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Genndy Tartakovsky on reviving Samurai Jack: ‘I was out of shape for working this hard again’

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The series’ creator explains the beautiful grimness of his wrap-up miniseries, and why the most important thing was making it memorable

Cartoon Network

Writer-director Genndy Tartakovsky promises the new season of Samurai Jack is the last one. His stylish animated series, about a feudal Japanese samurai stuck in a dystopian far future launched in 2001, and ran for four seasons on Cartoon Network. But it wrapped up in 2004 with no real conclusion. Jack was still stuck far from his own time, fighting the shape-changing, world-conquering demon Aku.

Tartakovsky had a busy career in animation before Samurai Jack: he was one of the original directors on The Powerpuff Girls, and he created the animated series Dexter's Laboratory. And after Jack, he became the animation director of the Star Wars animated spinoff series Clone Wars, he co-created and directed the series Sym-Bionic Titan, and he broke into film by directing Hotel Transylvania and its sequel. But he spent years pondering a final season of Samurai Jack, which would finally resolve Jack’s story.

Cartoon Network finally agreed to let him make season 5 of the show, a 10-episode miniseries that launches on Saturday, March 11th at 11PM ET. (It’ll be online at 10:30PM ET the same day.) Samurai Jack was always a stylish, emotional, thrilling show, but now it’s moved to the late-night Adult Swim block and it’s become a much darker, sadder, angrier series. Fifty years has passed, and because Jack was pulled out of time, he isn’t aging. He’s exhausted and furious over the endless, fruitless war against Aku’s robot minions. Haunted by visions of the family and friends he left behind, he’s slowly losing his mind and his will to live. I recently talked to Tartakovsky about where he drew the line in creating his newly violent, graphic wrap-up series, why 12 years of technological upgrades haven’t changed Samurai Jack much, and how he dealt with the 2006 death of Mako, the Japanese actor who provided Aku’s memorable voice in the first run of the series.

Samurai Jack always reminded me of 1980s shows about regular people pulled into a science fiction or fantasy world, like Blackstar, or Dungeons & Dragons, or the live-action Buck Rogers. It was always understood that those shows would be left open-ended, there would never be a resolution. Was it important to you from the beginning to give this story a definitive end?

Yeah, even initially, because we made such a big deal about Jack’s origin, and all these people in his life that were left to suffer and die, basically. He had to come back at some point if he had a hope of finishing his quest, and I always wanted to finish it. But at the end of the fourth season, we were all burnt out. The network didn’t know what they wanted to do, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And then we were getting Star Wars handed to us. I realized, “I don’t want to rush out an ending.” I didn’t even know what the ending was back then. So we decided to just quietly finish the fourth season.

How long has this ending been in your mind?

It popped up first probably a couple of years after I finished the show. I realized, “Oh, this is the way I would want to do it.” There was all this various interest in doing a Samurai Jack movie, where I would reinvent the show and finish it in the same movie. In the movies, especially back then, they wanted a completion. The same core idea I had then is what we’re doing now.

Many of the people interviewed in Adult Swim’s preview are familiar names from the show’s original run. What was it like reassembling the Samurai Jack brain trust?

Part of it was pretty easy. I mean, luckily I found people that are so good at what I don’t do. [Laughs] They make me look so good. We’ve been working with each other since the original days of Samurai Jack. Scott Wills and I have been doing stuff in and out. Craig Kellman, the main character designer; Darrick Bachman, who helped me write the stuff; and Bryan Andrews, who’s been storyboarding with me from Samurai through Sym-Bionic Titan through the Hotel Transylvania movies — they also came back. That was kind of the core group. We had to get a little more support here and there, but generally, just me and Bryan did all the storyboards. That part was easy, because at a certain point in your career, it becomes less about the project, and more about the people you work with. We got lucky that the timing worked out for everybody, and also that we love working with each other.

Mako’s death was a major blow for the series. Were there other people you wanted as part of the team that you weren’t able to get back because of timing or whatever reason?

Yeah, there are a couple of people we wanted to get, especially for storyboarding. I wanted to have more people help us, but those people weren’t available, or the timing wasn’t right. A lot of people I know are working in features now, and it’s hard to make that jump where you go from a super-lax schedule and good pay to — all of a sudden you have half as much time and half as much money, you know? I’m exaggerating a bit, but generally, that’s the tough thing about television. It’s twice as much work as features, and you have to do it twice as fast.

But at the same time, it’s creatively very rewarding, because we get to try new things, you get to do more innovative storytelling. And we’re a lot different than we were back in our early 30s, late 20s. I have three kids, I have a mortgage, car payments. [Laughs] Before, we would hang out at the office until 10 at night, we’d all have dinner together, and then we’d hang out and work, and talk about work. So the dynamics have changed. When I got back into this rigorous schedule, my back hurt. [Laughs] It’s almost like I was out of shape for working this hard again. I used to work until two in the morning every night, then still get up at six. Now, I have to help my daughter with her homework, spend time with my wife. These are all good things, but you start realizing, “My life is not the same as it was 12 years ago. I have to find a new way to do things.”

The first run of the show feels like it was made by people in their 20s and 30s. It’s dark and nihilistic, it’s focused on excitement and intensity, it’s experimental and boundary-pushing. Sometimes as people get older, their art changes and mellows, but the new iteration of the show certainly doesn’t feel like it’s coming from a domestic space of family. How do you get into the headspace to produce something this dark and grim?

[Laughs] I think it’s always there! I don’t think it ever went away! Jack came from… I had the same dream since I was 10, about the world being destroyed and run by mutants. I’d find a samurai sword, pick up the girl I had a crush on, and we’d go through the land, surviving. That was the initial spark to Samurai Jack. You know, I don’t think of myself as a 47-year-old with a mortgage and three kids, I think of myself as a virile young 25, at the beginning of my career. That place is easy to go back to. And it’s the story we needed to tell for Jack now. It was fun to go into his mentality more, into his psyche, rather than keep it on the surface.

There have been a lot of internet theories about how you’d handle Mako’s absence. Greg Baldwin replaced him convincingly on the TV show Avatar: The Last Airbender, and it’s been widely assumed he’d be your solution here. Did you hire him to do Aku’s voice?

It was hard. For a while, I thought we should reimagine Aku with a different voice, perhaps even use a different character. But then I realized I love Aku too much, so we auditioned a few people, and Greg really did the best job. Honestly, nobody can replace Mako, he was that special, that unique, especially the performance he made for Aku. But Greg did really well. On the last episode, Mako’s daughter and grandson came by, and they watched him record, and they were crying. It was really amazing, because they heard the voice of their dad and grandfather.

Adult Swim

The show has always been about trying to get “back to the past,” but you’ve said now that’s more metaphorical. Jack is trying to reclaim the person he used to be. Was that return to the past always metaphorical and personal for you?

It was! One of the things we couldn’t do in the first 52 episodes — it couldn’t be episodic, which hinders your character growth. You can’t have as many ups and downs, because if Cartoon Network aired the episodes out of order, he’s super-dark in one episode, and cheery in another. So that forced us to make him more even-keeled, and we played him as a stoic samurai hero, unaffected by everything he’s going through. We’ve seen some dips in him, but nothing to this level, where he’s given up hope. So that was one of the exciting things going into this season: “Let’s bring him down.” It’s 50 years later, there’s no way home, Aku won’t even face him anymore, and he’s lost hope. And what do you do if you’re stuck in this eternal hell with the idea that you let all the people down in the past? It made all these ideas really rich for us. I think it will really enhance Jack’s character as we see unfold through this season.

There’s a point in the first episodes where Jack is seriously considering suicide, because he’s so tired of the eternal battle. Did you draw any limits for yourself in terms of how dark you could go emotionally or dramatically?

No. Everybody asks me about the gore. That’s what they want to see in the new season. It was the exact opposite for me. I said, “Let’s dive into this mature level of storytelling, and the way people think. Where would he go?” This inner monologue was such a great and exciting way to see how haunted he is by the past, by his father and all the people he let down. What’s the point to going on? We deal with that through a lot of episodes. We want to break him, and then hopefully we can build him up and see if he can come through it at the end.

The first episode back is so grim, it feels like you’ve abandoned the show’s humor. But then once Aku resurfaces, you go back to the wry visual gags that have always surrounded him. How did you approach how much humor to bring into the story, and how it would affect that mood you wanted to create?

It was hard. It was a tough line to walk. In the first episode, for me, the jazz-flute attack was a little comical and irreverent, so that let the steam out a little bit. But that character is creepy, too. And then Aku, to me, has always been funny. As intense as he is sometimes, there’s always that edge of humor. But it was more difficult to walk that line. I think you’ll have to tell me whether it all worked. It’s more than I know. I’ve just got to trust my gut.

How has working digitally changed how you approach the show?

It hasn’t. I used to storyboard on paper. Now I storyboard on the computer, but it’s just a fancy pencil. We’re still doing it the way they did it in the 1940s. The coloring is a click and fill in the computer, but everything else is really the same way that we’ve always done it. The biggest change, really, is that in the first episodes in the first season, all the backgrounds were hand-painted and now they’re painted in the computer in ways that mimic hand-painting. There’s almost no CG. We always wanted it to feel hand-crafted, and we try to stay true to that as much as we can.

Does Cartoon Network have a standard suite of software that they use? Do you get to pick your own based on what you like working with?

Yeah, we just use Photoshop. That’s all we’re using. There’s nothing fancy about it. We would’ve made the same show 10 years ago.

What about the visual influences on the show? You can see that it’s coming from the same mentality, but it’s richer and more complicated visually. Did you go to different visual influences this time around?

No, I think that’s just the same influences, but it’s 12 years later, and we’re better artists. I looked at some of my old drawings of Jack from the first season, and they were horrible. I try to get better every year, and now our storyboards look a lot better and sharper. We’re better filmmakers. We still have a long way to go, but it’s definitely the next level for us.

Ever since the 1980s, there’s been this drive to bring back familiar heroes, but grimmer and grittier. And it’s still a big movement in superhero films like Batman v Superman. Were you worried about falling into a cliché, where everything that used to be for kids has to be dark and serious and adult now?

Yeah, for sure! And I’m not a big fan of that trope. I grew up in the 1970s and early 1980s, loving comic books, and they were much cartoonier. And then everything became super dark and muscular and airbrushed, and I stopped collecting comics. Still, I feel like this new season of Samurai Jack is truer to the natural evolution of Jack’s story. That’s what was exciting about it, that he’s on a dark journey. I didn’t want to make it cookie-cutter, and brush over the character drama. I don’t like darkness in everything. I like my superheroes in primary colors, and fun. [Christopher Nolan’s] Batman movies were great, but they’re too much, too dark. So I wasn’t trying to do that. And I don’t want it to seem like Jack’s story is all doom and gloom. We start out really intense, but there’s moments of levity throughout.

One of the big developments here is the idea that Jack is facing flesh-and-blood people instead of robots, mutants, or aliens. Is this meant to be completely new ground for the series?

Yeah, it is. The whole conceit of the first series is that we couldn’t kill a human. He fought some, but he never killed them. He always had to find a way around it. When you’re fighting a machine that’s programmed, that has one singular goal and has no emotion, like we say in the show, “It’s just nuts and bolts, it doesn’t matter.” But when he faces something real, with feelings, that has a choice, he can’t just easily kill it.

Whenever this comes up, on Reddit or on comment boards, someone will bring up the bounty hunter episode and say, “He killed them, and they were definitely people!”

Some of those bounty hunters were definitely alien-like. But maybe they’re right! [Laughs] In my head, they were robots. I’d have to look at that episode again. I remember the episode, but I think they were mostly aliens. There were a couple of humans, but maybe they didn’t die.

The show was always so visually intense and stylized, especially in the way you staged fight scenes, to ramp up the level of the emotions. How did you approach taking the action to new levels when it went to 11 in the first run?

I never thought we got to this emotional level in the first series. I think it’s more fun now, if you’re completely into the character, rather than just watching a cool action sequence. You’re invested in this character now, because we’re letting you into the way he’s thinking. It’s hard with animation, because you can see, especially with 2D, that it isn’t real, they’re just drawings. But that’s the magic of film. If we can really dive into Jack as a person, everything gets heightened.

The fun of caricature and stylization is just giving you the essence of something, and then the audience fills in the rest. That’s what’s most exciting, to do something graphic and bold. You want viewers to be like, “I haven’t seen something like that before.” You know, when I watched Mad Max: Fury Road, I thought, “Whoa, I haven’t seen stuff like this, ever.” Something got triggered in the intensity, the fun, the way everything came together. And that’s what you want as a filmmaker, a storyteller. You want to create an experience — comical, emotional, horror — that gives the viewer a reaction. There’s nothing worse than “Eh, that was okay.” Especially in this day and age. It’s so competitive. So many things are being made. The last thing you want to do is leave no impression.

Cartoon Network

There’s a single shot in the first episode of season 5 where Jack is on his motorbike, driving across this desolate plain, and it reminded me strongly of Fury Road. Are there visual references in the show to things you love?

I think that one, we actually did before Mad Max came out. [Laughs] The way we drew it was like a heightened version of Wile E. Coyote, one of those old Road Runner cartoons. You can probably read references in a lot of our stuff, because we are so influenced by other people’s work, which is being funneled together and mixed around, until it comes out as something else. I could probably go through every single scene and say, “Oh yeah, I guess that could be influenced by this.” I don’t consciously think about it that way. But the motorcycle coming over the horizon, you could say, “Oh, that’s just Lawrence of Arabia with the camel, coming into the desert when it’s a flat line.” Watching other things builds up your visual language. Whenever I leave a movie or TV show, I want that TV show to still live in my head, so I can see shots from it.

Once Samurai Jack is all over, what do you want people to walk away from this show feeling?

Love. I want them to just have this great experience for 10 episodes, and think “Wow, I really love that show, and it’s going to stay with me.” And then they should watch whatever next thing I do. [Laughs] But yeah, I think that’s all it is. It’s pretty simple — I want them to have a great experience. I mean, I wish we had toys, and you could go buy a toy and play with it, but the audience for this isn’t kids anymore. You just want a lasting memory. That’s really it.