Paul Dini has done it all. He started out writing for classic 80s cartoons like Transformers, G.I. Joe and Masters of the Universe. Then, he went on to write for the groundbreaking Batman: The Animated Series. Now, he is writing for Lost, one of the hottest shows on television.
While he is certainly very busy these days writing for Lost, working on his comic Jingle Belle and adjusting to life as a newlywed, he was nice enough to take some time out to talk to us.
Let’s take it all the way back. As a child, did you read a lot of comic books and watch a lot of television? What were your interests growing up?
I did all the normal kid things. I didn’t read all that many comics. I didn’t read superhero comics at all until college because I didn’t find them all that interesting. I mainly liked comic strips and funny comics – things like Peanut collections and Pogo. We subscribed to three newspapers, so I pretty much got to see everything published in the Bay area between 1960 and 1980.
What got you interested in comics?
In college, in the early 80s, I was rooming with some people who were big comic fans and who actually managed a comic book store near Boston. Every Thursday night, one of my roommates would come home with a new comic, so I would read them and go, “Hey, these are pretty good.” He had a huge collection of various comics stretching back to the 50s. A lot of Jack Kirby comics, a lot of Will Eisner – some of the real groundbreaking and defining stuff of the comics medium. That was sort of my comics education.
You started your television career writing for animated shows. Was that something you always dreamed about doing or was it just a way for you to break into the business?
I always liked strip cartooning and I would draw my own comic strips all through college. When I began thinking about a career, it didn’t look like strip cartooning was that viable an option based on what they were buying at the time and what my interests were and how well I felt I could do it. But, I did get an offer to go to California for a while and work in an animation studio writing. I did that in the early 80s and started writing things like Fat Albert, Masters of the Universe, things like that.
You were also involved in Transformers and G.I. Joe. Seriously – those four have to be considered the grandslam of 80’s cartoons.
It was a good way to finish up my college years by having either a six month gig at an animation studio or be able to do some freelance work and pay off some college bills. I was reading the stuff and writing the stuff at the same time. And then, shortly thereafter I got an opportunity to go up to Lucasfilms in Marin County and work on the Ewoks and Droids cartoons, which was my first long steady gig.
Talk to us about that experience, and what it was like at the Skywalker Ranch working with George Lucas?
It was an amazing experience. It was like a once in a lifetime experience. I sort of looked upon it as graduate school to learn how to make films. Even though we weren’t making films, we had all the resources of Lucasfilms to draw on as far as creating the shows and George was accessible to us if we needed to ask him a question about anything. Early on, he was contributing quite a bit to the development of both those series and it was a very fun time.
My one regret about the way we did those shows was that there was no Cartoon Network at the time. There was no venue to show the cartoons and for us to really make what I thought was our best effort. I think the cartoons, Ewoks and Droids, turned out pretty well for the time and for what we were entrusted to do. But 15 years later when I saw Clone Wars, I was thinking it would have been fun to do that first Star Wars series with the same amount of freedom that Genndy Tartakovsky and his crew had because basically they had no network to answer to and no notes and constant orders to dumb it down.
The worst thing about Saturday mornings is basically the executives will tell you “dumb it down, the kids won’t understand. It can’t be too much action.” And then Clone Wars comes out and rocks the world and wins Emmys and everything. There was a big difference between 1985 and 2005 as far as what you could do and where you could show a cartoon.
So how frustrating is it dealing with network executives? Is it a constant battle?
With children’s programming, you’re dealing with people who may have failed in other elements of TV programming and wound up there because they have contracts and there is no other place for them. Very rarely do you get someone with a passion for children’s programming who really enjoys it.
The less you can deal with their creative restrictions, the better the show will be. You’ll always have the censor putting in their two cents worth, but, on the Warner Brothers stuff particularly, we did a good job censoring ourselves, so the notes were not as crippling as they might have been. But, the creative programming notes sometimes are just agony. You have people going back and forth for days over whether a character should wear berets or ribbons in her hair – which is hippest, which is freshest. The edict is to think young, hip and fresh coming from people who are none of those things.
You eventually went on to write for Batman: The Animated Series. How did that job come about and what was it like working on that program? How was working on Batman different from the other animated shows you had previously been a part of?
At the time we did Batman, which was about 14 or 15 years ago, we were coming off doing the Tiny Toons show, which had Steven Spielberg’s involvement and we also had Fox, which really wanted to do interesting programming for kids and it was kind of like a blessed time with a lot of coincidence working to our favor – that attitude was right, the network was right and the people doing the show were all right to do this as a united vision. And, for a while there, right up to the present day, we were getting away with some fun and interesting shows. I say getting away with because the norm is not that.
It’s distressing to work on a show like Batman, Batman Beyond and now on to things like Justice League where you’re really encouraged to raise the bar a bit and do shows that are engaging to children because they love superheroes, they love the basic design of them and they love the action and then you’re getting an older audience of tweens, teens and adults who may have been fans of the stuff growing up and you are hitting on all bases as far as the audience goes and you’re allowed to do that. You’re kind of on a little island there because the rest of the TV programming world is not like that. We were able to do the shows as best we can, but it’s kind of with the idea that the rest of the animation world isn’t like that and if we do another show it will probably be like a kids’ show or a Saturday morning show or an action adventure show.
You actually created Harley Quinn, who became so popular they even made her a part of Batman’s comic book universe. How did you come up with the idea for that character and how does it feel to have created such a well-received character?
Well, it feels kind of good. The way I created her was I was writing a story called “Joker’s Favor” and it was my first Joker story and I wanted to make it good and I wanted to make the Joker everything he is in the better comics books, which is funny and scary and egotistical and I thought maybe a foil would bring out some of those personality traits. The Joker traditionally has a couple of goons who work with him and we thought we’d throw in a couple of henchmen and then I started thinking about a hench-girl and what kind of girl she could be. I thought, one of the things they used to do in the old Batman series in the 60s is the villian of the week would usually have a gun moll of some type, so what if we gave the Joker a girl, but kind of did a riff on the sassy girl who followed him around and gave her a little bit more of a presence?
So, I decided to make her a funny counterpart to the Joker to maybe work up a little “Punch and Judy” attitude between them. Then, I thought, “What if the girl made jokes too, but her jokes were actually funny and the Joker looks for a reaction from his henchmen and he kind of has to scowl at them before they laugh and applaud, but the girl henchmen would naturally be funny and the guys would laugh at her more?” And the Joker would be irritated by that, but still have this strange relationship with the girl where she’d be part of the group. He wouldn’t just shoot her and throw her out.
I’m good friends with Arleen Sorkin, the actress who does Harley’s voice, and I kind of patterned the character after her a little bit because she’s very vivacious and very funny. I had seen her on Days of Our Lives at that time and in a little continuity clip, they had her character running around in a jester costume and I was thinking, “Oh, there’s kind of a sign.” So we cast her and she did the voice and I think the voice added tremendously to the appeal of the character and she just became a funny character to write, so we could write a Joker story without Harley and it would still be good and we could feature Harley in her own little stories. So she became another player in the Batman villainous universe.
The other day I was at a dime store or drug store and they had some toys off to the side and there was a DC magnet set and there was Catwoman, Poison Ivy, Supergirl, Batgirl and Harley. I thought it was kind of cool that Harley made the cut. She’s now kind of one of their more iconic characters.
Kevin Smith actually named his daughter after the character. How does that feel? Is that strange for you or is it a cool thing?
Oh, that’s very cool. That’s cute. It’s fun when I go over and visit and her mother, Jennifer, will say, “Harley Quinn, come up here right now.” I’m kind of touched that he decided to name his daughter after the character. She’s a sweet, sweet child.
Are you and Kevin Smith pretty close?
I know him pretty well. He lives a few miles away and when we throw parties, we invite each other. I’ve been on his film sets. We talk online. His wife is friends with my wife. What can I say? He’s a terrific guy, a very creative person and a good buddy.
You’ve created your own comic book called Jingle Belle. For those who aren’t familiar with it, what is the comic about and how did it come about?
I had gotten to know a lot of people in Los Angeles who were working in the film business and who were rather well known to the world at large and I was kind of wondering what their families thought of them. You might have a film director who’s known for making wonderful movies that touch hearts and souls of the world over or you may have a comedian who makes everybody laugh, but what happens when they’re at home and they are just dad? Do their kids see them the same way?
And I was looking around, not really to do a Christmas story, but a story that would kind of touch on those same feelings and I guess it just happened to be Christmas time and I was looking at a Christmas card from Steven Spielberg and his family and thought, “What if you took someone like Santa Claus, who also delights kids and use a story about his life?” Santa Claus, in popular mythology, has no children, but what if he did? My version of Santa was a bit younger than the traditional jolly old man and he had a teenage daughter and what if she was spoiled rotten? The idea that Santa gets along with every other child in the world except his own. He fell victim to perhaps overindulging his child as a lot of parents do and so she turned out kind of spoiled because, after all, who could give better presents than Santa Claus? So Jingle Belle is a teenage daughter and she’s grown up with sibling rivalry for the rest of the world. But I never wanted the book to be hateful; I wanted it to be more fun than anything.
As if your resume wasn’t impressive enough, you are now a part of one of the best show on television today, Lost. How did you get involved with the show, and what’s it like to be a part of such a tremendous success?
I was approached by Bryan Burke, who works with J.J. Abrams, about the possibility of contributing to this new show they were doing. I went in and talked to Damon Lindelof and he pitched the premise to me. He said, “This plane full of people goes down on this island and they all have to learn to get along together. It’s kind of live action Survivor – oh and there’s a monster.” Monster? Ooh, sign me up. I thought it was really great. They had liked my writing on things like Batman and I’ve kind of been all over the place in my writing, so they were looking for kind of a unique writing staff.
What sets Lost apart from most of the other shows out there today is the compelling story telling and the mystery involved with everything from the characters to the island itself. Talk to us about the process of working on this show. Did all of the writers sit down and write out the mythology of the island or was it something J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof had planned out in advance? How far into the future is the show planned out? Do you already know what is going to happen over the next few seasons or is some of that left up in the air?
Everything sort of hit the ground running and the show took a long time to sort itself out. I think that from the beginning, J.J. and Damon had definite ideas of where they were going to take the show and an overarching idea of where the show was going to begin and where it was going to end and a few key things along the way. Then we went into a long development process where we were all tossing ideas around to figure out the day to day of life on the island and who these characters were. So once we were picked up and the show started moving, Damon and J.J. had some long conversations about where the show would go and about the mystery element involved. Is every detail worked out in advance? No. But a lot of the big picture elements are worked out.
So can you tell us anything that is going to happen on the show?
Ah-hah. I’m sworn to secrecy about further Lost developments. If I let anything slip, a polar bear will be dispatched immediately to eat me.
The fans of Lost are like no other. As soon as a new episode is over, fans flock to message boards to try and figure out all of the subtle clues sprinkled in every hour of the show. People are literally watching frame-by-frame. Do you ever read any of them and, if so, do you ever shake your head at some of the crazy theories people have come up with?
I have been on some of the message boards and some of those theories aren’t so crazy. It shows that Lost is a series a lot of people feel emotionally connected to, much the same way viewers respond to a Star Trek series or a soap opera. The characters become very real to them, so it’s natural that fans would want to spend time thinking about what will happen to them. I’m sure there are a lot of great theories being generated about the Lost characters even as we speak, I just don’t have time to keep up with them all.
How often do friends and family try to get you give away secrets?
Every week. I tell them my brain is mind wiped after every story session and reinstated each subsequent meeting, but that excuse is growing thin.
In your opinion, which fans are more obsessive – Star Wars fans, comic books fans or fans of Lost?
Actually, I’ve found old record collectors beat them all. I was at a record convention in Austin, TX about seven years ago, looking for some old Bob Wills 45s for my juke box. Every time I went near a table, the dealers would snarl and show their decaying teeth as they hugged the precious sides to their soiled t-shirts. How about that? I now have Texans, record collectors and Bob Wills fans pissed off at me, too.
You’ve won five Emmy awards. Honestly, is there anything you can’t do? Talk to us about what it’s like to be recognized at such a high level.
It feels good. A lot of good writers work years without getting much attention, so I feel very fortunate to have been recognized, either by myself or as part of a talented team.
Tell us something not many people know about you.
I once did the screams for Vincent Price in an episode of Tiny Toons. He was not in good voice that day having just recovered from a bad cold, so every time he had to scream in horror, I did it for him. I told him I was trying to give it an Edward Lionheart feel from Theater of Blood mixed with just a smidge of his Dr. Phibes.
“Oh, that’s nice,” he said kindly, as if talking to an overzealous fan, which I guess he was.
We’ve got one last thing for you here – word association. We’ll just throw out a name and you tell us the first thing that comes to your mind.
A bunch of Japanese ninjas in suspended animation since World War II.
That was actually my dad’s original theory, but it was much better than mine, so I’m using it here.
My measurements, but I’m not going to tell you where.
Interviewed by Joel Murphy, January 2006. You can find out more about Jingle Belle by checking out the official website.Lost is on Wednesday nights on ABC.