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HBO

How HBO's Animals went from pigeon-centric passion project to premium cable comedy

The show's creators explain the "elastic hyperbolism" of the world they've created, and why their subjects can use human toilets but not wear pants.

For the past several years I've been on the judges' panel for the critics prize at the New York Television Festival, one of the few events in the US that highlight independent television.

At the 2013 festival, one of the pilots screened for critics instantly displayed a point of view that could really thrive on TV. Created by Phil Matarese and Mike Luciano, Animals followed various New York City animals (from pigeons to rats to police horses) as they went about their day-to-day lives, against a backdrop of humans oblivious to the existential crises their four-legged friends were suffering. The show won best comedy at the festival, then seemingly disappeared.

But over the past few years, as viewers' appetite for content has grown, more and more networks have looked to the independent scene for fresh material. That's how Animals landed in the laps of Mark and Jay Duplass, the brothers who've directed numerous acclaimed indie films and who created HBO's Togetherness. The Duplasses helped Matarese and Luciano produce the series independently, and in February it debuted on HBO after years of work.

I recently chatted with Luciano and Matarese about that process, what's different about making independent TV, and why their animals can't wear pants.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

On telling stories about animals: "I'm sick of [humans] talking all the time. Let's give someone else a chance to speak."

Todd VanDerWerff

There have been so many animated cats and dogs over the years, and you branch out past those. What other animals have you enjoyed writing for? How do you choose which animals to tell stories about?

Phil Matarese

We stem from the animal outward. A lot of times it's a relationship we want to talk about, and we transpose it into a different animal.

But [as an example], the tiny turtles that are sold on Canal Street in New York [who feature in an upcoming episode]. That was such a weird fucking thing, growing up. My family and I went to New York, and we came home with turtles. It's like, we're thinking about who God can be. And also [we were writing] it for the people who got to voice it; Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham [of USA's Playing House] were so awesome.

The pigeons [who appear in multiple episodes] are always fun, because they have this weird family dynamic. "Flies" [which airs March 18] was tons of fun. I don't want to spoil exactly the premise of it. It's pretty apparent off the bat.

Mike Luciano

We got to test our drama chops more. It was fun to use those muscles.

Phil Matarese

The last episode of the season [which airs April 8] is turkeys. That was really interesting, to have a story that was pretty ingrained in a dark way. Again, I don't want to give the story away, but you can probably guess how turkeys are ingrained into the human world in a dark way. That's a fun story to tell that I think sends a pretty cool message.

Todd VanDerWerff

The animals will often make observations about humans that can make us realize how ridiculous some of our behavior is — like when the pigeons call golf "white guy white ball." What have you realized about humanity by looking at it from the point of view of an animal?

Phil Matarese

We think the world revolves around us, and maybe it doesn't. We share this planet with lots of different things. I can't just be involved in myself. It feels good sometimes to share your existence with other things, a dog that you adopt or something like that.

I don't really know. We're pieces of shit, I think. Humans are shit. Humans are garbage, and I'm sick of us talking all the time. Let's give someone else a chance to speak.

Todd VanDerWerff

In many of the episodes I've seen, it seems like the animals are sort of obsessed with whether they'll procreate or have children. What spawned that as a loose theme for the show?

Phil Matarese

Mike and I have strong family relationships, so that's always inherently a base of story. Even though, for some reason, we write our parents as pieces of shit in a lot of episodes — which I think is a better story, sometimes, than having them be really nice. That generational divide is interesting. And I think it's hard to do with humans. Animals have that sort of, the lower on the food chain, [the more likely it is they'll die without having kids]. You know?

Mike Luciano

We view animals of all stripes as a very cut-and-dry thing. They exist, they have small brains, they procreate, and then there are more of them. And then the other ones die. It's really fun to zoom in and go—

Phil Matarese

"What is this stuff?"

Mike Luciano

What is it like to them? It has to be way more intricate. So it's fun to go, "Okay, what is this pigeon like, who thinks he has an egg suddenly and just wants to be loved by somebody and have responsibility?"

Phil Matarese

They all look alike, too, so it's fun to have that fluidity around gender and life in general.

On when animals can be humanlike (and vice versa): "Very rarely are animals allowed to wear pants. That's our big rule."

Three pigeons sitting around a kitchen table.
Just three pigeons sitting around the kitchen table, talking about their day.
HBO

Todd VanDerWerff

I saw the original New York Television Festival pilot, and the HBO series is, for lack of a better word, more realistic than that. The animals are more recognizably animals. How did you shift your approach as you expanded this project to a full TV series?

Mike Luciano

That was just part of the natural progression. We found a line that we walk throughout the 10 episodes. That's an innate thing Phil and I don't really talk about too much, but it's a fun line to play with.

In our second episode, this pigeon lives in the side of this building where a normal pigeon would. There's a nest and a Marlboro cigarette ashtray, but then right next to that is this tiny human toilet [that perhaps a pigeon could use].

Phil Matarese

Elastic hyperbolism is what we wrote in our pitch book.

Mike Luciano

That's our college thesis version of it.

We've tried to retain as much of the DNA of the shorts. [Animals began as an independent web series.] But the original shorts were completely black and white. And then the quarter-hour pilot was pretty grayscale but had some pops of color here and there. Now we have this palette that we really like of saturated colors.

The big, wide shots of the city are, for the most part, black and white but have those little pops of color. The show continues to evolve over the 10 episodes. By the seventh, eighth, ninth, 10th episodes, the backgrounds are like paintings. They're like storybook renderings.

Phil Matarese

Since 2012 we've had the world of Animals in our DNA, and we've been thinking about it and talking about it nonstop. Doing that put this innate guideline inside of us. We don't talk about it that much, but we have hard-and-fast rules of what can fly in our world and what can't and how certain things are going to interact. It seems lawless, but I think we have a guiding hand for the universe we've created.

Todd VanDerWerff

What are some of those restrictions you've placed on yourselves, even if they're unspoken?

Phil Matarese

We're not going to reach for animals. We're not going to the Central Park Zoo. We're not going to have the circus come through and have giraffes and shit like that.

It's also the amount of humanism we put into our various animals. We're allowed to go pretty hard with the rats. They're in the sewer environment, away from human eyes. That's an area we're allowed to turn up that hyperbolism. But for something like a dog in a dog park, a lot of it is in their heads, and it's hard to quantify. It's tethered to the human world a little bit more.

But we do an entire episode about flies. Again, that's one of these microcosms that we can zoom into, and we're allowed to have a house that's a cigarette pack, and we're allowed to have a fly carrying a suitcase.

We're not going to put too many clothes on the animals, but if Mike's fly character is a businessman, he'll have a tie and he'll have a cellphone and he'll have a suitcase. We're not going to go nuts. Very rarely are animals allowed to wear pants. That's our big rule.

On the transition from working out of a one-bedroom apartment to working with HBO: "We're two dudes who like making stuff"

Two police horses talking to each other.
Two police horses, shootin' the breeze.
HBO

Todd VanDerWerff

How did Animals evolve from an independent web series into something airing on HBO?

Phil Matarese

Mike and I worked in New York, advertising. This was our nights-and-weekends passion project. And then we experimented with a larger narrative form, which is that 12-minute pilot at the New York Television Festival. That won best comedy there. So that's how we got agents and managers and attention from what, at the time, seemed like that impenetrable Hollywood world.

One of our managers put it in front of the Duplass brothers. We took a Skype call with them in our supply closet at work, and they laid it out. We could pitch it, and it could possibly go somewhere, but it very possibly could not. Or we could partner up with them, they'd find financing for it, and we would make a season of TV on our own, independently. For Mike and me, that sounded really, really good. We're two dudes who like making stuff.

So we packed up my Kia Soul and moved out to California. We holed up in this tiny apartment in Los Feliz, made one of the bedrooms a recording studio. For a little under a year, we worked on making this show.

We screened our first two episodes [at Sundance]. And that was sort of our jumping-off platform to sell the show. We had two really polished, finished episodes, along with 10 scripts for the season. We came back from Sundance, and HBO liked it and wanted to do it.

Todd VanDerWerff

Independent TV has just really started to gain a foothold in the last couple of years. What has your experience been developing TV outside of the normal process?

Mike Luciano

It's been an extension of what we were doing.

Phil Matarese

It was hell making it on our own. It's hard work.

Mike Luciano

There's downsides to it, as there are good sides to it. The first chunk of the episodes, as Phil said, we made in an apartment. We didn't know if it was going to wind up anywhere.

Phil Matarese

We didn't know how to make a show, really. But you just do it, you know?

Mike Luciano

We spent all day doing it and all night doing it. But what comes with that unique situation is that we've gotten to follow our own compass. Because we came with the show so fully formed to the marketplace, there was less room to get other fingers in it.

People, for the most part, moved out of the way. People have been really great about supporting it and letting us do our thing. The downside is you're never sure if it's going to wind up anywhere or if you're doing it right.

Phil Matarese

It really is a tough show to pitch, so we knew off the bat we had to make it and just show what it is. Show the voice of this show. Show that it's sweet, but it's also crass at times. It's low art, but it's gorgeous. All that sort of stuff. We needed to package it, and present it to people and be like, "Hey, this a thing. I swear to God. This is a thing."

Todd VanDerWerff

You worked on Animals mostly in isolation, without network or audience feedback. What did you learn about making your show over those 10 episodes?

Phil Matarese

Mike and I, we met each other at a small business, so we applied a lot of those management skills. This is weird, but we wanted it to be like a family and a little gang when we made our show. Everyone's fingerprints are going to be on it, and that way everyone cares about the show, even though our names are on top of this thing.

Mike Luciano

And also with that, we're going to work the hardest to show everybody else that they need to come play and show up.

Phil Matarese

That's our ethos too. If your names are on the thing, you should be there, fucking first in and last out.

You know, in various stages, Mike and I were producers. We were editing. We were picking out music. I was drawing and animating all this stuff.

You just have to keep falling forward with it. That's a term we keep using for this project. It was daunting, and we had a lot of Monday morning meetings, looking at a calendar, figuring out, okay, how do we do this? You adjust, and you keep working really, really hard.

Todd VanDerWerff

You haven't been on the air that long, but what's it been like to have other people watch this thing you spent so many years on?

Mike Luciano

Phil and I have been making this in our bubble for so long. It's been something that was just ours. And all of these different iterations have been surreal. Having all these amazing people, comedy people, come into our apartment and record with us for an hour — that was incredibly surreal. When it was at Sundance, that was incredibly surreal.

Now we just went in front of our first billboard. You look up and see the Hollywood sign, and a bunch of palm trees, and then the billboard for this show that we've made over the past four years that we started in our bedrooms. It's nuts!

Phil Matarese

Our families supported us a lot along the way, and it feels rewarding to have our families realize, okay, that's what they gave up pretty good jobs at an ad agency to move across the country for.

Mike Luciano

It's nice to have something we really believed in come to fruition.

Animals airs Fridays on HBO at 11 pm Eastern. Previous episodes are available at HBO Go.

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