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From New York Times bestselling author Max Brallier and showrunner Scott Peterson of Atomic Cartoons comes the fun and lighthearted animated series, The Last Kids on Earth. The Netflix hit follows Jack Sullivan (Nick Wolfhard) and a band of suburban middle-schoolers living in a decked-out tree house, playing video games, gorging themselves on candy, and battling zombies. 10 all-new episodes arrived on Netflix today; be sure to add them to your watchlist now!
In honor of the new season’s arrival, I had a chance to chat with Brallier and Peterson as part of our continuing Saturday Mourning Cartoons interview series, like our related chat with Wolfhard himself. I checked in with the EPs after our previous chat, which came before the launch of The Last Kids on Earth. We talked about how the creative team is dealing with the current quarantine situation and whether or not that affected their writing process for the post-apocalyptic series. Brallier and Peterson also talked about how much the cast of characters has grown in Season 2, both in maturity and by including new voices actors, like Mark Hamill, Rosario Dawson, Catherine O’Hara, Bruce Campbell, and Keith David; all of their antics and more are teased in the following interview. Feel free to listen and read along, but some spoilers follow for this season!
This is the second time that I’ve had a chance to talk with you both, but the last time we talked, it was before Season 1 had even launched. So how has the response been since last fall?
Scott Peterson: Well, we don’t get numbers from Netflix. They keep those very close to the chest. But what we understand is that it’s done really, really well, that it’s exceeded their expectations in terms of how many people have been watching it, and that’s just for the first 66-minute special that was based on Book One. But anecdotally, we’ve heard lots of people love it, kids watching it over and over again. So we’re really pleased.
Max Brallier: I’ve been extremely pleased, I’ve been just doing school visits and things like that since the series has launched, that fans of the books have really been fans of the show and have had really wonderful, great, enthusiastic, happy things to say, which was the thing that I most hoped would come true.
So how are you guys both feeling now that Season 2 is actually here for fans out there to enjoy?
Max Brallier: I feel great. I’m really happy that it’s been… Yeah, that it’s actually finally here, the fans can enjoy it. I’m kind of excited for fans of the book series to see what’s different, what’s changed, and what sort of Easter eggs we have in there for them. Atomic Cartoons, everybody there has done a wonderful job creating this new season, and really Scott in leading the show.
Scott Peterson: Yeah, it’s a phenomenal season, and whereas the special really kind of sets up the world and the characters, this is where we get to just go crazy and really expand on all that, and bring in a whole new host of characters, and really send the kids on much bigger adventures, all based on Max’s books. But it really gives us an opportunity to go much, much bigger, which I think kids are going to really love.
Where does Season 2 line up with the timeline of the books, and where does it deviate? Is it mostly “Zombie Parade”, or is there a little bit of extra thrown in?
Max Brallier: It’s mostly “Zombie Parade”, but taking advantage of our ability to tell the story now not just from Jack’s point of view, but to see what other characters are doing. New adventures, sort of adding, changing, adjusting, and really just sort of taking the best parts of “Zombie Parade” and really kind of trying to make those as big and amazing as possible, and then also trying to find places to create new adventures that will excite and… I mean, it’s not a straight adaptation where you’ll feel like, “Oh, if I read the book, I already know exactly what’s going to happen.” There are some big moments that play out differently and play out, I think, just really in wonderful visual ways.
Scott Peterson: One good example of that is there’s an episode called “June Gloom”, where Jack takes June back to her childhood home, thinking this is going to be a wonderful treat for her, and not realizing there may be a lot of other emotions involved. That’s something that wasn’t really in the book, but we felt like we really want to expand on what June’s going through, because that’s something we have the time for and, again, that we didn’t get a chance to do in the books. It’s turned out to be one of my favorite episodes, because we really get into the emotions of the kids beyond the excitement of battling monsters and zombies. Written by the marvelous Haley Mancini.
Scott Peterson: Yes.
I love the maturity that comes with Season 2. How do you think that Jack and the kids have grown, if at all, between the end of Season 1 and Season 2 where things pick up?
Max Brallier: He’s two inches taller.
Scott Peterson: I think for Jack in the opening book and the opening special, he was just learning to form a family, and now he’s got to learn what it’s like to actually have a family, and what it’s like to live with other people, and what it’s like to fear losing people or… There’s a lot that he’s never experienced before. So I think for him particularly, this is a big season of learning about how to deal with other people that you care about.
Max Brallier: Yeah, and how to sort of be a hero and be a leader, but at the same time, not just try to keep everybody safe all the time. How to let people sort of be their own people. And be their own monsters.
How have you seen Jack grow since the beginning, and what can viewers expect to see from him as he grows as a person over the course of Season 2?
Max Brallier: I think a little bit, too, what Scott was saying about going from really wanting a family to now also wanting a community, and that sense of the camaraderie, and now having that. But with that comes this incredible fear of losing that. I think that’s something that it’s sort of about. I remember kind of finding my people, finding your clique in elementary school and middle school, just finding a group of friends, and that there’s suddenly… Once you do that, there is that sense of, “Oh boy, what if this goes away? What if something happens?” That’s sort of what’s happening here, but on a monstrous, ginormous stage full of action-adventure. So we see him sort of come to terms with that and learn how to live with that and deal with that.
Then also at the same time, we’re setting up sort of the larger hero’s journey, where it’s not just about the friendship stuff and the personal stuff, but how he learns to lead as the world continues to grow. Sort of this world continues to grow and the threat becomes not just a threat to his hometown, but it’s a interdimensional threat from beyond that. Huge. How will he lead in that world?
Scott Peterson: I think what’s fun is that sometimes we can take something that’s relatable, like losing your friends, but in real life, you’d be worried about losing your friends to another group of friends, or maybe they’d move away. In this world, Jack’s worried he’s going to lose his friends because they might be eaten. So it really amps up what’s a normal feeling to a huge degree.
One of his big arcs for this season is he gets so worried about them that he becomes overprotective, and so he doesn’t want them to leave the house. He doesn’t want them to take any risks. And he becomes kind of a jerk. It’s out of how much he loves them and cares for them, but he becomes so overbearing that he has to find a way to let them be their own heroes.
Jack is definitely not your traditional expected hero. He struggles a lot with the choices that he makes and learning from his mistakes over and over again. How do you both see Jack, as he’s growing?
Max Brallier: I think he’s flawed. He’s certainly not perfect. It’s been a fun and exciting and sort of the unexpected thing about writing this series, and really the book series as I’m looking at it is a larger growth for him over seven books right now, that there continue to be things that sort of surprise me about the character. I usually say, I feel like, “I’m the one writing the character. None my characters surprise me,” I usually feel like that. But there are moments where I sort of feel like, “Oh, wait. This is really going to challenge his view of things, or his view of other people, or of monsters, or of how to be a leader and how to have friends and all these things.”
I think for me, the challenge and the fun of it is how to make Jack be somebody who fails, and who fails on a personal level, too, and who fails his friends at times, and is sarcastic and handles things with humor and sarcasm, without him ever becoming unlikable or anything like that. It’s a balance between… I don’t want him to be perfect, and I don’t want him to be somebody who you don’t like. It’s this sort of mixture of seeing his flaws and loving him for the flaws. That’s how I try to make it work.
Scott Peterson: Yeah, I think it’s a lot more interesting to follow someone that you can relate to, knowing that sometimes they win and sometimes they fail, as opposed to reading Superman comics as a child. He’s always going to win, so there’s not… He’s almost invulnerable, so there’s not a lot of stakes there. But if you have a kid who’s like our readers or like our viewers, that doesn’t always know what they’re doing and has to make the best with what they’ve got, that’s much more compelling.
Definitely. Then looking outside of kind of the core cast of characters that we have, you guys get to expand the cast quite a bit in Season 2. We’ve got Keith David, Mark Hamill, Catherine O’Hara, Rosario Dawson. They get to join in on the fun this season. What can you tease about the new actors that you’ve brought in and their roles in Season 2?
Scott Peterson: And don’t forget Bruce Campbell.
Oh, of course! How could I?
Scott Peterson: We worked hard to get him on the show.
Yeah, and he’s got a great part, too. It’s so much fun.
Scott Peterson: Unfortunately, we can’t talk about their roles yet. We’ve been forbidden from the powers that be. So even though you know because you’ve watched the episodes, we can’t tell people just yet.
Max Brallier: I will say that they all do amazing jobs, and that they bring characters to life in an incredible way.
Scott Peterson: And they were phenomenal to work with. I mean, we were basically sitting there with our mouths open as we’re looking 10 feet away at Mark Hamill in the recording booth, and he’s telling us stories about Star Wars, unprompted. We weren’t digging. We were trying to be professional. But he started telling us things, and we’re just like… We’re eating it up like 12-year-olds. It was amazing.
Yeah, I’m sure he knew what you wanted to hear anyway. He’s like, “You guys want to know these stories. You’re just being polite and not asking, so I’ll give you one.” Yeah.
Scott Peterson: Yes. Yes, it was great. And the same thing with Bruce that we’re all huge fans of Evil Dead, and to be in a room with him and have him talking to us like we were real humans was amazing.
Max Brallier: Yeah. We fooled him.
Can talk about adapting the characters from the stories for the animated version? Were there any significant changes? What were your discussions like in bringing these characters to live in a way that fits with the art style and the aesthetics of the animated series?
Scott Peterson: Yeah, we couldn’t always do exactly what was in the books. Doug Holgate did an amazing job bringing these characters to life visually for the first time, but sometimes you can’t do that level of detail in an animated series. And sometimes we wanted to do something a little bit different. So a lot of kind of the background character monsters, we came up with our own and created new characters for that.
But for some of the iconic ones, like there’s a character called Bardle, and there’s a character Skaelka, and Thrull, we did try to emulate what Doug had done in the books, but again, bring them into our world. Then we get a chance to expand their characters, particularly Skaelka. She has a smaller role in the books to begin with, but we found her so much fun that we really expanded her role and put her in a lot more episodes, gave her more to do, because she was so fun.
Max Brallier: Yeah, and then for Bardle, who becomes sort of a mentor to Jack in the books, we had a lot of fun… There was times to sort of make him a much… Do more humor and really bring out the humor in him, and find ways to sort of take his sort of stiff demeanor and play that for comedy when appropriate. That was a lot of fun.
Is there anywhere that I can get a copy of The Last Kids on Earth bestiary? Is that something that’s going to be available for people out there? Or do I have to make my own, like Quint?
Max Brallier: Oh, yes. Oh, so let’s see. For the ones from the book, we have a… Jack calls the bestiary a beast-iary, because it’s full of beasts. In The Last Kids on Earth Survival Guide that I wrote, we have a sort of partial version that has a bunch of the monsters from the books and shows off sort of details… Like those little Marvel cards that would have their stats and data on the back, and I loved those. So it does some of that stuff in the bestiary, in the book. We need to create a full one for the series monsters, I think, though.
Scott Peterson: Yeah, that was a great… I mean, if I was a kid, I would absolutely want that. But yeah, one for the show. Because it does differ from the books, especially, yeah, when we get into all the ancillary monsters. Or we created a new character, Chef, for the series, because we wanted someone to kind of battle back and forth with Dirk. We wanted a monster that… He isn’t really thrilled to be around these humans, and to see how that played out. So we created this character that’s really kind of prejudiced against humans to see how that played out, and that was really fun.
Max Brallier: Yeah, and he thinks the humans smell.
Scott Peterson: Yeah.
Which, he’s not wrong.
Scott Peterson: Well, we do.
Max Brallier: We do.
Well, as a grown-up kid myself, I would be happy with the Quint-essential Bestiary Guide to Last Kids on Earth, so feel free to run with that if you’d like to. I’d be happy to pick that up.
Pulling back from the fictional apocalypse for a bit, I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that we’re currently living in some sort of weird, uncertain, and unpredictable time. So what is it like for the two of you to be writing a show about an apocalypse while also having to balance living through sort of one?
Max Brallier: I haven’t checked the news recently. What is it you’re referring to?
Max Brallier: Not a news junkie.
Scott Peterson: He’s unaware. I think what’s interesting is Max is in New York, and I’m in L.A., and we’ve both kind of been working from home for a long time. But all the animators and all the production crew up in Canada have just been sent home the last few weeks, so they’re now all working from home. So it’s really a challenge to try and keep in touch with everybody and maintain those personal connections, even when everybody’s separate. But in terms of storytelling, we’re not writing any episodes right now that would then change because of our personal experiences. It’s just kind of a unique time to be in.
I think one thing that we’ve always wanted the series to talk about is making the best of a bad situation, that Jack’s goal is not just to live through the apocalypse, it’s to thrive in it and to have fun in it. He sometimes calls it the funpocalypse. So if we can send any message out right now, it’s to not just endure what we’re going through, but to try and make the best and do the best with what you have, and try and keep a positive attitude the way Jack would. That’s a message that we were sending out before this current situation, and I think that would be the message after this as well.
Max Brallier: Yeah, I don’t think the message changes. In the end, it’s a show that, despite the setting, it’s about bonds, and friendship, and hope, and positivity, and adventure, and the exciting sort of pulse, but just the excitement of adventure and friendship and doing that together. So that doesn’t change, but it feels sort of almost extra applicable right now.
It’s also about escapism, and I think sometimes… I don’t know. That’s an important thing. That’s always an important thing, I think, especially for kids, that you need to sort of get away for a little bit and forget about a bad day at school or whatever it is. Here, I think we may need that more than ever. I hope that maybe it allows people to escape a little bit for a couple hours. That’d be neat.
There are some subtle things that are brought up throughout this season between some of the characters. They open up a little bit more, they talk about their past a little bit more. Some of them get to revisit that past through memories or flashbacks. Are you hoping that maybe this opens up a dialogue for kids who don’t quite know how to talk about bad feelings, or bad memories, or things like that?
Scott Peterson: I don’t think we ever had an agenda about getting kids to open up. But if they can see themselves in these characters and see that it helps people to grow closer together by being open with each other, that’s a fantastic byproduct. We always wanted these characters to feel realistic and not like 2D cartoon characters. So yeah, that would be fantastic.
Max Brallier: Yeah, I think there’s something about sort of the end-of-the-world setting and the things that happen to them that causes them to open up in a way that… It’s almost like the Breakfast Club, where they sort of are all stuck there together and for the first time, they see each other as real people in the Breakfast Club. Here, it causes June to talk about things to Jack that she never would have. If that’s a lesson you can learn earlier on in life, that’s good. I think that sort of the younger that you are able to understand–it took me a long time, that it’s okay to tell people how you feel–the better. So if people get help with that from this at an earlier age, I think that would be wonderful.
Do you have a favorite newcomer character this season? Do you have a favorite episode that stands out to you that you just want to highlight?
Max Brallier: I was going to say… I think we both were going to say, I had mentioned “June Gloom.” I think that was one of my favorites from this season, just because for how the way it balances… I think it achieves sort of what the show and what the series is, what it does very best, which is balancing humor with adventure with real emotion and action. So that’s probably my favorite episode of this season.
There is a character that we created, though, for the show that I loved so much that the character was then pulled into the books.
Max Brallier: So that character I particularly love.
Nice. Scott, any for you that you can talk about?
Scott Peterson: I was going to say the same episode, but now I can’t do that.
Yeah. It’s a good episode.
Scott Peterson: I mean, I’m also a sucker for the big ending, so the last episode is called “Dawn of Rezzoch.” We really have some amazing animators that can take things that we think up and bring them to amazing life. Watching huge monster battles and big finale action sequences, they really kicked some serious butt. I get caught up in those every time.
It was spectacular. I remember talking with you guys about Season 1 as well, and one of the highlights was that big battle at the end of Season 1. This takes it up to quite a different level on a number of ways. So yeah, definitely something to look forward to out there.
I can’t wait for people out there to check out Season 2. As a side note, as someone who grew up eating at Joe’s Pizza once a week in my hometown, this season, that moment was particularly enjoyable for me, so thank you for including my hometown pizza shop. Loved that.
Max Brallier: I did that for you.
Thank you so much.
Max Brallier: I knew that you went there.
Max Brallier: That’s why we did it, yeah.
I really do appreciate that. But I appreciate your time today. Best of luck with the rollout of Season 2, and thanks again.
Max Brallier: Thanks so much.
Scott Peterson: Thank you, and be safe, be healthy. All that stuff.
Same to you.
All Episodes of Atomic Cartoons’ The Last Kids on Earth are now streaming on Netflix!