Friday, September 26, 2008

And Now, a Word From...

Steve Dildarian
Creator/Executive Producer/Actor, HBO's The Life and Times of Tim

The first thing I noticed about Steve Dildarian is how modest he is. After all, the guy just landed the Holy Grail gig of television: his own half-hour series on HBO! Dildarian comes from an advertising background, having conceived, written and produced quite a few innovative Super Bowl spots for Budweiser. Now, his newest TV creation, The Life & Times of Tim, debuts this Sunday at 11 PM on the premium cable network.

On the night of the show’s debut at the New York Television Festival last week, I sat down for a one-on-one talk with TV’s newest animation impresario. He’s a man who could end up being the next Seth MacFarlane – in fact, before HBO came into the picture, Tim was first developed to accompany MacFarlane’s Sunday night lineup on Fox – but he reminds me much more of a young Ray Romano.

Dildarian voices the lead character of Tim himself, and so as I then sat down with the preview DVD HBO provided of the show’s first three (hilarious) episodes, I thought back to something the show’s publicist had said: it’s funny to realize that I have met the real man behind a voice which will undoubtedly soon be famous.

Must-Hear TV: How did Tim come about? When you were working in advertising, were you itching all that time to get into animation?

Steve Dildarian: No, actually -- I couldn’t have had less to do with animation. I worked in advertising for 12 years, in New York at BBDO and Cliff Freeman and Partners, and then I moved out to San Francisco to work for Goodby, Silverstein and Partners. And a lot of little opportunities came up that eventually led to the Tim short. I was lucky enough to work on Budweiser which gives you opportunities to do a lot of different things that are not commercials per se but just entertainment. A lot of what they do is just fun character development. So it was kind of a perfect scenario, if you have TV In the back of your head, to work on Budweiser. You’re really doing the same thing in a lot of ways. So we did some animated things for their website.

MHTV: Like the famous Super Bowl commercial with the Budweiser frogs?

SD: I wouldn’t even consider that animation, even though it’s animatronics. But that gave me half the experience I needed to learn about creating voice tracks. It was all very improv driven, and I learned over a good four to five year period how to work on that and let it be disciplined and quick, and hit the beats of the joke, but still be loose. And then we did some other projects, like the “Budweiser rejected ads” and a few things that never saw the air, and I did a voice for a donkey commercial that I wrote for the Super Bowl. So you put all these things together and suddenly, although I started out as a guy who just wrote TV commercials, then I was also a guy who can draw, and who can do voice-overs, and to do animation. It gave me the three things you need.

MHTV: In addition to being a writer, were you always a visual artist as well?

SD: Before [the time I was developing Tim], I had never drawn in my whole life or done anything visual. I just wrote. But I think it was simmering in the back of my head. My dad was a painter, so maybe it’s in the blood a little bit. And I started doing oil paintings painting myself about seven years ago. It slowly built up to be a pretty big part of my life, and I began selling [my work] in different stores in San Francisco. For the first time ever, I took things I created visually somewhat seriously even if they were silly and na├»ve and ridiculous. And that is what really led to this show. This is all based on my original drawings even though I don’t draw it anymore. Advertising and painting and all these little things I picked up along the way added up to a whole new career, I guess you could say.

MHTV: Where did the idea for The Life & Times of Tim come from?

SD: I had the idea for a short film that seemed funny: you get caught with a hooker and how do you explain your way out of it? That’s what this is all based on, and the version of that story you’ll see in the pilot was reinvented. The original film didn’t have the family -- just the girlfriend busting in, and it was half the length.

MHTV: That wasn’t based on any personal experience, I hope!

SD: (laughing) No, hopefully not! That’s the first question everyone asks. All the stories in this show, people ask if that happened to me. So, I wrote the short, and I was going to shoot it live action to be honest, but I couldn’t figure that out. So then started animating it [instead], and learned the hard way really, in iMovie.

MHTV: Backing up, you’d worked in advertising, creating 30-second spots. What made you want to invest your time into writing a “short,” which for you would be a longer form?

SD: I don’t know if it was even a conscious decision. I had doing advertising for a while and doing fairly well at it. At some point, you’ve had a bunch of Super Bowl commercials on, and when you’ve done something like the [Budweiser spot with the] lizards, it’s hard to top that in popularity. In some ways, I felt like I’d kind of done it. I’d gotten into a little bit of a rut. So I started looking to new things to challenge myself, and the short film was one of probably five things I was doing at the time. And this one just happened to gain more momentum.

MHTV: How did the short film morph into something for TV?

SD: We made this short and submitted it to festivals, and won best animated short at the comedy festival in Aspen in 2006. I was simultaneously making short film #2 and #3, and writing what became a draft of a pilot script with the same characters, just to see where it could possibly go. And, getting an agent at Endeavor, who hit the ground running the first time he saw it. He said, “This is going to be a TV show, I promise you,” just from seeing the first short. He said it was perfect, totally of the moment and what people want now, and fresh and original. Then, we sold it to Fox, and spent a whole year making it for them. But it didn’t work out in the end.

MHTV: How far did the process get? Did Fox have you make the pilot, only to decide not to pick up the show when they announced their fall schedule at their upfront that May?

SD: Exactly. Fox liked it quite a bit from what I know, and everyone was happy. But it’s hard to take a project like this and visualize it coming on after Family Guy. It’s just a whole different vibe, and I almost don’t blame them for in the end saying, “It’s not us.”

MHTV: But HBO is not exactly known for animation. So how did Tim then end up there?

SD: It’s amazing. I didn’t think it would ever end up there for whatever reason. But as soon as I talked to HBO and heard why they liked it and what they wanted to do with it, it was just a fundamentally different approach to how they wanted to develop it. Everyone at the networks had said, “Here’s what we have to change. Here’s what is wrong with that that can’t be a TV show.” And HBO said almost nothing along those lines. They just said, “It’s great. We loved it. Go back to where you started and make more of those.” It was total purity of vision and voice, and that’s what I think has built their network as far as I can tell. They really respect the creator’s voice for the show.

MHTV: How long does Tim’s production process take?

SD: It depends on how you stagger the production. If you’re just making one of them, you can do it in about a month or so. You write it, and once you have a script the illustrators can crank out all the background and character drawings in less than a week. Part of that is because of the simplicity of the animation, and part of it is also the way we edit it. If you have a scene that can go for three minutes and have a bunch of different shots and different animations within that, it’s usually based on one drawing. How long can that ever take? A few hours? The artists draw straight into Photoshop. And the shots are wide and mediums and close-ups, and you edit it the way you would edit a film or live action.

MHTV: What is it like doing double duty, doing the voice of Tim?

SD: The voice part is actually the most fun. Just spending two days where we’re just goofing around, because it’s really not a structured, disciplined thing. We’re all together in one room, because that’s the heart and soul of the style. We improv a lot, and for any given scene we might do a dozen takes, where each one is very different. We give the actors a lot of freedom to make it their own.

MHTV: Who are the other actors on the show?

SD: It was great because half of the regulars are just my friends from San Francisco who really don’t do this for a living. Especially MJ, who plays Tim’s girlfriend Amy. She’s never done a voice-over in her life. She’s just a friend where I said, “Hop in and read it,” and she just so happened to nail it. She does have a natural confidence and ease behind a microphone which a lot of people don’t have. And she went in to test at Fox, HBO, everywhere – and no one’s ever even hinted at recasting. Fox did make me recast other characters a good amount, so we undid a little of that when we went to HBO.

We’ve supplemented that with a lot of great people from LA. Now it’s a great combination of friends goofing off, and some really talented stand-ups from LA. Nick Kroll has been a big part of the show, playing Stu. And Peter Giles is playing the boss, and he’s put whole different spin on it. We made the character black, kind of based on his performance, and it just turned into something it never was on paper. Then we have people like Jamie Denbo, Lizzie Caplan, Eddie Pepitone – people who are fantastic but I would never have thought of. And we’ve gotten some big names [as guest stars.] Bob Saget, Jeff Garlin, Cheri Oteri.

MHTV: What have you learned so far as writer and actor from your experience doing Tim?

SD: The big thing I think I’ve learned so far is how to give freedom to the actors. A lot of writers get an idea in their head and they try to force it upon actors. And I think you have to steer the ship as a writer or director, but in the end, it’s the actors who are the characters. It has to be made their own. If you don’t give them the freedom to make it their own, you’re not creating something that will come across as real. So in the best cases, I’ve learned to let the actor in some cases rethink the entire character. The Stu character, and same with the boss – those two actors took their characters somewhere different, and I ran with it. Hey, if it works it works, and you’re making it funnier than it was. There’s no place for ego in that case. Good ideas can come from anywhere.

The Life and Times of Tim
Series Premiere
Sunday, September 28
11 PM Eastern

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