Interview: Tom Taylor gets Deep
New Australian CGI animated kids TV series “The Deep” premiered on 7TWO today (December 1st). It’s based on the award-winning graphic novel series of the same name. We chat to bestselling comic book author, playwright and screenwriter Tom Taylor (co-creator, head writer and Executive Producer) about the show:
Hi Tom. Thank you for taking the time to talk to Something You Said. So I heard that you’re in Brisbane right now for Supernova?
Yes, I’m locked in a small room. You can probably hear a crowd of people somewhere in the distance but I’m locked away. It’s been a busy day, we’ve had lots of people dropping by and signing, lots of people very excited about The Deep which is great.
Do you frequent these conventions? I’ve only been to a few, how’s your experience been? Is it a bit surreal?
Absolutely. It used to be surreal now I guess I’m a bit more used to it. I do a lot of these, I’ve probably done over ten this year including New York Comic Con. As a writer of mainstream U.S. comics, doing Wolverine, Batman, Superman, Injustice and that sort of stuff, I do a lot of these and sign for a lot of people. Which used to be very strange but now I’m kind of used to it. It’s still strange that people want my autograph, I mean that’s a weird thing.
Growing up did you have any people you aspired to be?
Yeah, look absolutely. There are lots and lots of great comic book writers that I’ve grown up with admiring and I guess what’s kinda of strange for me is I now know a lot of these people and count them as my friends. It’s an amazing industry, I mean it’s obviously very hard to break in but once you’re in it’s very inclusive and everybody in comics is lovely, pretty much.
I always thought that comic book writers and comic book artists were the same person because the end product is produced so well, the collaborative process seems so in sync.
That’s exactly it. It’s very collaborative. Comic book writers like me who write full scripts, we actually write every single panel, so everything you see on the page we probably describe to the artist. Obviously the artist then goes away and transforms that into something amazing but most writers don’t just write the words we write every single thing you see.
Does that mean determining how the comic is shaped and structured in relation to each panel size and where it sits on the page?
Absolutely. We describe every emotion of the characters, we describe where they’re standing, we describe what’s in the background, what they’re wearing, what they’re going through. There are times when I can write an entire page of writing and the bottom of that writing will say, ‘no text’ which means nobody says anything but I’ve just written all of this.
One of the big things that’s happening at the moment is the premiere of your TV series The Deep. So it’s about 26 episodes, is it based on the two books or the one?
No. The first book is the first episode and the second book is the very last episode. There’s extra stuff in there as well. So there’s 24 episodes in between.
Does that mean that you’ve had to write the 24 episodes completely from scratch?
Yeah absolutely. There’s a lot of new stuff in those other two episodes as well. They’re influenced by the books but there’s a large sort of sort arc over the whole TV series involving lots of people that have never been seen in the books and a lot of characters which we’ve never met before. It’s a 26-episode animated series, so it’s a very very big endeavour and we’ve got a team of writers and a lot of animators around the world and producers and storyboard artists and designers. It’s a massive undertaking.
That means that it’s kind of an easter egg for people who have already read the books and know what happens.
In a way the books are the easter egg in this situation, the TV series is so much bigger that people who’ve read the books will recognise certain lines, certain things that happen in the books and go ‘aaah! I remember that from the book!’ but mostly they won’t so it’ll be a highly new for them.
How long did the TV series take to produce?
I think we’ve been working on it for about two and a half years. It’s been a long time coming but at the same time I don’t think many TV shows go this quickly from the book to the screen. I think lots and lots of people were really in love with this and really excited about it and everybody we sort of work with loved it just as much. So there’s been a real push to get this on screens very quickly.
Did you find it hard to continue writing those 24 episodes without losing motivation because sometimes it can be hard to come up with new story ideas, new story arcs?
Absolutely. I mean, this is what I do for a living, I’m a writer and there are always days that are harder but you still have to work. There are a lot of ideas, ideas that I loved that were knocked back by people in the chain… like people, broadcast partners around the world who didn’t like the idea or couldn’t make it work or it was just too difficult from an animation sense. But it’s not just me obviously, we’ve got guys like Daniel Hall and Phillip Dalkin, really good writers on the show that are also working on this. It doesn’t always come down to me, usually it comes down to me so sort of the story idea, but we have a good team of people here.
I read that you’ve worked with illustrator James Brouwer who did the art for The Deep. How long have been working with James?
I think we started working together in 2011, maybe even earlier. We’ve known each other for a really long time and we work really well together. We’re doing all sorts of stuff together as well and he’s the art director on the TV show as well which is fantastic. So everything remains true to the comics, everything looks just as good as it does in the comics.
Let’s talk about the characters in The Deep. I’ve read somewhere that the Nekton family are described as multiethnic which obviously celebrates diversity and culture, being representative of mainstream society. That said, personally I just feel that the Nektons are very ambiguous in their design, I can’t really tell their ethnicity, in all honesty. Is this a conscious decision, is ethnicity a determining factor in how you create your characters or does this never come up?
It’s a bit that it never comes up and it never comes up on purpose. I mean it’s a black father and an Asian mother, and their two children but we never say where they’re from, we never give them a country of origin or anything like that. We just wanted them to be a family that represented more than just white people but we want to say that not every group of heroes needs to look like The Incredibles. We did that on purpose because we wanted whoever wanted to identify with the characters be able to and I think that’s certainly happened, people have really embraced them. We have fans everywhere on earth. We’ve got people in Pakistan who identify with these people, we have people in Japan. I know there are Aboriginal tribes in Australia who own multiple copies of The Deep and lots of different people are able to identify with these characters which isn’t always the case in mainstream comic books.
In relation to the context or the setting of the story, the sea is quite a mysterious place of exploration which is pretty much the pitch of The Deep. How important is setting or context when you write your stories or is it more to do with character driven plots and motivations?
I think with something like The Deep, The Deep itself, the setting is incredibly important for the show and the comics. I don’t think this has ever been done before, that we’ve ever seen a family of explorers who live in a submarine before which I think is bizarre. When I came up with the idea I was staggered that nobody ever really had thought of it before. I think it’s one of the things that everyone’s gravitated towards and with The Deep, with that underwater world, it’s such a fantastic place to go and explore because it’s real, it’s just this thing we have right here at home. There’s things like the colossal squid which we’ve never seen in its natural habitat, it’s like living right next to a myth and so I think for those reasons The Deep is a really fantastic setting and really intriguing and grabs people’s imaginations.
Did you visit aquariums or go scuba diving for inspiration for this story?
I certainly went snorkelling and I’ve certainly been to a bunch of aquariums. We actually had our wrap party at the Sydney Aquarium which was really cool. We certainly do a lot of that, I spend a lot of time on the internet constantly researching and getting new ideas and finding out new mysteries and legends and myths of the deep and using that for inspiration for the stories.
Do you know why it was decided that The Deep premiere on Aussie screens before going out globally?
Well it’s an Australian-Canadian co-production so the animation and voice work is done in Canada and we do a lot of the stuff here so the script, the design work, the storyboard all happens in Australia. I think it was pretty important for us to have it debut in Australia because it was made in Australia and so few things like this are. I can’t think of an action adventure comedy thing that has originated in Australia before so it’s really exciting to have on Australian television. Obviously it goes out globally next year, it’s going to be on everywhere from the sounds of it which is great, but I think there’s something really nice about having it debut here.
You’ve got a multifaceted skill set in writing, playwriting, song writing, and comic book writing. These days is your focus mainly on comics. Do you still do any other writing?
I used to be involved in musicals. I don’t do theatre anymore. I’d like to but I just don’t have time anymore. So I’m obviously still working in television, working on The Deep still, and I write a lot of comics. Currently writing Wolverine for Marvel and Batman, Superman for DC and Green Lantern as well so I’ve got a fairly full plate there and then working on The Deep and then working on other TV stuff as well
and attending Supernova and all those comic conventions…
Absolutely, the comic conventions. You’ve gotta do that, I mean you can’t just sit in your office all the time by yourself and be at home and be a recluse, you’ve got to go out an smile a bit.
When you have an idea do you immediately go ‘this would make a good comic’ or ‘this would make a good script’? Do you have a way of determining what writing form you choose?
Not really. When I’m writing a comic I’m writing a comic, when I’m writing TV I’m writing TV, but I think it’s just about story first. The first thing I want to do is have good story and have good dialogue and good characters and I think if you’ve got all three of those things then you can make it work in any medium. When we were creating The Deep we knew that we wanted it to go beyond the graphic novels but I still want to create the best graphic novels we possibly could but then at the same time when we were designing the logos and stuff we were making sure saying, ‘Okay this logo, will it look good on a lunchbox?’ We knew we wanted it to have appeal everywhere and it’s interesting how close the first episode is to the first graphic novel. There’s so many of the same lines, the same things happen, which just tells you that if a comic is done well it’s very easy for it to shift to television.
For writers or for storytellers, they say that conflict is the best thing to motivate a character to do something. Do you think this is a cruel statement in relation to how you write?
I think most writers will tell you that you don’t have a story without conflict. We’re a little bit different in that The Deep is a purely non violent TV series which is very unheard of. Nothing is solved by violence in our show which puts us in an interesting position because we can’t do anything violent to our characters so we need to find essentially all of our drama from peril. We put them in peril, in danger, we take the air away from the submarine, we drop them rocks near them, we put other things in danger and the Nektons have to save the day but it’s quite a challenge to write this way but it’s still conflict.
Since you’re quite well known in writing for Marvel and DC, having to write and shape the storylines of many of these iconic characters, how do you determine what these characters go through without disrespecting the fans?
I think that’s exactly right, you’ve got to respect the fans and I think the best way of respecting the fans is to be a fan yourself. I don’t sit down to write a character without knowing them incredibly well and if I don’t know a character than I’ll read all of their best stuff, everything that everybody recommends or I look for recommendations online, so that by the time I sit down to write something I’m in love with them, I want to write this character, I know them backwards.
I just had a fantastic thing happen, I was just in the greenroom here at Supernova and I was talking to the guy who plays Chewbacca in the movies and I’ve written him, I’ve written Chewbacca so I was able to talk to him about all the scenes I’ve written of his character and say ‘hey, did this thing.’ and he said ‘oh I didn’t know you wrote that.’
You have to know these characters, you have to know them well to be able to write them because if you write something that doesn’t sound like that character or write something that doesn’t work for that character, something that character never would do then the fans know so you owe it to the fans to be a fan yourself.
Does that mean that you’ve read the original comics as well as spinoffs, stuff other people have written other than the original author/creator?
Yeah absolutely, I just wrote Iron Man last year for Marvel and of course I went and watched all the movies so I could have my Iron Man sounding like Robert Downey, Jr. and I read piles of Iron Man comics including ones I’ve never read before. I obviously had read some and read quite a few but there was stuff I kind of knew, sort of iconic stories I haven’t read or I haven’t read for years so I went back and just made sure I knew it all basically.
You used to be a professional knife juggler and fire eater, do you think there’s a chance you’ll go back to that?
No. No way. Never. I did it for about ten years and then I used to teach circus skills as well but eating fire, I will still pull it out for my kids birthday parties once in a blue moon, I’ll still do it just for funsies. When I do panels at these conventions I’ll often balance a chair on my face so that people go, ‘oooh! that’s interesting!’ I can’t see myself eating fire again anytime soon. I did juggle knives at my son’s cub group recently, but it was probably the first time I juggled knives in about a year so I did well not dropping them.
There’s a new Star Wars film coming out soon and I’m going to say that you’re pretty excited for it?
I’m stupidly excited. I have a feeling it’s going to be really really good. Like it was very cool just talking to Chewie you know [laughing] and I sort of trust J.J. Abrams, the director, I just get the feeling that once again I think he’s a fan and I think he’s going to create something for the fans.
So I have a bit of a challenge for you which is basically, can you describe your level of excitement for the Star Wars film using references from the Star Wars universe?
[Laughing] Oh man…let me see what I can do. Using references from the Star Wars Universe can I describe my level of excitement for Star Wars? Going through some references right now, okay…
‘It’s kind of like a million voices just screamed out in pure joy and will never ever be silenced.’ How’s that?
Awesome. Thanks so much Tom.
You can watch the first two episodes of The Deep online right now. Go here and check them out: https://au.tv.yahoo.com/plus7/the-deep/-/
Interview by Addy Fong.