Genndy Tartakovsky on Primal Season 2, Telling Adult Stories in Animation, and the State of the Medium TodayPhoto Courtesy of Adult Swim TV Features Primal
Without a doubt, one of the most high-concept animated series being made right now is Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal. It’s a 2D, R-rated production that utilizes almost no dialogue to convey the story of a prehistoric caveman (Spear) and a Tyrannosaurus (Fang) that have bonded through great personal loss. Think visceral Shakespearean drama with a Boris Vallejo aesthetic.
The first season was awarded four Emmy awards, including one for Outstanding Animated Program. Now, after a two year hiatus for production, Primal Season 2 returns to Adult Swim with 10 new episodes that finally pays off the “Slave of the Scorpion” cliffhanger which introduced Mira, a seemingly more advanced woman who can speak. After she’s kidnapped, we hear Spear speak a word for the very first time.
Tartakovsky is one of the rare creators in the animation industry who gets major studios and networks to take chances with their storytelling. In addition to Primal, he’s also deep into production for the upcoming Cartoon Network/HBO Max series Unicorn: Warriors Eternal about a group of ancient protectors, as well as the R-rated Sony Animation feature, Fixed. With the recent spate of major animation series cancellations at Netflix, the unceremonious closing of Blue Sky Studios in 2021, and ongoing animation industry wage issues, Paste got on a Zoom with Tartakovsky to talk about staying bold in a medium that prefers to fund what’s safe, the challenges of telling more adult fare, and his thoughts on the contraction that’s going on around him.
This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.
Paste: Coming off the first season of Primal and going into the second, what was clear that you wanted to push going forward with your storytelling?
Genndy Tartakovsky: I really want to push storytelling. The first 10 episodes, there were so many successful ideas, and the complexity of our stories were still being understood even when there’s no dialogue. Especially with “The Covenant of the Damned,” with the witches, there was so much complexity with feeling loss. And I’m like, “let’s do even more complex stories, but still follow the rules of the show.” We restructured these 10 episodes to be kind of one story. It goes up and down in three arcs, or so. It’s been incredible. We totally broke what we wanted to do and rediscovered this new path. It turned out great, and I could not be any more proud and excited to have people watch and react to it. It takes you on a ride. Where we’re heading is unexpected, I think.
Paste: When you say that you broke what you wanted to do, what happened?
Tartakovsky: I had a whole arc planned for the second season that initially was going to be part of the first season. But I realized there was so much more we could do in the first season, so we didn’t need to bring in this new element. We pushed it to the second season, and then once we started to break it down, I realized we’re kind of breaking what we’ve established, to a degree, and we’re heading into the world of cliches. As soon as you introduce some kind of primitive early civilizations, you’re instantly in 10,000 B.C. or Stargate, and all that stuff. It didn’t feel right for Primal, so I had to rethink it.
Paste: The series certainly isn’t historically accurate, but when you add more evolved humans like Mira into the mix, that means you can take the story a lot of different ways. Was the direction of that storyline always clear in your mind?
Tartakovsky: I always wanted to do a depiction of The Picts, so that was always there. It’s almost a nod to Robert E. Howard because it was kind of his favorite thing that he wrote about. And after that, that’s where we got into a pause for a bit to figure out where we’re going to go. Originally, of course, you have to do Egypt, right? Because that’s one of the first civilizations with the overlord Pharaoh and slaves, but that’s where it really broke for me. It just did not feel right at all. We restarted, and as I was digging through history, I came upon something that I never encountered before in early civilization. I got so excited for it, and it was the perfect vehicle for us for the second half of the season. We found a path around that Pharaoh idea. It’s something I’ve never seen before, and I’ve seen a lot of stuff. It’s something that kind of didn’t survive history in a bigger sense. And then once you see it, you’ll understand.
Paste: The first season of Primal was very much a two-hander about Fang and Spear. Is the focus going to expand with the introduction of new humans?
Tartakovsky: No, they’re still the focus. I think what happens to them is still very central to the plot, to the story, and to the character development. And especially what we’re doing with Spear. The trailers show that there’s other humans in more civilized worlds, but how does that affect our simple caveman? What does he feel, and how do we convey that with no dialogue? And that was one of the most challenging things and the most complex things, trying to get across this idea of where are you in evolution? Without me saying it, I hope people understand it, and I’m sure they will because we’ve gone to lengths to have Spear contemplate this. That’s a very existential, complicated thought, and to do it in the show where you never have him say, “I don’t know if I’m feeling my place in this world.” [Laughs] It was a great challenge. It just pushed the storytelling to facilitate these ideas.
Paste: Will Mira have a substantial storyline?
Tartakovsky: Mira has a story that we’re following. And there are other characters that we introduce along the way. This is what I’m excited about. Remember in “A Cold Death,” with the killing of the woolly mammoth and how you feel bad for the polar bear? He’s got to eat, but please don’t eat the baby puppy seal, right? We’ve taken that idea, which is the crux of the show to a degree, and now we’ve pushed it to a human level. What does that mean and how do we execute that? It’s what’s made this new season incredibly interesting, fun, and dynamic.
Paste: In regards to language, with the introduction of it in the Season 1 finale and more of it in future episodes, has that been a loggerhead for you in finding a balance that doesn’t disrupt the heart of the series?
Tartakovsky: It is. You know that expression “jumped the shark,” we definitely didn’t want to. Maybe some people will think that we did in a gigantic way. But I don’t think so. I think it’s completely true to the show. And we’ve managed to do it with just a little bit more talking, not much at all really. And the talking, by the way, is not subtitled. It’s in the language of what the civilization is, so if you can speak ancient Gaelic, you will understand a few sentences in a half hour. Otherwise, you can infer what they’re saying. It’s very simplistic. I think we follow the rules. There’s no speeches. There’s no conversation. It still feels like the show even though we’ve gotten to this next level.
Paste: With the second season premiere, “Sea of Despair,” were you always going to pick up exactly where the story left off?
Tartakovsky: It had to come back and start at the same place. This is the continuation of what we saw in the first 10 episodes, in tone and mood and in execution. There’s no extra, new dialogue or anything. No new characters, really. It feels like an extension of the first season. I wanted to slowly bring you back in and by the time you get to that second episode, now it starts to go in a much bigger way.
Paste: Which episodes this season feel like you’re pushing beyond what you’ve done before?
Tartakovsky: The second episode [“The Shadow of Fate”] was one of the most exciting story things we’ve done with a love triangle. I was so happy with it because it’s a love triangle with no dialogue in the story. You have the feelings of all these characters, and it’s tragic. I was really excited about it. Then Episode 15, “The Primal Theory,” don’t miss that one. I’m pushing everything in that one. And I think 17 and 18 are pretty incredible, just scale wise, we get to this next level. Some are more emotional and some are more exciting. We’ll see how the audience reacts to it.
Paste: For the last few years, since you finished your Hotel Transylvania trilogy, you’ve been telling stories for adult audiences with Primal and working on the upcoming feature, Fixed. How’s it been working in a creative space with less content boundaries?
Tartakovsky: It’s just a different muscle. For kids, I still do what I think is funny, and if the crew laughs, then it will be successful. And then for adults, it’s kind of the same thing. I know what I find funny. With Fixed, what’s been really interesting about it is that it’s not based on one-liners. It’s not based on pop culture, so we’re not making fun of the Kardashians. It is a character story, so it’s very in tune to what I do, I think. The animation is turning out to be top notch. It’s cartoony, but it still has a sense of reality because the dogs act like dogs. They don’t act like Yogi Bear. We’re following the 101 Dalmatians and The Lady and the Tramp rules. But then some jokes and some visuals are very raunchy, pushed all the way. But because it’s hand drawn, it’s done very nicely. If I can be so crude for a second, if you can picture CG testicles, there’s something very gross about it, because you can put in all those extra details. But when it’s hand drawn, it’s such a caricature that it’s kind of still cute.
Paste: Has there been much pushback from the studio because R-rated animated films are so rare?
Tartakovsky: It’s funny, because in the beginning we couldn’t get a studio to work on it with us. When they read the script, they thought it was X rated. When they were reading it, they’re picturing everything. But when you think about a rated R movie, it’s a suggestion of the inappropriate, and we’re doing the same thing. It’s a R movie, so we don’t show penises. Anything that a live action movie won’t show, we don’t show either. But I had to literally go through the script and write the way I’m going to execute it. They were like, “Our animators are not going to draw a dog penis, I’ll tell you that right now!” And I’m like, “What are you talking about? Of course, there’s not going to be that!” I’m not a gross person. You can see anything I’ve done and it still has, I think, good taste.
Paste: There’s been a seismic shift in the animation market with Blue Sky shutting down and Netflix canceling a lot of animated series and projects, crushing what was perceived as a studio invested in the medium. Do you see it as a lack of overall support for the medium? Or is this a pretty standard, cyclical, speed bump?
Tartakovsky: I think it’s natural growth and then reduction. Netflix started off where they promised creators the world. I went in there and saw that they’re putting up a studio. But the thing that was a little curious to me was it was all the same kind of executives from other studios. And I feel they’re kind of stuck in one way. They were pitching you the world, and certainly, I think they delivered it for some people, for sure. But then when the shows come out, there’s a little push, and that’s it. You’re on your own. Part of that is, “Alright, if the show works, it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.” But at the same time, being in TV for so long, it takes a lot for a show to get going. We all know the stories about Seinfeld and how it was almost canceled. It’s hard to find an audience and connect to it sometimes, and so you do need some support.
And so [at Netflix] there was a lot of freedom creatively in the beginning. They hired everybody. When I was starting Unicorn, I couldn’t find anybody to work on it. It was crazy! That’s why I had to do it myself because I couldn’t find anybody. Everybody was busy. And now it’s the opposite. All of a sudden, there’s people calling for work, which I haven’t had a call for work in over two years.
Paste: What’s your take on the general temperature about selling new TV animation right now?
Tartakovsky: It’s still the most competitive as far as broadcast and streaming and all across cable. It’s super competitive, so people still need and want shows. At the end of the day, they still need content. Maybe it’s a little harder to sell a show than it was a couple years ago. Back in the day of Dexter’s Laboratory, there was Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and Disney TV, and that was it. You were very limited in what you could do. Now you can take a show to seven, eight different places. I think the opportunities are still there.
With [creators] making so much variety, it’s definitely good because you can see some fresher things are coming, here and there. They try to push through. And so, it’s still a good time compared to the old days. It’s still a good time to be a creator, to have a show. It’s a little harder than two years ago, but still, the opportunities are there. It’ll just take—what’s going to be the next SpongeBob? Something on that level.
For me, we’re always looking for the hit that everybody likes. I don’t want to make a show for just one audience. I always hope maybe more people will want to watch this type of show if it really takes off? Because at the end of the day, you never know. Nobody knew The Queen’s Gambit was going to be a hit. It’s just a big ride, up and down and up and down. But I’ve been fortunate where I’ve had a home with Cartoon Network. But, by the way, in 2008, they canceled Sym-Bionic Titan. I couldn’t sell a show to Cartoon Network. It was one of those darker periods. And that’s what got me to Sony. And interestingly enough, what got me into Sony was Fixed.
Paste: Are safe animation ideas still the prevailing trend?
Tartakovsky: I think that has always been the case. Something outside the box, as far as features go, is still the hardest thing to sell because it’s such a big financial commitment. And I understand that it’s a business. They want some help getting there. It used to be, just attach a big star to it and that’ll sell the movie. And that never really worked. Now, it’s really IP. Anything that’s recognizable, they’ll make much quicker. I’ve gone through, I think two, maybe three original ideas with Sony that they just can’t seem to make. I could probably take them to streaming, which will take chances. I think features, especially nowadays, have to be something that’s a home run in its inception. It’s unfortunate, because that’s the one thing where I don’t agree. It’s that old, saying: the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward.
And if I pitched to somebody a caveman and dinosaur show with no dialogue, it would be hard to sell that. Nobody’s crying out for it. It’s really just the trust, and my relationship with Adult Swim and Cartoon Network, that I was able to do a show like this.
Paste: Where does your upcoming HBO Max series, Unicorn: Warriors Eternal, fall on the scale of accessibility then?
Tartakovsky: It’s really interesting, because Unicorn is so different from Primal. Unicorn is like the extension of everything that I’ve done from Dexter to Powerpuff to Samurai Jack. It’s all those ideas that we practiced, that sometimes were successful, sometimes not as much. But it’s the biggest character, complex story. It’s comedic. There’s adventure. There’s whimsy. There’s fantasy and there’s action. It’s this very grand, world-building scale. It’s not Miyazaki, but I want it to feel like the kind of world building that he does. It’s the simplest way to explain it.
I first created it, I think, in 2004. It was at Netflix for a little while. They didn’t want to make it. I’m so happy that it found its home back at Cartoon Network and HBO Max. It’s just really big and an emotional, character story that’s dramatic, comedic, and it’s cartoony. And that’s what I was after. You know that scene in Snow White where she’s dying and all the dwarves are crying? Everybody feels that moment, but the dwarves have these big, giant bulbous noses. They’re as cartoony as can be. And that’s what prompted me to be like, why can’t we do super dramatic with this cartoony element to it?
Paste: Had you tried to get something like it made before?
Tartakovsky: It’s funny, because around 2005, I wrote an Astroboy script for Sony. And I had that in it. It was super dramatic. It was emotional. But the characters were true to their cartoony selves. They just never understood it back then. It’s something that I’ve been fighting for and, finally, with them believing in Unicorn, I’m doing it. But it’s the opposite of Primal
Paste: Since you’re already pushing it, have you added even more to distinguish it from the creative pack?
Tartakovsky: The voice cast that we got is all British. Also, I hired Aaron LaPlante who does Spear. I had him play a few characters just so he could talk. [Laughs] He’s really good, so whenever we had an opportunity, he did some great stuff. But we have this British voice cast and I don’t think they’ve done a lot of cartoons, so you have this different style of acting. I think it’s one of the most noticeable things about it, where it just feels a little different. I’m equally excited for it as Primal in a completely different way.
Primal Season 2 premieres at midnight July 21st on Adult Swim, and is available to stream on HBO Max the next day.
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe and the official Story of Marvel Studios released in late 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett.
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