Interview: Tim Hedrick

After college, Tim Hedrick (Avatar: The Last Airbender, Bob & Doug, Popzilla) took a job as an ESL teacher in Hungary “for some exotic world experience and to avoid getting a ‘real job,’” he says. “I grew up in Indiana, and making movies and TV shows seemed like something other people did so that the humble folks in the Heartland could watch the results,” he adds.

Of course, Tim later became one of these “other people” – and without the aid of graduate school; he dropped out twice, once from Indiana University, and again from USC’s film school: “After a year, I felt I had learned as much about screenwriting as anyone could teach me, and I realized that no one in Hollywood would be wowed by my MFA degree,” he says. “So I decided to save myself thirty grand on year two and dropped out.”

TSL:  I hear ya. I am still paying off my film school loans. I should have met you sooner.

TH:  [USC] was a great first step, and I met many people there who became good friends and helpful contacts, including my first writing partner.

TSL:  And it wasn’t the first time you tried graduate school, right?

TH:  After [Hungary], I came back to America [and] got my first writing job — writing training manuals for an insurance company. Not exactly a creative endeavor. So while I worked there, I enrolled in the Indiana University grad English program, thinking I'd become an English professor while trying to write novels. During my second semester there, one of my professors asked me what I really wanted to do with my career, and I told him I wanted to write. He told me (from his own experience) that getting into an academic career would force me to spend so much time teaching classes and publishing scholarly papers (which is necessary to move up into the hallowed ranks of the tenured) that I wouldn't have time to write creatively. So I dropped out.

TSL:  And applied to USC?

TH:  [Not yet.] Meanwhile, I knew that I had no future in the business world. Working at the insurance company was a boring, daily slog, and every time I put on my tie it felt like a noose around my neck. I continued to write, but I realized my prose was very sparse, all dialogue and short action lines, more like a screenplay than a novel. So I picked up some screenplays at a book store and tried my hand at a few, and even got a bunch of friends together and shot a 16mm feature (which to this day is an incomplete mess).

With no contacts and no idea how to proceed, I took a flyer and applied to film schools. Miraculously, I was accepted at USC and happily packet up for Hollywood.

TSL:  And after you left USC a year later, you kept the writing partner you had met there?

TH:  [Yes.] Around that time, [he] and I managed to get an agent through a friend of his. Another year later, we got our first gig, working for an animated sketch comedy show on MTV. As all my friends from USC were graduating, I had landed an agent and gotten a paying job, all without putting myself further into debt. So, yeah, they all hated me. 

TSL:  Rightfully so. Did I mention all my debt…? [Smiles.] You met more than your writing partner at USC, though.

TH:  One thing I didn't take into consideration when I dropped out was that I was supposed to be a mentor to an incoming first-year grad screenwriting student. That man, who stood alone on that fateful day when everyone else met their mentors, was The Script Lab founder Michael Schilf. I like to think I taught him the most important lesson of them all: in this business, you're on your own. 

TSL:  On your own… is that how you felt when you started writing for Animation?

TH:  I never set out to be an animation writer. My first show was animated, but after that wrapped/tanked (I think it was on for a few weeks), I worked all over the map, game shows, reality, websites (those were heady days in the late nineties — with all that wasted money, who could ever imagine the tech bubble bursting?), basically whatever I could get. I continued to write sitcom specs and go out for staffing season, and I was always working on feature scripts, some that were optioned but went nowhere. My partner and I created a dating show that ran for a while. But mostly I went from job to job as a "segment producer" or "field producer" or whatever title they give writers on reality and game shows so the production companies don't get in trouble with the WGA.  

TSL:  Hah. But eventually you segued away from reality? Considering the Avatar world, I’d say you segued a lot…

TH:  At some point during this run, my writing partner decided he'd had enough of trying to work in the scripted world and wanted to focus on the reality biz, so we split up. He's still one of my best friends, and he's been incredibly successful, so it's hard to argue with his decision. But I always wanted to write scripts, so I stuck with it.  

After a semi-successful couple of years when I wrote a pilot for HBO and worked on a film that got produced, I got a call from a guy I'd met when I first moved to L.A. He was the head writer for an animated show on Nickelodeon and wanted to know if I'd come pitch some ideas for freelance episodes. The show was "Avatar: The Last Airbender." They liked my ideas and added me to the writing staff, and I worked there for half of season one and all of seasons two and three. 

TSL:  Thus proving your perseverance – and dropping out of grad schools – paid off! Tell us how working on an animated show varies from a non-animated one.

TH:  Honestly the process for the writers on that show was exactly like writing for a live-action sitcom, minus tape nights. We worked as a group in a writers’ room breaking stories, then someone would be assigned a script. That writer would write the outline, bring it back, get notes from the other writers, the producers, the network, etc., then go write the script. Then we'd all rewrite it together, get more notes, polish, and bring in the voice actors to record.  

TSL:  Sounds easy enough…

TH:  It wasn't until later when I got a chance to be an executive producer on a couple of animated shows that I really got inside the sausage factory that is animation. You never really think about the fact that every single thing you see on an animated show has to be drawn by an artist until you find yourself looking at four different drawings of a phone, trying to tell a frustrated guy with a pencil why they're all wrong.  

When you cast an actor on a show, they show up, get dressed, and do the scene. You can give them marks to hit or little bits of business to do while they deliver their lines, but you rarely have to say "Why is your hand backwards?" or "You're blinking too much, it doesn't look real."

TSL:  Hah–

TH:  The amount of work that goes into an animated show is mind-boggling, which is why to do something like a Pixar feature is a miracle, both from a creative and managerial standpoint.  

TSL:  Any other differences between writing for animated characters versus not?

TH:  Strictly from a writing standpoint, there shouldn't be a difference between an animated character and a "real" character. Every character needs to have a unique voice and real emotions, whether or not they're a flying monster or whatever. When writers start thinking, "Aw, it doesn't matter, it's just a superhero cartoon," that's just hacky writing, pure and simple, even if [they] don't think the ten-year-olds who watch [their] show will care. 

TSL:  And I imagine you have to watch your language a bit…

TH:  Obviously when you're working for a Nickelodeon or a Disney, you've got to keep your audience in mind and stay away from sex, swearing and violence, but that doesn't mean you can't make something really well-crafted and beautiful. I worked briefly with a long-time animation producer who had cranked out thousands of hours of crappy kids' shows, and she said her company's motto was "Don't smell it, sell it." The main criteria of success was how many toys you sold. Obviously, that company was not Pixar. Sadly, they were incredibly profitable. 

TSL:  In your 3-D life, I hear that Dave Thomas is your producing partner. How did you guys meet?

TH:  I met [him] through a friend of mine who had worked with him briefly, but got hired as a writer on Saturday Night Live and was leaving L.A. He said Dave needed a writer to help him with some animated web show he was producing. I was a HUGE DT fan from SCTV and Strange Brew, so I couldn't wait to meet the guy, and I debated whether I should bring in my "Great White North" cassette for him to sign. (I decided against it.)  

TSL:  Hah–

TH:  But after the interview, which I thought went really well, I never heard back. A couple of months later, Dave called and asked if I'd help him work on a film script he had. It was a much cooler job than the one I'd interviewed for, so of course I said yes. I went out to the Universal lot, where he was filming Beethoven's 5th, not exactly the pinnacle of his acting career, but hey, we all gotta eat.

Anyway, we would work in his trailer until he got called to set, which always pissed him off. Dave hated working with the kids and dogs, which made him absolutely hilarious to watch. Working that way was not extremely productive, but it was incredibly entertaining. We worked on the script for about a month before I finally asked him why he hadn't hired me for the original gig. He said he thought I seemed like a good guy and he thought the web series was really lame, so he didn't want to hire me for it because then I'd hate him. Which just goes to show that you should never take it personally when you don't get a job, because you never know how insane the people you're interviewing with really are.  

TSL:  Great advice! And working with a partner surely must have its benefits?

TH:  One of my real shortcomings is that if I'm working on something by myself, I'll take forever. I try to make artificial deadlines for myself, but since I know they're artificial, they're very difficult to enforce. But if I'm working with a partner and I've said I'll have something done in a week, it's done in a week. I hate the idea that someone is waiting for me. So that's the upside of having a partner on a project for me: it makes it a real project.  

TSL:  How did your career with Dave progress?

TH:  Dave and I became good friends, and I went to Canada with him to shoot the script we worked on, a dumb medical comedy called Whitecoats. You can still catch it on Comedy Central occasionally, although I'd recommend a few drinks first. We've sold a couple of TV pilots together since then, and we produced an animated version of the McKenzie Brothers for Canadian TV, as well as an animated sketch comedy for MTV, my second try at that. I think the show, Popzilla, was much better than my first job, Head Trip, but its time on air was even shorter, about a week-and-a-half. In 2020, I'll make another animated sketch show for MTV that will air for two seconds, then I'll retire. 

TSL:  But what about that perseverance…? What are you working on now while you anticipate that two-second sketch show?

TH:  I'm working on a spinoff of Avatar: The Last Airbender for Nickelodeon called Legend of Korra. It's set seventy years after the first series, so there's a new Avatar living in a more technologically advanced world. It's very early in the process, but everything so far looks great. I think the kids and ATLA nerds are going to enjoy it. 

I also have a live-action sitcom pilot in the works, but the deal isn't closed yet, so I won't jinx myself by saying anything else about that. 

TSL:  And what final advice would you give someone who is sick of writing spec scripts and not getting staffed or selling anything?

TH:  Quit. Seriously. Walk away. It's a crappy business and it's not getting any easier. Find a nine-to-five job that pays you a living wage and write poems or xtranormal cartoons in your spare time. If that sounds like something you could possibly do, you should do it. If not, quit whining and write something else. Nobody forced you to become a writer.