In Conversation: Mike Scully on Napoleon Dynamite

Former Simpsons showrunner Mike Scully, now co-developer, producer and writer for Napoleon Dynamite, talks to Flickering Myth’s Simon Moore about the freedom of animation, small-town traditions and what fans can look forward to in future episodes…

Simon Moore: Forgive the shamelessly direct opening question, but where did the idea to make an animated TV sitcom from a live action film come from? It’s not a leap most would make.

Mike Scully: I had a meeting with Jared Hess, who wrote and directed the film, and he was interested in continuing the adventures of Napoleon, but not in a traditional movie sequel. He thought animation would be a fun way to do it. I was a huge fan of the film and agreed. It’s not easy transitioning from live action film to animation, but Napoleon Dynamite felt like the kind of movie that could do it. It probably wouldn’t work with Schindler’s List or Brokeback Mountain for example.

SM: Given that you’d come from writing and producing The Simpsons, the show that many would argue is the blueprint for modern TV comedy, what was it that drew you working on Napoleon Dynamite?

MS: The world of Napoleon Dynamite was filled with these funny, quirky characters that had an almost cartoon-like quality to them. It was different than the suburban world of Simpsons and Family Guy. It had its own rhythm and sensibility. A lot of the pieces were already in place, which meant less work for me. I like that.

SM: What kind of inspirations did you draw on when the show was first being conceived?

MS: We knew the pace of the film wouldn’t work in animation. We knew it would have to be faster and more visual, while still remaining true to the tone and characters of the film. We wanted to keep the small-town feel. We wanted to avoid pop culture references and modern technology as much as possible. We didn’t want a bunch of teenagers running around with cell phones. However, we wanted it to have the pace of The Simpsons and heart.

SM: Napoleon strikes me as one of the most authentically awkward teenage characters ever conceived. How do you go about getting the feel of writing Napoleon – is there a mall nearby where you observe raging hormones in action?

MS: Haha! Fortunately, Jared was very involved in the show and he has the voices of all these characters in his head and can channel them at will. Some of the characters are based on real people, or composites of real people, he knew growing up. His brothers, for instance. The writing staff learned the characters through Jared and his wife Jerusha, who co-wrote the film.

SM: Tell me about putting this show together. What kind of day-to-day challenges does an animated show like Napoleon Dynamite throw at you?

MS: The same as any animated show. Every day you’re trying to come up with stories, jokes, whatever needs to be done to make the show better. We screen the show at a couple different times during the animation process and I’m always amazed by what jokes work and which ones don’t. There are jokes that absolutely killed when the actors read it out loud, but for whatever reason, they don’t come to life when animated. Other jokes that seemed soft might suddenly be getting huge laughs. It’s unpredictable.

SM: Preston, Idaho was a pretty strange sort of timewarp location in the original film. Now it’s flat-out bizarre, with its own underground fight club, rampaging ligers and a long, proud tradition of racing beds around town. Was there a conscious decision to go straight up surreal with these stories?

MS: Whenever I watch an animated show, my first question is “Why is it animated?” If you can do everything in a show live-action, then you might as well. We wanted the show to be very visual, to show the audience things you couldn’t in a live action film. If you wanted to do a liger attack on Preston, Idaho, that would be pretty hard to pull off in live action, but in animation… The Bed Races story is based on a real event that happens in Preston every year. Same with FFA. When we find something real that we can bend our way, that’s the best.

We just did what seemed funny to us. And we wanted the show to have heart and emotion. Napoleon is not the most likable character in the world. Jared pointed out that he only smiled in the film once, at the end. We needed to make him more expressive in the series so the audience would care about him and his problems more.

SM: It’s obviously quite a different family dynamic with the Dynamites, but do you ever get that old problem so eloquently phrased by South Park as “The Simpsons already did it”?

MS: Every animated show has that problem. There’s no getting around it. We just try to catch it when it happens and go a different way. I still work at Simpsons as a consultant and I’ll pitch something for a script, and a little voice in my head will say, “Idiot. Napoleon could have said that!” but you always come up with something new. We’ve got a great writing staff which includes some writers from Simpsons and Futurama.

SM: Who’s your favourite character to write? Why?

MS: It’s too early in the process to have a favorite. Uncle Rico was becoming very popular in the writers’ room by the end of the six episodes, however. He’s featured in the fifth episode “Bed Races” along with Grandma.

SM: Will we ever find out what happened to Kip and Napoleon’s parents, or will that story just make us sad?

SM: We’re always pitching jokes about it in the room, but they don’t go in the script because they’re all kind of dark and sad. We’ve also talked about a scenario where they’re not dead and maybe we’ll get to explore that in the next season.

SM: Any exciting ideas waiting to happen in the second season?

MS: We’ve got some scripts ready to go where Napoleon works as an undercover cop, Kip gets over his head in an online gaming rivalry, and Grandma is romanced by an old flame who wants to marry her, but can’t stand Napoleon and Kip. We’re also going to meet Pedro’s family. There should be a few more Season One episodes to air in the UK, too. We had some great guest stars, also – Amy Poehler, Jemaine Clement, and, in the finale, Sam Rockwell. The show is really a lot of fun to do.

Napoleon Dynamite is currently airing in the UK on E4 on Tuesday nights at 10.30pm.

Many thanks to Mike Scully for taking part in this interview.

Simon Moore is a budding screenwriter, passionate about films both current and classic. He has a strong comedy leaning with an inexplicable affection for 80s montages and movies that you can’t quite work out on the first viewing.