Wednesday, October 9, 2013

M.A. Larson's "Luna Eclipsed"

We're continuing our commemoration of the Vault with another special guest!

I'm going to go into this in a little more depth in the next post, but this is my favorite episode to date. The fabulous M.A. Larson was kind enough to indulge me in talking about it.

So how could I resist this #LasPegAssist auction?

[Slice of Life] • 22 mins
It's Nightmare Night in Ponyville, and Princess Luna decides to pay a visit, determined to change her public image for the better.

Hit the break to spend a little time with Mr. Larson himself, and links to "Luna Eclipsed" – as if you haven't seen it already!

Where do you live?

In Los Angeles, via Minneapolis, Miami, and New York. I have lived on couches in three of those four towns.

What kind of work do you do?

I have the good fortune to earn my living as a writer. This is a relatively new phenomenon, and I would not have gotten here without the help of my wife. Writing is a feast-or-famine line of work, and animation writing is a famine-or-worse-famine subset of writing. Luckily for me, I wrote a book that I was then able to sell as part of a series, and the film rights as well. If I were to try to survive in Los Angeles on my own earning only the wages of an animation writer, it would be four cities out of four where I've lived on couches. Writing for children's animation is a fun job, but it is far from glamorous. This is probably boring for a lot of people, but one example of how animation writing differs from prime-time TV is that those writers get residuals, meaning every time an episode they've written airs they get a check. In animation writing, we don't get residuals. We get a one-time payment per episode (assuming we're freelance), and then the studio/network can air it a trillion times worldwide and we don't see a penny more. Don't mean to sound grouchy about it, but these are the facts of writing for animation (obviously prime-time animation like The Simpsons is a different story).

How did you come to be involved with My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic? When did you discover the adult fanbase?

After my first animation job, I was in the midst of one of the usual spirals of terror that accompanies the end of any show -- WHAT AM I GOING TO DO NOW?!?!?!? A guy that I worked with, Chris Savino (who wrote "Boast Busters" and "Stare Master") recommended me to the team on Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends. They brought me in to write an episode, which was the first time I met Lauren Faust and Rob Renzetti, the eventual creator and story editor of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. That show was ending, so I only got to write one episode, but the experience was pleasant enough on both sides that Lauren brought me in on season one of MLP.

As for the adult fanbase, the first I heard of them was during the story meeting for, I believe, "Secret of my Excess," though it may have been "Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000." At the beginning of the meeting, Lauren started telling me about this crazy fanbase that has sprouted up. She wrote "" on a piece of paper, which she gave to me and I promptly lost. At the next story meeting, she mentioned it again, and sent me a video of this collection of Russian teenage boys singing "Winter Wrap-Up." It was awfully hard to wrap my head around. My own family doesn't watch the stuff I write, so to think people in Russia were watching was crazy. Awesomely crazy.

Do you have a favorite episode?

My favorite episode I've written is either "Return of Harmony" or "Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000." The former because it was a two parter with a really fun antagonist. On one level, I was so flattered to be asked to do a two parter because I was so new to animation writing in general, and I couldn't believe they were having me do it. On another, the content of that episode was so fun to devise. The story meeting was an absolute blast, and the writing process was, too. I had never seen a single episode of Star Trek -- any of the various series -- and didn't know who Q was. So I spent an entire weekend watching TNG and John de Lancie, studying his voice and cadence. And playing Twilight as was loads of fun. And "Cider Squeezy," the song was just such an absolute joy to write. I was a devout musical-hater until I wrote that episode. Lauren and Rob told me to watch The Music Man with Robert Preston, and it was a hallelujah moment. Plus, Flim and Flam are so fun to write since they're essentially two characters with one brain, and their entire M.O. is to confuse and manipulate. There's a real confidence in them, like, you get the sense that they've pulled this scam a million times and they've completely refined what they need to do to be successful. They, and the song, were a treat to write.

Overall, I am huge fan of "Best Night Ever." I don't know what it is about it -- though that song is insanely good, too. For some reason, I'm a sucker for Canterlot at night. The art is beautiful and there's this magical vibe about it. I would love to write another episode that takes place in Canterlot at night. So that, plus the characters being so close to their dreams only to learn that their expectations of the night aren't realistic, or even desirable. I love it.

Who is your favorite character based purely on the canon of the show itself? Would your answer change if you considered the fandom in its entirety (i.e. art, fanfiction, memes, etc)?

My favorite character...yowza...I love Rarity and Applejack. But my favorite character of the series might actually be the sea serpent from the pilot. I love him. I wrote him into "Magical Mystery Cure" -- he actually sang -- but it got cut for time. His scene with Rarity in the pilot was the first time I understood that Lauren was really doing something unexpected with MLP. But, honestly, there are loads of great canon characters. Photo Finish is great, Big McIntosh is great...

As for fanon, I can't really comment. I don't know much about the personalities you guys have created, and I think that's a good thing. It does make me crazy when we are accused of pandering, because I think the writers universally try to avoid learning too much about the personalities you guys have assigned the background ponies. In my scripts, I will say "Background Pony #1," and the animators will put in Lyra or Derpy or whoever else fits the scene. That sort of thing feels entirely fan generated and should stay that way. It gives the show depth beyond what we're trying to do.

Why are you credited under different names on different shows?

When I got hired to do MLP, I was a staff writer on a decidedly boy oriented show at Disney. I was also hired on an action show for Cartoon Network called Sym-Bionic Titan at the same time. My agent was convinced that Titan was going to be a smash hit that would get me invited to conventions and things. And because of that, and so many of my credits being boy oriented, he told me I should not use my real name on MLP. So I went with my initials, thinking people might assume that I was someone named Mary-Anne Larson or something. Lo and behold, Titan didn't even last one season, and here I am going to MLP conventions. And I actually like the name M.A. Larson so much that my book will be published under that name, too. MLP changed my name!

Have you written in other capacities? When did you first start writing?

I always loved books, starting with Watership Down, which I would credit as the thing that really made me fall in love with stories. I would sit there as a kid and read it through, then immediately start again. My dad is a major movie buff, and got my brother and I interested in movies at a young age. Combine these things and I was all set to go to film school to write and direct my own projects. I quickly discovered that I hate being on set. It's day after day of standing around making small talk, but feeling incredibly stressed the whole time. Plus, you have to get up really early. So I nixed that idea and focused on writing. I started out in New York writing feature scripts, indie dramas mostly. I worked for the legendary director Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Catch-22, Working Girl) and wrote screenplays in my spare time. None of it ever led to anything, though (except an early draft of Green Hornet that I thought was pretty good that got lost when Disney bought Miramax). I moved to Los Angeles with no idea what I was going to do. A friend of mine I had grown up with in Minnesota was working as a storyboard artist at Cartoon Network, and suggested I write a few Spongebob Squarepants spec scripts to try to break in. I wrote a couple, and got a staff job at Cartoon Network off those specs. Staff jobs in kids animation are incredibly rare, so I was really lucky. Then I got the Foster's episode, then a few more things here and there, and then I was working pretty regularly.

While I was working on a show called My Gym Partner's a Monkey, I was also pitching things to various networks. I sold a show to Disney that we developed for awhile, but it ended up getting killed. I got all the rights back, and decided to write it as a book series. I finished the first book a couple years ago and sold it to Penguin. The first book comes out in May of 2014, and I am writing the movie adaptation now. I wish I could tell you the title, but I don't have one yet. But it is the story of a girl in a Grimm's Fairy Tale world who ends up at a training camp where girls learn to becomes princesses so they can battle the great evil of the day: wicked witches. It was originally called Pennyroyal's Princess Boot Camp, so you can get the idea of what it's about. I pitch it as a sort of Game of Thrones for kids.

What do you like to do when you're not writing?

This question might as well be "What do you like to do?" since I absolutely hate writing. I should clarify, there is no greater feeling than having written, but the actual sitting down at the computer and writing is usually a particularly heinous experience. But I adore reading and classic films. I think we're in a golden age of television right now, and I'll watch Game of Thrones or Mad Men at any opportunity. Aside from that, I'm a pretty big sports fan, particularly my Minnesota teams. Honestly, if I'm not writing, I'm probably feeling guilty that I'm not writing. The inability to punch the clock at the end of the day is the bane of the writer's existence.

Who is your favorite author? Do you have a favorite story or novel?

Vonnegut is one of my favorites. Steinbeck. The Harry Potter books are stellar. And I love non-fiction, like Devil in the White City and The Big Short and People Who Eat Darkness and stuff like that. I really enjoy creepy non-fiction. And I always love going back and reading novels I "should" read. I recently read Moby Dick and felt so virtuous afterward. I read a lot of scripts, too, but that's not very fun.

Stephen King believes that every author has an "ideal reader" – the one person who they write for, the one person whose reactions they care about. Do you have one, and if so, who is it?

I hope this doesn't sound too jackassy, but it's me. I write, especially a comedic kids show, to surprise myself and make myself laugh. Lines that I can write, forget about, and then laugh at on my re-read...that's what I'm going for. Rarity's line in "Ponyville Confidential" when she confronts Sweetie Belle about snooping -- "THE GILDED PAGES OF YOUR BETRAYAL!" -- cracked me up when I read the script through. It still does. Or Trixie's "The Great and Powerful Trixie doesn't trust wheels." I don't know where it came from, but it made sense from a character standpoint because not only did it demonstrate her increasing madness, but it worked for the dynamic between her character and Snips and Snails. And I didn't expect the line when I was writing the scene. I just wrote it and it made me laugh. Those lines are extremely rare, but that's what I'm shooting for. Make myself laugh.

Do you have any tips for aspiring writers, or writers who are struggling with their own stories?

Go go go! I still have trouble every day taking this advice, but when something good happens for me, it is inevitably because I churned out product. No one ever buys your intentions. Putting it down on page is the only sure way to kill and bastardize your pristine idea, but it's also the only way to let it live as its own thing. Even now, having written as much as I have, I constantly find the hardest part of the entire process to be the beginning. The idea is perfect in my head, and as soon as I start to write it, it becomes not perfect. But with enough key banging and revision, it becomes something even better.

What is your typical writing process? (Do you work through multiple drafts, do you have any prereaders/editors, etc?)

Okay, this is really important to aspiring writers. This is my experience, so yours might not be the same, but I always wished someone would have told me this. My first drafts always SUCK. Writing them is a horrible slog. I always feel like I'm writing garbage. But I've done it long enough now to know that when I read back through it, it won't be nearly as bad as I thought it would. And the real writing doesn't even start (again, for me) until that horrible first pass is down. This is where I'm "prepping the clay" for the spinning wheel, I guess. I have developed into a writer who requires a ton of outlining and mapping out before that first draft. I always find things go better for me if I've broken the story into smaller and smaller pieces. Then its easier to swim through the blackness from one buoy to the next.

For a MLP specific version of events, first we have a day-long story meeting. We go into the meeting with a paragraph-long premise. To give you an idea of how minimal they are, Lauren and Rob and I spitballed for a while to figure out who Discord was during the meeting. He wasn't anything more than a name in the premise. After the story meeting, we (the writers) leave with a stack of notecards that have broken down the two act breaks, and the major beats in between. Maybe a line of dialogue or a character moment that we came up with in the room. Then we write that out into a 4-5 page outline (Word document). We do one polish with the story editor's notes, then send it to the network. We almost go straight to script from there, with the network's notes in mind. Then, we sit down and write the script. Again, one rewrite from the story editor's notes, then it's off to the network. One more pass, and it's finished.

There are no modifications after that. The storyboard artists and directors can change things as they see fit (which is where things like cutting the Rarity scene in "Luna Eclipsed" for time happen). But the script portion of the episode is finished at that point. Any modifications after that are just made, not rewritten. MLP more than any show I've worked on is a joy because what ends up on TV is better than what I've submitted. I've worked on shows where an episode will air with my name in the credits and I won't recognize a single thing in it. Or episodes I have written will air without my name on them. The "credits" situation in kids' animation is the Wild West. With the exception of "Magical Mystery Cure," the episodes of MLP that I've written have aired awfully close to the script that went through the process.

What inspired you to write "Luna Eclipsed"?

Quick overview of how it works...the writers get together at the beginning of the season and brainstorm and try to throw out as many ideas as possible. Lauren/Rob or Meghan take the ideas and come up with an idea of how the season might lay out (for practical reasons, you want smaller episodes and more labor-intensive episodes to alternate as they go through the production pipeline..."Magical Mystery Cure" was written earlier in the season than some of the other episodes because it takes so long to write and record the songs, and animate the musical sequences). They write up paragraph premises that explain the basic idea of the episode, which are then approved by Hasbro, and then a story meeting is scheduled. I was assigned "Luna Eclipsed." Someone told me once that Lauren assigned premises to specific writers for specific reasons, but I don't know if that's true, or if it's just luck of the draw. Either way, I ended up with this one.

We went into it knowing it would be two things: the return of Luna, and a Halloween-style episode. Then it became a matter of, "Okay, so who is Luna?" Lauren had the idea to base her on the Aubrey Plaza character from Parks & Recreation, which I had never seen. So after the story meeting, I had to watch a bunch of Parks & Rec to try to get her voice, just like I did with Discord and Q. I actually wrote an entire version of the script with this version of Luna. It was the same basic character as what we ended up with, but it didn't have any of the anachronistic speech. It's weird, because some of that stuff was there in the first draft -- thrusting the hoof in their faces and them cowering in fear -- but some of it was not -- the royal Canterlot voice. I don't know whose idea it was to change her to be more of that "official" type of Luna, but the character always reminded me of those prisoners who went in back in the ‘80s and have never seen a cell phone before. Even though society has progressed since she went to the moon, she hasn't.

I think it just sort of made sense to have Twilight be the one who was willing to take a chance on her, since the emotional thing Luna was going through was very similar to what Twilight had gone through in the beginning of season one. It was a nice way to show that Twilight has progressed a bit since she arrived in Ponyville. And the Pinkie Pie ‘B' story was pretty easy, too, because she is the one who would obviously be out "trick-or-treating," and the misunderstandings would be driven by her.

One little anecdote, this was the first mention of Starswirl the Bearded. We wanted Twilight to dress up as one of her idols, and it made sense for it to be an obscure figure in magical history that nobody had ever heard of. Lauren gave us writers a list of names that had already been cleared by Hasbro's legal team, meaning if we ever needed to name a character we could just grab a name off that list. So I chose Starswirl because it sounded kind of magic-y. But it didn't quite sound historical enough, so I added on "the Bearded." I don't think any of us thought at that point that we'd use him again, it was just more of a throwaway gag.

Did you run into any tough spots or challenges when writing "Luna Eclipsed"?

Zecora is tough, but it was actually a bit easier in this one because she's telling a spooky story. I know that I'm not good at writing Zecora because I always try to get too cute with the rhymes. I know this is true, and yet I still do it every time. I HAVE A PROBLEM, OKAY??

The Rarity scene, I thought, was lots of fun. Twilight brings Luna to the Boutique to have Rarity soften her image. Rarity is initially scared, like everyone else, but as soon as she hears she's going to get to make over a princess, she snaps right out of it. She starts out by assuring Luna she won't do anything crazy -- she says she's a fan of Luna's sophisticated black palette. Cut to a bit later, and Luna is as pink and frilly as you could imagine. Pinkie comes trick-or-treating and screams that Nightmare Moon ate a princess. End scene.

I'm having trouble remembering any specific challenges. It was so long ago that it was written. But I know it was hard on the production team. They had to redesign Ponyville to be decorated for Nightmare Night, plus they had to redesign every character in a costume. Not easy.

When you set out to write "Luna Eclipsed", did you have any specific messages or themes in mind?

The main theme of "Luna Eclipsed" was acceptance. Obviously, Twilight was using what she's learned about acceptance to try to get Luna to realize that the townsponies will accept her, too. But Luna also learns to accept the dark parts of herself when she realizes that the kids don't hate her scariness, they actually kinda like it. She assumes that everyone is making judgments about her because of how she looks, but learns in the end that they actually like the ways she's different.

In general, I think it's safe to say we don't start with a friendship lesson in mind. They usually come out organically as the story is being broken down. You can see in "Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000" that we never quite figured one out. I left that story meeting without one, hoping it would come out as I wrote the outline, but it didn't, so we went with, "I didn't learn nothin'!"

Where can readers drop you a line?


Is there anything else you'd like to add?

It has been an absolute pleasure to write for this show, to work with Lauren and the unbelievable team she put together, and to discover and get to know some of the fans. You spend so many years "writing into the void," churning out scripts for shows that you don't know if anyone is watching (even my mom doesn't watch some of the stuff I write!), and it's been hugely gratifying to not only have the feedback that people are watching, but to meet and talk to bronies at conventions and hear that the fundamental lessons of the show are actually translating to people's lives. I heard anecdotes of how people met their friends through livestreams of the show or this or that, but it wasn't until I went to a few conventions that I saw how common that story really is. It's such a great feeling, because when I first started working on the show, I was so deeply in love with the joyousness Lauren created. So much of kids' animation has to be postmodern or overly pleased with itself or too clever by half. MLP has a very kind heart, and that makes it not only a delight to work on, but a delight to watch. So, thank you. Thank you for watching and caring and not letting what can be a really hard, hostile world destroy that spirit. Viva MLP!


  1. Seeing MA Larson at Bronycon this year, I came to realize he's kind of a wacky guy, and I think this interview only cements that view. :) I also feel like he's someone I can relate to as a writer. If I ever have a chance to talk to him, I'll have to ask about that Green Hornet script.

  2. Loved to get a peek behind the scenes, thanks M.A.! I get the same feeling when I start writing a story, beautiful ideas and images turned into horrible words and I wonder if I'll ever manage to capture the magic inside my head inside the story.

  3. Awesome reading! I have to say, though, the world is a slightly greyer and less joyous place without a Steven Magnet musical number.

    - Horizon

  4. "But my favorite character of the series might actually be the sea serpent from the pilot. I love him. I wrote him into "Magical Mystery Cure" -- he actually sang -- but it got cut for time."

    That this got cut for time is one of the great tragedies of our time.

    "Cut to a bit later, and Luna is as pink and frilly as you could imagine. Pinkie comes trick-or-treating and screams that Nightmare Moon ate a princess."

    So is this.

    1. That he keeps telling us about it makes him one of the greatest trolls of our time. D:

    2. No but in the guidebook to the show there's a tidbit about how apparently in the original "The Cutie Pox" Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo sing a rap to Applebloom to cheer her up.

  5. M.A. Larson really is a great name. I'm glad you went with it. I always thought that, were I to write something, I'd make a similar choice, though in part to avoid being confused with a famous actor

    I don't think writing for yourself sounds jackassy at all. In fact, it's my belief that's exactly what writers should do, as this approach seems to produce the most entertaining work. A huge part of why I love this show is that it exudes this sense of joy. You really get the feeling like everyone involved is having fun, and that's infectious as all get-out!