Mike Scully is certainly no stranger to the loveable yellow clan known as The Simpsons. During their series’ fifth season, Scully joined the hit Fox show as a writer and producer. From 1997-2001, he acted as show runner for The Simpsons, leading it through Seasons 9-12.
But he hasn’t just been confined to their colorful world, and Scully has also expressed his talent for writing with such sitcoms as Everybody Loves Raymond, The Pitts and Complete Savages, co-creating the latter two series. Among his acclaim, Scully is the recipient of numerous Emmy Award nominations and wins for his work on The Simpsons and Raymond.
Now nearing its 19th season, The Simpsons is set to reach another milestone in its history, as a feature film about the popular residents of Springfield is readying to hit the big screen. Having worked on The Simpsons Movie as a writer and producer, Scully recently chatted with Animated News & Views’ Josh Armstrong about the project, expanding on its development and the rest of his Simpsons career so far.
Animated Views: How did you get started in animation?
Mike Scully: The Simpsons was my first job in animation. I actually knew nothing about the process until I was hired on the show. I didn’t how they made cartoons. I knew absolutely nothing, and I can’t draw or anything. So I learned it all on the job, as far as the animation side.
As far as the way the show is written, it’s different also, in that when the writers are pitching jokes in the room, we frequently will pitch the joke in our own horrible impression of the character’s voice. You have a better chance of your joke getting into the script if you do it in the character voice rather than your own voice. So that was kind of a weird thing to get used to, in the beginning. I’d pitch jokes and sound like Marge!!
AV: How did you become first involved with The Simpsons?
I’ve been there on and off now for 14 years. It’s been, by far, the best part of my career. It’s almost kind of weird knowing you’ll never do anything as good as The Simpsons. Even though your career will continue, and you’ll do other things, I’m realistic enough to know that The Simpsons is lightning in a bottle, and I just got lucky to be a part of it. So we’ll see in the future what comes down the line, whether it’s another movie or we just do more years of the show. Who knows? Maybe a Broadway show or The Simpsons on Ice?!
AV: Could you elaborate on your time as show runner for the series?
MS: At that time, I had been on the show for four years, on the writing staff. I always say, ‘If you hang around long enough, you’ll eventually get to run the show.’ Apparently, I had been there long enough. So I took over, on Season 9.
My main objective, when you take over a show like The Simpsons, your main goal is to not wreck it. Don’t try to change something that’s been working really well for eight years, and try to keep it fresh and new at a time when most series are in a decline. Most television series peak around their fourth or fifth season, and then there’s a slow decline. So to take over in Season 9, when we had done close to 200 episodes, was pretty daunting, in that regard, because you don’t want to be the captain that sinks the ship. So I just tried to keep up the good quality of the work done by the people before me, and try not to screw it up – successfully some weeks, some weeks not so successfully.
MS: We started coming up for a story for it in November 2003. So it’s been about – I guess thats like three years and eight months, maybe. We’ve been working on it almost non-stop since then.
It’s gone through many incarnations. The rewrites were very intensive. We probably did 70 drafts of the script. We had test screenings, and then you rewrite again and find out what things work and what things don’t, and that sort of stuff. So it was a long grueling process. It was like nine people locked in a small room every day. But it was a great group of writers, so it was a lot of fun.
AV: Were there a lot of ideas or jokes that you wanted in the film but simply had to cut?
MS: [laughs] There were quite a few. I know some of them are definitely going to appear on the DVD when that comes out around Christmastime. We were trying to figure out the other day which ones we might use.
It’s hard to explain them out of context. I don’t know if they would make much sense. But there were good ones. There were some funny ones. I think people will like seeing alternate versions of scenes, or also scenes that just didn’t make the final cut – some jokes that always made the writers laugh but then we’d go to a test screening and nobody would laugh. But out of context, it’s hard to tell what they are. They won’t sound funny.
AV: What about the film’s story? Are there some things regarding that which were changed during the movie’s making?
MS: As much as I can tell you about it – this is kind of giving away a lot – but Homer does something really stupid, in the story. As the movie took shape over the years, it focused more and more on Homer’s story. We tried working in a lot of the townspeople – a lot of the popular supporting characters. But Homer really is the focus of the movie.
AV: Going back to when the concept of the movie was very early, what were some plots for the film that were abandoned?
MS: Actually, one of them became an episode of the show, called “Bonfire of the Manatees.” That was an idea pitched, I believe, by Al Jean, which originally was the movie’s plot. And a couple of other ideas were pitched. There was one pitched, but I can’t talk about it now, because I might be developing it as a non-Simpsons project in the future.
We came into this plot fairly quickly, based on a newspaper or magazine article that Matt Groening read. I can tell you the story has an environmental theme to it, with Homer basically causing an environmental catastrophe far beyond anything he’s ever done before.
AV: The plot has been under a lot of secrecy, and you probably just told us more just now than anyone did for a long time! Why was even a basic plot synopsis not released publicly for so long?
MS: Well, we originally wanted to keep it quiet just for security purposes, because there are so many things now that get leaked onto the internet. We didn’t want people to know the plot three years in advance, while we were working on it. We didn’t want to see people’s reaction to it, while we were working on it.
And we thought most people wanted it to be a surprise. People I know that are true fans of the show, they actually don’t want to know the plot. They want to go into the theater ‘cold’ and enjoy it. Some people didn’t even want to see trailers, because they didn’t want to see any of the jokes ahead of time. They wanted to enjoy it all, like Sunday night at 8 o’clock, when you sit down to watch the show, and you can just watch it like that. Sometimes movie trailers tend to give away all the best jokes, and then they play it over and over again, so that by the time you see the movie, you feel like you’ve already seen it before.
So really it was more out of security concerns. It wasn’t a conspiracy to keep it a secret from everybody, but it just seemed to make sense to us.
AV: Considering all of the writers on the film, how is it chosen whose ideas are used?
MS: Whoever yells the loudest! [laughs] No, I think it was a real collaborative effort. James L. Brooks usually made the final decision on everything that got in; he had the final say on what made it in and what didn’t. But it was a very democratic process. Sometimes, there was something that he might not personally believe in, but if the room was really behind it, he would leave it in and give it a chance. We would take it to a test screening. It was never a dictatorship, in that we all just wanted what was best for the movie.
We were always very free to speak our minds of what we thought worked and what we thought didn’t, and suggest alternatives or try to figure out why something wasn’t working. That sometimes can be the most frustrating thing of all, if it seems funny to everybody in the room yet it’s not getting a laugh. You’re hesitant to cut it, because you feel like maybe by just making a little tweak in a line or changing the timing of something that you could get it to work rather than just cutting the scene or running a new scene. So you never know how things are going to go, until you show it to other people.
AV: What was the largest challenge for you in co-writing the film?
MS: I think the largest challenge for all of us was to make sure we were still telling our story during the re-write process – that we didn’t accidentally lose anything important during the re-write process that took away anything from the film that we liked, because sometimes that can accidentally happen. If you were cutting a scene that didn’t work, there might have been a line in that scene that was very important for story purposes or character purposes, and you may not notice it at first, because you’ve gotten used to everything always being there. Then, later on, you realize, ‘Oh, wait a minute, that doesn’t make sense! If someone doesn’t say this line, the next three scenes don’t make any sense!’
So you have to constantly be aware of that. You could become overly familiar with the script and the story to where you almost think everything is still there, but it’s not. It was always tough to try to keep track of the big picture while you’re fixing all the little stuff.
MS: Really, the honest answer to that was, we never felt we should do it at the same time that the show was on the air, strictly because of manpower. We just didn’t feel that we could have the manpower to do a movie and a TV series simultaneously, and keep the quality at the same time. It just seemed to be too much.
So the decision was made many years ago, ‘Well, we’ll just wait for the series to end.’ That was when the conventional thinking was, ‘Well, a hit TV show goes maybe 7, 8, 9 years, and then we would do the movie. Now that the show is in Season 19 – I think it was about four years ago where it was in Season 15 – we all started talking, ‘Maybe we should get this movie started! [laughs] I don’t know if this series is ever going to come to an end!’ So James L. Brooks called us and put a team together, and then we started working on it. We split the animation between two studios, so we didn’t take all of the animators off of the TV series, and decided to get started.
MS: David was the director of the Simpsons shorts on the old Tracy Ullman Show on Fox. He did those then, so he’s really been with the show right from day one, although he’s left a couple of times to do other projects and then has come back. He’s the supervising director of the series. Nobody knows the look of the show better than David. He’s a great director with a terrific visual sense, and he really knows how to execute physical comedy. So, yeah, he was our first choice for director right away.
AV: Were there any other people who had been involved with The Simpsons in the past that you wanted to work on the film, but they just couldn’t due to certain reasons?
MS: We were very lucky we got the team – Jim Brooks was able to put the team together that he wanted, because we were so flattered to be asked in the first place. You know, you’re crazy to say, ‘No.’ We got everybody that we wanted to be part of the original team.
AV: How many Simpsons movies do you feel could happen? Do you think that, like the TV show, the movie series could be long-running, or do you imagine it being, say, a trilogy?
MS: I feel like we’ve done a trilogy already. I think what will happen is we’re all going to take a break after the movie comes out. It’s one of those things, I think if somebody comes up with a good idea that feels worthy of a movie that we would definitely consider doing another one. But for right now, we just want to enjoy this one, and then take a little time and then concentrate on the show.
AV: What are some things people can expect to see on the Simpsons Movie DVD?
MS: There’s audio commentary, which we’ve already recorded with James L. Brooks, Matt Groening, Dan Castellaneta, Yeardley Smith, Al Jean and myself. There are deleted scenes. Other than that, I don’t know what else. They’re just starting work on the DVD right now to get it ready for Christmas. But I’m sure there will be lots of fun bonuses for fans. There will be alternate versions of scenes that did not make it in – certain joke scenes where we just changed one joke out for another, because we couldn’t decide which one we liked. So you’ll get to see those on the DVD.
AV: What else have you been working on? Can you tell us anything about some of your upcoming projects?
MS: Actually, I have nothing at all right now. I still consult one day a week. Al Jean continues to do a great job running the show. I’m probably going to go back to ‘Pilot Development Hell.’ My wife and I are working on a couple of things, but nothing concrete right now. My biggest plan is to go to Hawaii for a week.
AV: What advice do you have for anyone wants to be writer or work in animation?
MS: The best thing to do, if you want to be a writer – it sounds very simplistic – but just start writing, particularly if it’s television or movies you want to write. Start writing scripts! There are a lot of people who say they want to be a writer, but they don’t want to write. They want to tell somebody their idea and have somebody else write it.
The bottom line is, you’ve got to sit down, and do the work, and write the script yourself. Then, when you’re done writing it, look at it, be your own harshest critic, and then re-write it. Don’t cling to something just because you wrote it. If you hand it to some people that you trust, whose opinions that you respect, and they give you notes, and you start to hear the same thing from several different people, there’s a good chance there’s something wrong with that part of it, and you may want to go back and try to fix it.
It’s a tough discipline. It’s a very solitary profession – a lot of time sitting alone at a computer late at night, banging your head against a wall. But it is very rewarding once you’ve actually finished something, and somebody wants to buy it or is interested in developing it. The best advice I can give people is to just do it. Stop talking about it and start writing.
The Animated News & Views team sends special thanks to Mike Scully for participating in the interview, as well as to Carol Cundiff for arranging the conversation.