The Vancouver International Film Festival are just days away and with it comes the annual VIFF Industry Conference. Taking place October 1st – 4th, the conference is a gathering of some of the best and brightest creative minds in the film, gaming and animation world today.
With numerous panels and discussions, the conference provides an endless archive of film knowledge. This year, one of the conference’s key speakers is none other than Adam Reed, creator of the hit animated comedy Archer.
I had the chance to speak with Adam about how he got his start in animation, his creative process, and that question all Archer fans want to know: What was really in Kenny Loggins briefcase!
How did this whole journey begin for you in animation?
My sister worked for Turner Broadcasting way back in the early 90’s. I had gone to live in France after college, ran out of money, came home and she got me a job there.
One of my first jobs as the intern, some grownup came and plunked down these crates of VHS tapes in my little naked cubical and I had to watch every episode of the Flintstones. There are 164 of them and I had to watch all of them and look for the episode with the fewest dinosaurs in it.
Since they were doing a deal with a snack cake company, that was owned by the seventh day adventists, (who I think don’t believe in dinosaurs?), I got to be really familiar with the Flintstones, then maybe a year later, they were doing a project writing some new Flintstones, so I was hired to help with that. From there I got a job at Cartoon Network.
How did you meet your producing partner Matt Thompson?
First Day at Cartoon Network. Matt had already been working there and I had shown up in a suit and tie and he was wearing cowboy boots, jeans, and a t-shirt. He said to me “Alright, first of all let’s get you changed. You look like an idiot. Then we’ll have lunch and I’ll tell you how get over everything over here.”
Now, having worked over at Cartoon Network for some time, how did Adult Swim come into your life?
(Laughs) We had finished over at Cartoon Network (quit/asked to leave) and had moved over to New York. We had been living there for awhile and when we left Cartoon Network we stole the masters tapes for a cartoon called Sealab 2020.
Using those, Matt and I started a little production company. We were out of work, and Matt had actually gone to Vancouver to shoot, crashed a snowmobile and broke the legs of our only client!
So, we were out of work and used that time to cut together a pilot for a show that became Sealab 2021 on Adult Swim.
In doing my research about yourself and Matt, I came across this story about the two of you working on a puppet show, called High Noon Toons for Cartoon Network.
High Noon Toons! Yes!
Iheard a rumour that you and Matt got drunk on set and lit one of the props on fire?
Yeah, we set the set on fire and got in a huge amount of trouble for it! (laughs) They take that very seriously. I think it’s some of our best work to date, including Archer. It was a pretty amazing show with our little hand puppets.
What is it about the chemistry that you and Matt have that gets such great work out of you two? What’s your collaborative nature like when you two are working on a show together?
I think we compliment each other pretty well, our skill sets are slightly different but I think complimentary. Right now on Archer I’ve pretty much just become the writer and Matt oversees everything else.
So there’s about a hundred employees. We’ve got other shows, that are either on-air or in development. So he oversees everything and I just pace around in a bathrobe, grow a beard and write scripts.
With Archer and the other shows you have done (Sealab 2021, Frisky Dingo) You seem to have a strong interest in morally ambiguous characters. What is it about that brand of dark humour that resinates with audiences and leaves people wanting more?
I think the things that the people on Archer say are things that people wish they could say to their co-workers, family members, but you can’t just going around behaving like that without someone killing you or throwing you in jail.
So I think it’s a kind of vicarious enjoyment, the people on Archer talk like I talk in my car, of course away from all the other drivers where they can’t hear me.
Archer has such a high level of detail, whether it’s in the characters’ backgrounds, ongoing jokes or even with just tiny details. In season 1, Archer is shot in the foot and in later episodes we see that same wound on his foot, which could of been an easy thing to just gloss over.
Yeah we actually had to stop showing all of his bullet wounds because now he has been shot so many times, the animators were like, we can’t do it! You also have to keep track of how many there are so we kind of let that one go but there’s still his two tattoos on his back that we have kept.
When you’re writing new episode/story-lines, is that level of detail/ backstory something that you’re keeping in mind as you write?
Well, right now we’re on episode, I think 75 or something. I sometimes forget what we’ve done in the past and we have several producers who will say “Umm, So you want to have ‘X’ happen but remember when this person died in Season 3? (laughs) So we have people who keep track of that for me.
When you go into a day in the office at Archer, what’s the first thing you do when you walk through those doors. Can you walk me through a normal day for you?
I just sit down in my office, put my head down on my desk for awhile. Then I’ll move over to the sofa and lie down there for awhile. Then Matt will come in and say, “Hey…maybe you should get some coffee and write some scripts?”
That’s it?! You don’t have any sort of team that you meet with or anything like that?
I write the scripts on my own. The producers will read it and give you some feedback and then I’ll take that back, do another draft and send it to FX. The majority of the time I’m at home at the kitchen table, and will just write by myself. We don’t really have a writer’s room.
Wow. So you must have complete control over your whole production being the creator and sole writer.
Pretty much? FX, you know, it’s still their channel (laughs) and they’re definitely collaborative. Their notes are infuriatingly good. The only thing worse than bad notes are good notes.
(Laughs) “Damn! Why didn’t I think of that?”
Exactly! It’s infuriating! When you think these executives who oversee Archer are also overseeing 15 other shows, and I can barely keep Archer straight and they’re improving a couple dozen shows. It’s pretty amazing, they’re really good to work for.
Speaking of collaborations, I wanted to talk about your cast. You have one of the best casts in the animation business today, what’s it like working with them? How does that collaborative process work with you being the sole writer? Do you work with them in the recording booths at all?
For the record, that’s actually my favourite part. When I’m writing the script I can hear their voices, hearing them actually doing it or doing it exactly the way I imagined it without me talking to them about it.
Then doing it 3 or 4 different ways that are different and better, it’s fantastic and we laugh a lot. That’s the polar opposite of writing in a room by yourself, which as you know, can get a little gloomy.
To be on the phone with these insanely talented actors and on our end, all of the producers are sitting in the room laughing. It’s sort of a feedback loop. The actors are then energized by that and we’re throwing out ideas on the fly, they’re ad-libbing on the fly, so it’s really fantastic.
I know you’ve gone on record saying, Archer is like ‘James Bond meets Arrested Development’. Are there any other shows out there that have inspired content for the show? Or does it all just come solely from you?
Like am I stealing jokes? (laughs)
NO! You know what I mean! Inspiration for the kind of comedy you are going for. (laughs)
Absolutely. Arrested Development was a huge HUGE influence and I think that’s why FX bought it, and that’s where that tagline came from(which my agent actually came up with). It’s such a huge influence and I love that show so much, my all time second favourite sitcom next to Andy Griffith.
SO, that’s like a 30 year gap where nothing topped Andy Griffith and then Arrested Development was a very close second.
What sparked this up session with 1960’s style of cartoons that keeps popping up in your work. Did it begin with your work on the Flintstones? or have you always been a fan of that era of cartoons?
Not so much that era of cartoons, but that era of design, architecture, cars, and clothes. In Archer we covered a pretty good chunk of time visually from the early 60’s with a lot of his clothes to the early 80’s with a lot of technology they use so we kind of cherry picked all of our favourite things from a 20 year span. So you see 70’s cars mixed in with 60’s clothes, interior decorating and 80’s technology.
What was the process like pitching the show to FX? Was it easy for you or was it a bit of a battle?
I had never really pitched a show before, and I went out to L.A., because we’re based in Atlanta. We pitched to about 10 networks, but the very first network we pitched to, bought the show in the room and then the pressure was kind of off.
So I think FX was number 5, so by then I was really relaxed and had got to practise on a lot of other networks, so I was able to hone it. So that part went pretty easily. I did have a couple of disastrous pitches leading up to that though.
That one wasn’t bad though, they were very engaged, asked questions and had ideas about the show. As opposed to one network who had a their president sit there and text on his phone as I talked for 20 minutes.
Now, having switched your core concept for the show in Season 5, going from the secret agent offices of ISIS, to Archer Vice, dealing mainly with cocaine and selling drugs. (laughs) How was the network in receiving that change? Did they back you up on it? Were they against it?
Nope. They said “That’s great”…end of story (laughs)
(laughs) They seem like an amazing company to work for!
I know! I was like “Do you wanna talk about?” and they said ” No. Sounds Good.” (laughs)
What was the inspiration for the change in story? Was there anything in particular that made you want to try something different?
No, just sort of a break. You know, just like the Brady Bunch going to Hawaii or something for a couple episodes (laughs)
Well it seems to have worked perfectly since all you’ve changed is the backdrop of the show, all the characters have stayed the same. Plus they’re all so morally corrupt to begin with, that it seemed like an easy transition.
Yeah, they weren’t boy scouts before that. Something also that nobody was mentioned in the run of Archer. Scores of people have been killed but since they have become drug dealers, nobody has been killed.
That’s something that we’ve never called attention to, but with the animators we said make sure it doesn’t seem like anyone got shot or killed.
I think an FBI agent gets shot in the first episode of season 5 but when Archer and the gang are drug dealers, they never kill anybody. Which is a first for them. Other people kill people but none of the Archer people do.
Was that an intentional choice for you?
Yeah. I said they can be drug dealers, but they shouldn’t be killing anybody while they’re doing that.
What is it about the animation genre that inspires you work through out all these years. Why animation over all other forms of media?
Well I think especially with Archer, there’s no way we could make this show live action. It would cost tens of millions of dollars an episode and they would have to sell a lot of ad time.
So animation really frees us up to send them on these crazy adventures wether it’s outer space or the ocean or whatever. They can smash up the most expensive cars, blow up countless buildings and no need for stunt men.
In that instance, your expectations of where you can take the show became limitless… Is that freedom the most you enjoy about working in animation?
Yeah, it’s great. In the early days on Adult Swim, our budgets were really limited and we had to work around them all the time.
So there would be times when we would have the characters commenting on the action off screen like “Oh! There’s a giant squid eating a submarine. That’s amazing! Look at that” but now we can draw the squid and the submarine and show it.
With this change in the story; Do you have any other premises that you’d like to try or was this a case of, let’s do this first and see where it goes?
In this upcoming season, for season 6 we are back at the ISIS offices and now they are sort of independent contractors for the C.I.A. So, we’re sort of back to normal but who knows what will happen next season.
I kind of would like for them to all work in a restaurant but I don’t know if FX would go for that.
(Laughs) Well with such a great fan response for the change in season 5, it seems like you would have the freedom to do anything you want. Whether it’s having them work in a Burger King or in outer space, the people will go along with you for the ride.
I think they would be great working in some sort of Applebee’s and have everybody work there. I think it would be great.
SO for my last few questions here, I actually reached out to the fans of Archer and asked them if they had any questions they would like you to answer and I picked out my favourite 3. Are you game for it?
OK so the first one deals with wee baby Seamus and Archer’s daughter. Will there ever be a 20 years into the future episode where we get to see them together?
I don’t know! But we will definitely be seeing baby Seamus and baby A.J together in this upcoming season.
Second, did the inspiration for the character of Sterling Archer come from the character Awesome X from Frisky Dingo?
He shares a lot of D.N.A with Xander Cruise and Awesome X, so I would say yes.
Finally, the last fan question in big bold letters simply says “WHAT THE FUCK IS IN KENNY LOGGINS BRIEFCASE?!”
Oooohhhhhh!……I don’t know (laughs) I have no idea what was in there!
Really?! not even a clue?
It was a mystery to me. That was all Kenny Loggins idea. So I don’t know what was in that thing.
So he just wanted a glowing briefcase and told nobody why he wanted it?
Yeah! So I really don’t know what was in there! Maybe the soul or 70’s soft rock?
Here are a couple clips of the shows that were discussed in case you wanted to check them out!
VIFF Industry Conference runs from October 1-4 at the Vancity Theatre. Tickets on sale now.
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