I’m waiting on line at Urth Caffé when I get a text from Dan Hageman: “You here? We’re out front at a curb table.” The lunchtime bustle at Urth—the most ubiquitously “Los Angeles” coffee spot in downtown—was so crowded that I must have missed Dan and his brother Kevin when I first walked in.
The Hageman brothers (Kevin is 40, Dan, 37) are easy to spot, even amongst the sea of hipster locals. They both wear rectangular glasses, collared shirts, and cozy sweaters, and they share enough of the same facial features to clearly mark them as as brothers—although sometimes that similarity is mistaken for something else.
“Yeah, a lot of the time people will think we’re a couple,” says Dan. Kevin nods, “We go to a lot of business meetings and the first thing the executives will say is ‘So, how did you two meet…?’”
I’ve asked Dan and Kevin to meet me today because I’m enlisting them as the guinea pigs for a new writing project I’m embarking on. It’s been nearly four years since I moved to Los Angeles for college, and in just a few months, I’ll be continuing to live here without the backbone of university to keep me steady. In my time in L.A. I’ve bounced between many career dreams: first I wanted to be an actor, then a screenwriter, then a stand-up comedian, then a journalist, and now my passions lie in the murky gray area between the want for all of these things. I’ve found pieces of success in each of these arenas, but as the deadline to start making a real career for myself draws nearer, I find myself almost choking on fear. Here in the epicenter of The Industry (capital letters) it’s easy to grow desperate at the massive amounts of wealth success that surround you.
So I’ve decided to go out into Hollywoodland and interview as many people as I can who aren’t necessarily the flashiest, most successful artists in the business, but who rather are a working part of the mechanics of the industry; the people whose careers are built on sweat and toil and the persistent, intangible goal of one day “making it big.” I call them “the E-List”: the people who grind the gears of Hollywood and rarely receive the credit—for now.
The Hagemans are ideal first candidates. For starters, they weren’t offended when I used the term “E-List.” But they are also serious working screenwriters in Hollywood whose scripts—which include 2012’s Hotel Transylvania, the massively successful Cartoon Network series Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu, and the soon-to-be-released LEGO Movie—are beginning to find their way into the mainstream Hollywood vernacular. I’m here to pick their brains about how they’ve gotten to where they are, where they hope to go, and what kind of wisdom they have for someone like me, who harbors dreams of screenwriting but no real sense of how to get there.
Haley: So give me a little background about yourselves. You’re not native Los Angelenos—what spurred you to come here and start writing for film?
Dan: We’re from Oregon originally, so we actually feel very much like outsiders.
Kevin: I came here for film school, at Loyola Marymount. Dan and I grew up together making movies—I would direct a lot of, you know, video camera crap. And I would force my brother to be in my movies.
Dan: I was always doing whatever Kevin did. Like if Kevin wanted to take piano lessons, I would start playing the piano. I was always emulating my brother. And then Kevin was really big into acting, and so I went into acting. I always thought whatever he could do, I could do better.
Kevin: And it’s still there, that competition.
Dan: Well the place where he got me was in acting, because even when he was in high school he would get every lead. And then I would go and I would get—
Kevin: That’s not true! I started off with small parts!
Dan: Yeah, but even when you were a freshman you were like, Woody Allen in Play it Again Sam.
Kevin: True, but you always had that huge beard, even when you were 15, so I guess that makes us even.
Haley: So then Kevin went to film school, and you didn’t, Dan?
Dan: Kevin went to film school because he wanted to be a director, and at that time I wanted to go into music for film; film scoring and composition. I thought my brother will get jobs, I’ll write the music to his movies…
Kevin: And we’ll both become famous!
Dan: Of course, when Kevin graduated film school, he had a crisis of faith with the realization of, who the hell’s gonna give him money to make a movie? All of his film buddies’ parents would give them like, twenty grand to make student films, and our parents basically said screw that, you’ve got to do it on your own. Then I’m thinking, “How am I gonna become a famous composer if my brother can’t even get a movie off the ground?” And so we decided to write something.
Kevin: At this time I had recently graduated. I was an unpaid intern and then became an assistant at Dark Horse Entertainment, around the year 2000. And I had a great mentor there named Mike Richardson, and I actually spent 8 years working on the development side, working with writers. And I just kept meeting with these writers and thinking, “Why can’t I do this?” Neither of us ever thought never thought we could write, so we started to print out our favorite screenplays—Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws—and we just read the scripts—
Dan: Goonies. That was the first one that we loved so much we printed it out and read it. And we were just like, “Oh my God, this is such a bad script.” I don’t know if you’ve read the original script, but there was originally a scene where the Goonies are attacked by a giant squid, and they escape because Data takes out his Walkman, puts his headphones over the squid’s ears, and the squid just rocks out to Cyndi Lauper. Amazingly bad.
Kevin: So we thought, we could do that.
Dan: That gave us the fire to say, we could probably do something like this. Kevin didn’t go to film school to be a writer, I had some writing skills but nothing professional—
Kevin: I took one screenwriting course and I was like, whatever. I barely got a passing grade.
Dan: But we wrote off our own passion of what we thought would be a really great movie. Our first script was a passion project, but it totally sucked. We loved it; we thought it was the greatest thing in the world. I remember Kevin had shown it to some guy on a plane—like, the assistant stunt double on the movie Predator—
Kevin: And this guy read it and was like, “This is the second best script I’ve ever read, outside of Predator.” He was nobody, but we ate it up.
Haley: There’s definitely a fun effect in Los Angeles, where everyone’s always trying to sell their product or scripts to whoever they think might be buying. You schmooze the guy you think is higher up than you, but he’s schmoozing you because he thinks you might be higher up than him—when really nobody’s anybody and everybody’s just trying to get their screenplay read.
Dan: Oh yeah, because that’s when I said, “I’m moving down to LA! We’ve got talent!” We thought it was our big break. Jokes. I’m telling you the whole story now, of how we went from shit to…wherever we are now.
Kevin: And we literally came from shit. We used to work at a sewer treatment plant. Our father used to build them. So we had this chance to take over a lucrative family company to build, you know, shit factories—
Dan: And we were like, screw this shit.
Haley: And what did Dad say when you left the family business to work in film?
Dan: Oh, he loves it.
Kevin: He was scared at first, he hated the idea…I just remember there was a Christmas once where we opened up the presents, and Dad was SO excited to give these gifts to us—
Dan: And it was a hard hat and hammers.
Kevin: It was supposed to be the start of us training to work with him. And we were like, “No, we’re artists, we want to move to LA!”
Dan: But there was a nice moment recently where he teared up and said, “You boys don’t need me anymore. You didn’t take the family company, but you made it on your own.” It was a really touching moment.
Haley: But of course, it’s been a long battle, to finally be making a steady living off of screenwriting?
Dan: It never gets easier. It’s an uphill battle every time, and you’re always starting from scratch.
Kevin: And always in today’s climate in risk-averse studios, it’s hard for any creative writers or directors…you need a brand, you need the rights to something big.
Dan: There was a 10-month period where it felt like you had to have Steve Carell attached to your project, or you weren’t getting hired.
Kevin: It took us ten years of writing before anything actually got made. We were tossed around a lot, we had a major screenplay making the rounds—they told us it was gonna sell for 2 million dollars. We had this major meeting at CAA, they’re telling us Steven Spielberg is going to direct—Dan, you cried, didn’t you?
Dan: I was in my Dodge Neon crying on my way to that meeting. I felt like, oh God, we made it.
Kevin: Of course, we didn’t. There was some legal blockage, as there always is, and suddenly we’re being told that not only is our 2 million dollar script worth nothing, but that we can’t ever sell it to anyone, ever.
Haley: So, tell me about how you came to the decision to write as partners.
Kevin: Well I started writing by myself, in film school.
Dan: And that went horribly wrong.
Kevin: It was okay, but when Dan came in, the scripts got better.
Dan: We used to always say it was a heart and mind thing. Kevin was the passion and energy behind a project, where he’ll look at something and say, “This movie has to have this scene, or this moment,” and I’m more of the copywriter who says, “Well if you want to have that moment you need to be able to track that in the structure.”
Haley: And do you ever come into conflict?
Kevin: Whaaaaaat?! No! Yes.
Dan: I mean, it’s difficult to write with your brother, but we’ve met people who are married and write together. It’s so subjective. One of you will be writing some beautiful moment…”and here’s where he’ll take the flower, and reflect on his life…” and the other one is like “HE HAS TO LEAVE THE FLOWER! IF HE TAKES THE FLOWER IT RUINS EVERYTHING!”
Haley: And what happens then?
Dan: I steamroller him. Or Kevin shuts the Skype down.
Kevin: We do a lot over video chat and it’s helpful to just go, BOOP! Goodbye. I’m more of the patient brother, he’s more of the hotheaded, impulsive brother. So he’ll get so tunnel-visioned in that flower moment–
Dan: The flower moment has to resolve now or you are no longer my brother!
Kevin: You’re an idiot for thinking that! Only someone who doesn’t know how to write would resolve the flower moment like that!
Dan: That’s what’s hard with your brother, is you can cut deep. You push buttons.
Kevin: But it also pushes you to find the gem. If you’re writing by yourself you can get stuck in a corner, and it’s so hard to come out of that.
Dan: Think of it like another editor, too. If you’re writing by yourself, it’s a first draft. But when you’re writing with a partner, your first draft is really a second draft because everything’s gone through two different minds. If we turn in a script we both like, we don’t feel indecisive about where it is. And the highs and lows, to share that with somebody, there’s a lot of love. The highs when they come are amazing, and the lows are…manyful.
Kevin: I don’t think “manyful” is a word.
Dan: Excuse me, I’m a professional writer.
Haley: So let’s talk about what’s been working for you. The LEGO Movie is a huge deal, and that’s coming out soon, but I think the real surprise success has been Ninjago.
Dan: We never ever thought we’d see ourselves end up in children’s animation television, but at the time it was presented it to us, we had been working for seven years and nothing was ever produced.
Kevin: This was right after we had set The LEGO Movie, which was great, but there was a lot of politics that come into play, and some really big directors came in and the studio basically said, “Why don’t we let these big directors write this? Why are we letting the Hagemans do this, who don’t have a single thing produced yet?” Which is understandable, of course.
Dan: It really was a good decision by the studio. But we felt a bit like we were in a bum situation. So then Lego comes to us and says, “Well, we have this 44-minute special we want to do about LEGO ninjas.” And we weren’t really sure at first. But then they said, “We are DEFINITELY going to make this.”
Kevin: And we said “Promise?” And they said yes.
Dan: So we said, fine. We will give you 44 minutes of wall-to-wall, action packed awesomeness, and it’s going to kick ass, because all of our pent up frustration is going to go into it. And it was only supposed to be those 44 minutes, to launch a toy line, but it ended up going really well, and it turned into 13 episodes, which turned into 13 more episodes, and now we’re going into our fourth and fifth season. I think it’s actually the number one intellectual property for boys. [in fact, since its launch in 2011, the LEGO brand has credited Ninjago with growth of more than 25%, while capturing 7% of the global toy market. Source: http://cargocollective.com/rvhm/Lego-Ninjago]
Haley: I see Ninjago apparel everywhere. Little kids in Ninjago shirts with Ninjago lunchboxes.
Dan: A couple weeks ago we saw a grown man was wearing a Ninjago shirt, and we were like, LOOK AT THAT!
Kevin: Yeah, like a 44-year-old enormous black homeless man.
Dan: I don’t think he actually chose to wear it. But still!
Haley: So how much of Ninjago is just the two of you? Are there other writers?
Dan: Ninjago is so different from other shows—there is no writer’s room, there’s no showrunner. It’s literally just us writing these scripts. When we were hired to write the first 13 episodes, the first thing we did was call up someone who wrote for TV and basically ask, “How the hell do you write a TV series?” We really learned by the seat of our pants. Fake it ‘til you make it. We know what we want to see, we know what we don’t want to see. And you just kind of write towards that. LEGO came to us with a very simple approach: four ninjas, Sensei Wu, and a bad guy. What LEGO did well is that they understood that this was a toy commercial, but if we’re just writing a toy commercial, there’s no fun in that. At the same time, Dan and I didn’t mind writing a project that has to have, say, a tank with a grappling hook in it, because tanks with grappling hooks are cool. And also ninjas are cool.
Kevin: So we came in and we wanted to bring a Star Wars quality of mysticism and magic and really make it a world, a universe. So we said, this isn’t about ninjas collecting weapons, it’s about a brother saving his sister. And we brought the emotion into the story.
Dan: There was a little bit of pushback in bringing a girl character into the story.
Kevin: But now there’s a real large growing girl audience for the show—something like 30% of our viewers are female.
Dan: Teenage girls, too. There’s kind of a Twilight Team Edward thing going on, when girls are into Team Cole or Jay.
Kevin: It’s become a great synergy with LEGO now, where they’ll create toys that inspire us, and we’ll put them in the show, or we’ll have ideas and they’ll design a toy off the scripts.
Dan: Everyone kind of signed off, from to the musicians to the composers to the animators, on really raising their bar. We all understand it’s a toy thing, but we all want to make it more than just a toy thing.
Kevin: I mean, we treat this very seriously. When we first started to write the actual series, we had to do 13 or 26 episodes, and the producers suggested we just follow a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles format: close-ended, half-hour, disposable episodes. But we didn’t want to watch that. We were inspired by these wonderful serialized adventures we loved—Indiana Jones, Star Wars—and we thought, why can’t we make something like that for kids?
Dan: It made you believe in the world. We were talking to the Cartoon Network about why kids have embraced it so much. And they were saying that all the content that’s out there is all just rehashing of their parent’s stuff: Transformers, GI Joe, Avengers. But Ninjago is the first world they feel is their own. They know the names; they know how to pronounce Lord Garmadon.
Haley: You obviously have to be very conscious of your audience.
Dan: You gotta keep it light for the six-year-olds. Those are usually the notes: you can’t say “war;” you have to say “battle.”
Kevin: Don’t say “fight” or “stupid.” No hitting in the face.
Dan: What’s fun about Ninjago is that they fight inside these tornadoes, so you can’t really see anyone, I don’t know, tearing out a jugular. But that’s what I imagine happens in there.
Haley: You seem to really love the work you’re doing.
Dan: Here’s the big secret: We’re actually writing it just for us. There’d be a lot more swearing in it, if we could get away with it. But it’s been so much fun for us, and we keep going back to it because our relationship with LEGO has been the best working relationship that we’ve ever had. There’s a trust: they trust us and we trust them.
Kevin: I was really surprised by the difference between TV and film, and how in film right now, as a writer you’re really in the shadow.
Dan: Making a movie is really like a marathon, and as a writer you’re holding the first baton…just waiting for them to hire another writer or someone to take that baton from you. With Ninjago right now we’re in the driver’s seat, and it’s a great feeling.
Haley: But of course, now you have The LEGO Movie coming out.
Kevin: We’ve seen the rough cuts, and we’re so proud of it.
Dan: We were so impressed to see the vision exceeded our own. Years ago, before we were getting produced, we thought that people were only making movies that are already entities. So we brainstormed ideas that we that people would pay to see, and one of those ideas was a LEGO movie. We wrote a 3-page treatment, then threw it in a drawer, cause we never thought we were actually gonna get the rights. So it was kind of kismet, when the producer Dan Lin called years later and asked if we were interested in LEGO. Totally chance.
Kevin: It was interesting because in the beginning, we talked to so many people, and no one understood what a LEGO movie could be. And to us, it was always so simple. We just came up with the most basic of stories: A LEGO, who lives in LEGO city, suddenly finds himself in a whole new world that he’s at the center of. Basic fish out of water.
Haley: Now, you have the story-by credits, not the screenplay credits. What does that mean?
Dan: We wrote the initial treatments, setting up the central structure, including the different worlds and many characters Emmet meets along the way.
Warner Brothers then brought in writing/directing pair Phil Lord and Chris Miller, to run all those ideas through their processors. They are HILARIOUS. And they really brought the comedy element to the movie. That’s their forte; they really elevated the movie to the next level.
Kevin: Because we tend to stick in the emotional tones. We’re always looking for the emotional drive and the serious beats, what makes characters tick and all that. But you can’t just have emotion and no comedy, or you’d have the most depressing animated LEGO movie of all time.
Dan: It was the same with Hotel Transylvania. Our original scripts were a little too brooding, to serious, and then Sony Animation brought in more writers to punch up the comedy.
Kevin: And the visuals of The LEGO Movie are going to be really incredible. It’s literally made entirely of LEGOs. Everything. If you see fire, or smoke in the distance, that’s all LEGOs. And it looks incredible; the artists really raised the bar.
Dan: We wanted to write a water scene, but thought we couldn’t because—well, how do you shoot a water scene in all LEGOs? But Phil and Chris didn’t let that hold them back and did it, and it looks amazing.
Kevin: We were also confined to the limits of what LEGO figures can do—which isn’t much. So that became part of the humor—you can see in the trailer when Emmett does jumping jacks, and he’s just barely moving his arms and legs, because, well, he’s a LEGO. And it has this almost cheesy, stop-motion-esque quality to it—which we don’t have in Ninjago—and it really brings the whole concept together. It looks great. That’s what I think I’m most excited for, is how it all looks.
Dan: This has been an incredibly exciting time for us. There are promotions everywhere, and giant Legos everywhere, and you can start to see kids getting really excited.
Haley: I have to say, I’ve seen the trailer, and it looks pretty awesome.
Kevin: We think so. We hope so.
Dan: So did you get what you wanted from us? Whatever life advice you’re trying to suck out of this interview?
Haley: I don’t know. You guys are cool. You make it sound scary—it clearly hasn’t been a quick route to success—but you’re also in this amazing place where you’re doing work that you love, and it’s working for you.
Dan: You already know the basic advice. Don’t quit. It never gets easy. Don’t give up.
Haley: It’s not very original, but I guess it works.
Kevin: You’re not going to find original advice. It’s the same grind for everyone. You just need to have the drive, and the skill, and the will, to push it through to the other side. And then you end up writing screenplays for toys. It’s really not a bad trade.
The LEGO Movie opens February 7th, 2014.