvallpaper.Net_Tomorrow, one of the summer’s most anticipated movies will hit theaters. Minions is a prequel to the Despicable Me movies, which were co-written by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio. Those movies were hugely successful, with Despicable Me 2 grossing nearly a billion dollars at the box office in 2013.

Cinco and Ken have stepped down from the franchise temporarily to work on The Secret Life of Pets (2016) before returning with Despicable Me 3 (2017). So while they didn’t pen the script for Minions, its release this weekend seemed like a great time for me to check in with Cinco about the intersection of his career and his LDS faith. –JKR

RNS: Were you raised Mormon?

Cinco Paul: I grew up in Phoenix and my mom was a member of the [LDS] Church, and my dad was a non-practicing Catholic who did not go to church. My dad was pretty anti-Mormon in a way, so our exposure to church was limited. There was only so much he would let us do. In those days, Sunday School and sacrament meeting were separate, so we would only go to Sunday School, which was in the morning. But the rule was always that when we were sixteen we could get baptized. So I attended church through my childhood and watched while all the other boys got the priesthood and got to pass the sacrament. But by the time I turned sixteen it was not high on my list of priorities. I still attended church, but I had a lot of questions and wasn’t sure what I believed.

It wasn’t until I was about to go to Yale, all the way across the country, that I felt like it was time for me to really decide if this was what I believed and how I wanted to live. That was a time of real soul-searching and heavy praying. I think I got baptized the day before I left for college. It was small, with just my mom and sisters and a couple of missionaries. I was baptized in a swimming pool!

RNS: Did you go on a mission?

CP: I turned nineteen after my first year of college, and I had a desire to serve a mission, but my dad gave me an ultimatum that if he was going to pay for school then I was going to finish college first. I loved my four years at Yale, and then after that I put in my papers. I wound up serving a mission in Tokyo. I was actually engaged those two years — my wife, who I met at Yale and joined the church just before I left, waited for me and we got married as soon as I got back.

Cinco Paul

Cinco Paul

RNS: How did you get started in screenwriting?

CP: I’ve been really fortunate because almost straight out of USC film school, I wrote a spec script and sold it. Those were the days when spec screenplays could sell for a lot of money and launch your career. It was 1994, and I sold it to Columbia Pictures, which is now part of Sony. I didn’t get an actual movie made until seven years later when Ken and I teamed up for Bubble Boy. In Hollywood selling a script is the first step, but the next step is getting a movie made. So even though Bubble Boy was a critical and commercial failure, it proved that we could get a movie made. Then we did Santa Clause 2 after that. And although that was no masterpiece, it really launched us to the next level.

RNS: I read about your “big break” when you sold an idea to Dr. Seuss’s widow. (It was on Wikipedia, so it must be true, right?)

CP: The break was less about Mrs. Seuss and more about Chris Meledandri, who was running Fox Animation at the time. He loved a script Ken and I had written and passed it along to Audrey Geisel [Mrs. Seuss]. Cat in the Hat had just come out and she was very unhappy with that movie, and the sexual innuendoes that were in the script. So she was pleased to have two Mormon guys writing Horton Hears a Who!.

RNS: So your writing partner is LDS too?

CP: Yes, and we met through the Church. It was in 1997, and it was the sesquicentennial celebration of the pioneers arriving in Utah. Our stake wanted to put on a play, and they asked me to write it. So I wrote this musical about a pioneer girl and a modern girl who switch places. Ken auditioned for the show and got in, and we became friends. At some point I said, “Let’s write a script together!” It never got made, though it sold.

RNS: Are there specific instances where your Mormon beliefs got written into a script or character?

CP: The first example for me is Horton. Obviously, Dr. Seuss wrote the book, but as Ken and I were writing the script, we saw a lot about faith. Hearing a voice that nobody else hears . . . It’s like Joseph Smith saying he knew he had seen a vision, even though nobody believed him. Those words of Joseph Smith actually did ring through our heads.

Another example is Despicable Me, which was in many ways the most personal thing we’d ever done. I have three kids [now 24, 20, and 16] and Ken has three kids. To me there’s a lot of the gospel in there—maybe not specific to LDS teachings, but about the power of love to change a bad person into a good person. And just how every man has to abandon his villainy when he becomes a dad.

There’s also a scene where the three girls are saying a prayer. We strongly wanted that scene in there. Religion is a very strong part of the lives of people, and it rarely gets any sort of real representation in films and TV.

Part of the prayer scene from "Despicable Me."

Part of the prayer scene from “Despicable Me.”

RNS: Can you tell me about a Fanboy moment you’ve had, working in Hollywood?

CP: It may sound a little lame, but I grew up just massively loving Julie Andrews. And she is the voice of Gru’s mom in Despicable Me, so we actually got to meet with her. Ken and I go into all of the recording sessions to throw out new lines and ideas as the actors are improvising. So to meet Julie Andrews, and have her even do a little singing for us, was wonderful. She was very lovely and funny, kind of like everything you’d want from her.

It’s just been a dream come true to work with people like Steve Carrell and Kristen Wiig. And Carol Burnett, Jim Carrey, Danny DeVito—all the people who have given life to our words. I do have to pinch myself, because I grew up as a kid so loving the movies. Movies were a huge part of my life. So now to be on the other end, actually doing this for a living, is crazy.

RNS: What’s your calling in the Church these days?

CP: Right now I am the Primary Pianist and the choir pianist. So right now I feel like I’m getting a reward, because for many years I had really demanding callings. Being Primary Pianist is pretty much the best calling in the church!

  • Jen K

    So I must ask, is Gru intentionally meant to resemble President Monson? Because I’ve thought that since first seeing a trailer in a movie theater years ago.

  • Stephanie

    My husband is certain that minions are really just toddlers and the purple minions in Despicable Me 2 are just toddlers who haven’t had their naps. 🙂 We have LOVED watching Despicable Me (1&2) and look forward to the new one! Thanks for writing compelling scripts that are incredibly funny and entertaining!

  • I’d be interested to hear the answer to Jen’s question!

    And good on you for getting the prayer scene in. I agree — too rare! Great work!

  • Karen

    I went in to both despicable movies expecting to dislike them. But the strong family messages and positive themes mixed with the humor and made me love the movies. What a fun interview!

  • Michael

    I wouldn’t think so because he talks about how it resembles that everyone has to “abandone his villany when he becomes a dad” and that doesn’t really sound like a prophet type thing. But that’s my opinion on it.

  • Chris G

    I completely agree… I have always thought he looked like President Monson!

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  • David L

    Thanks for the article. It’s a great story. Primary pianist is a great calling! It means you stay and listen to all of the lessons that you might have missed while growing up.

  • Totally agree, primary pianist is an *awesome* calling. Just grand. For me the “best” calling is nursery–you get to just play with kids all day. Woot!

  • Natina

    I would love to see the script for the pioneer production. I did a play in our stake for Joseph Smiths 100th birthday and it was so much fun I was wishing there was something else out there to do that I didn’t have to put together myself.

  • Joe

    I’m pretty sure you mean 200th birthday, not 100th

  • Thank you for this article. I did not know Despicable Me writers were LDS. Inspiring to read Cinco’s story. However, I must beg to differ about the best calling though, I’m pretty certain it’s actually Seminary teacher!

  • David Lloyd-Jones

    This is a good and interesting thing to see coming out of Hollywood at a time when the neo-Calvinist, TV-gospel and mega-churches are making a concerted effort to become America’s quasi-official religion. Their use of abortion politics to turn themselves into the Republican “base,” or the GOP into their evangelical outreach arm, is arguably the root of America’s present political malaise, so this is not a minor issue.

    The Mormon rejection of Augustinian/Thomist Original Sin, a post-Apostolic invention woven into the fabric of “mainstream” Christianity, is a ray of hope in American life.

    In justice, the real mainstream doctrine, e.g. the much derided Fudge Episcopalianism,adhere to ideas of sin as failure rather than as a pre-issued ticket to Hell — but they are not the people trying to rewrite the Constitution by misreading it。

    A breath of fresh air!

    -dlj.

  • Ashley

    Totally agree!

  • RobertG

    One of the most insightful compliments of Mormon theology I’ve read. As a Mormon, I thank you, and wish others could recognize the State of our Union in such a well described way.

  • Sorrel Jakins

    You should get your pioneer play to run in Nauvoo.

  • PTR

    Was the pioneer script called “Dear Diary” perchance?

  • Isle Nyulaszi

    I love Horton and Despicable Me! We actually had a youth movie night and with so much choices we just went to safe Horton. We all learned a valuable lesson and enjoyed it too! Thank you Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio.

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  • Kay

    Try Primary teacher next. That’s another best calling! Kids are so much fun.

  • Mike Stapley

    Primary pianist is indeed a great calling. Try primary chorister. That’s loads of fun, too.

  • Scott Parson

    Thank you for this great article and inspiring story. Paul Choro (Elder in Japanese) was a great missionary. He used to entertain us at the piano singing a ditty he composed “walking and talking with Jesus”. This is a very fond memory of my mission and serving with Cinco.

  • Ken Madsen

    I didn’t see either of those numbers, (100 or 200) in the article. Are you referring to sesquicentennial? Of course that’s not such a common word for celebrating the150 years between 1847 and 1997. The prefix may have been confused with a Latin word for ‘single’ – centennial, where no prefix is required. My apologies, if I have missed what you were referencing altogether.

  • Jessica

    He actually said Sesquicentennial which is 150 years

  • Ellen Bethers

    Thank you for giving press to religion! I loved that prayer scene, and also the overall transformation of Gru. The film’s success proves that the public is hungry for films that represent strong family values. Keep it up!

  • This article really helps the audience to understand the movie well because most people thought it is an illuminate movie. Thank you brother Cinco. 🙂

    #iamaMORMON

  • This movie really helps a lot of people to understand well the movie because most people thought it was an illuminate movie. Thank you brother Cinco. 🙂

    #iamaMORMON

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  • Ana Tukia

    Such an inspiring story..I love the fact that he’s not afraid to stand tall n say he’s an LDS..I love the two films… When they aired Horton in NZ out of all the lil kids that was there I was the older one sitting right at the front lol…. BTW primary is where it all begins….I use to be the music teacher n the 1st Counselor.. All the best for you guys n your career…

    Much Alofa from nz

  • mike o___

    It was the 150th anniversary, not the Centennial or Bicentennial.

  • Cindy

    delightful screen play, I too did not expect to enjoy it, but along with my children find it extremely entertaining. Thanks for something clean, and entertaining.

  • Dot Larson

    I thought this was an interesting article. I had just saw the movie critic’s review of this movie just this week and I was a little concerned that it was rated PG due to rude humor. I see enough of that in kids today and wish there was someway to counter that attitude.

  • EG

    Thanks for this article. It is nice when information and a story like this is shared.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    “Bubble Boy” is one of my favorite movies. It does a great version of the story of the innocent cast into the wicked world who comes out on top, the theme of Voltaire’s Candide, Forrest Gump, and Napoleon Dynamite.

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  • Brother Cinco, Have you ever thought of writing a musical stage play for families? We are a great place to tryout a play in process. We presently are playing the Southeastern US premier of “Mary Poppins”.

    The Cumberland County Playhouse in Crossville, TN is celebrating its 50th anniversary. We are a family theater that also provides theater classes for rural children and youth. (Our retiring Producing director has his degree from Yale.)
    Just a bunch of random thoughts.

    ccplayhouse.com

    Questions?? Call me anytime 931-529-1431

    Thanks for your family shows.

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  • Anne

    I agree, Primary pianist IS the best calling!

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