With LEGO Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Out premiering this Wednesday night on Cartoon Network, I checked in with the show’s writer, Michael Price, who also wrote last year’s LEGO Star Wars special, The Padawan Menace. That first animated show (reviewed last year), which had Yoda, C-3PO and a young Han Solo, ranks up as the best Star Wars based comedy I had seen in years, and one of my top Star Wars on screen for 2011. In this interview, Michael talks about the comedy of The Empire Strikes Out, and the challenges of solo writing Luke and Vader.
James: The first LEGO Star Wars special, The Padawan Menace, was a fantastic treat for viewers of all ages, and it combined elements from the prequel era and the original trilogy in a fun way. What’s in store for us in The Empire Strikes Out?
Michael Price: Well, LEGO came to me very soon after The Padawan Menace first aired on Cartoon Network last summer to say they’d like to do another one and they wanted me to write it. Naturally, I was thrilled to come aboard again. I wasn’t sure if they wanted a sequel to The Padawan Menace or if they were looking for this next show to also take place in the Clone Wars timeline. When they said “no”, they just wanted another fun LEGO Star Wars story set somewhere in the Star Wars universe seen in the six films, my thoughts just immediately jumped to doing this next special in the “Original Trilogy” timeline. Maybe it’s because I’m old enough to have seen the original movie – the one I still call just Star Wars – in the theatre when it first came out, but I have such a strong personal fondness for episode IV, V and VI.
All this is a very long way to say that this special takes place in the immediate aftermath of A New Hope. And when I say “immediate aftermath”, I mean it. The opening image of the show is the Death Star exploding. We take off from there, following Luke, Leia and Han as they realize they won’t have much time to celebrate their victory before the Empire comes after them; and we also follow Darth Vader as he comes to grips with what must have been the worst thing that ever happened to him (well, maybe second worse – falling in that lava river on Mustafar was no picnic). Without giving too much away, both Luke and Vader’s days do not pan out the way they thought they would and they have to deal with some unexpected complications.
James: Comedy has always been a part of Star Wars – what is it about LEGO Star Wars that makes it especially fertile for comic storytelling?
Michael: I think part of it is that, yes, comedy was a big part of the original films – especially the first three – but they are also very serious and deal with huge issues: father vs. son, good vs. evil, destiny over choice. And those kind of serious things are what I find the most fun to puncture. The thing about the prequel films that makes me laugh the most (and we did a bit about it in The Padawan Menace) was how nobody, and I mean nobody, can figure out that Chancellor Palpatine is also Darth Sidious. In the Original Trilogy, the whole notion of Darth Vader’s power and scariness is the biggest balloon… so we jab a few needles in that, too. Poor Vader has one hell of a bad day in this show. But, without giving too much away, he has his very own kind of happy ending too.
James: That bit about Sidious revealing himself in the Senate was brilliant. But I’m glad to hear that Vader does get his own happy ending. How does Vader cope with his power being the source of some jokes? He seemed rather fragile in The Padawan Menace.
Michael: In Padawan Menace, he kind of was Darth Vader and he kind of wasn’t. He was the character, but in a bigger way, he was the actor hoping to get to his big scene in the movie…and I guess you could say they all melted into one. Maybe I shouldn’t use that word “melted” to talk about Vader. Anyway, in this show he’s not the “actor” anymore, he is the real Darth Vader. And once I started writing this show, I really found myself empathizing with him. I mean, who hasn’t had a really bad day at work and then worried that he’s about to get in trouble with the Boss? That’s what’s going on with him here. Sure he’s Darth Vader, sure he can choke you from across the room, but at heart he’s still needy ol’ Anakin, desperate for “Daddy’s” approval. Part of the fun of writing this show — and again, I give LEGO and Lucasfilm so much credit for going along with my crazy ideas — was finding a way to keep Vader the supervillain he is, but also, in a way, make him the hero. That’s not to say that Luke is the bad guy here. It’s kind of like… they’re both just trying to get through the day in one piece. Vader’s definitely the emotional core of the story, at least the way I see it. So ending it any other way than seeing it all work out for him seemed wrong. Plus, it makes sense that Vader get his bearings back and feel comfortable in who he is so he can proceed to get himself ready for the terrible things he does in The Empire Strikes Back.
James: While we’ve gotten quite a few Star Wars-based comedy shows such as from Robot Chicken and Family Guy, the LEGO specials really have been about telling a complete and original story rather than just having skits or retelling the movies. What’s the challenge of writing an entire storyline?
Michael: Excellent question! My assignment on these shows is to do just that – tell an original story that takes place in and around the master story of the 6 Star Wars films… but aside from that just have a good time. That is actually incredibly freeing — that and the understanding that these LEGO Star Wars shows are most definitely NOT CANON. So we were free to make up an imaginary back story for Han Solo in The Padawan Menace and, in this show, invent entire events that never took place – including the kind of awkward and tense reunion (or, I guess, first ever meeting) of Darth Vader and his “step-brother” Darth Maul. And the fact that both LEGO and Lucasfilm have been supportive of my narrative sidetracks, the mixing and matching characters and places from the various films, and our satirical swipes at some of the Star Wars sacred cows just has made the whole experience very fun.
James: These shows are NOT CANON?! We’ll have to get some of the other parts of the Expanded Universe to reference the storyline obscurely, to bump it up to CANON. Having the freedom to play outside the canon definitely sounds like it ratchets up the fun factor. How do you balance some of the satire and other humor that is more grown-up with the type of jokes that kids like?
Michael: Well, of course, I’m always aware that these shows are aimed at a broad audience, but kids in particular. I can’t really describe my process other than I know we can’t just do 22 minutes of inside Star Wars jokes or we’ll lose those kids. There’s no set formula or anything, and sometimes that’s where the folks at LEGO and Lucasfilm help me out the most by saying “maybe we should cut this reference to the YouTube of the Chinese bootleg DVD of Revenge Of The Sith where Vader’s “NOOOO!” came out in the subtitles as “DO NOT WANT!” That’s the kind of joke comedy writers call a “10 percenter.” Well, in this case it was more like a “.01 percenter.” That, by the way, was an actual conversation we had… and that joke didn’t make it in the final cut. But there are plenty of similar obscurities that got in there. There’s one sign joke that probably only the most discriminating Star Wars fan would get, and there’s a reference to one of the changes George Lucas made when he released the Star Wars: The Complete Saga Blu-ray set that will sail over most folk’s heads… but, I hope, is funny in its own right.
James: Are there any cool cameos (either on screen or among the voice cast) that you’d like the audience to watch for?
Michael: Wow, where do I begin? After we were fortunate enough to have Anthony Daniels in The Padawan Menace, we decided with this show to just ask as many of the “real” actors to reprise their roles for the new show as we could get. And, to our astonishment, we got a lot of “yesses.” Aside from Anthony, who returns, we’ve got — to name just a few — the great Sam Witwer doing Darth Maul (and he’s as silly in this as he is intense in The Clone Wars), Brian Blessed as Boss Nass, and both Julian Glover as General Veers and Kenneth Colley as Admiral Piett.
James: That’s a lot of great talent and familiar faces (well, voices) coming into this. One of my favorite bits from The Padawan Menace was the interaction between “Ian”, Yoda and Cody. Any chance we’ll find out what happened to Cody when he got punted by an AT-AT on Hoth?
Michael: Uh… I think he’s still flying. No, no Cody in this show I’m afraid. And nobody says “Get Darth a donut.” But there is an AT-AT! And Darth Maul sings! And Luke quotes Richard Pryor in “Stir Crazy”!
James: But does Darth finally get his donut? Is this entirely a clean slate for the show, or will there be some gags that play off the events of The Padawan Menace?
Michael: Let’s just say that Darth did get his donut, but he got it off-screen in Padawan Menace. I don’t want to give too much away, but fairly early on there is one reference back to The Padawan Menace. Other than that, it is a clean slate. We do revisit one of the worlds we saw in Padawan for a brief bit and, of course Artoo and Threepio are here, but that’s really it. There was a great desire on all our parts to make a new show that could stand on its own and not rely on trying to repeat stuff that worked in The Padawan Menace. So that also means that, except for one moment, we lost the idea of the movie-within-a-movie and all that. So there’s no LEGO George Lucas in this one either.
James: Back at Comic Con in 2011, you mentioned that your own real life adventures with building LEGO toys led to one of the bits in The Padawan Menace with Threepio getting confounded by the instructions. Did any personal experiences work their way into The Empire Strikes Out?
Michael: I think I got all my frustrations about building LEGO out in The Padawan Menace, but this one allows me to tap into my personal feelings about the original movies. Like I said earlier, I’m lucky enough to have seen the first movies when they came out and were so new and different. I waited 3 long years for The Empire Strikes Back and went to see it on opening night in 1980 with my best friend, Bob. There was no such thing as Spoiler Alerts then, but we did our best to avoid reading anything about Empire before we saw it. Anyway, when we heard Vader say “I am your father”, I think we both screamed “NOOOO!” louder than Luke. We were devastated. That remains the single most thrilling movie-going moment of my life… and we have a little bit of fun with that too. That moment of this new special speaks to me the most.
James: I’m looking forward to how that will play out in the show. You’ve written for a variety of comedies on television, what are some of the differences between writing Star Wars and writing The Simpsons?
Michael: They’re similar in some ways and different in a big way. The similarity I think is in the approach to the humor and some of the Simpsons-ish things I’m trying to do with LEGO Star Wars, like the blink-if-you-miss-them sign jokes. There’s lots of those in this new show, so get your Pause buttons ready. The big difference is that on The Simpsons I’m part of a huge staff (about 20) who work as a team punching each other’s jokes and stories. With LEGO Star Wars, I’m essentially a one-man band. We have great input on story from LEGO and Lucasfilm and, of course, the shows are nothing without the incredible work of the animators (led this time by our great director, Guy Vasilovich), but the writing process is just me in my house. That’s incredibly freeing and empowering… and also scary!
James: What’s scary about you writing in your house? Is there something in your house we should know about? Do your LEGO figures talk to you? Or is it more scary that it’s all on your shoulders, and you don’t have the writer’s room to bounce ideas and jokes off of other people? When writing solo, how do you test if something is funny to other people?
Michael: Well my LEGO figures don’t talk to me, but my two dogs are constantly trying to make me throw tennis balls into the pool for them! No, actually, I’ve had a delightful time writing these, largely in my TV room with the DVDs of all 6 movies on a kind of continuous loop in the background. The “scary” part is that I’m doing this by myself and don’t have a room full of amazingly talented comedy writers to pitch in and help. As daunting as it is, though, it’s also thrilling and incredibly satisfying to know that, for the most part (I can’t discount the great notes and ideas from LEGO and Lucasfilm and the improv skills of our actors) these scripts are my creations. And, of course, then I get to turn them over to an incredible group of animators who make the scripts into these sumptuous little cinematic works of art. The animation on these shows never fails to blow me away.
Anyway, without a “room” to bounce things off of, I largely go with my gut instinct, and, failing that, my family often bears the brunt of listening to me pitch them jokes. My wonderful son, Wills, even contributed a sign joke that made it into the show. You have to look extremely carefully, but at one point as Luke runs down a street you’ll see a kind of beauty salon/health spa called “MASSAGE VENTRESS.” That’s my boy! He also gets a big kick out of the legendary “Wilhelm Scream” — so you’ll hear that at one point in the show too.
James: It sounds like the Force runs in your family. Can you tell us anything about working on Star Wars: Detours? Are there any other recent or upcoming projects, Star Wars or otherwise, that you’re looking forward to sharing with audiences?
Michael: Between my full-time job on The Simpsons and doing this show, my plate is more than full, so no, nothing else to talk about. And I don’t have too much to tell you about Detours, mostly because I’m one of a dozen or more writers who’ve had the privilege to work on the show in a limited kind of semi-freelance basis… And also because the stuff I’ve done for it won’t be seen for quite some time. But what I’ve seen of it is absolutely terrific.
James: Thank you, Michael. I really appreciate you taking the time for the interview. When The Padawan Menace came out, my wife and I probably watched it 4 or 5 times in the first week because it was just so entertaining. Even though I have the DVD, i still have it on my DVR. (And that was probably TMI).
Michael: My pleasure too! I’m glad you liked The Padawan Menace so much and I hope you enjoy this new show as much.
If you haven’t seen it yet, check out the trailer for LEGO Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Out on StarWars.com. Also, you can follow Michael Price on twitter @mikepriceinla. The Empire Strikes Out premieres on Cartoon Network on Wednesday, September 26 at 8 PM/7 PM central (and then re-runs several times Thursday through Sunday). If you want to catch up on The Padawan Menace, Cartoon Network will be airing it Thursday at 11 AM and Friday at 7 PM (leading into re-airings of Empire).