Look out, 2017 - Jack is back. And Genndy Tartakovsky is with him.
In the early days of Cartoon Network, Samurai Jack quickly became a staple of the network and a critically-acclaimed series. Over its initial run, the show won four Primetime Emmys, six Annie Awards, as well as eight other nominations, usually in competition with itself.
It told the story of a time-displaced samurai whose mission was to defeat the demon lord Aku (voiced by the late actor Mako Iwamatsu), but when the show ended in 2004, it had Jack walk away into the sunset. Fans have been clamoring for a proper ending and although Jack has been featured in comic books, he’s finally making a return this March to finish what he started, but there are some complications along the way.
Newsarama had the chance to talk to Samurai Jack creator and executive producer Genndy Tartakovsky about Jack’s return, the difficulties he now faces, and the complete tonal shift of the show.
Newsarama: So Genndy, going back to the end of season four, there wasn’t a whole lot of closure with Jack’s character. Was that the primary reason you came back to Samurai Jack after 13 years?
Genndy Tartakovsky: Yeah, it was that we were burnt out at the end of fourth season. The network wasn’t sure if they wanted to finish it, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to finish it, and Star Wars: Clone Wars was rearing its head around the corner. Back then, I didn’t want to rush so I didn’t even know what the ending was really. So we ended it with kind of a whimper. [Laughs]
Originally I thought it would be like six months and I could come back and finish, but everything changed after the network changed, I changed, and I moved on. The amazing thing that happened was that every year the show would get more and more popular than it was when it was actually on air. By the eighth year after it had ended, everywhere I spoke everybody was just asking for the conclusion. Which is great, and I was talking to Michael Lazlo about it and he was “yeah, I get the same thing” and finally I finished Hotel Transylvania 2 in 2015, I just shot off an exploratory email and the deal with done and we were off and running.
Nrama: Tell us where Jack is at this point in time. You’ve mentioned about how he feels lost and incomplete.
Tartakovsky: Well, it’s 50 years later and as a side effect of the time travel, Jack realizes that he’s not aging. So what do you do now? Aku has destroyed all of the time portals and he’s stuck, possibly eternally, in hell. He can’t make a difference or even find Aku, so he’s miserable. So then the past starts to haunt him and he’s at odds with himself and doesn’t really know what his purpose is.
Nrama: Jack has a new design as well. It’s a little less cartoony and was that something intentional with moving from Cartoon Network to Adult Swim?
Tartakovsky: Maybe a little less about that specifically and more about the fact that it’s 12 years later and we all draw a little bit different and our styles have evolved a little bit, too. The tone of the show is darker leading to the end. It felt kind of right to elevate the style along with the tone.
Nrama: Speaking of the darker tones, after watching the first two new episodes I was shocked by the maturity. It’s not completely gory, but really not intended for kids. Can you talk about the evolution and thought process that brought you to this new tone?
Tartakovsky: Yeah, I mean besides the gore aspect which we really wanted to downplay. Initially, we were like “yeah we’re going to cut limbs off” and all that stuff and then we realized that’s not us. So it’s the storytelling and Jack’s psyche that’s much more mature and what are his options as this lost soul. And as you’ll see later, the show gets darker from that point forward.
Nrama: With technology having advanced since the show’s original run, what are you doing to keep the show looking so organic this time around?
Tartakovsky: Well technology is working against us in this case. We still wanted to recreate that handcrafted feel the original series had and production demands you paint the background by computer, but the first go around all of it was done by hand. This story wanted more dramatic lighting so we incorporated that a lot more than we did in the entire four seasons where everything was much flatter and cartoony.
We’re also different filmmakers than we were 12 years ago and the show has to grow. There’s no way we could do it again like we did in the past.
Nrama: Okay so let’s talk about Jack’s antagonists this time around. Who are the Daughters of Aku?
Tartakovsky: Well, they’re a cult. They’ve sworn their allegiance to Aku and what is Aku’s number one priority? To kill Samurai Jack. So they take it upon themselves to fulfill their master’s desires. Without giving too much away, they’re born into this. From day one, it is you must kill Jack and that is what they’re all about.
Nrama: How will Jack go about facing his opponents this time around? Does he still have the fight in him?
Tartakovsky: Well that’s the thing about it; if you watch the first episode, he’s not sure he wants to take on any enemies. Seeing somebody being terrorized and him having lost his way, maybe he walks away from the call of righteousness. He’s really in a funk or a depression. The choices he makes are affecting him, but the hauntings of the past are spurning him to do the right thing, so when he faces the end with these assassins and him realizing they’re human... what does he do? Fighting a machine that’s programed to kill him is easily vanquished, but to deal with something that has choices, it’s something he’s troubled with. That’s the great fun about this series is that we get to ask these serious questions about killing and it’s not easy.
Some of the best movies like Unforgiven, shows us the wild west as it probably was instead of how it was portrayed for decades being so cartoony. There’s remorse, and it’s all about consequences.
Nrama: You have Phil Lamarr coming back as Jack once again. Was there any differences working with him this time around? Since Jack is in this new headspace, how did you approach it on this season?
Tartakovsky: Well the great thing is that Phil is an awesome actor. I don’t give him enough to do, honestly. He grunts and says things like “I will try.” And now he has this great inner dialog with himself and it was great to see that. I love working with actors who understand the material. They don’t just show up and I have to explain what’s happening. He reads the storyboards and he’s really well prepared.
When you’re talking to himself, he gets to make those choices of where those two versions of Jack arguing with himself stand. I think it’s a nice meaty role for him this time of around and I think he’s embraced it. His voice was a little different than it was in the beginning, but I don’t know if anybody will really notice. He’s just amazing.
Nrama: Since you have a few movies under your belt right now with the Hotel Transylvania franchise, but also the canceled Popeye. Going forward, do you think about concentrating purely on feature films rather than television?
Tartakovsky: I do and I don’t. With Popeye, it was tough. We had a proof of concept, we had an amazing story reel all done that everybody loved. The whole studio was excited and the marketing was gearing up, but then the hack happened. The executives were dealing with so much and all this ugliness came out it was just the wrong place and wrong time. I don’t even know if they wanted the real Popeye because that’s what we wanted to do. We didn’t want to reimagine him with sunglasses and a backwards hat.
Nrama: Turn him into Poochie, basically?
Tartakovsky: [Laughs] Right. I just wanted him to be Popeye. It’s a very deep, dark, and long story, but it was obvious they didn’t want it and it was obvious they didn’t have a lot of respect for me and I was handling their number one franchise. It wasn’t going to work because they didn’t really believe in it. It was a tough loss for me.
So, I love television. Television gives you creative freedom, especially working with somebody like Michael Lazlo who was my boss going back to the beginning of Dexter’s Lab. Look, doing a feature is hard. It’s hundreds of millions of dollars on this gamble that nobody is sure if it’s going to work, which creatures pressure. And what does pressure mean? Everybody is worrying about what you’re doing. In television? Hopefully you don’t mess it up so you can do it again next week.
I want to do cool stuff with features because the cool thing is you can watch with an audience. To watch somebody laugh from the animation from the Hotel Transylvania movies is so satisfying.
Nrama: Looking back, does it ever feel surreal of the influence of Samurai Jack? I mean, the creators of Kung-Fu Panda have cited Jack as one of their influences. How do you take that in?
Tartakovsky: First of all, it is completely surreal. Especially in my mind, I feel like my career is just starting even though it might look like it’s ending. [Laughs] I still have so much more to do and I’m getting warmed up in a way.
The biggest effect I feel from it, especially at the last Comic-Con International: San Diego we went to and gave our first presentation of the new season, all these people came up and said how they got into animation because of Samurai Jack. I think that’s why we’re getting such a great response with that trailer. Even though it looks different, it still feels the same. There’s this emotional positive connection to your childhood, you know? This has never happened to me before. The closest thing to it was when we were doing Dexter, people picked up on the brother/sister relationship. It’s been really great. Everything that has to do with this is surreal because we’re just in our own little box working on it and then it comes out and it’s a completely new experience for me.
Nrama: Going back to working on features, years ago, there was supposed to be a Samurai Jack movie. Would you ever think about returning to that?
Tartakovsky: I don’t know. I’ll have to see how I feel after this and how the public feels. If it feels like the end, then we’ll end. Yet, if this is my one chance to direct a 2-D animated feature, then maybe I can reimagine it for a whole new audience, but it has to be under very specific circumstances. I do want an end, and I want closure.
Nrama: I get that, so that being said, if this is the end, is it everything you wanted for it?
Tartakovsky: Yes. The storyboards are all done and it’s being animated right now and, in theory, I can confidently say I have good closure. Having it air and my feelings after that? That’s the mystery.