“Animals.” is not a show to be watched lightly. By that, I don’t mean it’s not a fun show, because, if only one thing is certain about the animated HBO series from creators Mike Luciano and Phil Matarese, it’s that it aims to get laughs and often succeeds. It’s just not a show that’s easy to tune out and still appreciate. Viewers shouldn’t assume they “get it” after the first few minutes or even the first half-hour. There are layers to the project, which should come as no surprise given the pedigree behind it — including Mark and Jay Duplass, who serve as executive producers, and the HBO brand itself — but may not be apparent until you let the show sit in your cerebellum for a bit.
In case you haven’t caught it yet, “Animals.” has five episodes waiting for you on HBO NOW with new entries premiering on the streaming service every Thursday and airing on HBO on Fridays. But before you make your choice to binge the first season or wait to watch weekly, let its creators share their thoughts on how television is best consumed. Indiewire spoke with Luciano and Matarese to discuss the series’ storybook path from a pet project (pun intended) on YouTube to the festival circuit — including the festival they think might be the Sundance of TV as well as Sundance itself — and now airing on their dream network, HBO. The writing duo also shared a few tips for any creators out there looking to break through and discussed how, exactly, they got so many awesome voice actors. (Hint: The Duplass brothers might have something to do with it).
I wanted to start off by asking you about Sundance. Obviously, HBO picked this up straight out of Sundance, and I’m just curious from your perspective — when that was going down, when you were fielding all the offers and talking to all the different people — what made HBO feel like the right fit for this project?
PM: Without hyperbole, HBO has been something that we’ve whispered to each other for years now like, “Dude, this could be an HBO show.” We both really believe in that, but we’d always knock on wood, just because it seemed so unfathomable to do it. But what made them stick out is we’re huge fans. “Sopranos” is my favorite TV show of all time. It’s the highest bar of television, in my opinion, that there is.
ML: And also, one of the factors in addition to loving their shows is that they didn’t really have any animations at the time. I think to be able to stand out was always something that we’ve had in the back of our heads. The show felt to us a little unconventional — an unconventional animated show — so we knew we wanted it to have a home that would fit that unconventional bill.
PM: We had a bunch of meetings with people. What people got were the two links and then scripts for a bunch of the episodes. In our HBO meeting, one of the executives was dropping lines from Episode 10, so it just seemed like they really cared and they actually really did read everything and understood what the project was. We didn’t walk in there and they said, “Maybe the mouse should move?” or this or that. Even from that first meeting, right off the bat, they care about their artists and it comes through in their programming.
Yeah, that’s huge, and I’ve heard similar things a lot from different creators.
PM: And we’re actually at HBO right now, so that’s why we’re saying all this.
ML: Yeah, exactly.
[laughs] So you’re a little biased is what you’re saying.
PM: I’ll call you back later and then we’ll really— because they bug these rooms.
To keep the love train going a little bit, a lot of what people talk about in terms of TV these days is how television is being distributed. There are so many different ways to get it out there and in that vein, HBO has fairly recently started HBO NOW. I was curious first if that factored into your decision-making at all in terms of how people would be watching this, and second how you guys engage with television these days. How do you watch it yourselves?
PM: I have Apple TV so I find myself using all those little icons. When there’s a show I’m really digging, I will tune in, like “The Leftovers.” This season I watched every live airing on HBO, but how did it factor in for us?
ML: I think the way shows are being done now, increasingly, where you throw up the entire season all at once is great for a number of reasons. Because for anyone who’s living in the current time and has streaming available to them, that’s such a great thing to be able to watch a ton of episodes one after another of a show you really like. That being said, one of our favorite things about doing it with HBO was this idea that we would be releasing an episode every week that would be on TV. We’d have an opportunity to stretch the season out in a way where people are hopefully responding to it one week at a time. It feels like, or we think it’s going to feel like, releasing a new film in a way, every week. Oddly that feels like an antiquated idea in the current state. [But] that was exciting to us.
PM: I think I’m speaking for the both us, [but] I don’t really buy into this binge thing as much as everyone else. I don’t really need it. I prefer having a delayed gratification. I like watching shit over week-by-week event, going on Reddit and seeing the threads about the episodes. I like that event aspect of TV.
That’s harder and harder to come by these days.
PM: Yeah, it just feels like something we miss a little bit.
Well, backtracking a little bit, I was curious about the development of the project as a whole. I know this started with the short film “Pigeons,” so you’ve been working on this project for quite a while now. How is “Pigeons” the short film different from “Pigeons” the TV episode that’s going to air on HBO?
PM: That was really structured like a quarter-hour pilot of an episode. It’s just one story, we’re just following these pigeons who get trapped in an apartment. We have a strong A-story, so that Episode 2, “Pigeons,” is about, “I find a golf ball in my nest, I think I’m a mom,” and all this other stuff happens. But in that same episode we veer off into other sketches that are two to three to five minutes at most.
ML: [Which is] more like our shorts because before that 13-minute “Pigeons” episode that we made, we made them for a year as little three-minute shorts. So that was where it always started, from the two-, three-minute short format and each stage we kicked it up a notch where we could push the architecture of spacing out a plot. So the first attempt was the shorts and then we went to the-13 minute, quarter-hour, and now that half-hour. You’ve seen the first five episodes?
ML: So what we realized was, “Okay, let’s figure out a way to structure the episode where we can tie it all together so it feels like one story,” and that’s where the human storyline idea came in. It’s all told visually in short bursts, but it connects the disparate storylines that are going on with the different species. And then over the season we realized we can take that a step further and tell an entire story over the course of the season, if you were paying attention to it. But at the same token, you can tune in to any given episode and appreciate it as a one-off episode.
PM: So basically the episode that you’re going to watch, if it’s called “Rats,” the A-story is going to be rats. If it’s called “Cats,” the story is going to be cats. So we have a big A-story, two sketches, and then a thin icing of a human’s storyline to make a beautiful “Animals.” cake.
How do you choose the individual animals? I don’t want to sound like an idiot, but I find that the stories that you do choose to pair up in these episodes, they somehow work very well together even though there isn’t necessarily an explicit connection.
PM: It’s always nice when, thematically, they can tie into each other. I think for us the biggest thing is giving people something refreshing from the A-story. If we’re dealing with rats we don’t want to go to a mouse story or anything like that. In Episode 5, we go from rats to moths to fish, and that’s really different characters.
ML: We try to balance it.
PM: Right off the bat people are going to be excited with each new character they meet throughout that episode. That’s probably the first thing — on a surface level — that we don’t even talk about. We go from the gut. It’s good to make sizes: Our fly episode has a horse sketch in it so we’re at the microcosm then we blow it up to a human-sized things. But it’s all New York City based animals. How did we even— It just kind of happens the stories. [laughs]
ML: What was your question? Did that answer your question?
PM: It was about how we pair the animals for each episode. It’s also dictated through the human storyline. That’s really great when we can have it being this sort of organic thing like in Episode 5, where we go to this strip club and then on the outside of the strip club on a neon sign are a bunch of moths getting high off the light. When that really sings, that’s really satisfying for us, but you know sometimes we’ll throw a newspaper out the window and cast a bunch of dogs. And that’s fine, too!
How did you go about choosing the voices for the individual animals? How did you go about attracting those people, and did you have examples of certain people you had in mind for specific parts?
PM: We always try to do our best with writing a character with a voice in mind, but we found that you can’t get too married to that or write it too specifically to someone because a lot of the time these things don’t work out. But Mark and I have a similar taste in the type of comedians we like, just even the aesthetic of voice that we like for characters. Generally we have an idea of what someone can bring to the table.
That being said, we’ve had some people who’ve come in and given it a take that we weren’t expecting, and it was just so much more rewarding if that’s the case. It feels like a new lease on the character. A new attempt at it. But it was a mixture of us going through our agents, managers, reaching out to people, but a lot of it was just Mark [Duplass] reaching out to these people, especially for the first two episodes because we were fucking nobodies back then.
PM: He’s got a whole bunch of friends and people know that if it’s a Duplass brothers project it’s going to be, you know, good.
Honestly, I have no theories as to what you might say to this, but why did you choose to use a period at the end of your title?
PM: Wow! I don’t know, something about it. Just like, “Animals. Fuck it.”
PM: It’s a sentence in and of itself.
ML: We loved Spike Jonze’s “Adaptation.” It was something that was subconsciously on our minds. I think we both in previous projects used that, too. I think with “Animals.” there’s something about the word. I don’t know.
PM: I think the logo just had a period on it. For some reason, I wrote it and I put a period on it and then we got really married to that one horrible penmanship version of it. So it probably stems from that, too.
ML: It just gives it a little distinct character. And we have not discussed this. This is all now just coming out. We’re sorting it out now, so it was a very subconscious thing that we both just knew was the right way to go about it.
Backtracking a little, I was curious about your overall experience on the TV festival circuit. Going through everything you mentioned, from NYTV Festival to Sundance, what did you get out of that experience? What was helpful for you guys as creators in general, if not necessarily specific to the show? And do you have any advice for people who are applying to festivals, or trying to break in through festivals?
PM: It was pretty pointed. When we did the web series, we knew we wanted to give it a go for a longer episode than a 1- minute episode. So once we had that, we realized “We can kick this out to some places and try and get some eyeballs behind it, beside Mike’s comedy show and channel 101.” That’s kind of why we got into the New York Television Festival. I don’t think either of us really expected that to be the jumping off point to where we are now. It validates what you’re doing a little bit because you can take it seriously and other people are taking it seriously. People are getting tickets to see your thing and you’re talking about it, and then fucking winning the best comedy there was a really big deal. [And] Mitch Hurwitz calling us out. But I think that is the biggest thing with those sorts of festival:. It was something that we probably needed at that time because it was two years of us making this web series, getting just hundreds of views on YouTube. And not really hitting a wall, but I think we were at a point where we said, “Let’s send this shit out. Let’s get going.”
ML: People really liked it and were responding to it so we knew it was something. And we loved it so we just wanted to continue doing it. But there is a point where it feels like a brick wall: How do you get past it? How do you get an agent?
PM: I remember being in my apartment and we were maybe writing something else [and I said] “How the fuck do you get an agent?” Do you mail them something? How does it happen? That festival particularly did very well because they have these round table things where you get to meet all these fucking people.
ML: I think it’s really shaping up to be a worthy Sundance comparison for TV because—
PM: —it’s a crash course for us in show business in general. It’s the behind-the-scenes of talking to agents, managers. I went to a talk that was for an accountant or something like that. [laughs] Like: how to manage your money when you’re in show business.
ML: It’s a really great experience if you have the chance to go. It’s really really special so that would be one thing. And just in general I think something about our show that we both feel really passionate about is screening your stuff, live, in front of an audience. It’s so important, and key. I think with a web series people don’t take it as seriously or that’s not the first thing they jump to but that’s something that we’ve been doing all along, every step of the way and we continue to do as we now have the TV show. We’re screening it all the time.
PM: We both worked at an ad agency, which was a hell of a job already and we would work from 6am to 6pm, and we’d work weekends, and we still work weekends. If you like your thing, work on your thing until it’s a thing, and don’t talk about it until it’s done. I feel like people have an idea for a hockey movie and they’ll tell all their friends about the hockey movie they’re going to write and they never write it! They never do it, they never film it. So just do your thing. Do the damn thing and work hard. Get a deadline. Work month-to-month.
So “Animals.” earned a two-season order right off the bat. What do you have planned for Season 2?
PM: Right now we’re writing Season 2. Mike and I are really hands in on every process of this show, so we’re helping with billboards and posters and Facebook posts and shit like that cause we’re kind of anal when it comes to that sort of stuff. I wish I didn’t say “anal,” but you know what, sometimes you gotta use a word.
PM: So that’s kind of where we are, and it feels really good because it’s been awhile since we’ve been writing in that part of the creative process. So it feels brand new and fresh and we’re both really excited and have all of these fucking crazy ideas for next season — and three and four, if we get them. I think this show is going to be really, really, really crazy. Season 1 was this corrupt mayor dude, “The Wire” kind of storyline. Season 2, we’ll see what it’s going to be but it’s going to be another sort of genre send-up, if you will. Another story to be told, I guess.