Spec Spotlight: Mike Roberts, Creator of “Dallas & Robo”
Show creators hail from all types of backgrounds. A master’s in screenwriting might teach you about storytelling, but it’s not the only path.
Mike Roberts trained in classical animation and storyboarding. He did animation for years for documentaries and an advertising post house before shifting to narrative series like BoJack Horseman. Now he’s gearing up for his original animated comedy Dallas & Robo, a limited series for YouTube Red. Roberts will executive produce along with Andy Sipes and Matt Mariska, who also helped write the pilot.
“It’s Smokey and the Bandit in space,” Roberts says. “It’s two people driving a truck, talking about life.”
The show will star Kat Dennings as foul-mouthed space trucker Dallas and John Cena as her poet-warrior sidekick Robo as they fend off cannibal bikers and ponder the universe while slogging through space. “He wants to be gentle, and he’s a pacifist. And she just wants to race, make money, and drink.”
Roberts lights up when discussing his inspiration for Dallas: his wife. “She’s really funny and really smart. And when she gets drunk, she starts applying that to saying the most outlandish things she can.”
It’s easy to see why someone surrounded by mechanics (his father) and doctors (his mother, grandmother, and now his sister) would think that philosophy and trucking go hand in hand. “I wanted the street-smart person to outsmart the book-smart person and the book-smart person to outsmart the street-smart person. I think there are arguments in both directions that are really, really fun to write.”
“He gives her the actual, and she gives him the conceptual.”
Roberts has always been partial to science fiction that delves into philosophy and religion, like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And the buddy-comedy model suits contemplative storytelling because “it’s honest. And then you fall in love with two characters … as long as you have that core, you never have to worry about what the show is.”
Creating animation for Ron Mann, whose documentaries embody a lot of story, got Roberts interested in directing. “I love the idea of taking an idea and then expressing it—whether that’s a drawing or it’s writing or a movie,” he explains. “It was never enough for me just to animate. Why are we animating?”
Though Roberts has faith in his writing skills, he kept succeeding at “being essentially a story editor. And that is what directors do. They make a story into a thing. They don’t have to write it, but they definitely have to make sure that the writing makes sense.”
Again his wife played a tremendous role, telling him to “take a year and make a film. And I did, and she supported me on that. She’s the best.” Though she was making a good living as an actress, Roberts heartily acknowledges that their financial stability at the time was far from guaranteed. “It’s courageous for her to say, ‘I’ll do my thing and you do your thing, and we’ll trade eventually.’”
The result was Rumbleseat, an ethereal short about a man trying to comprehend his path in a dark new world. Rumbleseat successfully toured festivals, but it was a staff pick on Vimeo that caught the eye of manager and Bloodlist founder Kailey Marsh. She contacted Roberts and took him on as a client. “All the thousands of dollars I spent on film festivals paid off in my Vimeo subscription,” Roberts chuckles. “I could have stayed home.”
Representing an animation director was new territory for Marsh. But she got him several jobs, eventually leading to production house ShadowMachine and Roberts’ extensive run on BoJack Horseman and TripTank. ShadowMachine loved Dallas & Robo and agreed to produce.
“I only started trying in earnest to sell shows in 2012, 2013, so it’s pretty quick to have all this happen. But, at the same time, the amount of effort has been immense. Enormous. And I spent 10 years just honing my craft before I even tried in earnest.”
ShadowMachine also recruited Roberts as supervising director for TBS’ upcoming Final Space, another interstellar animated comedy. Part of Final Space’s appeal has been its collaborative nature. “I felt like I had a voice.”
Dallas & Robo will reflect Roberts’ voice in its inclusivity. “Morality is about inclusion to me. I don’t want anyone to feel like they can’t watch the show. It would horrify me if someone said Dallas wasn’t an authentic character as a female … I don’t know if we’ve done anything to fix anything or even been part of the solution, but I sure hope we have.”
Roberts writes mostly with Final Draft’s app Writer “because it’s so convenient. I like to write without encumbrance. So having my iPad is just, boom, do it.”
He advises those trying to break in to do exactly what he did with Rumbleseat: “Make the thing you want to make. Because everyone in this business wants you to have already done it.
“So if you’re a writer, you have to have a script. If you’re a film director, you have to have a short film. If you’re an animator, you’ve got to have a cartoon … be a personality that can’t get ignored.
“It’s a small group of people who put all the pieces together. So that should be really encouraging. If you can muster the energy, you’ll get there. Because the line’s shorter than you think.”
Screenwriter / Playwright / Script Reader
Asmara Bhattacharya is a produced screenwriter/playwright, script reader, and festival screener, with multiple placements at Final Draft, Nicholl, Austin Film Festival, and other competitions. A trusted sounding board and consultant for industry professionals, dedicated fans also caught her in “Independence Day: Resurgence” and NBC’s “The Night Shift” – for one glorious half-second each. More can be found on her website: www.dickflicks.net or follow her on Twitter @hotpinkstreak