One of the more unusual projects at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival is an animated comedy about the hijinks of New York City's animal population, with an indie-friendly voice cast including Mark Duplass, Katie Aselton... Wait, actually, all of that sounds pretty standard for Sundance. What makes "Animals." unique is that it's actually a television series produced by Duplass and created by Phil Matarese & Mike Luciano. After the first two episodes screened this Monday, Indiewire talked to Matarese and Luciano about their first time attending the festival as creators, how they define television and if their success will change the game for TV projects going forward.
Update: HBO, which picked up "Animals." after its Sundance premiere, announced the 10-episode first season will premiere February 5 at 11:30pm. The animated adult comedy series will be available via HBO Go and HBO NOW, as well.
Is this your guys' first time at Sundance?
PM: It's my first time.
ML: I came here five years ago as a student on a trip, so it's very different this time, as one could imagine.
What for you is the biggest difference, coming in with a project versus not?
ML: I definitely saw a lot more films the first time! One of the reasons I came was to see [the Duplass film] "Cyrus" premiere, which I was lucky enough to do. And then now to be back with not only a project, but to be here again now with something with Mark attached to it and a part of it is pretty surreal. Pretty unbelievable.
I'm going to ask the question that I'm sure you're pretty tired of answering, which is how did you initially get connected with Mark?
PM: We had made "Animals." as a web series for a while, and we would screen it around New York. After doing about five of those short episodes, we started to do a quarter-hour thing and submitted that to different festivals. We got picked for the New York Television Festival and we ended up winning Comedy there, and from that we got agents and managers and were able to come out to Los Angeles and meet with a bunch of people. Suddenly, we had all of these routes laid out for us.
Our managers actually put it out to Mark. He was looking for more things in the television world, and we hopped on a Skype call with him in the supply closet of our day job, and he basically laid it out for us. He said, "Listen, you guys can go the studio route and get beaten down for a year and maybe not even see your show get made, or you can come with me and you can make it right now." He was able to acquire private funding so we could just build it on our own. For me and Mike, we're guys who make things — that sounded really nice. Plus we're huge fans of that guy, so for him to come to us is a dream come true.
It must have been such a help having him on board, just in terms of getting the guest cast.
PM Yeah, that was insane. People love the guy, and luckily [the scripts] were pretty good, too. They're pretty game to jump on board for something fun.
The big story regarding "Animals." is that of the projects at Sundance, it's one of the very few TV ones. I was curious what your expectations were going into the festival, about how you thought it would play?
ML: We have gotten our encouragement through our New York screenings, through that quarter hour that we did, through screening it live and forming an audience. We were very comfortable with it playing in a room. We were just excited to have a platform at something like Sundance, more than being worried about how it would play. We screened it yesterday and it played— I would say it exceeded our expectations.
PM: Yeah, it was really great.
ML: It's just so packed with jokes and so funny that we sort of knew that we'd do well there. There's always a chance that people wouldn't like it, but are trusting in following our instincts. It got to a pretty good place.
In terms of the post-screening discussion, how much of it revolved around the fact that it's a television project?
PM: It was mostly just like any post-screening — sitting and talking about how the project came to be and how it was made and all those interesting things. For us, it's a bit more lateral. It's more about the process and how we view our animation and how we write our scripts, versus, "How did you write this script?" For us, it's "How do you write your show?" "How is your show made?"
Mark touched on that with a question that was asked. He's great at articulating this idea that he can see forming, the idea that there can be a new tier of independently-made episodic storytelling that can exist and coincide and emerge, so you don't have to have a huge studio or network involvement. It's possible for people like us to have a strong vision for what an experience of TV could be, to go out and make it themselves and hopefully sell it. There's a space where that can be a reality. He compares it to how John Cassavetes would make his big studio films and then go use the money for that acting to go make his little character study film — how that had quite a hand in creating a new tier for independent film to emerge in that way. He sees the possibility of that happening with television... or what we're calling television. [laughs]
So at this point, what do you guys define as television?
ML: Clear in and out points: a clear time that you're getting, like a half-hour or an hour or fifteen minutes. That's what I like — one big great thing for me. One show I love that's being helmed in this whole idea of "auteurship" in television that seems to be able to work right now is "The Knick" with Steven Soderbergh. I love being able to tune into an episode and know I'm going to get exactly an hour of Steven Soderbergh and his story.
You're in the middle of the process right now, but what can you say about interest from potential parties and buyers regarding the project?
PM: We hope there is a lot, and for us it's basically: We're just looking for someone who understands the project as much as everyone who is currently involved in it does, who cares about it as much as we do, and who is all for the ride and down for our little-engine-that-could, and is looking to support it and give it a home. There is a fair amount of interest.
ML: Oh yeah, baby!
PM: Which we're pretty excited about, too.
ML: Like Phil said, we're really just trying to find the best partner-in-crime to lead the show.
Take me through this, as I've sadly never been to Sundance: Is this energy you're getting from physically being at the festival, or from all places?
ML: I think it's mostly all places. You're talking about what interest I'm hearing?
ML: From agents and all that stuff. There are definitely interested outlets, and as we were saying before, the screening was pretty into it and it was a pretty encouraging screening. It's been kind of surreal for us because the past year and change, we've been in our little bubble making our show. I think right before we got out here, a few days before, it was a quick succession as the trailer dropped, and then a bunch of articles came out about it, and it suddenly went from being our little show to being a real tangible project that people knew about. For the first time, people have been checking our badges and coming up to us and saying things about how they're excited to see it, or have heard good things, and that's possibly rewarding. It's pretty incredible for us — a very new thing for us. It's exciting.
How much tougher do you think it would be to sell "Animals." without premiering at Sundance?
ML: Philip already brought this up, but we could have drawn it down a traditional route of the pitch you show around. For us, we're more drawn to the excitement as well as the risk of being able to helm our own show and really be able to make it a vision from the inside out. We're grateful that Sundance was interested in showing it. Really what that is, is it highlights the nature of how it was made. I think it helps anyone that comes up with an exciting idea, which is that, more people could use it and should use it. For more people who want to go out in theory, it's possible. There's maybe the right atmosphere in terms of technology and how much stuff costs. It's potentially possible for this to be a regular currency.
PM: Especially for younger dudes.
ML: Or ladies…
PM: Yeah. I meant it in the broadest sense — not broad as in "female broad," broad as in a wide span. You go on YouTube... I'm learning After Effects, and the kids teaching it are 12-year-old kids. The technology is accessible; if you just spend enough time with these things, you're able to make some great shit. Our motto was that if you work within the confines that we had and, the confines whether it be the assets to create it or the ability to create it, and you just do it. Pen on paper, and get it out in the world.
Based on your experience at the festival, do you think there will be a half-dozen TV projects at Sundance next year?
ML: People keep asking us that, and [...] I would be surprised if, next year, Sundance feels like they need to fulfill five slots for televised projects. I think what Sundance is going to do, and what they've always done, is look at the content first. If there's a cool story that could be told episodically, they'll have that and they'll host it. If it's a web series, maybe they'll do that next year. Or if it's a three-hour movie, they'll do that as well. There's a lot of cool stuff [out there], and if the content that is being created one way more than the other, that's fine. All of these things can live conjecturally and no one's going to get their toes stepped on that much.