X-Men: The Animated Series - 24th Anniversary Interview
Joshua Sky Interviews show runners Eric & Julia Lewald.
24 years after its release, the legacy of X-Men: the Animated Series continues to define superhero storytelling. For ‘90s kids it was their gateway into the Marvel universe. For Marvel it was their first truly successful adaptation of a property for television. Geeks had the opportunity to sit down with Eric and Julia Lewald, showrunner and writer, respectively, on what is widely considered one of the most successful animated shows of all time.
JS: So, you’ve both have had incredible careers. Tell me, how’d you get started?
ERIC: I moved out to LA from Tennessee because many of my friends and I were crazy about film. While working on independent projects, I discovered that I had a neighbor who worked for Hannah-Barbera and that they were really ramping up at the time and needed writers. They were getting 65-episode orders for syndicated shows. He asked if I had any scripts so he could show one to the head of the company and maybe come in and pitch (thank you, Gordon). I did. They then took a pitch that I co-wrote with Tennessee friend John Loy that was liked by a focus group of 9-year-olds. It was for Challengers of the GoBots, a Transformers competitor from the ‘80s. The people running the show gave us an episode (thanks, Jeff and Kelly). We wrote it and learned a lot. Then we came in to do a second one. But they wanted us to write only as a team, when we really weren’t a partnered like that.
The producers were concerned, "Well, we don't know which one of you is the talented one."
Oh shit that's right. How do we prove that? I blurted out the only answer I could think of: “Okay, here's the deal. If I'm an idiot, and he's the brilliant guy, you'll find out in these next scripts and John will promise to cover for me. I’ll do the same for him.” We both ended up working for thirty years in the business. That was the break.
JS: Good strategy.
ERIC: From there I went on to staff at Disney TV Animation and later met Julia, who came in from Texas. Disney staffed way up and then cut way down. That's the way it worked back then. As soon as I was out of there I was brought on to Beetlejuice at Fox Kids TV by an old friend, Sidney Iwanter.
JULIA: I crawled out here from Texas, wanting to figure out how I could break into Hollywood as a writer. So, for me the opportunity came when Disney was staffing up for Disney Afternoon which was just beginning. They were kind enough to let people come in and pitch without an agent. I went in every week for six months, before something clicked. They said, "We like that idea. Try that.” OKAY! Ran with it, came back the next Monday with an outline and was given the chance to write the script.
JS: What show was this?
JULIA: Chip 'N Dale's Rescue Rangers.
ERIC: She ended up doing 14 of them. I did four.
JULIA: After the first script, they said we have an opening on the writing staff, are you interested? I said, "YES!" And our offices turned out being next to each other.
JS: And you hit on each other profusely after that?
ERIC: Absolutely. It was an office romance. She kept saying, "This is great, but office romances are terrible. They screw everything up."
JULIA: This is my dream job, c'mon!
JS: Glad it worked out. Okay, exactly when did X-Men really come into the picture?
ERIC: February, 1992, I got the phone call. I think it was a Sunday or Monday night from Sydney Iwanter, who oversaw my year of Beetlejuice at Fox. He said I've got this big deal happening tomorrow. Come to the Saban building. I want you to run an X-Men series. I said, "Oh, really? I don't know the books."
He said, "That's okay. Just come and don't mention that to anybody." So, Stan Lee is there and Margaret Loesch is there, and Haim Saban. Thirty people were there around the table.
JS: So wait a minute -- the same year you had your first meeting is the same year the first episode aired?
ERIC: Yes. Margaret Loesch had wanted both Batman and X-Men since the time she started as President at Fox Kids TV. It was a tiny place. Fox itself was half a network. They had half the prime-time programming hours that ABC, NBC, and CBS did. The Batman series had been in development for a year. And here we were in that room; we didn't even know which characters were going to be on the team or anything. Marvel, Saban, Fox, the Producers (Graz), money people – everyone talked about what they needed. Speed. We were already behind and there was only a modest show budget.
JS: A common thread in kid's productions.
ERIC: At the end of the meeting, everybody turned to me and said, “Okay, this is Eric and he's going to be in charge of developing the series and creating the scripts. When can we see the series show bible by? Ten days?” Uh, okay. Sure. What the hell! And we did (many thanks for the help, Bob). Within two weeks we had a very short bible, and had the very first season’s arc of 13 stories plotted out.
JS: And you basically sat down and read every single issue of X-men?
ERIC: No. Absolutely not. It was 1992. That kind of “binging” worked a lot later for the movies. They sat down and watched all 76 episodes of our cartoon. But, here, the problem was, I just didn't have enough time. It was pre-internet. If I wanted to know about, say, Nightcrawler, the issues I needed probably wouldn't be at the local bookstore. Marvel might send me a black-and-white copy by snail mail, or not.
JS: Right, this was pre-trades.
ERIC: Oh, yeah. There were no trades. I didn't know about the Phoenix Saga. There was no book compilation of it. The way I handled it, was through the help of Mark Edens and Michael Edens, my two writing partners since college who were a third of the writing staff on the show (20 credits, much more uncredited). They sat down with Julia and me at our dining room table, sometimes with producer-director Larry Houston on the phone (Larry knows the characters inside and out - great guy) and we figured the first season out. We went through all the characters and their relationships. For villains, we focused on sentinels because they were animation friendly and destroyable. Being a kid’s show, we couldn't even scratch actual people.
JS: Right. The cool thing about the sentinels was that outside of the comics, they were best portrayed in the animated series. They still haven't really pulled them off live-action yet.
ERIC: They just fit. Then there was the style we all agreed to. There were all these different looks from 20-plus years and different series of the books, there were various designs for these characters and their world. Veteran animation producers Larry Houston and Will Meugniot sold Marvel and the other partners on a look close to the Jim Lee look of the time – affordable to animate, familiar, effective.
To start us off, Will gave us rough story beats from the sentinel stories from the books. Will knew X-Men, he knew Marvel, and he knew animation. We really relied on him. He and Larry, who were friends and who had worked together and actually helped produce the Pryde of the X-Men one-off. (A valiant, but failed promotional attempt from the ‘80s, also led by Margaret Loesch). That experience became sort of a dry run of what not to do on this attempt.
Will was sure that, handled right, the sentinels would be a perfect way in for viewers new to the X-Men. So we used those to create the spine of the first season’s 13-episode story arc.
The main stories for the episodes that first season were original and built around character -- excepting Days of Future Past. We were asked if we could smoothly work that classic into the story arc. I thought, yeah, if we made modest adjustments to it. Besides that, it was Mark and Michael and me, looking at this list of characters and saying, "What's the coolest Rogue story we can tell? What's she like? Okay, she can't touch people. She absorbs people's powers. What if, in her loneliness, she had the opportunity to have her power taken away? Given that temptation, she'd be the most dramatic character to consider it. Boom, that's a Rogue story. Let's do one for Storm. Since we were told that eighty percent of our audience at the time wouldn't know who the X-Men were, it helped us writers to decide to spend time revealing their characters (best for the stories anyway).
JS: What were some of the major challenges you had to face?
ERIC: We had to introduce them, which is hard to imagine now. We had to introduce what a mutant is to an audience between the ages of 4- and 40-year-olds. Why are the people together? What's their problem? Why X-Men? What are they fighting for? Why aren't these other mutants with them? Why are some mutants against them? That's why we chose to focus them on fighting intolerant people and having more human problems than the books, which were much more fighting against super-villain of the week. We were learning it too. We’d highlight what it meant to be a mutant and why they'd chosen to be X-Men and through doing that we kept putting them up against more bad people than bad mutants.
JS: That's an interesting trend in team superhero stories today. A lot of them simply begin with the story of the team coming together. That seems to be a compelling storytelling tool; you're able to explore the theme of whatever the team means, and their abilities, as well as who they are.
ERIC: Yeah. Here’s an example of what we used as reference material. This is a X-Men table-top role-playing game. We went to game store to figure out the characters. This game had images and bios. And so instead of having the web, this game – along with an old “Marvel Universe” compendium leant by Larry -- was my research library.
JS: In terms of interfacing with Marvel. Were they strong-armed? I'm assuming the people you dealt with really got these characters.
ERIC: Overall, we had an excellent relationship with Marvel. Bob Harris was editor-in-chief at the time. Joe Calamari shepherded the show. We would get detailed notes on ideas, outlines, and scripts at every stage of the way. We would get them from Fox and Marvel. We'd get them from the artists at producer Graz Entertainment and from Saban. Well, Saban didn't really care, they were concerned about costs. They wanted to get the show done on time, and to be marketed. They were really good marketers. They had set a certain fee and wanted to make money on it. The shows they'd been involved with before hadn’t been hits. This was before Power Rangers. I was told Saban went from scraping by, to us making him his first 100 million, to Power Rangers making him his first billion. It was this two stage jump for him. So Marvel was basically excellent and supportive – and not the micromanagers many property-holders can be. We were able to make the show we wanted.
JS: What about Stan Lee?
ERIC: To be honest, Stan wasn't that involved. Marvel told me he hadn’t been involved in the books for 20 years. This was 1992. The books had changed a lot in two decades. Most of the X-Men were different (thanks, Len Wein, and Chris and John). Still, Stan wanted to be more involved, and he was close friends with Margaret Loesch, whose baby this was. Stan loves to be involved creatively. He wants to be part of everything. He's an indefatigable, voracious guy. He never stops. He's 93 (94?) now, and he hasn’t slowed down. He's intense. The problem with us was that when he had done the book in 1963 with Kirby, it was about "extraordinary youngsters!" To us, that was like a Pat Boone record, when we were trying to do metal / rock. I was told that he never liked the direction that the books had gone since 1975, and since we liked the newer books, he fought us on the tone and direction of the show.
JS: You and your creative team zoned in on the John Byrne Chris Claremont run.
JS: Did you have any conversations with either of them?
ERIC: I would've liked to, looking back, but we didn't get the chance to. I drew on their vision, secondhand, because of all the stuff I was digging through and the neat stuff I was finding, most was stuff they created. It didn't exist in the ‘60s books. Luckily we got to work with the founder of the new X-Men, Len Wein, starting in the second season. Len did four scripts; he was an absolute gentleman to work with. There was no sense of ownership or superiority. I'm thinking, I'm giving Len Wein notes and he basically helped create the current X-Men, starting with Wolverine?
JS: He was cool about it.
ERIC: He was absolutely cool about it.
JULIA: It was so East Coast / West Coast at the time in terms of the creatives at Marvel.
ERIC: Yeah, Len had moved out here at the time and was making money working in animation. So he was already part of our business. And we were working so fast. We just grabbed the best writers we knew working in the business and just told them to get us through our first year. It would never occur to us to call New York and ask if they had a comic book writer interested in writing for television.
JS: Was there ever bitterness about that from the creatives?
ERIC: I don't think so. But, y'know, I went back and counted. There had been 11 attempts to use Marvel characters in Hollywood between 1963 and 1992. None were truly successful. Hollywood often got them completely wrong. Despite this history, we wanted Marvel to trust us; we are not going to screw this up.
JS: It's really impressive that your team was able to nail the tone of the comic.
ERIC: Some of it was chance, dumb luck. Julia can tell you. We've worked on maybe 40 different shows over thirty years. On two-thirds of them, you don't get the group agreeing and you don't get the tone right because you have different creative ideas about the way the show should go. It's like trying to catch lightning in a bottle. We had it. The network that was paying for it was giving orders creatively. Margaret Loesch wanted a more adult edgy show. The books in the 90's were tough, edgy, and adult. They weren't paddy-cake books. They weren't playing at it. They were intense. So we had that.
ERIC: Also, the Fox network censor, Avery Cobern, was great. Nine out of ten “broadcast standards and practices” people don't let you do anything. They don't let you even scratch someone, it's too violent. We asked to kill off a character in the first episode. It was a three-week discussion, but Avery ended up supporting us.
JS: Margaret Loesch really understood this property. She got it.
ERIC: She really did. She was originally an independent producer. She'd been trying to get the three traditional TV networks to put X-Men on for ten years. The networks would say there isn't enough of an audience. It's just a comic book audience. It's just pimply guys in their basements. You only have a couple million people reading the book. We need six million. Where's your six million?
JS: And the comic book television scene was virtually non-existent at the time.
JS: It was a lot of failed attempts. And it was seen as a dead space. Did you see the money potential in this, or was it just another show to you?
JULIA: It wasn't another show. But it was a very exciting opportunity in that Fox Kids was brand new. It was one or two years old. They were willing to be scrappy and to take a few swings at things. There was a lot of energy there. It felt very liberating.
ERIC: Everyone in our main core creative team had been working in the business anywhere from five to twenty years. We all wanted to do more ambitious things in various ways. We'd all been held back. Water it down. Dumb it down. Make it younger. We all came together on the same show, and we all wanted to push it. We had the argument, look, you bought the show to put it on television. This is the core property. This is what you’re making. If you don't want that, it's okay, I'll walk.
JS: So you threatened to walk?
ERIC: There were a couple times where all of us were threatened with being fired. It tended to come down to questions of tone. I said, "If you want this to be a different show, fine. It's your property. But if you want me to supervise the writing, then I've gotta supervise the writing." And Will was threatened with that. There was a merchandiser who wanted to put a bunch of toys in there. Wolverine wearing Wolverine pajamas, and picking up the Wolverine phone. Things that might fit on another show but were so wrong creatively for us. But the licensing guy pushing can't see that. He only sees that he has certain merchandise that he has to push in the fourth quarter. He thinks that product placement will help. We said no. "If you want to fire us. Fire us." These discussions came up over various issues for the nine months it took to get to the well-received sneak preview of the pilot episode in October. When the show finally officially premiered in January, and the ratings came out and were stratospherically high, the criticism stopped. So after the first 13 episodes - the next 63 we didn't get creative resistance.
JS: Did you think the show was going to be popular? Did you have a feeling? Or, were you like, fingers crossed? This could be a disaster.
ERIC: There have been a lot of great shows that failed. We thought that this show had a lot of great stuff. We thought it had some of our best and exciting stuff.
JULIA: It was very exciting to write for.
ERIC: But we'd been involved in enough things. Some limp things turn out to be hits, and what you thought was the best thing ever is cancelled after six episodes. There's never any confidence out here. In fact, the entire creative team was let go in September, before the pilot even first showed. We were only contracted to piece work, to finish our first season of thirteen episodes. We were all working on other shows by then. So when it came back to be a hit. They contacted us and said we want you back.
JS: "Here's a bunch of money.'
JULIA: Actually no.
ERIC: We wish. There's that theory. And there's the theory that Disney has and Saban has, is that, Oh, look, it's a hit show. Any writers worth their salt will want to be involved with a hit show. So, screw paying them more, we're gonna pay them less. I got a small raise, which my agent was able to negotiate.
JS: The show still changed your life though?
ERIC: 15 years worth of work. It's the first thing we mention when we are up for work. But, their attitude, Saban's attitude was, "I've got a margin. And just because it's a mega hit. I don't care. It could stop being a mega hit in three months and then where are we? I'd be overpaying you.” So, yeah, the writers took a $500 per script cut.
JULIA: And we were told be glad you get it.
JS: Your show was so accessible, because you set up the continuity so that any episode someone could pickup and get the rhythm. I remember being a kid, and going into a comic shop and picking up the latest issue of X-Men and I had no idea what was going on. It took me a while to figure all that stuff out. It was interesting that your team had honed in on the perfect characters to identify with.
ERIC: There had been dozens of X-Men team members by 1992. Which of them do you pick? People don't understand that some of that evolved as we wrote it. Beast wasn't going to be part of the team. The reason we put him in prison in the beginning was so that we wouldn't see him for seven or eight episodes and there would be a reason for it. And, by the time we got to the end of the first 13, we loved writing for him so much; he became part of the team.
JS: Okay, so X-Men is a hit. Now Marvel, and Saban and Fox are thinking - let's make more Marvel shows. When that happened, did doors open for you to do more cross-overs for those shows? Or, were you locked-in on simply continuing X-Men's success?
ERIC: We helped with some. We did a cross-over with Spider-Man for two episodes. And there were other things coming up. While the second season was coming up, the idea for the Tick was pitched and Fox loved it. So, they asked me to help and develop and write the pilot for the Tick, so I helped with that.
JS: While all this is going on, people weren't aware of it at the time, but now that we can look back at it, people recognize the 90's as a golden era of TV animation.
ERIC: It was for us. The money and the interest and the people all seemed to balance. As the years went on, from the late 90's into the early 2000's, for whatever reason, the money for shows kept going down. Even X-Men was a low to moderate budget show, half of what Batman was. It was still expensive compared to many of the modern simpler animated shows. To make X-Men look as good as it did took a lot of effort. More and more people stopped doing ambitious shows. We tried to pitch ambitious shows. Production companies would look at the scripts and say, screw this, we're just going to have a couple of close ups and be out of the scene. The money went down. Now it's become more affordable and people are making more spectacular animated shows again. So, there's money again for quality action-adventure shows.
JS: So you've both written a lot of animation, a lot of great shows. What do you want out of your careers now? What are you guys working on?
JULIA: Oh, gosh. Well, good question. We're back to it being the Wild West in a good way with the advent of the internet and with Netflix and Amazon slinging their guns into town. I just finished working on a show for a friend. Eric just worked for a Netflix show.
ERIC: We just finished a project for a studio in Singapore. They developed a series, but they couldn't get the development right. All over the world there seems to be a hunger for “traditional Western storytelling,” but some other countries don't necessarily know yet quite how to write it. It's not part of their culture. These 22-minute beginning, middle, and end, traditional Western stories are what we do best.
JS: People rag on Hollywood, but audiences globally crave the Hollywood way. Hollywood really did crack the story code.
JULIA: And figured out the process of it.
ERIC: But to answer your question, we're currently writing a bunch of episodes for friends’ series. We don't have a series to run, which becomes an all-consuming thing.
JS: Do you want to start running series again?
ERIC: The right one. The other thing that's become a constant is preparing the book we're working on.
JS: Tell me about that.
ERIC: In 2012 Julia brought up the idea of the 25th anniversary book (to come out in 2017). At first I told her that we're not that old. That seems like a memoir sort of thing, but then we realized that are all these people who grew up loving the show, who are in their 30s now. There's probably a market for it. So we reached out to the crew, and they had all sorts of great stories. Warner still owns the Batman properties. So they push all sorts of histories and graphic novels for their shows. There's a lot out there for Batman the animated series. But because of the rights issues with X-Men, and since we've all dispersed, there's no one to push for this. There are tens of millions of people who might be curious about the show. So I started calling writers and artists and cast members and they were all thrilled to get involved. I bump into people all the time who are stunned to learn that I was involved with the show, because it was their favorite series. They wonder why there was nothing ever written about it. So they kept encouraging me to write it, and do more interviews. So we did, and now we've got a publisher.
JS: Who's publishing it?
ERIC: They're called Jacobs/Brown Media, and they are a Californian publishing house. They specialize in television books and popular culture. They did the Mark Cushman "These are the Voyages" trilogy, on the original episodes of Star Trek, the world's definitive version. Of the five publishers we spoke to they got it best. We plan to have the books ready for middle of July next year for SDCC, but by the fall at the latest. In support of the book, we've created a website and Twitter feed - where we post exclusive content everyday about the making of X-Men the animated series.
JULIA: This is my little pitch: The X-Men universe existed long before the animated show was created. There were 25 years of comics stories at the time. Now we are looking forward to the next big Logan movie coming out, that's making a splash. But to the grave we'll take it that X-Men the animated series is the bridge. If it weren't for that show, we wouldn't be necessarily having the hundred-million-dollar Hugh Jackman films today. The animated series introduced a whole generation to a universe they might not otherwise have been exposed to and created some fans who now want that kind of movie.
To learn more about Eric and Julia's book, go to: xmentas.com
Follow them on Twitter: @xmentas