After working his particular brand of magic by helping shepherd the DC Universe to television, writer/producer Marc Guggenheim’s latest project is far from the environs of Star City and the Waverider. Rather, it’s based squarely in the mind of Guillermo del Toro.
“Trollhunters” – the new animated fantasy series from DreamWorks Animation featuring an average high school student who inadvertently becomes the defender of a hidden community of trolls – bows on Netflix on Dec. 23, bringing the trappings of the visionary filmmaker’s 2015 young adult novel to television for a 26-episode season. Guggenheim, who exeutive produced the animated adaptation, joined CBR for a look into the process of realizing del Toro’s singular vision for television.
In addition, Guggenheim delves into the details of yet another side trip away from DC territory. He’s back in the pages of Marvel Comics once again, this time as the writer of “X-Men Gold,” one of the upcoming RessurXion-branded X-Men titles, and he reveals exactly how he landed on a very classic roster of mutants for his run.
CBR: You first got involved in “Trollhunters” when it was in an entirely different incarnation, right?
Marc Guggenheim: Yeah, that’s right. I got involved back when it was being developed as a feature film, an animated feature for Dreamworks. I’d done a draft, and the big challenge of doing “Trollhunters” – which started out as this young adult novel that Guillermo wrote – as a feature was how do you cram all of the characters and this deep mythology, and this world into an hour-and-a-half long movie? The answer, fundamentally, is: you simply can’t. It’s just too big.
So much of the process was basically, at a feature stage, what darlings to you kill? There was a lot of Hobbesian choices that were made. So in many ways, when it became a series, it was like this breath of fresh air into the project, and we suddenly had room to breathe and room to tell the story we were looking to tell.
At the same time, a lot of the changes that we had made from the young adult novel, they stuck. We lost the idea of Jim having an uncle. We made Jim’s father a mother. We developed a very different kind of relationship between Jim and his mother than Jim had with his father in the book. Even Blinky sort of took on a little bit of a different quality.
What was sort of at the center of all of it was knowing that we were able to take the time to tell the story that, quite frankly, the idea wanted. We were telling the right kind of story, rather than telling an abbreviated story.
You obviously have a ton of experience casting in live action and finding the right actor to completely embody a character. What was cool, interesting or challenging about just casting actors for the quality of their voice performance?
Honestly, I would say of the entire process, that had the steepest learning curve for me. I’m incredibly fortunate that, in addition to Guillermo, Christina Steinberg, and Chad Hammes, and Rodrigo Blaas, we’re all very involved in the voice casting process – and thank God! I’ve never really considered casting to be a particular strength of mine, much less voice casting, which really is a different kind of animal.
I think the process of voice acting is very, very different, and then the nature of casting is very different. For example, we’ve got Steve Yeun, this Asian adult who’s like the nicest guy ever, playing a teenage white bully, and kind of asshole. I guess, for me, the biggest challenge is, get the actor out of your head and only listen to their voice. I imagine that even the biggest fans of “The Walking Dead” would be hard pressed to recognize any of Glen in Steve Yeun’s portrayal of Steve. Steve is the name of the bully.
Similar to Anton Yelchin, in my mind: one of the things that made Anton such an incredibly gifted actor is he was a total chameleon. You look at his character in “Green Room,” and you compare that to Chekov from the “Star Trek” movies, and it’s like, this is played by the same actor. That’s not possible. Then you throw Jim into the mix, who is an incredibly well-realized creation of Anton’s. It’s kind of daunting when you think about trying to find the right actors. But again, Guillermo, Christina, Chad, Rodrigo, they all are such experts, quite frankly, at that process. They’ve assembled an amazing cast.
You are in a really enviable position because while so much of your Hollywood work is on the DC TV side, you’ve had some great collaborations with all these people working in genre at the moment – working with people like Steven from “The Walking Dead,” and of course Anton from “Star Trek.” You’ve had a lot of great crossover in what’s happening in genre entertainment right now.
I’m really, really lucky.
Tell me about what it’s like to be right at the center of this very special moment in entertainment for pop culture and genre material.
I will say it’s very, very surreal, because I always approach these things really as a fan first. Fundamentally, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten away from being a ten-year-old boy. I think I still look at everything through that particular lens.
Back when I was ten years old, comic books was this sort of ugly little corner of the pop culture world. It didn’t get any respect. Everyone associated with comics was [treated] like, “Oh, that’s not real writing. That’s not real art. Oh, comics books are the ‘Batman’ 1966 show.” It’s all Bam! Zap! and Pow! It’s not serious and it’s not sophisticated.
Sci-fi similarly, any of the things we call genre didn’t get any respect. I remember being a kid and being kind of very conscious of the fact that “E.T.” didn’t win best picture that year. It lost out to “Gandhi.” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” – anything that was genre, it was never getting mainstream respect.
So now, looking at the world we live in, it’s kind of incredible that ten-year-old in me never envisioned anything like this. I’m incredibly fortunate, because there are some incredibly talented people, obviously, working in genre. One of the things I’ve sort of prided myself on when I try to make decisions about what projects to take on is “Don’t work with assholes.” I’m very, very lucky. I’ve managed to partner up with people who are not only very good at what they do, but they’re also quality people.
With this project, what were some influences that you brought to the table? Are there certain pre-existing genre things where you took some inspiration from, whether it be from television, animation, or from comic books, or movies? Was there something that was kind of in your head as you were working on this besides Guillermo’s template?
Certainly the Amblin films. I don’t want to say that I brought that to the project. I think it was always sort of baked in. That was something I really embraced from jump. I’m definitely a child of the 80s. The Amblin films were all a very big influence on me, as was the Steven Spielberg series “Amazing Stories.”
Those things, that voice, was very sort of present in my head as I was writing. I’m a weird kind of writer in the sense that I don’t think a lot about my process. So then I go and do interviews, and it’s like, ”Ooh wait, how did I…?” “What did I contribute there…?” “How did I come up with that idea…?”
Assuming that this takes off in the way that you all hope – and in the way that most things on Netflix do – as you go forward with it, how big of a vision is there for the “Trollhunters” saga?
Gosh. I can’t think of a way to answer that question without jinxing us. I will say that we have a lot of short-term plans and long-term plans. Small plans and big plans. Those plans really, I think, were born out of just the fact that it’s fun to think about the stuff. It’s fun to talk about how the mythology can grow, and evolve, and develop.
At the same time, you sort of recognize that those are just creative flights of fancy, that may or may not come to see fruition, depending upon the success of something. I don’t think that in today’s day and age with so much content out there – so much good content out there – that you can ever plan on a success.
So it’d be great if “Trollhunters” takes off. If it does, we certainly have enough ideas! The world is rich enough to accommodate a lot of different ways to go with the story, and with the world. Who knows? Maybe we’ll get the chance to see some of those crazier ideas come to fruition.
You have a new comic book assignment over at Marvel with “X-Men.” I wanted to hear about your personal history with those characters, and where you’re starting now, as you’re again charting some of their destinies.
First of all, this is kind of a dream gig for me. I’ve been an X-Men fan like forever, since X-Men #139 – Volume One! So I’ve been a huge X-Men fan. I’ve been fortunate enough to write various iterations of the X-Men over the years: Wolverine and Young X-Men, the female-only adjective-less X-Men, as well as like X-Tinction Agenda and Secret Wars tie-ins, all manner of little “X-Men” things. But this was the first time I’ve had a chance to do a “traditional” run on an “X-Men,” with a team of my selection.
It’s super-exciting, and at the same time, very, very daunting because I really don’t want to screw it up. I think what I’m so excited about is this relaunch, “ResurrXion,” happens post X-Men Vs. Inhumans. There’s a brand new status quo. It’s a great sort of jumping on point for new readers. It sort of allows me to tell the story that I’m most excited to tell, which is seeing the X-Men as superheroes.
Quite frankly, it’s very much a back to basics kind of approach to the X-Men. After all these years of really cool stuff, like with Time Displaced X-Men, facing all manner of threats, like M-Pox and M-Day and X-tinction, you name it. It’s really fun to sort of watch the whole X-line re-center, and focus on basically the core conceit of the X-Men, which is, what’s it like to be a superhero in a world that hates and fears you?
I’d love to hear why you leaned towards the particular X-Men that you picked for the team.
The answer is very inherent in my original introduction to the X-Men, which was X-Men #139, so that sort of John Byrne into Dave Cockrum second run lineup, lives very large in my estimation. So I knew that if Kitty was available, I absolutely wanted Kitty, because I basically joined the X-Men when she did. Wolverine, Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler – that was the X-Men lineup, or a big part of it, for my formative years of being introduced to the X-Men.
Then finally, I brought in Rachel because I wanted there to be a good representation of women on the team, and I really enjoyed writing Rachel when I was writing adjective-less “X-Men.” I thought she was a really interesting character. She was fun for me to write, so that was a very easy choice.
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