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From the supply closet to Sundance to HBO with the creators of Animals

Phil Matarese (left), Mike Luciano (Photo: Getty)

The new HBO comedy Animals began its life on the web, where creators Mike Luciano and Phil Matarese built an animated New York City populated by pigeons, rats, horses, and other creatures who jawed, gossiped, and kvetched just like the city’s human residents—among other, more absurd pursuits. The duo produced the series in their free time, eventually crafting a 12-minute pilot episode that took the Best Comedy honors at the 2013 New York Television Festival. After connecting with Jay and Mark Duplass and the filmmakers’ Duplass Brothers Productions, Luciano and Matarese moved to Los Angeles and got to work on Animals’ independently produced first season, which scored another big festival win in 2015: A series pick-up from HBO following a screening at Sundance. When the show makes its premium-cable debut on Friday, February 5, Luciano and Matarese can still be heard as the voices of its Big Apple fauna, but they’re joined by the likes of Ellie Kemper, Wanda Sykes, Kumail Nanjiani, and other big-name comedic talents. (As well as some names not widely known for their comedy chops, including Jessica Chastain, A$AP Ferg, and Kurt Vile.) Prior to the premiere, The A.V. Club spoke with the show’s creators about taking a call from a Duplass brother in a supply closet, recording with Aziz Ansari in what “looks like a serial killer’s lair,” and why there’s more to Animals than an enticing guest list. (The show premieres tonight on HBO.)

AVC: How many episodes of Animals were completed when you took it to Sundance in 2015?

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Phil Matarese: We had all the scripts done, we had a shit ton of voiceover done, we had boards and character designs for a good chunk of the season. But once we realized that we were going to show it as a package to the world at large, we really honed down on the first two episodes The way animation usually works—and how we jumped into it—is kind of a stepping system.

Mike Luciano: All of the episodes were in various stages of being finished, but the first two were really crystalized.

AVC: How does it feel to know that a television audience is finally able to see those episodes?

PM: It’s truly the last and biggest question mark that we have to go through with this project. Up to this point, it’s only been live screenings and stuff like that, but the fact that we’re seeing billboards, and the response it’s been getting from the trailer online, and hearing people argue about it in comments and stuff like that, it’s super-surreal. It’s the most surreal it’s been, thus far, right now.

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ML: That being the case, I think we’re just really happy with the episodes we made and are just excited about it.

PM: Something about this show for Mike and me is that it’s been so insular between us. We never had to deal with that many notes, that much creative input from other people. Mike and I choosing the music, choosing the jokes, choosing the stories, all that sort of stuff. So going into season two, which we’re heading into right now, whatever the reception is, whatever people say—they want more humans, they want more of this animal—I hate to say it, but we’re not really going to listen to that. It’s going to be our show still.

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ML: We’ve just really been using our own compass for deciding everything from the choices in the show and how we were going to make it. We didn’t come from animation, we didn’t know how to make an animated show, and every step of the way, we figured it out.

AVC: What was that learning process like?

PM: Mike and I did it as a web series just the two of us, we made a 12-minute pilot—which screened at the New York Television Festival and won. That’s how we got agents and managers and hooked up with the Duplass brothers—with just the two of us, so making a larger version of that, we applied the same principles to it. We just used logic: How much time would it take to draw each of these characters, how much time is it going to take to do all of these backgrounds? And you just do it. We had the programs and we figured out how to use them and we brought on the necessary people for our small crew: One compositer, two dudes helping me out with designs, Mike did all the editing, and a producer. And that was it. And we realized that’s the core we needed.

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So at that time, it was Mike and I putting on producer hats: Putting on a line producer hat, putting on a music supervisor’s hat, choosing all of these different things that we wanted to be in the show and just doing it, because that’s what we did with the web series. You have this big mountain of work ahead of you, and all you can do is keep chipping away at it until eventually it’s done and it’s gone. And then you sell it to HBO.

AVC: Do you think it was that DIY approach that attracted the Duplass brothers to the project?

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ML: We were in a place where our little passion project was getting a lot of attention, and we could go a number of routes with it. And really the only thing we knew at the time was how we heard other shows were made, which is “Oh, you go and you pitch a pilot based on the material that you’ve already made.” And if you’re lucky, you get the money from some network to make that pilot, and it can wind up in limbo and you never get anywhere with it, and they own everything. So when we heard Mark was interested in [Animals], we took a Skype call with him in a supply closet at our day job, and he laid out this idea: “You can go that normal route, but if you guys want to come along with me and Jay, move out here, we’ll help get you guys funding for it, we’ll make a full season of your show right now, and you guys can have total creative control. I can’t promise that it’ll wind up anywhere, but I can promise that I’ll get a bunch of our funny friends to come do voices and help out.”

PM: Between those two options, the independent route is scarier, but we could do it right then. There was no waiting period, there was no lull. And that’s what we want to do: We’re happiest when we’re incredibly busy and have that mountain of work ahead of us. It seemed like the logical choice for us, to keep doing the thing. And they sensed opportunity in us. Because we were young starlets.

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AVC: So you hear that from Mark: “Come out to L.A., we can start making this thing right now.” In that moment, is there any hesitation about giving up these jobs and moving across the country?

ML: Before we got to that moment, we had been making it in some form for almost two years—outside our job. We liked where we worked, but it wasn’t like that was the end-all, be-all. We had been trying to keep growing it. We’d be sitting in bars, late at night—after we’d worked all weekend on it, staying up all night to work on the shorts—across from each other going “This is the show, this is the show, this is the show.” When the opportunity came, it just felt like the most realistic way we could make it happen, and retain the parts of the show that were really important to us.

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PM: It’s not really hard to fundamentally change your life. It just seems like it is. No one can keep you at your job, you just go there and you say, “Listen, man: In two weeks, I’m out of here.” Then you get rid of your apartment, sell all your shit, buy a Kia Soul, throw all your shit in it, and you drive across America. It’s surprisingly easier than it sounds.

AVC: What was it like to integrate the L.A. performers into that dynamic? Was there anyone you were really hoping to get for this season?

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PM: Jon Lovitz. And we got him, baby!

ML: It was incredible: For the first year of working on the show after we moved out here, we lived in an apartment in Los Feliz that also served as our office. We had a handful of animators coming in every day; we had to turn one of the bedrooms into a full-time recording studio, so we hung up these blankets to make something that had, at least, okay sound. We had Aziz Ansari come in two days after he sold out Madison Square Garden—and suddenly he’s in this bedroom that looks like a serial killer’s lair.

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PM: I think we were surprised about how giving and cool everybody was. It was awesome to see that was the case with a lot of the comedy community. At least our small peephole into it. Everyone was game to play, because they know it’s a Duplass product, so they know it’s going to be cool and they know it’s going to be interesting and weird. We were just so grateful to have these people giving us their talents, because Mike and I have been basically stalking them for years. We’re both huge fans of the comedy community, and to have them sitting across from us and pretending to be racist dogs or rats who are dying at a party was a dream come true.

AVC: A lot of the cast comes into it with their own pre-established dynamics. There’s a mini State/Viva Variety/Reno 911! reunion with Kerri Kenney-Silver and Thomas Lennon, or all the members of Wild Horses playing dogs.

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PM: It’s just getting in these cool combos that we really love. Like Marlon and Shawn Wayans and also John Witherspoon—we grew up on their show! Those were some things that were so exciting and awesome.

But on the other side of the coin, getting weird pairings of people in scenes is exciting for us. Like Wanda Sykes and Cobie Smulders in the same scene is bizarre.

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ML: Kurt Vile and Jon Lovitz.

PM: That will only happen, hopefully, on our show—unless they get a variety hour, which would be really cool.

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AVC: And that introduces a bit of a guessing game element to it, too.

PM: We didn’t want to make a big fanfare out of “Check this out: Wanda Sykes is a horse!” The character’s the character, they’re not doing a big voice or anything like that. It’s just in the credits. We love that we got all these people and all these cameos and got to do these interesting things, but hopefully that’s not the defining aspect of our show. We’re still trying to tell stories, we’re still trying to make an interesting, fun, engaging universe. That being said, I doubt there will be an episode of just Mike and myself.

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