Hey Geekaverse! Long time no see! For those of you unaware – I have been on a Rock and Roll quest that has forced me to spend less time here on the “mothership” but I had the good fortune to spend some time with one of my personal heroes – Warren the Ape creator, Dan Milano. I cannot stress enough how awesome he was and as it turns out I don’t need to because you can read it for yourself. Puppets have never been so…hot.
Warren the Ape, Greg the Bunny, Count Blah, Tardy; this is a great ensemble of characters. And just because they didn’t sacrifice their fabric to the wrinkled Gods of tanning like some Snookie & just because adolescent puppets can’t impregnate or get pregnant, MTV canceled it’s one shot at redemption. MTV had a chance to embrace greatness but with the cancellation of Warren the Ape, they are left to perish in what we can only hope is a deep sea of Wookiee manure. Let’s start here Dan – is there any chance we’ll get to see these Fabricated-Americans ever again?
Well, there is always a chance. We’ve done four incarnations of these characters for three networks over the past eleven years. (IFC in 1999, FOX in 2001, IFC in 2005-6 and MTV in 2010).
That’s not counting the first year, where we appeared on public access TV in Manhattan (MNN, 1998-9). So nothing has ever stopped us from developing another show after the previous one had been cancelled. Thankfully we own the rights to all the characters we created before doing the FOX show, so we can keep trying to make these shows as long as we want.
I definitely see what the flaws of the traditional marketplace are, and I think if we did it again we’d likely go back to basics (like that first public access show) and try a new media approach rather than traditional TV. But who knows. Right now I’m licking those wounds and working on other projects. But the puppets are literally always in my head, and if the right thing comes along our team will certainly consider regrouping.
If you could only write, direct or perform which would you choose and why?
That is such a great question – they all give me something different. When I was really little, I wanted to be a puppeteer. Moving puppets and giving them body language and voice was very natural to me. It’s also a great way to express character, you don’t have to be self-conscious at all because you’re not on camera, the puppet is. But it’s very physical and exhausting. So much work goes into it and most of the time people don’t even realize that the puppeteer is also doing the voice, or that the performance is as complex as it really is.
As I got older I wanted to write and kind of be a world builder. I admired so many writers, and humorists and dreamt of writing for movies and television. I’ve had the good fortune to be moderately successful at both, meaning I’m in the industry and making a living, though the projects have had very low visibility. I also learned that TV writing usually involves a group, and is very social, whereas film writing is very solitary, and takes months, even years. So even though I’m kind of shy I prefer TV writing because of the interaction with smart, cool people. It’s good for morale. Film can be lonely and drive you mad.
Directing four episodes of Warren the Ape was an incredible experience. On the first episode I was leaning a lot on my Director of Photography, but by the last we were collaborating fully and I took great pleasure in blocking scenes with actors, adjusting performances, etc. We do a lot of improv based on scripted outlines (like Curb your Enthusiasm) so we have room to make all kinds of exciting discoveries and that was really amazing, especially with the caliber of actors we get to work with.
Ironically I think my favorite job would be editor, because it kind of lets you be a writer/director in that you can have this god-like ability to take the available footage and re-assemble shots, create moods and implications that might not have been there before or alter performances. It’s really sort of a second writing stage, and with shows like Warren that do a lot of improv, you get so many wonderful choices to make.
I know that wasn’t one of the choices though. I guess I’d have to say writer, but I would definitely prefer TV to film. I’d rather be writing a show like The Office or Arrested Development or The Venture Brothers, with some really smart people than toiling alone in a lonely hotel room banging out pages that might take years (if ever) to get produced.
How is the Short Circuit Reboot coming? Any plans for a Fisher Stevens cameo?
Hah! Perfect segue. Well, I was hired off a pitch by Bob Weinstein himself, and the movie’s original producers. I had a blast working on it and fulfilled my obligations to them by doing a couple drafts. I think it’s fun and strong and as a fan I know it’s the movie I would like to see, while also being a nice update for modern audiences.
At this point I have no idea what state of development it’s in, with film writing you often don’t get a lot of feedback. Check out TALES FROM THE SCRIPT on Netflix, it pretty much explains the experience of the Hollywood Screenwriter as best as possible.
I have high hopes though. From my very first draft I made sure to write cameos for the entire original cast, and I also tried hard to write Johnny Five with Tim Blaney, who performed in the original films, in mind. Ultimately, what they choose to do won’t be in my control. But it seemed to me that everyone liked the cameos I wrote and would reach out to the cast. Fisher especially.
Along with a slew of characters, you are the voice behind both Greg The Bunny & Warren The Ape. I definitely see you as more of a Greg type of guy. But since you do such an incredible job of making Warren what he is, do you ever actually find yourself acting like Warren even when your hand isn’t wedged up his not so pretty place?
Oh gosh yes – I’m also the voice and performer of Count Blah (on the IFC and MTV versions of the show), The Wumpus, Pal Friendlies, Greg’s cousin Gary (all from IFC), plus more than I can even remember. So many voices in my head, and yet, all very distinct to me. I think grew up on ensemble comedies – Monty Python, Looney Tunes, The Muppets, SCTV, SNL, TAXI – and kind of built this cast in my brain over time.
It helped that my co-creators Sean Baker, Spencer Chinoy and our friend Chris Bergoch would often workshop these characters with me – interviewing them and so forth – which helped me to find their individual personalities.
Back when we first started I didn’t even know any puppeteers and we couldn’t pay anyone, so I did everything. I was performing entire scenes with myself, which was insane, and often without much of a script. On FOX I met the amazing puppeteers I still work with, namely Victor Yerrid (Tardy) Drew Massey (FOX Blah, Chauncey Bear) and Paul McGuiness. So many people I’d like to name.
I’d say I’m on default a Greg type of person. People find me optimistic and friendly and pretty much a people pleaser, very shy. A total Virgo, which is to say, ‘the virgin.’ Ugh. But it’s true – I was always very naive, like Kermit the Frog on his first trip to Hollywood.
But yes, there is that other side. The one that swallows all the bile, takes all the hits, curses the world and industry for being unfair, etc. And that is definitely Warren. He hates society because of the way it treats him, he never thinks anyone could love him so he pushes everyone away, etc. I don’t quite have those issues. But many of the dark thoughts that come out of his mouth are me channeling that attitude of the wounded animal. And of course I’m also using influences from MANY documentaries on addicts or true Hollywood stories, etc.
I act like Warren when I’ve been pushed too far. I’ll let go some really acidic comment or sarcasm, I’ll sulk when I think the world is a fucking asshole, I’ll throw an xbox controller when I realize I just paid sixty bucks for some cash-grab title with crappy controls and more bugs than Ooogie Boogie’s colon. But unlike Warren I thankfully don’t need to do tar heroin and pick up dwarf Trannies on Mansfield Avenue in order to feel something.
I literally pray for it. I’ve mentioned as much to folks at Mattel and the boys over at Stoopid Monkey. It’s been joked about, but who knows. I’d totally be down to co-create that show with Matt & Seth if they needed the push, and they know for damn sure that if they did it themselves I’d show up to do the voice.
I love the character so much and thankful that the guys give him at least one sketch per season, usually written by Mike Fasolo.
But the only other concern is about originality — I’m also a huge fan of The Monarch on Venture Brothers and my biggest fear would be that Skeletor not be too similar to what they’ve done on that show. The voice is already kind of close, and there’d be a temptation to draw material from the same well, a neurotic villain with everyday problems, etc.
That show is flippin genius. So even at our best, we might just be standing in their shadow. But hell, you never know.
We’ve asked Shawn Patterson and Chris McKay about their experience at the Skywalker Ranch Robot Chicken Star Wars 3 screening . . .tag – YOU”RE IT! WAS IT AWESOME? WERE YOU NERVOUS? HOW MANY TIMES HAVE YOU BEEN TO THE RANCH? DO THEY HAVE EWOK SKIN RUGS? SPILL IT!
I’ve been there a couple times, which has been a dream come true. The first time was when Episode II came out and Seth had been invited as a guest. He was allowed to bring a few people along, so he was nice enough to include me. Since then we’ve gone up for two screenings and it’s been a really great experience. It’s a beautiful, expansive compound with lush Naboo hills (no Gungans) and amazing architecture. There’s farm-raised food and clear blue skies – it’s an amazing retreat with incredible facilities.
I can see why someone wouldn’t want to leave, it’s this amazing little retreat deep in the redwoods, totally cut off from the rest of the world. No droid butlers, that was the first thing I noticed. But there is an archive building that only has, oh nothing special, just EVERY FRIGGIN PROP AND COSTUME EVER MADE FOR HIS MOVIES. I’m talkin Howard the Duck in the feathered flesh, y’all. I’m talkin’ Han in Carbonite.
Anyway, we got to watch our show in the main theatre, with Uncle George in attendance. He and his family have been really supportive of us, there’s a truly good-natured relationship there. It’s a nice thing to see. And nicer still to put a human face on this man, who we’ve all held such regard and emotion for. At the end of the day getting to see him in person reminds you that he’s just a guy making his way in the galaxy.
I mean, he could never truly understand the kind of rabid and deep-rooted passion our generation has for his movies any more than we can understand how overwhelming it all must be to him. I found him to be a very polite, shy man with a good sense of humor who is really enjoying making light of his own movies. You think when you meet him he’s gonna be the Wizard of Oz, and grant you some incredible wisdom. But behind the curtain is just this sweet movie nerd who just so happens to have built an empire. It was a very special experience to have seen him in his world.
Three words: Star Wars Prequels. Your thoughts?
Wow. Here we go. There’s the rational response and the fanboy response. The rational response is that I can still cherish what star wars means to me without the prequels getting in the way. I have to refuse not to get too passionate about what my expectations were versus what I came away with. An entire new generation of kids loves these movies and I must admit I’ve seen them a zillion times myself, so I talk a big game but at the end of the day still sit through them. And why? Because warts and all, I love Star Wars, dammit.
Mostly I think that the original Star Wars was an amazing trial by fire of a man who had to continually compromise his vision, from cutting his script down from an elaborate saga to one little chapter, to entrusting artisans and craftsmen to interpret his vision, to slashing budgets and making do with available elements, etc. And out of the creative solutions to those problems arose this amazing little movie that could, this underdog freak that was destined to fail but instead captured our imaginations.
It was lightning in a bottle – an imaginative movie, released at that fateful time when the culture needed it. Trying to do it all over again is like Bill Murray trying to recapture his romantic snowball fight in Groundhog Day. Sometimes you just have to appreciate the moment you had, and know it can never be truly recaptured.
As far as my personal comment on the prequels, I really only have one major comment, and it has to do mostly with the writing of the trilogy as a whole. I felt the films were kind of disconnected from one another, and always wished their stories had been more interwoven.
I wanted to meet Count Dooku in Episode One, perhaps see him resign from the Jedi Order. I wanted to see Anakin try to go home in Episode II, only to have the Jedi refuse to let him put attachment over duty, and then blame them more directly for losing his mother. I wanted to see the alien who would become General Grievous in Episode One, hell maybe even have it be Darth Maul, who becomes this mechanical monster at the beginning of Episode III, etc. Something that really felt intricate and over-reaching.
But look – I think George Lucas has done enough for the technology of filmmaking and for the culture of our generation that we should just be thankful for what he originally gave us and “let go our anger” over the fact that we weren’t as into the second snowball fight.
The guy gave us more than we can ever give back. The belief in a force beyond us, the belief that a farmer can reach the stars, the belief that somewhere, someone has the ‘I know’ for our ‘I love you,’ and that a space vagina can digest a dude for a thousand years.
You own a lot of geeky goodness, what is your most prized possession?
Wow I have a lot. My most prized is my wedding album, 150 friends and relatives dressed as all kinds of characters from science fiction, fantasy and comics. We were married on the Enterprise Bridge, back when Vegas used to have that “Star Trek Experience.” Was such a blast. The album has all the photos, plus autographs to my wife and I from Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee WIllians, Frank Oz, Kenny Baker, Anthony Daniels, Jeremy Bulloch and David Prowse. Friends helped me get all the autographs. Hands down priceless.
Of the toys and things, I have a lot of fun stuff. Pinball and pachinko machines, twelve inch dolls (er, figures) and some prop replicas. This was all bought before I grew a brain that could prioritize and some sense of financial responsibility. Not that I regret any of it. I’m just a little more selective now.
My two favorite purchases are the Attakus Millennium Falcon Death Star hangar diorama, which is a beautiful crafted diorama that my wife bought for me. You can see a huge photo blog I posted about it here.
And the Japanese “Final Box” DVD set of every Godzilla movie, which came with an amazing 1:1 scale Godzilla head sculpted by one of the suit creators as a replica of the 1956 original. I’ll dig up a photo of that. It’s a great purchase though I cannot speak Japanese and the movies have no English subtitles. But this was the first time they were all released letterboxed and with commentary (that I cannot understand.) Sigh.
If we do a Geekpropaganda produced reboot of King Kong would you consider letting Warren play the title role? It could be HUGE (we’ve actually written a part for Fisher Stevens!!)
LOL I can tell you he’d love the idea. Only he’d insist on improvising his own brand of Shakespearean dialogue for Kong I’m sure. “Woe is this, the allure of beauty that doth pluck mine native fruit from nature’s vine? An apple bit, that would soon decay this garden, seducing me into the blinding lights of industry….” And scene.
Where do you keep the Emmy you won as a writer for Robot Chicken? The wings on the Emmy statue look rather sharp. Have you ever accidentally impaled anyone on it?
No, I didn’t get one. Cue “Press Your Luck” whammy music. I got two nominations, but the year we finally won I was not on the writing staff and so I totally missed out on being there. I do have two Annie awards on my shelf but they’re hardly lethal. No foolin, I have totally played with the other guys’ emmys and no shit they could absolutely kill a person. You have no idea how sharp they are.
In all seriousness, I’m fine with it. I don’t sweat stuff too much. And honestly everyone thinks I won, so industry-wise I still reap the benefits, LOL. But yeah, it would be nice to have a lethal angel of my own, holding her little wireframe ball. It really lights up a room.
But then, so does a 1:1 scale 1956 Godzilla head.
Growing up in Northport LI, did you ever … hang out at Gunthers? Drink Beers on the grounds of the VA, Shop at Fourth World Comics?
Awesome! Best question ever!!!!! Yes, I remember Gunthers Tavern! I went to Northport High, totally bought comics at Fourth World. Back then I was just discovering Dark Horse and the cool ALIENS series they were doing, I used to love those. They had a Guns n Roses pinball machine that would say, “Welcome to the jungle, baby!” when you put a quarter in.
I wrote an NYU thesis film for a friend of mine to direct – it was a about a comic book author whose character comes to life, and we shot a signing scene there. That was probably my last time there. God, I think that was Fourth World. I knew the VA but didn’t drink on the grounds – I was lucky enough to have the best job as an usher and concession guy at the Northport Movie theatre.
That theatre was run by a bunch of High Schoolers, I think the oldest person there was probably 21. We’d close up at night and then have parties. We’d screen the movies for ourselves, mix drinks at the concession stand, it was amazing. Time of my life. I still have the little black bowtie. And I’m still in touch with most of the friends I made there.
You’re about the right age to remember the Ricky Kasso murder. Do you? What was it like living in Northport at that time – Calmixx (One of our writers) grew up in Smithtown and remembers the whole town going crazy with talk of Satanists and banning Jim Morrison music.
I was a little oblivious at the actual time but definitely caught on as I got a bit older. I think the book based on these events was called SAY YOU LOVE SATAN, and this is total hearsay but I’m told it was the basis for Tim Hunter’s movie RIVER’S EDGE with Keanu Reeves, Ionie Skye (remember her?) Dennis Hopper and Crispin Glover.
You are a frequent writer for Robot Chicken, what is your favorite sketch you’ve written that actually made it on to the show?
Tom Root once pointed out that most of my stuff involves personified animals going through some kind of existential dilemma. The girl torturing Pegasus into changing its name to “Sunnymuffins,” or the Krayt Dragon setting out to discover the world in Robot Chicken Star Wars Ii. Of those, my all time favorite is the “Seven Stages of Grief” sketch featuring the giraffe in quicksand. So proud of it, and so happy they aired it. Of course they cut it down to five stages, but what is art without compromise.
Having worked in TV for some time now in many different jobs – which one is best? Worst?
Worst job is probably catering. Having to please a tired crew on a budget ain’t easy. You gotta keep the hot stuff hot, the cold stuff cold, don’t run out of anything, make sure the one guy gets the health food he likes and that the other guy gets their junk food, etc. Thankless job. One of the many people I always try to be super nice to. They take a lot of crap from hungry people.
In all seriousness, the development executive has a terrible job in our industry. They are creative enough to know good stuff. It’s their job to know, find and develop good stuff. But their bosses aren’t always creative, and they judge harshly. And creators can be difficult, because they resist (often rightfully so, but sometimes in ignorance) having to compromise their product. So these people have to constantly try to wedge square pegs into round holes. And if they make a mistake, they’re fired. There are few or little second chances for them in the industry. A writer can always take another swing at bat, but development executives have to turn in their hat and glove. So it’s no wonder so many of them get scared to stick their necks out for anything different.
The best job for me is writing (which in my experience has also included aspects of editing and performing). They’re the most creative. I am thankful for anything that lets me build and revise the details of worlds and characters. Any job that lets you do for work what you’d normally be obsessing over in your hobby time is the best job ever. And If I weren’t writing movies and TV for a living, I’d be home writing a really good module for my D&D group to run through.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers, puppeteers or just geeky kids growing up & trying to make it in this cruel world?
People write to me, I try to write them all back. There are a few things I’ve learned that I do try to impart as much as possible.
First of all, you must love this. You must need this. It must be clear, as I said earlier, that you would be writing, performing, drawing, editing or directing whether you are professional or financial success or not. If this is your passion and you just need to focus it and hone it and point it in the best possible direction to succeed, then you are well on your way.
Needing to do these things, ensures that you WILL. No matter what, you will always be generating material, even within the limits of your everyday life, and continuing to improve and hone your abilities. It ensures that you are more likely to meet the like-minded people who will undoubtedly become your cronies, it ensures that you will create various products that will expose your work to others, and give you many chances for opportunities.
If the thing you need most is just the idea of being famous, you’ve got a harder road. If you really have to fight to focus on your creative pursuits, or leave them unfinished, you have a harder road. If you think you can do it all yourself and don’t need help, can’t handle criticism and believe your first attempt is your best and only attempt —- you’ve got a nearly impossible road.
I got into the business because as a kid I took photos, I played with puppets, I read published scripts from my favorite shows and books on the making of my favorite movies and programs. I watched documentaries and interviews; I clipped articles on my favorite writers and performers. I drew books that my mom stapled together, and made short videos for my friends to see them laugh.
I was lucky that my family and friends showed me tremendous encouragement. Thankfully I did not suffer a tremendous amount of adversity and I admire those who can continue to believe in themselves despite that kind of oppression.
At school I teamed up with like-minded friends and we made projects together. We experimented, we tried things, we did stuff that made us laugh. It keeps you from getting fatigued; it gives you others to feel responsible for. Projects got finished, silly and stupid as they were.
Eventually I graduated college and had no prospects. Two friends and I said (for the billionth time) that we wanted to make a public access show. Another friend dared us to, said we’d never finish it. Challenge accepted. We made a show (junktape) with a puppet character that we struggled to shoot and edit in our spare time after work and on weekends.
We labored over it, we argued over every cut, every scene, every detail. It was important to us, even though we knew nobody would ever see it. We NEEDED IT TO BE GOOD. Now, it’s arguable if it was any good. But still, we put a lot of ourselves out there, and fatefully, we got something back.
Because we put a phone number at the end of the credits, an agent from William Morris called us in for a meeting. It was that simple. We couldn’t believe it. Agents watch public access? So it’s the same today. You have to find a way to stand out and get someone’s attention. If your voice is pure and just a little bit different, people will hear it.
The funniest thing? We already started talking to IFC about doing a show before William Morris ever called. Because we weren’t waiting for someone to find us, we were trying multiple ways of getting found. We’d heard IFC was looking for some kind of mascot, and we recorded a video of Greg the Bunny begging for a job, along with a trailer for our show. And guess what? They hired him.
So the best part was not just having this agent call us, but telling him, “We’ve already got an offer for a tv show…” That kind of blew his mind.
Anyway, it’s hard. The business is hard, and the work is WORK. You need friends to lean on physically and emotionally. You need to wish well for others as well as for yourself. And if it ever stops being fun, if you’re angry all the time, then you need to find something else that gives you joy and do that instead.
Final thoughts? Perhaps you’d like to share an inventive Haiku or maybe just publicly harass MTV. Whatever you want to say at this moment, do it. It’s your one shot, so don’t screw it up.
I can only speak from my experience and have no real idea how or why our show was not better received by the public, or treated with more care by the network. It’s like a person breaking up with you and never giving you the respect of telling you why. So you wonder for the rest of your life if they were insane or if you were unlovable. So my theories here are based only on an impression and should not be taken as fact.
I feel like some of these smaller companies are made up of really good people who unfortunately cannot work as a functional whole.
The higher-level execs are passing through, using the gig as a stepping stone to other jobs. To them, the stuff being made are just titles on paper and trailers in board meetings. There is no attachment whatsoever, for the same reason you don’t name a cow that you’re going to sacrifice to your barbecue grill.
The lower-level execs aren’t taking risks because they fear to lose the jobs they have. They care, but there’s only so much they’re willing to do for you. They’re not gonna risk pissing off the boss by telling him they like hot dogs instead of burgers.
So it becomes hard to cultivate and grow an original concept. It takes a risk to do something different, and it takes money to get the word out. So to be the most effective, you make the cheapest (reality) shows possible, and aim them at the audience you already have watching. If they get ratings, that’s considered a hit. If your show does not get immediate ratings, that’s a flop. Get rid of it.
That’s the formula and creatively it’s the equivalent of the doggie paddle. It’s doing just enough to stay afloat until someone teaches us all to swim or closes the pool and sends us home.
Our show may not have been everyone’s cup of tea. You can’t blame a network completely and not also face the fact that your show failed to have a significant impact. If we were a hit, we’d be shooting season two as I type this. But we weren’t. People watched RJ Berger, changed the channel, and came back after we were over. Ouch.
I am suspicious of anyone who blames others for their own shortcomings. So clearly the audience did not respond to us, and the ones that did were typically not people who normally watched MTV.
I’d think that was a good thing. I’d think a network would market to those people, to grow the audience into something bigger, bring back people who weren’t there before. But that’s expensive. It’s so much easier to just cancel the thing and try again with a cheaper show that doesn’t need any explanation.
All I know is, every network wants their Family Guy, something that is smart and edgy and appeals to teens and adults alike, with the potential to sell T-shirts and dolls in malls across America. No matter how good Teen Mom is, you can’t sell a backpack with their faces on it. Warren the Ape might not have had instant ratings, but it always had potential. The question is whether or not the network recognized that potential and felt they could afford to take a chance on it. Clearly they didn’t think so.
You gotta be in it to win it. With MTV, I feel like they weren’t in it. We held up our end of the bargain and made the product they literally asked us for. They responded with dead web links and zero advertising. Hell, we could have done that ourselves.
But I’d like to thank MTV for giving us the opportunity to have made Warren the Ape. For allowing Spencer Chinoy, Sean Baker and I to develop Warren in a way we’d never been able to before. For introducing me to talented actors, producers and craftsmen & women who gave so much of their passion, sweat and inspiration to us. No bullshit, they blew me away with their resourcefulness and positive attitude.
So honestly, it’s all worth it. Like I said, if you LOVE this stuff, if you NEED it, then there’s no real such thing as failure. Because tomorrow I can play with puppets or do funny voices, or write up a weird story, whether you end up seeing it on TV or not.
But hopefully soon you will. Action figures don’t buy themselves.
Thank you for playing with us Dan – we can’t wait to see what you do next!