HomeExaminerExaminer NewsWinding path leads area native to HBO series 'Animals.'

Winding path leads area native to HBO series ‘Animals.’

By Matthew Sockol
Staff Writer

A new series on HBO has been co-created by Phil Matarese, a former resident of Millstone Township and Freehold Township. Matarese and Mike Luciano are the creators of “Animals.”

“Animals.” is animated sketch-comedy. The series premiered on Feb. 5 and its first season concluded on April 8. The team behind “Animals.” is now working on the show’s second season.

“Animals.” depicts the lives of various animals living in New York City, including pigeons, rats, flies, dogs, cats and squirrels, as they deal with human-related conflicts.

Matarese, who resides in Los Angeles, lived in Millstone Township from the time he was in the third grade until he was a freshman in college.

“I loved it so much,” he said. “It was small enough that I could ride my bike to friend’s houses (and) spread out enough that we could throw shows and parties that wouldn’t get busted. Right between Philly and New York, too. I’m gonna get a Millstone Eagles tattoo. I love that place.”

Matarese said his parents moved to Freehold Township about five years ago.

“I identify as ‘from Freehold’ to most people out here in L.A. because it’s a bit more recognizable,” Matarese said. “And I can say I’m from the same town as Springsteen.”

He also holds a high regard of Freehold and restaurants in the area.

“I love Freehold, too!” Matarese said. “I dream about the Court Jester’s wings and the Cabin’s boneless wings. I’m a wing boy, baby.”

While he identifies New Jersey and New York as his home, Matarese also speaks positively of his current residence – Los Angeles.

“I don’t really believe in the NYC vs L.A. thing,” Matarese said. “Why is it a competition? They are both great places that can exist simultaneously. People are generally cool everywhere. Thinking otherwise is reductive and small. Earth rules.”

When asked about the career path he intended to follow, Matarese admits he was not certain of the occupation he wanted.

“I’d always been a little messy in the career department,” he said. “It was something that would literally keep me up at night since I was 13 years old. I just knew I wanted to be in a general area of creative, funny, a little dark, a little silly. I’d always imagined I’d end up being a writer.”

He made note of his love for animation.

“I’ve always loved animation,” he said. “I think when I first saw ‘Adventure Time,’ I thought to myself, ‘I would love to have that.’ I even wrote a spec script for that show.”

Matarese majored in advertising copywriting, acknowledging he was scared and confused during most of his years in college. After graduating, he worked in an advertising agency in New York as a copywriter, where he met Luciano, who was a video editor.

The duo developed the inspiration for their series “Animals.” by pretending that two pigeons outside of their office building were having a conversation.

“I guess messing around and not wanting to do regular work inspired us,” Matarese said. “I think it’s important to joke around with your friends (and) co-workers. There’s a secret power to it. You’re secretly creating, be it jokes or bits or whatever.”

While still working at the ad agency in 2012, Matarese and Luciano turned the concept of animals holding conversations into a web series of short cartoons. They then made a 12-minute short and submitted it to the 2013 New York Television Festival (NYTVF).

“We both just really like making stuff,” Matarese said. “We had only known each other for, like, a month before starting the first shorts, so it was just kind of instantaneous. We never really thought about it that much.

“I think if we had at that time really focused on it becoming a TV show, we would have given up on it. That’s too large (a way) of thinking, too daunting. It felt right to make these little shorts. It felt right to make a little 12-minute episode.”

The short won Best Comedy Pilot at the NYTVF, which put Matarese and Luciano in contact with Mark Duplass and Jay Duplass of Duplass Brothers Productions, an independent film and television production company.

According to Matarese, the Duplass brothers presented him and Luciano with the idea of making “Animals.” independently with their funding.

“After all that, with the backing of the Duplass brothers and other animators, it felt right to make a TV show,” Matarese said.

Matarese and Luciano accepted the Duplass brothers’ offer, quit their jobs and moved to California in February 2014.

“We worked in an apartment in Los Feliz (a neighborhood in Los Angeles) for nine months and made two full episodes with only five dudes,” Matarese said. “We screened them at Sundance 2015 as a big kickoff to the world. HBO bought it after that. Then we took another eight months to finish the rest of the season!”

HBO bought the series after Matarese and Luciano presented network executives with the two completed episodes that were shown at Sundance, an entire season’s worth of scripts and completed voice-overs.

The voice-over performances of “Animals.” are improvised.

“Humans are used to hearing a natural conversation,” Matarese said, discussing the benefits of improvised performances. “It feels good. It’s believable. So to have little rats and dogs having very natural conversations is inherently funny.”

The series features voice work from performers including Aziz Ansari, Wanda Sykes, ASAP Rocky, Jessica Chastain and Jon Lovitz.

“Our show doesn’t have that many big, outlandish characters, so when we bring in these great people to record, we want their personalities and eccentricities to come through,” Matarese said.

He also acknowledges there are disadvantages to the improvised performances.

“The disadvantages are having to edit down all that improvised dialogue,” he said. “My partner (Luciano) handles most of that and it is a feat.”

While the first season of “Animals.” has ended, Matarese and Luciano are working on the second season and they also intend to create music videos.

“Ideally, we would do this show forever and just become (“South Park” creators) Matt Stone and Trey Parker,” Matarese said. We’ve got other really fun ideas, too. Shows, movies, etc. Honestly, I was hoping to parlay this heat into a music career, too, so I’m in looking into that.”

Matarese said he is thankful for the opportunity he has received.

“It’s really a dream come true,” he said. “I am truly grateful every day that this is my job. I am grateful for the artists and comedians who lend us their talents. I am grateful for everyone in production and at HBO who keep it running. It’s all, just, insane.”

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