Over The Garden Wall with Patrick McHale
By Elise DeVoe
Tonight marks the premiere of Cartoon Network's first-ever miniseries, Over The Garden Wall. It's a five night mystery adventure about two brothers, Wirt (voiced by Elijah Wood) and Greg (voiced by Collin Dean), who find themselves lost in the Unknown, a strange forest adrift in time. Joined by friends (and foes!) along the way, Wirt and Greg must journey through the woods and find their way home.
Patrick McHale created Over The Garden Wall based on his award-winning short Tome of The Unknown. McHale spoke with us about what it was like creating the unique series, working with Elijah Wood, and much more.
Over The Garden Wall is based on your award-winning short Tome of The Unknown. What was it like turning a short into a 10-episode miniseries?
I mostly made the short for myself to prove that I could actually make something professional for once. Before that I'd only worked for other people, or done little experimental films. But I didn't really expect [Tome of the Unknown] to get picked up! I was living in upstate NY at the time, with no intention of moving back to LA.
But when Cartoon Network said they were interested in doing a miniseries, I realized I could move to LA for the year and just knock it out. So that's what we did!
When we started thinking about structuring the series, I had a ton of ideas for stories and little side arcs. I structured the series to be 18 episodes long. But after discussion with the network, it seemed like a weird number. So we cut it down to 10, which was basically a feature-length story.
It was hard to fit everything I wanted to tell into those 10 episodes, but in the end it seemed to come together. It felt like writing only 10 episodes may have been harder for me than writing all 18 episodes (because I had to condense and change so much), but actually producing 18 episodes to completion would have been impossible in the amount of time we had before fall 2014 (our air date). So it was definitely a good decision to do 10.
Elijah Wood voices Wirt. How did he get involved with the series and what was he like to work with?
We auditioned a lot of people for Wirt, and most of the auditioned sounded too much like Woody Allen or something. It was probably the way I wrote the description of him. But I told the voice casting director, Linda Lamontagne, that I wanted the sound of the voice to be more like Elijah Wood's voice. His voice just has a natural elegance to it, for lack of a better word. I thought that would be a nice contrast to the insecurity and weakness that Wirt seems to have. Well... after I said all this to Linda, she just went ahead and contacted Elijah and he liked the pitch bible! So after a brief phone conversation and audition, it was clear he was Wirt.
Working with Elijah was so easy and amazing. He was just so genuinely interested and excited about the show and really owned the character. He had so many good ideas for improving the performances, but was also up for trying out any of the weird ideas I'd throw at him to try. Probably the craziest record session was when Collin Dean (who voices Greg) and I kept shouting and taunting Elijah to get him as uncomfortable as possible for the embarrassing song he sings in Episode 4 – "Sing, lover, sing! SING, LOVER, SING!"
There's been a lot of talk about the soundtrack to Over The Garden Wall, specifically its use of original Americana and pre-20th century-influenced music. Talk us through that decision.
We wanted to use music from before the 1950s because there's a lot of great music out there that kids aren't usually exposed to. It seems like a lot of young people's knowledge of popular music only goes back as far as the 1960s, or 50s. When older music is referenced, it is done in a joking or hokey sort of way. The Blasting Company (who composed the music for the series) is incredible at making music that sounds honest. None of the music (to me, at least) sounds like a shtick. Since the show is meant to take place in a hard-to-define and timeless place, it was important that the music sound sincere and timeless as well.
Over The Garden Wall is really visually stunning. Did you do most of the design work? What animators did you work with?
It's hard to tell how much I did myself. I touched everything in some way or another. But Nick Cross is the one to thank for why the series look so good. He is incredible. We talked about the mood a lot, and I gave him a lot of reference, and then he would pretty much just run with it. There were also a lot of amazingly talented layout artists and painters and designers as well.
The animation studio that animated the series was Digital eMation. They really seemed to care about the series, and went to extra lengths to get the show to look as good as possible.
Talk a little about working with Cartoon Network Studios to produce the miniseries.
They were extremely supportive of this weird series! Why did we make a miniseries? Nobody knows! But I think maybe it felt like a first step to doing some new/different things in an age where nobody is exactly sure what's next for television.
Maybe because of my time on Adventure Time as creative director, the network seemed to trust me to make something good; even when the storyboards were rough or the ideas didn't seem fully figured out. I'd say things like, "It'll work when the music is in there!" or "It'll be funny once it has more poses!" And usually they just trusted me with that stuff.
A miniseries is tricky, though, because it isn't easy to get full-time artists working on it. There was a lot of freelance; which isn't the perfect thing for trying to make a cohesive and seamless show. Ideally it would have been nice to have more time to produce the series so that we'd have some breathing room. But it really had to get done by the fall (that's what the show's all about) so we didn't have the luxury of altering the schedule very much once we started.
Over The Garden Wall premieres tonight at 7/6c on Cartoon Network.