Friday, September 16, 2011

INTERVIEW: Michael Price, Writer of Lego Star Wars: The Padawan Menace.

This was a first for us! I was lucky enough to have a chat with Michael Price, writer of the brilliant and completely unexpected animated special Lego Star Wars: The Padawan Menace. Michael is probably best known for his work as a long-time writer of The Simpsons, and he has managed to successfully infuse the Star Wars saga with the same chaotic energy and humour. It was a breath of fresh air that reminded us all how much fun Star Wars can be once we learn to relax.

This is quite an in-depth look at what went into the show, and Michael was very gracious with not just his time, but the insights he was willing to share. It's a long interview, but his responses are funny and fascinating. I mean, come on! He's written for two of the universe's biggest franchises Star Wars and The Simpsons! You need to read everything he says and steal all his secrets!

In your frenzy for the Blu-rays, please don't forget that The Padawan Menace is also being released today on Blu-Ray and DVD (and on the 21st for our Australian readers). If you're yet to see it, then you won't want to miss it. And if you're already a fan, then join us after the jump to find out how it all came about!

As Star Wars fans we often know what to expect up to a year in advance, and yet we were all kind of blind-sided by The Padawan Menace. It came out of nowhere. When did you first hear about the project and how did this collaboration come about?    
I guess you could say I came to the project through a happy combination of serendipity, hard work and mystery! I'll elaborate...   First the serendipity: Because of my Simpsons work, I got to have a meeting in April of 2010 with Seth Green & Matthew Senreich of Robot Chicken, along with some very nice LucasFilm folks (whose name unfortunately escape me). Seth & Matthew were putting together a group of writers to work on their new Star Wars animated comedy project, which I think is now called Detours.

Anyway, at the meeting I was able to impress those guys with my love for Star Wars, my love for Robot Chicken and my love for Robot Chicken Star Wars. They liked me and wanted me to do some preliminary work on the show with a bunch of other writers and it would have been an amazing experience -- we were going to go away for something like 2 weeks to work on the show. And all of this would happen up at the Skywalker Ranch!

The only problem was this kind of time commitment would have been impossible for me to work out with my job at The Simpsons. I was disappointed, but that's the way things work sometimes.  Cut to three months later, and I hear about the Lego project. Apparently, Seth, Matthew and the Lucas people recommended me to Lego when they were looking for writers to possibly write their Lego Star Wars TV special. I was thus invited to submit a story proposal to Lego.

Here comes the "Hard Work" part. There were really no guidelines for this story proposal -- it only had to take place in the Star Wars universe, using characters and settings established in the 6 SW films and the Clone Wars series. It could be any story, with any characters, could mix and match characters from the two eras, had to appeal to kids and families and should display a sense of fun and whimsy compatible with the tone of the Lego Star Wars games.

Using those guidelines I came up with the Field Trip story seen in the finished show. I wrote a five page treatment of it, describing the story and characters, including all the major plot and character elements of the story. I waited about two weeks and then I found out Lego chose my story and I was hired to write the show.  And the finished show is something like 90% the same as that treatment.

Now comes the mystery part:  I had no idea (and to this day still don't) how many other writers submitted proposals or what those ideas were. I suppose I never will -- but I'm extremely happy they chose mine!  

There must be a significant gap between writing an animated project and seeing it realised on the screen. Were you, yourself, blind-sided by the project in terms of its overall quality? You must have known you'd written something special, but were even you surprised by just how wonderfully it all turned out? 

Though I was only hired to write the script, I was able to have a degree of input in the production, by which I mean Lego and Animal Logic (the Australian company who did the animation) kept me in the loop by sending me the rough or animatic versions of the show along the way, and then the polished cuts, and allowed me to give notes on the timing of jokes, pitch new lines, take some cuts in the script for time, etc. Even though I wasn't being paid anything extra to do this, this was something I happily volunteered to do (maybe my agent wasn't happy!).

I had a meeting in Los Angeles in October of last year with Kathleen Fleming from Lego and the director, David Scott (who I think did an awesome job, BTW), where I discussed the way we do things at The Simpsons - meaning we as a staff get several shots at rewriting and adjusting episodes throughout production.  David thought that was a great idea and we hatched this plan whereby I'd continue to contribute to the show as it was being animated and edited. So I was able to see this amazing thing slowly come into focus before my eyes! And I think it'd be an understatement to say that I was blown away by the quality of the animation and the sheer fun and inventiveness of David and Animal Logic's work. There are so many fun details in the show, little jokes and bits that are not in the script.

Then when I saw the final cut I was blown away all over again by the sheer beauty of the details - how shiny C3PO is, how you can see other characters reflected in Yoda's eyes, etc. I was floored. And that was just watching it from a digital file on my laptop. When I got to see the whole show projected on a movie screen at the special screening Lego held at ComicCon, I was absolutely stunned all over again. It's a beautiful show and I give full credit to David and the amazing artists at Animal Logic for making this show the spectacular work of art it is.

I know that a lot of the best writers on the Clone Wars, including Katie Lucas and Chris Taylor aren't too obsessed with the trivia, or the continuity – they focus on great story-telling and don't sweat about the minutiae. Is your own relationship with Star Wars long-term? Casual? Creepy and obsessive? Tenuous? (Mine's expensive). How would you describe your Star Wars history?

Wow. Great question. I saw Star Wars (it wasn't called Episode IV: A New Hope yet) in 1977 when I was in High School, so my relationship with the franchise has been long and varied - encompassing superfan, casual fan, forgetting about it for a bit, getting back into it when the re-issues came out, getting geeked to see the prequels every three years, letting it lapse a bit, getting into it again through the Robot Chicken parodies and then, thanks to this project, getting ridiculously and gloriously immersed in it all over again.

Part of the fun of doing this has been re-connecting with the super fandom of my youth. An anecdote: the first time I saw Star Wars in June of '77, I was late (there was a big line of course) and I missed the opening crawl and all that cool stuff. I walked in about ten seconds before Vader enters the Rebel blockade runner. Of course, I had heard about how cool the opening was, so at my first opportunity I got to New York (I lived in New Jersey about an hour away) and bought a ticket for an afternoon show at Loew's Astor Plaza - the really big theatre in Times Square where the movie was playing in 70mm. I sat in the first row and just gawked up at the screen when that Star Destroyer went by overhead. Jesus, was I geeked! I was hooked, of course.

But my ultimate fanboy moment came three years later when Empire Strikes Back came out. I was in college now and I went with my buddy Bob (a super big fan) to see the first showing. We were blown away of course, and I still vividly remember the "I am your father" moment being one of the most earthshakingly thrilling, mind-blowing moments of my movie-going life! I think Bob and I were shouting "No!" louder than Luke! When the show ended, we hung back and hid behind a poster or something and snuck back in to see the next show.

Man, I could go on forever, but I won't. Suffice to say, I was always a big fan, but not to the extent that I read all of the interim books or comics, etc. I never collected the toys either. I got every kind of home video iteration, went to see all of the re-issues in the late 90s, saw all the prequels on their first day. But still... not as obsessive as some.

When I wrote the Lego show I relied heavily on Wookiepedia to learn the exact names of vehicles and some characters. Thanks to them, I now know that the cantina bartender's name is Wuher! And I never knew Lobot was named Lobot! To me, he was "that weird bald guy with the head implant thingies who works for Lando". But I've always loved that guy.

What's your proudest moment in the show?

There's a few moments that I love for various reasons. The bit where Threepio complains about the Lego instruction manual comes directly from my own life as a Dad building Bionicles with my son. He's 14 now and doesn't do Lego anymore, so that joke was a fun way for us to both connect to a time when he was younger. That was his biggest laugh.

The thing that has gotten the most response from Lucas people and some of the fan things I've read is the bit where Palpatine/Sidious takes his hood on and off.  It's rare, in a Star Wars comedy world already covered extensively and hilariously by both Robot Chicken and Family Guy (not to mention all the great fan films) to find a bit or observation that hasn't been done yet. And I think (and hope) I  got to that joke first. So that was fun.

Was there anything you fought for or were amazed you got away with?

As far as "getting away" with stuff, I was both amazed and gratified that the people at LucasFilm (led by Howard Roffman, head of Licensing) had a great sense of humor about the property and encouraged me to have fun with stuff and never told me to pull any punches as far as satirizing stuff. They were simply wonderful and told me to just write what I wanted to write. There was nothing, and I mean zero, that they shot down for any reason except one huge scene I had written involving a Battle Droid warehouse that would have been crazy expensive to produce. So I guess the two bits I was happily amazed they got behind was the George Lucas/Vader stuff and, especially, Artoo showing a clip from the actual movie. Their attitude was "We own the movie, this'll be no problem." I was very happy about that.

I love the audaciousness of including that clip. Not just the mix of the styles, but the fact that C3PO is remembering events that haven't happened yet. For me it was a strong message to the fans that there was to be zero hand-wringing about continuity – it had no place here, this is all about having fun and being entertained!

So happy you feel that way. That moment originated out of story-telling necessity. I wanted to do the bit where Threepio disguises his droid-ness in order to get in the cantina, but we needed to get out the information (especially to anyone who hadn't seen "A New Hope") that droids were not allowed in the place.  I thought of a big "NO DROIDS" sign on the door, but that wasn't funny. And then it hit me - R2 could just how Threepio the clip from "A New Hope"!  I was so pleased with myself when I thought of that - but then, I was concerned that either Lucsasfilm would not want to sully their glorious flagship film by putting it in our silly little thing or that for whatever legal reason they couldn't do it. So I was thrilled when Howard Roffman said he loved the idea and, since they owned the original movie, it'd be no problem!  

I'd also love to say that I was beyond thrilled and honored that Anthony Daniels signed on to perform Threepio in our show. Not only was his performance outstanding, he also made several vital contributions to the script. He reworded some of his speeches to make them more in line with his understanding of how Threepio would speak (and he's the expert!) and he had two priceless ad-libs that are among my favorite moments in the show. The first was when (SPOILER ALERT) JarJar gets blown apart during the Senate battle, and Anthony ad-libbed "Poor JarJar. Oh, well..."   It kills me how quickly Threepio turns the page on JarJar!

The other was the cantina moment we've been talking about, when Artoo shows Threepio that clip of the scene from "A New Hope". In the script, Threepio's line is something like "Oh dear." But Anthony Daniels ad-libbed, "Oh yes, I remember." He remembers something that in the Star Wars world won't happen for another 25 years, but in the real world happened 30 years ago. I pictured purists' heads exploding all over the world when they see that moment. And you are right -- that moment sums up perfectly the "non-Canon" tone of the show and the spirit of "play" that I tried to infuse in the whole thing.

Was there anything you wanted to throw in but just couldn't, due to time or constraints? Because the only thing it was missing for me was ewoks. Are you aware that they eat people?

The Ewoks eating people stuff is something I did not know. Does that mean when they play the drums on those Storm Trooper helmets at the end of Return Of The Jedi that they ate the guys inside the suits first?   Wow. I'm still reeling from learning that they have eyelids.

Well, of course, there are so many characters and places that would have been fun to play with. It was tough too because the story was set during The Clone Wars, so I was somewhat limited to using characters from that era. That's the reason for the Vader/Lucas stuff  - it was a way to get Darth Vader in the show at all!

So, yeah, I'd have loved to get Lando in there, and those man-eating Ewoks. We had a brief scene that got cut from the final draft of the script for time where as Yoda and Ian/Han are flying back to rescue the kids they pass the Millennium Falcon, which is being piloted by Lando's Dad. They're on like a family vacation and young Lando was there. So when we cut that I was able to give Lando a shout-out with the reference to "Keeping Up With The Calrissians."

By the way, after the show aired here on Cartoon Network I was watching the latest Robot Chicken Star Wars DVD and the extras had a segment where the writers discussed some of the bits they pitched but didn't get in the final shows. One of them was.... "Keeping Up With The Calrissians"! I guess geek comedy minds think alike. I also realized later (from someone on Twitter) that an even better joke in this area would be "Keeping Up With The Cardassians" - but that'll have to be when they do "Lego Star Trek"

The blu-ray box spoils young Han through the inclusion of the exclusive minifig (although his characterization is so strong that most of us picked it pretty early), do you have any feelings about that? His successful weaving into a prequel setting is your crowning achievement for me.

I'm glad you feel that way! To be honest, I was really excited when I came up with the Ian/Han thing -- it just made me smile. And Lucas/Lego loved it. Then, as the show was in production, I started to get worried that this would be something that would make the real big time Star Wars fans angry! Like I had somehow ruined their favorite character or something.

I hoped to keep the reveal of Ian's true identity something of a surprise, too, but as the show came together on screen I began to worry that we were tipping it too much. At one point I seriously suggested doing a big fake out with it - doing the whole ramp up, hints that he's Han Solo and so on - and then at the end have him say "My name isn't Ian, it's Han... Han Stankowitz"  or some other non-Solo last name! That's probably what the joke would have been had this been a "Simpsons" segment. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed and it all turned out well. I've been very happy that this part was so well-received. And for the most part, the fact that this is all happening to little Lego figures has insulated that moment, and the rest of the show, from any fan complaints about it doing anything to affect "Canon."

Is Han a favourite character of yours? Do you love him because he's a scoundrel?

Yes, I love Han. I think as much as the awesome effects and the music and the fantasy and Vader and the light sabers, the thing that really made the original movie soar was the fun and lightness of Harrison Ford's performance. I especially loved his improv moment on the Death Star when he's pretending to be a Storm Trooper and says "We're fine... how are you?" And that wince!  So fun. Interesting that this was the first time a Harrison Ford character resorts to pulling out a gun and blasting away as a way to get out of a sticky situation.

The Blu-ray release of the six films has once again proved that fans, especially the older generation, can be a cowardly and suspicious lot who are quick to criticize and nitpick new things. You've done something incredibly new and fresh that throws a lot of established ideas out the window and yet I've honestly only read overwhelmingly positive things about the show. What is your secret?

I think the fact that we did come in kind of under the radar helped. Also, there was already a lot of goodwill built in toward the whole Lego Star Wars franchise - the toy sets and games and the fun stop-motion fan films on YouTube, etc.  And that, from the start, this was a show that did not take itself seriously at all. I think that was the cool thing for me about the very opening of the show... which intentionally harkens back to that classic opening image of A New Hope - except that instead of a huge Star Destroyer going overhead it's a little school bus that says 'Jedi Temple School District". Right there it announced this is just a fun show aimed at kids and Star Wars fans with a sense of humor.

I also like that opening scene because I got to put in a little Simpsons shout out - Lobot is the bus driver because his little side-pod head things remind me of Otto! So Lobot is our Otto, which also (since Lobot is from Empire) set up the idea that we were going to toss in characters from all over the Star Wars spectrum.

I didn't pick up on that, but it makes so much sense. That's awesome!

Thanks! I read a review of the show - maybe it was yours? - that said our show maybe helped shake up the fans a little and say, in essence, "When you look at it, it's only a movie... or series of movies, shows, books, etc." I think that's a healthy attitude. For me, I love Star Wars and no matter what changes are made to the DVDs or what other iterations come out that I either like or am not so crazy about, noting will take away the enjoyment I felt watching the films when I was younger, or the idea of this amazing universe of characters and places. And, after all, it is just a movie!

This reminds me of a bit on The Simpsons between Bart and Comic Book Guy where Bart mentions something from a Spiderman comic book that CBG did not like - I think it was one of those "alternate timeline" series? Anyway, Comic Book Guy says something to the effect of "Well, that was not canon so it did not happen." To which Bart says "Actually, none of it happened"... which really sets CBG off.

So, what's the most ROCK thing about writing for high-profile properties like Star Wars and The Simpsons. What, in real life, can you get away with that I can't?

It's interesting for me that, despite how very different Star Wars and Simpsons are, how amazingly similar they are too. They are both things that started out small and under the radar, became HUGE, like the BIGGEST MOST BELOVED THING EVER, and have continued on for decades, falling in and out of critical favor, but always with a large fan base of people who grew up with it, love it, hate it, are passionate about it, feel like it's not as good as it was when they first encountered it, still love it, feel both ways about it, and are passionate enough to maintain huge wikipedia pages and message boards about the minutiae of it all.  And, instead of, say, The Sopranos or Seinfeld or The Godfather, both Simpsons and Star Wars have continued to make new shows, movies, etc. They are simultaneously frozen in time AND continuing on.

And because both Simpsons and Star Wars have been around for so long, they both now have fans who weren't even born when they originated and who experience it from a whole different point of view. My son is just now getting into Star Wars and he's discovering it in a totally different way than I did. He will never have that moment of hearing Vader tell Luke he's his father for the first time. And that's okay.  And he got into Simpsons from watching the shows that I've worked on (Season 13 and on) but he's since got all the DVDs and is experiencing the show now from the earlier years. Of course, those are all amazing great shows and they were radically new when they were first on TV - but to my son some of them are kind of tame and slow-moving... because he's watching them in 2011 and not 1990.

I think I digressed a bit from actually answering your question! This was all a preface to say I feel incredibly lucky and blessed to be a part of these two amazing franchises. They both offer rich universes of characters and places to work with and I feel privileged indeed to be allowed to work with them. And, yes, in real life, telling someone you write for The Simpsons and have visited ILM Headquarters in San Francisco is a lot more fun that telling them you wrote for Homeboys In Outer Space... a job that actually indirectly led to me writing for the Simpsons, but that's another story.

We're not just Star Wars fans at the site, but also huge Lego fans. Recently fellow contributor J. Tagmire and I had a Lego building battle to make non Star Wars movie science fiction vehicles. I made a hard-edged ghost-filled Event Horizon but then he kicked my ass in the polls with his whimsical flying Winnebago from Spaceballs. Can we beg you to please cast your eyes over our entries and pick a definitive winner once and for all? (LINK).

I'm going to be as diplomatic as I can!  Honestly, both are great, but I guess my vote would go to J.'s Spaceballs Winnebago.  Maybe because I never saw Event Horizon... maybe because I remember having a good time at Spaceballs despite my feeling at the time that it wasn't Mel Brooks' best (though I guess he was ahead of his time!)  It was a tough call, as your Lego work seemed more detailed and it looked just like the ship from Event Horizon... but the Spaceballs minifigs were pretty cool.   Are you still going to run this interview now?!

Ha! Not at all! Our Lego comp is serious business and we needed your honest appraisal. I think I'd rather have J's entry on my shelf anyway. Now you've just made it official. I can take it. I'm just going to conduct the rest of this with tears streaming down my face.

We'll get through it together.

But while we're speaking of Lego, I go nuts when people refer to them as “Legos”. It's like someone saying “feets” or “sheeps”. You've worked with Lego. Does it drive them nuts too, or do they do it themselves sometimes? And if it's frowned upon, how serious is it? Would a Lego rep slap you? Or is this just a problem I have?

Honestly, I've never heard anything about this from anyone at Lego. I referred to them as "Legos" and either they were biting their lips and cursing me in secret or they were cool about it. So, let me get this straight, if you were working on something and you needed a whole bunch of bricks, you'd say "Pass me those Lego"? That seems wrong! I think I'll skirt the issue from now on and say "Lego bricks" in order to keep my head from exploding.

I'd say, “Pass me that Lego”, or “Pass me some Lego”. Because it's already a plural. I am losing this battle too. But our team debate such things. We once had a blow up of whether the AT-AT was pronounced “At At” or “a tee a tee”.

I like to imagine it began as "All Terrain Armored Transport", then "a tee a tee", then "AT-AT"... and finally "that thing that can be easily destroyed by tying a rope around its feet."

Finally, as I've said, you've already written for some of the biggest pop culture franchises in history. Is there a dream project for you that you haven't worked on? And what can we look forward to next?

It'd be hard to top working on Simpsons and Star Wars. I mentioned The Godfather earlier - that is a film series that I dearly love (well, the less said about number 3 the better) and I'd love to do a Boba Fett-style series of adventures for Captain McCloskey - the crooked cop played by Sterling Hayden. What choices did he make that put him in that Italian Restaurant with Solozzo and Michael Corleone? I'm kind of half serious about this - I'd love to see that show or movie or book or graphic novel... or Lego game! Similarly, I was just watching Diamonds Are Forever on cable (I love James Bond) and I'd love to see the further (or, I guess, previous) adventures of Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd.  Love those guys! So yeah that's it - no original ideas, I guess - just fool-arounds with beloved franchises!

I'd trust you with anything at this point. Wherever you land next, I'll see it.

Thanks!  I'll let you know when "The Captain McCloskey Mysteries" debuts.

Thank you so much for your time, we really couldn't have hoped for a more fascinating insight into a show we all loved!

Thank you!  I'm extremely pleased you liked it.

That's all for now, but seriously, everyone, support this gentleman's hilarious work and buy this awesome special. This is what you're looking for. Memorize it!:


  1. When this aired on TV, my family had the rate experience where all 5 of us were watching the same show, and all loving it. Looking forward to picking this up and doing it all over again. We'll even make blue milk again.

    Oh... and it's official! I won the Lego battle vs. Luke!!

  2. This is an awesome interview! Loved the Padawan Menace so much, completely came out of nowhere for me.

    Now dying for more Lego feature lengths.

  3. Thanks for the recommendation of this special, Luke, really enjoyed it! Genuinely 'eh-oh-el'd' many times. Wish it had been longer!