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Toon Zone Talks to 'Justice League' Writer Joseph Kuhr
By Jim Harvey
11-05-2002


Toon Zone was able to catch up with The Zeta Project staff writer Joseph Kuhr, currently working on the new season of Justice League for Warner Bros. Animation. Kuhr took some time out of his busy schedule to talk about his influences, projects, how he got into the animation business, and what he has in store for the future.

Toon Zone: First off, tell us a bit about yourself! How did you get into the animation industry?

Joseph Kuhr: Given that I both: a) graduated from NYU film school with a super-hero related short film and b) have collected comic books since I was six years old, one might suspect that I intended to pursue a career in animation, but in fact I fell into the field by accident. After school I moved to Los Angeles and needing a job but having few connections I registered with a temp agency I had read about in Premiere Magazine. They sent me to Disney Feature Animation to answer phones, and I was soon hired full-time as a production assistant.

I found myself in a position to learn about animation from some of the top talents in the business. Gleaning what I could from them, I pitched an original idea I'd been working on to the studio executives and they bought it! Like the vast majority of projects sold to the studios, this one eventually wound its way down to the seventh circle of development Hell. But with this sale behind me, a few decent sample scripts tucked under my arm, and a growing list of friends and contacts in the business, I started getting work as a writer, which is how I've paid the bills ever since.

Toon Zone: What is it like to write animation?

Joseph Kuhr: From concept to beat-sheet to outline to script, the writing process is much the same as in live-action TV (although historically this was not the case). But there are definite differences on the page. If you look at an animation script, you won't see many long blocks of dialogue. Characters are defined as much by what they do as by what they say, and animation scripts are particularly heavy on the "doing."

For me, finding a story usually starts with a question. "What would Zee do if one of his NSA pursuers was held captive as Zeta-bait by a ruthless bounty hunter?" I also try to place the protagonist in circumstances that will pose a direct challenge to his/her sense of self. Does the character believe that to achieve justice, the law must be strictly enforced? Put her in a situation where enforcing the law would create a bigger injustice.

With bigger-than-life characters I think it's important to let some of the air out to make them easier to relate to. For example in "Paradise Lost" Wonder Woman decides to go home for the first time since leaving Themyscira against her mother's wishes. The princess loses her "superior-than-thou" vibe when, like a high schooler who took mom's car and stayed out all night, we see her desperately trying out different stories to tell mom when she gets home.

To help me craft a convincing story, I do a lot of research. Whatever topics the story touches on ... science, mythology, magic ... I hit the books, I do a Google search, I make some calls. The professional term for this is "procrastination." For "Paradise Lost" I found a graduate student in classical languages at UCLA to help me with the ancient Greek spells. From him I learned that ancient Greek magicians had their own versions of "Hocus Pocus" and "Alakazaam!," so Faust's spells ended up being a mix of authentic ancient Greek and magical-sounding gibberish.

With Zeta, after we figured out the basic story for an episode, we spent a lot of time asking ourselves what the world of our heroes would be like 40 years in the future. What kind of new toys and gadgets might there be, keeping in mind that the world of Zee and Ro should still be familiar, not too way out there. Most of the time we needed futuristic analogs of things we have today. So they have cars but they levitate. They have trolleys but they levitate. They have comic books but they're animated on the page. They have billiard balls but they levitate.

Toon Zone: What type of problems do you run into in the business?

Joseph Kuhr: Problems? Who said anything about problems? Next.

Toon Zone: What are your major influences in animation?

Joseph Kuhr: Being a long-time fan of Batman, Superman and Batman Beyond for WB, I've been heavily influenced by the masterful work of Bruce Timm, Alan Burnett, Glen Murakami, Paul Dini, Stan Berkowitz, et al.; and especially having worked so closely with them by Robert Goodman and Rich Fogel.

While I was at Disney I was lucky enough to work closely for a time with Vance Gerry, a story-board artist who had been there since Lady and the Tramp. I learned a great deal from him as well as from Tom Schumacher, Don Hahn, Chris Sanders, Ruben Aquino, Jean Gilmore, Jay Dyer and more artists and writers than I could possibly name here.

And then there are all the usual suspects whose work warped my impressionable young mind in ways even I can't begin to guess: The geniuses of Termite Terrace ... Disney's nine old men ... the Fleischer Studios ... Jay Ward .... And I'm a big fan of Miyazaki. I can't wait to see Spirited Away!

Actually, I love good storytelling, whatever the medium, and once I've read-seen-heard it, it's all grist for the creative mill (or as I like to say: "State's witnesses for the sausage grinder").

Toon Zone: Since you worked on Justice League and The Zeta Project, were you a fan of Batman: TAS? What grabbed you about the series?

Joseph Kuhr: As I said, I was a tremendous fan of the animated Batman, Superman and Batman Beyond series (and I'm looking forward to seeing what they come up with for Teen Titans). What grabbed me? Engaging characters with an emotional core, exciting action, suspense, thrills, cool visuals, and great voice acting. Seeing Batman and Superman move in ways you could only imagine before from the comics. What's not to like?

Toon Zone: What is the appeal of working on Justice League and Zeta?

Joseph Kuhr: First, see my answer to question 5, above.

In addition, under the stewardship of Bruce, Alan, Rich, Bob, Paul, Glen Murakami, Dan Riba, Andrea Romano, Stan and many, many others involved in the animated DCU over the past decade, these characters are so much more than mere icons of truth and justice although they certainly stand for that too (well, if you can get past the "I must lie to my friends and loved ones to maintain my anonymity and usefulness as a crime fighter" part of the equation). These characters have issues with the world, with family, with each other and their different approaches to problem solving, and sometimes with themselves. It's the contrasts between them that make these heroes so much fun to write about.

With Zeta, there's all the wonderful interplay and even role reversal between the street-wise yet vulnerable Ro and the wide-eyed walking-weapon Zee (this time he saves her ... next time she saves him, etc.). I also enjoy any opportunity to show a side of a character that we normally don't see. One of my favorite Zeta moments is in "Ro's Gift" when the usually phlegmatic Zee actually loses his temper and terrorizes the information he wants out of the biker who helped Bombshell and Edgar kidnap Ro.

Toon Zone: Speaking of which, how did you get involved with both Justice League and the Zeta Project?

Joseph Kuhr: I knew Bob Goodman and his wife a little bit at NYU. We ran into each other again in Los Angeles and when Bob got The Zeta Project off the ground, his wife read a few samples of my earlier work and passed them along to Bob. He liked them enough to bring me in to the studio and before long I was pitching Zeta stories to Bob and Rich Fogel (who was a TZP story editor first season). The eventual result of all this was the episode "Taffy Time."

A few months later Rich called to tell me he was producing Justice League and based on the work I did on Zeta asked if I'd like to do some writing for it. I carefully deliberated for all of a nanosecond then responded with a completely cool, utterly aloof "Yes. Thank you. ... You are my god!" (Perhaps I embellish, but that's how it should have happened.) Soon thereafter I was writing "Paradise Lost" for JL.

Then, at the same time I was working on "Paradise Lost," Bob brought me back onto Zeta, and I became the staff writer for season two.

Toon Zone: What are your upcoming projects? Can you perhaps provide a teaser or two for them?

Joseph Kuhr: For the past six months I've been developing a series for Kids' WB, based on an original idea by a gifted artist named Ovi Nedelcu and early development work by fan favorite Mr. Goodman. I can't give you any specifics, but it's a fantasy series full of action and humor that takes place on a distant world unlike any you've seen before.

I also recently wrote another JL 2-parter. Again, no details I can give, but I will say that it's both funny and scary (at least I think so) and presents a new take on an old villain from the comics. I was at the recording session a few weeks back and was delighted to find the room breaking up with laughter one second and being quietly creeped out the next. It'll probably be a year until you see it, but when you do, I hope you feel the same way.

Toon Zone: So Joseph, a lot of people think that you don't exist because your name can be shortened to "Joker." Do you exist (laughs)?

Joseph Kuhr: Sharp-eyed Zeta Project viewers got a look at the animated "me" in the Picto-Con scene at the beginning of TZP "On the Wire."

I've been told that the first time Bruce Timm saw my name on the script for "Paradise Lost" he thought I was Paul Dini playing a prank. With that in mind, allow me to paraphrase an earlier response I gave to someone who asked me about my name in connection with writing for the animated DCU:

1. My last name is pronounced "Koor." People sometimes mispronounce it "Ker." Often they do this even after I pronounce it for them:

Cashier: "K-U-H-R, huh? How do you pronounce that?"

Joe: "Koor."

Cashier: "Ohhh. Ker. Got it. Thanks."

2. Consequently, I've been aware of the "punning possibilities" of my name for a very long time.

3. I like to play along, but however hard I beg, my girlfriend simply refuses to wear the jester outfit. (However, I've made some progress, and under the right circumstances she will now call me "Mr. J.")

Originally posted on Toon Zone News.

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