Note: This interview discusses plot points from Steven Universe: The Movie.
Saying that Steven Universe: The Movie takes the audience through a maelstrom of emotions isn’t hyperbolic. But while the years-long story of Steven and the Crystal Gems has always been a kaleidoscope of crisis and triumphs, this particular chapter feels especially complex. The addition of Spinel, Homeworld’s latest malefactor, brings more than chaos; she also bears a totally new perspective confirming just how far the consequences of Rose Quartz’s past actions extend—a collection of wounds that Steven will always feel compelled to amend.
Between the moments of peril are celebrations of life, love, and friendship. Creator Rebecca Sugar and her team have fashioned a universe where a rollicking musical number can easily segue into a battle to defend life on Beach City, or a tearful confession of pain can lead to healing and laughter. Out of the heap of astounding feats that Steven Universe has accomplished over the span of five seasons, hosting a space where both children and adults can process their own relationships with grief and sadness has to reign among them. The A.V. Club interviewed Sugar a week before the film’s premiere, and the esteemed animator spoke candidly about encountering friends like Spinel, Steven’s quest for a happy ending, and creating one of the most shocking fusions of the series.
The A.V. Club: The film unexpectedly revisits the Gems’ origin stories. It also features Spinel, who has a very interesting animation style that hearkens back to the old-school Mickey Mouse cartoons. What was the inspiration behind Spinel’s look and revisiting the past in this way?
Rebecca Sugar:I love to work with the semiotics of cartoons. [We] have this character who was frozen in time—she didn’t get this chance to develop as a person. So in order to express that in the language of cartoons, making her look like this out-of-date cartoon that never evolved was a way to say everything about who she is and what happened to her, not just through the design but also through her motions.
I also have a pretty complicated relationship with older cartoons. I love history, but I do not like nostalgia. I absolutely would never want to go back in time and work on cartoons in the ’30s, but I’m totally fascinated by cartoons from that era. I particularly love Grim Natwick’s Betty Boop animation, and there are some moments of Spinel’s that very directly reference some of his work, along with [Ub] Iwerks’. I found that stuff really fascinating, but then there’s also something unsettling about it. There’s a toxicity to it, just because of the time when they were created. So it’s really exciting to get to work in that style—because I’m such a fan—but also to have what’s difficult about it be part of the character.
AVC: How have you been able to find such compassion for even the villains? Because it would have been very easy to simply paint Spinel as this evil-doer, but she has dealt with a tremendous amount of trauma.
RS: The thing about Spinel is that she’s a really toxic person. She’s so toxic that she’s literally trying to poison people. In my interactions with friends who have had a history difficult enough to make it hard for them to trust other people and sometimes even actively want to hurt others, it’s just a very difficult situation to navigate. In the case of Spinel and all of these characters, that’s extremely exaggerated because cartoons have the ability to be extreme exaggerations. I wanted to explore what it’s like when you’re trying to help someone who really doesn’t want to help themselves, who wants to embody the negative feelings that they have about themselves. I think that’s something really real. I hadn’t seen that in a cartoon before. Spinel, unlike many other characters, actually has the goal of hurting people, which is new territory for the show. She really wants to hurt Steven, and there’s a reason that she does—because she’s in so much pain. I just wanted to explore all the dimensions of that.
I also think Steven has his way of trying to handle and dissolve conflict. It’s not necessarily a good way for him to handle this situation. It really leaves him in a difficult state, and I think what I wanted to show in the way that they interact is that at a certain point, when you can’t help someone, you have to be able to protect yourself. Ultimately, he can’t really convince her to change. It’s something she’ll have to want for herself. But what he can do is protect himself from her, making it impossible for her to hurt him. It’s sort of up to you if you would like to love her. If you watch this movie and she, you know, frustrates you, that is totally fair. I want that to be a big part of who she is.
The thing that I loved about working on the movie is that it’s a character story, but because we’ve had 162 chances to tell you who these characters are over the course of this show, we just get to get into something that is complicated for [Steven]. We designed the movie so that you could come in blind, but if you really understand these characters, I think that there’s a lot more dimension.
AVC: So, Steg [the newest fusion, created by Steven and his father, Greg] was so awesome and so unforeseen. What was that decision-making process behind making Greg, a human, the next character to fuse with Steven?
RS: Internally, within the crew, we’ve been wanting to do Steg since season one. We just kept trying to find a place for him. There are old episodes we have written about Steg that just never quite made it all the way. But we always wanted to show Steven and Greg’s wonderful father/son, rock star/savant combination and what they would create together. What I love about Steg is that Steven and Greg create this ultimate ally who has all of Greg’s emotional intuition and free spirit and all of Steven’s compassion. The support that Steven gets from Greg is so grounding for him, and that character is just in a perfect position to do that for others, to just radiate support and confidence. I found some old notes back from probably 2013 or 2014 with ideas for this very old sort of battle of the bands Steg episode where he was called Mr. Multi-verse. It was really fun to find it and be like, “Oh, we really did always want to do this.”
So much of that sequence was story-boarded by Paul Villeco, and there’s so much Paul on display. I just love what he did with the sequence. And Ted Leo, the voice of Steg, also just brought so much to the song, [“Independent Together”]. We wrote it together, and he brought so much to the character from the very beginning. Before, it was just going to be sort of wall-to-wall confidence. And then he introduced this idea that they could become a little unsure and that Opal could end up doing for him what he had done for others. It just became this really lovely sequenced with all these ups and downs, thanks to Ted. I’m so grateful for that.
AVC: So is that your favorite song of the film?
RS: Oh, that’s so hard! They’re all so different in the end. I did so many collaborations, so it’s very hard to pick a favorite. “True Kind Of Love” I did first, and I went to Chicago to work on that with Chance The Rapper. I also got a chance to work with Macie Stewart of the band OHMME. So I was just plunged into the deep end at the very beginning and learned so much so quickly from working with him and Macie and from just being in a studio. I’ve been, like, recording these demos in Garage Band for six years. All of a sudden it’s just this whole other world of thought. So that will never stop being insanely special to me.
Working on “Drift Away” was also pretty incredible. I’ve been a fan of Aimee Mann forever. I used to listen to her music while I drew my comics as a teenager. She’s such a huge influence on what I do. To get to write a song with her was just unbelievable. And she wrote the bridge to “Drift Away,” which just sounds so much like your stuff. There was a chunk of lyrics that I had sort of a tenth version of, and I was like, “I know this could be sadder.” And we just went back and forth pitching sadder and sadder lyrics, which I couldn’t even begin to dream. To do that with Aimee Mann was unbelievable.
But then I worked with Aivi & Surasshu, my composers on the show, and we did a bunch of songs together. I worked with Jeff Liu, who is my storyboarder and has written a lot of music for the show. I don’t want to say [that they were] my comfort zone because we were trying to do something so much bigger than we’d ever done before. But working with my core team and just pushing ourselves as far as we could go, we just did so much to prepare.
AVC: We see an older Steven who has this idea of what his happy ending should look like, and then Spinel arrives and totally turned that idea on its head. Is there a particular takeaway that you wanted audiences to come away with at the end of this movie, about Steven and his quest for his happy ending?
RS: I really wanted the big takeaway to be that it’s okay to be a work in progress. There’s this sort of false promise made by stories that there’s going to be an end, but you don’t stop growing. If you want to stop growing, it’s going to be really hard when [bad things] keep happening. The thing about the fact that we’re all always growing, is that it’s really an incredible opportunity every day to figure out how to be more and more of the person that you want to be.
There was so much going on with this movie that was really paralleling how I felt at the time. We had finished this huge finale as well as the story that we had started writing in 2011. We were ready to celebrate, but there was no time because we were now working on the hardest thing we’d ever done. This movie sort of hit us like a tidal wave, but we all still wanted to challenge ourselves to be the best we could be at this craft and to try something new, to just push ourselves. So I always love writing about something real, something that’s really going on.