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Wednesday
Jul072010

Inside With: Dan Milano, Sean Baker, and Spencer Chinoy, creators of Warren the Ape

By: Meredith Haggerty

MTV’s new documentary series Warren the Ape chronicles the trials and tribulations of the down-on-his-luck thespian and “Fabricated American” Warren as he struggles toward sobriety and attempts to regain the spotlight, with help from his therapist -- TV’s own Dr. Drew. I talked to creators Dan Milano, Sean Baker, and Spencer Chinoy about Warren’s Salvation Army beginnings, what it means to equip a drunken puppet with a camera crew, and what else we can expect to see this season (Corey Feldman!).

Warren the Ape, as both a TV show and a puppet, has had a long and storied history. Can you tell us about where and how you all started out?

Dan Milano: I'm so used to answering questions as Warren that I immediately bristled upon your use of the word "puppet," when his people clearly prefer "Fabricated American." Fortunately, I'm much more forgiving on the subject. Our creative partnership began a few years after we'd all graduated from NYU's Tisch School, which is where we'd all met. We were out of work and doing a show on public access television, where the Greg the Bunny character was created.

Before long, we started making interstitial material for movies that were airing on IFC, which included not only a short film starring Greg, but trivia segments that would educate the viewer on the weekly movie. Since Greg was a dim-witted and easily distracted character, we found it difficult for him to deliver trivial information. So it was for this purpose that the character of Warren was originally created. Warren's only job was to deliver trivia information to the camera in an efficient way, but Spencer and Sean would often make it very difficult for him.

As part of our long improv sessions in which I performed the puppet, they would tease or disrespect Warren, or scold him for having shown up to work unprepared. As you can imagine, this became the more entertaining aspect of our trivia segments - and the character of Warren was "found" over time. We established his desperation to be taken seriously, despite his being a puppet with a ridiculous helmet on his head. We saw him as a talented and well-trained thespian who would never be taken seriously, and so it drove him to drink. Warren was a natural foil for Greg the Bunny, so his
character eventually started appearing in our narrative films. It was a challenge for me to play both roles
simultaneously, but we managed it surprisingly often. I was literally working two-handed in those days, having improvised conversations with myself under Sean and Spencer's direction.

Eventually, both characters were featured on our FOX series, as well as on our return to IFC.

Spencer Chinoy: We started the original show back in the mid 90's. We were all bored with our day jobs and Manhattan public access was free and seemed like fun. We each had other projects we were working on, and Junktape was a hobby that soon became our main creative focus. When we started the show, we were shooting on VHS and editing between two VCRs.

Sean Baker: Warren's physical being was found one fateful day in a Salvation Army on 8th st. in NYC. He was just a monkey puppet. To make him our own, we attached a helmet and gave new eyes. Warren began as a very proper, married British gentleman who was down on his luck and stuck with a film trivia gig on Greg's show. This reserved, intelligent man is Warren in his sober state.... a state that we will rarely see on MTV.

In Greg’s show, there was one episode entitled "The 13th Step" which was the first episode to focus primarily on Warren. We follow him as he stays overnight in a seedy Times Square hotel following a separation from his wife. We actually killed him off at the end of the episode when he downs a bottle of pills. We came to like the character so much that in editing, we tacked on an epilogue in which he has his stomach pumped. From that point on, he became Greg's regular co-star.

How did this new incarnation of Warren the Ape on MTV come about, and why did you choose Warren out of all of the cast of Sweetknuckle Junction?

Dan: We owned the intellectual property to these characters and had a lot of passion for them. While we are proud of our past projects we'd never felt they were given their due - we'd always imagined them being the subject of a documentary, something in the style of THIS IS SPINAL TAP. Our Fox show was originally pitched as a docu-narrative like THE OFFICE, with an improvisational style like CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, but ended up, to our frustration, becoming more of a scripted workplace sitcom.

So creatively, we were looking to pitch a documentary series, or possibly do a theatrical film about puppets in Hollywood and the trials they face, using our characters as the subjects. We'd had some discussions about writing a feature, and spoken to networks like IFC and Comedy Central about a potential docu-series. But nothing sparked until MTV's Brent Haynes and our producer George Plamondon discussed our property and the idea of bringing it to their network.

Warren was a clear choice to star - he's always been a favorite character and fit the mold of the comeback kid perfectly - someone deeply flawed who has a great deal to overcome in his struggle to clean up his life and reclaim his career. Once we realized that Doctor Drew Pinsky was enthused about playing his therapist, the show just crystallized for us.

Spencer: We started communicating with MTV a couple of years back through an old friend, George Plamondon, who produced and directed MTV reality shows over the years.  At first the interest was in Greg the Bunny, but when they were exposed to the debaucherous ape, they were sold on
him as the lead. Unlike Greg, Warren has appetites that are more appealing to your basic randy teenager.

Sean: We have a great marriage of producers, some based in reality tv, others in narrative and others in
comedy. What this resulted in was a pitch for a parody on reality shows. Most of these shows focus on a big personality with lots of problems. So Warren was the clear choice from our arsenal of characters.

Warren is battling a lot of demons this season, and very publicly, with the help of Dr. Drew and a film crew. What do you all think of shows like Breaking Bonaduce or Dr. Drew's own Sober House, that helped to inspire Warren's tumultuous journey?

Dan: All reality shows are exploitive by nature but Drew's shows are far more clinical and responsible - they're documentaries about addiction that happen to feature celebrities in a controlled environment. We're more interested in parodying those shows that follow celebrities in their daily lives, which are potentially dangerous because intentionally or not, they encourage their subjects to act out for the sake of entertainment value.

We have an episode in which Warren's AA sponsor tells the cameras, "you're enabling him," and it's an important line. Hollywood is not the best place for a narcissist with addiction issues to get healthy.

Having Doctor Drew on our show is a way to legitimize Warren as a real character with real problems in a real world, and we take the depiction of his addiction seriously.  But right now, Warren is more focused on his show than his health. The humor comes from his being oblivious to Drew's advice. But if the show continues, we will absolutely allow that relationship to grow.

Spencer: I love the shit out of them. But Warren would no doubt take offense at the assertion that he was inspired by these other trainwrecks...he's been crashing and burning for years!

Sean: The one thing I can say about these shows is that it is hard to top them. Every time we think of an outrageous act that Warren can do, we find we are not that far off from what real celebrities have already done.

Between MNN, IFC, Fox and now MTV, you three have been collaborating for years; how did you start working together?

Dan: I spoke to this a bit in question one, but basically we were all frustrated film graduates looking for an outlet. We were fans of New York public access, and inspired by shows like MR. SHOW WITH BOB AND DAVID and movies like WAITING FOR GUFFMAN. I had always been a natural performer with a puppet, so it was a matter of time before we turned on the video camera. On a lark, we decided to make a public access show that featured bizarre video pastiches and needed a puppet to host it.

Before long we were using the show as an excuse to improvise with the puppet, experiment with editing, shoot documentary style interactions with people on the street, etc. We were building a character and solidifying a concept together that would become the basis of many of our future projects.

We're all very different filmmakers who bring something unique to the relationship. We're passionate and so we fight like brothers and laugh like friends. But no matter what other projects we've done as individuals, a love of these characters always brings us back together.

Spencer: We all met at NYU in 1990 and have been collaborating on a variety of projects since then. I'm happy to say that I still work with a lot of the same friends I knew from the early 90's. In fact, a lot of them are working on this show.

Sean: By our 2nd public access show, I think the three of us knew we had something special in Dan's gift of improv and knack for voices. Those early MNN episodes really show a steady development in which we began to focus more on Dan's characters, experimented with film parody and found a guerilla style way of shooting that brought the puppets in the real world.

In just two episodes, Warren has already gotten a DUI, committed sabotage, and attempted to give up sex. So much for such a small and cranky puppet! What else will he be facing this season?

Dan: This season is all about Warren's desperation for fame and his inability to control his impulses. He will infiltrate a rehab facility in order to seduce a vulnerable pop star, cause one of his dearest friends to end up in the hospital, reunite with old friends (with benefits), and face his demons in the seclusion of a prison cell.

Spencer: Dog fights, porn stars, middle-schoolers, freebase, strippers, dancing nazi girls, Corey Feldman, predator cyborgs, more strippers...and a little heart.

Sean: And don't forget the cameos. We were able to have many of the FOX stars return for cameos, Billy Crudup, Judy Greer, Mick Foley, Matt Besser, Corey Feldman and more.

Outside of this show, all three of you have extremely varied and successful careers. What other upcoming projects can we look forward to from you three?

Dan: I've completed two drafts of the SHORT CIRCUIT remake for Dimension films and am a continuing voice actor and contributing writer for ROBOT CHICKEN. I'm now developing a game show with the folks at WIZARDS OF THE COAST and writing a new fantasy sci-fi series about dysfunctional family life on a space colony.

Spencer: I made some contacts with the adult entertainment industry this year, so if Warren the Ape doesn't work out, I guess I'll take a shot at directing porn.

Sean: It always is strange for me to speak of my other work because it is so different from the world of Warren the Ape and Greg the Bunny. I've directed a couple of social-realist indie features that focus on marginalized people in our society. My new feature "Prince of Broadway" is hitting theaters in New York and Los Angeles in September. It is being 'Presented by' Lee Daniels, director of "Precious." It is about a West African immigrant who sells counterfeit goods in NYC. You could call it a dramedy (part drama/part comedy). Right now, I'm in Taiwan on pre-production for a new film, a family drama that takes place in Taipei.

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