ToonBarn talks to Michael Price about LEGO Star Wars: Menace of the Sith
ToonBarn is once again honored to have Michael Price as our guest for an interview about LEGO Star Wars: Menace of the Sith, the second of a three-part animated mini-series called The Yoda Chronicles on Cartoon Network. This second installment will be premiering at 8 PM ET on Wednesday, September 4, 2013, on Cartoon Network.
ToonBarn’s Marc Morrell talked to Michael Price, the writer and Executive Producer of LEGO Star Wars: The Yoda Chronicles. Michael, as most of you know by now, has been a full-time staff writer for The Simpsons for many years. Since we have interviewed him 3 times prior to this, including our interview at Times Square in New York City, during the unveiling of the World’s Largest LEGO Model, a Star Wars X-Wing Fighter, we thought we would just get right into this next episode of The Yoda Chronicles.
Marc: Here we are at the second episode of LEGO Star Wars: The Yoda Chronicles – Menace of the Sith. JEK-14 has been created by Count Dooku, and Darth Sidious plans on using him as their ultimate weapon. However, as we have learned from reading the description of episode 2, JEK-14 has a mind of his own, and he could really go either way. Can you catch us up on the story?
Mike: That’s right. To reset, this story happens very close to the end of The Phantom Clone. At the very end of that show, Yoda, Mace Windu, the Padawans and 3PO were able to destroy the Giant Clone lab on Kamino. But, the one clone survived, JEK-14, but their intention all along was to create a giant army of clones.
Mike: So, at the end of that show, JEK survives, and he’s introduced to Darth Sidious by Count Dooku. Yoda vows to the Padawans that he will find him and hunt him down. So, we begin pretty much right after that. Dooku and Sidious, with Grievous as their henchman, have a plan to use JEK in a way that will turn him into the ultimate weapon that will turn the tide of the war for the Sith. At the same time, Yoda, with an assist from Obi-Wan, is out there looking for him. And it turns into a battle for the soul of JEK. Yoda reminds him that he was created by the Sith, but he was made from Jedi crystals. So, he could kind of go either way.
So, in terms of the story, that’s where we are. Of course, it’s very fun, very adventurous, there’s lots of fun scenes with humor sprinkled all through it. Darth Sidious/Chancellor Palpatine has a bigger role in this one, and he has a much bigger role in the third one as well. I mentioned, when the first one came out, how much fun it was to work with this character, with his dual personality. There’s a lot of exploring that in this one as well. I had a lot of fun with him having to pretend to be happy that the Sith guys are in trouble, when he’s really upset about it.
Marc: You also got to work with the voice actors on this, right?
Mike: Yes, our vocal director is a wonderful guy named Michael Donovan, who also does the voice of Count Dooku. He does a great Christopher Lee voice for Count Dooku. He’s the vocal director for the cast. When we do the sessions, I’m able to listen in and give my thoughts at least 50 or 60% of the time. Michael runs the sessions, and does a stellar job. It’s so much fun to be a part of the records, listen to the actors, give a directional note or two, and maybe re-write a couple lines here and there on the fly.
Marc: Oh, really? You were able to improvise as it went along?
Mike: The script is pretty much set, but then, in the course of the recording, it may sound a little better to switch a word here and there. Just that kind of thing.
When we work with Anthony Daniels, who is such a joy to work with, it’s amazing to have the real C3PO in our show. We have a special relationship with him, where we send him the script, and the 3 of us together, have a phone call where we talk over the script and he gives his reactions to it. Often, he suggests much better ways of wording the lines, because he knows the character so well, that it makes more sense to him, and he often comes up with wonderful things.
His recording session is by himself, because he’s in London, usually. It’s a triangulated thing, where he’s in London, Michael Donovan’s studio is in Santa Clarita, which is North of Los Angeles, and I am often sitting here in my office at the Simpsons, listening in on the phones. Through the magic of Skype and phones, we’re all able to do it together. It’s very fun. One of the most fun things to do is listen to this amazing guy, Anthony Daniels, just knock it out of the park every time.
Marc: Now, had you ever met Anthony Daniels in person?
Mike: I have never met him in person. Still haven’t. I hope to, at some point.
Marc: I saw him at Star Wars Weekends in Disney World one year.
Mike: I did see him perform a special show at the Hollywood Bowl, called Star Wars in Concert. It was with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, and showing clips from the films, and he was the narrator.
Marc: We saw Star Wars in Concert in Philly. Awesome show!
Mike: That was really fun.
Marc: So, are there any voice actors we haven’t heard from yet, from this 3-episode arc, which will be featured in this episode?
Mike: Yes, I would say there will be. Everyone from the first episode will be back. Michael Donovan does a great job as Count Dooku. There’s a fine actor named Kirby Morrow, who has done General Grievous already, but will also be Anakin Skywalker in this one. I can’t quite tell you what he’s doing in it, but it’s the first view of the young, Hayden Christensen version of Anakin in these shows. He’s very much the character, in sort of being impetuous and wanting to do more, going against what Yoda and Obi-Wan tell him to do. He does a great job. The Ewan McGregor Obi-Wan character is played by Sam Vincent, who does a fantastic job. Of course, we have Tom Kane back, as Yoda and the Narrator and another character, which I won’t tell you, because it will ruin the surprise.
Marc: Really? Must be a big character.
Mike: He just makes a little cameo appearance as a third character towards the end of the show. I can say, he plays a beloved major Star Wars character from the Prequel Movies. As we’re recording, we said, “We’re going to do this character.” And Tom Kane says, “Oh, I can do a version of that voice!” He did, and he was hilarious, so look for that. Chancellor Palpatine/Emperor is played by this really funny actor, named Trevor Devall. That character, as I said, takes on more of a bigger role in Episode 2 and 3. Episode 3 is, in very many ways, the funniest of the 3, and Palpatine is the comedy star of the third one. And JEK-14 is voiced by the very talented Brian Dobson.
Marc: Does JEK-14 have a lot of lines?
Mike: Yeah, he has a fair amount to do in the show. In a way, the story of episode 2 deals with everyone on both sides, the Sith and Jedi, trying to bring him over to their side, and that has a lot to do with it. Everyone did just a wonderful job. All the other characters, the young Padawan characters, are in there as well, and will have a lot of fun things to do.
Marc: When you came up with the character, JEK-14, did you have any inspiration from other characters from within the Star Wars Universe, or anywhere else, to decide what he should sound like or how he should act?
Mike: LEGO came up with the concept of the character before I came on board, the idea of him being a Sith Clone, and had that crystal arm that had all that force energy power in it. What my take was on it, coming up with the story – LEGO always wanted him to be this mystery character, who he was and what he was about. In the course of working out the story for these three episodes, my contribution was sort of coming up with that moment of, which way will he go, and then be torn one way or the other.
Other than that, what was interesting for me is he’s a clone of Jango Fett, but we also find that he’s a person. He’s being treated by Dooku like he’s an object to be owned by the Sith. In a way, Yoda and Obi-Wan want to use him the other way, like a pawn for the Jedi. So, it was fun for me to write, being that they are LEGO people, but there’s a humanity to him and he has his own life, his own needs and what he wants to do. All that comes out in this show.
Marc: As you have done each of these LEGO Star Wars Specials on Cartoon Network, starting at The Padawan Menace, up to the end of The Yoda Chronicles, do you feel like you keep getting better at this as you go along, within the framework of the Star Wars Universe?
Mike: Absolutely! I would say absolutely, YES. These have been so much fun. All of us working on these feel that each has been better than the last. It was really fun for this go-round to have a broader canvas of story-telling and to have a 3-part series that allows us to not just be a comedy show, which the other 2 were. Like The Empire Strikes Out, it was fairly comic, like a burlesque, where we just went for broke to make it as funny as possible, but still have some adventure elements. The brief on this one was to keep that humor, keep the comedy, but then more successfully meld it into a real Star Wars kind of adventure, with characters and story twists and all that. I think we’ve really hit the sweet spot on making that work. It’s been very fun.
I really enjoy collaborating with the animators and our Director, Michael Hegner, who does a fantastic job. Working with everyone else on the LEGO side, and Lucasfilm, and finding that balance between the jokes that I like, and the fun, and the kind of inside Star Wars jokes. There’s tons of those in this episode. Like some, if you don’t know Star Wars very well, it might go over your head. But, if you’re a big fan of Star Wars, they’ll really hit hard for you. Finding that balance, but also at the same time, coming up with the really interesting and fun action sequences that people expect out of Star Wars. I think it has been really fun to find that. To find the elements, in a 22-minute show, this epidose 2, has at least one or two good-sized lightsaber battles, chases through asteroid fields, and it all winds up in a big combination space battle near Coruscant with a lot of ships, lot of stuff going on, and switching with that classic Star Wars storytelling. Cutting to this and cutting back here, splitting the characters in several places, cutting around, and building up to a really interesting, fun and exciting ending.
Marc: This has several comedic elements to it. Do you bounce these off some people and say, “Do these sound funny?”
Mike: Occasionally, yes. This was an interesting process. When we first talked out these three episodes, about a year ago this time, we had a two-day meeting, with Director Michael Hegner and myself, and Michael Donovan, the voice director, and one of the Senior guys from LEGO, John McCormack, who has been shepherding this project from the LEGO side since the beginning. We were starting up quickly, and we needed to get the ball rolling fast. Those guys from Denmark were here in LA, and John from LEGO flew out, and we spent 2 days, holed up in a hotel conference room, where we talked out all the story beats. I had already made my pitch of what it was going to be, but we had a fun moment of talking it out together, bouncing ideas off each other. A great joke in Phantom Clone came out of that, where Yoda and Mace Windu are in that gunship, and they go, “Cut to Lightspeed now!”, and half the ship goes away, and half the ship stays, and they fall down and land on Dagobah. So, Michael Hegner pitched that joke, where half the ship goes, and half stays behind. That was really great to bounce a lot of the visual ideas and joke ideas off each other.
Each script goes through more or less the same process. There’s the outline and then I write the first draft script, and I get notes and feedback from the folks at LEGO, and the folks at Lucasfilm, especially Howard Roffman, the Vice-President of Licensing at Lucasfilm. He has been our champion throughout this entire process. Our super friend at Lucasfilm. He really understands, really gets this, and has always been delightful. He comes up with some great fixes for things. He never just says, “I don’t like this”, he offers the fix. He says, “What if it was this?” I can’t tell you how many times where he has come up with some really great things that have just been fantastic. That’s the kind of feedback I get. It’s different than the work I do on The Simpsons, where I’m in a writers room, 6 or 7 of us are working on the script together. This is all me. But then, I get feedback from those guys, for the jokes they like, whether it’s going to work. And through the process of animation, we’re seeing early versions of the jokes coming back. I am able to watch, through all 3 episodes of The Yoda Chronicles, there’s probably been about 6 or 7 separate versions that keep coming out in various stages of being animated, storyboards, very rough animatics, full animation.
At each step along the way, we’re finding stuff that works, it may be a little bit long at first, or we have to find a 2-minute cut here. So, we re-arrange or cut scenes. Throughout the process, we’re able to add little changes in the lines, that the animators will make new versions of the lines. We’ll record the cast at the beginning of the process. And because we have a limited amount time that we can get the actors in, we’ll do an initial record. Then, throughout the course, if changes are made, then they’re scratched and by the time we get close to locking the show, then we get everybody back and re-record the lines the right way. It’s really fun to tinker with and find different ways to do things through each of these 3 episodes.
There’s usually one scene that is a real bear to make it work. We just keep going at it and finding different ways, doing different versions of it, and I’ll think of something at the last minute that makes it work. I can’t really tell you exactly, but there’s a scene with Anakin in this one, there’s a moment at the end. We needed something to bring this battle scene together, and we all came up with this moment that’s sort of a call back to Luke’s Death Star Trench run from the first Star Wars movie, but it came out very close to the end, and that sort of made everything work. It’s been a great process to tinker with it, fix it, and find what the show is along the way.
Marc: This episode, “Menace of the Sith”, comes out on September 4, which is the day after school starts for us, and my son and I will be watching it together on Cartoon Network. My son, Lucas, would like to ask you a couple questions, is that alright?
Mike: Of course. Hi, Lucas. How are you?
Lucas: Good, thanks. One of my favorite scenes from the first episode was where Emperor Palpatine was on Coruscant, talking on the transmitter thing, and he’s talking to General Grievous, and he had his Darth Sidious cape up, then he talks to Yoda, and he has to whoop the hood back off.
Mike: Like the call waiting stuff?
Lucas: Yes. That was funny.
Mike: Yeah, that was really fun to do. I’m glad you liked it. That was an idea I thought of at the very beginning. Sometimes, I’ll think of a thing, it would be very funny to do that, and then I find ways to work it in. So, that was one of the first ideas I had for that show. And, that was one that took a little time, back and forth in the animations, to get it to work. I’m really glad you liked that, because I liked that, too.
Lucas: So, how cool is it to work on both The Simpsons and LEGO Star Wars?
Mike: Ha, Ha. I feel very lucky and very happy to be able to work on both The Simpsons and Star Wars at the same time. It’s a fun time.
Marc: Two of the biggest and coolest franchises out there: The Simpsons and Star Wars!
Mike: And LEGO, on top of it.
Marc: YES! And LEGO, which is HUGE!
Lucas: Thank you! And May the Force be with you!
Mike: Thank you, Lucas, nice talking to you!
Marc: So, Lucas and I will be watching LEGO Star Wars: Menace of the Sith on September 4, 2013 at 8 PM ET on Cartoon Network, and we’ll let you know what we think on twitter at your handle: @mikepriceinla Follow @mikepriceinla
while we are watching it.
And of course, after that, we will be looking forward to the exciting conclusion to LEGO Star Wars: The Yoda Chronicles, coming later in the Fall of 2013. Thanks for talking to us on ToonBarn once again!
Mike: Great, thank you so much!