-by Ken Plume
In a tenure lasting over 25 years and beginning in the transition from the Nine Old Men to young turks that included fellow artists like John Lasseter and Glen Keane, Tad Stones made his mark not in the Disney Company’s fabled feature animation department, but in its burgeoning TV Animation division.
Stones was one of the chief architects of the “Disney Afternoon” period of classics, including creating the much-loved Darkwing Duck. He went on to play a role - as both writer and producer - in shows such as Aladdin, Hercules, Buzz Lightyear, and Atlantis. Since leaving Disney, he’s produced The Adventures of Brer Rabbit for Universal.
In addition to that rather hefty line of accomplishment, he’s now the producer for the new line of direct-to-DVD Hellboy: Animated films, which kicks off with the just released Sword of Storms. Reuniting nearly the entire cast of Guillermo del Toro’s live action film (including Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, and John Hurt) and working closely with Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, these films promise to be an exciting new chapter in the history of everyone’s favorite big red devil. You can even visit Stones’ online Hellboy production blog HERE.
I got a chance to chat with Tad about what it was like putting these films together (including the upcoming Blood & Iron), working with Mignola, his Disney past, and a few other odds and ends…
KEN PLUME: Is this Tad?
TAD STONES: Yes it is.
KP: Hey, this is Ken Plume from Quick Stop…
STONES: Hey! And I just stubbed my toe, so I’ll be in pain… Give you that extra edge…
KP: That’s good. Well, hopefully it’ll make up for what I’m sure will be a completely banal line of questioning…
KP: That you’ve heard thousands of times before.
STONES: Only in the last three weeks, I’m sure.
KP: Apologies for not being able to call you earlier…
STONES: No, that’s fine. Actually it turned out I was at a recording session for the whole first part of the morning.
KP: Oh, so it worked out.
STONES: Yeah. And then I was supposed to have an interview and I realized I must have made the time zone mistake. The guy goes, “Well, we’ll try to reschedule, sorry.” And it’s like, “I’m not supposed to talk to you until hours from now!” Oops!
KP: You’re certainly banging the drum in any way you can to get the word out about this Hellboy release…
STONES: Definitely. And shameless. People don’t get it. I don’t get a cut of the movie - It’s just that I want to make a lot more of these. It’s just so much fun and so cool, and the only way to do that is to get people to buy that first one.
KP: I noticed that you have an online journal that you’ve been keeping during production…
STONES: Yes. All the good stuff is earlier in the archives, though. It’s kinda like, once the movie’s done, it’s a lot of whining and complaining about, “Why aren’t people buying this?” “Because it’s not on sale yet.” I feel honored in that my composer Christopher Drake sent me an email to say we’re nominated for the “Rondo Hatten Horror Movies Awards.” It’s just like, “Ooh, I didn’t know that there was an award named after Rondo Hatten.”
KP: You know, if you can get the Hatten Award, then that’s got to be center on your mantelpiece….
STONES: Yeah, exactly. Definitely. Unfortunately, we’re up against Battlestar Galactica, so somehow I’m thinking…
KP: Yeah, but come on - if the Hattens know what’s good for them…
STONES: (laughs) Exactly.
KP: Then they know what they need to pick. Anyone can choose Galactica.
KP: They need to go with the quality choice, not the quantity.
STONES: That’s what I’m thinking.
KP: I’m wondering - is it an oversized award?
STONES: No, it looks like… about the size of an open fist.
KP: I would think the Rondo Hatten award would have to be at least somewhat larger than the average award…
STONES: Yes. Well, the nose alone, I think…
KP: It has quite a stunning profile up on the shelf.
STONES: Yes. (laughs)
KP: My first question would have to be when your first exposure to the Hellboy material was…
STONES: Well, you know, I was a comic fan, so I had been collecting a lot of Mike’s work even before I knew who Mike Mignola was. Certainly at Cosmic Odyssey, that he did for DC, is when he really started, I think, stepping onto the style path that he’s continued ever since, of exaggerating action - of simplification just in general - and just his storytelling started changing. So when Hellboy was announced, I was one of those people waiting for it. So, I was there from the very beginning. In fact, I pitched it at Disney Studios as a prime time show, because they were asking for new and different ideas about 12 years ago. I did a little Adobe Premier presentation, and I only had “Wake the Devil”, “Seed of Destruction” and “The Corpse” to choose from. I didn’t have any more visuals than that. So, early on there, I was already pitching the idea.
KP: Were you actually pitching it as an adaptation of his visual style, as well?
STONES: At the time, X-Files was huge. It was at its peak. This was 1994, I guess… ‘93, ‘94. And Bruce Timm had proved - along with Alan Burnett and Paul Dini and Eric Radomski and his whole gang - that animation didn’t have to be just morality tales for tweens. Animation could do some cool drama with The New Adventures of Batman. So my pitch was that this was the animated X-Files. It pretty much would have been the tales of the BPRD. (laughs) They never picked it up, so who knows what it would have become, because I certainly wanted to keep the folklore aspects and everything that was Hellboy. But the pitch was basically an animated X-Files. And they were looking for something more akin to, say… oh, I don’t know - The Simpsons…
KP: So, in other words, if you’d just put a couple more jokes in it…
STONES: Well, like I said in other places, thank god they didn’t take it or we might be dealing with Heckboy or having Hellboy in the Fantasyland castle posing with Tigger and Pooh. I don’t think the world’s ready for that.
KP: No. Or you can have a little BPRD section of Disneyland. Although they’d probably stick it in California Adventure.
STONES: That would probably be a whole different take on the Haunted Mansion.
KP: Yeah, like the Nightmare Before Christmas redress for the holidays…
STONES: Exactly. You just have agents there blowing the heads off some of the existing ghosts.
KP: Works for me.
STONES: Anyway, so it didn’t go there. But as a fan, I went way back right to the beginning - the very first publication, I guess, was in a San Diego Comic-Con handbook, but the first thing I saw was the few pages Mike did in the center of the Next Men, by John Byrne.
KP: How would you describe the creative boundaries of Disney TV animation at that time? You were able to accomplish quite a lot within that “Disney Afternoon” block that was unprecedented as far as Disney material was concerned…
STONES: Well, way back when on the Disney afternoon, we were kind of masters of our own destiny. We didn’t realize how good we had it. Although we had to answer to our boss, Gary Krisel, pretty much any show that we could sell to Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner got put on the air. We didn’t have to deal with the network in any of that. And I doubt that those early shows would have been as solid if we had been doing it with a normal network, because they would have been more gag oriented or there’d be no continuity. Where some of those shows really banked on that. It was just a different style of storytelling, I think. Especially when you get into something like Gargoyles. Arguably, it could have been too complex, but the point is working that, with a normal network situation, I don’t think that would have happened. It was just a special time in syndicated history. And then Fox started up their own network and that shifted things, and then as soon as cable got into cartoons, it’s a kind of golden age for animation in that it’s everywhere. But the problem is no one place makes a huge amount of money, so it’s hard to fund projects and things like that. So anyway, on Disney Afternoon, we were kind of left on our own, other than internal notes. We still have such a large fanbase… In fact, those fans are starting to have kids…
KP: Is there anything that surprises you, to this day, that you were able to get away with?
STONES: Not really. Because with the Disney Afternoon, we were still at Disney. So you just gear your thinking “G-rated.”
KP: Right. But I can’t imagine a show like Darkwing Duck getting launched today within Disney.
STONES: Yeah, just because they’re oriented to a whole…I don’t even think they’ve got funny animal programs outside of Mickey, Donald and Goofy. Just that kind of Carl Barks/Donald Duck tradition. A lot of us loved that stuff, and so that oriented toward thinking of, “Hey, you can tell any kind of story with these characters.” And now it’s just a whole different mindset, as to what they’re looking for. And not just at Disney, I think in all the networks you don’t see the same kind of shows. Darkwing Duck was my salute to the silver age of DC comics. You know - Julie Schwartz would just do those crazy covers of kryptonite stories of Superman turning fat or bald or old or something like that, and Darkwing had that same kind of silliness. It was back before the days of continuity, so Darkwing had, like, four origins at least that we animated. And we would have had more, had it gone on longer.
KP: I remember hearing the voice tracks for “Justice Ducks,” and being blown away, as a comic book fan, that this was being done for TV animation. And by Disney! That sense of superhero fun hadn’t been done at that point…
STONES: Basically, back then - especially with Darkwing - you had a lot of oversight at the very beginning when you’re creating the show, when you’re pitching the show, and then around the third script they all back away and start picking on other people. And then the scrutiny returns when you start getting animation back. So, in between times, I could pretty much come to work and say, “You know what? I’m thinking of an episode with mafia penguins.” Today it would be, “Let’s do the The Departed, but we’re doing them with penguins and Darkwing’s going to infiltrate this gang of penguins, and one of the penguins is going to come and masquerade as Darkwing Duck,” or something. You know, whatever the idea, whatever the notion is, there is no one to say no. It was like, “Okay, let’s make that funny.”
KP: I remember, to my young mind, I was thrilled with the idea that here was legitimately a spin-off series that was in the same universe as DuckTales, and piecing that together…
STONES: You know what? I never worried about that. I mean, by definition he was a spin-off because Launchpad was in both…
KP: And Gizmo Duck…
STONES: Yeah, and that really came more from the origin of the show than it came from… well, certainly Darkwing has nothing of the Carl Barks sensibility, or the DuckTales sensibility, which I feel is very different than the Carl Barks stuff. The notion started out as an episode called “Double 0 Ducks,” which was just Launchpad as a James Bond parody. And Jeffrey Katzenberg just loved the name, and asked me to develop a show, and I just felt, “Spy parody? We’re, like, 10 years too late.” This was before Austin Powers.
KP: “And we just did that episode.”
STONES: Yeah. (laughs) Well, I mean, it was done in DuckTales, and he was just saying, “Spin it off as a show.” I pitched something, and I just felt it had no sense of family to it, there were no strong relationships, it was just parody. I presented it, and he said, “You know, there’s no sense of family to it, there’s no relationships, it’s just parody. Do it over.” Suddenly, it’s like, “Oh crap, I can’t do the easy thing.” And then that’s when I started thinking about the old pulps like Green Hornet and The Shadow, and Doc Savage having a band of people who helped him. And that’s when he really got redeveloped. And until we found out we couldn’t use the words “double 0.” So the name is what kept him alive, and then we couldn’t use it. And we couldn’t come up with a new name, so we had a contest in the studio. The winner would get 500 bucks, and ironically the winner was Alan Burnett, who came up with Darkwing, and I said, “Oh, we just gotta make it a little sillier - let’s make it Darkwing Duck.” And Alan took his money and then left to go to Warner Brothers and write the first season of Batman. Had he stayed, Darkwing might have been much darker.
KP: What were the complications with “Double 0″?
STONES: It was owned by Cubby Broccoli. It’s not a real thing, it was made up by Ian Fleming, and Cubby Broccoli had the rights to all of the Ian Fleming novels.
KP: I never knew that.
KP: Must have been a heck of a thing to find out.
STONES: Well, Disney always pays attention to that stuff, because they want to sue everybody else. We’d see stuff all the time at Warner Brothers cartoons, and we’d say, “Why can’t we do that?” And it’s like, we didn’t want to get them in trouble, but they would never let us do similar things.
KP: Playing in that superhero wheelhouse with Darkwing… I was about to use the horrible pun, “wetting your beak…”
STONES: But it was gooey and you thought better of it.
KP: I caved in at the end. Moving on to Hellboy, do you think, in some ways, you can look back and see Darkwing as a precursor for fully embracing that sort of superhero storytelling in animation?
STONES: I enjoy comics. I’ve always enjoyed stories of the supernatural. My work on Hellboy had nothing to do with any evolution of my Disney stuff. It’s very strange, because I feel in a strange way that my almost 30 years at Disney was kind of a precursor to my work now. I really feel like now I’m taking the next creative step, and that they love me at Disney because yes, I could do fun shows, but I always watched the budget and the schedule because it was my job as a producer. And I look back at things with Darkwing and I say, “This could have been so much funnier if I’d gone back in and given the extra note and got in a little trouble to push things even better.” But now on Hellboy, it’s like, because of my work with Mike Mignola, I don’t want to let him down, and I’m striving to do something new in American animation. In Japanese animation, they’ve done all these subjects and they’ve done it in the same way and in a million different variations. But I just felt like animating horror and suspense and really making it suspenseful is something I’d certainly never done. And I no longer had to write for kids. I mean, yes, you always say, “We write for ourselves,” which is true, but you’re writing for yourselves with certain limitations. Just like you may use certain slang with your friends watching the Super Bowl game, but if you’re at a tea with Aunt Betty who’s 93, perhaps you wouldn’t use the same language. It’s still you, but you’re watching what you say. And it’s the same way when you’re writing for kids. Yes, you use your own sensibilities; yes, you’re coming up with gags that you think are funny, but they’re a certain kind of gag. With Hellboy, I could really work on stories and work with other writers to say, “Let’s do this for ourselves. For our peers. For people who are adults.” Because that’s who Mike wrote for.
KP: How would you describe actually working with a property that has a creator that is still very much with us and very much involved, as opposed to - with Disney - largely working within a corporate structure with corporately owned characters?
STONES: Well, it’s night and day. I feel Mike’s a friend now, and I feel a commitment to do things as good as I can, and to push for things, and to really get his vision as much as I can into our work, because we write the stories together. If he comes up with ideas, I generally take his, even if they’re just a different way of doing things. That’s the whole point. He has a unique perspective, a unique sense of humor. I just feel like he’s done this incredible thing on the page, and let’s try to get as much of that on the screen as we can. And I think our second movie is much stronger than our first, and we hardly had a learning curve on that one because we practically did it at the same time. We really produced these two movies as one big movie. Currently I’ve got a green light to write a third movie, and now I’m finally getting to use what I learned - what worked, what didn’t work as well, what’s a better way of carrying off a certain moment, how much information I have to give to the overseas studio to really capture a moment. That’s all stuff I’m finally able to apply.
KP: When you say “what didn’t work,” what are the lessons that you walked away with on these first two films that you’re carrying into the third?
STONES: I realized that if I wanted a really cool looking skull, we basically had to design and fully paint it here. A storyboard artist will just draw, like, a symbol for a skull, with just big circles for the eyes and all that, and that’s what you get back overseas. I just… it seems a stupid little thing, but it’s symbolic of - with Mike’s comics, he will cut to architecture, he’ll cut to a statue. And there’s always a reason for it. We do the same thing in the films, but normally you do a background key for an entire sequence, so that if you cut to something within the room, it’s up to the overseas studios to put a little more detail in it. Because it’s a close-up, and when it really matters for those insets, it’s just another level of detail we’re gonna have to push ourselves here to include in our design package. So, that’s a very specific example, but it’s indicative of a larger mentality of, “Boy, this little moment, what’s the best way we can do that moment and how do we pull off that special effect?” In a live action film you would have a room full of experts worrying about where to put the squibs and what’s safe and is the fire department there, and how big does the green screen behind it have to be. Nothing can just be done casually. You’ve got all these people in the middle of it. In animation, a storyboard guy could just say, “Oh, well this flares up and this rock melts,” and it could just go through. But at that point, you say, “What’s the best way to reveal that she’s getting so hot that the rocks are melting around her?” And you realize that has to be a whole discussion. Everybody’s got to be in on that and thinking about it just like we would for a live action movie. So at this point I think we accomplished the huge part of the task. Now I’m just anxious to refine things and to get more of Mike onto the film.
KP: Are there any lessons that you learned in terms of character or pacing or story?
STONES: Um, in the comics there’s definitely scenes in the BPRD where they’re handing out mission reports, and we have one in the second film, where guys are eating donuts and looking at photographs as you get the back story. We’ll still have sequences like that, but now I think I will illustrate them more. Whereas, if they say, “Okay we’ve got reports of strange ghosts walking around the streets of Burbank,” we will cut to Burbank, and show some little kid being stunned by an apparition crossing his path.
KP: You’re saying the Hill Street Blues debriefing doesn’t quite work for animation?
STONES: Exactly. You’ve got to put a little bit more in there. And especially when dealing with the paranormal, and just how we pace things. The pacing for the most part I’m happy with, in that the difference between doing a series and doing a movie is that when it comes to a haunted house in a movie, I get to reveal slowly that it’s a haunted house and hopefully in a spooky way so you have an emotional reaction. In a series, we have to just say, “It’s a haunted house,” because we have to get on with the story. And the fun stuff is actually trying to evoke an emotion in the audience.
KP: In the first two films, are there any characters that you feel were underserved? Or you really want to concentrate more on in the future?
STONES: Well, the only character who will be in every movie is Hellboy.
KP: One would hope.
STONES: Yeah. Well, I mean there’s a certain sentiment where people are saying, “Well, wait a minute, how come Liz and Abe aren’t around more?” Well, in the first movie, Liz and Abe were barely in it. They were in the first sequence, and then on the end of a telephone call. And because we felt like we’re gonna be dealing with this weird Japanese world, let’s have our world more normal by just having Kate Corrigan and another human agent. Then we were short and we had to come up with more material, and Abe and Liz got their own little subplot, which has some of the coolest moments in the movie. Certainly some of the best personality moments in the movie. There’s also the feeling that Liz should use her fire powers more. And we had to say, “She’s not the human torch.” The series of comics and the films are called Hellboy for a reason. Not Hellboy & Friends, or Hellboy and the Amazing BPRD.
KP: But there’s your spin-off…
STONES: Well, exactly. You know, we will do that show. No problem. That’s not a problem at all. In fact, we could do an animated X-Files. Why not do that series while we’re doing the Hellboy movie…
KP: Or you can do one for the under-5 set - Playhouse Hellboy…
STONES: Maybe not. (laughs) Maybe we won’t do that. We’re very lucky to be able to work in the long form on these. And there are characters that fans really want to see. Roger gets named entirely, and my feeling is that Roger the Homunculus can’t just be another agent. You don’t introduce him in a briefing and say, “Oh yeah, here’s a guy who’s kind of made of pig manure and straw and a few incantations.” You know? It’s like, “Okay, she’s a pyrotechnic. Got it. The fish guy? Okay, got it. I saw Creature from the Black Lagoon. Hellboy, devil. I understand that. The fist is a little odd, but it’s big and it hits things. I understand that.” Once you start getting into other stuff that gets weirder and weirder, I don’t want to make them mundane. Roger deserves his own movie. Will we do that movie? Maybe. That would kind of have to be a direct adaptation, and I don’t know if we’re ready to do one of those yet. We did, within Hellboy: Sword of Storms - available February 6, Tuesday! Buy two, they’re small.
KP: Why not three?
STONES: Exactly. I think they make a great set of coasters for your dinner table.
KP: Arbor day is coming up.
STONES: Hey, Valentine’s! Nothing says love more than Hellboy.
KP: Or three copies of it.
STONES: Exactly. Like I say, there’s no number three without people buying number one. Where was I?
KP: Well, fans may want to see characters…
STONES: Yeah, so fans really… you know, there’s that kind of thing with what they want to see and they really push for, and they’re not thinking it through, because if we just included those things, it’s gonna become the Fantastic Four or the X Men. Which are fine, but they’re not Hellboy. And the next one, if it goes as we plotted it out, the only BPRD agent with Hellboy is Kate Corrigan. Liz and Abe and those guys aren’t in it. And it’s partially because we’ve got so many other characters that are cool that are gonna be in it. We’ve talked of one where it’s Hellboy on a trans steamer. And then we’ve certainly talked others that really feature Liz.
KP: What are the characters that you really want to see? Forget about the fans for now. You’re a fan as well. Particularly when you talk about the problems with Roger, that you just can’t see a way to quite work it through just yet…
STONES: Well, Roger I could see doing it. I’m just saying if we did that story, “Almost Colossus”, the thing we would have to figure out is how to bring Liz Sherman more into the story. Because currently, her story starts in the previous adventure, and she’s comatose through the whole thing. And it’s like you’d really want to take time to set up how Liz fears her power and doesn’t want it and how dark it is, and then she gives it up to this homunculus. We just haven’t given thought to how to do that. A lot of Roger’s story doesn’t have Hellboy in it, so that’s kind of a tough row to hoe. So I’m not saying we couldn’t do it, it would just be a whole project in itself. Meanwhile, we have other stories that are original that fans don’t know anything about. It’s like, “You know what? Maybe we ought to do those.”
KP: Who would be the character that’s closest to you, besides Hellboy?
STONES: I just love writing him in interactions. I love writing between him and Kate Corrigan. So it’s less about any specific character, it’s about what story we’d come up with. Certainly Lobster Johnson is always talked about… Lobster Johnson is a lot stranger than fans realize. And they may not realize that until the second Lobster Johnson miniseries. Mike is quite the storyteller and part of his creative process is telling people stories he wants to do. Because it just helps him - when he says it out loud he comes up with more ideas, and it’s like, “Yeah, yeah…” That’s just part of his process. So, I will never have another unspoiled Hellboy story. The things he told me - it’s like, “That’s incredible. That’s weird! Yeah, I want to see that!”
KP: It’s going to complicate things, is what you’re saying…
STONES: Well, part of the thing is that Mike feels is, “I want to tell my Lobster Johnson story before you tell yours, or Guillermo tells his.” And it’s like, I’m all for that, because I’m a fan. Or we could use him, but we’ll only tell this little part of the story, because that’ll be a tease into the comics or something like that. So we go back and forth on everything, and he’s the one who kinda keeps me updated on what the live action movie’s going to do, without Guillermo having to drop by. We basically try to stay clear of each other’s subject matter.
KP: So how would you describe the working relationship between you and Mike?
STONES: Fun. Absolutely the best part of the production is working on the story with Mike. And he is just incredible at how many stories he can come up with in a short amount of time. Whereas you develop a story, he’ll come up with a visual that even has color references in it. So he’s already seen the movie in his head kind of, or at least a sequence, and you’re taking notes wildly. And some of my best moments is when I come up with something that he feels like he could have written… That could have come out of him, and by the time we get to the end people say, “Well, which ideas were yours and which ideas were Mike?” There’s a couple that I really know are mine and a couple that I really know are Mike’s, but past that, I have no clue. And that’s a good sign to me. It means that we’re really doing his kind of story. Mike has, from his point of view, just the right amount of involvement in our shows, in that he works on story, even up to dialogue notes. He may come to a recording session or two. And then he’s done. He’ll describe visuals. He doesn’t draw anything for the show. And then he sees it finished. I would love to have him more, except that I’m a fan, and we could use up all his time, and it’s like, “No, go write some comics.” (laughs)
KP: Is there anything, creatively, you’ve come to loggerheads over?
STONES: No. Part of what I did before starting these projects is read a lot of the source material that Mike did… Source material is the wrong way of saying it. Mike loved the Weird Tales stories. He loved the work of Manly Wade Wellman and obviously H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith and Hope Hodgson. I read a lot of that stuff to get kind of the vibe, some of the things that he loved that led to Hellboy, which led to a certain kind of a story idea, which put us more on the same level. There was nothing…I’m not trying to sell him my version of Hellboy - we’re working on the story together and he’s keeping me on track on how to do Hellboy. If there was such a thing as he has a suggestion, and it’s just different, it’s not necessarily better, I’m gonna go with his idea, because that’s the whole point. He has the unique point of view, the quirky sense of humor that gives it a special flavor. And that is what I’m trying to get on film. It’s much different for Guillermo, who’s doing a movie that he’s gonna spend several years living with, both writing and developing and putting on. At a certain point, Guillermo is saying, “In my movie, Hellboy and Liz are going to have a romance.” And that may be the thing that made that movie stand on its own for an audience who’s never picked up a Hellboy comic. But it’s not something I would do, because my goal is to stay as close to the comic as possible. Although the specific events in our universe are different from Mike’s universe.
KP: Is there anything in your eyes that you’d say is completely inappropriate, either for a story or a character beat, within the universe that you’ve created?
STONES: There are things we did in the first one because we were still finding our way that I wouldn’t have done. Or I wouldn’t have done the same way. There’s a sequence where the Japanese artifact spirits kind of dance into the room, and it was kind of a little fun jab at Beauty and the Beast, and then they attack. That’s one of those moments where I should have gone back in and said, “This attack has to be horrific.” Part of it is, they’re in real jeopardy and Kate’s being smothered, but it’s like, that requires special care. The psychic character in the first movie is sillier than we should have gone. He was just a little too cartoon. In the second movie, Sidney Leach is involved, the Human Metal Detector, who’s a very minor character from the comics. But he felt right. He’s a little more solid in his portrayal, and he fit in with the other agents. So that kind of stuff, I look back and say, “You know, that’s inappropriate.” In one case, if you don’t try hard enough with something that seems like a silly concept, and then you can’t give it the energy and the effort to turn that silly into horrific, then avoid it. If there’s limitations with your schedule or personnel or whatever it is. And the other’s just a tone thing. “Here’s the level of silliness we’ll do.” There are places for broad, slapstick humor in this movie, but that wasn’t the spot.
KP: How much of it was a boon to you as a writer and a producer, knowing that you had by and large the film’s cast to depend on?
STONES: Well, it took away the worry there. You knew that you didn’t have to go through casting or, “What’s Hellboy going to be like?” or “How’s he gonna say this line?” We know how he’s gonna say the line. And I don’t want to make light of Matt Wayne, who wrote Sword of Storms - I came in and had to write the extra material and rewrote some of the stuff because of changes we made, so we split a credit. But Matt was one of the story editors on Justice League Unlimited, and did a huge amount of research into the legends. And really, a lot of the authentic feeling came right out of his work. The second movie was written by Kevin Hopps, who I’d worked with well before on Darkwing Duck. He had the benefit of having a little more time and he got to go to Mike Mignola’s house with me. In those early stages of working out the story, we kind of gave him the story and then he pitched it back to us on index cards, having fleshed out moments, and we could talk about that. So he had a little more involvement at the beginning than poor Matt did.
KP: At this point, within your own mind and between you and Mike, how many germs for films would you say you’ve developed?
STONES: Well, we’ve talked about, I’m sure in passing, at least another four or five. But not to say that we would do those four or five, that’s just kernels of… not even a premise. Barely a springboard. But you know that, “Oh! Of course! We can do a William Hope Hodgson Sargasso Sea type story with Hellboy.” And you kind of immediately know, “Yeah… yeah… I know exactly how that would do and how we would set it.” You don’t have to talk about it and you kind of know that when we get there, that’ll be a piece of cake. That’ll be a whole different feeling from these other movies, and we’ll get to that one. I was working with some Native American actors and I started talking about supernatural tales of the American southwest, and Michael Horse - who was the deputy on Twin Peaks, and played Indians in all sorts of movies and television, because he is one - grew up on the reservation in New Mexico, and was telling me about how he used to clip his crystal radio set to the barbed wire fence, and pick up blues music. And I thought, “Hellboy was raised in the American southwest, and that’s just the kind of thing that he would do, and that’s just the kind of music he would love,” and I said, “Can you give me references for paranormal stories or the supernatural?” I’ve got some, but the Navaho, the Hopi… I told that to Mike, and he thought that was great. There’s a huge space of Hellboy’s life he’s never touched. And we could possibly do that. So that one’s exciting. We were talking about it the other day. And then there’s certainly spin-offs of the books themselves, saying, “Gee, do we want to take the short story and make something more of it?” If you wipe out all those ideas and Mike got in a taxi in Manhattan Beach and was driving up here to Burbank for the studio, and I said, “We’ve got to come up with some new ideas,” I guarantee you he would have a half dozen ideas, and some of them fully fleshed out by the time he got here. It’s just the way his brain works. He cannot turn it off.
KP: Is the current plan to keep these as movies, or is there some plan to perhaps eventually spin this into a series?
STONES: The plan now is to do a series of DVD movies. As I understand it, it’s actually harder to sell a series on DVD unless you are a huge hit on television already. I would be much more comfortable with a BPRD TV series. Because you’d say, “Okay, we can plan it out in a different way, or we can do standalone stories or continued stories, or whatever we’re allowed to do.” But the movies are it. That’s what’s been talked about so far, and they’ve got the rights for several more years. I’d love to do three movies a year. You know, the sales would have to be pretty spectacular for them to commit to that, but I’m hoping they’re strong enough, and certainly with the second one being such a strong movie, that they commit to three more instead of just one more. But we’ll see. I take it as I get it.
KP: So, looking back on your 30 years in the animation industry, is there anything you would tell the your of 30 years ago, just starting out in Eric Larson’s training program at the Disney studio?
STONES: Yeah. Buy Xerox! Buy land in Sedona, Arizona! Buy Apple Computer. And hang out with John Lasseter a lot more.
KP: What was the he like at that point?
STONES: When Lasseter was there? John was just one of the trainees, and he worked on a lot of little Mickey Mouse ideas that were just great. He certainly did a great sequence in the movie Fox and the Hound with Glen Keane. The two of them plotted out this big bear fight. And then when he got a chance to do a little CG animation, plan out a test - actually, it was with Glen - he just… it was when Bill Kroyer was at Disney still working on Tron stuff. John, I think, had a vision of the future. He just saw that there was a lot of potential there, and wanted to do more and more about it, and that wasn’t going to happen at Disney. Not at that time, anyway. They didn’t recognize the potential of the medium, they just worried about the medium that they had. John is more Disney than Disney. So the fact that he’s now heading Disney animation - everything is right with the world.
KP: Was there any point that you regretted the transition into TV animation?
STONES: (laughs) Yeah, whenever my good friends would put out a movie that made 300 million dollars - yeah, around there. And I see books and magazines about them. Seriously…
KP: Yeah, but how many people are talking to an interviewer that has a Megavolt action figure on their desk?
STONES: There you go. And you know what? Actually, as silly as that sounds, that is exactly the difference. I always envied their resources, and literally the animation quality. I’m talking about the quality of acting and movement in the characters. I’ve always envied that. But for my personality, I love the fact that every year and a half or so I do a new show, or Darkwing is on longer because we did so many episodes. But I had, at that time, a lot of ideas. On Darkwing, it was fun generating those different ideas for stories and trying to get the most fun out of them. On Hellboy, I’m now enjoying the telling of the longer story, but already - as we’ve said in this conversation - we’ve got ideas for a half dozen more. I’m anxious to get those in work, too. So, I envied their ability to create these fantastic pieces of cinema, but what I enjoyed is the variety of storytelling I’ve gotten to do. In general, when people ask, “What are your favorite episodes?” I say, “Well, the episodes animated by Walt Disney Australia,” because they had the best animation and that was like, “Look!” You know, the first Darkwing Duck animation that we saw was a pencil test of an episode I had written. It was basically the pilot, which was called “That Sinking Feeling,” with Professor Moliarty. And they just did such a fantastic job of execution. I had never had a pencil test shown to the staff where the staff is laughing out loud. And, in fact, people came from the next office over and asked if we’d be quiet.
KP: And who was that office next door?
STONES: That was Gary Krisel, president of animation. And at the time, I’m thinking, “You see what’s happening? It’s like we’re laughing at one of our cartoons! In a big way!”
KP: A sign of things to come…
STONES: Yeah. Unfortunately, on my shows, I think I never got more than eight Australian episodes. In other series somehow it worked out that they had like 20 Australian episodes. How’d that happen?
KP: Like Little Mermaid?
STONES: No, it was things like Goof Troop and Bonkers.
KP: It always seemed, animation-wise, that Darkwing was two different shows. You had the really high-end, nicely on model stuff that would come from Australia every once in a while, and stuff that might not come from Australia but it was still on model. Then you had these episodes that would pop up that just, you wondered what show they were working on…
STONES: That was just that the shows back then were done by three or four different studios. So it’s purely…
KP: But there was one that had very bulbous designs and this weird sort of elastic animation style…
STONES: All I can say is they were all supposed to look alike. And then everything else is the studio overseas.
KP: But the stories always carried through.
STONES: Well, good. That stayed the same.
KP: So outside of Hellboy, if there’s any one thing that you worked on that they would turn to you and go, “We’ll give you all the resources you want if you want to revisit this,” is there anything that you would revisit?
STONES: Not really. I mean, as much as I love Darkwing - and if you had a gun to my head and say you must pick something, then I’d probably pick Darkwing and come up with some goofy superhero adventure. Give him yet another origin to drive the fans crazy. I’ve done that. I’ve done that stuff for 30 years. I’m up for an Annie Award on another show I did, for Universal. The Adventures of Brer Rabbit. It’s like, I’ve done that. I don’t need to return to that. There may be a time when, to pay the bills, I’d return to that, and I’ll enjoy what I’m doing, but as far as the creative challenge, I would much rather do Hellboy or talk to Dark Horse about some other properties they have, or just continue with projects that stretch what I can do, or what’s been done in animation.
KP: Are there any projects of your own that you’ve either pitched in the past or never pitched?
STONES: I have a character or two that it’s like, “Yeah, I’d like to get back to that character,” but I won’t even worry about that until I stop having fun with Mr. Mignola’s friends.
KP: So, for the immediate future, as far as you can see, this is your primary focus?
STONES: I was offered a huge Marvel property. They wanted me to show run it, and I gambled on staying here because of Hellboy.
KP: It was Mort the Dead Teenager, wasn’t it?
STONES: Yeah, exactly. No, it was Forbush Man…
KP: If it was Brother Voodoo, you would have been on it in a flash…
STONES: Exactly. Anyway, I gambled that there would be more here. Next week I’ll find out if that gamble paid off. But it’s just such a combination of a character I love, the type of stories I’ve always wanted to do, and working with a creator who’s just fun to work with, who I really admire and respect, and who I consider a friend.
KP: So, bottom line, you’re enjoying yourself.
STONES: Yes. It’s like, at this stage in my career, enjoyment means a lot.
KP: I think that’s a perfect place to end.
KP: Anything else you want to get the word out on?
STONES: Well, the main thing is mention like is it comes out Tuesday. Hellboy: Blood & Iron, which is a much darker story, premieres on Cartoon Network on March 10th.
KP: Is there a current release date for that DVD? Is that summer?
STONES: If there is, I don’t know it. I believe it’s in May.
KP: Just in time for Comic-Con.
STONES: Yeah, basically. In fact, Mike and I will be in New York for the New York Comic-Con in February, and we’re going to have a rather large sneak preview of Blood & Iron at that point.
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