How Phil Matarese and Mike Luciano Turned Their Ad Agency Side Project Into HBO’s New Animated Series, ‘Animals’
Last Friday night marked the premiere of HBO’s newest animated comedy series, Animals, a gritty and hilarious look at New York through the eyes of the city’s various regional birds and beasts. The series’ creators, Phil Matarese and Mike Luciano, provide voice work alongside some pretty big guest stars like Wanda Sykes, Aziz Ansari, Molly Shannon, Jessica Chastain, and members of A$AP Mob. The path the show took to find its home is an unconventional one involving early shorts at Channel 101, a Sundance screening, a supply closet Skype call with Mark Duplass, and a dream meeting with HBO, who has already greenlit the series for a second season. I talked to Matarese and Luciano about the show’s conception, their impressive lineup of guest stars, and the future of Animals.
I realize that I’m giving up some of my objectivity as an interviewer, but I have to say that I just watched the first five episodes of Animals and this show is really good.
Mike: Thanks man!
Phil: I’m going to be honest, that feels good. It’s almost tangibly good.
I watched it without doing any advance research. If possible, that’s how I like to watch any show or movie. One thing that really jumped out at me was how many voices I recognized. Jason Mantzoukas, Katie Aselton, Zach Woods, Aziz Ansari, Chelsea Peretti, Scott Aukerman. Then after I watched a few episodes I looked up who else did voices for the show and I was blown away, especially when I saw that you had people from A$AP Mob on there. How did you wrangle so many great comedy, improv, and music people to do the show?
Mike: We started making these as shorts. We both worked at this ad agency and we started doing this little side project after work and on the weekends. We eventually made one within the first year that was a quarter-hour pilot. That got in this thing called the New York Television Festival. We won Best Comedy there and that’s what kind of kicked things off, got us agents and managers and stuff. That put us in front of Mark Duplass, who called us at our office. We had a Skype meeting in the supply closet of our job. He wanted to come on as Executive Producer. He said, “We can go the normal route here and you can go around shopping the pilot and try to pair up with a network right from the get-go. Or, I’ve got this idea for something I think can exist, this idea of independent television where you guys move out here. I’ll help get you funding. I have this whole roster of friends who we can get to do voices on the show. We’ll just make 10 episodes of it independently. I can’t guarantee it’s going to wind up anywhere. We may get to the end of it and it winds up on YouTube or something. But what I can guarantee is that you will have complete creative control.”
When you heard this pitch, did it sound too good to be true?
Mike: It was unreal.
Phil: It was a little scary because you’re at that point where we have this thing and we’re kind of thrust into this area. This was their first animated thing and we didn’t really know how to make a show. But how we ended up getting all these voices is, I would say 60-70% of it is Mark asking his friends and people coming on board because they know it’s a Duplass project. It’s going to be fun and cool. The other part of it was through the normal means of reaching out to people through agents, managers and stuff like that. Mike and I have a really similar, pointed taste in comedy. We’ve been fans of these people forever. We’re so grateful that they were able to come out and lend their voices and talent to the show. What we did with the show is get people of all stripes that you wouldn’t expect in an animated show. Kurt Vile being in a show with Jon Lovitz or the A$AP dudes, Mitch Hurwitz and the Wayans Brothers all in the same world as Kate Berlant and John Early and all of these people who we see around at UCB all the time. We like for our show to be a bit of a hodgepodge. Tons of shit all thrown together.
But at the same time the show does has a format. You introduce two main animal characters at the beginning of each episode. They’re always named Mike and Phil. We follow the various Mike and Phil characters through each animal world. There’s also a really dark subplot from episode to episode involving the city’s human mayor. That first episode got so dark so fast.
Phil: [Laughing] We really dug ourselves into a hole.
How did the idea to do the shorts come about? Phil, you’re an illustrator. Did you base the shorts off of sketches you had done?
Phil: I got a $50 Wacom tablet that I started doing a little web comic on about me and my dog. So I guess I’ve always been slightly drawn to talking animals of sorts. Mike and I met each other at this ad agency we were working at. One day we were just fucking around and saw two pigeons outside and thought it was kind of funny to voice these two animals. Exploring and zooming into these little pockets of New York was really funny to us.
How much has the show changed from the original shorts you made?
Phil: A lot of the DNA of the web series did stick around. The mouths don’t move. Some of our backgrounds are photorealistic. The animation is a bit more on the reserved side. It’s become this really cool aesthetic that we can turn up or turn down as much as we want to fit the story or joke.
Mike: We realized early on that Phil’s animation style became an essential part of the charm of the show.
Phil: It came from me not knowing how to animate. That’s why the mouths don’t move.
Mike: With the improv nature of the show it was something we embraced early on instead of trying to mess with it too much.
Phil: The improv performances are so nuanced. Having the animation more reserved, you kind of have to listen a bit more attentively. I think that’s a cool yin and yang we stumbled onto.
I like the improv aspect of it a lot. The conversations feel like real conversations that people would have. Who would have thought that watching two rats at a party could feel just being in a conversation with two of your real friends?
Phil: That’s how we record. We record with everybody in the same room with the ability to look at each other and talk to each other. You get people stepping on each other’s lines. It’s funny animating a rat coughing into his hand. It’s a very human sort of tic.
The music is great in the show. The theme song by The Men really stands out. Did you guys pick the music?
Mike: Yeah. Every song that’s in it we wanted in it. A lot of it stemmed from the same thing as when we were making the shorts. When we were making it in Brooklyn we used our friends’ bands, which was what we were listening to and was our favorite stuff. It felt like an extension of what New York was and is to us. We’ve leaned harder into that rather than farther away. Just as much as bigger gets like Kurt Vile, A$AP Rocky, and A$AP Ferg, we’re equally excited about using Mr Twin Sister, Ava Luna and these bands we’ve loved for so long and are great for the show. It’s great to have a platform for people to hear that stuff.
How did you finally get HBO on board?
Mike: We started making the episodes when we moved out here in an apartment in Los Feliz. We had no idea where it was going to wind up. We made the first batch of episodes there and a little bit into it we found out that Sundance was interested in screening it. At the same time it screened, the link to the first two episodes got sent out to like every network. We were lucky to have interest right off the bat. A lot of places loved it, but HBO for us has always been the place where we imagined it. Our dream place was here. We didn’t think it was fathomable in a realistic sense, but we met with them and they just got it. It couldn’t have worked out better. They’ve been totally hands off in a great way. The two season thing is the icing.
Another cool thing about HBO is that you get the backing and power of a big, respected network with the freedom of creating something completely uncensored. If this show was on Comedy Central or Adult Swim it would either be censored or pushed to a 3am time slot.
Phil: We can’t wait to sink this whole ship.
Have you already started working on Season 2?
Phil: Yeah, we’re in the midst of writing it right now. It’s so much fun to be back in that part of the creative process. We have tons of fun outlines and stories we’re going to tell that we’re excited about. And new little experiments for Season 2, the weird things we do that we can surprise people with each episode. We’re excited about that stuff too.