Exclusive: TOWER PREP Creator Paul Dini Interview

TOWER PREP

TOWER PREP creator Paul Dini is probably best known for his work in animation: he has written and produced for shows ranging from Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Superman: The Animated Series to any number of Batman series, including The New Batman Adventures and the current Batman: The Brave and the Bold. He is also working on the Ultimate Spiderman animated series, which is set to premiere next year. He works in the comic arena with, among other projects, a new Zatanna stand-alone series and a long-running series of one-offs centering on his original character Jingle Belle.

Daemon’s TV talked to Paul about what inspired him to create the dark and mysterious Tower Prep, how they found just the right cast and brought the live-action series onto Cartoon Network, what we can expect from Paul’s latest Jingle Belle anthology, and what Zatanna is up to in the next two issues of her stand-alone series.

Be sure to watch Tower Prep when it premieres on Cartoon Network tonight, Tuesday, October 19 at 8pm/7 central and keep up with all our Tower Prep coverage here. Now I hope you enjoy the interview with the very talented and busy Paul Dini.

What inspired you to make such a different type of show for kids?

Paul Dini: I just went back to when I was a kid and I remembered. There are very few memories that standout inside my head as clearly as the day that I was dropped off at boarding school. I remembered everything about it. I wrote everything down about it and everything about pretty much my first day of boarding school is in the pilot. The whole thing of finding myself in a room with three guys that I never got along with throughout my whole high school experience, the idea of being on an isolated campus somewhere which my school was. It was in the middle of the woods. And there was an ocean on one side. Maybe not so much the guys with the glowing eyes but that was sort of like a fantasy extension perhaps of some of the security people and the ideas of the school, the idea of the monitors being here and there, older students keeping tabs on everybody. Just that feeling of alienation and trying to find my way. I think a lot of kids respond to that. They go through that. If they don’t go through that at school they go through it at camp or they go through it in some situation in their life. I think there’s a lot of teenage things that really resonate with young audiences because if they’re not teenagers yet they want to be teenagers and they want to find out all about it. I think for both the fun stuff and the unsettling stuff it works on those levels. They want to be a part of the team and have friends and do cool stuff. And yet there’s also the doubts and the stress and the feeling of, like, ‘Am I ever going to fit in here?’ I think that might not be as pleasant as some of the other stuff but I think it resonates just as equally as kids. Even if they never go through exactly that situation or anything near it I think that kids can identify to it. I think in a way that’s as dramatic for them as some of the dramatic incidents for adults in a prime time show on another network. I just wanted to tap into those feelings and so show it from their point of view. Also, as the series progresses and even in the pilot there are moments of triumph and happiness and goofing around with your friends and the feeling of what it’s like to be a kid and get away with stuff.

How did this project come about, a live action show on The Cartoon Network?

Paul Dini: What happened was that Cartoon Network was looking for a way to diversify their programming and maybe find and offer different programming selections for their target audience and even though they made a commitment to cartoons which they still keep up – there’s no better source for cartoons on TV than Cartoon Network – they want to just provide some other forms of entertainment that would delve into imagination in the same way that a lot of their cartoon programming did. So I had a meeting with Tramm Wigzell and Rob Swartz more than two years ago. We were just very casually talking about a direction for Cartoon Network one night over dinner and I just happened to pitch this idea that I had floating around in my head about doing a kid who was undergoing all this teen angst but in this kind of fantastic boarding school scenario. They said, ‘Wow. That sounds good. Lets talk tomorrow about that. Call your people and lets see if we can get this in development.’ They liked it from the get go. It was an idea that I’d wanted to do for a long time and Cartoon Network just happened to be a perfect fit for it. It was all very serendipitous.

The casting seems to be perfect. Was it hard finding the right people for the roles?

Paul Dini: It was a process that the casting director and the pilot director, Terry McDonough and I went through. I was involved in the casting process and Terry was involved very hands on with speaking to the actors and getting the right tone. We went through so many young actors, really good actors, terrific actors who brought a lot to it. And yet there was something about when Dyana [Liu], Ryan [Pinkston] and Drew [Van Acker] were together that it all just clicked. I said, ‘Boy. That’s our cast. Those are our guys. Right there. Those are the guys.’ We looked at a lot of very talented actresses for CJ and yet no one really struck the balance between vulnerable and mysterious that Elise [Gatien] gave the character. She auditioned in Vancouver and we went back and forth a number of times between Los Angeles actresses and Elise and finally we just realized that she could read anybody yet it’s hard for the others to read her at times. She just brought that. There’s a warmth to her, a little bit of a distance and we just needed more of that rather than somebody who was just a little bit more of the team. I think that Dyana when the chips are down brings a little more of the spunk and Elise brings a little more of the cool. I think they’re both terrific. They both play off of each other really well.

I love the casting of the Headmaster, too. It reminded me of my headmaster at boarding school –

Paul Dini: He reminded me of my headmaster, too. That’s part of the reason. I love Ted’s [Whitall] delivery, just simple lines like, ‘Mr. Archer.’ There’s something about it that means, like, ‘I’m a big brother for a moment,’ but underneath it it’s like, ‘Be careful how you answer this,’ because either way is going to be trap. The more we develop the Headmaster through the series the more he becomes a terrific character. With any character, hero or villain, the more facets that you can add to their personality the more that character shines and I think that towards the end he’s just as big a part of the show as the kids are.

There’s a balance of the fun kid stuff and the mystery and the danger and the action. Is that what we can expect going forward in most episodes?

Paul Dini: Yeah, I think so. I think every episode is going to have a lot of mystery, a lot of high school stuff and a lot of fun in it. I think some episodes are going to skew more towards the school situation. Some are going to skew more towards the mythology and some are going to be pretty an even balance of both. There are stories that deal with very simple things like wanting to put on a dance or Ian is accused of a crime against another student and he has to clear himself. All the time Ian himself is walking a balance of, like, ‘I’m learning things here that I never would’ve learned on the outside and I don’t have a problem with what I’m learning. I just have a problem with the way that it’s being taught and the fact that I have no choice in the matter.’ So those stories get more a kid’s point of view and deal more with the day to day issues of Tower Prep. Then there are some stories that just propel them into complete other worlds of how they look at the school, very fantastic episodes with what I call series mythology in them.

Will there be answers dished out along the way?

Paul Dini: Yes. We had a rule in the writer’s room. Never throw the audience a bone unless there’s meat on it.

You did work on ‘Lost’ and must’ve heard the fan’s outcry on that –

Paul Dini: Well, my involvement with ‘Lost’ was in the first couple of seasons and back then it seems that it hadn’t veered so far into mystery but even then the rule was lets play fair. So, yeah, I did take that from my first couple of years on ‘Lost’. But also that was one of the things early on. I did sit down and work out, ‘Okay, where’s the story going to go and what’s going to happen,’ and then the more I worked with Glenn Morgan the more we fleshed it out, revised it and changed things completely. So by the time that we actually called the writer’s room together we did have a pretty solid idea of where the show was going to be, not only in this season but also in subsequent seasons and where pretty much it’s going to end up. You always revise. You always change. That’s the nature of writing but I think in general we have a few things that we’re keeping in our heads, like, ‘Lets head towards these goals.’

Can I assume that it’s very open ended at the end of this first thirteen episode run for more in the future?

Paul Dini: Maybe. We answer a lot of questions at the end of the thirteenth episode but those questions, there are always more answers.

Now there’s a new Jingle Belle anthology coming out this Christmas, right?

Paul Dini: Yeah. Jingle Belle stocking stuffers.

This has your more Sunday style strips, right, and when will that be coming out?

Paul Dini: That’ll be coming out in early December. What I did with Stephanie Gladden, I tried an experiment this year and I wish I’d actually been more diligent about it but I had so many things in addition to ‘Tower Prep’ and everything coming up, but we were trying to do a series of Sunday or more less regular strips with Jingle in it because I love the Sunday page format and I love the classic, old, where you have a nice big ten or eleven panels Sunday strip. Stephanie and I tried to do a few of those and those will be collected into the book and we did a number of them especially for the book because I think with a character like Jingle Belle where you know the premise, she’s Santa Claus’s daughter and she doesn’t really fit into the North Pole, that she’s a teenager and is done with the whole sweetness and light thing; that’s a good contrast. So you can play that every week in a different strip. So we did a few of those and then a few of those about her friends and the extended characters that I work with from time to time. So those will be collected up into the book. That was a lot of fun to do. There’s a longer story as well and a few reprints and a few weird little one-shots that not many people have seen. So it’s a mixed package. A lot of fun.

I love your ‘Zatanna’ series but a friend said I’m pronouncing it wrong –

Paul Dini: As long as it’s not Zantanna like Santana because that’s what everybody seems to call her. Like Carlos Santana. They heard the song ‘Black Magic Woman’ and made the connection.

Can you tease anything about number six that’s coming up?

Paul Dini: Number six is the wrap up of the big story in Las Vegas. It deals with the Sonny Raymond story who’s a guy who’s actually pretending to be his own son. His name is actually Benjamin Raymond and he was one of the original founders of Las Vegas. He’s kept himself alive all these years, alive and young by offering various souls to the god Mammon who he sort of built Las Vegas as a tribute to. He’s gotten married over the years and all his brides have been sacrificed to Mammon and every time he gets one he goes, ‘Okay, you’ve got another five year extension.’ Raymond is running out of time and so he’s going to make the ultimate sacrifice and that’s Zantanna. In order to do it he has to mystically drug her to get her to agree to the wedding ceremony and have contact with her. Her cousin, Zachary Zatara who at the last minute figures out what’s going on and tries to stop the wedding from taking place. So it’s fun. It’s a nonstop romp in Las Vegas.

I’m glad that she finally has her own series.

Paul Dini: I like what other writers have done with her. I like what Grant Morrison did with her. Issue seven kind of goes back. I wasn’t able to do directly what Grant did with her in ‘Seven Soldiers’ but I do bring up the idea that there are times that she gets very insecure about her life and her place in the world and she has to deal with her fears. So she is in therapy like a lot of performers I know. I changed things up a bit and gave her a different therapist but I think it’s one that really works within the context of the DC Universe. It was nothing against ‘Seven Soldiers’ but I found that the elements in ‘Seven Soldiers’ were exclusive to that series. So I came up with another angle for her to undergo therapy and once I ran it by my editors, what we wanted to do, they all said, ‘This is kind of fun and also has some sort of touchstone feather, a mystic from the DC Universe.’ So that became kind of a fun thing to do. So issue seven opens with her in therapy and dealing with her longstanding fear of puppets, of all things, and where that came from. My wife works with some puppets as a magician. I’ve worked with puppets my whole life and I do a bit of ventriloquism. It’s never been an issue with me but I’ve seen people, we both belong to the Magic Castle, and there’s an area reserved for puppets and I’ve had people shriek and not want to go in there because they’re so freaked out by them.

That would be clowns for me –

Paul Dini: That, too. Someone in my family has that. I don’t think they’ve ever seen the ‘Batman’ movies they just hate the idea of The Joker so much.

I think ‘Tower Prep’ is going to be a big hit for Cartoon Network –

Paul Dini: Thank you. I think they just get better from here on in. I think Terry has done a magnificent job and once the episodes really hit their stride after you’ve been watching for a few weeks it really becomes a tremendous show.

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