A viewing of Adult Swim’s most surreal current show, Dream Corp LLC. will leave you with lots of… feelings. Much like the dark, dreamlike, semi-conscious world its characters inhabit, you’ll find yourself constantly asking “how did we get here?” and by the time you give up on figuring it out, you’ll just be glad you came. With Season Two premiering this Sunday, Oct. 21, at midnight, Paste’s Assistant Comedy Editor, Yusef Roach, chatted with with the mastermind behind all of it, Daniel Stessen, to get to the bottom of exactly where all this madness came from.
Paste: So I watched season one of Dream Corp, so first question… What the fuck?
Daniel Stessen: That’s a good question. That’s my favorite question I’ve ever been asked, I think. It’s an adventure, man. It’s a really fun stream of consciousness that I’m allowed to run around in.
Paste: It’s a super surreal, dream-based show. Were you influenced by Kaufman and Linklater? Waking Life?
Stessen: Of course. Everything I’ve ever seen influences me. My influences mostly lie in the art world more so than the film world, but I kind of set out to make something.
You know when you’re growing up and you’re watching The Goonies or Labyrinth, and you think about your favorite movie from when you were growing up and what it looked like; I’m trying to chase that idea and make something that looks nostalgic. That’s how I approach everything. Flight of the Navigator, all of the Henson world, Neverending Story, Wizard of Oz—these are things that had a heavy influence on me growing up and that’s just what I love to make… something you can actually think about and remember. I like pulling the rug out from under any serious situation… undercutting the beautiful.
Paste: It’s still a really aesthetically pleasing show, though. It’s real and lived-in, but still great to look at. You nailed the nostalgia element. Curious, was the rotoscoping always a part of the plan? Did it come up in development?
Stessen: Yeah, I had previously worked in rotoscope on a short film, and it just fell in line with this concept when it came to me. And then of course, Waking Life did such a beautiful job in the first place of making us think, “Is this real? Is it not?”
The fact that actors are able to act, and that the animators are able to capture those expressions and feelings, I think it’s a really special part of rotoscoping… what separates it from everything else. Like in season two, you’re really watching Jimmi Simpson go through a real crisis. There’s a tsunami coming in, and he’s speaking with Dr. Roberts, and it’s this really beautiful moment, and you can really feel the actors coming through that animation; it’s a beautiful thing.
Paste: It does blend super naturally from the live action segments. How did Nick Rutherford get involved? Was he always going to be a part of this?
Stessen: He auditioned! We offered the role of Dr. Roberts to Jon Gries because he’s such a legend, credits like Real Genius and Napoleon Dynamite. Every other person came in and auditioned; I had never even met Nick until the audition. I’m sitting there during the audition in the daytime like “Is this even funny?” In my own head and then Nick comes in and BOOM. Nick says every single word I write exactly as I intended; it’s amazing. I fell in love with him immediately. We shot the pilot together, and then after some time I asked if he’d like to come on as a writer. He originally was just a patient, but he was so good and such a natural fit. I figured “If I just spun this a little bit more” and I have the blessing of Stephen Merchant and John Krasinski to make it a little bit more like The Office. Eventually I found myself pitching 88 [Rutherford] as Jim from The Office to Jim from The Office.
Paste: How’d you get Mr. Jack Ryan himself involved? That’s huge, right?
Stessen: This has been a long time coming—they bought the idea in 2013, and it’s only getting a second season now. Through all of the development, it’s only made the show better. Learning to put my ego aside and admitting “I know nothing. Show me the rules here.” That’s when I really got to step back from the project.
John [Krasinski] came on board—we’d known each other and were already friends—and asked me “What are you working on?” and I had the pitch deck all ready, then he asked me to produce it. It really came together nicely. As frustrating as television can be, in my case, it’s a positive thing that it took a while, because otherwise it wouldn’t be as good as it is.
Paste: It is a very polished product. I can imagine you’d want some time for each idea to gestate. If the people you’re taking notes from are John Krasinski and Stephen Merchant, I bet that’s only making the final product better.
Stessen: Oh, dude, it’s like getting a Master’s Degree in television.
Paste: Animation can be pretty demanding—how long does each episode take? How involved are you?
Stessen: It’s two productions in one. We have 3 days to shoot one episode, but then each one takes a little over a month to finish. So, about a month on each episode, and season two is fourteen episodes. Did you see any of season two yet?
Paste: I’m actually going to the LA screening on Wednesday.
Stessen: Then you’ll see, Season two we really stepped it up. Season one they took a low risk, six episode order. My hats off to Adult Swim because they have such a particular voice that no other network has. Adult Swim has this… I don’t what it is about them.
Paste: Your show definitely has a very Adult Swim aesthetic and vibe, but it’s definitely its own thing.
Stessen: Yeah, and with the time that went into developing it, I was able to ask “How do I put this under the Adult Swim umbrella but still talk about transhumanism and the singularity and things that I’m actually interested in? How can I infiltrate the minds of the youth with the ideas of the future? Through the workplace comedy—they’re a little family, and they all kind of accept each other for who they are.”
Paste: It seems like the dialogue in the show is pretty natural and flows easily. Was there a lot of improv, or was it pretty “stick to the script”?
Stessen: I am not precious about anything. I feel like it’s on the paper and then we run it a couple of times and look for a more poetic way of saying it, because in television there aren’t a lot of rehearsals. The comedy comes out of the fact that they all live in this real world. I treat it like a football game; if someone gets injured, they go into the locker room, they pick themselves up and they get back on the field. They’re not blaming anyone for their injury—they’re going back to work. I like taking that approach with Dream Corp.
Paste: Is there one episode you’re the most stoked about? If one was to introduce the show to a friend, what would you consider the “go-to” episode?
Stessen: It’s a tricky one. I’d have to start with episode 201 with Jimmi Simpson, because he introduces the world so well and is such a badass. There’s an episode with Rupert Friend, a brilliant actor who comes down with amnesia. Honestly though, episode 6 called “Wild Bill” stars Maria Bamford and Darrell Hammond. Hammond comes in to steal Dr. Roberts’ technology, and he pushes 88 down into the garbage, and when he arises, there’s a brand new Henson creature this year called Norf Norf, and the creature is voiced by Maria Bamford.
One of the most validating parts of the job is being able to work with the Jim Henson Creature shop. They built Terry, and it’s been a dream working with them. The person who designed both Terry and Norf Norf is Chad VanGaalen, an amazing illustrator and musician that also scores the show. I’m working with my best friends, and it doesn’t get any better than that.
Yusef Roach is Paste’s Assistant Comedy Editor and the cohost of the podcast Death is Imminent. He’s on Twitter @yusefroach.