Monday, November 1, 2010

Interview: Michael Buckley

A great series that you might not have heard of, Robotomy is currently airing at 8:45 on Mondays on Cartoon Network. I was fortunate enough to be able to ask series creator Michael Buckley some questions about the show. I was also able to talk to him about his book series The Sisters Grimm & N.E.R.D.S. What follows is my interview with Mr Buckley. Enjoy :)

So you grew up in Akron, Ohio. When you were little growing up in Ohio did you always feel you wanted to be a writer, or did you have different career aspirations?
Michael Buckley: Actually, as a kid I was fascinated with Walt Disney and Walter Lantz. I wanted to be an animator and I loved to draw. Thing is, I was never great - I'm ok, but if you want to do that kind of work you really have to have a gift. So, I started paying more attention to the stories in the cartoons than the art.

At what point did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
Buckley: Well, I was always writing stories in notebooks when i was a kid and I was always a reader. I don't think it hit me that writing might be something I'd like to do until I was in high school and started doing stand up comedy. Writing your own jokes can teach you a lot about the rhythm of language and speech. That's when I started to really see the power of words.

Sometime after graduating from Ohio University you moved to New York, was that kind of a culture shock for you having grown up in a town with about 200,000 people to this huge city with millions of people?
Buckley: Even when I was little and had no idea what New York City was I wanted to live here. When I was about to graduate from college I got an internship on the Late Show with David Letterman and decided to take it. I had no money, no friends, and no place to live here but I still came. I stuffed my belongings into an empty office in the basement of the Ed Sullivan Theater and slept in a YMCA for 6 weeks. It, in a word, sucked. But I could see Central Park from my window and there was a great Chinese place nearby and Lincoln Center and millions of people from every corner of the world and I just said to myself, "there is no way in hell I'm going back." Akron isn't such a bad place to live and I still have great friends there but I wanted something bigger than what it could offer and I have no regrets. Sometimes, I walk down a street here and I just can't believe I live here.

So you mentioned you did a internship with the Late Show with David Letterman, what was that experience like?
Buckley: You know, it was hard, hard work. I was in the research department which dedicates itself to the guest segments and it was a lot of running around and trying to find old magazines and embarrassing movies that the guests would probably have preferred never saw the light of day, again. It was a good 11 hour day - for no pay, and most of the staff were insane. To be perfectly honest, the most well-adjusted person that works for Dave is Dave himself. He was very kind and friendly. He tossed a football with me in the hall on my first day and always said hello. I'm glad I took the internship. It changed my whole life.

The first children's series you started working on was The Sisters Grimm, which follows two sisters who are descendants of The Brothers Grimm, who live in a world where the creations of such famous authors as Shakespeare and Hans Christian Andersen actually exist, how did you come up with the concept for the series and how long did it take you to get the first book published?
Buckley: The idea sort of hit me out of the blue. I was on a date with my now-wife, Alison, and it just came to me. I thought it would be a good cartoon but she insisted that I try it as a book. She's much smarter than I am - she even coined the term "Everafters" so I try to listen when she gives advice. As for getting it published there were a few bumps but I was very blessed to find a great publisher right away. I was signed to a three book deal without having attempted to publish anything before. My editor, Susan Van Metre, took an amazing chance on me. My wife, who is also now my literary agent, was also a huge factor in getting it into the right hands.

It has recently been announced that The Sisters Grim is being turned into a film, what is the current status with that project?
Buckley: Well, it's hard to say. I think something is happening with it but I'm going to keep it to myself for now. Hollywood is a fickle place filled with a lot of people who really should be on some kind of attention deficit disorder medication. I think it would be nice for the fans to see a film but I don't necessarily need it to happen financially or professionally. I'm not going to let Hollywood change the girls into boys or put a sparkly vampire in it so...we'll see what happens.

Moving on to the other book series that you write N.E.R.D.S, I was curious what influenced you to write a children's spy series? Based on what I have read about the series it certainly feels like it could be the spiritually successor to something like Kids Next Door.
Buckley: You know, I have never seen Kids Next Door and I probably should. The idea came to me at my high school reunion - all the popular kids were sort of miserable but all those nerds from way back were doing awesome stuff with their lives. I thought kids might like to know that being a nerd is not so bad - in fact, all the really cool people who change the world tend to be kind of oddballs. I was inspired by Austin Powers, and Mel Brooks and Steve Martin when writing it - I wanted to do something very different in style and voice than Sisters Grimm, so this is pretty wacky. I'd say Ian Fleming was a big deal for me, too - though most of those stories are not for kids. Heck, some of them aren't for adults, either.

Any possibility of turning N.E.R.D.S into a animated series?
Buckley: Again, I hear grumblings but who knows? It's certainly selling very well - it was on the NY Times bestseller list a few weeks back. I think it would make an awesome animated film - maybe something 3D. I guess if no one picks it up I could do it myself. Let's pray Robotomy is a hit - it's easier to do something like that when you have something else that's successful.

Speaking of animated series, lets talk about Robotomy the series you created with Joe Deasy. Was it always intended to be a animated series or did it originally start as another book series?
Buckley: Robotomy was always a TV show. Joe and I did it after Cartoon Network asked us to come up with something just for them. It's gone through a lot of twists and turns but in the end it's very close to our original pitch. We were thinking Freaks and Geeks or Superbad - but with killer robots and that's what we got.

You are working on the show with Christy Karacas who is primarily known for helping to create the [Adult Swim] series Superjail, how did he get involved with the series?
Buckley: CN hooked us up. I had seen a couple of episodes of Superjail! and thought it was visually spectacular. It's a very insane show and the network was hoping to do something similar for kids. It wasn't always easy seeing how Joe and my vision would mix with Christy's amazing art style but in the end I think we're all very happy. I have a lot of respect for him. He has a style all his own and you can't say that for many people. Every line of that show elevates our scripts. It's a great collaboration.

You can definitely see his influence on the show as it shares that similar type of animation design as Superjail, was that always the intention from the beginning or did you all slowly go hey we love what were seeing with Superjail can we try and apply it to Robotomy?
Buckley: I'm sure there were conversations like that at the network but Joe and I didn't really know what we wanted in terms of art when this all began. Now, I can't imagine it any other way.

Another thing that gets me really excited is the people you have doing voices for the show, I mean you have Patton Oswalt, Dana Snyder, and one of my favorite New York comedians John Gemberling voicing main characters, were these people who you had in mind for the parts originally or did they all audition?
Buckley: I love our cast - each one of them is an amazing actor. Patton is the right person to play Thrasher - he's a gifted comic and he brings that sort of indescribable sympathy to the character (wait, did I just describe it?). Dana is like a beehive of voices - you just don't know what he's capable of - it's scary. It bewilders me that Master Shake works on our show. John was our only choice for Blastus. His voice and instincts are so right on. But there are other amazing people doing voices on the show - Jessie Cantrell plays Maimy and we literally auditioned hundreds of actresses before her. Kate McKinnon is also on the show and I have to say probably the single funniest female comic I've ever met. Her voice range is beyond words - she can literally do anything and she was the first person we cast. Mike Sinterniklaas plays Weenus - he also does Dean on Venture Bros. and he's the voice director on our show as well. Mike is our Phil Hartman - our go-to guy. He also plays Megawatt, on the show. Joe and I get to do a voice here and there, too. I usually do the animal voices and monsters.

Have you seen John Gemberling perform improv at UCB theater?
Buckley: Well, when you have 3 year old you don't get to see anything. The last movie I saw in the theater had Charlie Chaplin in it. Joe has seen him perform many times so I live vicariously through him. I'm told he's great. One of these days I'll find a reliable baby sitter and go out and see all these amazing people that work with me.

I have heard that several million dollars were spent making essentially 5 episodes (will be aired as ten 15 minute episodes) considering the tone of the series is cartoon network a little nervous?
Buckley: I don't have an exact number but we did go over budget a little. We made 10 fifteen minute episodes. When you spend that kind of money it's natural for the people who spent the money to get nervous. The show is violent and irreverent. We go in crazy directions. There's musical numbers. You just don't know what you're going to see from week to week. But, Cartoon Network had enough faith to put us on their Monday night lineup which is a major vote of confidence. To be in the same block as Adventure Time, Regular Show and MAD is really the best possible way to launch our little program.

As far as tone goes I honestly feel its the closest thing to an [Adult Swim] series your going to see on Cartoon Network, do you agree?
Buckley: Well, there were some thoughts that our show might act as a bridge from the little kid stuff to Adult Swim. I think we can have more grown-up fun on our show than a lot of other things on the channel. I just hope the audience reacts to it so the suits are compelled to produce more episodes and other shows with the same kind of sensibilities.

I have noticed a extreme lack of advertising on the part of Cartoon Network, I didn't even know the show was premiering until the day before, do you happen to know why cartoon network is not pushing this as much as say Adventure Time or Regular Show?
Buckley: You've noticed that, too? LOL. Listen, I've never run a television network. I don't know the internal mechanism about why one show gets lots of promotion while another doesn't. I'm sure there is someone over there that makes those decisions and they are for very good reasons. All I know is that we made a damn good show that is funny and makes me laugh. I have to admit it hurts a little but the first episode managed to bring in nearly 1.8 million viewers with very little promotion. I do know that the people I speak with at the network are tremendous fans of the show - they put a truck load of time and personal effort into helping us make it great. Even the people at the very top made contributions. I have a feeling that if tonight does as well as last week we'll see a sea change and then you'll write that you're sick of all the Robotomy crap. ;)

What has the fan reaction been like so far?
Buckley: For the most part I've been overwhelmed by the response - people are quoting the show on Twitter and Facebook. I'm seeing some of the animation boards lighting up with fans. I'm hoping they spread the word. Then there's this one guy who bad mouths the show but I'm going to find him and punch him in his stupid, doughy face.

Are you currently working on any new projects?
Buckley: I'm finishing up a first draft of NERDS 3, then writing Sisters Grimm 9 - followed by a graphic novel and then a picture book for kids. I'm busy but that's how I like it.

Any final words to the people reading this interview?
Buckley: I hope you'll check out the show. It was a lot of hard work but I'm proud as hell of it. Joe, Christy, and I made what we wanted to and you can't always say that in television. You'll probably laugh and if you don't .. well, it was only fifteen minutes. It's not like we wasted your whole day. I've been on the toilet longer than fifteen minutes.

I would like to say thanks so much to Mr Buckley for his time. Robotomy airs Mondays at 8:45 on Cartoon Network and you can follow Michael on twitter he is @Buckley5000 and you can visit his website .

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