with Micael Reaves
An Interview with a Screenwriter
The Animation Artist features editor, Joe Tracy, recently had the opportunity to conduct an interview with the very talented animation screenwriter, Michael Reaves. Reaves has written hundreds of animation TV shows and screenplays, including writing credits for some of the most popular animation series on TV (like “Batman: The Animated Series” and “Gargoyles”). The Animation Artist interview with him appears directly below.
Animation Artist: Mr. Reaves, on behalf of all Animation Artist magazine readers I'd like to thank you for taking the opportunity to share your insights and talents with us. Your resume is quite impressive and well rounded. You've written novels, television shows (animated and live action), movies (animated and live action), plus you've done story editing, co-producing, and producing. What was your first big break that got you into the Hollywood marketplace?
Mr. Reaves: My first TV assignment came from a very nice man named Arthur Nadel, who was probably best known for directing the Elvis Presley movie Clambake, and who, at the time I knew him, was working for Filmation Associates, an animation company. He took a chance on a story I pitched, even though I'd never written for TV and had only a couple of short stories to my credit. I quit my job (working at the complaint dept. in a Sears store) and have never looked back.
AA: Many people, myself included, felt that Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was much better than the live action Batman movies. What were some of the key elements of a successful story you considered when writing Batman: Mask of the Phantasm? Also, why do you think many people liked the animation more than its live-action counterparts?
Mr. Reaves: Keep in mind that I was only one of four writers on Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. The basic idea was Alan Burnett's, although Paul Dini, Marty Pasko and I all contributed concepts and thematic elements.
What makes the movie work, I think, is a very simple fact that the live-action Batman movies keep ignoring -- the star of the show is Batman (Bruce Wayne). It's not the Joker, the Penguin, Catwoman, the Riddler, Mr. Freeze, etc., etc. That's one of the most frustrating things about moviemaking -- you hire Arnold Schwarzenegger to play Mr. Freeze, and the movie immediately becomes about how much screen time and how many icy puns you can give the superstar -- not about the contribution that character brings to the story. That was what we tried to stay true to -- to do a story that explored Batman's psyche, that looked at the demons that drove Bruce Wayne to become this avenger of the night. To my mind, the key scene in the whole movie -- scripted with great sensitivity by Martin Pasko -- was the scene in the graveyard where Bruce Wayne kneels at his parents' grave and begs to be released from his oath, saying "I didn't count on being happy." That's the essence of the character for me. The great tragedy of the story is that Bruce Wayne had an opportunity to have a normal life -- a second chance at love with the woman of his dreams -- and then it was snatched away. When Bruce puts on the mask for the first time, after Andrea Beaumont breaks their engagement, and Alfred says "My God!" he's reacting in horror, because he's watching this man he's helped raise from childhood, this man who has let the desire for vengeance and retribution consume his life, at last embrace the unspeakable. It's the complete antithesis of the first time we see Superman don the suit and cape and take to the sky over Metropolis. This is a descent into the depths.
As far as animation vs. live action goes, I think comic-book movies work best in animation because they're closest to the original medium. In a live-action movie, no matter how well done, I keep being aware that it's a guy in a suit. For example, in the first Batman movie it drove me crazy that he couldn't turn his head -- he had to swivel his whole upper torso to look from side to side. Also, because there are no real stories in the live-action movies, they get progressively more desperate in terms of flash over substance. By the time we get to a movie like "Batman and Robin", no matter how pleasing it may be as eye-candy, I can't suspend my disbelief with a derrick.
As always, the important thing is story -- I'll accept a bad-looking movie with a good story over the reverse, no matter if it's animation, live-action, hand puppets, whatever. However, the fact that Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was done in animation let us pull off an interesting plot twist that couldn't have been done in live-action, which I'll reveal here with the caveat that if you haven't seen the movie it's a spoiler
AA: Can you describe the process of writing an animated script? What happens after you write it? Do you ever lose control of it? Are you allowed to sit in or contribute at voicing sessions?
Mr. Reaves: The process of writing it isn't all that different from live-action: You pitch an idea to the producer, story editor, or whoever's responsible for buying/assigning scripts, or they give you an idea. You write a treatment, or outline -- typically ten to fifteen pages that tell the story in the present tense (e.g., "Batman lunges for the Joker and is hit in the face with a custard cream pie.") Assuming they don't cut you off there and then, the next step is either a second pass at the outline, incorporating studio/network notes, or a go-to-script with notes.
Animation scripts for 22 minute shows typically run about 34-36 pages; the one page = one minute rule of live-action doesn't really apply here, as animation scripts tend to be much more detailed. Live-action scripts are usually written in master shot format -- the only sluglines called are interiors and exteriors. In animation you call camera angles. Where a live-action scene might look like this on the page:
INT. HOUSE - DAY
Jack enters, crosses to the desk, checks the rolodex for a phone number, then goes to the other desk, picks up the phone and dials the number.
In animation it would look more like this:
INT. HOUSE - ANGLE ON DOOR - DAY
The door opens and Jack enters.
TRACK WITH HIM as he crosses the room to the desk.
CLOSE ON ROLODEX
He turns it until the card he wants appears.
He goes over to the other desk and picks up the phone.
CLOSER - JACK AND PHONE
Jack dials the number.
... And so on. It does give you more control over the work, at least at this stage, because you're basically directing the movie in your head. Inevitably, however (unless you're the producer of the show, and sometimes even then) your vision becomes someone else's vision, and you can only hope that they have the same concept of what the script should be that you do.
As for sitting in on voice sessions -- that happens rarely if you're free-lancing. If you're a producer or story editor, then usually you get to go. Which is nice, as the sessions are usually the most fun of the entire process.
AA: Are there any other ways that writing for an animated TV show or movie differs from writing for a live-action TV show or movie?
Mr. Reaves: Most people think that in animation the sky's the limit as far as budget goes -- you can do anything you want. Not true. It's easier to call for crowd scenes in live as opposed to toons -- live action crowds are just a bunch of extras, cheap as long as they don't speak. Animated crowds have to be drawn, and that's expensive. On the other hand, you can routinely stage action setpieces in animation that even Joel Silver or Jerry Bruckheimer would think twice about green-lighting in live.
(One of my more schizoid experiences in TV writing was when I was working simultaneously for two shows with similar science fiction premises. Both were about paramilitary teams who wore power suits -- one was animated, and the other was live. In the animated series I wrote sequences showing giant robots destroying cities; in the live-action series I wrote sequences in which people talked about how giant robots were destroying cities.)
AA: In 1993 you won a Daytime Emmy Award for "Outstanding Writing in an Animated Program - "Batman: The Animated Series." Would you consider this the highlight of your career? Also, what do you consider the key elements to "outstanding writing?"
Mr. Reaves: I actually feel slightly ambivalent about the Emmy. The daytime "Outstanding Writing" award was not given for individual scripts, but to the series as a whole based on a representative script. The script that was submitted to the TV Academy as the best representative of Batman was "Heart Of Ice" by Paul Dini -- and an excellent choice it was. Still, it wasn't one that I wrote and/or edited -- hence the ambivalence. On the other hand, the award was for the entire series. There were five story editors and 85 episodes, and my name, as writer and/or story editor, is on over one-third of those episodes. It is, I think, fair to say that I had a pretty pervasive influence on how the series turned out.
Do I think of it as the high point of my career? It was a thrill and a deeply satisfying moment -- but I hope it's not the high point -- I've got a few more years of writing left in me. As far as the "key elements" to outstanding writing -- well, it doesn't hurt to be writing about an icon that's been generating stories for over half a century.
AA: Last year I had the opportunity to go to a dress rehearsal of "Home Improvement." There were about 10 writers present ,sitting behind 20 guests, judging the guests reactions to the writing as the show was acted out (there was a lot of note taking). At the end of the rehearsal, all the writers went into a room to make strategic changes to the script before the live taping a few days later. How do you test your scripts before they're made into a production? Also, what are some of the pros and cons you've faced when having to collaborate with other writers on a production?
Mr. Reaves: I'll usually have the first draft read by my wife, who's a good critic (most good writers are), and some friends in the business. As far as audience testing, it's a bit beyond my means at the moment, but if a studio or network foots the bill, it's fine by me.
As for problems with working in collaboration, I think it's always a question of ego. I try to put mine aside and just focus on the work (which doesn't mean I'm a pushover - I'll fight hard for an improvement, or to rectify something I perceive as an error), but I can't always make that happen, and I've yet to find anyone else who can all the time either. Which is a shame, because the work inevitably suffers.
AA: Some projects you've written and others you've been the story editor or co-producer. What is the differences between the three?
Mr. Reaves: As a freelance writer on a show, you have little or no control over the final product -- you're just a hired gun, doing what they tell you. As a story editor you usually have more input (especially if you've also helped developed the show). And as a producer you are part of casting, character design, etc. It's a matter of increasing levels of control over the final product.
AA: As a married man with three children, do you ever draw inspiration or ideas from them in your writing?
Mr. Reaves: Of course. I'm lucky enough to be married to a very good writer by the name of Brynne Chandler Reaves, and she's my best, most honest critic. My kids are very good at keeping me on track on the more juvenile projects as well. It never hurts to have a built-in audience ...
AA: Many people have different environmental preferences when writing. Some like to write in a secluded spot and others like to write with other people around. Some prefer listening to music to set a mood while others like complete silence. What are your environmental preferences when writing and from what do you draw your inspiration?
Mr. Reaves: I seldom listen to music while I'm writing -- I just tune it out anyway, so what's the point? Naturally I prefer to be in my office when I work, but with three kids I've learned to ignore pretty much any distraction. And with a laptop I can write anywhere -- although I do prefer having a modem available, because I use the Web for research a lot.
AA: Do you prefer writing alone or with a group of other writers?
Mr. Reaves: All depends on the project. TV and films -- especially TV -- tend to be collaborative by their nature. One of the most fun projects I ever worked on was "Invasion America", which was written by four of us sitting in a room around a table literally hashing out the stories line by line. I also enjoy collaborating one-on-one on scripts and novels. Writing is by nature a solitary pursuit, so sharing it with others can be productive and less isolating. On the other hand, there's nothing like pointing at a book and saying "That's all mine."
AA: A lot of Hollywood writers have had their scripts torn apart by a director, turning the script into something completely different from the writer's vision even though the writers name was still credited. One writer even posted his original TV script on the Internet to show people he had nothing to do with the disappointing finished results. Have you ever had this happen to you and if so, how did you handle it?
Mr. Reaves: I've written somewhere in the neighborhood of three hundred TV scripts, and five feature scripts, so I'd be the luckiest guy on Earth if it hadn't happened. It's the nature of the medium -- you either deal with it or you go write books or plays or epic verse or something. I deal with it on a case by case basis. If I feel that the result of the tinkering results in a better script, then I'm all for it -- ego only gets in the way in such cases. If I feel it doesn't, then I'll argue -- how much depends on my position on the show. If I'm a freelance writer, and I can't argue the producer(s) out of whatever I feel doesn't work. I'll make the changes -- or I'll walk, which has happened occasionally.
If I'm a producer with more clout, I'll use it. That's what it's there for. On "Invasion America" I was referred to as "Dr. Science" by the other writers, because I insisted (sometimes annoyingly so) that we at least try to maintain a certain scientific rigor in the stories. By that I don't mean a lesson in calculus every episode; I mean things like having the invading aliens refer to using "tachyon drive" to explain their ability to travel interstellar distances, rather than just ignoring how far away Earth was from the planet Tyrus. (If I knew what a "tachyon drive" was, I'd have a Nobel Prize on my mantle instead of an Emmy -- I picked the term because it was less hackneyed than "hyperdrive" or "warp drive".) You have to know how to pick your battles -- nobody wins all the time.
AA: Speaking of "Invasion America," I thought it was an excellent series and was surprised that Warner Brothers saw fit not to continue with book 2. Do you ever get attached to a series like "Invasion America" to where you feel disappointed that it was discontinued? Did the writers already have ideas for book 2 of "Invasion America?"
Mr. Reaves: Sure, I was disappointed -- not just artistically but in terms of having a job as well. We all had great hopes for "Invasion America," and were very disappointed when it wasn't picked up. But you move on. And yes, we had a second season plotted. Send me a quarter and I'll tell you about it.
AA: Recently a writer of the TV show “Felicity” was uncovered as being nearly twice the age as she had led those in Hollywood to believe. Yet her writing on the show, before her true age was discovered, had received rave reviews and reached the intended young adult audience. What are your feelings on how one's age affects his/her ability to write?
Mr. Reaves: I think that, ideally, you learn as you grow, and if you're willing and able to resist having your opinions and emotions calcify, your work only gets better. I'm certainly a better writer now than I was ten years ago. And since new technologies keep coming up with things like word processors and dictation software, I'm faster now than when I was twenty and writing on an IBM Selectric.
AA: I understand that you are currently co-producer on a new movie called Gargoyles. What can you tell us about that project and your role in it?
Mr. Reaves: First off, it's not animated -- it's live-action. We already did the animated movie -- a tightened version of the five-part pilot. My title is "associate producer," which is a polite way of saying "Here's some money, now get off the lot." Touchstone has had a live-action feature version of Gargoyles in development for some time. Various writers have been approached to work on it, including Dean Devlin (who did a script that wasn't used) and Neil Gaiman (who declined). Several treatments have been developed, including one by yours truly and Greg Weisman which, not surprisingly, wasn't used. I really have no idea what the status of it is now. I suppose I'd like to see it get made, because there's some money in it for Greg and me if it is, but I very much fear that it will have the same relationship to the animated movie and series that the live-action Batman movies have to "Batman: The Animated Series."
AA: Looking back at all the animated movies and TV shows you've written, which are you most pleased with and why?
Mr. Reaves: Hmm ... in animation I'd have to name the most recent ones -- "Batman," "Gargoyles," and "Invasion America." I feel that we really pushed the envelope and expanded the horizons of storytelling in animation -- particularly in Batman: The Animated Series, since it was the first show to be that sophisticated and that stylish. Before that... well, a lot of stuff sort of blends together. I mean, I know a lot of people really enjoyed watching the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" episodes I wrote, and I tried to do a good job, but I hardly want that written on my tombstone. Ditto "The Smurfs," "Space Stars"... well, let's just say during the eighties I wrote a lot of cartoons.
But certain shows did stand out. "The Real Ghostbusters" was in its own way, I think, a groundbreaker like "Batman: The Animated Series" was - a lot of fun to write. And "Dungeons & Dragons" was a fun show. I still get a lot of comments from people on that. I'm also fond of a Ruby-Spears show I wrote in the mid-80s called "Centurions," which wasn't terribly new or original, but it looked decent and I never had to do a rewrite. Just in terms of an easy, fun gig, "Centurions" was damn near the perfect show.
As far as movies go -- I'm very pleased with the Batman animated movie, as I've indicated earlier, and with the Gargoyles movie. Regrets: Last year I wrote the script (based on a story by Nick Boxer and Mario Pilusio) for a revisionist look at Captain Planet. It was going to be a theatrical feature, called simply Planet, and it was a good 180 degrees different from the TV series. It was quite dark, set in a post-apocalyptic future, and I think it was one of my better efforts. Everyone seemed to like it, but it got lost in the shuffle when Turner and Warner Bros. merged. A pity -- I think it would've turned some heads.
AA: What is your favorite animated TV show or movie of all time that you were not involved with and why?
Mr. Reaves: Tough question. This answer doesn't exactly fit the parameters, because I was involved with the show -- but the show didn't go anywhere. It was called "The Young Astronauts," and no one's ever heard of because it didn't make the CBS Saturday morning lineup way back in the mid-80s. It was developed by Karl Geurs, a very talented producer, and later by David Wise, who may be one of the few writers who has more animation credits than me. The brief was to do an animated show that would have been like a Heinlein juvenile. It followed the crew and passengers of an ion powered spaceship that was making the "great tour" of the solar system -- a project that would take years to complete. The protagonist was a young boy, whose family had taken him on this voyage, and the adventures he and his friends had. It was going to be as realistic and hard-science as we could make it, with NASA's help. I wrote a script and an outline for it, if I remember correctly, and it was a real disappointment when it got the axe. Remember, this was back in the days before there were ten sci-fi shows on every channel.
AA: You've obviously achieved more than most people do in a lifetime. Is there something you have not yet achieved that is still a goal of yours? If so, what is it and when do you see yourself accomplishing it?
Mr. Reaves: I'm going to assume that we're talking about writing, as opposed to the really important things, like raising a family. As far as writing goes, I don't know that I've accomplished that much -- or if I have, then I have to wonder why I'm not rich. Not that I'm in it solely for the money, but it is a necessary part of it. Also, I look at other people I know who really have achieved noteworthy creative status, and I don't feel I stack up very high. Sometimes. Of course, there are other times when it's a struggle to squeeze my head through the front door.
My goal now is to sell a TV series. I talk to people who are show runners, and they say that you just can't get the creative control any other way. Failing in that -- or perhaps alongside it, if someone invents the 90-hour day -- would be to sell a book series. I'm fairly close to both of these things. We'll see what happens in the next few months...
AA: There are a lot of people throughout the U.S. that think writing movies and TV shows is the best job in the world. Do you concur? Also, what advice would you give those that want to break into Hollywood?
Mr. Reaves: Orson Welles once said that "making a movie was like having the world's biggest train set." There are times when it's frustrating, boring, frightening, confusing ... but that describes just about any job. The question everybody has to ask themselves sooner or later is: Are you going to play it safe or go for it? I decided to try to become what I wanted to be over twenty years ago, moved to L.A., got a cheap apartment (my neighbors to either side of me were a hooker and a Hell's Angel), and started writing and submitting stories, novels, scripts. It took me about a year to sell something, but once I did I quit my job (working in the complaint department of Sears) and I've been a full-time writer ever since. And no matter how difficult it is sometimes, I'm doing what I want to do. I could probably make more money in something like real estate, but it really is like the old joke about the guy sweeping up the elephant droppings: "What, and leave show business?"
As for advice to beginners: Move to L.A. Get an agent. (You can request a free list of agents currently signatory with the Writers' Guild by calling the Guild.) Keep bugging, pestering, cajoling, everything short of threatening and stalking, until you get one to read your work. If s/he agrees to rep you, keep bugging, pestering, etc., until you get a meeting set with a producer. Network! (Meaning, if you have friends here, use them! Not in an unethical way, but with their permission. If you don't have friends here, make some!) If you have no social skills, learn some. If you're terrified of meeting new people, if you stutter badly (is it possible to stutter well?) or if you have halitosis that could stun a wildebeest at a hundred yards, find a way to get past your problems. Drop names, buy people lunch, do whatever you have to do to make sure people associate the name they see on a spec script with your face. Pop quiz: Let's say I'm a producer on a new series. I've got two scripts on the desk in front of me, both of equal value in terms of writing. One is written by someone I met at a (WGA function, science fiction convention, friend's house, gym, etc.) One is written by someone I've never heard of and never met. Which one am I gonna buy?
When you're not networking, write! Watch TV! Go to movies! Read books! Read scripts! Work the Web! Network some more! Yes, it's hard to break into the business. But obviously people do -- otherwise there wouldn't be a business, would there? Someone's writing this stuff and raking in the bucks -- it could be you. It should be you. (Actually, it should be me, but as long as I've got all the work I can handle, you're welcome to the rest.)
And you must have the product to back up your claims. Watch a TV show you love, and write a spec script for it. You won't sell it to that show, in all probability, but it may get you work elsewhere. Write spec features. Write novels. And keep doing it. You should have a new spec script -- minimum -- every season. What're you waiting for? Start typing!
AA: Thank you very much for taking some of your valuable time to share with our Animation Artist readers. Any final words or advice?
Mr. Reaves: Thank you -- it was fun. I think I've talked enough, don't you?
Animation Artist magazine is grateful for the time Michael Reaves took to share his excellent insight with Animation Artist readers.
Animation Artist magazine is grateful for the time Lance Falk took to share his excellent insight with Animation Artist readers.