Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal is back. And it still kicks ass. The animated Cartoon Network series, which just picked up a handful of Primetime Emmy awards, returns to the Adult Swim programming block this Sunday night. The wordless series, set in a fantastical version of the primordial past, features the ongoing adventures of brutish caveman Spear and his dinosaur companion Fang. (At the end of the first five episodes, which aired last year, Fang was mortally wounded, which is resolved in the first episode of this new batch.) After the initial 10 episodes is completed this year, get ready for more because Cartoon Network has already okayed another 10 episodes, beginning in 2021. So at the very least we have that to look forward to.
We were lucky enough to chat with Tartakovsky, after our extensive Collider Connected this past summer, to discuss what it’s like working on animation during quarantine, why he doesn’t like horror movies, what the “rules” are for Primal, and what is up with the movies he’s working on at Sony – supernatural sequel Hotel Transylvania 4, PG-13 rated action movie Black Knight and R-rated comedy Fixed.
COLLIDER: Well, first of all, congratulations on all of your Emmy wins. That must feel good.
GENNDY TARTAKOVSKY: Yeah, it’s always good to be recognized. I take the awards happily obviously but I’d rather get ratings and a big following than any awards.
Since the last time we talked, they have announced a second batch of episodes for next year. Have you been working on those? Were all 20 episodes being worked on at once? Or how did that sort of go about?
TARTAKOVSKY: Let’s see. They green-lit the real second season, the ones that are airing in October, that’s the second half of the first season, as we call it … They green-lit the second season months ago, so we’ve been working on it since last year.
There’s was no reason to talk about it so early on. I think I’m on the sixth and seventh storyboards out of the next 10. We’re starting to see animation on the first episode already. We’re well on our way.
And how has it been working on these in quarantine?
TARTAKOVSKY: Strangely, it’s been fine. I’ve been actually working at home since October. So when the thing hit, it was just all of a sudden the kids are home and my son’s back from college, and everybody’s home. Otherwise, I have a comfortable home office. We had such a small crew on Primal anyways, that it was strangely almost normal just to do it from home. And then just the meetings, I didn’t have to go anywhere anymore. Meetings became just like this and I’ve been really productive, and I’m very motivated. Plus, it’s my own show and it’s something that I really love, so I haven’t had any really difficulties in that way.
Do you see this as something that you could return to in-between features or in-between other projects for years to come? Or do you have a finite plan of how long this is going to go?
TARTAKOVSKY: I don’t. I mean, you can return to it. It’s whatever conclusion we’ll get to at these next 10, it could keep going. But I have a lot of babies and it’s kind of like I never know what’s going to happen.
This first episode is a conclusion to a cliffhanger. I assume that you knew that the season was going to be split like that going in, right?
TARTAKOVSKY: I didn’t.
TARTAKOVSKY: Yeah. It kind of just worked out that we ended on a cliffhanger. I thought it was going to roll right into the sixth episode.
The seventh episode, I mean, you couldn’t ask for a better Halloween episode of Primal. We’ve talked before about how your influences came from all over the place for the show, but did you really want to make a ball’s out zombie epic?
TARTAKOVSKY: Well, it was funny because I didn’t think of it as… I guess we thought of it as zombies, but basically, it was more about disease and just the way this thing was like a living dead thing. I’ve mentioned before that I’m actually not a horror fan, I don’t see many horror movies, I don’t like being scared. But I love making it, I love the suspense, I love the intensity of it.
When you’re creating an animation, it’s the best when you can create a reaction, because it’s completely fabricated from the ground up and I love that. And it’s just a different field to play in and I do love the feeling of it, even though I’m not so much a fan, but having said that, I love The Kingdom, that Korean zombie, political drama. I started to realize, I do like zombies and then I really liked the World War Z, it was really cool. And so there is something to it. And then we wanted it to be this intense drive through the whole episode.
Have you sort of set up parameters about what’s too far? Will they never find a time machine? Have you kind of established the boundaries for what Primal can do and what it can’t do?
TARTAKOVSKY: There is and there isn’t. Where, it’s got to feel right. And I think we’re always walking the line I think, to a degree, and cause you’ve only watched the sixth and seventh?
I’ve only watched sixth and seventh, yes.
TARTAKOVSKY: Yeah. So where it goes from here is even further and further getting pushed and pushed and more complex stories. And then for the second season, it goes to a whole new stratosphere.
In what way?
TARTAKOVSKY: In a surprising way. And I don’t want to give anything away because it’s so early, but it’s the most excited I’ve been about the stories that we’re telling. And kind of one hit that it is… You know, in standard filmmaking or storytelling, there’s always the bad guy. And I think one of the exciting things that we hit upon with Primal is that, there kind of is no bad guy. Everybody is trying to survive in their own way.
I mean, the perfect example is the elephant episode, where it’s just the circle of life and somebody’s got to die for another person to live. And I love that the juxtaposition in that drama that creates, because you want to cheer for everybody, you want to cheer for the old mammoth, you want to cheer for Fang. And even though we have the evil monkeys, obviously those are pretty evil. But as we go further, if seemingly something is bad, we build a sincerity for it and an empathy for it. And I love that. I think the next evolution of Primal is leaning into that. You think something is bad, but then we have a different perspective on it. And all of a sudden it makes you care.
Watching the show for the first time in a year, I was struck again by what an accomplishment it is that there’s no dialogue. Did that aspect of the show ever get easier?
TARTAKOVSKY: Does it get easier? No. I mean, it’s so, I’ll be honest, it’s so fun to do. This is the subject matter that I love and it’s very ingrained in me, so it’s not a struggle. It is a struggle to find a new way to do it and to find, not to repeat yourself.
I was actually just talking to somebody yesterday and I was saying, because I’m about to storyboard this big fight in the second season and I’m stuck, because if you look from Dexter through Powerpuff Girls through Samurai Jack, Clone Wars, Titan, and now Primal, how many fights have we done? You know? And, and I started to realize, am I just going to repeat myself in something that I’ve already done? Can I find some new choreography, some new ideas to do this fight that’s interesting and different? And that’s difficult. There’s so much that we’ve done and so I think that’s where that becomes the difficult part to keep challenging yourself and not to fall back into something like, this is automatic, I can do that really quick. I don’t want to do that. You want to keep the audience fresh and have them go, “Oh wow. That’s surprising and shocking and cool.”
Do you remember every fight that you choreographed?
TARTAKOVSKY: No, of course not. But I know the formulas that I’ve used. And the process that I used to create an action. I know what works. I can put a rhythm together that I know works, but can there be more, can there be a different…like getting an emotional element out of a fight. Is difficult. So it’s not just a boom, bam, boom, smash type of thing. How can I get more emotions out of it? And that becomes interesting and challenging as a storyteller.
Do you have a dog?
TARTAKOVSKY: I do, yeah. I’ve had two big dogs in my life. One was this 215-pound English Mastiff, Zeus. And now we have 130-pound Saint Bernard. And so, her personality for sure. They’re both big dogs. They have so much personality. They’re neurotic or our dogs were neurotic. The current dog is so smart and very manipulative. You see how much emotion … I know we read half of that stuff in them anyways, but it’s there. And so I definitely wanted to feed on that for Fang and their relationship.
What I was struck with in episode seven, he has a dream about her, which I thought was really touching. And it was like, “Oh, this relationship is real, it’s gone beyond the begrudging, we’re both predator mentalities.” Was that an important thing for you to have in that episode?
TARTAKOVSKY: Yeah. I mean, that’s been the important thing in the show, for sure. In that episode, that was actually something I added later. It felt it was getting, it was exactly what you said. It was getting away from their relationship and it was just, we’ve got to survive. We’ve got to survive. We got to survive. And I wanted to create a little bit more context. And so I had that nightmare, that I boarded in to see his, to get inside of his head and see how he’s thinking about this.
Well, I just wanted to run through a couple of other things before I get kicked off, but there was recent talk about another live-action Samurai Jack. And I know in the past you’ve said “No way,” but is this something that you’re involved in?
TARTAKOVSKY: I haven’t heard about it. If you heard something, you better let me know.
They recently announced new directors for Hotel Transylvania 4, which is very exciting, and along with that news an announcement that you wrote the script. Did you write the script in lockdown? How the hell did you have time for this?
TARTAKOVSKY: It started, was it last year? They had another set of writers and, it didn’t hit the tone. And I thought I can provide the tone. And the writing goes faster for me than drawing obviously. They asked and then I decided to just do it then. It was from late last year through the first few months in the pandemic. I’d do Primal, and then I do a little writing, then back to Primal. It’s actually a good break to take my mind off of it for a bit.
Can you tease what the logline is for that one at all? I thought it was going to be a Christmas movie because of the original December release date.
TARTAKOVSKY: It did start that way, but it’s mutated from that. Am I allowed to talk about it? I better not. I’m trying to remember if what they released as logline, but I better not.
Any updates on Black Knight or Fixed? Where are we at?
TARTAKOVSKY: We’re still fighting the fight and you know, Black Knight‘s growing into something really cool and Fixed is kind of ready to go. It’s just waiting for everything to get figured out. But it’s hard. I mean the theatrical floor dropped, so everybody’s kind of waiting for everything to get back in, and so I feel like those two movies are hard enough to green-light because they’re so different much less now, how does that theatrical window look like next year? So I think everybody’s a little cautious right now; it’s bad timing. I think we’re probably slowed down a little bit, but you know, I still have hope.
Do you feel emboldened by the chances that Sony is taking on things like Connected and Spider-Man?
TARTAKOVSKY: It does and it doesn’t. I’m in the weeds, so I see it from a different perspective. It’s the hardest thing is to get something original made. I think they like me and we have a great relationship, but it’s still a lot of money and a lot of pressure. And so everybody’s got to be on board. We’re in that step. It comes down to a business decision. Can this make money? It’s tough because we are trying to do art. It’s always where those two things meet, and isn’t always a great place. I want to make money too, for the studio. And I want as many people to see it. I’m not about making some indie thing. I want mass success for the project. We’re after the same goals, it’s what we think is going to get there. And obviously, I don’t care about the money to a degree. I just want the most boldest and striking thing to be made. But sometimes that’s a risk. You could make it, it could be a huge success or it could die. So that’s what we’re kind of figuring out.
How many hundreds of millions of dollars do you have to make for this company to get the go-ahead?
TARTAKOVSKY: I think if I called it Hotel Black Knight, it would be done.
The second half of the first season of Primal begins airing this Sunday on Cartoon Network. Season 2 will arrive in 2021.