"Secrets of Season One "
A Revealing Look at the First Season with David Slack
This interview was conducted in September 2004
DAVID SLACK has written for numerous animated shows including "Jackie Chan Adventures", "The Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot", "Tarzan", "Totally Spies", and the upcoming "Hi Hi Puffy Ami Yumi". He is currently serving as a Story Editor and Producer on the hit series "Teen Titans." David took some time out of his busy schedule to talk in depth about all the secrets behind season one!
Story Editor and Producer,
Bill Walko: Looking back on the first episode, DIVIDE AND CONQUER… how did you decide to approach the first episode?
David Slack: Honestly, it seems so long ago it's almost hard to remember. DIVIDE AND CONQUER was about introducing the characters and introducing Slade -- and also the style of the show. The story where Cyborg quits and the comes back in the end... that was a story that Glen had in mind. It's a classic anime plot. Early on in one of our first meetings, Glen had said, "Howcum nobody just does simple stories anymore?" So DIVIDE AND CONQUER became an exercise in me telling the simplest story possible. I originally had more in there; I was going to do something with Cinderblock using that cannon against Titans Tower. But Glen suggested pulling that out. In hindsight, I think we've all agreed that maybe that episode was a little TOO simple [laughs].
But it was really about constructing something to show the members of the team, give a sense for the show and give a taste of who Slade was.
BW: Well, also, the end of the episode is the coda for the show... that they are stronger as a group working together than as individuals.
David: I noticed that everyone picked up on that very clear theme. In the end, it's a show about family. About friendship... and not being isolated and alone. So in a way, that episode set that theme for the whole show. So right off the bat, we played the "What if the Titan break up?" card. We knew we didn't want to do an origin episode, because that felt very explanatory. We were trying to avoid explaining things. But we still needed to establish the importantance of the group and what they all meant to each other. So we focused on Robin and Cyborg... and the very relatable issue of what it's like to get in a fight with your friend.
BW: Any reason why they aired FINAL EXAM as the premiere rather than DIVIDE AND CONQUER?
David: That was Cartoon Network's choice and I think it was a good one. I think FINAL EXAM came out a little more polished. The team had gelled a little more. That was Rob Hoegee's episode and I think it's a real fun one.
"So we focused on Robin and Cyborg... and the very relatable issue of what it's like to get in a fight with your friend. "
I do like them to air in order, just for continuity. And for the cause and effect how they first encounter Slade. Now they air them in order, and it will be in order on the DVD.
BW: A lot of times, you see a first episode of a show, and there' things that work really well, and some that don't. Was there anything that you discovered writing the first show.. like what worked and what didn’t? And in those first few episodes, was there anything you discarded?
David: Well, the trick with animation is that you don't actually get a finished episode until six months after you finished writing. So for the first six months, you're really shooting in the dark. So for most of the first season, we hadn't seen the animation back on anything while we were writing the episodes. So it's hard to know what will work.
On the script side, we thought SISTERS really came together. I remember in the story break for that one. Glen and I were talking about plot points.. what Blackfire was up to and where the aliens were coming from... then Amy [Wolfram] said, "I think we just need a scene where they sit down and talk about how they feel." And Glen and I were like "Aha." So Amy wrote that scene in addition to doing a really great script. There's just a nice fun, heartfelt simplicity to SISTERS. And we also got really nice animation on that one, which always helps. There's a really nice feel to that episode... I think it's one of the best we've done. I think at that point, we knew something about this was really working.
BW: You had also mentioned that with SISTERS, you really saw it all coming together. That's one of my favorite episodes. It just fires on all cylinders: a good story with an emotional core, some great animation, some neat sight gags and some comic book references.
"There's just a nice fun, heartfelt simplicity to SISTERS."
David: One of the reasons the first season was so difficult was the way me and Glen had approached it. Rather than let the style of the show dictate what types of stories we would tell, we would instead let the stories we wanted to tell dictate the episode. So SISTERS is our "I Dream of Jeannie" episode, FORCES OF NATURE is an Asian fairy tale, DEEP SIX is our 1940s movie serial, MAD MOD is our crazy 60's mod thing. So we did a lot to change the style of the show with each episode. So that was a lot of fun. But it did make each new script a challenge in terms of finding the style of the episode. By the time we got around to CAR TROUBLE, we had more a handle on the series as a whole. That was our "American Graffiti" episode.
But early on, it was definitely a lot of guesswork. But SISTERS set a lot as far as tone. We were lucky to get that as a second episode. It gave us something to refer to. There was that scene where we got to the emotional issue of the episode. So we have those scenes in there now - those emotional moments.
BW: Let’s talk about some of the episodes you wrote. How did you approach the episode SUM OF HIS PARTS?
David: SUM OF HIS PARTS was a rare thing where the story broke in about 2 minutes. We were behind schedule and we had to come up with an episode quick. We had 4 in the pipeline, but nothing following. Glen and I plotted it out, he kicked me out of his office and then I got home and wrote.
"The stuff that happens with Cyborg in that episode is really scary and dark."
That was another episode that pushed the boundaries of the how far we could go in the show. The stuff that happens with Cyborg in that episode is really scary and dark. That's actually why Mumbo is that episode. That was Glen suggestion. Since we were doing something so dark, we came up with this crazy madcap magician character. I think if I did that episode now, I would just let it stay dark. But it was some pretty scary stuff in that episode.
But it was nice to touch on some of the stuff from the comic book. There's that relationship that Cyborg has with the kids that have prosthetics. The cool thing about SUM OF HIS PARTS was something we heard from a parent. Her son had a friend at school who was diabetic, and when he told his mother, he mentioned "He's just like Cyborg." So we had given this kid a way to understand his friend; Just because he had diabetes, it didn't mean there was anything 'wrong' with him. So that was really cool.
BW: Let's talk about some comic characters you brought in, like Aqualad. How did you come up with the animated version of Aqualad?
David: We went back to same formula: If this is high school, who is he? So we decided Aqualad is the swim team guy - the pro surfer guy. Not the pro surfer "dude", but the guy who's serious about it. So that gave us a clue how to write him and make him look. Glen gave him a more streamlined look, wearing something that was like a wetsuit. And he made him just a little bit taller than the guys. A lot of what influences character is also what we need them to do in an episode. We thought Aqualad would be a good rival for Beast Boy, since they both had powers that related to animals.
"We thought Aqualad would be a good rival for Beast Boy, since they both had powers that related to animals."
We thought of him as the guy who comes from his own world and has his own set of rules. He's a strong, athletic, intelligent, very good-looking confident guy who wasn't trying to impress anybody. That was part of the point of the story. Sometimes people aren't trying to compete with you - they're just good at doing certain things. There's no reason not to like them.
And recording DEEP SIX was a lot of fun. Meeting Wil Wheaton [the voice of Aqualad], I was completely star-struck. And I told him that. Wil Wheaton is a big fan of comics. He was star-struck to meet Marv Wolfman. So I saw like, "Wow, it's great to meet you and it's an honor to work with you." And he was like, "Mr. Wolfman! Can you sign my script?" [laughs] But he's a great guy. And he's written a few books - and they are really entertaining. You can get them on amazon.com.
BW: FORCES OF NATURE used two comic book character - Thunder & Lightning. How did you decide to adapt them for the show? I know they were favorites of [Producer] Sam Register.
David: That one was interesting because it set part of the style of the show - that we could change the style in every episode. Glen kept saying, "It's a fable." - because Thunder and Lightning were characters of mythic proportion - literally forces of nature. So when we started writing it, we wrote it like an Asian fable - which is where the music and style came from. As for adapting Thunder and Lightning, that was already in Glen's head. He knew what he wanted to do with them from the start. Most of that came from him.
BW: FORCES OF NATURE also was the first episode to hint at Slade's 'plan'. Did Slade always have a master plan in your eyes?
David: There was a great debate whether Slade was just evil incarnate, or whether he was planning something. That was a story where, in the eleventh hour, the decision was made collectively: It needed to lead somewhere otherwise the audience would be disappointed. There were some rewrites on that one. The evening before we recorded the episode, we added the fight scene between Robin and Slade. That wasn't originally in there. After we did that, we said. "OK, we're teasing this thing... so what exactly IS Slade's plan?" [laughs] I hate to admit it, but we flew by the seat of our pants a bit in the first season. Things are much more planned out now.
BW: In FORCES OF NATURE, Slade's disguise as the Old One resembles his comic book appearance as Slade Wilson. Is that the closest we will ever see of Slade being unmasked?
David: Yeah. But that is a mask. Slade doesn't want anyone to see him. If we ever get around to showing Slade's face, I doubt it will look like that. But there are layers there to be peeled back - mask after mask.
BW: Let’s talk about Slade. How did you develop him? How did you decide his motivation for the series?
David: Originally, we weren't envisioning to be as scary as he later became. For someone who writes kids cartoons, I have a surprisingly dark sensibility. I've told Sam and Glen a number of times: I'll go as dark as you let me; Just tell me when I'm getting too scary.
Originally, we didn't even know we would do an arc with Slade. We just decided Slade would be behind everything. He'd be our Dr. Claw [from "Inspector Gadget"]. But after looking a few episodes, we decided we were teasing something. And if we didn't pay it off, we were going to disappoint a lot of people. That's when we got into the psychology of Slade. We had a really hard time figuring out how MASKS and APPRENTICE were going to work. We went down a lot of blind alleys and dead ends - trying to find something that fit. It was actually Bruce Timm who helped us make the breakthrough on that one. We were actually discussing all the dead ends we had gone down, and Bruce was in Glen's office that day. And Bruce said "It sounds like what the story is really about, is that Slade is trying to take Robin away from his friends."
So we realized Slade was a father looking for a son... we knew we wanted that... we just didn't know how to crack it. So once Bruce said that, we realized we just needed a device that would literally take him away from his friends. So the show fell into place after that.
"I wrote of Slade described him as "the monster under the bed made flesh." I just wanted him to be really, really frightening. "
The voice for Slade was pretty easy to find. I was writing him as this very detached, aloof, reproachful guy. An early description I wrote of Slade described him as "the monster under the bed made flesh." I just wanted him to be really, really frightening. Of course, getting Ron Perlman to do the voice made a huge difference. When we first heard Ron doing the reads, that really set the voice for Slade. That was true of all the voices. It became easier to write Beast Boy after hearing the way Greg [Cipes] was going to read him. That's true of all of them. Good voices make all the difference. And we've got a great cast.
BW: MASKS and APPRENTICE touched on some darker story elements. MASKS was the first episode that stayed 'dark' throughout. Did you see that as a turning point for the show? How do you balance that with the lighter tone of the show?
David: MASKS was a turning point. I think I said early on, Cartoon Network asked us to do something you rarely get asked to do; We were asked to take risks. Sam said "I want you to do things you're not supposed to do." So there are things that don't normally happen in kids' cartoon shows - such as the way Starfire leaves Robin at the end. She's basically saying, "You disappointed me. You screwed up."
BW: It was also the first time in the series that an episode ended with something unresolved. Usually, there's some sort of closure or an uplifting element.
David: Yeah. I really like that episode. And we've since found a way to bring Red X back.
BW: NEVERMORE delved more into the character of Raven. How did that story develop?
David: NEVERMORE was an idea I had before coming on board the show. That was one of the original premises I wrote. I had conceived it completely differently. By the time it got to script, the only thing that remained was that it centered around Raven. That, and the title of the episode. When we were originally working on the story, we conceived it as a literal journey into another dimension. Something on the way to Azarath - a Dr. Strange-type world.
And when Glen and I were talking about it, he mentioned, "Well, if the story is about them getting to know Raven better... shouldn't they just go inside her head?" And that just cracked the whole thing wide open. That was my first undiluted taste of Glen's genius. He approaches things from this utterly unique standpoint - and creates from a sense of an internal emotional logic. From then on, the episode got really interesting to work on. And Tom Pugsley and Greg Klein did a great job on the script. It was something we were all really proud of. It had a nice balance of cool action and great character relationships.
BW: Was there any problem using Trigon, a demonic character? Or touching on Raven's parentage?
"Another interesting tidbit from that episode: We originally toyed with the idea of letting Hynden Walch do Raven's voice and Tara Strong do Starfire's voice when they switched bodies."
David: It is a tricky issue. We had a good template laid out by Marv and George in the comics. Obviously, they went a little farther than we are willing or able to. But there was an example there - how to tell the story you want to tell, but still be delicate about it. My main concern with using Trigon in NEVERMORE, was that we couldn't save him for a big reveal later on. [laughs]. So we showed Trigon without actually showing him [since NEVERMORE takes place in Raven's head]. I think if we ever bring him back, he'll be a lot scarier.
BW: Can you tell us how SWITCHED developed?
David: SWITCHED was fun to work on. Rick Copp wrote that one, and he's a tremendously funny writer. He wrote the "Brady Bunch" movie. That episode came up with a lot of great character moments for the girls. That's one of the things I'm really proud about our show; The female characters exist as individuals, not just as foils for the male characters or characters that define themselves in terms of men. Raven and Starfire are defined by the content of their own characters. So it was really cool to let them carry the show.
Another interesting tidbit from that episode: We originally toyed with the idea of letting Hynden Walch do Raven's voice and Tara Strong do Starfire's voice when they switched bodies. And we tried it out in the recording session. But both those women are so talented that we couldn't tell the difference. There was only something slightly off. Hynden does a really good Raven, and Tara does a really good Starfire - so we couldn't really tell the difference. In the end, we just decided to go with the original plan.
BW: That interesting. I remember Tara Strong mentioned something when she auditioned; She'd thought she'd be a lock for Starfire since she did the voice of Bubbles from THE POWERPUFF GIRLS.
David: She probably would have been a terrific Starfire. Two things happened. One was that Hynden recorded a really amazing audition for Starfire that just blew us all away. At the same time, we were having a really hard time finding the right voice for Raven. We listened to a lot of auditions, but nobody was quite getting there - so we knew we were going to need somebody incredible for that role. Andrea Romano, our amazing voice director, brought Tara in to read for the part - because Tara's just so gifted. Together with Glen, they worked to find the right voice. After trying a few things that didn't quite get it, they came up with the idea of throwing in a little Zelda Rubenstein - the little lady from POLTERGEIST. So Tara did another read with that little bit of Zelda in there - and it was perfect. It was Raven. To this day, when Raven's voice gets a little 'off', Tara will say, "There's not enough Zelda in there."
BW: Then there's MAD MOD, which was a complete 180 degree turn from MASKS.
David: And that was very intentional. In SUM OF HIS PARTS, we put the 'wacky' and the 'serious' in one episode. After that, we realized we could just change it up week to week. That's something we're actually very conscious of when we plan the episode order for the season. We had this really dark scary MASKS episode, then we did MAD MOD and CAR TROUBLE before we got into the dark again with APPRENTICE. So MAD MOD was definitely an attempt to lighten it up a little bit.
BW: MAD MOD pushed things very far - almost over the edge - in terms of sheer insanity. Did you find things from MAD MOD about how far you could take the show?
"MAD MOD nearly broke all of us though. That was a really, really hard story to crack."
David: I would say by MAD MOD, we had a sense of all the various directions the series could go. And that's one of the great things about the show. We're never quite sure what we'll do - and you'll never be sure of what you're going to get. We can do serious action, we can do wild comedy. We can do romps, emotional stuff, very thoughtful drama... we run the gamut.
MAD MOD nearly broke all of us though. That was a really, really hard story to crack. Even for a Titans show, it has almost no plot. In the beginning, Mad Mod has got them.. and he's got them the whole time. And Adam Beechen, Glen and I worked diligently through multiple rounds of that script, to give the story enough of a goal to hold onto - so it didn't just feel like a bunch of stuff happening. It needed to move forward and appear to have things escalating. So the Titans needed to seem to be 'getting somewhere' even though they weren't, because that was kind of the point.
And then we were lucky enough to get Malcolm McDowell to do the voice. That was like... "Wow." Not only to get to meet the guy, but to have him do the voice and speak words you had worked on -- [pause] it's a good job [laughs].
BW: And Mad Mod is returning for season three
David: Yep. I hope you like that one. After we did the first Mad Mod episode, I told Glen I didn't want to do another one with him. Not to say that I won't. But his episodes are always the hardest. They're the hardest to get to work. But Mad Mod returns in season three. And we're all very happy with the way that one looks. John Espisito wrote that one - and Rob Hoegee and I co-story-edited that one. That one came back looking cool. I hope everyone likes it.
BW: Then came APPRENTICE; We've sort of talked about APPRENTICE when we talked about Slade. I don't know if there's anything more to say about it.
David: The main thing I'd say about it is that "Rob Hoegee wrote part one". He didn’t receive proper credit initially.
But APPRENTICE... I still love that episode. The trick we've run into since APPRENTICE is that was out first big season finale. So since then, we've tried not to tread that same ground. Yeah, but I told you about the problems we initially had breaking that story and some of the dead ends we went down. Finally we came up with something I think has a nice sense of poetry to it. Robin literally can't talk to his friends. It's a metaphor for a custody battle to a certain extent.
BW: APPRENTICE also featured a couple of Batman references. Robin line “I already have a father” and him robbing from Wayne Enterprises. Can we expect any more of that? Was that something you put in because you don't plan to ever have Batman on the show?
"The trick we've run into since APPRENTICE is that was out first big season finale. So since then, we've tried not to tread that same ground. "
David: Well, we never say never. But the thing about Batman is: If we ever bring him in the show, Robin becomes a kid. We put a lot of energy into getting Robin out of Batman's shadow. A lot of out younger fans think of Robin as a leader, not a sidekick. And that's a good thing for them.
Those Batman references weren't to say "We'll never do Batman". But we felt, if we were going to do an episode where someone was trying to become Robin's father, we had to make some reference to his adopted father. So we didn’t want to mention him outright, but we did the cool thing with the bats flying out there. It's a nice thing in there for the fans. Same thing with that 'easter egg' where he's stealing from Wayne Enterprises. We thought it made the story mean that much more... he's not just betraying his friends, Slade is making him betray his father.
BW: Excellent. Have you paid attention to some of the feedback of the series on the internet?
David: Yeah, that's always fun. I don't get to read as much as I used to and Glen doesn't ever - despite the fact he apparently put up a post about Robin [laughs]. That was an imposter. We all got a big kick out of that. Yeah, it's always fun to see what the fans think. Because as a writer, you're isolated; You make stuff up and send it out. Then when it airs, you have no idea what people think of it. So it's nice to get that feedback. The trick is not to listen to one voice directly - and try to get the overall sense of what everyone's response is.
The most interesting thing is just to see all these people talking so much about the show. I think that's really cool. I think television is at it's best when it encourages us to interact with people - not withdraw from each other.
There have been sometimes where I thought we got praised more than we deserved - but then there are times when I feel we were criticized more than we deserved [laughs]. A lot of the holes that people pick apart in stories are things we worked over and thought about - but sometimes we decide it's ultimately not that important. It's rare for someone to bring something up that hadn't occurred to us.
But it's great to see people get excited about it.
BW: Now, you've had interactions with fans at conventions. Any interesting observations or stories from those interactions?
David: The thing that's so great about it as that so many different people like it. Doing panels and signings, you look out and see little kids, grown-up fans, teenagers, boys, girls, men, women. Just that so many people are enjoying this despite their "demographic group." We were trying to make something everyone would like. At [San Diego] ComiCon, it felt like we did that. When you want to entertain people for a living, it's just really, really gratifying to see them entertained.
BW: I'm just about done with questions; Is there anything else you'd like to add before we wrap up?
David: Just thanks to you for the interview, for being a fan, and for running this great web site. And thanks to all the fans for watching. We work really hard at putting out a good show - and I'm thrilled they enjoy it. Everyone that works on the show realizes this may be the best job we ever have. It's just a lot of fun. We feel very, very lucky.
Want to hear more from David Slack? You will!
David Slack Shakes Down The Second Season >> coming soon!