In the first season of the animated Disney Channel series Gravity Falls, creator Alex Hirsch and staff wove the beautifully rendered, hysterically relatable story of twins Dipper (Jason Ritter) and Mabel Pines (Kristen Schaal) and their summer with an eccentric great uncle (Hirsch) in the Pacific Northwest. Of course, it’s much more than that: Stan—“Grunkle Stan” to the kids—runs the Mystery Shack, a tourist trap whose oddities are frequently topped by the legitimate supernatural and paranormal happenings outside its four walls. Alongside Mystery Shack personnel Wendy (Linda Cardellini) and Soos (Hirsch), Dipper and Mabel experience a coming of age that’s one part Twin Peaks and one part Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, surrounded by a supporting cast that’s well on its way to growing to Springfield-like proportions. With the first-season finale nearly a year in the past, The A.V. Club asked Hirsch to talk through some of the major threads of Gravity Falls’ first 20 episodes, keeping an eye toward the second season that debuts this Friday, August 1.
Three mysterious, numbered journals open the world of Gravity Falls to Dipper and Mabel, before forming the key to an even larger mystery.
AVC: What was it about journals that made them the appropriate vessel for the mythology and the secrets of this show?
AH: A lot of it goes back to summers that me and my twin sister spent out in the woods when we were kids. Our great aunt Lois—our “Graunty Lois” she referred to herself—insisted that we keep journals of our adventures. She said, “We’re going on hiking trips and we’re picking up rocks.” [Laughs.] “You’re going to want to read back later and experience all of these memories again and again.” So me and my sister obsessively, dutifully chronicled every single boring minutia of these incredibly tedious summers. I have stacks and stacks of journals in my office—and they’re lumpy, because we taped in feathers and rocks and a rusty piece of a zipper we found. Behind each one, I imagined a story. I would write exhaustive nonsense about what I imagined these things might come from and how they might be connected to something spooky or weird. Every bottle cap I found might be from the future—you don’t know!
At first I thought it would be interesting if Dipper was keeping a journal. Then I thought it would be interesting if he finds a journal of somebody who had a similar summer that went far beyond Dipper’s summer and ominously prophesied the summer he’s about to have. It was taking the seed from what I remember of my summers and mythologizing it into this epic question, all contained in that simple, relatable experience of writing in a journal during the summer.
In season one, Dipper’s summer mission—if you were to call it that—is basically, “have a good time, stay out of trouble,” maybe try to catch the eye of this girl he’s got a big crush on. He’s curious about what’s going on in town, but he doesn’t wake up every single day possessed of a need to know. In season two, that ratchets up. After the events of Lil’ Gideon overtaking the Shack, Dipper is now more curious than ever about what is going on with these journals, what is going on in the town, how it is all connected. He much more explicitly makes it his mission in season two to get some answers. Dipper’s need to know about conspiracies becomes far less passive and far more of a motivating factor in the second season. Grunkle Stan’s been in on it the whole time, but the quest lingers: In on what? Stan knows something, but we still don’t know what he knows, how he knows it, what he wants, and how the kids are wrapped up in it.
Dipper and Mabel’s summer adventures put them in contact with all sorts of unexplainable phenomena, which the first season uses to elaborate on the unexplainable phenomenon of growing up.
AVC: The reserve of supernatural and paranormal storytelling elements, plot devices, and tropes isn’t infinite. What did you leave yourself for season two? Was it ever a concern in season one that, for instance, you can’t do another cloning story because you did one in the first 20 episodes?
AH: That is a very specific difficulty of the monster-of-the-week genre, and that’s why in season 10 of The X-Files, you have [Sarcastically.] “Oh, I think this is a haunted gumball machine?” [Laughs.] It is something you experience in the writers’ room immediately. When I entered season one, I had my wish list: “Who knows if I’m ever going to make a TV show again, I’ve got to do all of the coolest things I have, right now. I want to do clones, I want to do time travel, I want to do dinosaurs. Body swapping? What the heck, let’s Freaky Friday it up.” When we entered season two, we’d start a story and be like “Oh, this thematically connects to one’s argument with themselves—maybe if there was a clone… nope, already did clones.” It came up frequently.
Each episode has buried within it a writer’s checklist of “What’s the character story? What’s the crazy magic?” With character stories and crazy magic, you have to think a little harder each time you think of a new one, because the obvious go-to place has been exhausted. I still had a wish list held from season one, and I was excited to find ways to address it in season two.
One thing that’s a lot harder to put into stories than you’d think is the idea of a traditional monster, because monsters with a capital “M” don’t inherently lend themselves to a story about your character. Unless one of your characters is themselves the monster, simply having a monster leads to a chase or a hunt. A chase and a hunt is only as interesting as what it reveals about your characters while they’re doing that chase. We had two monster hunts in season one—the kids’ search for the Gobblewonker and Mabel’s search for the pterodactyl that stole her pig—and it’s tough because people will say “Oh, just do the Mothman! Just do Bigfoot!” And it’s like, “Well, okay, Dipper sees the Mothman, Mabel and Dipper go after the Mothman, they capture the Mothman, they have a Mothman.” [Laughs.] There isn’t anything about that that tells you anything about these characters. Unless Mabel has a fear of moths, because she’s scared of the dark, because she needs to grow up. Simply doing a monster for a monster’s sake very rarely functions as a starting point for a character comedy. That’s why properties like cloning or growing and shrinking or body swapping tend to be much more rich. They engage with the relationships and hidden wants and sudden newfound powers of these characters.
Diminutive psychic Lil’ Gideon is the star tourist attraction in Gravity Falls. That automatically puts him at odds with Grunkle Stan, but Gideon’s cuddly facade hides sinister plans for the Mystery Shack and Mabel.
AVC: What was the impulse behind making your Big Bad so childlike? Obviously that puts him on the same level as Dipper and Mabel—but at the same time his rivalry with Grunkle Stan still makes a lot of sense.
AH: The short answer is “it just seemed funny.” From the get-go, it seemed hilarious to us that Grunkle Stan’s ultimate tourist trap rival would have the one thing that Stan doesn’t: He’s cute and likeable. [Laughs.] Grunkle Stan is a gross old man trying to appeal to tourists. Nothing is more appealing than a winking baby that can dance and sing.
On a more thematic level: The show is ultimately about growing up. The kids are 12, going on 13, and 13 is when you’re technically a teen. Their birthday coincides with the end of the summer—I don’t think that’s been mentioned in the series yet—but this is the last summer of childhood. It’s the last summer where they’re standing on this precipice of “What does it mean to grow up? Do I want to grow up?” I think Dipper absolutely wants to grow up—he wants to grow up way too fast. It was interesting to us that a challenger to Dipper is somebody who’s even younger than Dipper, and has grown up even faster than Dipper—some kid who is already wearing suits and has made himself a business. Dipper wants nothing more than to be taken seriously by everyone around him. Gideon is younger, more childish than Dipper, yet more successful at getting people to take him seriously.
AVC: Gideon eventually conjures another, more threatening force: the mischievous demon Bill Cipher. The image of Bill is embedded at the end of every Gravity Falls credits sequence: What was it like to finally reveal that character, after 18 episodes of hints, in “Dreamscaperers”?
AH: We didn’t know for sure if we were going to put Bill in the show originally. He was always this character that I had in my mind, and I originally envisioned him as less inherently integral to the story—more as somebody who would be an all-seeing, all-knowing pest to Dipper. Without exactly knowing how far we were going to go with him, we sprinkled little hints of his character throughout the show. When we finally figured out the real, full scope of the mythology, we realized that this character gave us everything we wanted in terms of making the story grander and crazier and scarier.
It was a real interesting thing to watch how the fans responded to the hints at this character prior to his arrival. I must’ve seen 15 photos of people who had tattooed Bill Cipher onto their arms prior to his introduction in the series. They just like this Illuminati triangle with a top hat and stick figure arms like Mr. Peanut. I was a little nervous before the episode premiered. I was like, “Oh God, will these people who have pledged their lives to being stuck with this image like the character?” We were pleased that the audience was as captivated by the weirdness as we were.
It’s ambiguous at this point whether Bill is a villain or a friend or exactly what he’s after. He’s a character who has a semi-godlike knowledge of the world of Gravity Falls. He’s been there for a very long time, and he has his own projects in the works which overlap with the sorts of things that are going on in town. In season two, we will definitely explore more of how Bill is connected to this family, and how he might be connected to other characters who might have interacted with him in the past.
AVC: Early in 2014, the Internet exploded with speculation about HBO’s True Detective and its various mysteries and non-mysteries. Similar conversations revolved around Gravity Falls’ first season–do you think viewers might be even more primed for that kind of deep dive after True Detective?
AH: I can’t remember the name of that computing law that says processing power exponentially increases over time [It’s Moore’s Law. —ed.], but I do think that also applies to general, global nerdiness. [Laughs.] When our show started, I was overwhelmed by the amount of passionate, bizarre speculation. A show with an overarching mystery—this type of thing has been going on since Twin Peaks. The asset that we have now is that we have this global community of sleuths inventing and remixing and playing with and questioning and hypothesizing about the answers and trajectory of our series.
The one downside of that, which David Lynch didn’t have to contend with: Cumulatively, the minds of the Internet have solved problems that no single human possibly could. If they can fill holes in a DNA strand, they can fill holes in our plot. [Laughs.] They are now a terrifyingly powerful force to be reckoned with. If you want to keep something a secret, and you also want to tease it, it’s harder than it’s ever been. If one fan comes close to an answer and broadcasts it, it can become as known as the actual plot points—even if it’s not true. It’s a blessing in terms of hyper-engagement. It’s also a curse in terms of “How do our four writers trick the mental might of the entire Internet?” The way we’ve approached that is by trying not to think about it, by trying to make something that would keep ourselves guessing, and ultimately trying to focus most on the characters. Because at the end of the day, the mystery is the salt on the steak, and the steak is the story of what these characters are going through, the comedy of their situation, and the drama of their problems. We want the mysteries to be compelling, but we don’t want them to be the only thing in the show, because once a question is answered, it’s answered. A character story is compelling again and again.
Dipper and Mabel’s sibling relationship
Friends, allies, but still brother and sister, a summer in Gravity Falls brings the Pines twins closer—though not without illustrating their differences.
AH: A lot of people have asked me questions like, “How did you plan or figure out how to make them act toward each other?” It’s because I have a twin sister and that was my relationship growing up. It was entirely natural. I was playing piano by ear, like, “Does this sound right? Does this remind me of the kind of relationship I had with my sister?” There was not a lot of math of “Oh, how should one character be to another character?” “Are they closer, are they further apart?”
The one broad concept I had going into it was I remembered myself and my twin sister, when we were in school, we would bicker and fight and get on each other’s nerves and butt heads. When we were in a familiar situation, we tended to be more distant. When we were in an unfamiliar situation, and all we had was each other, we became much closer. We needed each other more, and we actually got along better. That was the starting point: What if this crazy summer, by virtue of them having no other friends at the very outset, requires them to be friends more and get to know each other better?
Also: What are the tensions that would come from that closeness? What are the frustrations that would come from having to share a room with your sister, having to deal with your sister’s crazy crushes. Or, if you’re Mabel, the frustrations of having to be around Dipper and his weird, paranoid, awkward way of living. Season two explores more of the twins’ relationship relative to their general trajectories in life. Dipper is a kid who wants to grow up really fast, and Mabel is a character who feels very comfortable wherever she is. She’s ageless: She has a childlike way about her even though she imagines herself to be worldly enough to know about teen things like dating. It’s a kid version of teen stuff, the Baby-Sitters Club version of what the world might be like. Mabel is a little less aware of what growing up means and where it’s headed. These trajectories do have a tension, an issue there. That’s something that season two explores in an interesting way.
AVC: Did those differences make it easier to introduce friends for Mabel as season one went on?
AH: Mabel’s so social—she’s the kind of kid who will make friends with the pizza-delivery man in the five minutes he’s at the door. A lot of Mabel is based on this legendary family anecdote: According to lore, when we were 5 years old, we were in a restaurant, and there was, supposedly, a very big, butch, angry, tattooed, massive, biker-looking woman with a big pin on her leather jacket that said “Bitch.” My sister Ariel pointed at the button and said “I like your button,” and struck up a conversation with her. And she was the sweetest lady in the world. That’s just an image that’s always been in my head: This character who enters any situation with friendliness. It was inevitable that Mabel would make friends quickly.
And similarly inevitable that Dipper would have a hard time making friends, because he considers himself to be above the kids his own age. The only friends we see him trying to make in season one are Wendy’s friends. He wants to fast-forward through all of this being 12 nonsense. He doesn’t even want to admit he’s 12. He’d rather think he’s 13, because in his mind that’s somehow worldlier. Again, these issues become more pointed in season two, where Dipper’s lack of ability to socialize and Mabel’s over-socialization create story friction.
Upon arriving in Gravity Falls, Dipper swoons over Mystery Shack employee Wendy, but the age gap between teenage Wendy and preteen Dipper confines the crush to unrequited puppy love.
AH: Poor Dipper. Dipper’s experience with Wendy is entirely inspired by my memories of what it was like when I as that age. The puberty train came late to the station for me. I was the shortest kid in my sixth-grade class—they made me pose for the yearbook with the tallest kid for comedic contrast. I still experienced the same desire to be around girls, I was just trapped in this stupid little body that gave me zero advantage in the situation. What Dipper’s going through with Wendy is what puberty was like for me: This impossible, constant, banging-your-head-against-the-wall agony of “Why would the universe make me feel this way and give me zero ability to do anything about it?”
The difference between me and Dipper is that Dipper is more hopeful. This is his first experience of having a crush, and that seemed like an endless source of pain and comedy for season one. As we have found in the second half of season one, TV production is such that in the first half of a season you have a little more writing leg room, and as you get toward the second half, pre-production and post-production—especially in animation—deeply stack on top of each other. As a result, in the writers’ room, when we’re like, “Aw crap, we need a story and we need it by yesterday,” maybe we go back to “Dipper’s got a crush on Wendy” because it’s such a potent fuel for the story. The problem is that a story about Dipper’s crush on Wendy is not a story about true love. It’s not a story about adult dating. It’s a story about the crush on the babysitter that’s this constantly awkward frustration. And awkward frustration can only propel a story so far before you start saying, “Okay, I know where this is going.” The promise in a first act of Dipper’s attempts to woo Wendy is not particularly compelling after the third time you’ve seen it, because you’ve seen enough third acts to know “Where the hell could this possibly go?”
In season two, we try not to get caught in that same trap. I can’t really say more than that, but it’s an important part of the show that we’re all excited about from a storytelling point of view, but also we’ve made an effort this season not to tell the same story again.
AVC: Are you finding that’s opening up new storytelling avenues for Wendy?
AH: Absolutely. Wendy’s a tough character to write, because comedy in television tends to connect to a character’s outsized desires relative to their means. The more a character wants and the less a character has the ability to get what they want, the more you have an endless fuel for storytelling in comedy. A character who is pretty chill, pretty content with themselves, pretty well adjusted, is very hard to squeeze comedy and story out of, because they’re doing all right. One has to dig beneath the surface to find the imperfections and the stresses that a character like Wendy has that weren’t revealed early on.
Won as a prize at the local fair (several times, thanks to time travel), Mabel’s pet pig spend the first season swapping bodies with Soos, being snatched by a dinosaur, and becoming an online fan favorite.
AVC: If something was going to resonate with the Gravity Falls fandom, did you figure it would be the adorable pig?
AH: Cute animals have a pretty good track record in animation for inspiring passionate fandom. To the point that it used to be a requisite: There was a time in the ’80s where they crammed some fuzzy tribble into The Jetsons, because there was this mandate of “add a cute animal sidekick.” The movie Pocahontas is this weird, somber, re-appropriation of a story of Native Americans—and then every other scene of dialogue cuts to a cute raccoon and a cute hummingbird cute-ing around in circles because, in animation, cute is such a potent thing. Waddles came out of my sister’s desire, when we were younger, to have a pig. Knowing how excited my sister was about cute pigs made me assume that if we put a real cute pig in the show, other kids would be equally excited.
I knew early on that I wanted to give Mabel a pig halfway through the season, I wanted her to keep the pig, and I wanted her pig to be as cute as possible. One of the nice things about having something as simple and pure as a girl’s love for a pet pig is it can create immediate stakes in a story. In “Land Before Swine,” Waddles is stolen by a pterodactyl. I just know as a storyteller that if you’re watching TV, and a little girl’s cute pet pig gets taken by a pterodactyl, you are forced by the laws of the universe: You can’t turn off the TV if a cute pig has been taken by a dinosaur from a cute little girl. You must watch to the end.
It’s not really a spoiler, but in season two, there’s a small bit of exploration about the way in which Waddles represents yet another friend Mabel has made that Dipper hasn’t. I wouldn’t call it a friendship triangle, per se, but there’s a point to be made about just how much Mabel has collected socially, relative to Dipper. One question that does linger above season one, and is brought up in season two, is the fact that summer does not last forever, and the kids are not from Oregon—they did not grow up on a farm, they’re from a much more urban area. It doesn’t seem likely that parents would let you bring a pig back home. That is one tension about having this cute pet that Mabel has not yet considered, but will cross her mind.