Interview: Alex Hirsch Returns To His Weird, Monster-Filled Childhood In Disney’s ‘Gravity Falls’
Alex Hirsch was a weird kid, and now, his childhood is about to get animated. Okay, that’s not totally fair: like a lot of us, he was obsessed with genre shows like X-Files and Twin Peaks, and spent a fair amount of time researching mythical creatures. Now, all of that, plus his relationship with his twin sister, will be channeled into a new show on Disney Channel called Gravity Falls, which has a special sneak preview this weekend.
In the show, twins Dipper and Mabel Pines (voiced by Jason Ritter and Kristen Schaal) live with their Great Uncle Stan – called Grunklestan, and voiced by Hirsch – in the titular town, which is filled to the brim with weird beasties, and mysteries. We chatted with the young creator in advance of the premiere to talk about turning your life into a cartoon, what it’s like working with the cast, and why disposable cameras are so funny:
MTV Geek: This is based on your experiences, right? Can you talk a little bit about your life, and how it led you to doing this cartoon?
Alex Hirsch: I’d say the genre or theme of the show is definitely in that world of the paranormal, the supernatural; as a kid, I was just obsessed with that stuff. While everyone was out playing dodgeball, I was lying on the blacktop waiting for a UFO to take me out of elementary school. I was obsessed with the Loch Ness Monster, I would look through these books in the library and dream about visiting Loch Ness one day… That stuff was really kind of what I loved as a kid.
My twin sister, Ariel… Thought it was stupid. She would frequently use my love of the paranormal to mock, and harass, and drive me crazy. One time she claimed she saw a UFO, and basically got me to go on a wild goose chase looking for it. That relationship between me and my sister, my obsession with this stuff, and her obsession with annoying me seemed like it might be a seed for a TV series. That’s where the core of the idea came from.
Geek: In the series, the sister – Mabel – maybe seems a little more on board than your sister was?
AH: [Laughs] Mabel is sort of an amalgamation of a number of things. My sister, despite what I just said… She liked to annoy me, but it was out of love, I would say. The relationship between the siblings on the show is the relationship that I’ve observed with having a twin sister, which is you’re best friends… And worst enemies, all the time. That seemed like a rich source for comedy that I could mine forever for a TV show.
Geek: Particularly when you’re approaching comedy from a real world and personal perspective, it gets hard to separate the characters from yourself and your friends. Was that ever a problem here, or was it far enough removed that it didn’t enter the equation?
AH: I know what you’re talking about. My buddy Pendleton created Adventure Time… When he first created the show, the main character was named Pen, and I believe he had a bit of an identity crisis, being like, “Wait, if he’s Pen, and I’m Pen, then how can I write things that happen to him that never happened to me, so…” I definitely when I started this said, okay, these are caricatured, fictionalized characters inspired by my experiences. I won’t limit myself to directly taking my anecdotes and adding werewolves, because it might become limiting. I’ve definitely pushed these characters into whatever area seems most comedically fun, and will tell the best stories.
Geek: I was trying to pinpoint exactly what the tone of the series is, and it definitely has its own feel… but the best way I could describe it was a way more absurd Scooby Doo. What did you use as inspiration for the series, beyond your real life?
AH: I’d say that’s not an inappropriate comparison. The particular episode that we’ve sent out might suggest that it’s more Scooby Doo-like than the actual series… Just because of the ending of the episode. That’s probably the only episode we have that kind of riffs on a Scooby Doo kind of ending, where, “Oh, it was actually Old Man McGuckin in the robot!” For the most part the series is focused on being a character comedy. Definitely my biggest inspiration in terms of things I’ve seen was The Simpsons. Just the idea that a show could be about a family, and also not about a family. That it could have this core of funny characters who like each other, and be for both kids and adults, and yet go to these completely absurd places, and come back to this place where it’s all about these characters.
I’ll also say I’ve always been a fan of X-Files and Twin Peaks in particular. It’s almost more of a marriage between Simpsons and Twin Peaks than anything.
Geek: Let’s talk about your roles a bit… What’s your approach to the voices of Grunklestan and Soos?
AH: Both of those characters are inspired by people I knew. Grunklestan is inspired by my Grandpa Stan, and Soos is inspired by Jesus Chambrot, a student that I went to CalArts with. When you have an observation like that, when the characters come from a particular place, it just informs the writing, and it informs the voicing… When you have that voice in your head, it just makes the whole thing a lot more fun. These characters started out as direct homages of people I knew, and have grown into various… They’re very different voices, and it’s fun to go on one hand from the sarcastic carnival barker, older jerk kind of guy, to a very simple down to Earth, college age bro kind of guy.
Geek: How about getting Jason Ritter and Kristen Schaal on the show, and what’s it been like working with them?
AH: Probably that was the biggest challenge when we started casting. We needed to feel like these kids know each other, like the live together… That relationship needs to be the foundation of the series. I started with Kristen Schaal. I knew the moment I pitched this show, I knew the moment I saw Flight of the Conchords that she just had an incredible voice. I pitched this series a number of years ago, and Kristen Schaal was not in a lot of stuff. She was in Flight of The Conchords and that was about it. Between then and now, she’s just exploded. She’s on 30 Rock, and Bob’s Burgers, and Toy Story 3, so I wasn’t the only one who noticed how good she is! [Laughs] She has that ability to be both sincere and completely absurd at the same time. When I heard her, I said, that is the voice that I want to capture the weirdness that is my sister.
With Jason, we were just looking for a contrast to that… Someone who seemed high strung and wiry, and quick, and easy to freak out; not happy go lucky. We did a lot of auditions with a lot of guys, and when I heard Jason’s audition, I realized if you take those two voices together, this is a brother and sister. The moment we get those two in the booth together – we don’t get to do it as much as I like, because she’s based in new York – they have an incredible rapport together. I hope one day we’re able to do a panel with both of them together, and people could see how funny they are just riffing off each other.
Geek: One specific moment I wanted to talk to you about – and this is a bit of a spoiler – but I loved the disposable camera scene you guys had in the screener episode. That killed me… I know it may come down to, “I wrote it because it was funny,” but is there any sort of backstory to that scene?
AH: When I was a kid, back in the days before cell phone cameras, I had disposable cameras I took a lot of pictures with and I just remember something always went wrong. I just recently found a disposable camera from when I was eleven still in my room. I developed the film, and it was fascinating to see all these pictures taken from a low, kid’s angle, and maybe seventy percent of them had a thumb covering the lens… It was one of those things where, somehow, disposable cameras always go awry. I wrote that scene, and the point of it was, I just wanted to see how frustrated I could make that kid. [Laughs] How pissed I could get Dipper, because he wants something so bad. When you’re the straight man, the comic universe always conspires… The universe will always go through extreme lengths to frustrate you, if you’re a straight man in a cartoon.
Geek: Before I let you go, any words for audience members – particularly adults or older kids – who might be wary of watching a cartoon on the Disney Channel?
AH: The number one thing I can’t wait for people to see are these characters. They’re funny, they’re weird. I’ve worked hard to make sure they’re not like the kids you see on TV. A lot of kid characters you see on TV are sassy, and snarky, and think they’re just the coolest kids in the world, and are mean spirited… And the characters in this show are funny, they come from specific experience, and I really hope that experience I’ve drawn from will make it feel like characters you know.
The other thing I’d say, if you like comedy, if you like animation, and also if you like mystery, monsters, and adventures… We’ve got shows with time travel, we’ve got an incredible Halloween show that’s genuinely scary, and I think kids and adults will both love it. We’ve got an episode that got a really amazing riff on classic arcade gaming; an arcade character comes to life, and it’s brilliantly animated by Paul Robertson, who’s a pixel animator. You’ve never seen pixel animation mixed with 2-D animation the way we’ve done it. Week to week, show to show we have really crazy surprises that no one would expect to see in a cartoon show!
Gravity Falls launches with a special preview on Disney Channel on Friday, June 15th at 9:55pm ET/PT, followed by the official premiere on Friday, June 29th at 9:30pm ET/PT!
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