Interview with Mike Reiss, the screenwriter of animated series The Simpsons (1989 – 1993), The Critic (1994-1995), Queer Duck (2002-2004) and the features The Simpsons Movie (2007), Ice Age 3 – Dawn of the Dinosaurs (2009) Ice Age 4 – Countries in Movement (2012) and current upcoming sequel Ice Age 5 – Mammoth Jolt (2016).
He holds four Emmy awards for outstanding animated program (Primetime Emmy Award in 2001, 1995, 1991, 1990), awards for Lifetime Achievement from the Animation Writers Caucus (2006). As a screenwriter, he participated in more than twenty animated films, including two Ice Age movies, three parts of Despicable Me, The Lorax, Rio, Kung Fu Panda 3 and The Simpsons Movie.
He is also an award-winning playwright, author of children’s books and books with mystery themes. He is presently chairing the International jury for feature and animated films Finále Plzeň festival where he has come to be more closely acquainted with several Czech animated films for the first time.
How did you like Lethal Stories and Little Man?
It was odd, they’re completely different movies than what I’m used to. So far everything I’ve seen has been quite surprising to me. Your work has a completely different character, it’s exciting because you never know where it will develop. The story and the animation style are fresh for me. The only Czech author I knew before my arrival in the Czech Republic was Švankmajer, which scares me a little – I like fun things. But everything I’ve seen here at the finals was great. In America I go to the cinema twice a week, and since the beginning of the year I’ve only seen two good movies. Here I have seen twice that much in a few days. I particularly like the scripts, the stories are more complicated and surprising.
That level of Czech films surprised you?
No, you are well-known for that. Many Czech and Slovak directors came to the US and made magnificent films there, such as Milos Forman. I’m not surprised, but I ask myself, how do you know how to shoot such nice movies. Perhaps it starts with one man and others then say – hey, I can do it too! Then the creative wave transmits to the whole country.
What good animated movie have you seen lately?
One of my colleagues from The Simpsons developed a script for a feature film Zootropolis – City Animal (Czech premiere March 3, 2016). It is a kind of an animated thriller, which is funny, but it also has a social subtext, fighting prejudice and police bias. The craftsmanship is really very good. Otherwise, overall, I like the production of DreamWorks.
Do you see a leader in the animation industry today?
Many countries have great animation studios but not all of them are able to turn that into a good movie. I was in China, where they showed me their projects. Their animators are excellent, but they do not know how to tell a story, how to make a movie story somehow funny or interesting. Take South Park for instance – it has completely terrible animation, they even spent a load of money on the software just to make it look so awful, and yet they had huge success simply because it’s funny. I think that every country can succeed when they work with what is typical for them in animation and what is interesting to others. For instance I was just on vacation in Ghana and it occurred to me to do a series about how people live in Africa – everyone is fighting in the street and then they went to church, where they prayed for peace and quiet, but once they come back in the street again they go for the jugular. If someone shot The Simpsons from Ghana, everyone would have a great time.
Where did the success of The Simpsons come from? They are anchored in American society while still having worldwide popularity…
This is what I am asking myself too. I don’t get it! How is it that they are popular in India, South America, here with you in the Czech Republic? We actually started writing it for ourselves, to have fun. We thought it would be a disaster, no one will watch, but we tried anyway. We didn’t care what people would think of it, even in Boston or Chicago to say nothing of somewhere overseas. We thought the show wouldn’t last longer than six weeks. And you see, we are broadcasting already season twenty seven! I think it’s how strange they look, but they are people like us. You just have to love them.
How do you choose an animation studio for such a gigantic project?
But it was not a huge project at all! It began as a one-minute cartoon sketch, which ran on different channels. There wasn’t much money for it, so we were looking for some cheap animator. We just came to that company and they just used the people they just had. And a few years later they were nominated for Oscars and so on…
How did the one-minute sketches become a half-hour show?
When the creators of the show on Fox TV that The Simpsons were on found out that little kids are willing to get through watching 27 minutes of boredom, only to see the cartoon characters at the end, they decided to try to make it a stand-alone program. It was a risk at that time, there was no longer animated program running on any TV channel. Fox TV invested $13 million in the production of the first parts. They were crazy with fear, and so were we!
Imagine that I am a young aspiring animator from Europe with an idea for a new project, even better than the Simpsons, but not exactly great financial support. What would you advise?
Do it! Nowadays you don’t need much money to succeed. What’s important is the idea and the originality. It has to be something new and different, something others will notice of immediately, something they haven’t seen yet. You cannot plead lack of financing, there are numerous programs on the internet you can learn animation from, or you can buy a handy and inexpensive animator.
And what does a good idea like that look like? Where do you take the inspiration?
I am fortunate that I was born funny. You can’t do anything about this, you either have good ideas or you don’t. I don’t have to think about it too much, I’m always getting all kinds of ridiculous ideas. In the Middle Ages they would have branded me a fool and maybe burned me to death, but today I can even make a living with it. I always keep a pen and paper with me, the best things come to me when I get bored standing a queue for example. Or when I’m asleep. Once I had a whole script in a dream, I woke up and wrote it down. A movie was then shot based on it.
How is it with the support for the animation industry in the US?
There is no public support, everything goes through private investors. The large studios always want cartoons because it’s a certainty – cartoons and superheroes always make money. They mostly plan to produce at least one or two feature films a year.
Besides being a screenwriter you were also a showrunner for few years. What does that involve?
It is one of the most difficult positions in the film industry. You are not only the author or producer, you’re everything at the same time. You cast actors, hire animators, control the budget, elaborate on the script, deal with the TV owners… I did it for two years in The Simpsons and three more for another show and I hated it. I prayed that I would have a heart attack and could stop doing it. I worked 100 hours a week, gained 30 kilos and I didn’t get to the work I enjoyed most – screenwriting. Now I don’t write the entire script, rather just invent jokes for them. Authors of animated films often turn to me because their piece isn’t working well and they ask me for a soundbite that will save it at the end.
In addition to the Simpsons you’re also an author and producer of the Queer Duck series (the hero duck is gay – it was the first animated gay character). The series was very popular with the public and received critical acclaim, in Britain they even nominated it as one of the 100 best animated films in history.
I am more proud of Queer Duck than anything I ever made. I didn’t like how the TV portrayed homosexuals – often as ridiculous characters whose only characteristic is that they are gay. Among animated films, there was not even a single gay hero. In the US, there are constant discussions about the equal representation of minorities in the media; now they’re discussing that there were no African American actors nominated for Oscars.
Then what made the Queer Duck interesting, aside from being gay?
He was cute. Certainly the animator played a role in this, as he imprinted his style onto him – it was made in Macromedia Flash, partly also because of money. We were thinking of something cheap that would work well on the Internet. And of course people enjoy the improper humour, like with most things I write.