Interview Transcript – Episode 8: Christopher Keenan

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AL: What’s your relationship to Scooby Doo, did you watch at all?
CK: I actually have a very long history with Scooby Doo. I watched the show every Saturday morning in the 1970s, I was a huge fan. And so I was really thrilled when I was able to become involved with the animation at Warner Bros. when Hanna-Barbera became part of Warner Bros. under Turner.

AL: Do you have a favourite personal memory related to Scooby Doo?

CK: Probably my favourite personal memory was when we pitched What’s New Scooby Doo? to the Kids WB Network as a series. My pitch was very, very simple. I literally said “It’s Scooby Doo the way you think you remember it. It’s funny, it’s scary and all the mysteries make sense.” 

And they bought it.

AL: How did you come to work in animation?

CK: I actually started working in animation at Warner Bros. as a receptionist. I had been working at a now defunct company called New World Entertainment, which was a film and television company, as a receptionist. Someone there was married to someone at Warner Bros. who said “Hey, they have a much better benefit plan and they’re starting an animation division, you should go over there.” I hadn’t ever thought of a career in animation although I was very clear I wanted to work in children’s television. I studied communications, theatre, and education and I was looking for a way to bring everything together and animation became the conduit to that.

AL: For those that maybe don’t know, can you describe what your role was on Scooby Doo?

CK: My role on Scooby Doo was a bit of a catch-all role, in that as head of the creative department at Warner Bros. Animation, I oversaw the initiation of the development of various Scooby projects, particularly long-form direct consumer movies, as well as television series. And I would bring together the creative teams, which would include writers and directors and designers and producers. And then I would oversee all aspects of the creative throughout the whole process. And in addition, since we didn’t have a separate sales team for animation, also pitch and sell the concepts internally to our home video division and to our broadcaster who at the time was Kids WB. I was definitely intimately involved with every step of everything but really the first two videos and then continued doing that for about 16 years. 

AL: Can you describe the process of development from start to finish for a Scooby Doo movie?

CK: The development process for a Scooby Doo movie was unique in that we would always look at two things. One, where have we been before and where would it be exciting to take Scooby. And by that I mean everything from the mystery itself and what’s at stake, as well as the setting and location in terms of what would be visually interesting and provide the most fodder for you know, comedic and or spooky fun.

I was lucky enough to work with a couple of different really talented producers, directors, and writers, and it would be very much a collaborative effort. Sometimes it would start as simply as saying “Wouldn’t it be great if Scooby met the Loch Ness monster?” and we would take it from there, or it would be trying to figure out different ways of introducing specific arenas or specific settings that could be really, really fun for Scooby. Scooby and the whole gang. From that concept we would go right into mapping out the story. Most people may not know but it’s tricky in children’s content to come up with crimes that are kid-friendly. So you end up with a lot of theft and a lot of deceit, because crimes of passion or anything particularly violent is off-limits. So there’s a lot of deceit and a lot of theft in Scooby Doo adventures. 

Once we decided on the setting and the creature or monster or spookiness that Scooby was going to encounter, we would then focus on the mystery itself. What’s at stake, what is it that someone’s trying to get away with, that the team, the mystery they can unravel. And then we would plot it out like any other movie, you know. With lots of story beats up on the wall and making sure the story all sort of makes sense. And when I say up on the wall, so we can visually see it, visually see where the high point of the action is, where the resolution is, really just looking at it from a visual standpoint to make sure it’s a satisfying structure. And then our writers would dive in and bring it to life with lots of very character-specific, sort of runners and mini stories within the larger story. And it would be at that point when we actually had a full story with some detail that we would be presenting or pitching it. Sometimes with visual reference or a mood board. And once we got (the go) from our internal partners we would go full speed into production.

One of the great things about producing those Scooby films was that we were constantly making adjustments as we went. As the story went from script to storyboard and from storyboard to animatic and layout, we would always be trying to increase two things. One was the humour, and the other was the sort of thrills and chills.

AL: And how different would that process be when it comes to a series?

CK: The difference between doing a long-form film and doing a series really is one of timing. With a series there’s a production schedule that really necessitates having multiple scripts in play at one time. Very specific steps on the scripts being met in adherence with the production schedule. Once a premise is approved it goes right to outline, right to script and then to storyboard. We don’t have the luxury of sitting around and mulling over possibilities. Production on a series is much more a well-oiled machine and you have to feed the machine and keep things moving at a pace. We always worked on what we call a waterfall schedule where if you looked at the schedule visually, and you’re looking at the timing across the top and the episodes down the side, you would see how multiple episodes are in multiple steps of production at the same time. Including the writing, there’d be anywhere from four to six scripts all in process at the same time.

AL: For a Scooby project would you generally have the same creative team on staff or would you ever bring in people on freelance?

CK: While each Scooby production was unique, we did use a number of production personnel and creative people from one project to the next. So for example, Scott Jeralds was an enormously talented director who produced the first couple of Scooby Doo long-form videos that I worked on. And then, when we sold What’s New Scooby Doo? we hired a trio of head writers/story editors who worked on the series and would hire freelance writers. But that creative team oversaw the writing on the series. And we brought in a new producer for the series as Scott was busy working on some videos. Then we also worked with another producer later on in some of the latter videos, our long-forms, named Joe Sichta. Chuck Sheetz was our producer on the series, Marge Dean was another producer on both the series and the long-form. We had a lot of people who were full time Warner Bros. people as well as freelancers who would come and go. We just really always wanted to assemble the right talent for the right project.

AL: Would the ideas for the movies and the episodes come from within that creative team or would you ever have outside people pitching ideas?

CK: The ideas came from a variety of sources. Often they would come from the creative team. Sometimes they would come from me, sometimes they would come from outside sources, writers who would come in and pitch a specific idea. It was definitely a collaborative effort, regardless of where the initial idea came from, because there would be so many people who would touch it throughout the process. Everybody would add something to it, whether they were in an official creative capacity or not. It was definitely an enthusiastic team who, you know, no one was shy about tossing their ideas into the ring, and the best ideas would always win.

AL: In the development of a Scooby Doo movie or in the series, what are some aspects that the project absolutely needed to have?

CK: That’s an excellent question. Number one, I think what was really critical was for every project to truly showcase or bring to life the different aspects of the different members of the mystery gang. The Scooby gang itself, if you sort of think of them as one entity, they each sort of represent a different side of humanity. You can almost put them together and make one character because you’ve got the heart, the brains, the imagination, the vanity, you’ve got it all on each of those characters. So, any time we did anything, whether it was an episode of the show, or a long-form movie, it was really important that we serviced each of those characters in a satisfying way. It couldn’t just be the Scooby and Shaggy show. That was everyone’s temptation because they were so much fun. So visual, so comedic. But Fred, Velma, and Daphne really evolved over the years as being very specific personalities, with very specific voices if you will. And I mean that in the broadest sense, not vocally necessarily. But we wanted to make sure that we were serving them as well as the mystery, as well as the setting as well as Scooby and Shaggy’s antics. That was probably number one. 

Number two, we always wanted the mystery to make sense. As I said, that was our pitch for the series, but we wanted the viewer, we wanted to be true to the mystery genre, i.e., we wanted to make sure that we were planting clues, and that the audience was able to try and solve the mystery along with the gang. We didn’t want to introduce a character in the final reel and say “Oh, it was crazy Mr. Jones who we’ve never met before,” you know. We wanted to make sure that the pieces and parts were there. That if you went back and watched it again, you could see how the mystery actually unfolded. There were times we were more successful at that than others, where sometimes it was a bit of a stretch, but still fun along the way.

And then the third thing, and probably number one, every Scooby adventure needed to be first and foremost, it needed to be fun. It needed to be a rollicking good time. More like being in an amusement park haunted house than watching a scary movie. We were never about trying to make animated horror. We were much more about trying to make animated fun that happened to have a spooky twist.

AL: And you mentioned having to have most of the motives be kid-friendly, but how were you working to make sure that kids would love it, but also adults would be able to watch it and not be upset when their kid wanted to watch it 50 times in a row?

CK: Right. It’s a bit of a balancing act. I mean we wanted to make sure that the mysteries were intelligent enough that parents and older audience members weren’t going to just be rolling their eyes. But at the same time, as I said, when you start getting into crime and looking at crime and all the different genres of crime or areas of crime, most of them are not particularly kid-friendly, and weren’t things that we were going to do in animation. We also wanted to be sure that there was always the revelation in the end that ghosts are not real, that all of the spooks and scares were not real. Sometimes we would leave a little element of mystery where you know, could it have been? Sort of a question mark. But the mystery that they’re actually solving does get solved in a satisfying way, so that we’re not just leaving it open-ended that you know, yes, by the way, werewolves are real. We felt that was really important to the younger audience. There were a couple of films early on that did put forth the idea that the monsters are real. And I know that’s come up in other Scooby content, but the series that I worked on, the two series and the majority of the films, all would conclude with a revelation at the end that proved that it was a hoax or it was a misleading event. And wasn’t based on you know, anything evil being afoot in reality. Although as I say, we did use a couple of sort of question mark moments where for example at the end of Scooby Doo and the Loch Ness Monster, even though they’ve solved the mystery, just before we go to credits you see a fin and a sort of water swirl of some kind which at least leaves the question open-ended as to whether or not there is still something in the loch.

Scooby Doo and the Loch Ness Monster (2004).

AL: And where did the idea come from to kind of have that ambiguity in some of them?

CK: You know, it came from a couple of places. In looking at the original, the original Scooby Doo mysteries were always tied up neatly and there was never anything saying that the monsters were real. The first couple of Scooby Doo films that were done before I was involved definitely put forward that the monsters were real and it was sort of a new take on Scooby Doo. We decided with the subsequent films and then the series that it was important, particularly with the television audience, the younger television audience since our audience was six to 11 year-olds, that we make it clear that monsters are not real. However, there are some things that are unanswered in the real world, that we decided were worth giving a nod to. So whether it was aliens or the Loch Ness monster, or anything that there happened to be a little bit of ambiguity or uncertainty in the real world, we felt like it was fair game to say “But you never know.” But if it was vampires or witches or anything like that in the films or series I worked on, we would conclude with a revelation that said “You really don’t have anything to be worried about.”

AL: Is there one that’s maybe easier to develop between a movie or a series?

CK: They each present unique opportunities and challenges. The satisfaction of developing and producing a film is that it is a single story, and in terms of its scope and its breath you can tell a much bigger story that can have a main plot and subplots and sort of comedic runners throughout it. And you really focus on a beginning, middle and an end. And that may sound really obvious, but it becomes a very finite thing, and it’s satisfying to have those parameters and the time to actually explore them fully. On the flip side, the great thing about a series is that you have the opportunity to tell many different stories, but you don’t have, as I said earlier, the luxury of time to go deeply into any one story. And the stories are so quick that it’s hard to service much more than a main story in a single episode. And the challenge with a series especially is that as you get into a second and third season, (the challenge) is coming up with all of those stories and not feeling like you’re repeating yourself. Or not feeling like you’ve already been down this path. That’s one of the biggest challenges on a series.

AL: Were there any challenges in working on a Scooby Doo project specifically?

CK: Well going back to the crimes themselves. Generally in every Scooby Doo story, there is a culprit or a villain who is behind the mystery and their motivations for doing whatever they’re doing, almost always came back to greed or jealousy. It was hard to, as I said earlier, it was hard to tell any stories that were really crimes of passion, or because someone was a sociopath, you know, we couldn’t go there. So after a while, the pattern of somebody being greedy, whether it’s stealing or trying to swindle someone, or being jealous, that was a challenge to continue to come up with new ways to explore those themes that would lead to crimes and then lead to mysteries.

AL: Both the series of movies that you had worked on and What’s New Scooby Doo were in a way a revival for the Scooby Doo franchise, what was it like to work on that?

CK: For me, working on it was an enormous pleasure and an enormous honour. As I said, I was a huge fan as a kid. Working on it for so long, I also felt like I sort of have Scooby in my blood. I had a lot of passion for the individual characters themselves. And when I looked back at the original, I remember loving the characters for different reasons, and I wasn’t seeing as much evidence in the original of the very qualities that I thought I loved about them. And I wanted to work with the team to really bring those out.

So for example, Velma, obviously everyone knows Velma’s incredibly intelligent and well-read. But I had remembered her as having a very wry sense of humour, and a little bit sarcastic and really affectionate towards the other cast members, but a little self-effacing. I didn’t see as much evidence of that in the original as I thought I remembered. So I really continually pushed the team to explore those aspects of her personality. The same with Daphne. Daphne was very much the damsel in distress in the earlier incarnation, the original. And in fact was referred to, I don’t remember if it was onscreen or off, but as danger-prone Daphne. And in my mind, Daphne had always been this lovely character who just completely embraced her girly-ness. She was as valuable a member of the team as anyone else, because she had her own perspective on things and she would MacGyver herself out of things with whatever she found in her purse, you know, that sort of thing. That wasn’t as present as I remembered it, but it was certainly something we amped up in the new content. The same with Fred. Fred was another one who I always thought of him as a big boy scout and he was very much the straight man to Scooby and Shaggy’s comic personas in the original. And so in later content, we definitely played him up as incredibly earnest, incredibly well-meaning. And you know, quite literal in his approach to things. It wasn’t so much that he was the big, brawny strongman, as much as he was just sort of the most straightforward, on-the-nose guy that you’d ever want to meet. So, again, for me, the greatest joy was exploring these characters and I was able to do that with writers, with designers, with producers, with directors, with the cast. I mean, it was really terrific. 

AL: Out of all the characters of the gang, did you have a favourite to help develop?

CK: Definitely Velma. Velma was always my favourite. She was my favourite when I was a kid, she was my favourite when I worked on the more recent content. Maybe I identify most with her because you know, I’m a big nerd with a sarcastic sense of humour. 

AL: On those first few beginning movies there were a few casting changes due to various circumstances, were you involved in that process at all?

CK: Yes, very much involved in the casting process. And in fact, Mindy Cohn, who went on to play Velma for quite a few years, was – well depending on who you ask, Scott Jeralds and I debate about whose idea it was, but. When we were talking about a replacement, I had said you know, in my head I hear her as Natalie on Facts of Life. And then someone said “Well we should get Mindy Cohn, she’s available.” So again, everyone’s memory differs a bit but that was one that that’s what I heard in my head and that’s who we got. I was thrilled because she really became Velma. And then you know, Casey Kasem was just phenomenal, as was Frank Welker, playing Scooby, Shaggy and Fred. Ultimately we ended up, you know, Casey I think was having some health issues and we ended up using the live action actor from the film for at least some of the content, and he was great. And the other person I wanted to note, was Grey Delisle, who has a different last name now – I’m forgetting her current last name but she was Grey Delisle at the time – literally was Daphne for me. I mean, I still hear her voice when I think of Daphne. I don’t know if she’s doing it currently, but boy oh boy did she do a phenomenal job.

AL: Where did the idea come from, both for the series and the movies, to have them traveling around the world?

CK: You know, it came from really this desire to, as I said earlier, to put Scooby and Shaggy and the gang in locations that would really lend themselves to animation, lend themselves to some sort of supernatural mystery of some kind. And when we started going internationally in the films, it just opened up a whole new world. It gave, every film had a slightly different feel, it gave us different costuming, all sorts of different colourful characters. So it really was about broadening, and about going beyond the sort of haunted mansion or out in the woods.

AL: I wanted to talk a little bit about Scooby Doo and the Cyber Chase as it’s such a different movie from a lot of the other ones, where did the idea come from to put them in cyberspace?

CK: Interestingly, when that was first talked about, it was very much sort of a sci-fi fantasy. It was the first one I was doing from the ground up as a development executive, and it was coming off the heels of the alien Scooby Doo movie. We wanted to do something with a video game. At the time video games were huge and everyone was obsessed with them, so we kind of, the idea was how do we get Scooby and the gang into a video game and have them be in all these different levels. Because not unlike your question about why take them around the world, giving them all the different levels would give them opportunities to be one moment you know, in a contemporary baseball game, another in the Jurassic period with dinosaurs, and suddenly underwater. We were able to just go to all these different places within one video and that was really a lot of fun. And in fact, it was one of the first ideas that the home video team got very excited about because they felt like it was happening across not just Scooby, but what was happening in popular culture at the time.

Scooby Doo and the Cyber Chase (2001).

AL: What was your favourite thing about being able to work on Scooby Doo?

CK: My favourite thing about working on Scooby Doo honestly were all the other people working on Scooby Doo. I don’t think there was anyone involved that wasn’t an enormous fan of the original, and didn’t have truly a passion for the property, for its legacy, for its history. The show itself, the original show itself meant so much to a whole generation of kids who were now all the people working on this show and on these videos. Joe Barbera at the time was working out of our offices first at Hanna-Barbera and then over at Warner Bros. offices. And to interact with him and to be a part of the legacy of such an incredible property was just an honour. But for me, from Joe Barbera on down, it was about everybody else. Everybody else’s passion and excitement. To date, it was my favourite thing that I ever worked on.

AL: And what was it like to work on a franchise that has so many different generations of fans, were you thinking of maybe how to market to both kids and adults when you were working on the projects?

CK: We definitely, very frequently, whether it was me or the producer or director or writer, would try and give nods to the original and sort of little Easter eggs for fans, but we were well aware that our primary audience was kids. And kids today, many of whom, Scooby Doo was relatively new, as you had asked in your trivia question, there had been no series for 11 years before the new content started. So, it was, I think our primary audience was always the younger audience, but we wanted to stay loyal to the fanbase that had been with it since the 70s.

AL: Out of the various Scooby projects that you worked on, do you have a favourite?

CK: I do have a favourite, but my reasons for it being my favourite are not because it’s necessarily the best or any better than the other projects, but Scooby Doo and the Loch Ness Monster was a real passion project for me and for Joe Sichta, who was the producer/director on the project. It was really an opportunity for us to play together and both having a passion for Scooby Doo and for the Loch Ness monster, it was just a joy. And it was the first time I believe that we used CGI in a Scooby film. The monster itself was CGI and we mixed that with the 2D of the character animation and the rest of the film. And I think it went over pretty well. I look back on it and of course I see all the flaws and mistakes and everything else. But it was truly one of my fondest memories, and it will always be special to me.

AL: More broadly, why do you think that a cartoon about a mystery solving dog has had the staying power to keep going for over 50 years now?

CK: That’s an excellent question, I have thought about this quite a bit, particularly when we were bringing back the franchise into films and television. I think there’s a couple of things at work. I think number one, no pun intended, but Scooby and Shaggy are sort of underdogs. They succeed despite themselves. They’re kind of reluctant heroes that ultimately kind of rise to the occasion and I think that sort of underdog protagonist really appeals to people. I also think that the ensemble of characters really makes a big difference. That it’s not just Scooby and Shaggy, it really is a group, and there’s sort of something in it for everyone. Meaning, different characters appeal to different people. And the fact that it’s an anthology. And you could never get tired of it because you never knew where they were going to go next or what they were going to encounter. And if audiences are anything like me, I love a mystery. Mysteries are one of my favourite genres because it allows you to not just watch passively but to be actively engaged in trying to figure out what’s going to happen next. So for all those reasons, and for the fact that it’s just funny, I would say it’s worthy of the endurance it’s had.

AL: Is there anything else that you wanted to add at all?

CK: No, all I can say is I know Scooby is in the hands of some enormously talented people at Warner Bros. Animation right now, and the work that they’re doing is absolutely beautiful from a production standpoint. And I know that many of them share the same passion for the property and the characters that I do. And I just hope that it goes on for another 50 years because now, as an audience member, I still can’t get enough.

AL: Do you have any recent projects you’ve been working on that you’d like to promote?

CK: I’d love to just share that at the moment I am working on a whole suite of content for Mattel Television. Of all different brands and properties, but the one I’m most pleasantly surprised by and very proud of is all the content we’re producing around the character of Barbie. I was not a real Barbie enthusiast a few years back, and since joining the company and really working with the creative team on the evolution of Barbie and Barbie’s role in storytelling, I couldn’t be more proud of where we are now. We’ve got a bunch of Barbie animated films coming out, on Netflix we’ve got one series airing there currently, another one in the works. We have a Barbie web series on YouTube called Barbie Vlogger. There’s just all sorts of content now in which Barbie herself appears as a character as opposed to Barbie playing a princess or a mermaid or an astronaut. It’s Barbie, the 17-year-old girl and her point of view on the world. And she’s come an awfully long way from the fashion doll that she was originally created to be. I encourage people to check it out, because it’s not the Barbie you think you know, it’s Barbie for 2020.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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