Don't forget - Chozen premiers Monday, January 13th at 10:30 p.m. e/p on FX.
Grant Dekernion, first and foremost, is a musician. And a big fan of rap. He knows first-hand the incredibly difficult path bands travel in their quest for fame and fortune. Consequently, it was only fitting that his first foray into TV animation would be a story about a gay, white, rapping ex-con named Chozen. Makes perfect sense to me.
But according to Grant, Chozen is not a parody or send-up. At its core, Chozen is about an outcast, a stranger in a strange land who is starting his life over after spending a decade in prison, determined to become a hip-hop star. I recently had a chance to talk to Grant about his rather remarkable journey from idea, to pitch, to a 13 episode Season 1 on FX.
Dan Sarto: Tell me about the genesis of the show. Where did the idea for Chozen come from? How did you pitch it and how did you get FX on board?
Grant Dekernion: Well, I have always been a big fan of rap. I’ve been a musician my whole life and I always wanted to do a show that revolved around music. That’s how it started. The next step was hey, I want to create a character I have never seen before. I want him to be complex, interesting, have depth and give us a lot of opportunity to play around with him. That’s where Chozen came from. I figured I’d throw all these things into the hopper. He is an ex-con, he is a rapper and he is starting his life over. When he was 18, he went away to prison for 10 years. It was a really important time in his life developmentally, and now he is coming back to society, a little bit of an alien back in the world as we know it. There are a lot of things to play with there. I thought that all made for a really compelling character and a great foundation to start telling a story.
DS: Was it always your plan to make this into an animated series?
GD: Yes, from the inception. It started swirling around in my head and for a moment I considered the idea of live action because I have never worked in animation. But, I quickly decided it could only be animation because we wanted to have these moments where we could heighten and push reality. I wanted to be able to go into Chozen’s head, go into his dreams as well as the dreams of other characters. So whether we pop into someone’s dream or whether we pop into their head during an affected state, animation is really great for playing around with those elements. Visually it gives us an opportunity to do something really funny and exciting, an opportunity we wouldn’t have in live action.
DS: So is this show a send up, a take-off or spoof of rap music, of hip-hop culture? What is the tone of the show? You have a main character who is white, a rapper, an ex-con and is gay. Obviously, there is a lot of room to riff comically.
GD: The show is not written as a spoof. I don’t see it as take-off of hip-hop. I see it is a single person’s story as they try to navigate their way through that world. I think the tone of the show is really a pretty basic story of a guy starting from the bottom. You’re right that he does have to deal with these different attributes as he moves forward. There is his jail time and his sexuality. He deals with things as, “Here’s who I am, here’s where I’m from, here’s what I like, here’s what I don’t like.” It’s a story of how this is all going to play in his journey to becoming a successful rap star. Today, rap star is synonymous with pop star so I think in a certain sense, his story is very relatable.
DS: OK, so you’ve got an idea for a show. How did this show eventually get to FX?
GD: Well, after starting with the character of Chozen, I started playing around with musical ideas. Because I produce music, I started playing around with the rap idea. I produce the music on the show as well as do the voice acting when Chozen raps. So initially I came up with his sound and his point of view. Then I developed the idea of the setup, the idea that he was in a group and a friend sold him out. I got the skeleton together and brought that to Danny McBride, Jody Hill, and David Gordon Green at Rough House Pictures (Eastbound & Down). I said, “Hey, I have this idea, I think we could have a lot of fun with it. What do you think?” They all agreed it was great character, a fresh character. We spent some time together, just talking informally, where could this go, what could this be, what other types of characters might we want to be involved in this world. It really started organically from there. Just a series of conversations. Once we had what we thought was a tight premise and a trajectory for a season, we formalized it a little bit with some outlines, and then started the pitch process.
DS: Did you go straight to FX? Did you talk to Comedy Central, some of the other obvious candidates?
GD: This was my first pitch. When you first pitch, you want to go out and get people’s temps to see what they think. From the get go, FX was like the Golden Goblet, the one we really wanted to work with. But first we met with a few of the networks you mentioned as well as a few others and everyone seemed really intrigued by the concept. A lot of people at that time weren’t doing animation or didn’t want to do any more animation.
DS: When was this?
GD: Oh this was, goodness, I mean we are probably talking two years ago. It was also an odd time during the year. It wasn’t standard pitch season time. A lot of people had full slates or they had already loaded up on shows. Honestly, some people just didn’t quite get it the same way we did. Fortunately for us, we had a meeting with FX. From the first 10 minutes, they got it. They were asking me very deep, well thought out questions about the character, about where we could take it. It all came together in that one meeting. I didn’t need to meet with anyone after that.
DS: You must have had a nice ride home after that meeting.
GD: It was surreal. I didn’t really know that’s the way things work. So walking out, I was like, “What just happened?” Someone had to tell me, “Well, that’s how you get a TV show.”
DS: That’s funny.
GD: It was overwhelming to say the least…
DS: I am going to guess then FX put you together with Adam Reed and Matt Thompson (Archer) at Floyd County?
GD: Yes. So what happened was FX had just put in place a deal with Floyd County to develop things outside the Archer world. We got on the phone with the Floyd County people and talked to them about the show. They worked up some initial character sketches and ideas. They had some really dynamic ideas that we hadn’t thought of. I will never forget the day they sent over the sketch for the main character and it was exactly what was in my head. That synergy came really quickly. We were off to the races really quickly, making a sample and then a pilot and then the full season.
DS: Had you done much visual development at the point you were pitching FX and the other networks?
GD: No, I hadn’t. I’m not an animator and on the Rough House side we didn’t have any people in our world that were proficient like that.
DS: So you pitched without visual materials?
GD: When I pitched, I had ideas about what the character Crisco was like…he probably looks like X, Y, and Z…that was about as much as I had. I didn’t have anything to show them.
DS: It’s truly amazing you got a go-ahead without any visuals. You really must have struck a chord with them. That is tremendous.
GD: Yes, it was great.
DS: You do know how unique that is?
GD: I do.
DS: So who is your audience?
GD: I’m trying to entertain everyone, but I realize there is probably a narrower demo for the show. I think it can be for everyone, but it will really resonate with people 18 to 40. Obviously it’s a show for adults so the lower end of my demo will automatically skewer older. But I think it is very relatable for anyone in those age groups and in many ways it is relatable for everyone.
DS: With regard to your story arcs, where are you hoping to take these characters? Where do you want to go with this show?
GD: I would like to follow someone through the journey of making it in a band. I have spent many years in a band. I have been on many of these journeys and what is interesting is there is no straight line to success. For the bulk of musicians, the journey stops before what we consider “success.” That is the general arc. It leaves us a lot of room play. In this business there are small victories and small defeats, big victories and big defeats. There are lots of ups and downs. It is similar to being a writer or any type of artist. It’s a tough road to hoe. It’s a great backdrop to pop these characters into. We also have interpersonal arcs. So you have Chozen with his sister, Chozen with his family and Chozen with his friends. Within that wide arc, you can get down to the real relatable character stories, day to day type stuff because that is really what you need for a show to have longevity.
DS: If people can’t get into the characters and can’t internalize to some degree the journey, then it’s tough for you as a creator to capture their interest.
GD: Yes, I would say it is impossible.
DS: What have been the biggest challenges so far?
GD: Oh boy. I am new to animation, so this production has been a very very steep learning curve for me. I am pretty familiar with how live action production works. But animation is a whole different animal. That by far has been the most difficult thing for me. Fortunately, Floyd County is very skilled as well as very patient. It was really a shock to me that in animation you essentially are involved in every aspect of production simultaneously during the season. It’s amazing the way Floyd County works. They crank things out in a quarter of the time a network animated show would take. So this has been a big learning curve. It’s a lot of juggling. You are writing, cutting, recording and scoring and all of those things could be happening in one day. So that was a big challenge. It has also been a challenge just to get a good group of people together. We got great writers. We got great people working with us. It’s always tricky finding the right people and getting the right chemistry, getting everyone on the same page charging towards the end zone.
DS: Well, it’s always about people. Speaking of people, how did you choose the great voice cast?
GD: From the beginning I had ideas of who I wanted to play all these characters. Bobby [Moynihan] was the number one choice for Chozen. I’ve watched him on Saturday Night Live and in films. Bobby can be really funny, but there is kind of a sweetness to him that comes through no matter what he does. That was key for the character of Chozen, who is a good guy, who doesn’t always do good things. For the rest of the cast, to be perfectly honest with you, I said, “Wow, it would be great to get this person, this person and this person” and somehow we got every single one. FX obviously was very helpful and it also helped to have Danny McBride, Jody Hill and David Green working on the show. A lot of our voice cast has worked with those three guys before. They trust them and love what they do. That was a great benefit when it came to casting and getting people like Nick Swardson, Kathryn Hahn and Michael Pena.
Many of these actors are movie stars really in their own right, so it is was really cool to be able to work with them. For example, Michael Pena. Michael has been in England for months sitting in a tank doing a World War II film. But he will still record my show. Method Man is in Norway one week, but we are still getting him on the line recording some stuff. Everyone has been really gung-ho about the process. I feel really fortunate to have this cast. I can’t think of a better cast in an animated show on TV, so I am pretty stoked.
DS: Last thing I wanted to ask you. Where do you think this show fits in the current landscape of adult-oriented animated TV series?
GD: It fits into a similar sweet spot as Archer. I think our show is smart and I think it is quite edgy. FX has always been very supportive of us trying to push further and do something new. The musical elements are really going to stand out. That’s going to be huge and will immediately differentiate us from a lot of other adult animated shows.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.