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'Aqua Teen' on the Big Screen: Interview with Matt Maiellaro & Dave Willis

Craig J. Clark chats with Aqua Teen Hunger Force creators Matt Maiellaro and Dave Willis about bringing their Adult Swim hit to movie film theaters.

Frylock, Master Shake and Meatwad burst onto the big screen in Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters. All feature images courtesy of First Look Pictures.

For a while it seemed like a hoax, but that's how it goes with a lot of things Adult Swim attempts. The rumors first started floating around that the network was producing a feature film version of its popular animated show Aqua Teen Hunger Force in August 2004. Message boards immediately lit up in anticipation, but nothing was confirmed until the following March, when it was announced that it would be released December 2005. Then came the speculation. Was this for real? Would it be shown in theaters or go straight to video? And could they really take an 11-minute show about a sentient milkshake, a floating box of fries and a decaying wad of meat and make an 80-minute film out of it? The simple answer to all of these questions is yes: Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters is real, it is being released in theaters on April 13, 2007,and yes, they could.

The "they" in question are Matt Maiellaro and Dave Willis, creators of the show and two of Adult Swim's Most Valuable Employees. In addition to their Aqua Teen duties, the pair have also written for Space Ghost Coast to Coast, the network's original flagship show, contributed to The Brak Show and Sealab 2021, and in recent years have created their own personal projects, 12 Oz. Mouse and Squidbillies, both of which defied expectations by being extended beyond their initial six-episode orders. Clearly somebody at Adult Swim wants to keep the duo happy.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force is the show that pays the bills, though. Of all the shows that premiered along with the programming block in September 2001, it seemed the least likely to become a breakout hit, but slowly it developed a cult that grew larger and more devoted all the time, evidenced by the strong DVD sales and high ratings. (After five seasons and 68 episodes, Aqua Teen is still one of the network's biggest ratings grabbers.) And now more than just college students and insomniacs know about the show's irreverent sense of humor thanks to a marketing strategy that went awry at the end of January. It seemed like the perfect place to start a discussion with Matt and Dave, but unfortunately...

Matt Maiellaro: That's something that I'm not allowed to talk about. What happened? Because I didn't even know what happened.

Craig J. Clark: Oh, what happened was they hired these stealth marketers who put up light-up signs of one of the Mooninites in public places in several cities and they got mistaken for bombs in Boston and it was this huge, amazing, ridiculous thing. I'm sure that isn't what you had in mind for the first real national exposure for the show. I know I heard about it on NPR's All Things Considered, of all places.

MM: Well, we're just glad that people know about it and are anxious to go see the movie.

Matt Maiellaro (left) and Dave Willis, creators of ATHF, are also two of Adult Swim's Most Valuable Employees with their multiple orders on that network.

CJC: I understand you can't comment directly on the Boston incident, but I'm sure Carl was crushed by the news of lead singer Brad Delp's passing.

Dave Willis: Uhh, destroyed. He thinks it's a conspiracy.

CJC: Oh, really?

DW: Yeah, he thinks it was insurance agents working with the FBI to cover up the fact that it was done to engineer some sort of tour where they replace him with Rob Halford. But he's also kind of psyched. He thinks that's going to happen. I'm not sure if he read that somewhere or if that was a dream of his.

CJC: But either way...

DW: Yeah, either way he has a conspiracy theory going.

CJC: By making a "movie film for theaters," you're pretty much guaranteeing that some people who see it will have little to no prior knowledge of the show -- like film critics, for example.

MM: Yeah, that's sort of dangerous territory, but we don't care. When the show came on the air, nobody liked it and then they came around to it. It's an unconventional movie, so we don't expect huge great reviews. We like it. And so far every show we've put together we like and it seems to get somewhere with our audience, so that's all that matters to us.

DW: I'm already preparing myself for the onslaught of critical... I don't know. Our reviewer in Atlanta is a soccer mom that's got to be in her '50s. I've been reading her since I was a little kid. And I just can't imagine she'll like this, but I don't care, you know? I mean, the only people that I really care about are people that like the show, and I'll be bummed out if they don't like it because we did put a lot of time and effort into it. But I just don't know about people who are sort of out of the loop on the show.

CJC: Is it the kind of film where you've made it for yourselves and for your fans?

MM: Yeah, I think we approached it like we approach the show, but we had a little different tactic. We knew that we had to fill an hour and half and how were we going to do that? Once we came up with a good sort of through-line and we decided we would answer some unanswered questions about maybe where these characters come from, then the movie just sort of fell in place.

Maiellaro and Willis know that many critics won't have prior knowledge of the TV series before watching the feature, but they don't care. The creators think this is an unconventional movie, so they don't expect huge great reviews.

CJC: Is prior knowledge of the show really necessary to enjoy or understand the movie?

DW: I don't think so, but I also don't think we sort of reinvented the wheel for people who are outside of the loop. But the thing is, I think a movie should be sort of like a puzzle. You should have to sort of figure things out. And if you didn't know the show, I think you would be entertained by the movie. For some reason, it's very polarizing.

CJC: The show itself has been for its entire existence.

DW: I forget which author said this, but it's like attacking a piece of art or in this case a television show and getting in a big suit of armor to attack a sundae. Just watch it, and go have dinner. Or drinks. Have fun. I wouldn't say turn off your brain. I think it's sort of interesting. It's certainly one of the most bizarre things that's going to come out this year.

CJC: How was the process of writing the movie different from writing an episode?

MM: Obviously it took more time, but we approached it the same way we write the show. We just sat in one of our houses and started coming up with ideas and basically outlined in our own heads how it should run. And then it just took a couple weeks to put it all together.

DW: We did do a massive rewrite in the middle of the process, which made it much better. That's why the DVD will be so exciting. There is a wealth of deleted scenes. I don't think we're going to have a deleted scenes section. We're going to have a deleted movie section. Click on a deleted movie and it's almost an entirely different movie. The way we work I think we can sort of afford to do that. We just go down the hall, say a bunch of stuff in a microphone, put it together, see if it works, keep the stuff that works, throw away the stuff that didn't, go back down the hall and say more stuff in a microphone.

CJC: What about on the production end? Did you use the same crew that you used for the show?

Maiellaro and Willis approached writing the feature as they do for the series. There were two differences however: they took more time and they did a massive rewrite, which will give the DVD a wealth of deleted scenes.

DW: Yeah, and we were making shows at the same time, and also Matt was making 12 Oz. Mouse and I was making Squidbillies with Jim Fortier, so we had our hands full. But yeah, it's the same crew of guys. And that's probably why it took so long. We have a small crew. We don't send it anywhere. Korea has nothing to do with it.

CJC: How long had the idea for a movie been gestating?

MM: Probably for the last four years. We knew we wanted to do one. We didn't know exactly what we wanted to do. And then two and a half years ago we went to the network and said, "Hey, we want to do a movie" And they said, "Okay, if you can do it cheap enough, go ahead."

CJC: Do you see the movie as an attempt to break beyond the show's cult audience?

DW: I don't know. I don't think we made it that way. I don't think there was anyone involved who said, "This is too inside or this is too..." We were given complete and total reign.

CJC: Has making the movie changed how you approach the show in any way?

MM: No, not at all. It doesn't matter what happens in the movie. We'll just stick with the same rules we have in the show. We usually don't go back to things that happened before, so it hasn't changed anything about how we work the show.

DW: It has made me look at 11-minute episodes and say, "Wow, that's a short bit of time." That's the only thing that's different. I guess it's opened our ambitions up a little. We've kind of been making 11-minute shows and cartoons for over 10 years now. It's a very specialized thing. Nobody else is making 11-minute cartoons.

CJC: We're coming up on Space Ghost Coast to Coast's 13th anniversary.

DW: Wow, crazy. It just made me look at 11-minute shows as super easy to do now.

The pair has also written for Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Adult Swim's original flagship show. The show's 13th anniversary is approaching. ™& © Cartoon Network.

CJC: In the last season, you've gone in some expected directions, like in the episode where Frylock gets cancer. Conceptually, that was pretty risky. At one point, you even have Carl say, "Comedy doesn't work today."

DW: That was kind of an episode that I always wanted to do. Now that the characters are known entities and established, how do you continually surprise people? I thought that was one way we could do it.

MM: It sort of came back up when we were stuck with schedules and brainlocked with what kind of an idea we could put into an episode and we were like, "Well, there's always that cancer show." Originally it was supposed to be real serious throughout the whole thing, but we had to have Shake goof around because, well, there's really nothing funny about cancer, but it's a comedy show, so we had to put some comedy in there.

DW: I actually love that episode. I think it's really kind of amazing to try to take people's expectations and just smash them. Just smash their expectations right in front of them because you can.

CJC: After 68 episodes and a feature film, do you see a point where there are no more stories to tell with these characters?

MM: No, I think these guys could go on for 20 more years. I mean, most of the stuff we write about is things we did as kids or ideas we had as kids. You know, it's like they're just regular people hanging out and stuff like this happens to them almost like it happens to everybody in America, so I think we could go on and on with this show.

CJC: In addition to the show you've also had your own solo projects. Matt had 12 Oz. Mouse and David had Squidbillies and you also contributed to other shows. What was it like starting a show from scratch again, knowing what you know now?

MM: It was fun. It was more fun because I kind of knew how to put stuff together. It was more challenging because I had nearly zero budget and I basically did that whole thing by myself with one editor and a couple background guys. I just had fun telling that story. It was sort of a departure from the ha-ha humor of Aqua Teen and I wanted to try something a little darker and a little more serious. I had a blast doing it.

DW: That's kind of tricky because Jim Fortier and I write and produce that show, but that started off as the six main people in our development floor all working together on it and it was just a mess. It was a year of a lot of wasted time and going down blind alleys and I think the problem, and what distinguished it from Aqua Teen, was with Aqua Teen. Matt and I had an idea, we pitched it and we knew what we wanted out of it, so we kind of had the vision and the drive and the desire and the energy to put forth toward it. With Squids, I thought it was a great premise and a cool idea, but it really didn't have that one person. It had six guys that all worked together at various stages trying to figure out what it was. I think if any two of the six had made it, it would have been a good show, just have a different flavor depending on who was working on it. The way it's turned out, I'm very, very happy with it. It's just like Aqua Teen. It's not for everybody, but I think it's pretty sharp. I think we do stories that we wouldn't do on Aqua Teen and vice versa. I felt like the lessons that I had learned with Aqua Teen I didn't get to use on Squids, just because it was such a mish-mash in the beginning.

During the making of the ATHF feature, Willis worked on his own project Squidbillies (above) with Jim Fortier while Maiellaro was making 12 Oz. Mouse. ™ & © Cartoon Network.

CJC: With the experience of writing a show like that under your belt, what's it like to come back and write something else together?

DW: It's great. It feels fresh when we get together, too. We both kind of have our own thing that we're doing on the side. And it's nice that we have this shared thing that we get together on occasion and work on. It's fresh. We would just get burned out if we just kept hitting Aqua Teen constantly.

CJC: Do you feel like you bring anything new to it or do you fall back into the old routines?

MM: Well, we have our set way of doing things, but I feel like you think you bring something new to it, because you haven't been immersed in it every day of your life. For the first five seasons, it was just Dave and I every day doing everything Aqua Teen, all the time, and then when we kind of went our separate ways to do these other shows and when we would come together to do another Aqua Teen, it was refreshing in a way. You know, you keep doing the same thing all the time it gets a little stale.

CJC: You gave viewers a sneak peek at the movie in the "Deleted Scenes" episode [which first aired on Adult Swim in December 2005]. Was that a subplot that you actually had in the movie and decided to drop early in production?

MM: Yeah, exactly. About eight months into making the film we realized that some of this just wasn't working, and that "Deleted Scenes" episode was sort of a whole B-plot that we just pulled out of the script, because it was too confusing, it was loosely held together, and it was just too all over the map for even a normal Aqua Teen episode.

DW: Usually we'll throw something out and sometimes it will dovetail real nicely with what we're trying to do and this didn't. It was just sort of a series of bits, so we just chopped it out. We did a pretty big rewrite right in the middle there and it's a much better movie for it, sort of leaner and more straightforward.

MM: Yeah, we're not used to that. We usually just write a script and just go record it. (Laughs) But we have a lot of leeway in the booth. We follow about 80% of it. If we didn't let actors ad lib in the booth or come up with different ideas it wouldn't feel as organic as I think it feels.

CJC: In addition to the regular cast, you've also got some ringers in the form of Bruce Campbell and Neil Peart of Rush. How did that come about?

DW: Huge fan of Rush as a kid. Matt was, too. I just remember schoolyard discussions about how great Neil Peart was on the drums. It's like, "Hey, we've got just enough power that maybe we can make something like this happen." He's playing his own drum parts, too. He was really fun to work with although I still don't know if he knows who we are and what we did. He may not even remember the session.

CJC: And that's not the first Rush reference in the show. You also had Geddy Lee in the "Spirit Journey Formation Anniversary" episode.

MM: We referenced Geddy in that show and we actually tried to get him to be in the show and he wanted to do it, but he was too busy on his solo album to break away, so that's actually me singing the birthday song. And then at the end we have the Geddy Lee bass plane. Yeah, we're huge Rush fans and we think it's just psychotic to get him on the show, so luckily we got Neil Peart in the movie.

CJC: Did your background in horror films influence your decision to cast Bruce Campbell in the movie?

The duo find that working apart keeps them fresh when they write together. Otherwise they run the risk of burning out on ATHF.

MM: Oh, definitely. I was a fan of his before anybody was. I grew up on horror films just sneaking out of my room when I was a kid to watch them, and there's something so fantastical about watching a horror movie and I always wanted to be like a make-up effects guy. Around '88 I went out to California to work on a Sam Raimi movie called Darkman -- actually got to meet Bruce very briefly -- and I was a set P.A. I was around all of the stuff I always wanted to do, cameras and special effects and making movies.

And, after Darkman I came back to the east coast and I would find out that they're shooting the sequel to Hellraiser and I'd run up there and I'd work on it, and I was just seeking out sequels to these movies that I just loved as a kid. It's been a huge influence in my life. I just love the escape factor of a horror movie.

DW: We'd always talked about trying to get Bruce Campbell to do the show and what would be a role worthy of him and I think we found something. He was great, he was really fun to work with. I'm kind of surprised he doesn't do more voice work. He's got a really great set of pipes. But it's clearly him, which is great, too, because it's great for the Army of Darkness fans. I think it's sort of cool that we were able to cast this cult hero in this role.

CJC: You can almost sort of see it as an homage to the Evil Dead films since that brand of comedic gore is one of your stocks in trade.

MM: To me, the more over-the-top the gore is, the funnier it is, just because it becomes campy and silly, so I brought that aspect to the show. And I think Dave digs it too, because it's just so retarded silly. We started pushing the envelope with the gore and just kept putting more and more into the show.

DW: Matt definitely came from a horror background and I was more of a comedy geek. We've been working together since '98. I think we both sort of gravitated towards that shocking humor. I mean, if you look at something like [Don Hertzfeldt's] Rejected, that's probably an example of something where our tastes definitely merge. We've always wanted to do more gore and now the Standards and Practices have finally kind of moved on that.

CJC: I was curious about the metal bands that you have on the soundtrack. Are they fans of the show? Are they bands that you're fans of?

MM: A lot of the people that we got were huge fans of the show, and one of us was a fan of that band. It was really a fun, creative soundtrack to work on, working with these guys and talking to them, because they'd all want to talk about the movie and they kind of wanted to write songs specific to the movie or the show. And talking to them and giving them information and then they'd come back with a cool song. And the soundtrack is sort of half metal and half pop and there's a little hip hop on there, and we have three hidden tracks that are kind of surprising. People like Mastodon and Nine Pound Hammer and Nashville Pussy and Unearth, Melody Maker. We have all kinds of cool people on the soundtrack.

Metal, pop and hip-hop music play important roles in the soundtrack for the feature. The team had a fun and creative time working with the bands, who often were fans of the show to begin with.

CJC: One thing I noticed was that the Andrew WK song, "Party Party Party," which was in the cancer episode, is also in the movie.

DW: Yes, it's in the movie, because we needed to fill out the soundtrack. (Laughs) Also, we wrote the song and he actually took our track and added all this other stuff to it and made it his own. We wrote it for him, but he made it his own and it's great and it only appears in the show for like eight seconds. Meanwhile, he did this really great version of it that runs that gamut, from this manic part to almost this melancholy harpsichord. I don't know what it is, but it's pretty amazing, so yeah, we threw it in there.

CJC: For a while, there was the feeling that you were making it up, that the movie was a hoax. The network would announce that you were writing it and then you would hear nothing for six months and think, "Well, obviously that was a joke."

MM: When we first started talking about it three or four years ago, it wasn't even in production and nobody had approved it. I guess we were just trying to convince ourselves. We were testing the waters. And then when people were into the idea it sort of became a reality. But yeah, it was supposed to come out about a year ago, but we just technically weren't ready for it.

DW: It was our idea to make it and the network just said, "Yeah, sure. If you can keep making shows and do it, yeah." I think it was just us saying, "We could totally do a movie with this. Let's go ahead and run with it." I think it's got its audience and those people will love it and we're just excited that it's getting such a wide release.

CJC: Is this your first experience with actual big studio kind of marketing or any kind of involvement in the show?

MM: Yeah, it is, actually. I worked on eight movies, but I was always on the set just doing production. This was the first time that I've dealt with the marketing department and talking to the distributor and it's kind of interesting because this is the first movie that Dave and I wrote, produced, edited, directed, all that kind of stuff. I think for everybody it's the first time for everything, even to the point of finding a distributor. Nobody really knew how to do that, so we just kind of winged it and ended up with a great distributor, First Look, and we're just kind of playing it by ear.

CJC: In some of the behind-the-scenes features on the DVDs, we've seen the two of you sit down and write an episode, we've seen you record an episode in the studio, we've seen the unedited scripts. Is that an attempt on your part to demystify the process?

DW: On one level, and on another level it's an attempt on our part to put something on the DVD without having to edit it. I loved the idea that we would just turn on a camera and film the writing of a show, because that is how we do it and it's not made pretty. I mean, how are you even going to edit together a sizzle piece that's less than a minute long about "Let's take a look into the writer's room"? I love how it's just a static shot and this is exactly how we do it.

MM: Yeah, it is kind of demystifying it, because it's not as totally entertaining at all times to an outsider as they might think it is. I mean, we have fun doing it, but literally that one shot of us sitting there writing an episode, that's how it works. Plus, it was a little pretentious, too. I think we titled it "How to Make Lots of Money Writing for Television."

CJC: And the other features give you the idea that it takes a whole lot of people to put the show together.

DW: And also not turn it into a vanity project. Matt and I, neither one of us are animators. We're not really artists. We have our specific abilities and then we have a whole lot of other people that help us make it happen. We have a documentary on the DVD, The Thing We Shot Wednesday Night, and that's exactly what it is. It's, I think, eight people that worked on the movie: the main sound guy, Michael Kohler; the background artist, Bob Pettit; the main compositor, Craig Hartin; Dana Snyder [the voice of Master Shake]; Clay Croker, who's the voice of Dr. Weird and Steve and one of the main animators; Todd Redner, an animator; and it's us and we're just sitting there watching little segments of the movie and then we get into a roundtable discussion about the whole thing and I think it turned out pretty great. It's a cartoon; it's got to be a collaborative process.

This is the first time the team has been involved in the marketing and distribution of one of their projects. But don't ask them about the Boston bomb scare with the Mooninites sign... they don't know a thing about it.

CJC: I'm curious about what a typical day at the office for you is like with all the different projects you have going at the same time.

DW: There isn't a typical day right now. Let me give you an idea. I've been ducking phone calls about the videogame; I'm going to have to call her back at some point. Finish writing script ideas. I've got to do some radio drops for the soundtrack as Carl. Looked at some spots that we shot for a marathon next week. Gave notes on an episode of Squidbillies that's being cut. Signed 45 posters of the movie. Got to draw a picture for the 7" Superchunk is putting out based on their song they put on the soundtrack. Edited together some pieces for this live-action thing I'm doing called Sea to Shining Sea. And okayed a drawing for another pilot I'm doing for the network called, Cheyenne Cinnamon and the Fantabulous Unicorn of Sugartown Candyfudge.

CJC: The title kills me already. I don't even need to see the show. The title kills me.

DW: That's great. She's like this pop princess, she's like Britney Spears was in the late '90s. She's beautiful and she lives in this magical candy land with her unicorn and her gummi publicist and gingerbread handlers. And they live about 20 miles outside of Detroit and she goes into Detroit to solve racial strife and people with their problems with the power of magic.

CJC: Like Jem and the Holograms, but with a social conscience.

DW: It's like Strawberry Shortcake for stoned 22-year-olds.

CJC: What's a typical day for Matt Maiellaro?

MM: It's kind of varies. Lately I've actually been getting there early, which is about 9:00 or 9:30. Dave and I both have editors working on either Aqua Teen or Squidbillies or a 12 Oz. Mouse webisode or the Aqua Teen movie DVD. And I'm doing a new horror pilot, which is live action, so I have that going on. So we kind of walk in and start checking in on all of our editors and all of our P.A.s and our production managers to make sure all of the information's coming in that we need to get the next show rolling or, "Is this cut ready?" or, "Are we about the sweeten this thing?" It's kind of a mish-mash, you know. We're not just sitting down at desks and shooting e-mails out, we're just kind of all over the building, running around making sure everything's happening.

CJC: I guess back in the Space Ghost days, everybody was working on one show, and now you're working on a dozen or more.

MM: Yeah, and we're basically using the same crew for the dozen, so... (laughs) Everybody's stretched a little thin. Yeah, back in Space Ghost we'd show up and sit in a room until the script was done and go home. This is a little more hectic.

CJC: Is there anything that you'd like to add? What is your message for people going into this movie?

DW: Minds are like parachutes. They don't work unless they're open. I think I had that poster on my second grade wall. But I don't know. I think people that like the show are going to love the movie. People that hate the show, the movie will just enrage them.

Craig J. Clark is a freelance writer whose works include plays, short stories and an online comic called Dada. He has been an avid watcher of Adult Swim's programming for several years now and has been a fan of its progenitor, Space Ghost Coast to Coast, since it first aired in 1994.