Conducted by Todd Matthy
Flint Dille was born to write. His father was the publisher of the original “Buck Rogers” comic strip and he’s followed in the his footsteps as an acclaimed writer of both animation and video games. During the eighties, Flint served as both a writer and Story Editor on a little known series called “Transformers”, including the mini-series, “Five Faces of Darkness” that revealed the origin of the Transformers. So what was it like working on one of the greatest cartoons of all time? What were the politics of writing such a show? Click to below to find out.
What was your first script and how did you get a Story Editor to read it?
My first script ever? That was, I think, The Puppy in the Badlands at Ruby/Spears. I got it because I’d been writing in Development at Ruby/Spears and Joe assigned it to me. Mark Jones was the Story Editor. It was kind of the Puppy meets North By Northwest. I didn’t write the outline, just the script. But I believe that was the first one ever. I think I was a story editor on G.I. Joe when I wrote my first Sunbow episode. I’m guessing that was The Gamesmaster, but I’m not sure. At that point I’d rewritten probably 10 Joe scripts.
How did you get the job of Story Editor for Transformers?
Steve Gerber, who I’d worked with at Ruby/Spears called me up and asked if I could Ghost Edit (not really ghost, because Sunbow knew about it) some episodes of G.I. Joe because he’d fallen behind. I worked on Joe for a few months and then Tom and Joe (Griffin and Bacal respectively) said they wanted me to be an Associate Producer and Story Editor on Transformers. The idea at the time was that they wanted to make it edgier, probably to fully distinguish it from GoBots, but that’s speculation.
What was communication like between Sunbow and Marvel Comics while you were working on Transformers?
I don’t remember much, mostly because we were under such heinous deadlines that we barely had time to communicate with ourselves. There was more interaction later on with Visionaries.
Season 3 took the show into cosmic territory. Was this discussed at the planning meetings?
Season Three was after the movie, and took off from those characters who were more abstract and cosmic by their very nature. I think we felt that after two seasons, Earth was kind of played.
Why did you move the setting to 2005?
Not my decision. I think the idea was to give it some air from the show where there could be new characters and we didn’t have to go into where they came from. We wanted it to be soon enough that not everything has fully changed, but we wanted a slightly futuristic setting to it. It made Spike older and allowed us to bring in Daniel.
There was a lot of social commentary in several episodes of Season 3 (The Quintesson Journal certainly comes to mind), was this encouraged and why? Did you ever receive any complaints?
We received huge complaints about rekilling Optimus, but, no, I don’t remember any complaints about social commentary. It was mostly done in fun, I think. By the middle of season three, I was in and out of focus on Transformers and had moved on to developing Inhumanoids. I stuck my head in now and again, but it wasn’t like the intensity of the other two seasons.
You mentioned in a previous interview that there were plans for a fourth season of Transformers, that would involve the Quintessons teaming up with Unicron’s head. How much material was planned for this season?
I don’t think we wrote any scripts. I think we had some general ideas, but as I said, I was onto other things at that point.
I want to give you a fantasy scenario. Based on what you remember would you be willing to block out a hypothetical the fourth season?
Well, there would have been, of course, more characters. I’m just making this up. It is not supported by any data, but I suspect that we would have simultaneously returned to the roots (back to Earth) and gone deeper into Transformer lore and mythology. It probably would have been a time to take the best of everything we’d done and polish it.
You talked about the “The Secret Of Cybertron” script (an early draft of Transformers: The Movie). Does that script still exist? What do you remember about it? What can you tell us about it?
I’d give my eye, teeth, well, maybe not teeth, but I would love to find that script. Nobody seems to have one. It was pretty wild. A certain amount of it found its way into the movie and the 3rd Season, but some of it (like Cybertron transforming and being Unicron’s ‘brother’, if robots can be brothers) never found its way back in. We had a wild charge of the light brigade that wiped out most of the ’85 toy line and a whole new understanding of the matrix (it literally was the key to Cybertron). A lot o fun stuff. No, don’t have the script. Would love to find it or do it as a graphic novel for geek thrills, but unless I open the right box in storage and it falls out, it’s an object of myth and legend now.
I certainly would love to read “Secret of Cybertron.” Anything else you remember that you want to share?
Some day I have to have a long talk with Jay Bacal about it to see what we can remember.
Do you remember any rejected episodes? Can you tell us why you rejected them?
Well, writers would pitch a couple ‘takes’ on ideas and we’d pick one, so there were lots of rejected episodes. I think they delayed airing the one about Optimus coming back as a zombie because there were so many kids upset about seeing him die in the movie, but I can’t remember any rejected episodes. Certainly not final ones. There might have been rejected scripts, but I don’t remember any. Usually, if a script came in DOA, the story editors had to write the script they thought they were going to get.
Speaking of rejected episodes, did you ever get to read Buzz Dixon’s unmade GI Joe episode, “The Most Dangerous Man in the World”? What do you remember about that one?
No. You ought to ask him about it. He’s my Facebook friend. When I checked out of G.I. Joe, I really checked out. Maybe I wrote a script or edited one in a pinch later, but the 3rd season of Joe is a mystery to me.
How did you come up with the idea of the Quintesson’s being the creators of the Transformers? What was the inspiration for the Quintessons in general?
Well, we were getting very conscious of the franchise and the mythology. They were so different than the Transformers that they had to have some relationship. WE figured that they were lazy and would need machines. To be honest, I have no idea where the Quintessons came from. They just kind of ‘were.’
Who came up with Unicron?
I’m speculating here, but I’m thinking Joe Bacal. Not sure why I think that. Don’t quote me. He and Tom are extremely creative guys and did a lot. Jay Bacal was an extraordinary creative director. I know he came up with the name ‘Transformers’ and everybody laughed at him, at first. Could have been Bob Prupis or somebody at Hasbro. I honestly don’t know. Maybe Ron Friedman. I’m guessing Joe Bacal, though.
Besides “Secret of Cybertron” do you remember any other rejected premises for the movie?
No. You forget the rejected ones pretty quickly. But the thing to bear in mind is that things don’t get rejected necessarily because they are bad, but often because they just aren’t going to where the show is.
I heard work on Transformers: The Movie started two years before it was released. Had the show even aired? What was your reaction when you heard there was going to be a movie about a show that was just debuting?
I didn’t write the first draft of the script, so I don’t know when it started. We were well into the 2nd season prep by the time I started working on the movie.
How did you land such a famous cast? Especially, Orson Welles for Unicron?
The good thing about animation in those days is that you weren’t asking for much of a commitment from people. If they were in town, it was just a few hours. It probably paid well for the time. Also, sometimes you’ll find that actors want to do kids stuff (which animation was considered at the time) so their kids and grandkids will see them.
Who made the decision to resurrect Optimus Prime? Do you feel that episode could’ve turned out better?
That episode was written in a panic. Hasbro was very upset that Optimus’ death had traumatized so many kids. They wanted to fix the situation so bringing Optimus back to life was a first priority. Honestly, i have trouble remembering the episode. I loved the one in the Autobot Mausoleum, though.
The episode where Prime becomes a zombie is “Dark Awakening”, with the Autobot mausoleum. It’s one of my favorite episodes. Do you have any stories to tell about it?
Nothing other than the fact that this was a period when I felt we could begin the ‘mythology’ of Transformers. You really don’t have mythology until you have graves.
Was it always planned to turn Megatron into Galvatron?
Yes. My memory is that Megatron was always going to become Galvatron. Remember, Hasbro sells toys.
Can you describe a story meeting at the beginning of the season? How do you assign who gets what episode? Are episodes even assigned? Do people pitch ideas there?
I wasn’t a story editor on Season 1, a producer, so I had nothing to do with hiring the writers. On seasons 2 and 3 it seems to me that we had a stable of people we worked with and some new ones we wanted to work with. On Season 3, we had a pretty good idea of where we wanted to go so we had a ‘cattle call’ and invited everybody in and pitched what we wanted to do for the 3rd season. They came back with ideas and we came up with ideas and assigned them to people.
Why did Hasbro pull the plug on Transformers and GI Joe at Sunbow?
To get an honest answer, you’d have to ask them. I think a lot of things were happening simultaneously. I think the ‘Toy Show’ era was ending. I think they had enough for syndication. At that point Stephen Hassenfeld was dying, I believe. He was a genius. I remember feeling, at the time, that it was just an era ending. The odd thing is that I don’t remember being surprised. It was sad. That was fun period. I still walk by the office and feel nostalgic. I had dinner with Joe and Tom and Helene (Tom’s Wife) and we drove by it just last week. That was a great time. A lot happened there.
Do you think Transformers could’ve maintained it’s popularity had more of the original cast survived the movie?
Don’t know. Any way around, given that the movies are doing so well now, I think it did maintain its popularity. The thing that’s interesting to note from a franchise point of view is the degree to which viewers bonded to the early characters. At the time, we thought that they were all mostly interchangeable and that all of them would be ‘discontinued’ and we’d just keep making more. We didn’t know (or speaking for myself), I didn’t know that Optimus and Megatron and Bumblebee and Starscream were iconic characters. It seems pretty stupid now, but at the time it was shockingly arbitrary who we put into episodes. We’d get ‘faxes’ or ‘Fedex’s’ telling us about new characters for both Joe and Transformers and telling us other ones had been discontinued. We wrote out the discontinued and added in the new ones. I mean, Optimus and Megatron were different, but a lot of the other characters’ involvement either depended on who marketing wanted to see or who we happened to like.
Buzz loved Shipwreck. I, of course, promoted Flint at every opportunity. But it was amazingly arbitrary. Some stuck.Some didn’t. Some go in and out of fashion. Rodimus falls into that category. I always kind of felt bad about the short life of Ultra Magnus.
You’ve been writing video games lately, what’s the difference between writing them and TV shows? How does one break into video game writing?
Yeah. I was always a game guy. Even when I was writing Transformers, I was doing game projects with Gary Gygax and TSR. In some ways, they’re very different. You can see all I have to say about that in the book John Zuur Platten and I wrote together (The Ultimate Guide to Videogame Writing and Design). In may ways, writing is writing and a lot of the same rules apply.
Transformers, GI Joe, He-Man, and other “toy shows” were often the target of parent’s groups because they were based on a product, too violent, etc. What was the reaction to this internally?
We were alternately amused and annoyed by it. I remember one guy, who was a major guy, was allegedly busted for being a pedophile.
Did you have to tell writers not to look down on Transformers because it was a “toy show”?
Not really. Actually, it was a lot better than working with the networks at that time. Much less censorship and general meddling. No child psychiatrists, legions of politically correct advocates. An amazing amount of creative freedom from Hasbro. They just wanted to see their toys presented the right way. They weren’t trying to engineer society. Probably why we’re talking about Transformers 25 years later and not Little Clowns from Happytown. (That’s a show to ask Buzz Dixon about).
A lot of people feel that the responsibility of Children’s Television is to create “responsible citizens.” What do you think the responsibility is of a producer/writer of Children’s Television is?
The biggest thing is to clearly label your product. Different people react to different things. Some people hate violence, some hate sexual content, some hate crudity. I don’t have a problem with ratings and labels and let the parent decide what their kid is going to watch. We banned some shows at our house just because we didn’t like the mean spirited putdowns, especially when we started hearing them from our daughter. Now that I’m a parent, I’m more and more convinced that parents have to be on top of what their kids consume. I certainly don’t want governmental or do-gooder groups with agendas doing it.
Do you think children’s television has gotten too politically correct? How can producers/writers change that perception? Or are they even willing to?
It is far less regulated than it used to be. When I was doing Mr. T, we had a meeting with 65 people in it. 55 of them were there to monitor the content for violence or racial stereotyping reasons. It did not lead to a better world. Obviously, the network or sponsor has to monitor the material to make sure that it goes with the objectives of their brand, the creators should work in good faith and the content should be clearly labelled. Also, there are websites that advise parents.
What would you say is different about the animation industry today from when you broke in?
Totally different animal. When I broke in, animation was either an occasional Disney feature (very occasional) or Saturday Morning stuff which was referred to pejoratively. There were basically three networks and four producers and the same actors went from one show to another. (I’m way oversimplifying, but it was pretty simple). Now, it is a living, vibrant industry in films (in the form of CG, which I consider a kind of animation, there are wildly great and different shows on at all hours, every day and there’s a huge animation world on YouTube and on the Internet in general. Whole different universe.
As an editor, what do you look for in a good animation script? Any dos or don’ts for aspiring writers?
Obvious stuff. It has to be visual but producible. It has to be fast and keep moving. You usually wanted a talk beat and then an action beat. For 1/2 you have to hit the time marks, 7 minutes per act. Obviously, we wanted good dialogue, but fixing that and tuning it to the show, character and season was often the editor’s job.
Is the Buck Rogers movie still happening? Is Frank Miller still involved?
Its funny, I met Frank at Sunbow one day when Steve Gerber brought him over and we’ve been having fun ever since. Right now, Frank is up to his neck in ’300′ another Sin City and a new comic he’s bringing out. Not sure if its been announced. I’d love to have him do Buck Rogers at some point. We’ll probably be ninety by the time he gets uncommitted. The film right now is with a company called Paradox and I think they’re very excited about what they’re doing with it. As licensor, it is not my prerogative to do any spoilers, but I suspect that Buck will be blasting off soon.
Thank you very much to Flint Dille for taking the time to speak with me.