» Interview: M. A. Larson at Midwestria

This is the first of four interviews of guests from Midwestria that we’ll be posting in the next few days.  First up is M.A. Larson who spent some time talking with us about his first impressions for writing for the show, and various other behind the scenes tidbits. Larson is best known for writing episodes like “Swarm of the Century,” “The Return of Harmony,” and “Luna Eclipsed.”

For the full text transcript, check behind the cut.

Putting this here so it can be edited then inserted to the other post with the video. It’d be nice if some people could go over it and make it present better for text, I’ve cut out some umms and errs and repeating bits in questions but it needs some more work.

 

Hi I’m jHaller with The Round Stable, today joining me is a writer from My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, M. A Larson thank you very much for coming on with us.

M. A. Larson: Thank you for having me.

So we have some questions about what you did with the show, your work for it. We’ll start at the beginning though, prior to the show, coming onto it, how much of the shows direction and the people working for it did you know about?

Not much. I knew Lauren [Faust] and the story editor Rob Renzetti because I’d done an episode of Fosters Home for Imaginary Friends. Only one episode because I came on right as it was ending but it was super fun, I love that show and they were sort of legendary, so I was really excited to be asked to do one, so I knew them from that but there was a mutual friend of ours who knew they needed a writer on Pony and I needed a job so he put us back in touch, they had me in and that was it. I didn’t know anything about My Little Pony.

Now knowing the previous generations of the 80′s, maybe you had some expectations of what it was going to be like-

Yes, haha.

Is it going to be a typical girls cartoon where the characters are shallow and such, so going in you had these expectations, so I’m assuming these were shattered when you saw the final product of your work.

Well they were shattered when I saw the show bible for the first time, it’s like everybody here probably. Everybody expected that and then it’s like “oh it it’s not that”, it’s the same for me, you know I didn’t know My Little Pony because I just have one brother and we’re a very male household, Transformers and things like that. I knew of it but that was it. So yeah I was expecting that and then I read Laurens bible and thought “this is really cool, the crops don’t grow themselves?” how cool and weird and the characters were great. There was art in there too so I could kind of get a sense of how vibrant it’d be.

Part of why I think- you know, you weren’t the only one, and what makes this show have so many fans of all ages is that there is so much depth to the characters, there’s actually emotional course in the stories. Did you feel when you were writing this they were giving you the prompts for what you were supposed to be writing, that you might be writing something that was new or groundbreaking or that it would have this kind of impact at all?

Absolutely not, nobody could have seen this coming. I mean, it was sort of a progression, because like I saw the bible and it’s like “Oh, this isn’t what I thought, this is very cool” and then I had my first story meetings which was Swarm of the Century and it was such a fun idea, funny idea and no, I didn’t know the Star Trek show, I’d never seen Star Trek, I knew of the Tribbles so I knew the reference but I’ve never seen it. I could tell from that story meeting that this is really cool, so I want to do the best I could. I didn’t want to phone it in, not that I ever phone anything in. But I was like “I’ve got to up my game because this is really good”, they’re not expecting brushing hair for half an hour. And then I would see the season two writers summit; before every season we have a summit where the writers get together and brainstorm – and they showed the pilot and I was just blown away, just look at how colourful and amazing this is. It’s fun and the voices are great and the timing is unbelievable. Timing is like the great un-sung thing in animation, if the timing is off it just kills the show, but in this show the timing is brilliant, it’s storyboarded beautifully, it’s voiced beautifully, the music is insane, the first time I heard Winter Wrap Up it went to another level. I was like “Oh, even the music is going to be good on this show” So it was, I don’t even remember what you asked me.

You didn’t know, you had no idea this was going to have this result.

Yeah, yeah and now I’m here talking to you. All along the way it’s like “whoa, really?”

It’s not even you, I think a lot of people even in my position like a year ago and you tell me I was going to be doing this it’s like “What, really? Are you kidding?”

Yeah, that’s the fun thing I keep hearing because this is the first convention I’ve been to. The fans and me, talking to Amy [Keating Rogers], Charlotte [Fullterton] and other people on the show, we’ve all had the same experience you know, we kinda had the same experience as you guys like “really? This show’s really good!” and then you guys came around and “really? That’s so cool, people actually watch the show” and I’ve written for some shows that nobody has watched and you get really tired of writing into the void and sending it off. Maybe I’ll see it in a year or maybe I won’t, then to write something like this and get the feedback like this, you know, like this. Like tell me that someone would make a shirt out of a joke I wrote in an episode, when I saw this it blew my mind. It’s amazing, this is all amazing.

Your career has gone from more adult-oriented content to children’s programming. How did that come about and was it a conscious decision on your part to go that direction?

That was probably just one of those lucky accidents, I never planned to go into children’s things, I lived in New York and was writing dark indy movie type of stuff. I was assisting on, like you said Sin City… did You just say that?

No I literally didn’t say Sin City.

You didn’t? Am I imagining that?

Maybe, I didn’t say Sin City.

Am I having a stroke right now?

No, I hope not, please don’t make me call 911. I don’t want to do this.

I assisted on Sin City and The Brothers Grimm and directed in a Mike Nichols movie The Graduate, so I was working on movies and then moved to Los Angeles because my wife got a job in LA and all of a sudden I had no job. A friend of mine who I grew up with in Minnesota who as like an amazing animator working for Cartoon Network heard they needed writers, knew I needed a job and honestly I didn’t know much about animation, so he said “You should just watch Spongebob, read a couple of Spongebob specs, read a couple of my own.” And I did, I read two episodes of Spongebob, I got like 20 DVDs from Blockbuster, when they still had Blockbusters and i just marathoned Spongebob. And I had the same kind of reaction to that as I did to My Little Pony “Holy cow, this is amazing” So I had never seen it, I’d seen the balloons and the kids in the t-shirts thinking it was so lame but I watched the show and was like “wow! Spongebob is great” So I wrote a couple of those and he submitted them for me to the show called My Gym Partner is a Monkey at Cartoon Network and that was another fantastic accident that they needed a staff writer, because there were very few staff positions in animation so my first job was on a staff, which was great. And then that was it, then I was in.

So now, more focused on the show, each character has their own specific character traits that you were saying from the bible they were very fleshed out, yet you also wrote Return to Harmony which is an instance where they are the complete opposites of their normal characters for a good portion of two episodes. How fun was it to write them in the complete opposite for what you normally had to do or maybe it was a pain and were there any other moments where you wrote characters out of character on purpose?

I’ll have to think about that, well defiantly Big Mac in Ponyville Confidiential, that’s the most obvious one I can think of. That episode, Return of Harmony was pretty stressful actually, I wish it would have been three hours long because you have two twenty-two minute chunks to tell a whole lot of story and you’ve got six characters and you want to spotlight them, have fun with them and you end up kind of getting one line in here, one line in there and it’s not enough, you want full scenes of these guys being the reverse of themselves. So that episode was really tough just because of the time constraint, I know it’s a two-parter, twice as long as usual but it was still fitting everything in there was really tough and some stuff got cut out because it was too long and some parts of the episode feel too rushed because of that, it’s always hard to get- I’m going to go on a tangent, the Cutie Mark Chronicles was another one where you’ve gotta tell six stories plus a wrap-around story in 22 minutes. It’s really hard. So after season one Lauren loosened it and said we don’t need to get all six characters in every episode now, we tried to kinda of do that as much as possible in the first season, make sure all six were involved and it’s hard to do. Especially when you’re inverting the personalities and trying to show that off, that takes extra time so it was hard to get the page count right. I’m guessing the storyboard artists would say I didn’t get the page count right.

Another thing that we see constantly in the show is the comedic bits and the gags and all that, I’m sure they’re really fun to write but I just want to know, what are some of your comedic influences that you’ve had?

Wow, that’s a great question. Well I love, I really learned about this guy Preston Sturgess, do you know him? He’s sort of like a filmmaker in the early years of Hollywood I randomly found some screenplay compilations of his stuff and just got absolutely hooked and found more and more of them. He directed too but I don’t think he directed as well as he wrote, his comedy and his timing on the page and in the scripts when you read the scripts, the interplay of the characters, it showed me how much energy you can get out of a page and how much energy you can get into a scene with just words. So that was huge in terms of screen writing, in terms of just comedy I’m a huge sitcom fan, you know, more then cartoons my brother and I would watch the Jeffersons or Threes Company or WKRP Cincinnati so I grew up watching all kinds of sitcoms, Seinfeld I love, Curb Your Enthusiasm is fantastic, I watch a lot of sitcoms.

Oh and Peewees Big Adventure and [Monty Pythons] Holy Grail. Those two I watch them over and over again. Hilarious movies.

Now I’m going to have to rag on you a little bit, because we saw you Karaoke the other night and you were trying to sing the Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000 song and you have a questionable track record with that but you did write an excellent song.

Thank you.

What was the process behind writing your songs in general? Because I believe you said that you were not a musically inclined person for writing lyrics.

No, I was very anti-musical growing up, I hated musicals, didn’t want anything to do with them until I saw South Park and I was like “Oh, I kinda like a musical” and then I kind of got into them a little more and softened my stance. I’ve only written the two songs, I did the one form Cutie Mark Chronicles which is a tiny song and the lyrics are so bad, you could tell that was my first one because the lyrics are just awful. The music is great, Daniel Ingram is unbelievable, that guy and that whole team, amazing. SO they make a good song out of really crappy lyrics and then the other one was just obviously The Music Man which I had never seen and Rob and Lauren said you’ve gotta watch this movie, I watched it and it just blew me away. I love The Music Man and it so obviously comes from The Music Man I just took those lyrics form that song ‘You’ve Got Trouble’ and tried to study how that worked because it was really a sing-songy kind of thing. How they work, where are the rhymes, what’s going on here and just tried to write like that but it was fun too, I had two guys who are basically the same guy who could play off of each other. And part of that when they are doing the real quick bit of “He’s Flim, He’s Flam” thing it should feel a little dizzying, they’re confusing the people of the town you know, they’re singing really fast and it’s all moving really fast and they storyboard it brilliantly, animated it brilliantly. There’s so much happening and you just watch the ponies of the town get swept up in it. So that was the whole thing with it, The Music Man is just one guy singing and it’s genius but with this I could use two of them and have them be confusing which served the story.

To play off each other, that’s good.

Yeah.

I’ve heard multiple times you guys at the panels talk about writers meetings and you throw ideas around, do you ever go outside of writers from the show, other contacts you have for ideas for writing episodes at all?

Not really no, on this show in particular we go to these summits and Lauren or Meghan [McCarthy] have “here’s kinda the major things we want to hit, we should maybe have one episode with this, whatever it is, there’s going to be a two-parter here.” We all kind of come in with some ideas and pitch those out and see if we can combine two of them and see does this work or does this lead us somewhere else? We just sort of brainstorm in the room, you don’t really bring things in. Amy mentioned this in per panel yesterday, the Brady Bunch is a massive well to go to for stories. In a lot of animated shows it’s not about coming up with a totally original premise for the episode, it’s taking a familiar premise, like Ponyville Confidential, you’ve seen that a million times, so you take that premise and say “Okay so what do these characters do in that situation” and you end up with a story. It’s not about trying to re-invent the wheel everytime, it’s take a familiar plot-line and change it with your characters.

Another show that’s coming on the air that a lot of people seem to like is Gravity Falls and you wrote an episode for that, how exactly did you start working for that show, did knowing Rob Renzetti as the supervising producer help get you that job, to get that role?

Yeah, I actually interviewed for the story editor job but I didn’t have any experience with that and i don’t have a lot of credits compared to other people and the guy they went with was a writer on The Simpsons so, fair enough. I would have hired him over me too. But it was a great meeting and Rob was there, fresh off Pony and we worked really well together so I went in for a freelance. Right when it was starting out too, that was really tricky because when they gave me materials to look at, to know what the show is all about I had three outlines to look at and that was pretty much it. There was nothing to hear, I didn’t really know what the characters sounded like, there’s nothing to look at except drawings but it wasn’t animated. Actually there was a little bit of animated at the beginning but it’s tough right at the beginning when there’s not a lot of things to look at or read so that’s kind of the case on that show. I came in with just a few outlines.

Dipper exhibits some Twilight Sparkle-like check listing in M.A. Larsons episode of Gravity Falls

Now in a kind of followup, the voice actors community always talk about how in Vancouver they have their own sub-community where everyone seems to know everyone. Would you say it’s similar with you and the writers community for TV shows and cartoons in Los Angeles where you work?

Yeah, yes. It’s a really small world and I’m kind of new to it, I mean actually I’ve been doing it for seven years now. It’s weird because the DHX/Studio B people all go to the office, they hang out and they’re with each other all the time or they go to the voice booth and they’re all there together and we don’t ever see  each other, we’re all freelance. We see each other once a season for these summits but then I’ll go in with Meghan or Lauren and Rob and have story meetings. We don’t really have opportunities to see each other very much but you do keep seeing the same names. I went in for this job and this persons working for this show or a guy that I used to work with emailed me about another job at Disney. It’s that kind of thing , I can’t do it but I know you, do you want to do it? So you keep seeing the same names, like Amy actually came in on Kick Buttowski when I was there for freelance stuff and there’s defiantly the same sort of people gravitating around.

Okay so you have a little community going there but in a really small way.

But it’s a weird community because we don’t get together and have coffee community, it’s just sort of email.

Job referencing.

Yeah, if you’re lucky you’ll see them in person. Actually like this Friday when I came to this, this is the second time in my life that I’ve met Charlotte, you know, we don’t ever see each other. I didn’t even recognize her. “Oh hey! You’re Charlotte”.

I know it was mentioned earlier but you were all hugging anyway, you seemed you were all really good friends.

Exactly, it’s like I said, the brony community is insane for us, we feel that vibe.

Judging by your episodes and how they work you seem to have a fairly strong personal vision for how the show should kind of go, or should be. Say if you were the director of the show do you think you would put more continuity? Less continuity? How would you change it? Pop culture references, more humour, more emotional situations? How do you think it would change if you were under the helm?

I don’t know. I really don’t know. I think Lauren has set up such a beautiful system, there’s a mix of adventure episodes and slice of life episodes, I prefer those, I like the smaller sitcom style episodes but I wrote some of the bigger ones and I like those too. The comedy is fun, they let us do the kind of comedy you wouldn’t expect on My Little Pony… I don’t know if I’d change anything, I think it’s great. There would be more Applejack episodes.

Okay, that’s fair enough because the joke right now is that shes the best background pony.

No, no. she’s just modest.

There’s a poster of season two and they have all the characters all over this poster and the main characters are kind of up front and applejack is in the background.

You’re kidding.

No I’m not.

Alright who did that, who designed that? Was that Hasbro?

I don’t know, I don’t know if it was Hasbro or what because these posters are being sold in Walmart. That’s where the joke kind of originated right there.

Oh no, That’s so sad. She’s modest, she doesn’t flaunt it like Rarity does.

Season 2 Cast Poster

So when you are writing your episodes there are a lot of ideas you have that don’t make it in. Are there any particular amusing examples that you can mention that didn’t make it into the show that you wish had made it in?

Those questions are really hard to answer because there’s no really distinct this is now cut kind of thing. Either we’re in a meeting and there’s ideas floating around and you don’t even notice that it went away and then you’re kind of like oh that was a really good idea but it doesn’t work.

Right.

The most obvious one I can think of is there was a scene in Luna Eclipsed where there’s a rarity scene, she’s not in the episode but she’s in the script. There’s a scene after the scene with Fluttershy where Twilight takes Luna to Rarity’s and try to give her a Princess Makeover so she’s a little softer and they actually dye her fur, make her pink. It was a really funny scene but when I was watching the episode I was thinking “that’s such a good cut”  because it didn’t add to the story, they couldn’t have fitted it in, they had to cut something big so they just cut that entire scene and I thought it was a great cut, it was funny but you just didn’t need it. And actually after that episode I got put on a strict page limit of 30 pages, Lauren told me that Studio B said that my scripts had to be 30 pages, I guess I was putting too much stuff in them.

This will be the last question, is there any projects you are working on that you’d like to promote right now, outside of Pony?

I wrote a book. Which I think is perfect for bronies, the target audience is girls 7-10 [laughs] But it’s the same kind of thing, I guess you’d say fantasy but it’s got a lot of the same elements as My Little Pony so I’m not entirely joking. It’s about a core group of girls and the values of the book are the same as the show and I also sold the movie rights to it so I’m going to be writing the screenplay for that too and we’ve got Reese Witherspoon on as the producer.

So you are already moving along with that, great.

Yes.

Well that is all we have for you, thank you again for joining us, if you want to come to The Round Stable for more content like this, thank you very much.

Thanks to all you guys.

[Editors Note: MA Larsons book is called Pennyroyal's Princess Boot Camp, from Putnams Children's] 

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  1. Nice interview. I guess i have to watch a marathon of a show to grasp cartoon writing :P

    Im really happy to hear him (From what i’ve heard, a Rainbow Dash fan) say: Applejack needs more episodes