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Millionaire and Kaplan on 'Drinky Crow'

By Alex Dueben     August 29, 2007

Separately, Tony Millionaire and Eric Kaplan are great successes. Millionaire is the writer and artist of the award-winning weekly comic strip Maakies and the writer and illustrator of a number of books for children of all ages including The Adventures of Sock Monkey and Billy Hazelnuts. At this year's San Diego Comic-con, he was awarded the Eisner for Best Writer/Artist - Humor for Billy Hazelnuts and Sock Monkey: The Inches Incident.

Kaplan is a television writer-producer who has worked on Andy Richter Controls the Universe, Malcolm in the Middle and one of the people behind the too-brief run of Futurama. He now runs the animation studio Mirari Films and is developing a project for Nickelodeon with the rapper Ludacris which will feature character designs by Peter Bagge.

Most recently, they've teamed up for a new animated project for Adult Swim, 'The Drinky Crow Show'. The show was aired as part of a pilot competition on the Cartoon Network, in which fans could vote on their favorites among a field of dozens of animated programs. It turns out, the show about a black bird with a penchant for grain alcohol was far and away the favorite pilot among viewers in the Adult Swim polls.

We sat down to talk with them about the project.

Q: You've been doing Maakies for a while now, week in week out. I know you've had a lot of experiences with Hollywood. There were the shorts on Saturday Night Live. How did this project end up happening?

Tony Millionaire (TM): Adult Swim came to me about three years ago and wanted to develop The Drinky Crow Show. I told them, I've heard that so many times ever since the Saturday Night Live thing that I'm not going to get excited about it. If you ever decide to do it, fine, but I don't want to do a bunch of work and have a bunch of meetings unless you're serious. They said, no no no, we are. So about a year and a half passed with nothing happening and I said, well I guess that's what that is. Then Eric heard about it and said, let's see if we can do something together, so we went over to talk to them and they said great. So we put a bunch of stuff together and were on the road.

Q: Eric, how did you hear about this and why did you come on board?

Eric Kaplan (EK): I was very interested in finding visionaries in the world of comics and I had also just acquired and built up an animation studio. And the point of the animation studio was to put animation production resources together with people with original artistic visions, so that the original artistic visions would inform and percolate through all stages of the production process, from the scripts to the designs, how the characters would move, how the characters would be textured, how we would treat light, how we would treat movement. That would all be a unified artistic vision. What they call a Gesamtkunstwerk, if you're familiar with that.

Gesamtkunstwerk is a word from German philosophy that means "a total artwork," something that would include music and painting and storytelling and they thought it was opera, these Germans, but they were wrong. They had the idea before the reality, which is animation. With animation, every aspect of it is, should be, can be part of a single organic artistic vision. I had this enterprise and we just needed geniuses. Like all you need is a genius and it would be in great shape, it would be a great company.

So then I heard that Tony Millionaire was a genius looking for some actual collection of people in the world who could realize his vision. So I was really excited and I wrote to Tony. I spent a lot of time courting him. And I just said sincerely, you're this genius, you've been crucifying yourself every night, neglecting your family, neglecting the demands of your body in order to create this legacy with no reward from the world and just with this incredible integrity. So I almost felt like I would have an opportunity to steal some of his good karma.

So I just said, look, you've put so much into it, anything less than full total commitment to bringing Maakies to the screen would be an insult. And I promised him that. And for some reason, I guess some fundamental naivete in his character, he believed me. So we did that and we worked really hard to try to make it good. That's what I hope the audience would enjoy or that it would somehow bring some pleasure to them because every aspect of it is a labor of love from every single person involved on the production whether they be in America or Romania to the overall shaping of it. So even though it's one those things that has about sixty people working on it, it's not a corporate product.

In a follow-up email Millionaire points out that to characterize himself as receiving "little or no reward" is an overstatement, as evidenced by his 5 Eisner Awards, three Harvey Awards, Ignatz Award. That's not to mention, as Millionaire puts it, "many thousands of avid readers and a career that pays pretty well and that I love, so the term 'no reward' seems a little ungrateful and incorrect."

Q: What was it about the strip that spoke to you and that you felt was essential to capture in trying to translate into television?

EK: I'll quote an oft quoted passage from Emerson, that in the works of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts returning to us with a certain alienated majesty. That anybody who looks at Maakies can see these are the thoughts that I've had at moments of fear in my life and moments of love in my life and moments of drunkenness. These are the thoughts that I had but never had the courage to express. I think it's not just me, I think anybody can recognize that looking at Maakies, that's what makes it a work of genius. And I wanted to bring that to the screen. I wanted to bring that incredible rawness to it, the philosophical depth and the hilarity, the veering between the dark hilarity and horror and moments of tremendous beauty, and the actual richness of the characters. So all that stuff I wanted to bring in a Gesamtkunstwerk, in an artwork that exists in more time rather than space.

Q: Tony, what has it been like for you and how has it been different writing an animation script as opposed to a few panels?

TM: Well a cartoon and a comic strip are two totally different things. With a comic strip I'm able to play a lot with the language because people are reading it slowly and at their own speed so I can get into a lot of highfallutin' language or lowfallutin' language. And also I can play with the drawings and stretch them out over the page or chop them up, where with a cartoon the language has to come out quickly and it has to be understood right away. So the writing of it is totally different and as I try to write scripts myself I realized that Eric, who knows how to write scripts, would say 'well you can't really have them saying that because it's going to sound like they're sort of making fun of themselves' or 'you can't have them use this kind of language because it's going to all sound like a parody of itself.' So what we do is boil it down and then with just a few words, I was thinking, well that's so simple, but let's see how it goes. And when you hear the actors putting their emotions into it and you realize, oh, that's what screenwriting is about. It's a great experience to see how totally different it is and how you let the actors and their voices express all the stuff that I have to do with lots of words and drawings.

Q: Anything in particular that surprised you?

TM: I can't think of an example exactly, but it's the very simplicity of the language. 'Caring for my gimpy-minded friend is punishment enough.' That one line, that's like a whole comic strip right there, and it's said in three seconds.

I remember. 'Die, idiot!' The line on the page was quote die comma idiot exclamation point quotation mark. I'm like, that's not writing. But then you hear the actor and you see the monkey picking up the harpoon stabbing the whale going 'Die, Idiot!' and the blood spurts out. Oh, that's how screenwriting works. It's a totally different process and now that I see how it all works out, the good thing about working with Eric is that I'm right there next to him as we're building it and I'm telling him, Uncle Gabby doesn't do that, Drinky Crow wouldn't quite say it that way. So he tries to find ways that will match the characters that are already established in the comic strip.

Q: Do you like having that sort of control?

TM: I love that. I can easily see it getting out of hand where Drinky Crow becomes some kind of wacky, goofy duck when he's not. But if you pull it back too far, he becomes just this boring guy talking like he's depressed, and it has to be somewhere in between.

Q: What was the challenge of turning Maakies, which doesn't have a whole lot of narrative, but it has characters and scenarios and tone and style, and how do craft a narrative from that?

EK: I'm working on one now where the idea is that Drinky Crow and Uncle Gabby are driving their car, smashing into people, beating on people, just having this night of drunken revelry. Drinky Crow comes home and peaks in the window, because they lost their key so they have to climb in. And he sees his girlfriend in bed with an elephant seal who's going 'Urgh Urgh Urgh Urgh.' Then Drinky Crow is in this bar and Uncle Gabby is trying to cheer him up saying 'oh, she wasn't good enough for you.' Drinky Crow is like, are you kidding, she was much better than me. And he's like, yeah I guess you're right. So Uncle Gabby says, I know how to cheer you up, you need to get back in the saddle So he finds these two really homely old hags in the bar and he's like hey, would you mind if you buy me a drink. So he's hitting on these two ladies and Drinky Crow is like, oh that's too depressing, I can't do this. Uncle Gabby says, what you need to do is lower your standards. I have these things called beer goggles. They're beer-fueled mechanical contraptions that you put on your eye. Drinky Crow says fantastic, I'll just take out my eye-tearing-out-hooks and he tears out his eyes and puts this thing in and he looks at these two ladies and they look beautiful.

So it's taking certain elements, which I think, are true to Tony's vision. Like, a kind of self-loathing attitude towards one's relationship to the opposite sex, and a kind of big philosophical idea epistolomology about what the world seems like, but crossed with this vernacular idea of beer goggles and then kind of taking it and focusing on the relationship between these two drunks who are supporting each other and building a narrative out of that.

I almost feel like it starts with a notion in Tony's brain. And then that became Maakies. And I think it's a little bit like following Maakies back to Tony's brain and then taking a different turn and finding out what a story would be that Tony could have created with his brain. So it's pulled out of the same lava that created Maakies but it's a different stone, it is hardened in a different whatever you call the thing where lava hardens. It's hardened in a different one of those.

Q: Why it was so important to you for Tony to have an active role in the show?

EK: Well it wouldn't make any sense if he wasn't. It's like, Tony is like Mark Twain. If Mark Twain, instead of dying wherever he died, was frozen in a glacier and you melt him and then he's willing to do a cartoon with you, I don't think you'd say, oh well, later. Just sign the options away and we'll let you know. That's crazy. The whole point is that there are these people called artists and however it is, their brains have this skylight that's open to this other dimension of reality. That is what's cool about art. So to me it would be. The whole point is to figure out, if you're Tony Millionaire, what would you do if you discovered your girlfriend with another guy. You kinda have to ask questions like that.

Q: Were you happy with the Saturday Night Live cartoons?

TM: The Saturday Night Live cartoons were okay for what they were. The problem was they were very low budget and we had very little time to do them. I loved the voices on them. Andy Richter did the voice of Drinky Crow. It wasn't really the voice I had expected, but nobody does the voice that I expect because you always think of the voices in your own head. The Uncle Gabby voice I thought was really the voice that was in my head. That was Adam McKay. He was the Head Writer then. It was this gravelly, rumbly cartoon voice. But I thought for what they were, they were pretty good. Sometimes I was disappointed with them, but I look back at them a couple years later and they were pretty funny. The thing we're doing now is different, it's longer, much more involved and the Saturday Night Live ones were basically the comic strip directly translated into an animation. That might have been the problem.

Q: I know you've written longer stories, mostly for kids, but are you enjoying the longer narrative form the cartoon offers?

TM: The thing is, when I do long narrative stuff I'm doing Sock Monkey books or Billy Hazelnuts and they don't have that wild punching humor that Maakies needs. That's why it's so great to have Eric because he really knows how to take my mind, get in the drivers seat and do this long narrative that I don't really know how to do. And jokes every second of the way. It's amazing to see it happen because I don't have that many jokes. I think for a whole week for one joke.

EK: It's accelerated storytelling. Animation today is a really accelerated form of storytelling. It's a way to get an idea and really take it as far as you can. In the same way reading Maakies is a little bit like being drunk. It's a little bit like that sense in which things aren't moving and then suddenly your nose is bleeding. That's the kind of experience when you're drunk, you're having a good time and then, my nose is bleeding, when did my nose start bleeding? I'll just put it here, it's fine, and then you're talking to somebody and oh god my hand's covered in blood. These weird things punching through the fog, that's what we're trying to capture in the pacing of an 11 minute cartoon. It's the same notion that you want things to go along for a little bit and then suddenly boom, there's an explosion and this whale is getting killed. Oh my god, why is that whale getting killed? This guy is torn in two, what's going to happen with that. Now a shark's eating him. And now it's okay, we're kind of philosophizing, but the philosophizing is a little bit distorted or toxic. That kind of, weird moments of strange rhythm and then explosions of trauma and then recapturing and sudden left turns that we're trying to have in the 11 minutes. The narrative, that's the word you used, and it seems like a pretty tony word so I'll use it.

Q: So who's doing the voices for the show?

EK: Well I'm doing the voice of one of the bugs.

TM: I'm doing the voice of a delivery man.

EK: Dave Herman is doing the voice of Uncle Gabby. Becky Thyre is doing the voice of any being that is female. If it's part of the universe of female-hood, it's portrayed by Becky Thyre. And the multitalented Dino Stamatopoulos [creator-writer-producer-voice actor of, among other things, Adult Swim's Moral Orel] is doing the voice of Drinky Crow.

Q: Do you feel you accomplished what you set out to do with the show?

EK: Yeah. It's a pilot and a pilot is just laying down the rules of the game. It's like a launching pad to do even more crazy stuff once everybody understands these are the characters, this is the reality. And we will in the series explore more places. In the pilot I really wanted to make it clear that these guys work on a ship. But the first few episodes will not be on a ship, we're going to get to know what these guys are like at home and other places.

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