Deep in the offices of Disney Animation, where they produce kids programming like WANDER OVER YONDER and STAR AND THE FORCES OF EVIL, there is a bar. It is a wood paneled locale straight out of TWIN PEAKS, filled with taxidermy and beer cans, and it is unmistakable proof that there is at least one show on Disney XD that is not just for kids.
This bar is the brain child of Alex Hirsch, the 30-year-old creator of the cult hit series GRAVITY FALLS. His show is about two 12-year-old twins, Dipper (voiced by Jason Ritter) and Mabel (Kristen Schaal) who have been sent to live with their Great-Uncle, or “Grunkle” Stan (Hirsch himself), for the summer. But Grunkle Stan is no ordinary great-uncle, and the town of Gravity Falls is no ordinary town, and soon Dipper and Mabel discover a series of horrifying wonders that place them all in mortal danger week after week.
It is a smart show. It is a funny show. It is a scary show. In fact, GRAVITY FALLS may be one of the best shows on television right now, packed with humor and horror and a series of elaborate mysteries that rival the enigmas on LOST, at least as far as rabid fan speculation is concerned.
I sat down in the tavern in the midst of Disney Animation with Alex Hirsch, kitted out in his best lumberjack plaid, to talk about the origins and impact of GRAVITY FALLS. For more of this conversation, come back tomorrow. You can also listen to a bonus interview with Hirsch on this week’s episode of The B-Movies Podcast- https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/the-b-movies-podcast/id427673712
Blumhouse.com: Tell me about this room we’re in right now.
Alex Hirsch: Okay, so we are in an office that doesn’t look anything like an office. We transformed it into a bar that we call “Drunkle Stan’s.” We are surrounded by a taxidermy boar head, an arcade machine, many old neon beer signs, a crummy 8-track player that sometimes plays warped banjo music. Exactly the kind of place Grunkle Stan would get plastered if he wanted to. [Laughs.]
BH: So this is a kids show!
AH: Yeah! [Laughs.] Well, you know, behind every kids show is a bunch of adults working late.
BH: I feel like in GRAVITY FALLS, although it has an obvious kids appeal, there’s a lot of stuff in this program that I don’t think kids are going to get.
AH: Oh yeah, absolutely.
BH: How many kids are going to get your Red Room, TWIN PEAKS reference?
AH: Kids with hipster parents. I think that’s part of the crossover appeal.
BH: Do you concern yourself with that at all? Like with whether you’re just making a show, or are you making a show for adults that kids can enjoy, or are you making a show for kids that adults can enjoy?
AH: Never, not once. That conversation never enters the writers room. We basically have one rule, which is “make something we would like.” I think if you try to chase a demographic – if you try to imagine, “Well, I wouldn’t like this but someone else might, what would someone else like?” – there’s no way to prove it. In the room you know what makes you laugh. You know what questions you want to see answered. I can’t get into somebody else’s head. The only way I can make something that I can guarantee the quality of is to make something I love, and it turns out that because I am a man-child, both men and children seem to synch up with my tastes alright.
BH: So this show is based a little bit on your childhood, but also not at all on your childhood…
AH: Right, yeah. It’s much more interesting than my childhood.
BH: Tell me a little about the start of GRAVITY FALLS?
AH: Sure. Disney approached me after I graduated CalArts. They’d seen my student work, they said “Pitch us a kids show.” I didn’t really have a kids show in my back pocket. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to work in the world of kids entertainment, so-called, but I figured okay, when I was twelve, where was my head at? If I could make a show for the twelve-year-old in me, what would that be?
So I thought about when I was a kid I was obsessed with UFOs. I grew up in the 90s so THE X-FILES was in full swing. You had shows like UNSOLVED MYSTERIES on, and I was just crazy about those questions. So I had a twin sister whom I lived with, and multiple summers my mom would ship us out into the forest with our Great Aunt Lois, where we did chores and were often bored out of our skulls. We went on camping trips. I love you, Aunt Lois if you’re listening, but we were kids! We missed our video games.
But what an interesting thing that happened out of that was our imaginations grew to fill the space, and we would imagine all these fun things that we wished we were doing out in the woods. I wished there were dinosaurs here, I wished there were aliens, I wished there were leprechauns. This show is sort of a repository of all those childhood daydreams in those long camping trips we would have up and down the mountains.
BH: And yet you subvert them a lot too. My girlfriend insisted that I watch GRAVITY FALLS. I hadn’t seen it yet. Then I saw the first episode, and I saw you were doing TWILIGHT, and Mabel’s boyfriend said, “I have to tell you something… I’m a big pile of gnomes.”
AH: “Is this weird? Is this too weird? Do you need to sit down?” Right. [Laughs.]
BH: Where did that idea come from, to take TWILIGHT and mess it up?
AH: I think part of the series is about… on the one hand, I sincerely do love magic and mystery, so there is the occasional sincere mystery, but I’m a comedy guy at heart and I get bored with tropes when I know where they’re headed. Just to entertain myself as a writer I must flip them on their ear or else the third act is something I don’t have to watch.
We wanted to show, from that very first episode, that we will surprise you in this series. Regardless of where you think we’re headed we’re going to go somewhere different, and we don’t want to just have Bigfoot, with a capital “B,” walking through the woods and they catch him, he’s Bigfoot, he leaves. We want there to be an extra surprise behind every mystery trope and we’ve more or less stuck to that.
BH: More or less?
BH: Is there one you feel like you did too straight?
AH: Yeah, you know the second episode of our series, THE LEGEND OF THE GOBBLEWONKER, the Loch Ness Monster creature turned out to be a robot. Which is the SCOOBY-DOO trope. Our way of excusing it was this robot was built for this ridiculous, absurd, comedic, contrived reason by this hillbilly, and we thought maybe hanging it on a lampshade would make that okay.
But our fans by and large said [mimes typing]: “Hmm, no magic this week! Did not like! Send.”
Basically we learned from that reaction, okay, we do need magic every week. The magic must be real or else people feel like they’ve been lied to. It can be weird magic, the weirder the better, but it must be magic or else people tune out.
BH: But you have sci-fi though…
AH: That’s right. Magic, sci-fi… When I say “magic” I use that term, particularly in the writer’s room, to mean what’s the big, impossible visual element that we’re wrapping our narrative around? And the rule is: one per week. We never, unless it’s some sort of anthology of something, very very very rarely do we have two quote-unquote “magics” a week.
BH: I’ve heard that before, the need to keep a story grounded except for one element. But as the show builds and you have more and more entities that already exist… for example, in a recent episode you had not only aliens but time travel and Bill Cypher.
AH: Sure, sure. Yeah.
BH: Do you gain the freedom to do that as time goes on, to tell more complicated stories?
AH: Only one new thing a week. So we can reference old ones, but if it had been Bill, time travel, aliens and also this week ghosts and goblins, whatever, then I think we would have bottomed out. It would have been too much to keep track of.
BH: We’ve seen a lot of different references, everything from SPIRITED AWAY with The Summerween Trickster to THE THING with the shapeshifter…
AH: Sure, yeah.
BH: Some of those things are scary as all hell.
AH: Absolutely. [Laughs.]
BH: I’m glad we agree. How far do you want to take that. Is there a version of the Summerween Trickster that made you go, “That scares me, scale it back…?”
AH: You know, like I said, we make our show for ourselves. So in the same way that I want to make something that would make me laugh, I want to make something that would make me scream. I think our focus is on trying to tell the best stories that we can, given our time and budget and the fact that we have to make more.
So I think good stories, to me, as an audience, have high stakes. And high stakes only happen when you believe something can actually go wrong, that there is a sense of danger. From the get-go we wanted to believe peril is real in this world so when we do ghosts, when we do shape shifters, we want them to be scary because we want our audience keep watching until the end. It’s just sort of, to me, a fundamental aspect of entertainment: believe something can go wrong and you will cheer harder when something goes right.
I think our audience… oftentimes people worry, “Is this too scary for kids?” I have done at least eight conventions now, I’ve spoken in front of rooms [with] thousands of kids, I’ve signed posters, I’ve got hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of fan letters. I can show you after this interview, my inbox is exploding with them. I don’t even have time to read them but when I did, not a single one, ever, once, did a kid say “That was too scary” or “That scared me.”
I’ve heard parents say, who haven’t seen the show, “It might be too scary for my kids.” But kids, when I ask them “Was that too scary?” they go “No, it was fine.” Like, they’re a lot more resilient than people give them credit for and I think, because their guide to this world is Dipper and Mabel, they feel safe with Dipper and Mabel. They know that these characters are going to be good to each other and good to them as an audience, and I think they know even from that very first episode. It’s scary, it’s got TWILIGHT monsters, they’re going to suck Mabel’s blood, no he’s gnomes, they get out of it, Mabel is empowered at the end, she shoots the guy with the leaf-blower, the kids win.
There’s sort of an empowering experience to go through a scary funhouse ride and exit Hell on the other side, and you’ve got through and now you want your cotton candy. There’s just sort of that spooky carnival atmosphere that I think people relate to, and I think our audience has come to understand.
BH: Well, to hell with kids for a moment…
AH: “To HELL with kids,” we say in our bar! [Laughs.]
BH: But a lot of the audience that I’ve been talking to for this show, once I can convince them to see it, is adults.
BH: What sort of ratio do you look at when you’re at a convention, of kids, parents with kids, and adults who suspiciously have no kids?
AH: [Laughs.] You know it really depends on the environment. I just got back from New York Comic Con, and at the comic conventions, the big ones, you tend to have… I’d say the median age is probably fifteen, about. Like your average GRAVITY FALLS fan at a convention is fifteen, but they’re often there with an older brother or a parent who loves it as much as them and isn’t just chaperoning them, because they’re about the age when they could be doing that [visiting conventions] with their friend on their own.
Because what you said, “my girlfriend got me into the show,” I hear that constantly. I hear from people who say “I met my fiancée through this show.” People tweet me tattoos of the characters on a regular basis. I actually just recently was in Houston and a girl, I couldn’t quite tell how old she was – when everyone’s dressed up as your twelve-year-old characters it can be a little difficult to tell – and she asked me to sign her arm, which I thought was very sweet. I didn’t do a great job though. I was kind of under pressure [because] there’s a lot of people wanting to sign stuff. And then [she] tweeted me the next day that she had turned it into a tattoo!
AH: My name is on her arm forever, which on the one had is flattering. On the other hand I feel bad for her future boyfriend because he’ll be like, “Oh, is that an ex?” and she’ll have to say, “No, it was a cartoon show creator!”
BH: “I’m property of Alex Hirsch now.”
AH: If you’re listening, thank you and I’m sorry. It’s true, I do hear from a lot of fans and I hear from adults frequently who will either say a fellow adult or a kid got them into it. That’s always hugely gratifying because I thought no adults would find it on the Disney Channel, and thanks to the internet and word of mouth, they have. It’s not something I ever once anticipated but it makes me feel good because adults are tough. [Laughs.]
CONTINUED TOMORROW IN PART 2…