"The Terra-ble Twos"
David Slack Shakes Down The Second Season
This interview was conducted in October 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 about the making of season two!
Story Editor and Producer,
Bill Walko: Now let’s talk a bit about the second season. It started with what may be my favorite episode of the series… HOW LONG IS FOREVER?... which you wrote.
David Slack: That was a really fun episode to write and I was pleased with the way it came out. It was a nice way to start the second season because we had found some material we didn't explore in season one. Can our weird wacky animated cartoon do something thoughtful? And really pretty sentimental. Another thing I liked about the episode - besides the time travel (I'm a sucker for time travel) - is that it roots into a basic fear of childhood: Will we be the same people when we grow up? That one was a joy to write. I like the way it came out in the end.
BW: Did that start as "Let's do a Nightwing episode"?
David: No, actually. Nightwing was one of those things that occurred to us along the way. Sam, Glen and I talked about season two and took things from the top-down. We talked about things we remembered from being kids and looking at things we hadn't done in season one. And also looking at doing a time travel one. We thought that would be cool. My original working title for that one was "Best Friends Forever" - which is a bad title. But it seemed to be something everyone could relate to. I think everyone has someone from their childhood that they can't relate to as an adult. So I thought there was something emotionally powerful there.
So it was a fusion of those two things: "Looking for experiences and fears from childhood" and "Wouldn't it be cool if we did time travel?"
BW: How did you come up with the "fates" of each of the characters?
"I think everyone has someone from their childhood that they can't relate to as an adult. So I thought there was something emotionally powerful there. "
David: That took a lot of discussion. Sam was concerned we were going too dark, initially. So we backed off a bit. Glen does concept sketches as we talk about these things; He had done a sketch of an older version of Cyborg silhouetted and slumped against a building with cobwebs and stuff. Great visual.
As soon as we started talking, we decided: Robin's Nightwing; Cyborg's broken; Raven's crazy; Beast Boy is just terrified. It just grew out of who they were to a certain extent. And DC was kind enough to let us use Nightwing for that one episode (there's complicated rights issues with that sort of thing). And, y'know, we can't just always go into the future all the time.
Once we got the basic concept, it fell into place quickly. That story broke quickly. Glen and I did have a disagreement about how it should end. I had this idea: That as Starfire went through the vortex, she saw the future change for the better. But Glen said "You don't want to SHOW that" And he ended up being right about that.
BW: DATE WITH DESTINY focused on the Robin/Starfire relationship. Can you tell us about that story?
David: That episode had a very winding road to your television screen. That premise was written by Rick Copp - who eventually wrote the episode. That was in the pipeline since season one. It changed a lot from the original - but the initial idea of Robin being forced to go the prom was an idea we all liked. We thought there was something that resonated about that. But after the script for SISTERS came down, we thought we might be hitting romance too much for our audience - it's a boy's action show. Don't get me wrong, I love that girls watch it. But that first season we wanted to make sure we hit our core audience. So in season one, that episode got bumped.
"I'm fascinated by the 'shippers.' Utterly fascinated by that. They will take the tiniest clue - the tiniest smile between two characters - and see that as evidence for something."
Then season two came around and we decided to do it. We brought Rick back and he did a hilarious script. And then our storyboard artists got a hold of it. We wrote some of the jealousy stuff with Starfire, but I was thrilled when the animation came back on that one. Like the part where she jumps out of her boots. Or when she incinerates into a match. All that stuff is our excellent storyboard artists and directors. And Kitten came out to be tremendous fun. Tara Strong did the voice on that. She had a great time with it. I think it's one of our funniest episodes. So we did our romantic comedy episode.
BW: Have you discussed 'how far' you will take their relationship on the series?
David: Well, there's the Sam & Diane problem from CHEERS. Once you let the relationship get too far, it suddenly isn't interesting anymore. We have some episodes coming up that take that a little further. BETROTHED took it a little further. And we'll definitely be hitting on that thread again.
BW: Have you seen the fans that are in favor of a Raven/Beast Boy romantic pairing?
David: I'm fascinated by the 'shippers.' [Shippers: a term for people who romantically pair two fictional characters; short for 'Relationshippers'.] Utterly fascinated by that. They will take the tiniest clue - the tiniest smile between two characters - and see that as evidence for something. Maybe we intended it, maybe we didn't. Some of out storyboard artists like to put those moments in there. One of our coordinators - Eric Cookmeyer - was convinced there should be a relationship between Cyborg and Raven - because there was a scene in DATE WITH DESTINY where Raven lifts Cyborg up on a platform of energy and looks down at her and says, "Thanks." After CAR TROUBLE, that was proof positive [to him] that a romance was in the works. The relationships that happen are ultimately up to the Titans. The characters will ultimately tell us where they want to go. But we're watching them closely and listening to them carefully. And it's tremendous fun to watch the fans look for that stuff.
Glen always laughs at that stuff. I mean, they're friends. Just because they had a nice conversation and shared something emotional doesn't mean they're in love or anything. [laughs] I think a lot more is inferred by the audience than is necessarily implied by the creators. But it's all a lot of fun.
BW: WINNER TAKE ALL featured some of the comic book characters. Can you tell us a bit about how and why you brought in Speedy?
David: With Speedy, we were looking for someone to mirror Robin. For the purpose of that episode, we wanted someone to go up against Robin. And Speedy ends up having some of the same problems Robin has. He's got kind of a dippy name, he shoots... arrows. [laughs] So there's stuff about him that's not all that cool. I think we managed to make him pretty cool. And we did that the same way we did with Robin. We searched for some more contemporary ways for him to express himself. When we bring back Speedy at the end of season three, we have a slightly different take on his character. We nudged him a bit more gruff direction.
BW: Well, in the comics, he's the 'bad boy' of the team.
"When we bring back Speedy at the end of season three, we have a slightly different take on his character. We nudged him a bit more gruff direction."
David: Yeah. Exactly. We sort of played more into the whole bad boy thing when we brought him back.
BW: WINNER TAKE ALL also featured Hot Spot and Wildebeest. How did you go about bringing them into the mix?
David: We had so many characters in that episode. It's amazing how fast the script fills up with just five people - never mind nine. So Wildebeest just grunts. When you have that many characters to juggle, it's not so bad to have a character that just grunts. Dwayne [McDuffie] and I were still able to make some jokes about what he does. With Wildebeest, you just 'write the look'; He's this great, big guy.
Then there's Hotspot. He was Joto originally, and then we learned what that meant in Spanish and changed his name. [note: Joto is Swahili for heat; in Spanish, it's a derogatory term]. With Hoptspot, the description we wrote was "A human flame-thrower with a fiery temper to match." So he became the not-so-nice one.
Then there's Gizmo... who's just a pain in the butt. The guys we used in that episode - we just wanted them to all be different. We tried to give each character one distinct trait to write. We didn't have much time to deal with all of them. And we always run into timing issues and tight deadlines - especially with that one.
BW: Now, Dwayne McDuffie wrote that episode. So how does it work when you introduce new characters in the mix? Do you and the team establish the characters and hand them to Dwayne to write? How does that work?
David: Dwayne is EXTREMELY well-versed in comic books. And of course, he's worked on JUSTICE LEAGUE and STATIC SHOCK. Dwayne, Glen and I talked about which characters we wanted to use. There was a lot of phone calls and e-mails to get a final approved list of who we could use in the episode. We thought about doing Jericho - but we were concerned we wouldn't have time to deal with his powers in such a short time frame. He requires a bit of explanation. Plus, with Jericho there's the sign language thing. We'd have to make sure we got that right.
Who else were we looking at? We had a long list of guys. We originally had 10 and slimmed it down to 8. And we ended up doing a three-way match - which added some excitement. We had to keep it down for various reasons. We had to keep to a budget. Like the amount of voice actors and that kind of stuff, too. We had character designers about to die [laughs]. I think once we brainstormed the list of people, we let more practical concerns take over.
BW: That episode ends with the Tournament of Heroines. Did you give any thought to possibly showing some super-powered females there? Possibly some from the comics?
"So somehow, somewhere... we were thinking of doing a Bat-Mite type character. And someone said, "Why not make it Larry?" So we started to develop this anti-Robin."
David: Yeah, we did. But after working so hard on all the other characters - and trying to get the episode just right - we just sort of ran out of time. We did go with suggestive silhouettes - so you'd say "Hey, was that Wonder Girl?" We thought that would be fun.
BW: Can you tell us about how FRACTURED came about?
David: That actually started as far back as season one. Sam suggested we do an episode where everything just goes crazy. So that was there. Meanwhile, all the guys on the crew started drawing a little reject Titan that they called "Larry the Titan." There were all these different designs for him and he never looked the same way twice. But they would draw all these pictures of Larry.
So somehow, somewhere... we were thinking of doing a Bat-Mite type character. And someone said, "Why not make it Larry?" So we started to develop this anti-Robin. But we didn't want to do Mxyzptlk. We wanted him to be a more earnest trouble-maker. That he really didn't mean to make trouble. So it became an episode about making mistakes. So that made it a natural for Robin, who almost never makes mistakes. That was another one that was difficult to make the story work. That was definitely the weirdest thing I've ever written. And I've read the message boards on that one. For the record, we were all stone-cold sober. We were just very sleep deprived.
We were up until like 2:30 in the morning coming up with that one. I think the band-aid on Beast Boy's brain was [director] Michael Chang. I came up with that whole mouth-switch thing. There was a lot of weird, weird stuff in there. Originally, we had Beast Boy speaking Japanese, but we decided it would be funnier - and easier - if he spoke backwards. Yep. Stone-cold sober!
BW: Well, that was season two's parallel to MAD MOD, right?
David: Yeah, that's what we had in mind. We wanted to do another crazy one. Since those turned out to be some of our favorite ones, we've got two really crazy ones coming up in season three. And two coming up in season four.
BW: I'm imagining that "Bunny Raven" in season three is one of those.
David: Yeah. Is that what that ended up being called? Yeah. [laughs] Yeah, I haven't seen the animation back on that yet, but I have high hopes. And the other wacky one is the second Mad Mod episode.
BW: In FRACTURED, Larry the Titan's real name is Dick Grayson backwards. Do you see him inspired by Dick Grayson? Or was that just a throwaway gag to keep people guessing?
"We were more interested in showing things from Terra's point of view a little bit more. "
David: It was sorta just to keep people guessing. I really didn't expect it to be written on the screen like that. [laughs] It was just gonna be that he was going to SAY it. I think maybe eventually we may get around to settling the Robin thing once and for all... but for now..
BW: Oh man, this is going to re-open the whole Robin debate...
David: But hey, Larry's from another dimension -- so who knows? Could mean something. Could be a coincidence. I'm not telling!
BW: Ok [laughs] Let's just leave it at that. Now let’s talk about Terra. How did you go about adapting JUDAS CONTRACT for the show? Did you read it before adapting it?
David: Oh yeah. Cover to cover, multiple times. That's the first thing I do when I'm going to work on something Marv [Wolfman] has done [in the comic book series]. I dig in deep and really look at the way they had done it. The JUDAS CONTRACT stuff is so well done and so interesting. It was a joy researching that. So we looked at that, and Glen and I made the choice to have one writer work consistently on the whole arc. And Amy [Wolfram] had done such a good job on her episodes in season one - plus, since it was a female character, we wanted a female perspective.
So Amy went and read the JUDAS CONTRACT and Glen reread it. Then we sat down and talked... what were some of the things we can use from it, what were some things we wanted to change, who was 'our' Terra vs. theirs. Obviously, the biggest change is that the Terra that Marv and George wrote is just a bad seed. Not even just a bad seed - but she's evil. She's not a good person. We were more interested in showing things from Terra's point of view a little bit more. That sometimes people can do very bad things, but not be a completely bad person. That was where we thought out story was - and that opened it up to tell to a six year old audience. Because some of the Terra/Slade relationship stuff in JUDAS CONTRACT is a little too hot for TV.
So we used what George and Marv had done as huge, huge stepping stones. I've said this before at conventions: We're standing on the shoulders of giants here. We couldn't ask for better source material than the stuff that Marv and George created.
BW: Terra herself is more sympathetic in the animated series…
David: I think the important thing with Terra was to drag you back and forth with her. To make you like her, then you hate her, then you like her again, then we make you hate her again. Because Terra is "the bad friend." The kid you know that... well, something isn't right there. Something's going on. That felt more useful to us with our audience. I think people do get lost. Look at the state of the world today. Bad things happen. And I think from my own aesthetic, I'm always more interested in WHY people do bad things than just evil itself.
BW: Well, there are parts of the story that we don't see as a viewer. We see Terra meet the Titans, and feel betrayed by Beast Boy... then in the interim, she goes off with Slade, which we don't see... So it's up to the viewer to fill in those blanks as to what her motivations are.
"Because Terra is "the bad friend." The kid you know that... well, something isn't right there. Something's going on."
David: Yeah, yeah. And I think in the end, Terra is still a little bit of a bit of a puzzle. Why was she like that?
BW: Well, that's just like the comics. Why was that fifteen year old girl so evil and psychotic?
David: We definitely struggled to figure out who she was and why she was doing what she was doing. I was looking at the last pass of the final script just balling my eyes out. I mean, she's just lost. Something inside her hurts so bad that right and wrong don't matter anymore.
BW: Do you think that by the end she redeemed herself, or that she's still lost?
David: I think that what's cool about the JUDAS CONTRACT is that it's a tragedy. And the trick of tragedy is to not give you the easy answers. I don't know if she redeemed herself with what she did. I know she did one thing right, but as fans pointed out, she also caused that volcano. I know she sacrificed herself to save the city and her friends but she also betrayed them. I think the tragedy is that she'll never be able to explain herself. And when people do get lost in their own lives, there's a point we can't understand. Like why that person got into drugs or why that person killed himself. I think it's complicated. Evil is complicated. We definitely wanted a sense that she redeemed herself ... but in the end, I don't know that she did or not.
BW: Well, even in the comics, Terra was a character that polarized fans. Was she totally evil? Was she irredeemable? There were some moments where you thought she might crack.. maybe she would turn on Slade. Was she always acting? In the end, she goes crazy and kills herself. But you're left with the question: Was she totally evil? It's the same with your story... we'll probably never have all the answers.
David: And I think whether you're a writer, an artist or a director... the art form we're all working in is stories. And I think the best told stories stick to your ribs. That you find yourself thinking about them later on. The key is to give enough so the story makes sense - but not enough that you tell them everything. I think we have a pretty smart audience; There's a lot of brains thinking about this stuff. I think everybody I know knows somebody who got lost in life. Someone that couldn't hang on like the rest of us could. And they'd get involved with bad people or drugs or whatever.
Whether Terra is or isn't evil, I cared about her. I was sad to see her go. I think Terra's story is a story about responsibility. I think Terra doesn't feel responsibility for anything she does. As a result, she feels very out of control. She feels like she needs somebody else to be to be in charge of her. In the end, she finally does take charge. Whether or not she was actually a good person or an evil person, I think she finally resolved whatever was plaguing her. She finally found some real spine and real courage.
BW: How did you decide work out the story beats of the whole arc?
"But writing the scenes with Slade and Robin and Slade and Terra is one thing, but seeing the animation, it's a grown man beating up a teenager. So there's definitely moments where you go, "Woah. That's intense."
David: After having a bit of an exploration process in season one, we decided we wanted an overview for the arc in season two. So Amy and I worked together and came up with an arc overview - a little paragraph of what happens in each episode. So we knew where we were heading. That said, while I was writing AFTERSHOCK, part one Any kept calling me and saying "The story we have for part two doesn't work." And I said, "No, no, keep going. You'll be fine". And sure enough she sent me the draft she was working on ... and I call her back and say "This isn't working." And she said "What did I tell you?" So we sat down and very quickly worked out the way to go. Not even major tweaks. We were just missing some story elements. So we figured that out and did a rewrite.
So my point is we have an overview, but things change a lot. For example, the giant worms in TITAN RISING were not part of the plan. Originally, we had a very different episode in mind. And in BETRAYAL it originally didn't include the big attack on Titans Tower. For all our planning, there's still a lot of discovery along the way. Same with the other arcs.You cant know what each episode is gonna do. For all the planning, you still build it episode by episode. You see how the first episode turns out to see what you can do in the second one. It's a tricky process.
BW: AFTERSHOCK is a pretty dark episode. Terra does some terrible things. Slade is especially brutal in AFTERSHOCK. Was there any fear you were going too far?
David: Oh yeah. You cant write a show that kids are watching and not wonder if you're going too far with it. But we have a lot of people looking out to make sure that doesn't happen. In the end I don't feel we've done anything bad for audience. Lately, I've been thinking back to the Disney movies we grew up with, and they're really dark. There's some really dark and scary stuff that happens there. And I don't think it's a terrible thing for children to be scared by something they see on TV because that how we learn to deal with being scared. It'd be a bad thing if there was a generation that didn't know how to handle being scared. I don't worry about it too much. But writing the scenes with Slade and Robin and Slade and Terra is one thing, but seeing the animation, it's a grown man beating up a teenager. So there's definitely moments where you go, "Woah. That's intense."
But in the end, Slade gets what's coming to him. In the end, it ends... well, reasonably well. [laughs] But the show can get really intense. We've all kinda had moments where we'll look at each other and go, "Yikes. Are we going too far here?" But thus far, no one has complained. And I feel good about it. And we have a lighter arc coming in season three, so we'll see how that turns out.
BW: Do you think we’ll ever see Terra again?
David: Ummm, there have been discussions about that, but nothing definite so far.
Terra is a fascinating character. She was really difficult but really fun to write. And we got great casting. Ashley Johnson - oh my God - she brought that character to life. That's something I should mention. We have a great cast because we have the best voice director in the business. Andrea Romano is just phenomenal at what she does and always guides us interesting, smart casting choices of really talented actors that are also really nice people. And all the good scripts and great drawings in world would mean nothing without her talent and theirs. You go to Andrea's house, and she has a table that's just filled with Emmys. I can't give her enough respect. She's nice and personable, but is also so good at what she does.
It's rare for an animated show, that after the recording session, the actors, director, two producers, a coordinator, a PA and a storyboard artist will sit around and play poker. Greg Cipes, Scott Menville, Khary Payton and I have all gone surfing. There's no big chip on the shoulder from anyone. We're all into it - everyone cares. We had four actors come down to ComiCon and support us.
We're just so lucky. That's so rare. I think that shows in the end product of the show. One of the jokes I put in, is that the Titans stay up all night. And that's because out of everyone working on the show, I don't think there's anyone who hasn't pulled an all-nighter. We're just really blessed.
Want to hear more from David Slack?
David Slack will give an inside look at season three - coming soon!