As most of you may know by now, I’m a huge fan of Teletoon’s Detentionaire animated series. Four seasons strong and it still captures my imagination every time I watch it! Last year I was able to catch up with co-creator Daniel Franklin for an exclusive interview about how he became involved as a Writer on the series. This time around I’m happy to introduce the other half of the creative duo, Charles Jonston.
CHARLES JONSTON: My colleague, Daniel, and I had 5 ideas we were toying with. The 5th one was the most derivative. It was simply based on our love for John Hughes movies and was basically The Breakfast Club as a cartoon series, with 5 mismatched teens trying to sneak out of detention so they could get out and have some fun. Daniel met a producer at a party in LA – where he lives – and after a conversation about his disappointments with a lot of cartoons on TV at that time. The producer got really excited about it, a Canadian network embraced the project, and from there we put everything we had into developing a show we would’ve loved as kids ourselves, based on shows, elements, tropes and various conspiracy theories that we grew up with.
What made you want to become a scriptwriter in the first place?
CJ: I always wanted to be a screenwriter. I loved movies growing up and always wanted to write, act in, and direct them. In 2000, shortly after I’d moved to Toronto, I went to the Canadian Film Centre where I met Daniel Franklin and we studied Prime Time TV writing together. From there my pursuits were a bit more focused on screenwriting for TV, and then eventually into the field of animation.
Do you remember your first job as a scriptwriter?
CJ: My very first job as a writer for television was writing interstitial sketches in between shows during the preschool block for Canada’s public broadcaster. It was Daniel’s first job too, and we spent about a year and a half there and every day felt like a creative explosion. After that I wrote everything I could, either solo or with a partner, for about 10 years which included features, TV movies, pilots, and episodes for several different cartoons.
Daniel and I [eventually] landed a story editing job where we were the head writers on 52 episodes of a cartoon called Doodlebops: Rockin’ Road Show. Once Detentionaire was green-lit as a series, we got the rare opportunity to see our project through because we had just enough story editing experience to evolve into showrunners.
So have you ever explored other types of writing besides scripts?
CJ: I have definitely explored a lot of other writing forms including short stories, essays, poems, lyrics, but it always comes back to screenwriting – which is my favorite way to tell a story. It’s basically a blueprint for everything you see or hear on screen that step by step lures you into a sort of story trance that takes you on an emotional journey.
What’s one of the greatest challenges you had to face in this business?
CJ: It’s very hard to keep going sometimes, but perseverance is probably the most important factor to success in this field. I know a lot more talented people than myself who became construction workers or lawyers instead. You have to never give up, so a deep love for it is required. I actually lost that love at one point and went to culinary school for a year. My passion was reignited when I had the opportunity to have unprecedented creative control over Detentionire with Dan.
Are you working in any new projects?
CJ: I’m actually freelance writing at the moment because I have a toddler and don’t have the time that I did in previous years – at least for right now – to be working around the clock. I’m writing on 2 shows: one is a live action show for PBS in the States called Odd Squad. It’s quite brilliant and created by a couple writers who worked on shows like Adventure Time and Gravity Falls, so I’m learning a lot there.
I’m also writing on an animated show called Mysticons that is in development at the same company that produced Detentionaire. It’s about a group of LARPers in the suburbs whose adventures become real. It was created by Sean Jara, and he was actually the guy that gave me my very first job in animation.
What do you believe is the biggest mistake current animation studios and TV producers make when developing animated shows?
CJ: If I had to pick one thing that I object to in how animation is handled by companies and producers it would probably be the fact that animation writers are paid half of what they would earn as live action writers. There are all kinds of arguments as to why this is done, but the bottom line for me is that I work so much harder on animation scripts than live action scripts. They are far more dense in terms of sheer content. I spend a lot more time trying to get them just right.
However, people who don’t work in animation have no idea of this, and actually often look down on animation writing. Live action shows often have rooms full of writers working everyday on brainstorming and writing scripts together. Animation writers get together for a few days and then are expected to work alone at home for months because of this whole perspective that it’s somehow easier, and even silly and juvenile, to be writing on a cartoon.
Are there any other animated shows that you’re into right now?
CJ: Adventure Time and Gravity Falls are pretty genius. I know my colleagues and I often watch these shows to see just how high the quality bar can be set, and how much crazy fun is attainable if you open your mind wide enough. Then there are all the mainstream shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy and South Park that will always show just how popular animation shows can be.
There’s a lot out there. I’m sure your readers have a better idea of some exciting upcoming shows than I do as I’ve been spending a lot of time watching movies lately because my passion for feature films has recently been reignited.
Okay, last question: what’s the strangest thing you ever did as a kid?
CJ: That’s a tricky question because I’ve been called weird and strange my whole life, but everything I was doing at the time always seemed perfectly normal to me. I grew up in Indonesia, then Guam, then Singapore, and finally Canada, and everywhere I went people knew me as ‘the eccentric guy.’
I was telling some people the other day about how when I first saw the movie Rocky I used to drink raw eggs and then run around the block while waiting for the school bus, thinking I was on the verge of any day being as muscular as Sylvester Stallone. I also wore a jock, or ‘cup’, to school everyday because I thought I was always about to get in some huge brawl with a whole bunch of kids. I never did, but I was ready for one. This story made some friends of mine think I must’ve been a pretty weird kid, so there you go. Seems normal to me, but I guess my imagination and reality often clash and how I react to that makes people think I’m generally a bit odd.