If you haven’t heard of the Brothers Hageman yet, you’ve almost definitely seen their work. Dan and Kevin Hageman are the creative minds behind some of the most successful animated features and series of the last few years.
Their writing credits include Hotel Transylvania, The Lego Movie, Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu, and most recently, as co-executive producers for Guillermo del Toro’s brand-new hit Netflix original series, Trollhunters.
They graciously took time out of their busy schedules to give us some insight into their process, their inspiration, and how intimidating it is (or isn’t) to work with the iconic director.
When did you realize you wanted to be screenwriters, and what do you consider your “big break?”
D: We had always loved movies, and yearned to be a part of them. Early on, Kevin wanted to direct, and I wanted to compose music for film. When it became apparent that no one would gladly hand over millions of dollars to make our dreams come true – we started writing our own stuff. Lucky for us, someone saw a glimmer of talent in us and gave us a shot. Even luckier, that someone was Steven Spielberg.
K: Our very first pitch was to Steven. We were nervous as all hell. It was like the Olympics, and failure was not an option! Happily, he loved it and it became our first writing assignment!
You guys have done several very successful adaptations in both film and television. How do you approach the material to find your “take?”
D: We talk about what the worst version of this movie could be, then we discuss the best version. Hopefully, we end up with something better than what the audience is expecting.
K: Whether it’s Hotel T, Lego Movie, Ninjago or Trollhunters, we always start with finding the wish fulfillment and the heart. Once we feel like we’ve captured both, then we know we have something special on our hands.
As writing partners, what’s your collaboration process?
Do you take turns with drafts, split it into sections, write side-by-side on the computer…?
D: We always start with talking about the project. When we feel like we’re on the same page, we start breaking it down together, and continually talk about theme and arcs. Once we feel like we have a good grasp on the material, we divide and conquer. Then exchange scenes and make our changes. Lastly, we go over it together with a fine tooth comb and polish.
K: To add, Dan has a talent at the scenes that require tricky or witty dialogue. My talent leans more toward the visual sequences that require more of a director’s eye.
Do you ever have creative differences that spill over into family gatherings? How do you avoid violence around the Thanksgiving turkey?
D: As with any writing partner, we have our fair share of creative differences, but we usually keep our frustrations to ourselves during the writing process (and they can get fierce). We look forward to family gatherings since we try not to think about writing and just be brothers.
K: I also think we both allow our frustrations to roll off our back. We might be furious with each other one hour, but then we’re laughing and hanging out the next.
At this point in your careers, how do you generally find your “next jobs?” Are you approached with material, do you create spec projects to pitch, or both?
D: A bit of both. If we’re not inspired by the material that’s shown to us, we’ll drift into thinking about our own originals.
K: We’re currently in the fortunate position to have work shown to us. Whether it’s a director, producer or studio, we’ve been developing ideas/projects from the ground up for/with them. We’ve been wishing for some down time so we can try to push our own originals.
I’ve read that you’re working on a feature adaptation of “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” for Guillermo, so I imagine you had a good working relationship at DreamWorks. How did you first get involved in Trollhunters?
D: DreamWorks Animation had asked if we had interest in helping showrun GDT’s series Trollhunters. We have great respect for him, so we jumped at the chance. Partway through the writing process on Trollhunters, GDT liked what we were doing and pulled us aside and asked if we had enough time to help him on Scary Stories. We didn’t have the time, but of course, we said ‘yes’! Glad we did. We love working with him.
Compared to broadcast, did the Netflix model of dropping an entire season at once influence the way you and your writing staff approached the episodes?
D: It concerned us at first, but after they explained why, we saw it as a real plus and a real honor. It was the largest drop ever, and at the busiest time of year. It didn’t really influence us too much – we set out to break down 13 episode arcs. They just happened to decide to drop 26.
K: Normally in television, you’re lucky to be guaranteed 13 episodes, and we got 26! That’s unheard of. So we jumped at the chance to develop one long epic story.
Was there a character in Trollhunters that was a personal favorite to write for?
And did seeing that character come to life onscreen change how they were used in any season or series arcs?
D: Strickler was an interesting cat. We had some great material with him left on the cutting room floor. I love sympathetic, smart villains.
K: Boy, many of us just fell in love with all of the characters. We – and the writers room – strived to make every character great, as if they deserved their own series. For me, I love Strickler. And Toby D is just infectious.
I’ve heard a rumor that you’ve put a lot of Easter Eggs in the show that relate to some of your genre influences. What kinds of things should viewers keep their eyes out for in Season 1?
D: We don’t have any say in what gets animated for the final product, but I can say we kept a board up in our writer’s room that took a tally of every movie or television show we were ripping off. Some more blatant than others.
K: Some films influences to look for: The Goonies, Big Trouble in Little China, The Lost Boys, Young Sherlock Holmes, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Gremlins, The Last Starfighter, The ‘Burbs, Rear Window, The Thing, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, Weird Science, The Monster Squad, Return of the Jedi… I could go on! There’s even references to my senior thesis short from Loyola Marymount film school –‘Dawn of the Dwellers’ – which just so happens to be about some geeks who discover monsters are living underneath their town!
Do you ever get writer’s block? If so, how do you battle it?
D: Not really. We may not figure something out right off the bat, but we usually attack every story problem from a thousand directions. It’s helpful just to write the bad version of what you want to say/do – then relook at it in a future rewrite. The solution usually presents itself.
K: What we also do when we hit writers block is we say ‘lets just put a pin in it’. We set that portion of the story aside, and concentrate on another part of the script we know how to tackle.
What advice would you give to aspiring screenwriters?
D: It’s cliché – but just keep writing. It’s a game of perseverance.
K: Yep. I spent 7 years working in film development until we finally sold something. It takes time, and it takes having connections. So get a job or internship in Hollywood and make contacts as you keep writing.
SHORT ATTENTION SPAN ROUND
Heathcliff or Garfield?
K: Ugh. I hate cats.
Keaton or Bale?
D: Bale as Batman. Keaton for everything else.
K: Bale as Batman. Keaton as Mr. Mom. Could Bale do Beetlejuice? Nah.
Gremlins or Goonies?
K: Two of my favorites. But Goonies is framed in my office.
Connery or Craig?
D: I like what Craig is doing with the character.
K: Craig. I love the more grounded approach to characters like Mendes’ Bond and Nolan’s Batman.
Team Cap or Team Iron Man?
D: Why must they fight?
K: Marvel movies lost me years ago. They’re all the same. I’m only a Guardians fan now.
Beatles or Stones?
K: Uh… Stone Roses?
You’ll have to hold off a while longer for Scary Stories to go into production, but all 26 episodes of the first season of DreamWorks Trollhunters were released December 23rd and are available for streaming on Netflix right now. What’re you waiting for?