Manuscripts Burn


"Manuscripts don't burn"
- Mikhail Bulgakov

Hi, I'm horror and science fiction author Steve Kozeniewski (pronounced: "causin' ooze key.") Welcome to my blog! You can also find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Amazon. You can e-mail me here, join my mailing list here, or request an e-autograph here. Free on this site you can listen to me recite one of my own short works, "The Thing Under the Bed."

Friday, February 13, 2015

Behind the Potatoes and Molasses (Interview with Patrick McHale, Creator of "Over the Garden Wall" and Creative Director of "Adventure Time")

It was unusually cold this past Halloween so we cranked up the heat early this year.  The next morning, as my lungs filled with smoke, I had to question whether the house was on fire.  "Luckily," it was just that our furnace had gone completely kaput.  So I spent the unseasonably cold first week of November huddled under a blanket next to a space heater on my couch watching cable TV, like I imagine the pioneers did in frontier days.

It was then, cold to the point of numbness and barely able to do anything that involved moving from the warm cocoon of my couch-womb, that I discovered "Over the Garden Wall" on the Cartoon Network.  The story of two lost and often freezing boys spoke to me in a peculiar way, and I found myself absorbed and obsessed with what would happen next in a TV show in a way I haven't felt in, well, years.  Luckily this incredible and strangely moving show was a miniseries, the first ever Cartoon Network miniseries in fact, a delivery method that seemed oddly in keeping with its offbeat content.  So I was able to finish the story in that one frigid November week, and as soon as I did I immediately had to start over and watch again.  (Once you've watched it, you'll know why.)

I'm very pleased to introduce today's guest, Patrick McHale.  Patrick is the creator, executive producer, writer, storyboard artist, and songwriter of "Over the Garden Wall."  His short, "Tome of the Unknown," which was the basis for "Over the Garden Wall," won the Santa Barbara International Film Festival Award.  He was also the creative director for Cartoon Network mainstay "Adventure Time" and a writer and storyboard artist for "The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack."  There's so much to talk about with today's guest, I'm not going to waste any (more) time with folksy anecdotes and just jump right into the interview.
Patrick McHale


SK: Hello, Patrick, and thanks so much for agreeing to be with us today. Making television is a very collaborative process by nature, but what's the difference between working on something you created (like "Over the Garden Wall") as opposed to somebody's else's baby (like "Adventure Time" or "Flapjack?")

PM: Working as a storyboard artist on "Flapjack" was the most fun. I was learning a lot, and Thurop (the show creator) just let us run wild with our ideas ~~ as long as they were on-character, and the stories were clear & structured. He let us feel ownership over everything we did. It was great to just write & draw stuff, and let other people deal with making the show.
Captain K'Nuckles and Flapjack

"Adventure Time," on the other hand, was a lot harder because I was in a different role. I was Creative Director on the first couple seasons and my job was all about going to meetings, and dealing with people, and structuring stories, and giving notes, and improving gags, and cleaning up storyboards, and going over designs, etc. etc.  So... Even though I was putting my heart and soul into the show, I could never feel much ownership over anything. I never "wrote an episode" or "created a character". My fingers were in everything, but my hand was never fully submerged into the pot.  It's hard being a middleman.  That said, working on "Adventure Time" in that capacity taught me everything I needed to know to run my own show, and also earned me some trust with the network. It was also awesome to work with Pen, and with all the other "Adventure Time" folks. They're all the best people.

So... yeah, with "Over the Garden Wall"... I was doing the same jobs that I did on "Adventure Time"... except I was able to feel a lot more ownership over everything because I created & directed the show. It really helped my ego to feel like the work I was putting in would pay off. Making shows is hard. It builds you up, and crashes you down all the time. Half of your job is figuring out how to respond to e-mails or phone calls appropriately. Just trying to keep the engine running smoothly.  But it was nice to be able to have both sides of my brain firing on all cylinders.

I was also lucky to have a small, dedicated and incredibly talented crew.  And the network was very supported of the whole project. So it just went a lot smoother than the early "Adventure Time" days. 

I always feel like it's important to mention Nick Cross, the art director on "Over the Garden Wall," because the show probably would have fallen apart if he wasn't there. He did so much amazing work so quickly, and was constantly saving the day. He helped out with storyboards (without being credited), he did a ton of After Effects work, and he even animated a bunch of scenes. He animated the whole intro sequence in Episode 1, and the Highwayman dance scene in episode 4, and a bunch of other scenes here and there throughout the series.

SK: My friend has a theory that "Adventure Time" is about a game of D&D that young kids would play if they could somehow understand the rules of D&D but still believe in the stork and moon cheese. Is that about how you guys saw it?

PM:  Haha, well yeah I mean we were those kids. We were the DMs and the players at the same time. Just putting Finn and Jake into situations we thought would be neat, and then trying to figure out how to deal with those situations as those characters. There's definitely a lot of D&D influence in "Adventure Time" from a storytelling standpoint. There's a freedom that anything can happen, and the world is as infinitely amazing as your imagination.
What time is it?  Eh...noonish.

SK: (From here on out I'm just going to assume that our readers have seen "Over the Garden Wall." If you haven't, consider this a SPOILER ALERT.) So, you've said that you originally planned 18 episodes of "Over the Garden Wall" and that there are "ghosts" of stories between the episodes, which is sort of borne out by the conversations the boys always seem to be in the middle of as each episode begins. Can you give us some insight into what those episodes might have been? And why those 8 ideas didn't make the cut but these 10 did?

PM:  Sure, well... Some of the missing episodes were actually squished together. Like... Episode 6 ("Lullaby in Frogland") is an obvious one. Originally I had planned to have an episode about frogs, and a different episode about going to meet Adelaide. I think Episode 6 turned out surprisingly well for being so squished together, but it certainly could have been improved if it could have been split up into 2 different episodes. I had intended to have a slower build up to meeting Adelaide. Beatrice leaves Wirt and Greg... and the brothers set out to look for her, but run into the Woodsman instead. Then at the end of the episode, when they finally show up to save Beatrice, we reveal that she was in cahoots with her all along.  It would have been nice to have another full Woodsman episode, and more Adelaide.  But oh well!

Other episodes... lets see... early on there was an episode about an old man who made dice out of children's bones, and the children's spirits sang an eerie song from the basement to warn Wirt and Greg to leave the house. But I think that one got cut early, for obvious reasons. Also the one about the witch who took her/his skin off at night to fly around and dance on people while they slept. That one got cut early too. Uh... I'm trying to remember which ones were actually part of those 18. I think I had a story about Wirt becoming a gentleman burglar; like he gets caught sneaking into someone's house and the widow of the house is sort of thrilled about meeting this charming young man. This one was based on a true story from the Gilded Age that took place somewhere in western Massachusetts, I think. There was an episode about a town that looks like it's underwater, but Wirt and Greg can breath fine (foreshadowing the ending). Wirt and Greg got turned into animals for a few episodes at some point.

I'm actually having trouble remembering the missing episodes. There were so many different versions of the show after we started restructuring it that it's hard to remember. But none of this stuff is canon. The only stuff that's canon is what's in the show, and what's in that one Boom! comic.

SK: I believe I would watch an entire show of just Elijah Wood being a gentleman burglar.  In my extensive research (read: Wikipedia) it seems there are a couple of movies named "Over the Garden Wall" but they all reference an apparently lost film from 1919. When you picked the title was this a deliberate reference to early 20th century Americana and "lost" things? Or am I reading too much into it?

PM: You're NOT reading into it too much!  Bessie Love is my favorite actress of all time. Good find!
Bessie Love, star of...I'm gonna say...FIFTY SHADES OF GREY?

SK: So the main character Wirt's great love interest Sara always appears covered, either in her school mascot costume or her Halloween costume, which I found an intriguing choice. Was she supposed to be everybody's boyhood crush or did you guys run out of animation budget or what was the deal with that?

PM: Haha, yeah I guess I felt like... when you have a middle school or high school crush... or any crush, really... you're not necessarily seeing that person for who they really are. So there's that. But also... I think I was a lot like Sara in high school, and I always wanted to be a mascot... and I had a similar Halloween costume one year. So it also just came from personal experience. But yeah... when you're in high school you're definitely trying to figure out who you are, and you're basically always wearing a costume of some sort - or wishing you were. At least I was.

SK: Oh, that's true!  The putting your crush on a pedestal thing.  That hadn't even occurred to me.  So, the way I interpret the series is that The Unknown is where your soul goes when you're in between life and death. But it's not a metaphor, it's a real place, because Jason Funderburker the frog brought back the magical bell he swallowed and we also see the characters from the Unknown continue to exist even after the boys wake up. (I suppose I could be wrong, but I'll bet this is at least one of the interpretations you were expecting to inspire.) Have you heard any truly out-there theories about the show, either while it was running or now that it's over? Or would you care to settle once and for all what "actually" happened?

PM: Your interpretation makes sense to me. But maybe it's not only about life and death, maybe it's also about reality versus fantasy, and about dreams versus wakefulness. The Unknown is literally the unknown. There are stories that were once told, and are gone forever. Words that have been spoken and forgotten. Ideas that have been thought, but lost. And there's plenty of stuff mankind has never thought of, and will never think of. The Unknown is all that stuff. If there is more to the universe than what humans can perceive (and of course there is) then maybe everything that can ever be conceived is floating around somewhere unseen and unknown in some abstract way. So maybe Wirt and Greg get a glimpse of it, and make sense of these abstract concepts the best way they can understand it (goofy cartoon stories). Or maybe Wirt and Greg, and everyone else in the show, are just some made up characters used to express some ideas that would have otherwise disappeared.  Maybe everything on TV is a lie. Maybe all of your memories are lies. Maybe everything you perceive is a lie. But you have to believe in something, right? Believe in Stephen!

SK: I BELIEVE IN ME!  *claps hands*  Did it work?  Okay, I guess I'm still here, so I can keep asking questions.  Here at Manuscripts Burn we always strive to get "the scoop." So, Patrick McHale, creator of "Over the Garden Wall" and animation kingpin: when will season 2 be premiering?

PM: I don't think there'll be a season 2. I don't really have solid ideas that improve the series. Wirt and Greg's story is told. But they ARE making a new season of "Twin Peaks," so I guess you never know what'll happen!  I do have ideas for companion pieces to "Over the Garden Wall," so hopefully I can make one of those and that'll satisfy those who liked this miniseries.
The poster for the one and only (sigh) season of "Over the Garden Wall"

SK: Well, that makes me a sad panda, but at least it's the honest answer. And I'll definitely remind you in 25 years of this interview when you're the next David Lynch.  Well, thank you so much for being with us today, Patrick. I admire your work very much and it really means a lot to me that you'd come on and let me geek out. Do you have any final thoughts or parting wishes for your fans that we didn't get to cover elsewhere in this interview?

PM: Thank YOU!  Parting wishes? I don't know. Hope everybody is doing well. Happy Valentines Day.

Purchase Links

"The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack" Season 1 is available on DVD and Amazon streaming and maybe some other places.  I don't really know how people watch TV these days, which is why I still have cable.

"Over the Garden Wall" is available on Amazon Instant Video and the tie-in comic is available on Kindle.  T-shirts and other merchandise are available on the Cartoon Network Store.

"Adventure Time" has an entire Amazon Store, so just, like, go nuts with that one.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Enter your e-mail address in the box below and click "Subscribe" to join Stephen Kozeniewski's Mailing List for Fun and Sexy People. (Why the hell would anyone ever want to join a mailing list?)