Of Two Minds

Screenwriters Aaron and Jordan Kandell are at the top of their game and they got there together
Story by Beau Flemister. Photos by Olivier Koning.

Somewhere in the Ko‘olau mountains, on a trail near the cloud line, ‘ōhi‘a lehua blossoms flash red in the canopy. A Jackson’s chameleon clinging to a branch rolls an eye at us comically. A waterfall echoes, roaring faintly down the valley, and I wonder whether Aaron and Jordan are getting any of this, because they haven’t stopped talking once.

The twin brothers from Honolulu—professional screenwriters who most recently worked on Disney’s hit film Moana—Aaron and Jordan Kandell are lost in their invention, discussing pacing, character arcs and action sequences for a new project. Though identical, you can spot subtle differences. Aaron’s hair is always a little shorter than his twin’s. Jordan uses his hands to speak more than Aaron, a habit he picked up during a semester in Italy. Both laugh easily and wear matching grins like they’ve got a punch line to a joke they’re just dying to share with you. It’s easy to go on an adventure with the Kandells, harder to find some serenity along the way. It’s not that they’re trying to drown out the birdsong or disrupt a hike with live storyboarding—they’re just obsessed with their craft. They’re fleshing things out, 24/7, not talking story so much as story-talking wherever they go.

Twin brothers Aaron and Jordan Kandell have turned their childhood love of storytelling into successful screenwriting careers. Above, the twins (center) at the premiere of Disney’s Moana.

Now 35 years old, the twins traveled the world through much of their twenties, collecting stories along the way. They’ve backpacked through Europe, sailed a felucca down the Nile, trekked Machu Picchu, paraglided over Turkey, set foot in the Amazon, camped across New Zealand. It’s not surprising that most of the scripts they’ve written involve some extraordinary adventure. A dog finds its way home after being shipwrecked at sea. A chief’s daughter sails beyond the reef to save her people. Their newest project, Adrift, is one of the greatest true survival-at-sea stories of recent times.

They weren’t always so outgoing. When I first knew them, they rarely strayed from the library at ‘Iolani School. In the first grade, when the recess bell rang and most of us beelined it for the swing set, Aaron and Jordan retreated to that library, sitting back to back with their noses in five-hundred-plus-page fantasy tomes that dwarfed their seven-year-old hands. At home they’d rush through their homework to read another few hours before bedtime. Their bookshelf bowed with the weight of this obsession and then collapsed one day in fourth grade. “We just became story junkies,” recalls Jordan. “And we needed more and more to scratch that itch.”

But if you could pinpoint when that reading turned to writing, it was in second grade. The brothers were given a typical homework assignment: Write a three-page story, double-spaced. So, they went home and began writing a tale of wizards and dragons, and the two lost track of time. The following morning they handed in thirty-three pages. Each.

The twins joined the team behind Moana at a time of crisis. With a deadline looming and a wayward storyline to fix, Aaron and Jordan labored with the movie’s creators to build an authentically Polynesian story from the ground up. Above, storyboards for Moana.

“I distinctly remember tracing our love for writing back to that moment,” says Jordan. “Some writers talk about how the process of writing is grueling, sitting alone in a room putting words on a blank page. But for me, that’s all I want to do. If we could strip away all the other stuff—the meetings, the phone calls—and just spent all our time writing all day, creating stories and characters and worlds, that’s where I feel the most alive.”

After graduating from ‘Iolani, the Kandells got full rides to the University of Southern California, where they discovered that they wanted to add the “screen” to “writer.” Both majored in creative writing and minored in film, but after graduation it took four years of writing screenplays on spec (industry jargon for “without pay”) to make a sale. During those four long years, they lived in LA to be close to the studios and treat writing as a full-time job, regardless of the absent paycheck.

During summers they returned home and worked: parking cars, teaching summer school at Punahou and ‘Iolani and writing articles for local publications (including this one). Disney bought their first script, Stranded, but it didn’t get made. They did another three years of writing on spec, stretching the money from Stranded. Then in 2013, things clicked.

Disney hired the brothers to write a live-action Aladdin movie. Then they wrote The Golden Record, which made Hollywood’s elite best-of-the-year “Black List.” Shortly after, they sold an original pitch, Sidekicks, to Fox, sold a TV pilot to Legendary Studios and were being courted by Pixar. By the end of 2014, they had a meeting with a Disney exec who told them that he might have a project that was“close to home,” but he couldn’t tell them what. It ended up being Moana, and from among a mix of Oscar-winning screenwriter candidates, the Kandells were hired.

Dream job? Absolutely. It was the story they’d been waiting their whole lives to write. But they had to quickly move back to LA for the duration of the project. I was also in LA at the time and observed the two at their dream job—one that bordered on nightmarish. For six months the twins worked fifteen- to twenty-plus hours, seven days a week, no days off except for two holidays the entire time.

“Ultimately I hope Moana will inspire Polynesian storytellers,” says Jordan. “They’ll see there’s an audience interested in their culture and be inspired to tell their stories.” Jordan (far right) and Aaron (second from left) are seen above with Moana’s directors, producer and other co-writer at last November’s premiere in Los Angeles.

“I like to tell people that if I had been able to sleep, it’d be the best job in the world,” laughs Jordan. “Working for Disney was like a crash-course master class graduate school PhD in storytelling. Suddenly you’re in a room with the directors of Aladdin and The Little Mermaid—movies that had inspired us to be storytellers as kids—and they’re our directors. Then Lin-Manuel Miranda Skypes in, and he’s telling us about his new song and how it fits with what we just wrote; then Oscar-winning directors come in. … It’s just incredible that you’re even in the room with these masters. You feel like Wayne and Garth going, ‘We’re not woooorthyyy.’”

The hours were long because the twins came onboard during crisis mode. After a few years of development, with an imminent deadline, Moana’s story had lost its way, and the film needed to be rebuilt from the ground up. The Kandells were ready for the challenge, and they took it upon themselves to keep a story so close to their Polynesian home pono—Hawaiian for right or proper.

Disney has sometimes been accused of cultural appropriation, and the studio was determined to make amends. The Kandells pointed Disney toward cultural practitioners, navigators and kūpuna (elders)—experts like Nainoa Thompson, captain of the voyaging canoe Hōkūle‘a and president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society. Aaron had trained with Thompson for eight months aboard Hōkūle‘a in 2009 to prepare for its Mālama Honua worldwide voyage, just completed last June (he didn’t go, ultimately, due to a writing job).

“We’ve always made it a priority to tell stories that are close to our hearts,” says Aaron. “And no story is closer to your heart than the story of the place where you were born and raised. While we’re not Native Hawaiian, the values and cultures of Polynesia are embedded in the people of Hawai‘i. There’s a uniqueness to values like ha‘aha‘a [humility], aloha and kuleana, or responsibility to your ancestors and your ‘āina [land]. We wanted to communicate those.”

“I think Aaron is better at getting into the characters and expressing them through dialog,” says Jordan. “I guess I’m more like the story’s conductor, making sure everything is crescendoing to a climax.” Above, the brothers as sketched by the head of story for Moana, David Pimentel.

Disney flew Thompson in to talk to key people working on the film: Animators, writers, directors and actors asked him questions about how the ropes on the voyaging canoes were made. And about how to lash a canoe and to steer one. About the history of wayfinding and how one becomes a navigator. “He really brought in a lot of heart and energy and authenticity to the movie,” says Jordan. “Being able to get that right on screen and getting everyone to truly visualize wayfinding—the whole studio seemed to rally behind Nainoa’s visit.”

The brothers also helped convince Disney to pull a particularly offensive piece of Moana-related merchandise off the shelves. They were tipped off by a Hawaiian activist friend that a Halloween costume had been released: a bodysuit meant to look like Maui, one of the characters in the film. It was essentially a bulked-up, brown-skinned muscle suit with tattoos—about as offensive to Polynesians as blackface would be to African-Americans. So the Kandells quickly notified Disney, and it was yanked from the shelves.

There are countless stories of twins who claim to feel the other’s pain from many miles away when, say, one sibling breaks a bone or is in some sort of crisis. Whether the Kandells have experienced anything as cosmic as this, they can’t say. But for as long as I’ve known them, which is since kindergarten, they’ve been inseparable.

“We’re like Peter Pan and his shadow,” says Aaron. “If one of us gets away or strays too far, we hunt him down and stitch him back to our feet.” It’s why everyone in their youth always referred to them as one: the twins. A package deal, for better or worse. It’s this very connection that has led to their shared success in writing.

“We often hear that writing is a solitary kind of experience,” says Aaron. “But for us, always being exceptionally close, all we’ve ever known, from being childhood and college roommates to living half a mile away from each other in Mānoa now, is collaboration.”

Based in their hometown of Honolulu, the Kandells continue to work on “stories that matter.” They aim to tell stories of ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations. Above, Aaron and Jordan aboard 
a sailboat that will be featured in their next film, Adrift, a true survival-at-sea story.

So what’s next for this collaboration post-Moana? They’re juggling a couple projects. They’re producing Adrift, their second screenplay to make the Black List (in 2016). Starring Shailene Woodley with the director of Everest, Baltasar Kormákur, the true survival-at-sea love story is set to shoot this summer in Fiji and New Zealand. Simultaneously, they’re writing a modern retelling of Momotaro, a Japanese folktale (also a favorite children’s story in Hawai‘i) about a boy born from a peach who grows up to become the greatest samurai in the land.

Noticing a pattern? “Maybe it’s because we’re fans of Joseph Campbell,” Jordan says, “but we’ve always been attracted to hero’s journey-type tales.” They aim to tell stories of ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations. The two have a folder on their laptops designated for those potential projects labeled “Stories That Matter.” Mattering is their prerequisite for taking on work. “There has to be something in the story that can change the world in a positive way,” says Jordan. “It has to be a story that matters.”

“Some writers play to their strengths when working as a team, but we don’t do that,” he says. “We write the full story together, and then one of us will do what we call ‘lead climbing,’ where he’ll take the first run at scenes, pages, an entire act or even screenplay. Then the other will be ‘on belay,’ which is coming up behind, polishing those pages and making sure that whoever was lead climbing hasn’t fallen in the wrong direction. Two bodies, one brain. That’s our synergy.” HH