Don’t know the names Mike Luciano and Phil Matarese? You’re about to. While working at a small advertising agency in New York, Luciano and Matarese — now 28 and 26 years old, respectively — spitballed ideas for animations depicting the everyday lives of pigeons after watching one outside their office window. They produced a few shorts in their spare time that were so well received by the New York Television Festival, Mark and Jay Duplass paid them a visit. One minor trip to Sundance 2015 later, Animals. was featured in The New York Times, profiled in the Los Angeles Times and bought by HBO for a two-season deal.
Like The Venture Bros., Archer, Rick and Morty and other not-for-Saturday-morning programs, Animals. is meant to be watched and enjoyed by a late night adult populace wanting a little more kick in its cartoons. To accomplish this, Luciano and Matarese completed most of the first season of Animals. before HBO or anyone else even knew it existed — thanks in large part to the Duplass brothers, who serve as executive producers. Many thought it was a strange way to make television, but as Luciano and Matarese told Uproxx, it’s the best way to do it.
You two met at a New York ad agency…
…and now you’re making Animals. for HBO. Did your copywriting or graphic design training inform your work on the show?
Phil: I did it all on the side. My parents got me this $50 Wacom tablet, and I was still using it up until eight months ago. The web series and the first few animated episodes were all drawn on that thing. But yeah, I was a copywriter at the agency and eventually I became a creative director of sorts. Mike and I eventually directed some things with them as well, but yeah… This was just a side thing. I was doing a little web comic at the time and when I met Mike, we came up with this rough idea that just seemed to really fit.
Mike: I was a video editor. I came into the fold from that world, and working at the agency was the first time I really had a full-time job that was just video editing. Me and Phil’s sensibilities, as we started making the series, were a natural fit for each other. We both had an eye for making video shorts, and the technical skills we honed on our own have come into play throughout making the entire half-hour series…
Phil: …even the social skills we learned at the ad agency. It was a small business, and we sort of extrapolated a lot of the same management methods into our work environment for Animals. We try to, I don’t know… We’re nice to people, I guess. We work really hard, and everyone on our show works really hard, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a toxic environment to make people bust their asses. You can have everyone happy and friendly. That’s one thing that we really got from our Animals. crew when we blew up after Sundance. Everyone is really friendly with each other. We’d go do karaoke, bowling and all that sort of shit together.
Mark Duplass said in an interview last year that he explained your options to you both — either go it alone or succumb to a studio’s whims.
Phil: For sure. Since the beginning, this thing has been solely the voice of Mike and myself, from top to bottom. The way the animation looks, the stories we want to tell, the music that’s in it — all that stuff. To be able to have that sort of creative autonomy throughout the entire process, even up to right now… HBO has been so fucking cool. Everyone knows this about them, that they let their creators do their thing. And to have that be our show, it’s going to be interesting. Even for us, to look back at this season 10 years from now. As a 26-year-old dude, this right now is what I think is funny. As soon as Mark laid that option out for us, that we could do it this way and it would be a lot of work with a potentially large payoff — it was a no-brainer.
You were already working with the Duplass brothers, doing something that you enjoyed, when the first two episodes premiered at Sundance last year. What was going through your minds, both then and during the HBO deal in May?
Phil: I think it’s been a series of doubts, in a sense. Like I’m not really believing any of it, in a way. Especially when it was announced. But even now with HBO pushing the trailer out and all the other marketing — seeing all these fucking billboards in Los Angeles — it’s super surreal. This is when it’s really hitting me. When we sold it out of Sundance, if anything, that was a validation in a way. That we were doing something right and our hard work wasn’t going nowhere. We talked to Mark not too long ago and he said, “I can’t believe that fucking worked!” It scared the shit out of me, because I thought this dude knew what he was doing all along. He did, of course, and he knew it would end up somewhere no matter what happened. But to hear our sensei be shocked by how this turned out was really surprising. It feels so right that HBO is the home of this. Mike said five years ago that this could be a television show, and that he could see it on HBO. To have that come true is so bizarre.
Mike: There was interest in the show when we premiered at Sundance, so we felt like we were in a good place then. We had people interested. Later on, it was more about what place gets it, is most satisfying, and would we be the most excited to call home. To get HBO, the place we wanted from the beginning, was nothing short of a dream come true. The two-season order was the icing on the cake, and that gave us enough confidence to continue doing what we’d been doing all along. Following our own internal compasses for everything with the show. What jokes should go in, how it should be paced and all the other choices we had to make. Much to our amazement, everyone has gotten out of our way and championed our choices.
Phil: That’s also what makes Mark and Jay such great executive producers. They’ve said since the beginning that they’d be there whenever we need them, and we do utilize them. We do a read-through of every script with them. But they made it clear from the beginning this would be our thing, me and Mike.
What’s your writing process like?
Phil: Mike and I are always fucking around with each other and doing voices in different, funny scenarios. Now we’ve been in the universe of Animals. for so long that whenever we’re really tickled pink by a joke, we can automatically imagine it through the lens of different animal characters. As for the writing itself, we’ll break outlines together based on a plethora of story arcs we’ve already prepared. It’s fun to just text each other about, say, a sketch involving a can of worms or something like that. Most of time, we dive into these worlds that are New York-centric. That’s the fun part. Really figuring out these things that are straight up New York, like tiny turtles being sold on Canal Street. I went to New York with my parents and we fucking bought turtles in Chinatown. It’s so weird…
Mike: It’s specific to New York.
Phil: It’s really fun to plot these things and get a strong A story for every episode. We like to lock that down and make sure it’s there. Yet we don’t want to burden the scene with too many points, because when you bring in these incredible people, they’ll give us stuff that we never could have never written down.
How important is improvisation?
Phil: Every recording session is improvised. We would give the performers certain beats for every scene, obviously, but everything else was improvised. We don’t write out much of the dialogue. Plus, we didn’t want cartoon character voices, so everyone would generally talk the way they usually do. We bring in these people for themselves. If we have Jon Lovitz as a squirrel, I kind of want Jon Lovitz as a squirrel. I don’t want a British dude or something like that. Everyone really took to it throughout the process, though.
Mike: By the way, Jon Lovitz plays a squirrel. That’s fresh news. It’s hot off the presses.
I can’t explain why, but Jon Lovitz voicing a squirrel makes perfect sense.
Phil: I can’t really tell you everything, but he has become a part of our world and our team in a very cool way. It’s super bizarre, but you’ll see how it plays out.
Having watched the first few screeners, it seems like everyone involved had a lot of fun.
Mike: Being a Duplass project, people knew from the beginning they were in for an interesting experience. So I think everybody who participated in our show was down to come in and play around with us. In every recording session we had, everyone — me, Phil and the actors — would all get into the same room. Everyone there had a mic in front of them and was improvising. It’s not one at a time. We did all the scenes altogether once, three takes of each, and we’d encourage everyone to go one direction or another.
Phil: Yeah, Mike and I would direct each scene from inside the booth.
Mike: We also had several people who’d done a lot of voice acting work. Someone like Ben Schwartz, who just did Star Wars: The Force Awakens. We’d put them together with all these other amazing comedians and actors into the same booth, and after we were done recording, they’d say, “That was so much fun! I’ve never done that before. Been in a room improvising like that.” It blew our minds. That these incredible, comedic actors weren’t used to having free rein in that kind of environment. So it quickly became an exciting part of how we do the show and something we now encourage.
Silly reporter question time. Who were you the most starstruck by?
Phil: I think Lovitz was really cool. Even when I was a little kid, I loved him in films like High School High. Also, the Wayans brothers were really fucking cool. Scary Movie was my shit. So was Don’t Be a Menace…
Mike: I watched Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood the night before.
Phil: So did I!
Mike: We both watched it.
Phil: That was so fucking…
Mike: I know! And then the next day we were like, “Oh my God. These icons are here with us in the studio.” They’re so fucking funny, and the thing we realized when they came in… First, we were just incredibly surprised that they were actually coming to do it. Then they came in and we did the session, which left everyone in tears. After they left, we noticed they’d left the scripts behind. The pages of both were riddled with alternative jokes and stuff they were thinking about using in additional takes. They’re joke-writing machines and there’s a reason why they are who they are — movie stars.
Phil: In the same scene, we had John Witherspoon, who played their dad on The Wayan Bros. television show. It was so cool to see them talking with each other, telling stories about their kids. It was really unbelievable. Also, Wanda Sykes is another person I’ve been a huge fan of since forever. Since Pootie Tang.
Mike: Another one, obviously, was Aziz Ansari. We made the first handful of episodes in an apartment in Los Feliz where Phil and I both lived. We also had the animators come in to work each day. Our living room was our office, and we turned one of the bedrooms into a recording studio. We woke up and had Aziz Ansari coming into this bedroom that looked like it was in a serial killer’s apartment. Plus, it was literally two days after he’d sold out Madison Square Garden for two nights in a row.
Mike: Phil and I are huge comedy fans, so we’d been following people like Aziz long before they were selling out Madison Square Garden and starring in popular television shows. We would have been starstruck back then.
Now that the first season is about to start, have you had any time to work on season two?
Phil: Yeah, we’re in the middle of writing right now. It feels so good to be back in that part of the creative cycle. We’re really energized to get these new episodes into the mix now that the rest of it is almost out there. We like to, I don’t know, take risks or experiment with the medium of animation. Continuing that for season two, especially know that we know our capabilities, will be great.
Animals. premieres Friday, Feb. 5 at 11:30 p.m. ET on HBO. You can stream the premiere on HBO Now on Feb. 4.