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How 3Below writer A.C. Bradley and team plotted out the Netflix show's major twists
You'd be hard-pressed to find a streaming series these days that is as lively or engrossing as 3Below: Tales of Arcadia. Coming from the mind of Guillermo del Toro (and directly spun off of Trollhunters: Tales of Arcadia), the animated show tells the story of a trio of displaced extraterrestrials (voiced by Tatiana Maslany, Diego Luna, and Nick Offerman) trying to live on Earth. Though the initial idea was del Toro's, he didn’t create it by himself. A team of gifted writers, directors, and editors made his vision a reality, and A.C. Bradley has been leading that charge.
Bradley was a writer on Trollhunters, but she became the head writer for both parts of 3Below. The series is a sci-fi story, complete with intergalactic designs, robots, and a space-dog with severe intestinal issues. But it also addresses the very real (and current) issues of immigration and growing up, and manages to be both hilarious and disturbing in the span of seconds.
Part 2 of the series continues to find Aja and Krel of House Tarron (Maslany and Luna) hiding out on Earth from the usurping General Morando, but they also come across someone dangerous from Part 1 — Colonel Kubritz (Uzo Aduba) is back, and she is a human who wants nothing more than to cleanse the Earth of any and all aliens. Aja and Krel are not a threat, but try telling her that. The humans, led by Kubritz, are almost as deadly to our royal regulars as the Morando himself.
Thankfully, our heroes have some of the Trollhunters gang on their side (Toby, ARRRGGGHHH, Eli, and Steve), as well as their sentient spaceship (Glenn Close), their two protectors (Offerman and Hayley Atwell), and Luug ... the aforementioned dog who farts lasers. Throughout all of this, they also have to deal with the actions of their royal parents ... and not all of those actions were fantastic. That is a lot to deal with in one season, but the show manages to depict it all with a baffling sci-fi suaveness. How did Bradley and her team manage that balance?
SYFY WIRE spoke with Bradley about the collaborative process, probing into how a show that has this many spaceballs in the air is even possible. We also discussed the necessity of planning ahead, her work on Trollhunters, and also del Toro's involvement and wisdom. Some of that wisdom will doubtless stay with Bradley as she embarks on her next endeavor, which was recently revealed at San Diego Comic-Con.
**WARNING: There are rampant spoilers below for Part 2 of 3Below: Tales of Arcadia, as well as for the final season of Trollhunters. If you are not caught up, then by all means get caught up, and then take a wormhole right back here.**
"Guillermo’s involved pretty much from the get-go," Bradley says, explaining how the writing process begins. "I worked closely with him on the last 13 episodes of Trollhunters, and then on 3Below. Usually how it works is we have long conversations, the whole creative team, about what we want the show to be, where do we want to go. With 3Below it was a lot of conversations about immigration."
Those conversations, which initially took place in September 2016, were very prescient. The writers, who reported for duty three months later, were exploring themes that would only gain more relevance as real-world events progressed.
"It was always on our minds as we started creating the world and the rules of the world," Bradley continues. "Guillermo really empowered us to push diversity and to push the immigration front. He felt that with, and I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but with Trollhunters, we told an amazing story … but our lead was a young white guy. Now we had the opportunity to tell other stories, to focus on heroes who are Latino, who are female, or an old man, and show the world through their eyes. That was the mandate above all."
Though the main characters are technically all Akiridions, when Krel, Aja, and Varvatos go about in the human world, they take those cloaked forms of a Latino man, a girl, and an elderly man ... these are chosen by their mothership because they are three types of people who will be ignored on Earth. It works ... to a point.
Bradley goes on about del Toro, saying, "He was very involved in the brainstorming and in the creating, and then usually what happens is me, Marc Guggenheim [executive producer and writer], and the writers come up with plotlines of the season, the dramatics of the season, and then we bring it to him," she continues. "We kind of pitch him the whole season. There are some things he loves, some things he doesn’t love. With his guidance we regroup, and then we come to get a version of the season that we all kind of agree on, and then the writers go off and write."
Bradley adds, "For the most part, Guillermo checks in a lot when it comes to the animatics. He comes into the offices and he watches the storyboards. He also has a very big hand in design — that’s why our character creations, I believe, are top-notch."
Some major story elements are in play much earlier than they are set to appear on the show, with a good example being Jim Lake turning into a troll in Season 3 of Trollhunters. For the uninitiated, Jim Lake (the dearly departed Anton Yelchin) is the first human trollhunter on the show, a warrior tasked with hunting down trolls of the evil variety. He gains the power to do so from an amulet created by Merlin. Season 1 saw him defeating the villain Angor Rot and entering the "darklands" by himself (a major turn, and he shouldn't have done it), and Season 3 of the show sees Merlin (not dead and not that nice, either) instructing Jim that the only way to save the day (from even more villains, including a reborn Angor Rot) is for Jim to become a troll himself. Jim makes this sacrifice, and it is probably the biggest story-bomb that the show drops.
As Bradley says, "that was on the books since Season 1." As much as they may have wanted to rush to that moment, del Toro taught them otherwise. "The biggest thing I learned from Guillermo del Toro on Trollhunters was 'Don’t rush your story.’ I remember Trollhunters Season 1 we wanted Jim to go into the darklands by the end of the first 13 episodes, and he said, 'No, no … draw that out. Wait, and let the show simmer.’ Use the time to come up with other villains, which is where we got Angor Rot from, it was during that time."
They planned a lot from the start when it came to 3Below as well, including how our characters end up, who returns home, and who stays on Earth. "Early on we kind of had decided that Krel was gonna be the one who stayed on Earth, and Aja was gonna be the one to leave," Bradley says. "Knowing that, we made sure early on that it was the opposite, that Aja’s the one seen running away from home, and Krel is the one going through our version of a coronation ceremony. That way, it gave us a place to go with both characters."
The animation process helped with tweaking things, as Bradley says that it often enabled them to go back to episodes that were already written and plant story-seeds that would be needed later on. "Sometimes we would actually reverse-engineer ideas," she says, using Colonel Kubritz as an example. She had one episode in Part One but is a major antagonist in Part Two.
"She wasn’t supposed to be a big character in Part Two until we were in the middle of it. We were breaking it down, and we’d already written the Area 51 [Area 49B] episode of Part 1," Bradley explains, "so we went back and we changed some of her lines to give her more motivation, and to set her up to be a bigger character in Part 2. We knew we wanted to use her, we didn’t know how much."
Bradley explains that the character's "Earth-first, get rid of all aliens at whatever cost" attitude was meant to be absurd, though it doesn't feel that way nowadays. "We wrote her to be a cartoon, completely over the top, even silly at times," she says. "We were writing most of it in 2017, and here we are in 2019. The things she’s saying are now on Twitter, are now coming out of people’s mouths. We wrote her purposely, I thought, to be over the top."
The fact that Kubritz doesn't seem that cartoonlike is "terrifying," Bradley notes.
Kubritz's importance to the story came about mostly because Bradley and Guggenheim realized that Tales of Arcadia had never done a fully human villain. Trollhunter’s Strickler came close, but he’s not fully human, and he also gets redeemed fairly quickly. Why was the human factor important for Bradley in this instance?
"It’s important to understand this, for kids to understand that there will be people in authority, especially right now, who are wrong," she says. "Not every teacher, not every adult is right. Part of your job as you grow up is to look around and second-guess. Does this feel right? Is what I’m hearing, or what I’m being told, the right thing? The morally right thing, the ethically right thing?"
This is no small thing for an animated series to tackle, especially when that show includes an episode where a space-dog, Luug, teleports around by farting. How do you even begin to pull off that kind of balance without losing the stakes?
"It was a conscientious effort," Bradley says, adding that it required them to look at the season as a whole. She mentions that when doing that, they see they have a very dark episode that, for all intents and purposes, features an ICE-like squad of soldiers invading a high school. "That was one episode that was really tricky, because how serious and how scary do we go?" she says. "Right now, the last few years, school should be a safe place for a kid, but it’s not."
"We’d look at the season and be like, okay, we know we’re going to be building up to these dark episodes, especially with 3Below we knew the last few episodes were going to be heavy, and Luug is always such a fun character," Bradley says. "In my head as we were breaking Season 2, I thought, 'I want a Looney Tunes episode.’ We needed something that was super light, and super funny. We needed that if we’re gonna go so dark and serious in our finale. This is probably the last time our characters are going to be giggling before the finale."
One particular character that proved difficult to crack (and was a late addition) was Tronos, a late addition to the second part of 3Below. This new electric jellyfish creature looked monstrous, he acted monstrously, but then we found out why he was doing what he was doing, and discovered that he had a very good reason for wanting vengeance on Aja and Krel's royal parents. Bradley and the team were going to flip the story this time, and in doing so they wound up with one of the show's most powerful moments.
"There’s gonna be a reason for why he’s coming after Aja and Krel," Bradley says. "We knew he’s coming after them because of their parents. We had this idea, what if their parents weren’t perfect? A huge part of growing up is realizing that your parents are fallible people. Knowing they're doing the best they can, but they’re going to make mistakes because they’re people." Aja faces this in the episode "Asteroid Rage," written by Lila Scott. She makes amends to Tronos for the actions of her parents, and admits that those actions were wrong.
"That was a lot of conversations, that was a lot of playing with the characters, playing with the moments to get there," Bradley says. "It’s probably one of the moments I’m proudest of on the show."
3Below isn't the only thing on Bradley's plate, though. Marvel's SDCC panel recently revealed that she will be a writer and producer on the first animated series done in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a show called What If?
"I didn’t see it coming," she says. "I was pretty much wrapped on 3Below ... my amazing executive producer Brad Winderbaum, he invited me over to Marvel. They never tell you why, you show up for a meeting, you never have any clue why. He sits me down and he wanted to make an animated series. Fifteen minutes into the conversation I was in, I was sold, I wanted to do it more than anything."
She adds, "Basically, it’s [Marvel Studios President] Kevin Feige letting me have a box of my favorite toys and telling me to go play." Bradley quotes some advice that del Toro always gave her: "Keep pushing forward, keep pushing further in character, emotion, design, always go further ... which is a lesson I’ve brought over to Marvel."
Unfortunately for everyone looking forward to Wizards: Tales of Arcadia (the series that will wrap the entire Arcadia saga up), the Marvel project will mean she won't have time to be involved. "I’ll be watching Wizards as a fan, which is a weird position to be in, but one I’m excited for," she says.
Though she is moving on to tell a different story, the heroes and stories of Arcadia will certainly stay with her. She had an unexpected (yet inspiring) answer when we asked her who her favorite Tales of Arcadia character was. As it turns out, it's the lead from Trollhunters.
"I probably shouldn’t say this, but it’s Jim. Jim is my guy," she says. "The boys in the room love Toby because they can see themselves in Toby. I saw myself in Jim more than any character. I was raised by a single mom, I was a latchkey kid, and by the time I was 15, I realized that I was a pretty smart child. It became this thing, my mom said, 'You’ve got a brain, you’ve got to choose whether or not to use it.’ I remember feeling this pressure to do something well with my life. I felt a lot of kinship with Jim, in that he got the amulet, I got an IQ. Do something worthy of it."
3Below: Tales of Arcadia Parts 1 and 2 are streaming right now. Do something worthy.