Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Screenwriter Matt Lieberman’s films have made you laugh, touched your heart, and delighted your imagination. None of that could be accomplished if he didn’t set up a cinematic world in which to lose yourself through the avatars of engaging, occasionally iconic characters, figuring out their way through life’s adventures and misadventures. On a roll since the debut of Netflix’s THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES, his projects have ranged from THE ADDAMS FAMILY, the animated feature based on the TV show about an offbeat, charming family, to FREE GUY, a live-action Ryan Reynolds-starring actioner about an unassuming guy in the background of a video game who chooses to step into the foreground.
As we wait for FREE GUY, the highly-anticipated sequel to THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES and RUMBLE to be released, Lieberman’s latest, SCOOB!, is due out this weekend. The family-friendly animated tale shows the beloved Scooby Gang’s backstory and gives them a new, reinvigorated mystery for them to solve, this time with some additional help from some superheroes hoping to prove their mettle.
I’m curious if your approach to this was to tell a story that only could be told in animation?
Yeah. Definitely. We always knew from the beginning this was going to be animated. If you’re gonna do it, let’s make it worth it.
How did you acclimate yourself into the Scooby Doo Universe when you got this job? Did you watch a bunch of the episodes and live action movies to re-familiarize yourself?
I’ve always been a fan of Scooby Doo since I was a kid. I have vivid memories of watching those episodes over and over, but I definitely had time away from them. I actually didn’t look back on what anybody had done. I’m a high-concept oriented writer and my thought was how do we make this the biggest movie it could be that even I’d never heard of Scooby Doo, the idea would be cool. That’s how I approached it.
Hanna-Barbera themselves their methodology was pretty loosey-goosey. There are things fans will want and look for, but nothing that’s sacrilege. The gang is presented as who they are.
Speaking to that, it’s shown and when Shaggy meets the gang and how he chose Scooby’s name. Were those things new to the universe that you got to create and play with?
I’m pretty sure they’re new to the Universe. Tony [Cervone], the director, is super knowledgeable about the universe and everything went through his filter. I don’t remember ever having a conversation like, “Is this really what happened? Did Scooby Snacks come first?” That was never discussed. We just did what’s best for the story and the characters in the story.
How fun was it to write a big Scooby Gang adventure, paying homage to these iconic characters and add this irreverent meta humor to it?
It was so much fun. I wrote the first draft pretty quickly. It got the greenlight so people also felt the energy. But when I was writing it, it felt like I got the keys to this car. There’s something not only in the Scooby Universe, but also in the Hanna-Barbera universe that allows itself for you to be meta and have fun and free with the characters and who they are. As a writer, when your characters are set up so perfectly, it makes the job easier.
Was it a challenge not only to add heart, but commentary about friendship and fear for kids to relate to?
I wouldn’t say it was hard to put heart in there. We start by saying, “What’s the movie and why do I care?” and write from there. The relationship between Scooby and Shaggy is always at the forefront of Scooby Doo and Scoob himself is like the kid of the group – a kid’s way into those characters and that story. Thematically it was about fear and friendship and the friendship was more emotional and that’s definitely the strongest in the final product between Shaggy and Scooby and “Are you gonna be friends for the rest of your life? When things in your life change, what does that mean to your friendship?” I think that makes it all stick together.
What sequence changed the most on SCOOB, from first reel to final cut?
Story-wise, it’s very similar to the first script – maybe about 80% similar from a basic story standpoint. I think the biggest change…I sold this pitch seven years ago to Warner Brothers was that SCOOB stood for the Special Covert Organization of Otherworldly Beasts. Blue Falcon had all these other Hanna-Barbera characters aboard his ship, like Jabberjaw and Grape Ape and Atom Ant. And just, over production, it became just too many characters to really service the story correctly. We really tried to keep them in there a long time, but we had to let stuff go to give the lead characters the time they needed.
The voice casting is so perfect. Do you tailor your writing to fit who’s cast?
You definitely do. In this iteration, I wasn’t the last writer on. I think Adam [Sztykiel] may have done a little more of the tailoring. Captain Caveman was always Tracy Morgan-ish. But his scene was a later scene that changed. But, yeah. Once you get voice casting, you definitely want to make the biggest meal out of that that you can especially if you have a talented comic voice.
Where’d the idea of FREE GUY come from? And did you collaborate with Ryan Reynolds to get his trademark wit in there?
That was a spec idea I had. It came from playing a lot of GRAND THEFT AUTO. I wondered what would happen if you had the cheat codes to life? There’d be power ups around town and you’d be one of these people I feel terrible beating up in these games. I have some kind of guilt and don’t fully feel comfortable with it. As soon as I clicked in, I knew it was a good idea and it sold. Once Ryan came aboard, it took off like a rocket ship. I got to do a draft with him which was an amazing experience. He’s such a talented guy. That wit is him and he brought so much to the character and made it his own – not just the trademark stuff you know of him, but even in a new way that’s going to surprise people.
You have CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES 2 coming out as well. Is it daunting writing with someone like Chris Columbus?
It would be, but he’s such an easy going guy. It’s never daunting, working with him and Kurt Russell – another icon of mine. But it’s definitely “pinch me.” There are notes and things they add and you’re like, “Oh yeah. This is Chris Columbus. He’s doing it with you on your thing!” It’s amazing.
Everyone I know who’s worked with Kurt Russell has a great anecdote about meeting him. I assume you have one.
Oh, he’s great. I got to spend a couple weeks last Summer, sitting at his house working on the sequel to CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES. He is so dialed into the character of Santa Claus – in the best way. You wouldn’t expect it, but it makes total sense. He knows Santa’s backstory, or at least, our version of Santa’s backstory that I told my wife [VALLEY GIRL costume designer Maya Lieberman] it was like writing Santa’s biography with Santa Claus. I would be saying, “What if Santa….” He would say, “Santa would never do that because back in 1482…” That’s what you want in your lead actor. The success of the first one is so much him.
Is there a special trick to moving as skillfully as you do in between in “family-friendly” entertainment, writing for live-action and animation? Not many can do this, or at least, choose to do it.
For me, I don’t really have a different approach for live-action and animation. I just approach it through concept – a good idea will see its way. It doesn’t matter if it’s SCOOBY DOO, or an original idea. It’s always, “What’s the hook of the movie? What’s the idea?” From that, you can build out your characters and your themes and you have a movie. I’ve been working for ten years and a lot of it is experience and finding your voice and knowing how to tackle anything that comes across your desk. Taking things that you love is the other thing. I love THE ADDAMS FAMILY. I love SCOOBY DOO. And these are just ideas that I’m writing that I’d want to see in a movie.
Maybe this is a similar question, but do you see any difference in creativity, generating your own franchises like CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES and maybe FREE GUY and RUMBLE, versus having to melt into existing ones like ADDAMS FAMILY and SCOOB?
For me, there’s no difference. If a piece of IP comes across my desk, if there’s not a great idea, or hook in it, I’ll pass. I just can’t cram something into something it’s not. It’s not in me to do. It is only going after projects I’m excited about or can creatively hook into.
SCOOB! is available to own ($24.99), or rent for 48-hours ($19.99) starting on May 15.
FREE GUY opens in theaters on December 11, 2020.
THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES 2 will release in 2020.
RUMBLE is due to release on January 29, 2021.