• Equestria Daily Interviews M.A. Larson

    It was with many a heavy heart that most of us learned that M.A. Larson would, indeed, not be writing for season six. The writer for the infamous Twilight Sprouts Extraneous Limbs and, more recently, The Adventures of the Background Six- among many, many others- Larson has been with the show for as long as anyone else.

    Before all of that, though, we kindly (and by kindly, I mean publicly on Twitter in front of everyone) asked if he would be willing to do an interview with us. Many years passed, where we can only assume that brave, handsome man went off into the desert to fight a giant sand worm for taking his arm. Out of the blue, though, our email was returned to us, full of gifts, thoughts, retrospective, and tales of wonder.

    Yep, we interviewed Larson. You should read it.

    If ever you had a deep, burning question about his role as a writer for the show, or for his recent Pennyroyal Academy novels, or what he thinks about Derpy, this is the stop for you. He was very forthcoming with all of our questions, and for that I and everyone else on the team thanks him.

    It's below the break. Have at it.

    I’ll softball you a first one. Who do you think Rey is?

    Not sure. Are you talking about Rey Binks from STAR WARS?

    I have this strange feeling that I should be buying something that you wrote. Could you possibly explain this compulsion?

    It's a common condition brought on by excessive exposure to my tweets or by seeing me at conventions. Luckily, it is highly treatable. There is a very helpful website that can explain it all. http://bit.ly/2179hms

    You made the jump from animation screenplays to a full-length novel, slipped back into the former for season five, and now you’re working on another novel. The differences in how you approach each project, as you’ve said, are vast. How has having experience in both mediums helped your style as a whole?

    I don't know if it has helped my style as much as it has helped my process. In screenplays, I like using ridiculous shorthand to explain things as quickly and in as few words as possible. Screenplays are a word game. Because they are written in Courier, a monospaced font, every letter counts. Using the word "house" instead of "home" adds one character, and sometimes that character can push you from 30 pages to 31. So I like to get information across in shorthand whenever I can to save pages. An example from MLP, in "Magic Duel" when Trixie zaps Rarity into an ugly outfit at the beginning of the episode, the stage direction in the script says, "Pinkie Pie ushers Rarity away like James Brown." To explain this in the most pretentious way possible, it's like a brush stroke in a painting. Probably no one will really notice it, but it adds to the flavor of the piece.

    If you look at the script as a blueprint, then using shorthand like that is a very easy way to converse with the production team, who are in another country. I can say, "Pinkie helps Rarity away like James Brown," and the chances are the DHX team will know exactly the visual reference I'm shooting for, without me having to waste a bunch of script space writing every detail of Rarity's state of mind and demeanor. And hopefully it will make whoever reads the script smile. I never discount the importance of trying to give the reader an enjoyable time reading the script. Use unexpected shorthand, you can save pages, give a specific visual cue, and hopefully increase someone's enjoyment of the read. With a book, or rather, with my book in particular, I wasn't able to use that sort of shorthand. Because it takes place in a fairy tale world, I tried my best to keep the anachronisms out. I obviously couldn't reference James Brown in a story that takes place in a Grimm's Fairy Tale world. I mean, I could and it would be an awesome story, but not in the particular story I'm telling. So the style necessarily had to change.

    Where my screenwriting experience was helpful, as I said earlier, was in understanding the process. Because I have written so many scripts for television and film, I have learned that the despair and hopelessness that come EVERY SINGLE TIME I WRITE ANYTHING go away on subsequent drafts. This is very important for aspiring writers to understand. Self-loathing and self-doubt are an integral part of the process. In the past, I would have met that difficult part of writing where I felt stuck or didn't know how to fix things or became convinced that what I was writing was garbage. But now I've been doing it long enough to know that that feeling always comes -- every single time -- and when the rewriting starts, it is never as bad as I thought. That was immensely helpful in writing the books. Because I haven't written a novel before, it was all new and scary and filled with moments of "I have no idea what I'm doing and I should just give up and wander the land." But I knew from my screenwriting that this is just a normal part of the process.

    This is a long way of saying that the screenwriting helped me to finish my book. I don't know if I could have if not for that experience.

    Once you finished Pennyroyal, was there anything you learned from publishing it that you brought back with you writing for Friendship is Magic? How about the other way around?

    I think I answered this in the previous question, but there is one other element that I found immensely helpful when shifting from television to books. Because a television series generally involves many scripts, many drafts, many cooks packed into that kitchen, when it came time to work with a book editor I was able to listen to her notes in a completely different way than I would have had I sold the book before I had any screenwriting experience. I have gotten used to getting notes and evaluating which ones are useful and which are not, and how to best implement them. So when I got notes on my book, I didn't take them personally and I didn't get defensive. I've seen enough of them to know their purpose. A good note from a smart, thoughtful person can help you see blind spots in your story. It is an invaluable thing. And with my ego out of the way, I was able to really understand why my editor felt the way she did about certain things. I could take her suggestions and see that they really were better than what I had written in the first place.

    I once saw a talk with Paul Thomas Anderson, one of my favorite screenwriters, and he took a question about getting notes. This is a guy who had just written what I consider to be one of the best films of the century, THERE WILL BE BLOOD. He said he gets a note and takes twenty-four hours to rage and curse and be furious. The next day, he's gotten it out of his system and internalizes the note and realizes "what a good idea I had." It made me feel so much better to know that someone at his level still had to come to terms with the notes process. It can be a very tough thing for a new writer, and it can be a very tough thing for an Oscar nominated writer. But working on so many episodes of so many shows has helped me to understand why notes are given and what their function is. If you're working with the right people and can look past the note to what the "real note" is (in other words, what is bothering them about the story and why they're giving the note), notes can elevate your writing beyond what you could do on your own.

    If you were to die in the middle of reading something, obviously you’d want it to look good. What would you want the book to be?


    I have one from Phoe: on a scale of one to ten, how vertiginous are you?


    If I can go back to the previous question, I'm only partially kidding. I try to read a mix of things I really want to read and things I know that I should read. I had an excellent education where I was exposed to all kinds of great authors and books, but there are massive gaps in my literary knowledge. I just started reading "A Study in Scarlet," which is the first Sherlock Holmes story. I recently read "Dead Wake," which is a nonfiction book about the sinking of the Lusitania. Before that it was "Killing Floor," which is a contemporary thriller. I love to read a wide variety of stuff, and I always take into account that I might die in the middle of it. So I stay away from anything that would be too embarrassing, like a G.M. Berrow book for instance.

    [Cereal's note: dang. shots fired.]

    You knew this one was coming. After leaving us in the cold for season four (how dare you), your first aired episode for the fifth was a little one called Slice of Life. We know you took the helm of this one from Amy- would you have rather written Griffonstone?

    It was a weird situation, but schedules happen.

    We did a story meeting with me and Amy and Meghan where we tried to figure out the 100th episode. I remember very clearly the ah-ha moment where Amy said we should use a wedding as a wraparound story. The idea was always to showcase background ponies, and with her idea, we could show musicians and flowers and catering and ponies getting ready...all the elements of a wedding. It was a really smart idea to frame the episode that way because it gave so many organic reasons to see a wide variety of ponies. So I left that meeting really excited to see Amy's version of the 100th episode.

    I, meanwhile, was story editing the beginning of season five, and had the 99th episode to consider. I was talking quite a bit with Meghan about how the map episodes would work, and we decided it would probably be easiest if I wrote the first map episode myself. So I came up with the premise for "Griffonstone." Meghan's conceit for the map was that it would call the mane six to various parts of Equestria where they would essentially serve as "ambassadors of friendship." She wanted to have three map episodes with two ponies in each, so I figured there was an unresolved friendship issue from season one with Gilda, and the map might be a cool excuse to both bring her back into the show, and to see what the griffons' kingdom looked like. The idea was that Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie would manage to plant a seed in Gilda's heart, and when they left to go back home, it was implied that she would then spread friendship to the other griffons, thus restoring Griffonstone to something even better than its former glory (rather than a society organized around a golden idol, it would be a society organized around friendship, symbolized by Gilda choosing friendship and letting the idol fall into the bottomless pit). I was pretty psyched about it, especially after bringing in Arimaspi and the lore of the idol.

    Something I always loved from the early days of the show was the way it used mythology as either a backdrop or a structure for episodes. "Sonic Rainboom," for example. The idea of the ancient hatreds between Arimaspi and the griffons felt totally in line with how MLP used mythology. So I was pretty psyched to have an episode that ticked so many boxes. It was a map episode, a fun matchup of Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie, a return of a season one character, an exploration of a new region of Equestria, and had a strong foundation in Greek mythology. So I was sort of bummed to not be the one writing it.

    I was also not particularly on board with the concept of the 100th episode. I was told to feature the alt mane six, two per act. Derpy and Dr. Whooves, Lyra and Bon Bon, and Octavia and Vinyl Scratch. But to me, these weren't characters at all. They were just designs. They were quite literally "background pony #2" in my scripts, if that. The background ponies were always a fan generated concept, with some nods from the animation team. The writers had no relation to them. So the idea of writing an entire episode based on six characters who really weren't characters was daunting. And I also thought it was a sticky situation to come in and create personalities for ponies that already had extensive fan-made personalities. It felt presumptuous. But that was the mandate, so I got to work. And I banged my head against the wall. I finally had a breakthrough on a Saturday afternoon where I realized that this was not like any other episode of the series. I said to myself that if we were going to make an episode that was specifically designed to be a hat-tip to a fandom that NONE OF US could have possibly predicted, then we needed to just go for it and do a fandom episode and not worry about first-time viewers. It was a chance to have fun with the unexpected fanbase, and once I embraced that idea, I started to have fun with it.

     I wrote a 10-page outline (twice as long as any other episode, though the run-time was the same...that's how many characters were in it and how fast the pace was meant to be). I tried to come up with situations where these characters would interact within Amy's concept of the wedding. I switched it so that Derpy had messed up the invitations, which gave the episode a ticking clock and gave us a reason to frantically fly around from place to place and character to character. I fully embraced that this was not going to be an ordinary episode (I love the title "Slice of Life") and went as crazy as I possibly could. I tried to weave the alt mane six in and out of each other's stories while filling it all in with other background ponies. Unfortunately, there was a lot that was left on the cutting room floor since the episode was still only 22 minutes long, but the animators totally embraced the insanity of the episode and added even more than I had, such as the horse masks and the shark jump moment.

    So, while I would have loved to have written "Griffonstone," I was really happy with how Amy did it, and the animation of the Arimaspi backstory is some of the coolest stuff I've seen on the show. So I was pretty happy with that one. And as much as I was reluctant to do a background pony episode, I ended up really happy with the finished product. I think that as a one-off, throw-everything-at-the-wall, give-a-tip-of-the-hat-to-the-fans episode, it came out beautifully. And for all the madness of the episode, there are some genuinely sweet moments at the end.

    I know it's presumptuous to say you love your own writing, but I adore the moment where Dr. Whooves grabs Roseluck and says, "Of course! They need love to ignite! How could I have missed it?" and I adore Peter New's delivery of it. It's as cheesy as can be, but it's also kind of beautiful. So all in all, I'm happy with how Amy and I switched. It would be interesting to see an alternate universe where we had each written our original episodes, though.

    Having had time to digest everything, did it get the reaction you wanted?

    It's funny, I had absolutely no idea what to expect in terms of a reactions. I would not have been at all surprised to have another wave of hate come my way for stomping on these fan-made characters people had loved for so long. But in the immediately aftermath of the episode, that didn't happen at all.

    It seemed that everyone got what we were going for, which was absolute madness, and ultimately a thank you to the fans who had embraced the show in such an incredible way. I did not expect such overwhelming positivity for the episode. I also didn't expect it to be as good as it was, but that's another story.

    I still have a lot of people tell me how much they enjoyed it, but lately there also seem to be more people saying they didn't. I have no problem with people liking or disliking whatever they want, but some of the criticisms of that one seem bizarre to me. I've had people tell me that it was fun, but they feel sorry for anyone who watches that episode as their introduction to the show. That's such a weird, specific criticism. After 99 episodes that could, with varying degrees of success, serve as a nice entry to the show, it doesn't bother me in the least to do one that is specifically for the fans. If someone tunes in and doesn't get it, oh well.

    I was also really pleased to hear from a lot of people that the target audience, the kids, really like the background ponies, too. That was another aspect of the episode that I was worried about, and it was a nice bonus to hear that kids like Derpy and Vinyl Scratch as much as the rest of the fandom does. "Slice of Life" was always, to me anyway, a chance to say thank you to the fans. Thank you for the last five years of fun that I've had with this show and with the people who embraced it. Even though it was a special episode, I tried to write the script with the same fun and surprise and heart as any other episode. If people want to argue about canon versus non-canon, or if it was wise to alienate non-bronies, then that's fine, but I do think they're missing the point.

    Yes it was meta and yes it was filled with references, but it was as genuine a thank you as I could write.

    Scenes get cut all the time, and you’ve answered in the past about parts cut from Slice. Can you give an example of a scene from an episode you’ve written that was cut that you cherished in particular? Or, maybe, when cutting something you really liked made the story more interesting?

    There was a scene that was cut from "Amending Fences" that I liked quite a bit, though I can completely understand why it was cut. It was a modular scene, meaning it could be cut without disrupting the story, like the cut Rarity scene from "Luna Eclipsed."

    Anyway, in "Amending Fences," Twilight is at her lowest low and goes to visit Celestia in the middle of the night. She tells her mentor that she has to give up her role as princess of friendship because of how her past actions have affected Moondancer. She says, "How can I tell others about the magic of friendship if I've killed that spirit in somepony else?" Celestia then surprises her by saying that the lesson Twilight is in Canterlot to learn is one that she herself has only recently learned. Twilight is surprised...Celestia knows everything about everything. But Celestia looks out the window at the moon and says, "Some relationships are so broken, so filled with bitterness and anger that they seem impossible to mend. But the lesson you're here to learn now is that it's never too late to repair a broken friendship." So Celestia uses her own experience, her gradual rebuilding of trust and friendship with her own sister, to tell Twilight that everyone goes through it. This gives Twilight the hope that she can fix things with Moondancer.

    I thought it was a nice scene, but you only have 22 minutes and this was an easy cut.

    The other season five change that bummed me out a bit was Natasha's original version of Tree Hugger from "Make New Friends and Keep Discord." As originally written, she wasn't such an on-the-nose hippie. She was based more off of Martha Stewart. It was a great characterization, and it seemed to me to be a better foil to Discord. A mild-mannered soccer mom is a more natural dichotomy with the spirit of chaos than a hippie is. That being said, Natasha came up with some great lines for the new Tree Hugger, the animators did a great job of designing her, and Nicole Oliver rocked the voice.

    Still, I always liked Natasha's original character better and was bummed that she was changed to the more obvious, and in my opinion overused, hippie character.

    I’ll ask the opposite question now- did anything make it into the final cut that you just regret deep down in your soul? If so, given the choice, would you erase it from history?

    I get blamed for a whole lot of stuff I didn't actually do (and I get credit for some stuff I also didn't do), but I will take 100% responsibility for the fact that Rarity is controlling the weather in "Magical Mystery Cure."

    I completely and utterly botched it on the fact that Rainbow Dash got her cutie mark for speed and not weather. I think I got so enamored with all of the puns, like "weather patterns," that I glossed right over it before I realized I had it wrong. There was another line that was cut where angry, sunburned ponies come up to her and she says, "What? Too last season?" which is another weather/fashion pun that I liked a lot. But, yeah, that was a pretty bad mistake on my part.

    [Cereal's note: wow, I didn't catch that either. whoops.]

    I once described Amending Fences as one of the best followups to a completely throwaway line I’d ever seen- it was a writing prompt done to perfection. Did the fact that you had complete freedom from that starting point make writing that episode easier or harder?

    I was really happy with how that episode came out. Though I never actually watched "The X Files," I imagine it's one of the cleanest commercial concepts you could possibly have. A cop procedural, but with the supernatural. One partner a true believer, the other a skeptic. It is a slam dunk in every way.

    The premise to "Amending Fences" felt like it had a bit of that same serendipity. Middle of season five, Twilight has now been through an awful lot, including becoming the princess of friendship. Perfect time to look back at what her life was like before she came to Ponyville to learn about friendship. And then the "OH NOOOOO" moment of realization that she was a horrible friend before she left on Celestia's mission. It was discovering a blind spot in her life, and how it was the perfect inversion of the responsibility she had just been given.

    I absolutely loved having total control of it. That's nothing against anyone else in any way shape or form, it's just to say that my notes are the easiest for me to do because they don't exist. My only concern with the episode was that it was very serious, but on the other hand, it's nice to vary episodes. The one I wrote previously, "Slice of Life," was pretty much the opposite in terms of tone and scope. Wild and zany versus quiet and introspective. I love that there is room for both types of stories on the show.

    Were there any other episodes from season five that you wanted to take a crack at writing?

    I did, actually.

    Before I was asked to story edit, I wrote an episode called "The Rainbow Confession." It's the only episode I've written in four seasons on the show that was killed. They took the premise and turned it into "Rarity Investigates," which is why my name is on that one, even though it really shouldn't be. My version of the episode used the same premise, but it was much more like LEGALLY BLONDE with Rarity in the Elle Woods role trying to prove Rainbow Dash's innocence, despite being completely out of her depth. I thought it was a pretty funny episode, and a nice character piece between Rarity and Rainbow Dash, but DHX wanted to take that premise in another direction.

    So fans will never know the joys of a poncy lawyer pony named Due Process or hear Tabitha St Germain say, "What's the matter, Mr. Prosecutor, can't handle the truth?"

    As a parting shot, what’s your current favorite moment that, while you were writing it, you were thinking, “pff, no way, they’ll never sign off on this.” And then they did.

    There are a few. One is the lesson at the end of "Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000," where Applejack says she didn't learn anything. I left the story meeting without an ending, and when I'd written up the outline, there just wasn't a moral there. So I decided to end it that way -- "I didn't learn anything!" I liked it because it undercut a season and a half of expectations, and it also felt totally appropriate for Applejack to be the one delivering that sort of letter to Celestia. Happily, Lauren liked it and so did Hasbro, so it stayed.

    Pinkie Pie's rock farm was a bit like that, too. If Hasbro didn't get it and started asking "what do they do at the rock farm?" then it wouldn't have worked. But they were totally on board. It's always nice when you have the opportunity to try things out like that.

    As E.B. White said, "Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process." If you're asked to explain why something is funny, then you might as well throw it in the bin because it is dead and will never be funny again. If I had needed to explain the idea of the rock farm to Hasbro, it never would have survived the process. But they went along with it, and it made it into the show.

    I know you didn't ask for a closing statement, but I'm going to give one anyway. I just want to say thank you to everyone who has been a part of this strange, spectacular phenomenon.

    And the wings were not my idea so you can stop making those jokes now. But honestly, thank you.

    It has been one of the true joys of my life to work on MLP:FIM.