I received an all expense paid trip from Disney to attend the #ThorRagnarokEvent. The opinions expressed here are my own. Some interview questions and responses have been edited to improve readability. #Vampirina
Disney Junior’s Vampirina premiered on October 1st and has quickly become a favorite show around here. Set in a Pennsylvania neighborhood, the series stars Lauren Graham, James Van Der Beek and Isabella Crovetti as the Hauntley family, friendly vampires who have recently moved from their home in Transylvania. The stories follow Vampirina (aka “Vee”) as she faces the joys and trials of being the new kid in town including making friends and attending a new school in the human world. Along the way, Vee learns that it may be easier to blend in with her peers, but it’s more valuable to celebrate the qualities that make each individual unique.
Inspired by Disney Publishing’s popular children’s book series “Vampirina Ballerina,” written by Anne Marie Pace and illustrated by LeUyen Pham, the series is executive produced by Chris Nee and is co-executive produced by Norton Virgien (both of Disney Junior’s Peabody Award-winning “Doc McStuffins”). While at the #ThorRagnarokEvent, we had an opportunity to sit down with Nee for a Q&A session. Meeting Nee just made me love this show even more. She’s clearly passionate about the residents of Transylvania and I loved hearing about the creativity behind the scenes. We also got a sneak peek of the new Vampirina toys hitting the shelves and they are adorable! Here’s what Nee had to say. Warning, there are a few episode spoilers below.
Q: What’s your secret to writing or crafting shows that both adults and children enjoy?
A: I would say that I think it’s incredibly important because what I really want to do is bring families together to watch shows. And I think those shows that so actively sort of alienate the parents really create the separation in the enjoyment. For me, for whatever reason, I have a great ability to remember what it felt like to be a kid and that’s obviously what I’ve tapped into for twenty years working in kids TV.
A: I think one of my secrets is often when you ask someone who works in kids TV exclusively, who are you writing for they’ll say, ‘the kids.’ And I know that’s the right answer, but I’m writing for myself. I’m trying to make myself laugh and I’m trying to work out my own stuff and remember my own childhood and remember those feelings and write the world that I hope we can live in, but I’m really writing for myself. I’m also a mom so, I certainly know what it’s like to want your kid to watch shows that the music is something you can stand ’cause you’re gonna watch it a lot. And you know, maybe there’s a couple of jokes for you, but everything needs to work for the kids first. But, if I give you guys something that’ll make you laugh along the way, I think it’s a great way to kind of make it a universal experience.
Q: Which Vampirina character do you relate to the most?
A: Well, you asked that in a way I can answer ’cause often it’s, ‘what’s your favorite character?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m not crazy. You don’t name your favorite kid.’ I will say I really love Gregoria. Gregoria and Demi I added to the cast because, obviously the books are such a huge inspiration, but there’s a lot that’s not there in terms of building out a world that you can tell X amount of stories every week. I really wanted the comic relief and I really like intense specificity of character and you can see that on Doc [McStuffins] where everyone’s really solidly who they are.
I wrote Gregoria for Wanda [Sykes] having no idea she would say yes. That character was the biggest leap of faith because she’s a very cantankerous character for a preschool show. There were moments where I had to say, ‘I promise you it works in my head, it works in my head.’ It’s gonna be her with this voice and Wanda’s voice is Wanda’s voice. And there’s no missing that. The character works for me and I have so much fun writing her. And Demi is delightful to write for and then Vee, I’m always writing my own experience through her. And we got so lucky with Isabella [Crovetti], I mean, can we talk about her singing voice?
The songs you’re hearing now, she was probably eleven years old when she first came in to sing the songs that are coming out now. The first time we actually worked with her she came to a big recording studio where there were orchestras and some of the greatest albums you’ve ever listened to recorded there. And she walked into the middle of it and she actually stopped and said, ‘I need to warm up.’ And I was like, ‘oh this kid’s a pro.’ Like, in a good way and then she just opened her mouth and we could have taken the first take. She’s a Broadway level singer who happens to live in LA and we get to take advantage of that. Obviously I really like Broadway and I put a lot of music in my series.
Q: We saw on Twitter that you said Mister Gore, the teacher in Vampirina, was one of your own teachers. Can you tell us about him?
A: Yes, he’s my own teacher. I would love to tell you about Mister Gore. He’s actually kind of different from the character here. So, Mister Gore was my sixth grade teacher and he was a Korean War vet and he actually had a plate in his head and he was the guy who always wore the three-piece suit. So while everyone else, it was, you know, I won’t age myself exactly but it was the nineteen seventies and all the male teachers had the handle bar mustaches and flared pants, and then there was Mister Gore in a three-piece suit and he scared the bejesus out of me.
Every grade from Kindergarten up through Fifth Grade you were terrified of the day that you opened up and found out you had Mister Gore, you were like, ‘oh my god, no.’ But every single one of us would say he was one of the greatest teachers I ever had in my entire life from beginning to end. He just asked so much of us and he knew we could do things that we didn’t know we could do. He was an incredible teacher, so anyway, his name was specific and I’ve actually tried to use him a couple times and the fact that I could make a teacher who was named Mister Gore, even though this Mister Gore is sort of a different version.
There was nothing funny about Mister Gore. I think he was secretly funny but not a funny guy but an amazing teacher. So, I was really happy to get to do that and I’ve been hearing from people I went to elementary school. Yes, he’s named Mister Gore for a reason.
Q: My six year old wants to know how Vampirina is able to go outside during the day.
A: It is a very intense sunblock and we do talk about it in the episodes. Obviously you have to find a way to get past that piece. There had originally been a line in the pilot, which would have stopped a lot of Twitter chatter that addressed it and it just got lost for time because there was so much we wanted to do emotionally in that episode. But, it will come up later on and there will be episodes where if she goes outside it’ll be very clear. There’s an episode where they go to the beach during the day. And in fact that all gets screwed up because it turns out they of course forgot to bring the sunblock and then that screws everything up. There definitely are references to it. But, look, there were certain things where you have to get past it to be able to do this show and that was one we thought a lot about. And that seemed like the best way to do it.
Q: One of the things that you talked about a lot is being yourself. Will there ever be a plot line for the parents to kind of come out a little bit more and show themselves as vampires as well?
A: I mean, they will continue to show themselves to the people who know but we will definitely have episodes. One of the things that I love about this show, I mean, Doc was really a community that formed a family and her family is hugely important, but we don’t spend as much time on the family ’cause it’s all about Doc and the toys. I love this family and I love seeing a family that feels really real to me.
In animation sometimes, it’s hard to have characters touch each other. And so, just the amount that the parents hug each other, like you actually believe that they’re together which sometimes you don’t in weekly animation. A lot of that, honest to god, has to do with who you get to voice the characters, but it’s hard to have physical contact. We got so lucky with the cast and they sound, there’s just such a warmth to the family.
So, we will keep playing that and we’ll also meet some of the extended family. It has been announced that the grandmother is played by Patti LuPone. I was a New York Broadway kid, grew up on Broadway and again, I don’t want to date myself but I saw Evita twice in the original run with her. And getting to cast her in a role is just amazing.
Q: I see this recurring girl power theme, in both Doc McStuffins and Vampirina. Is that a deliberate thing or what inspires you to take the story line that way?
A: Yeah, I think it’s just, we have had a lot of boy lead characters and it’s definitely something–. Like when Doc came around, Doc could have been either, and I felt really strongly. I mean the story with Doc is that I created it for my son but I made her an African American girl. And I really believed that was the representation that mattered. And we didn’t need another boy lead character and I was still making it for my son and I believed that he would still care about the character.
And that I could do both things and that it was more important to shine a light and bring representation that we know is sorely lacking on the screen. So, it’s definitely something that I feel passionately about and that will always be the case. I mean will there be a next character that’s a boy? It certainly could be a boy. It’s just these two, I enjoy being able to bring out what I know girl character’s can be, which is anything and everything.
Q: Will Vee ever visit Hotel Transylvania?
A: I don’t think so but you never know! We had Winnie the Pooh on Doc so you never know what’s gonna end up happening. Lots of good stuff hopefully.
Q: Did you pull inspiration from any other shows because there’s something about Vampirina that makes me think of The Munsters.
A: I definitely thought about The Munsters and The Addams Family. Those are sort of the obvious callbacks. And I went back and watched some of the episodes and it’s funny what works and what doesn’t work in those. There’s some truly dark stuff in there, which I had forgotten. I mean, I sort of, I grew up watching those shows.
One of the things that was interesting in tackling this was the idea that it is a fine line because obviously so much of the fun is about her keeping her identity secret. But, I also didn’t want that to be the focus. I think in 2017 it was not okay for someone to want, that her driving goal would be to hide who she was inherently as a character. And I actually went in to Disney and I almost didn’t make the show because I said, we have to be able to figure it out, this piece. For me to want to do it, that can’t be the story that I’m telling.
First of all, we really wanted to make sure that anyone who ever found out that she was a vampire, loved her anyway. That she was clearly okay with telling people who she was. I hope that we are you know, that we’re telling the story which is what we’re trying to tell which is, ‘this is not a family who’s ashamed of who they are in any way shape or form, they are worried that they’re gonna scare other characters and that there’s gonna be too much attention on them. So, we just try to shift it so there are other reasons why it would be best. But, instead of it being just focused on this thing that she’s trying to keep secret, we try to never tell it in that way. It’s just in 2017 it can’t be the story.
Q: My favorite part in the episode is where Bridget finds out that she is a vampire because she’s afraid of everything.
A: Yes, and yet she accepts her right away. For me what the show is, it feels very 2017 to me. It is a show where we say, ‘she is different and sometimes that’s hard to be friends with.’ We’re not saying that she isn’t different, we aren’t saying that everybody’s exactly the same and there’s never stuff isn’t being conveyed as a conflict because we’re coming from different perspectives. In fact, we’re saying that’s exactly what this is and yet you can still be friends, it’s important to be friends, it’s important to see each other from your perspective.
It was so satisfying to hear you guys laughing at Bridget, honestly. There was a period where there were people who were like, ‘is she whiny?’ And I was like, ‘she’s all of us.’ And Poppy’s such a great character ’cause she’s such a good friend but it’s Bridget who struggles every single time and yet she loves her friend, so she’s gonna keep facing the stuff that’s hard for her to get there. And you know, honestly we need a little more of that in this world, facing the stuff that is different. We have a huge country that’s really different. And maybe the only way that we’re gonna get someplace is to say, you’re different from me but let’s hear each other and I still want to be your friend through it. We can still find common ground, and I think for me, that’s what this show is about.
Q: What important conflicts do you plan on addressing in this show for kids?
A: I think fear is actually the greatest emotion that controls our lives, honestly. And I think for little kids, there’s so much that’s new for them and so you know, it’s easy to talk about the show from the perspective of, ‘she’s really different and her friends have to figure her out.’ But, she’s also in this world and she’s the new kid and she’s the kid who also knows she doesn’t quite belong. Doesn’t want to give away all of who she really is but also wants to fit in. And we’re gonna see a lot of that play out. Of her trying to understand what her identity is. Is she Pennsylvanian now? Is she Transylvanian? Is she allowed to be both at the same time? And how do you own that?
There’s some beautiful stuff coming up with Nanpire, which is the grandmother played by Patti [LuPone]. It is about what it’s like to come in to a new place and how much do you take on, how much do you hold on to yourself? So that stuff is hugely important for us and so easy to play on in this world. And then, I’m also really a heart on my sleeve person, obviously and this is a show like all of my shows. I try to create worlds where you could have characters say, ‘I love you,’ and you don’t go, ‘yuck,’ that doesn’t feeling like he earned it. Right? And we’re gonna see a lot of that stuff play out.
There’s an episode where Gregoria accidently gets given away with a bunch of antiques. And believes that after all these years, she has been thrown away, that she’s too old. By the way when those episodes air, where Wanda sings, you let her know she can sing. I was like, ‘when you get cast in a musical, I want my ten percent. She was like, ‘I’m singing a song?’ But she’s just, she’s such a great character, and there’s some ageism stuff in there about feeling like she’s been thrown away for something new. That stuff is fantastic. It’s such a rich world for us to play in and lots of good stuff coming up.
Q: What are the key leadership skills that kids can take away from this show?
A: I think the Game Night episode is a perfect example of you know, we all have different wants and needs and how do you negotiate that. And that’s what a great leader knows, how to figure out what the best course of action is for everyone. And it’s so hard, even in just kids games to figure out how to make sure that everyone is being satisfied and no one’s being left out and nobody’s being left behind. And I think that’s a constant lesson for Vee is knowing when she’s pushed the boundaries too far and kind of pulling herself back. To me, it’s about being incredibly aware of everyone in the group. And she leads them but she also makes sure she’s always trying to not push them too far.
Q: How did you come up with the board game in the Game Night episode?
A: That was hard. Any time we’re making up a game, honestly, somebody pitches a ‘make-up a game episode’ and you’re like, they’re so hard. Because ultimately, there’s a whole profession of people who make up games, so it’s super hard to do and do in a way that it doesn’t feel like the game you already know but the rules make sense. But yeah, I mean it was a lot, that one took a long time. Most of our stories, once we have a germ of an idea that makes a lot of sense, but this one to figure out the rules and how to make it work.
And then you’re just waiting for Brown Bag, who is our studio in Ireland who also I work with on Doc, their designs are so amazing and so we sort of gave them like, ‘here’s what we’re thinking,’ and then they just plus it out. I mean that stuff with the cards coming out of it and the doors opening, like that’s all, they’re adding all of those things and then we’re like, ‘yeah.’ You have to actually, with those things, you have to figure out the rules of the game and then you have to figure out the actual episode.
Alot of it is production, you’re thinking about production when you’re doing things like having spider webs all over the place ’cause you know, they’re going, ‘oh ha ha.’ That’s a lot to design for one episode but they’re so amazing. I think they always have a moment where I write very big and lots of characters, so I think they spend a lot of time reading my stuff and going ‘ha.’ But, they always say yes, which is fantastic, that’s a great way to fill the show. That’s how we ended up with an entire hospital on Doc. Poor guys.