ToonBarn Interview: Michael Price for LEGO Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Out
Last week, on ToonBarn, I told you about LEGO Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Out, a new 30-minute TV Special on Cartoon Network, airing this Wednesday, September 26, at 8 PM ET, and we showed you a preview, courtesy of StarWars.com.
This week, you have a special treat. I was given an opportunity, and approval from Lucasfilm, to interview Michael Price, the Writer and Executive Producer for LEGO Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Out. You may have seen some of Michael Price’s previous work as well. He wrote the last LEGO Star Wars Special from last year, The Padawan Menace, and he has been a writer for The Simpsons for more than 10 years now. LEGO Star Wars: The Padawan Menace debuted on July 7, 2011, and was released on DVD/Blu-Ray on September 16, 2011. The Simpsons (24th season!!) premiere episode, “Moonshine River”, airs this Sunday, September 30 at 8 PM ET on FOX.
To prepare you for what you’re in for when you see LEGO Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Out, this is NOT a sequel to The Padawan Menace, but a new story set in the Star Wars Original Trilogy time period after the first Death Star is destroyed. This is also considered a Non-Canon special, which means that anything that occurs in this special does not become part of the SWEU (Star Wars Expanded Universe) Canon. Basically, don’t take anything seriously, because anything can happen, anytime, anywhere, anyhow. Anyway…let’s talk to Michael Price, and ask him about it.
Marc: Hi Michael! Can you tell us how you first got involved with the LEGO Star Wars Specials on the Cartoon Network?
Michael: When Star Wars Detours was first getting started, I had a meeting with Seth Green, Matthew Senreich and some folks at Lucasfilm about it. They were putting together a group of writers for their Star Wars animated comedy series and told me it would involve going away for a 2-week retreat to break stories for some of the episodes. However, due to time constraints with my work on The Simpsons, I couldn’t get away at that time. That’s sort of how the LEGO specials came about for me. When LEGO came to Lucas about doing LEGO Star Wars, the people I had met with at Lucas, Jennifer Hill especially, mentioned me to LEGO as someone who they thought might be a good fit. So, I was recommended to LEGO for LEGO Star Wars.
Marc: Do you think having done these terrific LEGO Star Wars Specials for Lucasfilm and LEGO has raised the bar for you as a writer, even after doing The Simpsons for over 10 years, so that people are noticing you more, professionally?
Michael: I hope so. It’s been really great that the first show, The Padawan Menace, got such a massive positive reaction, and I hope the second one is received positively as well. That’d be great as far as establishing what I do on my own away from The Simpsons. And, of course, it’s been a great experience to work with Star Wars, especially since I am a huge Star Wars Fan, going way back.
Michael: Yeah, I was in high school when Star Wars came out. I’ve just been a huge fan ever since. And, of course, I could not wait for The Empire Strikes Back to come out. We just called it “The Sequel”, cause we didn’t know what it was called.
Marc: One of the biggest moments was “I am your father”. How did that affect you?
Michael: I’ll never forget that moment. I was devastated! I went with one of my best friends, a HUGE Star Wars fan and a great guy named Bob Papis, and we went on Opening Night, 1980, at the Paramus Park Mall Cinemas in New Jersey. The place was packed. We were so thrilled. We didn’t read anything about it, because we didn’t want to get any spoilers. When that moment hit the screen, it was just like an earthquake went off. I can’t even describe it. It was so exciting, it was so shocking. We were both yelling “NO!” louder than Mark Hamill. We were just knocked out. Even though all of the screenings that night were sold-out, we figured out a way to hide behind a poster or something, and we snuck back in to see it again. When that moment came up, it was just such a shock. It was unbelievable. I can’t even describe it.
Marc: And of course you would recall how meaningful that moment was in film history, as The Simpsons portrayed Homer and his family coming out of the theater, having just watched The Empire Strikes Back. As a throng of people are waiting in line for the next showing, Homer blurts out the biggest spoiler ever, “I can’t believe Darth Vader was Luke’s Father!”, as we watch the “immediately angry” faces of all those people standing in line, because Homer ruined that “shocking moment” for all those people.
Michael: (Laughs) Ha, ha, ha…absolutely. Absolutely, it was. I don’t know how old you were when you saw it.
Marc: I was 8 when I saw A New Hope, so I was 11 when The Empire Strikes Back came out. I was at the perfect age I think for those films.
Michael: Yeah it was so unbelievable, so unfathomable. Even at that moment, when he says, “Obi-wan never told you about your father…”, we had no idea what was coming, we were just flabber-gasted, jaw-dropped. So, when they came to me after The Padawan Menace and asked “Do you want to do a second one?”, I wasn’t sure if they wanted to make a sequel to The Padawan Menace, or if they wanted to establish a series where every LEGO Star Wars show would be about the padawans beginning a new adventure. They said, “No, no, no, what would you like to do?” So, I went to the Original Trilogy movies and that timeline, because of my strong experiences with those films and also because doing the Original Trilogy timeline was a way to do another LEGO Star Wars show, but make it different — different time, different material, different characters and have fun with that.
Marc: You will definitely have more adults watching this one, with so many being Original Trilogy fans, and so many have children that enjoyed the Prequel movies, and you get them both together watching something about characters from both sets of Trilogies… you got it made!
Michael: (Laughs) Yeah, we’ll see — I sure hope so. That’s the thing that I’ve loved about doing these shows — the freedom that was established when I was writing The Padawan Menace. This job actually came about because LEGO put out feelers to various writers, through their agents, saying, “We want to make a LEGO Star Wars Special”. They just sort of solicited ideas. So, I wasn’t hired until I wrote that Pitch, that story. The Padawan Menace was essentially my original pitch. All they really said was it needs to be attractive to kids, be about Star Wars, take place somewhere within the timeline of the 6 movies, and have familiar Star Wars characters in it. That was the first thing that hit me — kids on a field trip — and that first image of The Padawan Menace of the bus going over like the destroyer in A New Hope. It all just kind of came from there.
Marc: Did you know when you were writing it that you were going to get great voice artists like Anthony Daniels and Tom Kane, with Original Music from John Williams?
Michael: I had no idea. Like I said, this was just a story pitch. I hoped I would get it, and I was thrilled when they found out that they liked mine and picked mine. Then, there was this big whirlwind of really amazing days after that. After I got hired, they flew me to San Francisco to have a meeting at Lucasfilm, not at Skywalker Ranch, but at the Lucasfilm Headquarters at the Presidio. I had an amazing afternoon there, just a one day thing where I was welcomed by a wonderful guy named Howard Roffman, who has been with Lucasfilm since 1980 or so, and he’s their Vice President of Licensing, and also with the Producer from LEGO, whose name is Kathleen Fleming. She’s a great lady. We had this meeting where they told me they really liked my story pitch, and basically said, “just go with it, have fun, play around. Mix and match. Even though this show is set during the Clone Wars, if you want to throw in somebody from the original movies, go right ahead. It’s not going to be (Star Wars) Canon. You don’t have to worry about that. Just have a great time.”
I had already written into my pitch a couple of the jokes that made it into the final show about how boring the kids think the Senate is and stuff. Howard said, “That’s OK, go with it. That’s fine.” They didn’t ask me to pull any punches, just have a good time. My first draft of the script, I just thought, “I’m going to take all my shots and write the funniest thing I think is funny. Then, they could always tell me not to do stuff. They were pretty much happy with EVERYTHING. They didn’t really ask me to change a single thing.
Marc: So, this freedom that you have to work within all 6 movies, use all these characters, and do WHATEVER YOU WANT, is Amazing. Did you even feel like you needed an explanation scene like the scene from Spaceballs, where they pull out the videotape of the movie while they’re still in the middle of it: the NOW scene? In The Padawan Menace, when 3PO is about to go into the Cantina at Mos Eisley, and R2 reminds him droids aren’t allowed in the Cantina, and shows him a video of THE ACTUAL CLIP from A New Hope, where within this timeline, it hasn’t even happened yet.
Michael: (Laughs) Ha, ha, well that was the result of 2 things. That was the result of them saying, “Go ahead and do stuff.” At that meeting, the intial meeting was when Howard (Roffman) said, “We’ll probably be able to get Anthony Daniels to be C3PO.” I was just unbelievably excited. I said, “Wow, you really think so?” He goes, “Oh, I bet we can.”
Marc: No one has ever done C3PO but Anthony Daniels, in anything that has had that character.
Michael: Oh, he’s great. He IS C3PO. So, I was thrilled. You mentioned the music. So, they also told me we can use the original John Williams music and I was just excited and thrilled. So, with the clip from the movie. I figured we’ll have that funny thing where C3PO pretends to be a non-droid to get into the cantina, but in order for it to work I needed to get that exposition out, as seen in original Star Wars, that Droids aren’t allowed in there. I thought about having a big sign — there’s a lot of sign jokes in this show — “No droids allowed.” Or whatever. Then I hit on this idea, what if R2D2 just showed him a clip from Star Wars, with Wuher saying, “you can’t have Droids in here.” (Wuher was portrayed by British actor Ted Burnett in A New Hope. However, his dialog was replaced by another actor’s voice.) Howard again said, “We own the movie, so why not? Let’s do it!” And then Anthony Daniels, in that recording session, he just ad-libbed that line where he said, “Oh yes, I remember that.”, which is so mind-blowing. He remembers how it happened back in 1977, but it hasn’t happened in Star Wars time yet, so that, to me, was my favorite moment of that whole show, was throwing that time wrench in there.
Marc: You were able to break that 4th wall, where the camera is filming the characters doing the story, but Vader breaks into the scene and George Lucas, who is doing the directing, comes in to tell Vader he’s not in this scene. How did that get developed, and did you need permission from George Lucas to have his likeness in there?
Michael: Here’s how we went about it. I love Darth Vader. He such a great character. He’s the iconic character of Star Wars. And, this show was set during the prequel times, so I needed a funny way to get him in there somewhere. In all that talking, it might have been at that meeting that day, I think I said “what if he just showed up, and George says, ‘No, you’re not in this one’.” So we all thought that was funny, and then we kept playing with it, and breaking the 4th wall. Then it was fun to just keep bringing him back.
Marc: Can somebody get Darth a Donut?
Michael: (Laughs) Ha, no, I can’t take credit for that either. I wish I could say I was there, but I wasn’t there for the voice records in the first show. Apparently, though, Rob Paulsen (from Pinky and the Brain), did the voice of a bunch of characters in this show, and he did the voice of George Lucas. Anyway, he was the one who ad-libbed, “Can somebody get Darth a donut?” So, I was thrilled when I heard that line and was so happy to see how it worked out. And it just sort of added to how we’re just fooling around, and didn’t take this too seriously — to the distress of some Star Wars fans who got upset that we were saying Han Solo was a kid who had an adventure with padawans.
Marc: I think it’s awesome that you can do anything. I think that type of environment is terrific for comedy.
Michael: It was funny to read some of the internet comments when the show came out. There were quite a few people who said, “Oh, so now Han Solo is a kid?” It didn’t tell you enough that this is not a real thing, not a Canon thing, that George Lucas is walking around directing it, or 3PO remembers a thing that hasn’t happened yet?
Marc: Yeah, don’t take this too seriously, people. What do you think is the right balance between original gags or jokes, and references to funny things in Pop Culture, using your characters?
Michael: Well, I don’t know. I guess I sorta go by my gut. I always have to remember that these are aimed primarily at kids, so we have to have a level of physical humor and fun stuff that kids get and the extra super inside Star Wars things are for the older fans. I try not to be too Pop-Cultury, because I think that’s a trap that a lot of, like Dreamworks-type movies fall into, where everything is a reference to “Survivor” or whatever. That being said, in the new show, it’s not a direct reference, but without giving too much away, there’s a moment where Luke is trying to act a little tougher than he is, and we had a great guy who played Luke Skywalker. His name is Lloyd Floyd. He does Luke Skywalker in all the video games. He was very funny and very great. At the record, we came up with him saying, “That’s right. We bad. We bad.”, like Richard Pryor in “Stir Crazy”. That’s just a bit that got thrown in there. I don’t try to do too many references to NOW Pop Culture. I guess in the first one we did that thing where the TV channels are switching around and we showed “Keeping up with Calrissians”, like “Keeping up with the Kardashians”. And there’s an “American Idol” joke. In this one, there’s not a whole lot of that. I will say also, in this one, mostly because we didn’t want to repeat ourselves, there’s no George Lucas walking around; although, without giving too much away, the first time you see Darth Vader in this show is a callback to what happened with him in the last show.
Marc: For LEGO toy fans, will there be another LEGO mini-figure included with the DVD/Blu-Ray release of LEGO Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Out, and when might that be?
Michael: I know which character it is, and it is a character in this episode, but I am not allowed to tell you which one yet. And I’m not exactly sure when it is coming out. They haven’t told me that.
Marc: Are there any Easter Eggs from your previous work, that we can expect in this new special? For instance, when Lobot was driving the bus in The Padawan Menace, with the headphones on, it reminded us of Otto, the bus driver on The Simpsons.
Michael: Yeah, I did that on purpose as a little shout out to The Simpsons, to have Lobot driving the bus, with the headphones, like Otto, humming along, rock and roll style. There’s nothing Simpsons-related in this one. The only thing that I could say would be “Simpson-y” would be the sign jokes. I’m really a fan of sign jokes. On The Simpsons, all those are written by us, by the writers. They go by incredibly fast. They’re hard to see, especially in this one. There’s quite a few scenes set in downtown Theed on Naboo. You’ll see these little billboards just kind of pop up here and there. One of them, I’ll tell you about. My 15-year-old son likes to pitch jokes to me. So, somewhere in the background of one shot, you have to look very closely, is a business, kind of a health spa, a place called “Massage Ventress”.
Marc: (Laughing) Massage Ventress? That’s a good one.
Michael: Thanks. There’s little things like that, here and there. I will say this, that there’s one joke that is a direct reference to one of the changes that were made to the Star Wars movies when the Blu-Rays came out. I won’t say what it was, but it was one of the most obscure changes made, and there’s a very obscure, quick joke that references that, and it involves Luke and R2 walking down a street.
Marc: I can tell you my ‘Luke and R2’ change that kind of upset me, and this one was made when the DVDs came out, for the Special Edition films from 97. It was when they were on Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back, and R2 fell in the water and got swallowed and spit out by the Dragonsnake. In the original film, Luke catches up with him and says to R2, “It’s a good thing you don’t taste very good.” In the Special Edition, Luke’s line was changed to “You were lucky to get out of there.” I remember watching that in the theater in 97, and saying, “What the heck!”
Michael: Yeah, there were a few changes in those and the Blu-Rays, and I just wanted to make a little obscure joke about that. If you’re a super fan, you might get it. If not, then I hope it’s just a funny little moment with Luke and R2.
Marc: You’ve worked with The Simpsons on FOX and you’ve worked with Lucasfilm and LEGO for these TV Specials on Cartoon Network. What is the difference between writing for The Simpsons, with that large team of writers versus writing by yourself for Lucasfilm and LEGO on a Star Wars story?
Michael: The main difference, like you said, on The Simpsons, I am a member of a fairly large staff. Between the full-time and part-time staff, we have close to 20 writers. The way the show is written is very much in the room, we write together mostly. If you have an episode credited to you, then you usually go off and write the first draft, which is then extensively re-written and punched up by the whole team. On these (LEGO Star Wars Specials), I am the sole writer. We have input, of course, and notes, from LEGO, and from Lucas, the director, and occasionally the actors will come in with some ideas. Anthony Daniels has come up with some great suggestions, but essentially, it’s all me. In many ways, I like that better, because I am in control of it, and I can write what I want to write. The notes will come in, and I’ll make them work the way I want. But in the other way, it’s sort of intimidating and scary because I don’t have a room of 18 other great, hilarious writers to help me. But that’s about it. It’d be interesting to write one of these (LEGO Star Wars Specials) in a room situation, and see what that would be like.
Marc: I have a step-son who has Asberger’s Syndrome. Every year, we participate in the Philly Ride for Autism Speaks runs from Camden to Atlantic City, and lots of motorcyclists try to gather donations for Autism Speaks. The 2012 Ride is coming up soon, on October 7. I did know that you have some involvement with Autism Speaks and Autism charities. Would you be able to tell us a little about your work with Autism, and why it is such an important cause for you?
Michael: Well, absolutely. My son I had mentioned, Wills, is the love of my life, with my wife of course. He was diagnosed with High Functioning Autism when he was 3, and then Asberger’s later. He’s doing extremely well. He’s at the high end of the spectrum. I give my wife most of the credit. Her name is Monica Holloway. She’s a writer. She’s written a book about our son, called “Cowboy and Wills”.
The book is about his babyhood up until he was in first grade — his struggles, our struggles to help him, and the golden retriever puppy that we got for him, whose name was Cowboy, when he was in kindergarten. She (Cowboy was a girl) really helped him make great progress, and helped him reach out to the rest of the world. So, ever since, we’ve been active behind the scenes, contributing, and things like that. When Monica’s book came out, she, as part of her process of appearing and talking about the book, became very much involved in a lot of great organizations here, like Autism Speaks. Also, a really great organization here in Greater Los Angeles called The Special Needs Network that helps get resources and services for underprivileged kids with special needs. So, we have participated in a lot of the walks and other stuff like that. It’s really great to be involved with that, and I give my wife full credit for leading the way.
I would like to thank Michael Price for spending the time to talk with us at ToonBarn, and for giving us a glimpse into the world of LEGO Star Wars. After we watch LEGO Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Out on Wednesday Night at 8 PM ET on Cartoon Network, we’ll be looking for the DVD/Blu-Ray for the new minifig, and then we’ll be anxiously awaiting the next installment from LEGO Star Wars.
Here’s the Preview, one more time:
See you next time… on ToonBarn.