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Trollhunters EP Marc Guggenheim on how The Empire Strikes Back influenced Season 2

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Dec 14, 2017

Show me a kid who tells you they wouldn't want to spend high school protecting the world from evil villains and goblins, be equipped with magical armor, and have the key to an underworld troll market, and I'll show you a kid who needs a timeout for lying. That's the very stuff that creator.

When Guillermo del Toro's animated series Trollhunters dropped last holiday season on Netflix, it became an instant hit with viewers and critics alike, winning six Daytime Emmys, including ones for Outstanding Writing (Marc Guggenheim), Directing (Guillermo del Toro and Rodrigo Blaas), and Casting (Mary Hidalgo and Ania O'Hare). The series is full of scares and laughs and is one of the more original animated series out there. Best yet, it's an all-ages love letter to the genres we care most about here.

Fans can begin binging Season 2, titled Trollhunters: Tales of Arcadia, this Friday, and find out what's next after the big cliffhanger from Season 1, where Jim (voiced by the late Anton Yelchin) ventured into the Dark Lands alone. Tales of Arcadia is also the first of three series in a shared universe cooked up by del Toro, so the Troll-verse will grow, and we'll see characters jumping to the new series. To help keep it all straight, executive producer Marc Guggenheim spoke with us about what Trollhunters has in store for Season 2 and beyond.

There are some terrific voices that have joined the main cast of Season 2 such as Mark Hamill, Clancy Brown, Anjelica Huston, and Lena Heady. What's it like to see the step-by-step process of animation, and then in the end see these voice talents finish the process?

Marc Guggenheim: The animation process starts with the scripts and then it goes to the designers who come up with beautiful artwork, and you think your solid. In the animation process we do animatics, with what we call scratch dialogue, they're people around our office providing dialogue, and it just gives you a sense of how the episode is playing. So the dialogue is good, the design is amazing, and then, when you have the likes of Mark, Clancy, Lena, and Anjelica breathe life into these characters – the transformation that happens is really remarkable. When you get actors who are as talented as they are, it doesn't just transform their characters, it just transforms the whole episode. It elevates the entire thing.

Talk about the new energy that they brought, and what they were able to contribute.

The nuance in their performances is very, very impressive. I don't think people realize just how difficult voice acting is. Actors act with so many things in addition to their voice that when you take away all of those tools, and you just limit them to how they sound, it's next-level acting to pull that off. These actors are just so good at what they do. It was really gratifying to see them embody these characters who all play important roles, very key in the development of the story that we're telling in Season 2. We have a wonderful cast that's made up of movie stars like Mark and Anjelica, and working voice actors. It's a really great ensemble, a mixture of different actors helps elevates the entire endeavor.

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You start out the season by separating Jim from the group and placing him in the Dark Lands. Talk about that decision, letting his supporting characters come through those early episodes.

That was a tricky decision [chuckles]. We always say the show is not Trollhunter, it's Trollhunters. We made the decision to end Season 1 with taking one of the Trollhunters off the table in turning AAARRGGHH!!! (Fred Tatasciore) to stone and taking Jim and separating him from all the other Trollhunters. There were a lot of discussions in the writer's room. Of everything we discussed, the thing that took the most time to come to some sort of satisfying conclusion was how long to keep Jim separated from everyone else. If you do it too long, you start to lose what people are tuning in for, which is, to see all of these characters together. If you do it too short, it makes the cliffhanger feel like it doesn't pay off.

I don't want to spoil it exactly how long we keep Jim separated. One thing that's not a spoiler is that in the first couple of episodes of the new season, you'll see that Jim is finding ways to communicate with his friends. That was very deliberate, because it allowed us to keep Jim separate, but at the same time it keeps all the characters on the same stage together, which is what people are tuning in for.

The writer's room took that cliffhanger really seriously, though.

SPOILER ALERT!

Ultimately -- Jim's not going to stay in the Dark Lands forever, but how are we going to get Jim back in a way that's interesting and satisfying? A cliffhanger is in many ways a promise to the audience that if they tune back in, the answer will be satisfying. We took it very seriously that we made a promise to the audience, we wanted to make sure we lived up to it.

At some point there's some resolution to the Dark Lands Nursery story, but not really because there are a lot of babies that have been imprisoned there for a long time.

There is. There are still hundreds of babies in the Dark Lands, including quite frankly the human incarnation of a Changeling we call a Familiar, and Strickler's familiar from the 1800s is still somewhere in the Dark Lands. Suffice it to say, your instinct is absolutely correct. There's more story there, and you'll have to tune in to find out.

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We've got new villains and adversaries this season, in The Janis Order and Bular's dad Gunmar (Clancy Brown).

One of the very first names, if not the first name you hear in the entire series, is Gunmar. We set out a very large challenge for ourselves. We had this character out there that was built up and further built up as the biggest of the big bads. At the same time, we'd already had two big bads with Bular (Ron Perlman) and Angor Rot (Ike Amadi) that set the bar pretty high for villainy. We felt like, wow, we had a lot to live up to with Gunmar. I'll leave it up to the audience to decide if we lived up to it, but we definitely went into Season 2 with the bar set high to out-villain our villains. I think they'll be satisfied. A lot of villains are defined by their sidekicks, and certainly Dictatious, especially since he's voiced by Mark Hamill and the fact that he's Blinky's evil twin brother, is an interesting character. His relationship with Gunmar is kind of fascinating.

The goblins and changelings have always been creepy, and give you multiple ways to give this hair-raising, spine-tingling kind of effect on screen, but the Janis Order just adds to that sweet spot of nailing the right amount of horror that can go down for kids 8-10 years of age.

I won't say that we were trying to do Empire Strikes Back in Season 2, but Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back was referenced a lot in the writer's room, in that a lot of people refer to it as the darker part of the original trilogy, but I think it's also the scarier part. You have the Force cave on Dagobah, the space slug, and just the way that Darth Vader is portrayed in Empire versus A New Hope; it's not just a tonal change, it is just a straight-up scarier movie.

Kids and adults can handle scarier, Empire being the proof of concept, so we did want to push in that direction, especially since we set a certain bar for ourselves in Season 1. So we tried to go a little further in Season 2, and take each element a little further. The fright factor was a big part of that. The Janis Order became this fun notion of keeping the bad-guy trolls alive. They start out as a narrative device and evolve into a really cool group of villains.

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You have two rewarding comedic episodes right before the final push in 209, which pairs with 208, and a nod to '80s comedies in 210. What were you thinking of the placement of these episodes, and allowing the audience to catch their breaths and remember that these kids are still in high school?

I hate to be reductive, but I have to return to Empire Strikes Back, because when I was a young kid, I think I was 10, the first thing that struck me was how much scarier it was, but also how much funnier it was. There was genuine laugh lines in Empire that weren't present in A New Hope. C-3PO actually breaks the fourth wall at one point. Myself and all the writers had the same philosophy. The humor is made funnier by the darker tone, and the darker tone is made palatable by the humor. They really do go hand in hand. In episode 208 and 209, if you're in the Dark Lands, you know you're going darker; it's called the Dark Lands for a reason. We wanted a palate cleanser after all that, and we got enamored with this idea of telling a story from two different perspectives.

We did it not because of the gimmick, which we thought would be very challenging, but we thought about what the best way to tell this story about how our heroes are perceived by ancillary characters of Steve (Steven Yeun) and Eli (Cole Sand). To do that, you have to tell a story from their perspective. We thought about it being too much of an outlier to do a whole episode from the perspective of people who are not our main characters, and one of the writers threw out the idea of well, why don't we have our cake and eat it too. Why don't we have the same story, but one episode is from our tried and true characters, and the other from Eli and Steve who are our supporting characters? Once we realized how tricky that'd be, we knew we had to do it, because we're suckers for a good challenge.