Interview: Futurama's David X. Cohen
Tue, 01 Jul 2008 17:43:17
Matt Groening Videos
As the head writer and executive producer of Futurama, David X. Cohen is something of a hero among sci-fi and animation aficionados. Born from the highly imaginative minds of Cohen and Simpsons impresario Matt Groening, the show found a second life in the home entertainment market, which eventually led to the development of a quartet of straight-to-DVD films. The Beast with a Billion Backs, the second of these four releases, is now available for longtime fans and Futurama newbies to delight in, featuring an intergalactic polyamorous love story. Cohen spoke to ARTISTdirect about translating the beloved series to feature length format, his reverence for everything sci-fi, and nabbing Professor Stephen Hawking to make yet another a cameo.
How long does it take for each film to come to fruition?
It is a grueling process, and yet, much less grueling than a [typical] animated feature you would see because we have some efficiencies of television that we have applied to our schedule. Over the long haul, we usually spend, I would say, probably a month talking about the idea, then about three months in the writing process for a person to write a script and a group of writers to go through and punch it up. Then there’s close to a year of animation then a few more months afterwards. So, probably around a year-and-a-half for the first one we handed in, but it’s still about a half to a third [the time it takes to produce] a big budget movie.
Futurama is one of those shows that’s done exceptionally well on DVD. Is that the reason that you chose a straight-to-DVD release instead of a theatrical release?
Having been cancelled, the main reason is we wouldn’t have been anything. It’s so rare for a show to get cancelled then come back in any form. The basic answer is that Fox noticed that our DVDs were still selling, were steadily selling for years after we’d been cancelled. I think the ultimate Hollywood logic of money filling their wallets [entered in], and they realized they could probably finance this project just on the DVD sales. Eventually they’re going to air in a different form on Comedy Central. I think they felt the safety net, [because] the fans of Futurama are also DVD fans; that’s what allowed it to go forward.
Is the idea to have a connective arc between all four films?
They pretty much stand alone. If you saw the first two, there is a tenuous link between the end of the first one to the beginning of the second one. We certainly tried to make it so there would be no difference at all. The universe rips open at the end of the first one, but we begin the second one by saying, “The universe has ripped open.” There’s nothing else you need to know. Other than that, they’re all stand alone, I would say. I think you can buy any one of them and watch them out of order and you’ll be perfectly happy.
From a writing standpoint, how do consider an audience that’s virgin to the Futurama viewing experience? The movies are peppered with references to the show.
There’s a fine line we have to walk, because we want to really give a treat to the longtime fans by throwing in lots of weird side character [appearances]…but we also don’t want the whole thing to bog down in joke references. We tried to give enough, but not too much, and I hope we succeeded. There are some periodic flashbacks that explain a little more about things that happened [in the] first [film]. There’ll be a couple instances of that in Bender’s Game [due out this fall]. We explain the back story a little bit more of Nibbler and of the Professor and there will be a few explanations of things that happened. The attempt is made, at least, and I hope we pulled it off to do those things in such a way that if you didn’t see them the first time, it’ll just be a bonus for those people who say, “A-ha! That explains why…”
Do you feel a responsibility to satiate fan expectations, or do you take development independently during the creative process?
It’s pretty independent. It’s actually a pretty compact operation. This project started with just me and Matt Groening talking to Fox and saying, “Yeah, we think we can do it. We have a few ideas.” Then we just brought in one or two writers; we gradually built it up. It’s pretty much all internal. We want either new things we came up with or, in some cases, ideas we had before that we wanted to work into it, some secrets we never got to unveil the first time around. I would say it all comes from within.
“[T]he plots we do are more naturally movie plots because they’re these big epic science fiction stories.”
Did you find it difficult to go from writing shorter episodic content to something feature length, or did you look at it more like an hour-and-a-half of three or four episodes back to back?
It was definitely tricky and it took a lot of work. It has both of those elements. We’re not used to doing 90 minutes, but on the other hand, every time we were doing the 22 minute regular episodes, we found them to be too short. We were always trying to save the universe in 22 minutes; the plots we do are more naturally movie plots because they’re these big epic science fiction stories. We would always have to cut out tons of stuff for our episodes. It was a learning process, but it was liberating. It just required a lot of effort on our part to figure out how to do it. Part of it was we realized we had to build something that felt more like a film than T.V. We decided early on we would deliver these in widescreen,which we never did before, [with] surround sound; we made sure to have more epic space battles and beautiful shots of the heavens and those kinds of things. I want to give credit to our composer, Christopher Tyng, who gave it a more grand feel. These are all things we thought about to make it feel more like you were watching a movie than three or four T.V. shows.
The films are loaded with details that should satisfy fans of the sci-fi genre. As a fan of the genre yourself, how do you parse through that information and incorporate all of it?
That was something we were worried about, going back years. How much sci-fi can we put in and still have people accept this as a comedy and as a mainstream T.V. show? But once the show had its core fans, we realized that they loved the sci-fi elements, and if we actually took the sci-fi seriously and tried to get the comedy from the characters and their relationships and emotions, that worked pretty well. That was something we discovered back in our original run: if we take the drama and sci-fi elements seriously and really tried to do it, we could pull it off—a clever sci-fi story, and put the comedy on top of it but not make fun of the sci-fi elements. In other words, just roll with it. We’ve picked four different genres for the four movies. The first one is time travel, the second one, out now, is the monster movie, the third one is a fantasy epic—[with] a medieval dragon, centaurs, a fantasy movie like we’ve never done before—and the fourth one is more of a grand straight up science fiction story to end it all, with a battle that’s been going on for billions of years with our crew finding themselves caught in the middle of it. We tried to spread the wealth in terms of the sci-fi topics.
Because the films are going straight to DVD and aren’t airing on television, at least not as of yet, do you feel like you have more license to push the boundaries in terms of content?
Well, they’re eventually going to air in an altered form on Comedy Central. However, you are correct. Normally when we were in production before they would go through the Fox censor, so I have no idea if we would have gotten away with The Beast With a Billion Backs. It’s definitely got some sticky content, but we had no censor on the project this time so it was definitely up to us to set the tone. I think in general we didn’t want to do anything wildly different than we were doing before because we want[ed] the fans who liked the show before to like it again. But we felt we had the liberty to push the outer edges a little bit here and there, and knowing that it will eventually air on Comedy Central doesn’t affect anything because their standards are extraordinarily loose compared to Fox’s. So we knew that whatever we did to push the boundaries during our original run, we still didn’t want to approach the maximum limit that would allow. But it was nice; we [rolled] with what we wanted and trusted our own taste.
I know that Stephen Hawking has made an appearance on The Simpsons and on Futurama before, but how exactly do you get him involved? Is he always game?
He’s pretty game. I would like to think it depends on the content, and I’m hoping that either he has seen Futurama or has heard from people that it was kind of a pro-science show. Just as we incorporate science fiction without really belittling it, I’d like to think that’s how we are about real science also, and that it comes through in the way we actually make jokes about very, very obscure scientific things and hide equations in the background. I think it’s clear that we have respect for science. I would like to think that word got to him and that’s why he did it, but I don’t really know [laughs]. The first time I got to meet him in person he was at CalTech and we recorded him; he definitely enjoyed going through the real acting process, having the mic set up and everything. It was pretty fun for me.
Do you think you’ve found your niche writing for animation, or do you see yourself branching off into other comedic territory?
I’m fairly certain I will evolve into live action at some point, but Matt Groening’s shows won’t die [laughs]. I’m not complaining; [I’ve had] good employment thanks to Matt Groening for the last 15 years now between The Simpsons and Futurama. Not that the opportunity hasn’t arisen, but I’ve just been doing things that are too much fun and too interesting to cut and run. It’s been good, but I’m definitely open to trying it all if and when the stuff comes to me.
—Heidi Atwal, 07.02.08
Image credit: Futurama TM and © 2008 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.