Dreams are a singularly bizarre and engaging subject. They are entire narratives, devoid of the restrictions of reality, that our brains cobble together while we sleep and anyone who brushes them off as random nonsense is dead wrong. And while “it was all a dream” storylines are the worst, entire shows or movies about purposefully entering a character’s dream can be the best – just ask any bro who’s seen Inception.
Enter a new show that takes the notion of dream diving to depths of absurdity Christopher Nolan could never, well, dream of. Brought to you courtesy of the masterful absurdists at Adult Swim (with the help of producers John Krasinski and Stephen Merchant), Dream Corp, LCC centers around a retro-future psychotherapeutic facility that cures patients of what ails ‘em by tinkering with their dreams. Given that the facility is run by the less-than-competent, totally mad Dr. Roberts (Napoleon Dynamite’s Jon Gries) and his team of bumbling scientists, hilarity ensues.
The bizarre, 15-minute show (which, by the by, uses Retroscope animation to capture the dream sequences) comes from the mind of Daniel Stessen, a writer/director/producer who, believe it or not, drew on personal experience to develop the concept. We chat with Stessen about Dream Corp, night terrors and a very peculiar deleted scene involving June Squibb and bologna.
Dream Corp LLC airs Sunday nights on Adult Swim.
Let me just start by saying this show is totally bonkers in the best possible way. Where did the idea come from?
Thank you! I think the origin of the idea is mix of a court-ordered child therapist named Paul Z and Singularity.
I was having night terrors as a boy and it got to the point where I was too scared to fall asleep. I was seeing Paul Z already during my parents’ divorce – I told him about the night terrors and how I woke up in my next door neighbors parent’s bedroom, sobbing and screaming, “They’re coming! They’re coming!” Paul Z, in real life, helped me figure out the meaning of that reoccurring dream while made a boondoggle. After we figured out what the scary image in my dream was, I never had that dream again. I wonder where Paul Z is right now. Paul Z, if you’re reading this, thank you.
Over the last decade I’ve become fascinated with the idea of living forever. Singularity and Transhumanism. These theories didn’t seem like science fiction when they were first introduced to me. It became a habit to pace around my house and think about how we will achieve these feats…but more so how funny it will be to people in 100 years. We all have an image in our heads about what the future looks like. It’s always so clean. We always seem to skip a few steps of beta stages that actually bring us to the future. First generation technology is and always will be funny just by looking at it. Zach Morris’ phone: Funny.
How does one go about pitching a show like this?
So many combinations of things, including timing and preparation. Dream Corp has actually been in development at Adult Swim since May of 2013. A rotoscoped short film I made with Michael Garza [lead character animator of Dream Corp] called The Gold Sparrow, was doing well at festivals around the world at the time, so I had that in hand to show and prove we could pull off the animation. The hard part wasn’t necessarily pitching the idea of a doctor who could walk through your dreams, it was simplifying this huge world so that everyone could digest it in a quarter hour format. [John] Krasinski and [Stephen] Merchant have been amazing mentors throughout this process. They, as well as the development team over at Adult Swim, really helped me get to the core of the show, which wasn’t necessarily about this crazy world as much as it is a story about a manic doctor and his unremarkable team.
Given that it’s quite out there and that it airs late at night on Adult Swim, who do you imagine your audience to be?
I hope fans of British comedies like Peep Show, and The Office give us a shot because those shows are inspirations of mine. But in the end, everyone dreams, so I really have no idea who will connect to it. Being human is a strange thing to have to go through. So, if someone can forget about reality for a little while, that would satisfy me.
The June Squibb episode was amazing. How did you go about getting her and what was she like on set?
June Squibb! Holy shit, she’s a force of nature. We reached out to her cold and offered her the role. June said yes because she loves Merchant. She and Steve worked on the film Table 19 together earlier in the year and had a blast together. On set she was so trusting and fearless. June made us all better at our jobs and, in all honestly, boosted the morale of everyone on set. There were some outrageous things her character did that we didn’t even have time to include, such as rubbing bologna all over her face because she “was so itchy.” We need to put that scene in the DVD extras.
I think part of the reason the show is so successful is because of the brevity of the episodes, which is something that’s pretty unique to Adult Swim. Had you always envisioned the episodes being this length? What are some of the advantages and challenges of working within those time constraints?
I was just happy to have the opportunity to make the show at all – whether they gave me 6 hours or 3 minutes, I was going to make it work. I do well when given a set of rules to stay within. I grew up watching Daffy Duck and Aeon Flux, so I understood and took pride in the quarter hour format because those and the other shows on Looney Tunes and Liquid Television were what had shaped me early on as a writer. The advantages to the format are that you trim the fat. Everything that is on screen needs to be there.
The challenges were what to lose. Our first cuts run about 13 minutes and most of the time you can’t imagine what to even could go away, but when we focus on story it always helps us trim that 2 minutes needed. Sometimes we will lose an entire scene to make it work. This is not an easy show to cut in the first place – every actor has a camera on them and we are in a round room. Traditionally a dinner table scene is one of the more difficult things to edit, yea? Editing Dream Corp is like working on a massive dinner table scene where a food fight is inevitable. I think our editors are the best in the game.
I remember seeing Waking Life super stoned in high school and thinking it was the coolest thing I had ever seen. When did you first see that film and how did you react to it? What has your experience been like working in that medium?
I rented Waking Life so many times on VHS that the guy at the store ended up selling it to me. When I first saw it, it cracked my mind wide open. I love the medium so much because you can create impossible shots. Swinging a jib over someone who is walking on a tight rope 500 feet in the air… circling an actor with a steady cam in 360 while she is in a full sprint. These are things you just can’t do in real life, yet we are using the real actor to accomplish it.
Do you think our dreams have “meaning?”
What’s the last dream you had that you can remember?
I keep returning to see a sapling that I planted in the backyard of the first house my dad and I ever lived in when I was in fourth grade. It’s a cute little pine tree that our school had us all buy and plant for Arbor Day. When I see the tree in my dream, I am me in the present time and the tree is looking so tall and healthy. It’s also always nighttime when I go back to visit the tree. In the forest around me is a busy and happy village of friendly people all warm in their tents and tree houses silhouetted by campfires and oil lamps. It feels like if the Na’vi people went Glamping. I’m led into one of the main tents to receive food and information and then I wake up before either is delivered. I’ve had the dream several times this year. I think I have to go back and see the tree in real life this winter.