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Storyteller in Chief: Interview with ‘DC League of Super-Pets’ Writer, Director, and Producer Jared Stern

Jared Stern speaks with Script about his filmmaking journey, his humble beginnings in animation, how the idea of 'Super-Pets' came to be, his writing routine and so much more!

In DC League of Super-Pets, Krypto the Super-Dog and Superman are inseparable best friends, sharing the same superpowers and fighting crime in Metropolis side by side. When Superman and the rest of the Justice League are kidnapped, Krypto must convince a rag-tag shelter pack—Ace the hound, PB the potbellied pig, Merton the turtle and Chip the squirrel—to master their own newfound powers and help him rescue the Super Heroes.

Jared Stern's filmmaking journey is one for the history books, but also inherently relatable for a lot of creatives and writers. Having worked in animation for most of his career, his other "jobs" throughout his life have led him to this moment in time of being a writer and director in animation. Jared's care and passion resonate through his work and the relationships he's built over the years and continues to foster. 

I had the great honor of speaking with Jared about his filmmaking journey, his humble beginnings in animation, how the idea of Super-Pets came to be, his writing routine and so much more!

Jared Stern. Photo credit by Kevin Scanlon.

Jared Stern. Photo credit by Kevin Scanlon.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: What was that initial attraction for you to write for animation? Were there thematic elements that you're drawn to that are typically explored in this medium?

Jared Stern: No, I was trying to get hired to write stuff. [laughs] My manager got a call for a couple of her other clients to do a punch-up or polish for like a week on a script at Disney Feature Animation, and they were unavailable. I had worked on one other adult animated thing, barely. And she was like, ‘This is the guy you need to hire. He's an animation expert.’ And I got that job and it was a week that turns to six weeks, six months, and then ended up being almost five years that I worked at Disney Animation. And so, it was sort of more happenstance that I found myself in the animated world as a writer, but it was a lucky happenstance, because I do enjoy writing, I would say for young audiences, but for all audiences.

I think growing up the movies that I love, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ghostbusters, and Back to the Future, were for everyone. I saw them with kids, I sat next to my parents and they loved them. It's really hard to do that well or at all, and I enjoy trying it. I like that space I think for that reason. I think I'm a bit emotional. I feel like you can let yourself go in that direction, perhaps a bit more in animated storytelling, which is nice. You can be kind of crazy and comedically anarchic in a way that doesn't happen much in live-action. So, those are all things that I love about it and then I also love the process in that it's very collaborative, and in many ways closer to television writing, where you're working with story artists and more of a group setting, which I enjoyed.

Sadie: The development process and pre-production process in animation is such a different beast from traditional narrative filmmaking, in that you also get to do animatics as well and start seeing the picture take form. When does that process come into play in the world of animation, especially as a writer and director?

Jared: Yeah, when I started as a writer in animation, I would work really hard on the script, and then to be like, ‘Here it is, just do this.’ [laughs] Because I thought that's how it works. Of course, now directing, I realize, oh, no, you're barely scratching the surface in an animated movie, because essentially, you get the chance to do unlimited table reads or unlimited reshoots, which could drive you crazy. And in some cases, I'm sure makes it worse. But for me, it allows you to make it better.

When I would write live-action scripts on my own, I would try to read them aloud, kind of like my own little table read to see how they're flowing and how they're working. And story reels or animatics are just like, the most gourmet version of that because you get to see it, you see the movie, and then you go, ‘Oh, OK, that's good. But the first half of the second act is a mess. And it's too slow. And I need to change that.’ And then you go back and you rewrite.

[A Head Full of Ideas: An Interview with 'The Fairly OddParents: Fairly Odder' Director and EP Mike Caron]

The being able to see it part, it’s like the world's greatest table read – it’s awesome, but also the process of making it you keep plussing it through the process of doing that. So, for example, I might write a scene - and I learned this when I started at Disney - I'd write a scene and it would go to a story artist who's in charge of storyboarding that scene. But they're going to now that they've got the words and they're moving the camera and they go, ‘I had this physical idea. What if the cat fell through the roof there?’ And I'm like, ‘That's so great,’ and then he's like, ‘But I don't know what he says right there.’ And I'm like, ‘Well, let me help you with that.’ Not that they're only doing physical stuff, and I'm only doing dialogue, it became much more than that, where I would have physical ideas of their physical ideas, and they might suggest a funny bit of dialogue. It's just this really great back and forth process and I became friends with all those story artists who I was working with in that first job and then I ended up working with them years later. Aurian Redson was one of the story artists that I first worked with there, he was supervising director on the first season on Green Eggs and Ham. Sam Levine was one of those three artists that I worked with in my very first shot, he was my co-director on Super-Pets. So, I really have great respect for what they do. It's kind of frustrating as a writer, because they can do everything that you can do just as well. And they can draw.

The other thing is you do the voices yourselves, too. So, you're really putting your dialogue to the test; you're acting it out, you're learning what's working, what's not, you're finding the voice literally of the character. So that's also pretty great and horrifying when you have to do it.

Sadie: Where’d the initial idea come from for Super-Pets?

Jared: I volunteered one day at a pet shelter that my wife volunteers at on multiple days, I went once. I saw little kittens in the front room that were likely to get adopted. But in the back room, there were these older or disabled pets that maybe didn't stand such a good chance to get adopted. And it felt like they kind of lived there, which was great. They were being well taken care of. But I felt bad for them that they might never have an adopted forever home. And I'm not sure why. But I thought what if they had superpowers, and they could escape from here and what would happen? And then I was already working at Warner Bros., which was part and remains part of a now different giant corporation that likes to make things with intellectual property in them. And so, there's these things called the Super-Pets that come from comic books. And there were cartoons and there's like Batman's dog, and Superman's dog and that was the only way to actually make the movie. I always tell myself, though, ‘When life gives you lemons make champagne.’ So, I'm like, ‘It’s OK, I can still tell a great emotional story even within an IP.’ And I've worked for people who are brilliant at that. I've seen examples of that it can be done like Lord and Miller making Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs or Jump Street or The Lego Movie, but not everyone is them. And not everything is right for that.

[L-R]  DIEGO LUNA as Chip, VANESSA BAYER as PB, DWAYNE JOHNSON as Krypto, KEVIN HART as Ace and NATASHA LYONNE as Merton in Warner Bros. Pictures’ animated action adventure “DC LEAGUE OF SUPER-PETS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

[L-R]  DIEGO LUNA as Chip, VANESSA BAYER as PB, DWAYNE JOHNSON as Krypto, KEVIN HART as Ace and NATASHA LYONNE as Merton in Warner Bros. Pictures’ animated action adventure “DC LEAGUE OF SUPER-PETS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

I'm proud of what we did with that IP and with that initial spark of an emotional idea. And, so that was the genesis of that. And I had written an original script already. And then I brought John Whittington who's a great writer - who I'd worked with on Green Eggs and Ham and The Lego Batman Movie - on board to help me as I was directing to write the next draft of the script with me, and he did a great job. And then we had amazing writers who I should credit all along the way. John wrote one draft and then that job that I had at Disney, for those years, I was essentially like an in-house writer. And sometimes they have bigger name writers, but I was the guy that was there every day, helping support the director there when they were doing records with the actors. And it's a hard job and kind of unsung like my title on those early movies like The Princess and the Frog, is like ‘Additional Story Material,’ which is kind of a made-up credit because, sadly, the Writers Guild and Directors Guild are not part of animation yet. I have great respect for that job because they did it and also as a director, I want to credit those people - Katie Greenway, Jesse Gordon, and Emma Dudley.

We would do punch-up comedy roundtables from time to time just to get some more jokes. A lot of my friends were really generous with their time and their brains and helped and of course, the actors are doing improvisation. Toby Emmerich, who was the head of the studio gave me a joke, it's in the movie, very funny about FedEx. So, you get good great stuff from a lot of places.

[A Massive Creative Undertaking: An Interview with ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’ Head Writer and Executive Producer Joby Harold]

Sadie: In terms of casting this and finding the voice of these characters, once you have a cast, are you allowed to go back and refine those voices with those actors?

Jared: Yeah, it just depends. When Dwayne Johnson came on, it wasn't a huge change. He was the right guy for the part when I first pitched the movie to Warner Bros. I said, ‘Krypto the Superdog - think Dwayne Johnson.’ So, it wasn't like a huge shift. And yet once you've really started thinking about him and working with him and his team of producers that he works with, they know him well, there are little nuances to, ‘Oh yeah, that's more right in his voice.’ Krypto I think was maybe like a little bit nerdier before and he was still an idiot in his own way but more of a cocky idiot if that makes sense - as a boy scout Dudley Do-Right. It was a small tweak. And you're absolutely able to do that.

[L-R] DWAYNE JOHNSON as Krypto and JOHN KRASINSKI as Superman in Warner Bros. Pictures’ animated action adventure “DC LEAGUE OF SUPER-PETS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

[L-R] DWAYNE JOHNSON as Krypto and JOHN KRASINSKI as Superman in Warner Bros. Pictures’ animated action adventure “DC LEAGUE OF SUPER-PETS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Then you record with the actor and you see what's working with them. That's the fun thing about how iterative it is, you know, we'll record 7-10 times with an actor. So, each time you go back, we're rewriting the movie to make it better. But also every time we go back, and we're rewriting them to their voice that we're discovering together for the character, their strengths, just sort of what's popping and what's working. And so that would happen as well.

Sadie: Such an interesting process. I know that after you saw Raiders, you were asked if you wanted to be Indie, and your immediate response was, ‘I want to be Spielberg.’ From that moment, what were your next steps to becoming the filmmaker you are now?

Jared: I was an only child and I was a latchkey kid, so I definitely spent a lot of time watching television. Which, at the time, seemed like a bad thing to do, and was maybe very good. [laughs] I was studying, I swear. And when I got into high school, I was in a comedic play that my friend wrote that I really loved being a part of, and then he graduated, and I kept writing that so it was my first time trying to write a scripted comedy thing. And I enjoyed that. But then when I went to college, I thought, like, ‘OK, that was fun. But you got to have a real job.’ And I was going to study foreign policy and be a diplomat, I liked travel and languages. And so, in my first semester of college, I took Intro to Foreign Policy, Japanese, and Spanish, and then for fun, I took Intro to Film. And then by the end of my freshman year, I was like, ‘What are you doing? You love the film class, that's the class that you love. That's what you want to do.’ So, I made that my concentration major. But then even still, I was just like, ‘No, that's not a practical thing. That is what I want to do. But first, I gotta get a job.’ I had to be able to live in a city. So, I interned in advertising, I was going to be a copywriter. That's kind of like writing comedy, sort of, but it's not a script. And I interned for this guy who was a successful copywriter, and I sort of told him my plans, and he was like, ‘You're doing it backwards, man.’ He said, ‘This is the fallback job, go out to LA and try to make it. And if that doesn't work, then you fall back to this. Because you're gonna say, I'm gonna write a script and write a script forever. And you're not going to, you're just going to be doing this,’ which wasn't a bad thing to do by the way, but it wasn't my dream. And thankfully, that guy told me that and I listened to him. And I went out to LA with nothing and answered an ad in the back of Variety. And had to fax in your resume to somebody to be an assistant.

I started answering phone calls and writing scripts and doing stand-up comedy and taking classes at the Groundlings and sketch comedy. I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do. But I knew that I wanted to be somewhere involved in comedy and creative and I'm a very practical person, even then I was like, ‘If that doesn't work out, maybe I could be an agent. I could be a producer.’ And then luckily, I kind of got my first break. I got a job as an assistant to a writer named Vic Levin, who was one of the people that helped me out in the roundtables. Three of my favorite jokes in the movie are his and he was the head writer for Mad About You for many years and we’re still good friends and he’s just a wonderful person. When you're someone's assistant, you're listening to their phone calls -you're supposed to – and I heard how he conducted himself and learned about the business that way. I watched how he wrote. He was in one of those overall deals where they paid him an ungodly amount of money, and he could have done nothing but he wrote every day. And, and so I was like, ‘Oh, OK, I see how it goes. If you want to be good at this, you have to do it every day.’ It's like a muscle, and you have to take pride in it. And that's what you do. And so, I started writing every day. And I wrote sample scripts for TV shows. The first one I wrote was for Curb Your Enthusiasm, which is crazy, because that's still on the air and this was like, 20-plus years ago. Also, that's not a show that uses scripts. But anyway, so and that helped me, having him backing me helped me get an agent and a manager. And then they started putting me up for jobs. And I kind of gave you the first big break earlier about how I got hired at Disney. I was 25 and I was getting paid to go to grad school. And I had great teachers.

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And then, at Disney, I worked with Musker and Clements who did Aladdin and Little Mermaid and Moana. I worked with Chris Williams, who just did The Sea Beast for Netflix, which is great. And I work with Sam, who was my co-director on Super-Pets. So that was an amazing lesson in storytelling, particularly for animation. And then I left there and started doing some more live-action features, learned a ton. Worked with, Shawn Levy, who was really helpful. And then I kind of got back into animation, doing a lot of stuff on the Lego movies with Lord and Miller. So pretty good teachers I've had through my career, a bunch of animation, Best Picture Oscars, I'm sure between all the people I just mentioned.

Sadie: That is the ultimate grad school. Very cool. It reminds me of that new Disney plus documentary series about Industrial Light and Magic called Light & Magic – and they do a deep dive about the environment and being in that creative bubble with these incredible minds.

Jared: Talking about the environment, when you're at a place like Disney Animation, or Pixar, you're all in one big building. So, it's almost like the old Hollywood studio system, everyone’s working on different stuff, but you've come together and look at each other’s stuff. And that doesn't happen so much in filmmaking outside of that. So that's a pretty great thing to be around.

Sadie: Absolutely. I’m curious, did coming up through improv and stand-up in any way inform your writing?

Jared: I will say that I learned very quickly doing stand-up that I'm an excellent writer. [laughs] I was too nervous on stage. My friend said to me at the time, who's a great stand-up like, ‘You just have to be yourself Admit that you are afraid.’ And I was like, ‘No, I'm not afraid.’ I was in denial. But I used that advice all the time now. And I give it to people as well, because if you could just be honest with yourself, ‘Oh, I'm scared right now. I'm about to direct the Rock.’ [laughs] ‘I'm gonna direct Keanu Reeves or Diane Keaton. It's crazy.’ So I just tried to be honest, ‘Oh, yep, I'm nervous. This is scary.’ But, you know, they're nervous too. They got to nail this, live up to the hype of who they are or whatever their thing is.

So anyway, that's something I took from stand-up for sure. And I think improv, you have to kind of stop yourself from trying to make a plan ahead of time. I learned that I once got to audition for Reno 911 and I was such a writer about it that I had a whole plan for my character - you have to come in with a character - but I knew exactly how I wanted the scene to go. But I'm acting with Thomas Lennon, who's like the greatest improviser ever. And I'm supposed to just be listening to him and running with that. And instead, I was just trying to wedge it into the thing that I thought it should be. And that is, I mean if that isn't a lesson for anything in life, but particularly as I'm making films, you can't force it to be the thing you want to be. You have to always be open to it being something different and the actor giving you something different but better than you expected. If you try to always fit it into that tiny little box that you have, it's tough and you do those like animatics for so long, you pour so much heart into it. And I've seen this happen, especially with editors, they spend so much time on it, right? They just want to recreate that because it's working, got it to the point where it's working. You have to also not be so beholden to it. You have to stay open to, ‘No, this actor is going in a weird place, and it seems insane. But it could be great. Let it go.’ Don't just rein it in. Same thing with an animator. And the same thing with writers if you're supervising them. So that's a big lesson that I took from that.

Sadie: Right, you want to be open to possibilities of making the thing even better collectively. Do you have a writing routine?

Jared: I have this weird thing that I do - and maybe it's not that weird - maybe other people do it. But that helps me, which is that when I wake up in the morning, but I haven't probably opened my eyes even yet or I'm just kind of getting up, but I haven't gotten out of bed, lights are still out, my wife's asleep, I just keep my eyes closed and I picture what I'm writing that day. Or even if I'm not writing, if I'm breaking a story or there's a problem in an edit, whatever it is, I play the scene in my head and I see it, I watch the scene. And I'm kind of writing it in my head, but it's maybe improvising a bit in my head. And then there might be like, ‘That wasn't very good. But that thing was good there.’ And then I start over. And I do it again and again. And so, I'll just play the scene like I don't know how many times in my head until I get to a point where I'm like, ‘Oh, it's not so bad. That was kind of a decent moment,’ or whatever the thing is. And then I kind of open my eyes and grab my phone and open the Notes app, I just write the shittiest version of what just happened in my head. [laughs] Sometimes I throw it out entirely. Other times there's something good in there. But it makes it so that when I then get down to my desk later in the day to write I'm not just starting with nothing, I kind of go, ‘No, no, I got something in my head, I got this thing in the Notes app.’ And so that's one of the things that I always do.

The other thing, I guess is part of my routine, is that I'm a trail runner. And so pretty much every morning after that, I go and I run in a mountain somewhere. [laughs] And that's the thing that keeps me sane, and drives my wife crazy, because I'm gone even more in the day. I'm not great at like sitting and meditating the way you're supposed to. But that's my version of it. And it gets me out into nature. So, I do that every day. And then then I come back. And if I'm writing, that's when I write.

[Back to the Drawing Board with 'Rumble' Director and Co-Writer Hamish Grieve]

Sadie: That's a new one I've heard of dreaming about a scene or story problem before getting out of bed and then tackling those pages head-on. Going back to you wanting to be Spielberg and now you're directing some pretty cool big animation project, did you also have in mind being a writer along the way or did that happen organically?

Jared; Kind of, I mean, I think when I was starting out, I wanted to be a director, then when I broke in, felt like I was more of a writer. And now I just see myself as a director as, like the storyteller in chief, everyone is better at their job than I am - the person who's in charge of lighting or where to place the camera or the animators I can't animate, they're all really good at those things. And my superpower is that I know the story better than anybody else. And so that's my focus. When I'm in a lighting review, and someone's showing me something that looks beautiful, I have to keep in the back of my mind that does look good. But is that right for the mood of that scene? Is that right for that line of dialogue, the animation, it's so clever and well executed, but is that the emotion that that character is feeling right now? So, I think from being a writer, now I'm seeing it through all the way to the end. It's sort of be careful what you wish for, ‘I wish I could just be in charge of all of it and see it through and instead of just sort of supporting someone else's vision,’ but ultimately, it's their vision and I can tell them when I think that they should go a different way. But ultimately, I have to go with what they want. So, now I got that and if it's wrong, it's on me and you gotta manage a lot of people, hundreds of them [laughs] and I always want them to be having a good time. And you have people managing you that you're dealing with at giant corporate conglomerates that change hands. So yeah, it's a ton.

Sometimes I'd be hiring a writer to come on and help out for a week or something and I go, ‘Oh, that was nice. [laughs] Remember that?’ And so, I go back and forth about it. I loved it. It was great. And then sometimes I kind of like what I used to do, too. I'm lucky that anybody hires me for anything, though, so, I'll take it.

DC League of Super-Pets is now in Theaters. 


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