WGA-nominated writers of 'Clouds' look back on the remarkable journey of a song, a subject, and a movie
June 9, 2021
Clouds, the Disney+ film inspired by the true story of Zach Sobiech, was just honored with a WGA Award nomination for Adapted Long Form, and the project is worth revisiting — or watching for the first time if you missed its original release.
It’s likely the main riff of Sobiech’s original song "Clouds" is still in your brain. It went viral before Sobiech's untimely death; he was a victim of a rare form of cancer. The chorus is still unshakable:
And we'll go up, up, up/ But I'll fly a little higher/ Go up in the clouds because the view's a little nicer/ Up here my dear/ It won't be long now, it won't be long now.
The song is also a bit of an anchor to a biopic that wasn’t easy to tackle. The movie is a story of family strength; it’s also a love story. But above all else, it’s Sobiech’s story. The writers did an eloquent job with a story with so many moving parts, and it’s easy to see why it was honored by the guild. The story, in movie form, became a viral TikTok challenge (try not to cry watching Clouds). Side note: it’s impossible.
The writers spoke about balancing narratives, honoring Sobiech and in turn, being honored themselves. They gathered in an effusive and fun Zoom session; happy to be reunited, eagerly giving each other lots of credit and never neglecting to note that above all else, they were excited to bring Sobiech’s story to a new audience.
Writer Kara Holden noted it was a daunting task. She even turned down the writing job initially.
“I told Justin [Baldoni, the film's director] no at first because I was so scared. I had heard of Zach’s story and had seen the YouTube and you don’t wanna mess up someone’s legacy," she said.
Before Clouds, Holden worked on a couple of biopics.
"I was writing on Soul Surfer and I had a bit of a similar feeling. It was about learning the difference between a documentary and a cinematic feature film. You have to balance what you create to fulfill the narrative and what is factually true."
Holden said she read a number of interviews about the writing of The Blind Side to further her understanding of that balance.
"I think the main thing is to stay true to the spirit of the film and to give yourself permission to know it’s a movie, and to bring the elements you need to make it cinematic," she said.
"I ended up saying yes because the story wouldn’t leave me alone and it needed to be told. I wanted people to get to know Zach in this way."
She noted that in the writing process, a transition eventually takes place as real-life people become characters.
"These are real people and I asked, 'How can I possibly touch their stories?' And then you start to move into a place that you feel these are my characters; each needs to have their arcs and moments they are moving toward, and you have to make room to allow that to happen," she said.
"We also had such incredible access to text or call the real Laura [Sobiech’s mother, played by Neve Campbell] and the real Sammy [Sobiech’s best friend and musical co-writer, played by Sabrina Carpenter] and the real Amy [Sobiech’s girlfriend, played by Madison Iseman]. The touches of specifics that came from them were incredible."
Casey La Scala, who also wrote for Clouds, continued: "You are obviously dealing with the people in our film that are all still alive and you want to honor their story, and you have to make sure cinematic elements don’t go too far."
Holden pitched breaking up Sobiech and Amy in the script, even though it never happened in real life. Spoiler: it made the film. The writers all agreed it was a cinematic spin that was necessary, and La Scala felt most proud that everyone blessed the film.
"I wanted them to see it and feel good about it and be able to say this is still my story. That was the end game," he said.
Holden chimed in with a similar sentiment.
"I remember I talked to Laura and she commented on a line and asked, ‘Where did that come from?' It sounded exactly like Zach. I never heard him say that, but it sounded like him. You don’t want to fictionalize it to the point that they don’t recognize their son; so for them to say that's him, and they can feel him alive in this movie, that was a big deal."
A lot of the film weighs heavily on the shoulders of Fin Argus, who plays Sobiech. Argus was relatively unknown before the project, but his musical abilities caught the eye of Baldoni.
La Scala said finding him was almost a fluke.
"He was sent the sides very last minute. Justin is very good with actors. He was really able to vet who was right to play Zach, and it was really, really exciting," he said.
"He knew the right questions to ask. You can see by the performances; when people see the film, those characters were unbelievable. It was also amazing to see the actors get close to the real people. Neve got close to Laura, and a lot of real people were just hanging out on set and I think that bled into how authentic the film was ... and finding the anchor in Fin was so important. His performance is incredible ... he really became Zach."
Holden’s writing undoubtedly gave Argus even more fodder to work with. The idea to anchor Sobiech’s arc through his challenge of writing a college essay when he knew he’d never go to college came to her in the shower.
"I remember hearing the story of his college essay and that it was a struggle to write it, and texted Justin, 'What if he finished it? What if he did that, and nobody knew it?' Justin called back and I found out he did write it and Laura has it, and here it is ... it was a magical gift," she said.
As the TikTok try-not-to-cry-during-Clouds challenge illustrates, Sobiech’s story is still unbelievably moving. Holden muses on how it has touched so many.
"He represented what we can hope, what we can do with our lives ... how joy can be a part of every moment, but it’s okay that there’s pain and suffering, too," she said.
"There’s something beautiful about how he was able to live every moment to the full that we hope we will; he made the most of every moment and he loved deeply, and he wasn’t afraid of the darker parts of life we have go through, too. Especially after this last year, we need a reminder that there can be joy in the hardship, and love is what it’s all about."
Writer Patrick Kopka agreed that Sobiech’s life was admirable.
"It was heroic, the way he handled his diagnosis. He behaved in a way that you hoped how you would behave. He didn’t complain about it. He brought everyone else up. It was an incredible way for a kid to handle something like that, and it’s a story people keep coming back to," he said.
"There’s a magic to him. I was on a trip in Florida and someone drives up and I hear Zach’s name come up randomly. He is still helping people through. I just got a friend request from a girl going through a cancer in college, and she spoke of how Zach’s story helped her.”
Holden tied Sobiech’s struggle back to his famous song.
"I’ve always had such an image of Zach being the one holding the rope, lifting us all up. He’s done that for so many of us," she said.
La Scala’s hope is that the film transcends time, and Sobiech continues to hold the rope for those who need it.
"We are living in a crazy time, but I look at what Zach was going through and he’s still persevering. He’s still a rock. His strength and love and courage is endlessly inspiring. I think about that, and I stop sweating the little things ... it’s not about death, it’s about living now more than ever. The story affects me in that I have a lot to be thankful for; it makes me want to try and be good to others, and live like Zach lived," he said.
The film not only tracks the last year of Sobiech's life, it follows the insane journey the song "Clouds" took him on. In the film, Sobiech is inspired on a plane ride home from France in what is hoped to be a healing journey. He jots the initial lyrics on the plane’s vomit bag, and his "vomit draft" feels anything but that.
Holden reveals the real story: "Laura was cleaning one day and found the lyrics, so it was slightly different than the film ... he didn’t have words to say to the people he loved the most that he was dying, and it was hard to put that into words. Laura had suggested that he could write letters to people, but "Clouds" came to him as a way to say what he couldn’t say."
The song provides some great moments of joy, even as Sobiech's life makes room for some darkness. A true highlight of inescapable joy is a nod to That Thing You Do! (Tom Everett Scott plays Sobiech’s father). All the main characters run through town to unite and hear Sobiech's song on the radio.
"It was Justin’s idea and it turned out to be such an important moment of joy,” Holden said.
"I also remember reading the comments on the song on YouTube and there was one that said, 'You’re not so special.' It inspired the scene of Sammy and Zach on the football field when the song is starting to get traction. That was a really difficult scene to write, to get the right feeling of "it’s exciting what’s happening, but also so heartbreaking." It shows what could be; it shows that he’s good and that this could go somewhere. We also have them going to BMI. That really happened, and it’s such a special moment, so we kept that in there ... we also have that moment with Amy on the horse field near the end of the journey of the song and Zach saying, 'It’s all for you.' The song really was for her; she’s the one holding the rope for him."
According to Kopka, it's important to acknowledge how great of a song "Clouds" really is.
"If it didn’t have that catchy hook to it, it may not have ever taken off," he said.
"The fact that the song is so catchy with the little chimes in the beginning, it really is an incredible song."
As the trio reflected on the movie in the wake of the WGA nominations, they also thought back to the several-year journey that brought them to this point; Holden said she cried her way through every stage of the script. For La Scala, crying began at the pitch phase.
"It was hard to get through it," he said.
La Scala and Kopka pitched the initial project and ended up selling it to Warner Bros., bringing in Holden to help get it greenlit.
Holden said the book upon which the film is based is beautiful; but for a long time, she pondered about point of view.
"I got laser focused and I just kept coming back to the song and what an incredible thing it is. I also came back to the Mary Oliver [poetry] quote, What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"
In the film, Sobiech’s teacher introduces his college essay assignment with the quote.
"What it is that Zach wants to do is live life to the most. I had to figure out how to show that in a way that gives it an arc. That helped to realize what would happen if we moved Zach’s low moment up front," Holden said.
"It gives it room to breathe, then we could dig in with ‘how am I gonna live with this, and how am I gonna fill the time I have?' I also still listen to the song all the time. I put it on whenever I need to be uplifted. And it always works."
Written by: Lindsay StidhamLindsay holds an MFA in screenwriting from the American Film Institute. She has overseen two scripts from script to screen as a writer/ producer. SPOONER, starring Matthew Lillard (SLAMDANCE), and DOUCHEBAG (SUNDANCE) both released theatrically. Most recently Lindsay sold PLAY NICE starring Mary Lynn Rajskub. The series was distributed on Hulu. Recent directing endeavors include the Walla Walla premiering (and best screenplay nominated) TIL DEATH DO US PART, and the music video for Bible Belt’s Tomorrow All Today. Lindsay is currently working on an interactive romcom for the production company Effin' Funny, and a feature film script for Smarty Pants Pictures. Lindsay also currently works as an Adjunct Screenwriting Faculty member at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. You can follow her work here: https://lindsaystidham.onfabrik.com/