Tuesday, September 18, 2012

INTERVIEW: Writer Michael Price Reveals LEGO Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Out!

It’s official! If you enjoyed the very funny animated LEGO Star Wars special The Padawan Menace even a fraction as much as I did, then you’ll be thrilled to learn that we’re getting another one! The freshly announced LEGO Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Out will air on Cartoon Network (in the US) on Wednesday September 26th at 8pm, and is written again by our hilarious friend Michael Price, who you may recognize from his many years of work on The Simpsons. Here's a link to the trailer on the official Star Wars site.

I was fortunate enough to talk to Mr. Price about his latest foray into the Star Wars universe, so join me after the jump where he will tell us all about it in his own words! 

Once again we’ve been blind-sided by a surprise announcement and a very imminent release. How long has this been in the works? How hard has it been to keep this secret after the success of the first one?

We began work on this one last summer, shortly after The Padawan Menace first aired here in the US, which happened to be during Comic-Con. LEGO arranged a screening at a theater down the street from the convention center, and the next day we showed some clips at the LEGO Star Wars panel at Comic-Con. I was just blown away by the reaction to it from the die-hard fans, and it’s been gratifying to track the warm reception Padawan Menace has gotten as it’s played on TV around the world and come out on DVD.

So anyway, based on the success of Padawan Menace, the folks at LEGO (led by our Producer Kathleen Fleming) came to me in late July to commission the second show. I came up with a story that everybody liked and I got to work on it immediately. The script was finished by late fall and we went right into production. The great thing about Empire Strikes Out is I had the pleasure to not only write it, but also be one of the Executive Producers, which meant I was able to stay involved throughout the whole process. I worked with our fantastic director, Guy Vasilovich, and participated all along the way to the final sound mix, which I’m thrilled to say we did with the legendary Matthew Wood and his team from Skywalker Sound at Skywalker Ranch. That alone was a ridiculously amazing dream come true for me. We finished the show in mid-June, but for whatever reason it was decided it would be kept a secret until now. So yeah, I’ve been chomping at the bit to tell the world about it!

Now I understand that this is not a sequel to Padawan Menace, but rather it’s own beast.

That is correct. It’s not in any way a sequel story-wise to Padawan Menace, just another fun Star Wars tale told in Lego, with the same style of humor as the first one.

When does this one take place?
Well, the title may give you a clue that this special takes place in the Original Trilogy timeframe. To be specific, we begin about three seconds after the Death Star explodes at the end of “A New Hope” and we take off from there. Princess Leia knows that the Empire is gearing up to strike back, as it were, so she, Han and Luke embark on a new adventure that brings them into contact with Vader… and Chewie and C-3PO get to spend some quality time together.

I’ve always felt that the time between
A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back is the most fertile area to mine in the Star Wars universe. Does this time period hold any special significance for you?

Oh, absolutely. I’m old enough to have seen the original film when it first came out, and it’s hard for people now to appreciate what we went through back then --namely, three excruciating years of waiting for the sequel to what I still call “Star Wars.” I’ll never forget how excited I was for “Empire” to come out, and the single most thrilling movie-going moment of my life was “I am your father”.

So when LEGO came to me about doing another special, my very first thought was to set this one in the original trilogy so as to have the same kind of fun with Luke, Leia, Chewbacca and Darth Vader that we had with Yoda, Palpatine and the Padawans in the first show. And my personal shout-out to that time in my life is a bit where we have some fun with Luke and Vader’s “big moment”.

Something I personally love about
Padawan Menace is that although you get to play loose with continuity and allow the characters to do some outlandish things in service of comedy, you still stay very true to the essence of those main, iconic characters. For example, your C-3PO is very much still C-3PO, as is your Yoda. Is that something you think about when writing?

Definitely. I think you’ll see in the new show that I’ve tried to do just that -- stay true to the basic characters while finding the humor and a different kind of humanity in them. I was particularly thrilled to spend a lot of time with Darth Vader, who as you may recall, makes a few goofy appearances in Padawan Menace. We don’t do any “get Darth a donut” jokes in this one… we treat him as his real character, but now find the humor in that character.

In fact, I’d argue that Vader is the star of this special… and its most sympathetic figure. (And Matt Sloan, who does the “Chad Vader” YouTube videos, gives a great performance.) In our own little Lego way, we explore what must have been a crushing blow to Vader’s self-esteem -- to have the Death Star blown up on his watch by a bunch of scrappy rebels. At the risk of sounding pompous, the story is about Vader’s quest to redeem himself and regain the Emperor’s trust after totally blowing it in Episode IV… and he does Force “3 Stooges” moves.

Luke, Leia and Han are really the dream group of characters. Who’s the most fun of the three to write for?

I love all three, but there was only so much content we could squeeze into a 22- minute show. So, among the “big three,” Luke gets the lion’s share of the screen time. Luke’s story is the flip-side of Vader’s – he’s just had a spectacular success, and now he’s been thrust into a spotlight that maybe he’s not totally prepared for yet. But because he’s Luke, he finds new and different ways to overcome his adversities and further his path to Jedi greatness. And he gets to quote Richard Pryor in “Stir Crazy.” Yes, you read that correctly.

And can we expect some more tinkering with the timeline?

Yes, in the respect that characters and places we associate with Episodes 1, 2, and 3 find their way into our “Episode 4.1” world. That’s been one of the most fun and rewarding parts of working with the LEGO Star Wars universe: the freedom to fool around with timelines and mix/match characters and places. And Lucasfilm (via the wonderful Howard Roffman) has been incredibly supportive and tolerant of our messing around.

This might be a good time for me to say for the record that this show, like The Padawan Menace, is NOT CANON! 10 year-old Han Solo did not save Threepio from Jabba’s Palace. Bib Fortuna never appeared on a Galactic version of “American Idol.”

I hear that actors such as Ahmed Best, Brian Blessed, Andrew Secombe and Sam Witwer are voicing characters - presumably Jar Jar, Boss Nass, Watto and Darth Maul respectively.

Oh yes, we were thrilled to get these amazing guys to recreate their roles. We just asked everyone we could think of to do it… and most of them, to our wonder, said yes. So we’ve also got Julian Glover as General Veers and Kenneth Colley as Admiral Piett. And, of course, Anthony Daniels has once again graced us with his awesome performance as C-3PO.

Are Jar Jar, Boss Nass and the other “prequel” characters out of time, or are we going to see older versions of these characters and find out what they’re doing in the original trilogy timeline?

They are themselves, still alive and kicking in the original trilogy timeline, but we didn’t do anything to age them up, if that’s what you’re asking.

As a wild tangent - Sam Witwer is a dynamo. Have you heard his music? It’s crazy. You should listen to King of the Robots.

I’m not familiar with his music, but, if the way he performed Darth Maul in our recording studio is any indication, “dynamo” is an understatement. As brooding and intense as his Clone Wars Darth Maul is, he’s equally awesome in our show. He was a joy to work with, and fully embraced finding the comedy in Maul. In fact, a little tune he improvised with us at the end of the recording session turned into one of the major set pieces of the show. Yes, Darth Maul sings!

Weirdly enough, one of the first ideas that struck me when I started working on a story for this show fourteen months ago was to team up Darth Vader with Darth Maul, and have some sibling rivalry comedy à la Will Ferrell’s “Stepbrothers”. My original pitch of the story began with the Emperor finding Darth Maul’s two halves in the debris field of the exploded Death Star, and then putting him back together in that same medical bay that he used for Darth Vader in Revenge of the Sith. Then, at the dramatic moment the table flips up and Darth Maul is reanimated to the Emperor’s glee, Vader walks in the room… and it gets very awkward.

Did you have more freedom after the success of the first one, or was there more pressure this time? Do you get a lot of outside input?

This experience was absolutely the same as the first one. LEGO and Lucasfilm were supportive 100% and let us make a show that would appeal to kids and families, but also pepper in jokes and satirical swipes at the original films that hardcore fans might enjoy.

Is there synergy between the LEGO toy line and what you’re doing? For example, the first modern LEGO rancor we really saw was in the Padawan Menace, and now the actual toy has been revealed. Did that rancor design get created because you wrote a rancor into your show, and THEN it went into production as a toy, or do they make you choose from stuff that’s already in the pipeline?

I have no idea which came first, the Lego Rancor chicken or the Lego Rancor egg. I remember writing the Rancor into Padawan Menace because I thought it would make an exciting scene, but Lego didn’t tell me to put it in there. I’m sure they were happy it was in there, but they didn’t tell me to do it.

The only instance of the content affecting the toy line was when Lego decided to create a “Young Han Solo” minifig to include with the Padawan Menace DVD. I was really thrilled when I saw that, although, as many people have pointed out, the existence of the minifig in the DVD package pretty much spoils the “big surprise” at the end of the show. I’ve been told that when Empire Strikes Out is eventually released on DVD, there’ll be another cool new minifig. I know who it is, but I can’t tell you yet.

Because my feeling is that you could wield the power to force them to create LEGO designs for all sorts of crazy fringe characters.

If that happens, that would be great, because Lord knows there are so many great minor characters in Star Wars. One of my faves who I tried to work into Empire Strikes Out is Ben Quadinaros. We couldn’t get him in this one, but who knows, maybe he’ll show up at some point in the future and then Lego will be forced to make a Ben Q minifig – though his diamond-shaped head could present a challenge for the Lego designers.

Without spoiling anything, is there something you can tease? Something you’re looking forward to that we can look out for?

I wrote the script late last summer when the Star Wars: The Complete Saga Blu-ray had just come out and the Star Wars fanverse was abuzz about all the new changes George Lucas made to the movies, so there are two jokes that directly reference those changes. One is very blatant, and the other is of the “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” variety.

Star Wars is famous for trilogies. Is that a clue to the future of the Lego Star Wars franchise? And what would Lucasfilm do to you if you told me?

All I can say right now is working on these two shows has been an absolute thrill and I hope to be a part of any further Lego Star Wars projects, should there be any. I’m not saying there will, and I’m not saying there won’t. I’m not saying anything. There, I think I’ve covered myself.

Thanks so much again for your time, Michael! I know we're all super looking forward to it!

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