This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 274: Writer/Creator of The Tick, Ben Edlund, Talks About How He He Was Able To Turn The Comic Book Into An Amazon Series.
Ashley: Welcome to Episode #274 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screen writer and blogger over at www.sellingyourccreenplay.com. Today I’m interviewing Ben Edlund the creator and current showrunner for the Amazon series The Tick. He has an incredible story to tell. He started out in high school, originally creating this Tick character as a comic book for a local comic shop and slowly he had success with it. And he’s actually had two other TV series based on this same character. We talk through this entire journey, how he came up with the idea, got it to market, eventually got it to Amazon, all through this long journey that’s taken over 20 years. So stay tuned for that interview. If you find this episode valuable please help me out by giving me a review in iTunes, or leaving a comment on YouTube or retweeting the podcast on Twitter or liking or sharing it on Facebook.
These social media shares really do help spread word about the podcast so they’re very much appreciated. Any websites or links that I mention in the podcast can be found on my blog in the show notes. I also publish a transcript with every episode in case you’d rather read the show or look at something later on. You can find all the podcast show notes at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/podcast and then just look for Episode Number #274. If you want my free guide-How To Sell A Screenplay In Five Weeks, you can pick that up by going to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide. It’s completely free you just put in your email address and I’ll send you a new lesson once per week for five weeks along with a bunch of bonus lessons.
I teach the whole process of how to sell your screenplay in that guide. I’ll teach you how to write a professional logline and query letter and how to find agents, managers and producers who are looking for material. Really it’s everything you need to know to sell your screenplay. Just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide.
Quick few words about what I’m working on. I’m trying to get my next project going. It’s a Horror-Thriller that I’ve been talking about on the podcast for the last few months. I’ve got a budget and schedule now done and I’ve sent those off to potential investors to see if they’re serious or not. Hopefully they are. And then I have a few other smaller investors to talk with as well once I know what these large investors are going to do. I just sent them this last week, late last week, so I haven’t heard anything back but hopefully by the end of this week I will hear something, and if not I will reach out to them and basically saying, “It’s now or never. We gotta get this project going.” That’s where I’m at with that project.
On my feature film The Pinch the crime thriller feature which I finished last year, those sales are slowly starting to rack up so that’s good. At some point they will plateau and probably even start to decline and I might even be at that point now but hopefully not. Hopefully it will continue to go for a while longer. I do have some friends that have used the various iTunes, Amazon Prime, Voodoo and some of those other Video On Demand services and their experience is that there is kind of a peak and then it does sort of slow down. But I have some friends that have been on them for in excess of two years and they’re still making a little bit of money off them so hopefully that’s what can happen with The Pinch, it will just continue to at least earn some money.
But I think I might have seen the peak, but I’ll know more in a couple of weeks. As mentioned, The Pinch is available on all the VOD platforms like iTunes, Google Play and Amazon which includes Amazon Prime. If you do subscribe to Amazon Prime you can basically watch it for free. You just go there, click on it and start watching it and it’s all included in your Amazon Prime membership. If you do happen to watch it please do write a review and give it a few stars and that stuff really does help just keep it in the Amazon algorithm and keep recommending it to other people the more people that see it and like it and give it good reviews. If you have a minute it is much appreciated.
Also I am selling the film directly from my website, I’ve mentioned this before, you just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/thepinch all lowercase letters, all lowercase and all one word. If you buy it from there you can also add as an extra the three-hour webinar I did on the making on The Pinch. I cover every part of the process of making this film- writing the screenplay, raising the money, pre-production, production and post-production. I put quite a bit of time preparing for that webinar so if you’re thinking about making a micro-budget film I think this would be very educational for you. It’s only just an extra five bucks basically to just add the webinar into your purchase.
Anyway, that’s The Pinch. I’m still desperately trying not to start writing something new and just stay focused on tweaking my Horror-Thriller script, doing a shot list, just going through it and just really getting acquainted, thinking it through so that when I do actually get into production on it I will be really, really well educated. I really found with The Pinch was that everything got so rushed. I was just so busy with the producing and the logistics of getting the film done. I felt like there were creative things that kind of slipped between the cracks so I’m trying not to do this on this one. As I said, I’m just trying to not write a new spec script or a new whatever and just stay focused, just keep rereading the script, just keep going through it, come up with shot list and start to think more along those lines, just the creative choices that are gonna need to be made- casting, those kinds of things.
Because I don’t want those to get short changed. I really wanna give those things the time that they deserve. And as I said with The Pinch I just was wearing so many hats. And I should have a lot more help with this one as well so I’m not just the sole producer of it and that will be very, very helpful just as I said, just taking some of that responsibility off me so that I can stay focused on working with the actors, looking at the shot list, working with the DP and just trying to make the film just as good as it possibly can creatively. Anyway, so that’s where I’m at with that. As I said, hopefully I’ll have some answers on the potential investors here in the next couple of weeks as well. That’s what I’m working the last couple of weeks and will continue to work on probably for the next few weeks.
So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I am interviewing writer Ben Edlund. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Ben to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me today.
Ben: I’m happy to be here. Thanks for having me.
Ashley: To start out maybe you can tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up and how did you get interested in the entertainment business?
Ben: Yeah. I grew up in Massachusetts in a small town [inaudible 00:06:18] Boston really and… I’m old so that was in the 70’s. That was like a time where I got really trained on very early to the idea of film making. Star Wars was highly impactful and I became one of those kids that got a Super 8 camera off a blanket at a yard sale and started to make movies and that was the pattern. Then from that point I was also just always drawing. My dad was an artist so I developed storytelling… visual storytelling both in comic books and movies. That was my thing and so I had a lot of time in by the time I had a few opportunities to grab for.
Ashley: Yeah. Let’s talk about The Tick. Season two is gonna be dropped on Amazon Prime on April 5th. Maybe to start out you can just give us a quick pitch or a logline for the show. What is this show all about?
Ben: It’s a universe full of superheroes. The Tick and Arthur are a pair of heroes trying to make it. Arthur is a former accountant with sort of a fearful nature he’s trying to overcome and the Tick is an enigmatic superhuman blue vaguely bug-related superhero, cannot remember his past and tends to be a gifted burglar in the tradition of inspector Clouseau. That’s a long logline.
Ashley: Yeah. I think that sums it up well. I think this is just a fascinating story in terms of how you were able to get this ultimately on Amazon. You originally wrote a comic book so we’ll dig into that, you got it on Fox at one point and then again in 2001. Maybe we can just talk through some of these steps where we’re just taking us way back to the very origin of The Tick. Where did that idea come from?
Ben: it was just a real simple combination of things that were in my life. I grew up on a cranberry bog with a lot of dogs so ticks were a big part of our existence. We had them, the dogs had them, everybody had them. That was the thing. And when I was in my teens I started to play roleplaying games and started to play… one of the games was a marvel roleplaying game, Marvel Super Heroes and that was like a meta-analysis of superheroes that was just kinda there, and as I played it I started to get a kind of view on superheroes that sort of felt like… I mean, I really enjoyed them but I also saw them in this gorgeously ridiculous way that made me wanna create my own.
I started fooling around with this character called the Tick that was at fist just a doodle and something very primitive and simple but I ended up… I lived a few towns over from a comic book company that was trying to become a publishing company. So I happened to find my way to them and showed them samples of my work, I started to illustrate for them and then eventually the Tick is a character they saw and got excited about. That’s how the publishing started.
Ashley: Okay. And then what does that mean, like an independent comic book and this must’ve been what, in the eighties? How does that ultimately transfer into getting a television show? Did they promote it well, did it kinda just catch fire? What was that trajectory of going from local comic book to show on Fox?
Ben: Yeah. It was the eighties, it was like 88’ when we put it out. That was at the tail end of what was called the black and white explosion which was a market fascination with black and white independent comic books. We thought we would just cash in on the very end of that but it turned out that the comic book itself had a kind of winning chemistry and people started to really enjoy it which was great for me so I kept doing it. This was also an acclimate. We were only not… I mean, I grew up within an hour’s drive of Eastman and Laird who created the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles so there was a local folkloric rise to greatness [laughs] that took place right next door and it kind of inspired us to be looking around and see if we could do something similar. And through various… I mean, it took a couple of years but through a long kinda slug we were able to finally land at Fox Kids network. Yeah.
Ashley: And maybe you can even give us some of those details. I mean, you’re starting to get a little bit of traction with the comic book, people are enjoying it. Did you actively make an effort and said, “Listen, we can turn this into an animated series,” and you went out actively looking for people or was it the opposite where the comic book was catching on and then you started having television people coming to you giving you offers?
Ben: It was like that. The offers were not immense but they were… they started to come in once we kinda proved that we’d be around so we were still… it was really issue five and six somewhere in there that we started to get attention. And then… I think there was an independent feature producer that wanted to buy up an option and wanted to work out a treatment for a feature that seemed unlikely to me because at that point especially we only had very little on… that was before Batman, the Michael Keaton Batman, so it was a time of great skepticism in terms of live of action. But other larger producers came looking at that and then the way I kind of saw it moving I think even then what seemed like the most likely course was something that followed the route that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was following.
And that became a long process. I signed up with a toy licensing agent called Kiss Com and that was… I think certainly in the short term it worked so it was a good move. It was a high percentage toy licensing, and I’m not sure if I was necessarily well represented, but it was an high percentage to kind of get in the game and actually move this from the point of just me up in Massachusetts to somebody who had contact and lounge for real meetings to start to take place. At that point I was living in New York City and going to school at School of Visual Arts so every once in a while I’d get on my bike and ride up to Midtown and I’d take my bike seat in with me because people would take your bike seat.
So I’d walk in the meetings with my bike seat and I’d sit down and go, “Well, let’s make a TV show.” And I was very young at that point. I was 22. Somehow over the course of a couple of years we managed to make contacts sufficient to get us in front of Fox Kids network. That was like maybe a year and a half of meeting with different people though we went up a road with Bandai, major Japanese toy manufacturer that had basically, if I’m not mistaken, was the company that initially did the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle run. But at any rate it was one of those large companies that was used to packaging cartoons with toy lines and doing all of that. In that respect it turns out I think I was extremely lucky that everybody looked at The Tick and said, “That’s too weird and funky. We’re not gonna do it,” because it has prospered so much better being… even though it did get a cartoon, it didn’t get a cartoon that was based on a toy line which allowed it to be more itself.
It didn’t have the pressure of a large company on top of the network trying to control what it was so it was really allowed to grow sort of unmolested and become… it’s not an overwhelming one but it’s a cultural landmark to some degree for some people. It wouldn’t have done that if it was toy line. It would have been a nostalgic remembrance of childhood but I prefer what happened [laughs].
Ashley: Yeah. So during this year and a half as you’re sort of ramping up did you write some spec episodes of The Tick, sort of a pilot episode and a couple episodes? Did you start to prepare yourself for this potential to have a TV show or did you just still basically have the comic book and what you were doing there?
Ben: I had various pitch documents that I had worked out. By the time we went to Fox Kids Network it was a thick pitch book with… I had done illustrations for all the characters and character descriptions and I kind of, if I’m not mistaken [inaudible 00:16:21] the pilot. There wasn’t a pilot script. It was more like an overview of the show at that point. It evolved from something that was less about the show and more about the potential of the toy line and then overarching kind of story value of the piece that was this angle at which one approached the toy world at that point. This was a mutation of that , that was like pitch book kind of inconsistent with what I was seeing in the cartoon world but it was not… I didn’t have a script.
And so when I first got engaged with the Fox Kids Network situation that was actually a consultancy. I was at that point fairly sure that I was gonna sign away, that I was signing away The Tick sort of, because there was no guarantee I was gonna personally be involved the making of the show. It just… like that was sort of… it certainly wasn’t the case for Eastman and Laird, they were not involved. They had it optioned and it became this very Saturday morning thing that was wildly popular and I assumed that’s what was gonna take place. Instead I was given a kind of a consultancy in my contract which was very much at their option in terms of they could certainly put a clone of silence around me if they needed to. Instead I just ended up…
I was in the same city as one of the two key writers that they had brought onto the project, Richard Liebmann-Smith, the other one was out in Los Angeles and they were going to kinda pull together the pilot script and write the season, and I was sort of just writing emails, commenting on the material that was coming out and the flow in commentary and my connection with Richard Liebmann-Smith I just sort of ended up sitting in the seat where I started to co-write with Richard. And then the guy in Los Angeles became [inaudible 00:18:54] and we just started going, and the script was just… It was unusual, I was really young, I had no experience before that point but I was the actual only scholar and expert on The Tick that they had and it turned out to be kind of a sensitive… it always has been a sensitive kind of tone so I was just lucky I got in there. Since then it’s just been immensely fortunate.
Ashley: Yeah. I’m curious too. You were talking about this toy company that you signed a deal with and then that seemed to lead to some of these meetings at Fox. Did the toy company, did they have the actual contacts over at Fox that they could just pick up the phone and set up those meetings or was it more just having that toy company signed on was prestigious enough then you were able to go out and set up those meetings? What did the toy… I guess I’m not fully clear how signing with this toy company seemed to ultimately equal getting that Fox show.
Ben: They functioned as my agent at that point. They were people who had a lot of connections. They had made all kinds of calls to networks because they were always trying to push forward various deals with other toy lines and really sort of auxiliary kind of entertainment material needed. So they were in that world to a degree. They were one degree removed because their emphasis was on toys but they were able to function completely as agents for me in that regard. I didn’t make meetings, I didn’t call people out of the blue or anything like it, that would never have happened. I wouldn’t have known who to call. Instead I was just… anytime we needed material I generated the materials, anytime… I was the content and they were the provider at that point. By the time we started getting into production or pre-production as agents do, they faded away because the bond had been made and it was time to get to work.
Ashley: Yeah. Let’s talk about the 2001 version. How did that come about? How were you able to just keep this train going and get that set up?
Ben: That started with… I was envisioning it in the following way: Barry Sonnenfeld, a successful director, was on a private jet that almost crashed and it went past the edge of the runway and kinda skidded out. He was okay but he was a very nervous flyer and so had a near death experience and when he came out of it he was like, “We need to do The Tick as a live action show [laughs].” And so for some reason he decided that was the thing that needed to happen. He had encountered this guy Patrick Warburton and felt like this guy was the walking embodiment of the Tick. I think his children had been seeing The Tick cartoon and that’s how his awareness of the [inaudible 00:22:10] began but then Flody Suarez also kind of was working with them and Barry Josephson and they were both pushing hard to make The Tick one of the choices that the company went for.
And so they called me up and we started to work on something. First I said no. It was my habit of saying no, “No. That’s crazy. I can’t make a live action Tick, it’s crazy.” But then I met Patrick Warburton, they flew me out to LA to talk to him and he seemed great and he was and we became this kind of amazing human avatar that was eye opening and it opened my brain to the wider potential of the character. At that point we agreed that we had this guy, he was great and he was already kind of popular because of Seinfeld. Everyone loved him [laughs] and still does. But that became a pretty good package because we went out with Barry Josephson, Barry Sonnenfeld, Patrick Warburton and myself doing the pilot and it sold. And so… yeah. Got to work.
Ashley: Perfect. And then takes us through that same trajectory. How did you then ultimately end up a third time on Amazon?
Ben: That show went for about nine episodes. It was not fully embraced by the network that bought it and that was just a misunderstanding of what they asked for and what they got. Essentially they asked for Barry Sonnenfeld Property X and then when it came out and it had superheroes in it they were like, “Superheroes! What are they [laughs]?” So it came and went but it inspired a… I think everyone associated with it has had the same experience which is people loved it and talked about it and brought it up all the time with Patrick, all the time with the Barry’s. Everybody really just feeling like this thing was… it had a cult fascination associated with it, so Barry Josephson got sick of it.
He was always on other projects and somebody would come up from the crew and say, “Are you ever gonna do something with The Tick?” and so finally he went to Sony, he was doing other things, he sniffed it out and there was interest there too for taking the rights which they still possessed in trying to make a new television expression of The Tick in live action which was for me… so Barry came to me, I first said, “No,” but it ate at me and I started to think about it and realized yeah it’s a challenge we didn’t quite complete in the first live action iterations, something we didn’t… there were calculations I made at that time in the engineering of that show which fated it to be short-run show not that it was given a chance but just in terms of its DNA.
I realized there were all kinds of things that I wanted to do to grapple again with what is really I think one of the… it’s maybe one of the hardest forums which would be a long forum superhero comedy because that is so… it couldn’t be more likely or less important. Like long forum superhero dramas, at least you’re going with stakes and you’re trying to make it… but something as absurd as The Tick that one wants to see for seasons and seasons that was a challenge I didn’t understand how to meet and I was… yeah, fatally intrigued [laughs].
Ashley: And so you keep saying that they would come to you and you would say, “No.” Why do you say no? Are you just sick of working on this thing since you were 14, you want other projects or the initial deal just doesn’t look that good? What is going through your mind when you’re saying no at first?
Ben: I mean, in each case it’s… and this is one of the biggest issues going when it comes to getting scripts up and running, is fear. In each case I had completed something that was okay, it was good, people liked it. I had come off the cartoon, the cartoon was quite celebrated actually and so later in the 90’s when someone came to me and said, “Oh, you wanna open that box again and see if you can fuck it up [laughs],” pardon my French. See if you can like just… like no, it’s good [laughs]. But then the question starts to eat at me and then I think, “Well, alright.” It’s not so much that I don’t wanna deal with The Tick again necessarily, although after I’m done with this one I’ll put it down for a while, but it’s more that my relationship with The Tick has been such that… it’s actually been pretty positive and I’ve been wanting to protect that legacy basically.
It wasn’t until I met Patrick and all of those sort of things that I realized, “Okay, I wanna try this in live action in 2001 or 2000.” And then it wasn’t really until Barry came and Josephson came out to me and I had thought about it and then I started to see how it could be done, a turnaround of how it could be approached with which it could be approached. And then realizing okay, if I’m starting to think of this and wanna address the things I felt weren’t addressed in the previous live action and maybe kinda make it a different thing worth doing then I felt empowered to define my terms very rigorously. It was very specific. There would not be a broadcast, I would not pitch it to broadcasts, I would not pitch it for 22 episodes per season, I would not pitch it for anything but a pedigree outlet that had enough money to support a very peculiar idea with real backing. So it had to be 13 episodes or less. I mean, I had a lot of requirements.
Ashley: Yeah. And so how involved are you with the production now? Are you still the showrunner, are you hiring the writers, are you overseeing the scripts, are you writing some of the scripts?
Ben: Yes [laughs]. Yeah. I mean, I’m the sole showrunner in the second season then I have been doing a lot. So if it’s… I will take all the blame and a small portion of the credit because a lot of people did a tremendous number of things. For example we did a lot of writing in C2 because of various factors that just kinda fell into place. We had to do rewriting kind of all the time as we were moving through the season and that became this partnership between myself and Susan Hurwitz Arneson, one of our editors from the first season, she’s co-executive producer now. And that was a big part of how we pulled this thing off but in essence I have a dirty finger in everything.
Ashley: Let’s talk about that process just for a little bit. I get a lot of questions from writers about how they can get on this show or that show. Just as an example how did you find the writers for The Tick? Were they people that you had worked with before, were they agent submissions and you read a bunch of scripts? Were they friends suggesting their writer friends? Maybe you can just talk through how you built the staff to write this show.
Ben: Yeah. I think we approached it in a fairly straightforward way which was Barry Josephson has a production company that is up and running and so one of his lieutenants at that time was Eric Facade and he kinda launched into this massive reading campaign to start to get the raw bulk of submissions that we wanted to look at and focus on. And that was a group of submissions that came from all over. Like my agent came from other people’s… people that we were associated with came from Amazon, came from Sony. There were writers I looked at from friends of mine and from contacts that I knew, that’s something you need to be careful with, I mean, there’s a whole chapter in whatever one wants to pursue that is about working with friends [laughs].
But for me in this case we were really… we had sort of a pretty reasonable budget and room to kind of shape out about seven to nine spots and just kinda went at it. I read a lot, I met a lot of people, it was a combination of the meetings which there’s chemistry and intangible stuff that takes place during meetings and then reading the spec stuff that was submitted. A lot of times I was reading… personally I was reading pilots that they made because I wanted to see what kind of decisions they made when they were on their own and were guards of their own worlds. But… it’s a weird kind of weather system that dictates what is involved in terms of submissions and I’m not in touch with that exactly.
Ashley: Yeah. So obviously the writing is very important, you’re reading these spec scripts. But what other things are important to you when you’re hiring a writer to come in and be in your writer’s room? Some of the other things besides writing?
Ben: Let’s see… I mean, there’s that sort of certain factors that are basically about personality and almost like psychic signature. As a showrunner I’m sitting down with a person and I am projecting that person into the room I’m making, and I’ve maybe made some choices already and so I have say three seats filled and I’m looking into that sort of future projection of the room that I’m taking that person and putting them there. If I’ve got kind of a quiet room in my head right now and I’m talking to someone who’s actually very vocal and almost has trouble not talking over me, they could be okay depending. I would never talk over a person in a meeting that I’m trying to impress [laughs].
But I might be looking for and listening for some volume from a person. I’m listening for a more volcanic creative nature because I wanna picture a room and I want generators and I want processors and ideally generator processors, but like you’re looking for a variety of functions and you’re trying to create a sort of an ongoing cocktail party with a job. And so that’s an element and that’s something where it’s really just the advice would be be yourself and try to be as the least nervous self-aware, you know, unnecessarily self-aware version of yourself you can be because its… it’s also for you. You want to be a comfortable fit in a space and if you’re trying to contort your presentation of self over much, unless you’re a good, solid, psychopath it’s gonna show. So why don’t you just be yourself.
So that’s that thing. The other things one looks for are like a track record… that’s not always the case. I was always looking at people who had never worked yet. I wanted to try and give people the potential door in. Anyone who had a track record I would then make calls and talk to people who’d worked with them and try to get the lowdown on how they operated in the room and how their drafts were, and just in general what kind of team member they were.
Ashley: Yeah. Sound advice. So maybe you can just tell us when the… I guess the tickets are coming out April 5th?
Ben: April 5th…
Ashley: On Amazon.
Ben: Ten episodes will come out at once, so the full season.
Ashley: Perfect, and I highly recommend people to check that out. And what’s the best way for people to keep up with what you’re doing? A blog, Twitter, anything you’re comfortable sharing I’ll round up for the show notes.
Ben: Yes. Check in with my Twitter. I’m trying to get better at it, so we can work on it together everybody. It is @ben_edlund, all lower cases.
Ashley: Perfect, got it. So perfect, I will round that up for the show notes so people can click over to that. Well Ben congratulations on getting this show, it’s up and running. God luck with it and I look forward to seeing what you do next.
Ben: Thanks man. Thank you for your time and attention. I appreciate it.
Ashley: Thank you. Will talk to you later.
Ben: Okay, bye.
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On the next episode of the podcast I’m gonna be interviewing writer-director James Dylan. He just wrote and directed a low budget feature film called Cargo. It’s another great story from someone who’s just out there making things happen for themselves. We talk about this film and how he was able to get this film into production, so keep an eye out for that episode next week. Anyway, that’s the show, thank you for listening.