TARTAKOVSKY On Returning TO LUKE CAGE, Directing For Marvel, AND HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA 2

Luke Cage by Genndy Tartakovsky
Credit: Genndy Tartakovsky (Marvel Comics)
Credit: Sony Pictures Animation

Genndy Tartakovsky has spent the last few years directing Hotel Transylvania 2, but with it in theaters now he has something else on his mind: Luke Cage.

In 2007, Marvel announced that the award-winning animator was writing and drawing a Luke Cage comic book series. Television shows such as Sym Bionic Titan, the two Hotel Transylvania movies and his storyboard work on Iron Man 2 took him away from that. But as he revealed a few weeks ago, the entire Luke Cage miniseries has been penciled and is primed to be completed.

Newsarama spoke with Tartakovsky about Luke Cage, as well as the Hotel Transylvania movies, a possible return for Samurai Jack, as well as his next feature film.

Newsarama: Genndy, first off – congratulations on having anumber one movie in America…again.

Genndy Tartakovsky: [laughs] Thank you! It’s good to have that.

Nrama: How do you feel about the reaction to Hotel Transylvania 2 so far?

Tartakovsky: It’s been great. I have three kids, I have a huge community of family around me, and everything’s been real positive, you know? A lot of people went to see the movie, and they’ve just been really supportive of it.

It’s like – I always hope that the buzz from my friends and my community kind of carries over into Central Iowa and stuff, and it looks like this time it did!

Nrama: There was obviously some advance talk about the challenges of making the film on your end. Now that the film’s completed and it’s out, how do you feel about those challenges, looking back?

Tartakovsky: I feel…all right. You know, I’m very hard on myself, and I’m very critical of the work that I do, so I feel like the movie definitely turned out at a very positive level from where we started.

For every project that I’m on, I want to push it to the next level. It can always get better – nothing’s ever perfect. I’ll take success, but I’ll always want more. No project’s ever done.

Nrama: How did you try to evolve the look and the comedy from the first movie?

Tartakovsky: We definitely wanted to evolve. Comedy is one of the hardest things to do, because it’s very subjective. So we wanted to stay on course and continue everything that was kind of set up, and basically – not disappoint.

That’s the biggest thing of making a sequel – you’re making a sequel! The first one, there’s no expectations, but now all the expectations are on the second one.

So we wanted to make sure there was enough physical comedy, verbal comedy, and every character gets his time – on top of the new characters. It’s a big undertaking.

Nrama: It seems like just from talking to different people working in animation, there’s always the great trick of providing the right balance – that’s true for any films, but particularly in animation, where you have to create the facial expressions and body language.

Tartakovsky: For sure. We have a great stable of comedians doing the voices, and from there it’s our job not to mess it up, to really put in the acting.

I try not to think about it – it’ll go through my head, “We’re animating Adam Sandler! David Spade! Kevin James! Megan Mullally! Fran Drescher! Keegan-Michael Key!  All these amazing comedians, but we don’t have their expressions, we don’t have their quirks! We have to make all this up!”

 It’s challenging – and at the same time, it’s very rewarding. Because when it works, it works very well. And the animator and the voice talent – they’re like one unified actor.

Credit: Can You Imagine?

Nrama: Now, I understand you’re not working on the third Hotel Transylvania – you’re moving on to Can You Imagine?.

Tartakovsky: Yes.

Nrama: What can you tell us about that?

Tartakovsky: It’s a really personal story – I have kids, and there’s a lot of things that happen as a parent that made me think, “There’s a great story there.”

It’s about parents kind of losing their youth, and growing old, and becoming adults. We wrote one draft of the script, and then we put up a first-act animatic, and it got a lot of positive reactions, and now we’re trying to tweak that, and we’ll probably do another rewrite.

There’s progress. I think because it’s an original idea, it’s harder to sell in this year – so we’re going in that direction.

Nrama: It also sounds like this would have a unique animation style – very old-school in terms of colors and character designs.

Tartakovsky: Yeah. I think there’s things I react to as a cartoonist – there’s a great thing in Snow White, the first animated feature, where the Seven Dwarves are crying over Snow White’s death, and everybody in the audience feels it – but they’re super-goofy cartoon characters with these giant, bulbous noses!

And that’s the thing – that’s the magic. Where the characters don’t have to be realistic-looking, but they’re accessible, and through their caricature, they become real. We kind of see a part of ourselves in them. And that’s the goal.

You want to stand out – I don’t want to make a Pixar film, or a Dreamworks film, I want to make a film where someone sees it and goes, “Genndy did that.” I think that’s the mark of a great director.

Nrama: The unique voice.

Tartakovsky: Yes, exactly.

Nrama: Do you see yourself doing more television in the future? I can certainly name a few folk who would commit some major crimes to get more Sym-Bionic Titan

Tartakovsky: [laughs] Yeah – I think television’s definitely in the future. I want to finish the Samurai Jack story – finishing it as a mini-series probably makes the most sense, given how hard it is to get a movie off the ground.

Credit: Cartoon Network

And Sym-Bionic Titan – one day, maybe, you know? I think Jack will be a little easier, and Titan a little harder…but I want to get it finished, you know? The story’s all mapped out. We had 10 scripts from before we were canceled, and they’re great, they’re better than anything we had done.

I still want to respect everything we’ve started, and finish those stories.

Credit: Genndy Tartakovsky (Marvel Comics)

Nrama: This being a comic book site, I wanted to ask you a few questions regarding your Luke Cage comic book series. Specifically: Have you heard from Marvel, since the announcement you made about the book? Tom Brevoort said on Facebook that you should contact him…

Tartakovsky: Really? I hadn’t heard that. I’ll have to get up with him. My old editor on the Luke Cage series, he’s not even at Marvel any more, he got up with me. But I haven’t had a chance to really look around yet.

Nrama: We had heard from your former editor that Paul Rudish, your frequent collaborator and co-creator of Sym-Bionic Titan, was being talked to about finishing the book off your art.

Tartakovsky: We had been talking to Paul, but that was a while back – and he’s busy these days, doing the Mickey Mouse shorts. I think I would probably be able to finish it on my own.

Nrama: Have you talked to Marvel at all since the Disney acquisition?

Tartakovsky: I haven’t.

Credit: Genndy Tartakovsky (Marvel Comics)

Nrama: Do you have any thoughts on it?

Tartakovsky: I think it’s good. As long as Marvel gets to be kind of autonomous, I think things will be fine. You know, Marvel was picked up at the height of their success, so I feel like they’ll pretty much be left alone.

Nrama: Would you be up for doing any directing, live-action or animation, for Marvel?

Tartakovsky: I would! The little work I did on Iron Man 2 was a lot of fun – to be in that world, especially at that scale. It was a very good fit for me, so I would love to do a Marvel movie. But I think there’s a long line of people in front of me for that!

Nrama: Going back to Hotel Transylvania – they’re developing a TV series based on that. Will you be involved?

Tartakovsky: No – I’m a little too busy right now. I talked to them a bit in the beginning, but it doesn’t look like it’s happening.

Nrama: Do you see yourself staying within animation mainly, or moving into more live-action work?

Tartakovsky: Right now, it’s animation – but I think I’m waiting for the right live-action project. If it came around, I’d be up for it.

Nrama: And do you see yourself doing more comic books in the future?

Tartakovsky: No. I love comics, but I’m doing so much – aside from finishing up Luke Cage, it’d be hard to do something and make it really good. So nothing right now.

Nrama: Any comic books or creators you’d like to recommend?

Tartakovsky: I’m not reading a whole lot right now. When I was younger, I followed a lot of comic artists – John Byrne, Frank Miller, Paul Smith, John Romita Jr.  I grew up in that era, and whatever comic book they went on, I followed that. I love the way people draw, that sensibility. Lately, I haven’t been following that much.

Nrama: Also curious about any animation you’ve enjoyed recently.

Tartakovsky: It feels like I’ve been in a bunker lately – lots of hotel rooms! So I’m not an animation snob, but I haven’t seen a lot of recent stuff.

Nrama: Well, what about any older cartoons you might want people to know about?

Tartakovsky: I love the older Warner Bros. cartoons, for sure. Ren & Stimpy – I think there’s a lot of value to that, and a lot of good episodes. The Simpsons – that whole era, that’s my range.

Nrama: With a lot more TV/streaming service animation around these days, what do you feel is particularly valuable about traditional big-screen animation – granted, it’s more CGI than cel these days – in terms of keeping that format alive? And what’s the advantage of the smaller screen/scale animation?

Tartakovsky: Well, the quality is a big jump, that’s for sure. You can’t really compare the animation in a streaming cartoon to one of the classics that was done for the big screen. Watching a cartoon on a big screen is as different as watching any movie on TV.

But the advantage you have with things like streaming, with all these new formats, is that people can be a lot more experimental, more offbeat with these things that they’re making. And so, that’s the positive of it – so much more unique perspectives get to be expressed.

Nrama: Given your background, do you feel there’s things you can express with a 10-or-20-minute cartoon that you can’t express with a feature-length cartoon?

Tartakovsky: Well, obviously, in TV the budget is not the scale of a feature. You have to be more experimental – there’s less pressure on the storytelling. Week to week, it doesn’t have to be a home run. Because television is hard! Especially animated family entertainment. The budget goes fast, and you can’t make an “A’ episode all the time.

That’s one of the things that I learned from doing a TV show. I was killing myself, and going, “Okay, I want every one of these episodes to be fantastic, but some of them are going to have to be ‘B’s, and we’ll have to do those, but when we have an ‘A’, we’re going to make those episodes A-pluses.”

It’s a different speed and a different pressure. In TV, you have week after week, episode after episode. If one’s not great – you have the  next one. In features – you have that opening weekend. And if you don’t tell your story correctly, and the marketing’s not there, and the audience isn’t hooked – you’re dead in the water. There’s no second weekend.

Nrama: I heard very close to what you said a few months ago when I interviewed Paul Reiser for another site – he said he learned that on Mad About You, and he got that advice from Larry Gelbart from M*A*S*H – you can’t make every TV episode perfect, but you have to keep going.

Tartakovsky: That’s really funny – I haven’t heard anyone say that! Maybe TV producers are afraid to say that out loud. But that’s the advice I give young people when they come to me asking about what it’s like to do a series – “Every episode – you’re not going to love ‘em. That’s the reality.”

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