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Exclusive Interview: Joe Bennett and James Merrill talk ‘Scavengers Reign’

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Scavengers Reign ended its incredible first season last week with the finale episode, “The Reunion.” The MAX original animated sci-fi show, set mainly on the treacherous alien planet Vesta Minor, follows the survivors of the Demeter cargo freighter as they navigate the planet teeming with life and danger. Scavengers Reign, a beautifully animated show with deep thought behind the art and story and unsurprisingly is in the top three shows on MAX right now. It’s easy to see why: this weird and excellent trip is super engaging and frankly, enthralling.

In our interview with Joe Bennett and James Merill, we talked about translating the original Scavengers short into a fully realized 12-episode season. We chatted about how writing Levi was challenging with the fast growth of robotics tech from places like Boston Dynamics. We talked about Kamen’s journey, and also about how talent like Loki’s Wunmi Mosaku blew them away. 

The interview with Joe Bennett and James Merrill of Scavengers Reign

[Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. There are also spoilers ahead for Scavengers Reign.]

Ayla Ruby: “First of all, thank you so much. I love the show. It’s so pretty.”

Joe Bennett: “Amazing. Thank you.”

Ayla Ruby: “So it started in 2016 with the short Scavengers. Can you talk about a little bit, so the process from a short to a full-on series?”

Joe Bennett: “Yeah, so I think the idea with the short, I was thinking of it to be a more self-contained thing. So, I was thinking a lot about symbiotic relationships and following this visual narrative through this Rube Goldberg routine. And you see these Easter eggs… When it translated to a series, I think a lot of it was cherry-picking what you could, like the planet. I think I wanted to keep a lot of the fauna and flora and organisms and creatures and stuff in that planet and still keep it very rich and all that stuff. But rethinking the character arcs a little bit just because it has to be a longer series and that sort of thing.”

“But yeah, it certainly had its challenges, but they feel very different. And I’ve said this in other interviews, but there was a period where I wanted to even try to do the series with no dialogue, and the network did not want that. And in hindsight, I’m actually glad we didn’t go that direction because I think it would’ve been stifling creatively.”

On whether the original pilot was different than what aired on MAX

Ayla Ruby: “So I talked to Sean [Buckelew] and Benjy [Brooke] earlier, and they talked about, so there was a pilot, and then it was there for a little bit, and then you guys worked on the rest of the season. So, was the pilot way back when really different than what aired?”

Joe Bennett: “No, no. In fact, it’s basically identical. There was a couple things that we had to add in the beginning and end of it, but it was pretty much the same. The pilot got picked up by Adult Swim, and then there was a lull, and then MAX picked it up a few years later. So there was, of course, a few things as we were developing out, building out the series, things that we wanted to of back and have, but yeah, pretty close to the same.”

Scavengers Reign – Season 1 – Episode 1. (Max)

Ayla Ruby: “So Joe, you were on the project originally. I think, James, but you were newer to the project, right?”

James Merrill: “I came on when it got picked up to series and came on when the writer’s room started. And yeah, it was such a thrill. I’ve known Joe for years, but getting to work and I think everybody in the community who knew about this project knew it was the most exciting thing if it would go. And when it did get greenlit, yeah, it was thrilling, and it was thrilling to take these characters and help break them down and figure out where they could go and find the pressure points of, like, oh, the story needs to turn here and what can we do to make this more exciting.”

“It was a journey. It was a lot of iterating on the overall story and each specific episodes, and when are the characters going to intertwine, if they intertwine, no spoilers, but how we’re going to handle all that. And yeah, it was a thrill, and couldn’t be happier with how the process went.”

Ayla Ruby: “Well, season six, or not season six, maybe. So, episode six is out today, and that was a really, really emotional episode. I was just watching it earlier, and I felt so bad for Levi. So this is the episode where, as you said, storylines are starting to come together, whereas they were separate before. What does it mean going forward now that Kamen and Azi and poor Levi, all of that is happening?”

James Merrill: “Yeah, things are getting shaken up. I know what happens.”

On the overall themes for the second half of Scavengers Reign

Ayla Ruby: “Can you hint at it for the next six episodes?”

James Merrill: “Well, I think just narratively, I would say the setup of the show is so great, and Joe, and Charles [Huettner], as the creators, set this world up, and there was this intersection point naturally in the series with all the characters traveling to the downed spaceship. So we knew eventually, if we wanted to have characters intersect, it would happen there. And as we were just playing with it and talking about it, and the writer’s room, and Joe and Charles and everybody, just considering, well, if we do mix them up sooner and maybe add some more elements, it can just add complexity, add to the themes that we’re hitting on, really just an opportunity for more interesting storytelling, I would say, in my opinion.”

“So yeah, really light on the spoilers, but the intersecting characters, yeah, I think we’ll see more of that type of thing going forward.”

Joe Bennett: “I would also add that a big part of this was we wanted to do as light hinting with backstory and things like that as possible. I think that this was a thing that was just ultimately, from the get-go, treating the audience that’s going to be watching this like, these are smart people, and you don’t need to hold their hand. And people could figure things out. And if they don’t figure things out, maybe sometimes that’s okay. There’s plenty of things that I didn’t understand that I grew up with, and I love it. So there was a lot of that. I think it was just being careful with how much exposition we’re giving away and that sort of thing.”

On the challenges of writing for Levi in the face of real-life tech advancement

Ayla Ruby: “So these characters, they kind of all intersect. Can you talk about was anyone really fun to write for? Was anyone your favorite? Was there anything really exciting to bring to screen? Or maybe someone like you struggled with their story?”

Joe Bennett: “Yeah, I will say off the bat, Levi was a struggle because when we first started, a lot of this was looking at what Boston Dynamics was doing, and we were thinking about a utility bot, and just the idea of this is a robot that does not have AI and is just a utility and functions. And literally, the amount of time that we spent working on this show, Boston Dynamics, evolved so much. It became so advanced that it really was like, oh, we were getting worried. Are we going to look super antiquated by the time this thing comes out?”

“And so a lot of that came into, especially with voices, like Levi’s voices, there were early versions, early iterations where we would record Alia Shawkat and have her do a little bit more of a robotic voice. And it was like, oh, well, that’s gone. Now you have Siri and all these, I just initiated it, all these different voices that sound very human. And so it’s like, okay, well then, let’s go that direction. So I felt like it was a fun challenge, but it certainly was trying to work with the times a little bit. I don’t know if James has-“

On Kamen (voiced by Ted Travelstead)

James Merrill: “Yeah, agreed, and I would say to add to that, my favorite probably character that I write for, I’m going to choose Kamen. The bad characters are, to me, really fun.”

Ayla Ruby: “Is he bad?”

James Merrill: “I think we’ve seen him do bad things, and well, it’s a character filled with impetuousness, selfishness, but then ultimately, I think you do feel for him. And if we’re talking up to episode six, we’ve seen him do some unforgivable things and exploring how somebody lives with themselves after they’ve done something that they can’t forgive themselves for, I find very interesting. And just also, Ted [Travelstead] the actor, is such a joy to work with, and just working with him was so fun.”

“So yeah, Kamen is a blast. I love all of our characters, but if I had to pick one that was the most fun to write, just because Kamen his storyline is so juicy, that would probably be my choice here.”

Scavengers Reign – Kamen, voiced by Ted Travelstead. (Max)

On casting the voice talent for Scavengers Reign

Ayla Ruby: “You both have mentioned the amazing voice talent on the show. Can you talk about what casting was like? How did your voices come to be? Did you just know instantly? What was it like?”

Joe Bennett: “No, didn’t know instantly. This is a funny thing where we were, again, trying to keep the show as grounded and naturalistic as possible. We were listening to actors a lot of the times when they were not acting, like actors in interviews and things like that, hearing their real voice, not having characters put on a voice, basically. And so, there were some people that I’d worked with already and other projects, and then other people that we just were looking around and just felt like it was the most fitting. But that was a big part of it was just really trying to get the person to evoke, almost just be themselves as much as possible and evoke feeling out of that.”

James Merrill: “Yeah, that’s true. And I think all of our actors too, they’re very charming, personable people with an interesting quality to their natural voices. But when you get somebody like Wunmi Mosaku, who’s just also A plus level performer and just an incredible actor, I think we really got lucky with most, if not all, of our casting and the choices that were presented to us, and just people being willing to get into this strange journey with us.”

Joe Bennett: “Exactly. And get emotional, really kind of get fired up. Yeah, Wunmi was phenomenal.”

On recording the audio for Scavengers Reign

Ayla Ruby: “Now, were they all in a studio? What was the recording like? Because it sounds really cool trying to just bring those performances.”

Joe Bennett: “Well, we made this during the pandemic, and so most of the actors were recorded separately in recording booths, and we had to Frankenstein it all together. It was a lot of weird tricks that we had. A lot of it was playing the animatic via Zoom or whatever, but they had to use a lot of imagination in there, and it’s why we were so blown away with how little they had to go off of and what they were able to do. It’s very cool.”

James Merrill: “It was an interesting challenge at first, but I think I came to prefer doing it this way. Because generally, you would go into the recording booth physically with somebody, and you have a recording engineer there, and possibly you’re recording as an ensemble where another actor comes in. In this series, we talked early on about recording the pairs together, so Sam and Ursula would record together, and Azi and Levi. But yeah, like Joe said, we weren’t able to do that.”

“But with the Zoom of it all and recording them in that way, we could share materials through Zoom. But also something we could do is really do writing on the fly and pitching on the fly and share screen of just a new line or a new way of saying things. And we would always lean towards naturalism, which goes into what Joe was saying before about wanting to see how somebody speaks in their natural voice or what their personality is like. So it really gave us the ability to see how somebody would say something and then do a quick rephrasing of it and get it. And I don’t know that we would’ve been able to do that if we had done it in our original plan. So, even though it was challenging, there were some benefits that definitely came out of it. It was fun. I ended up really enjoying the experience, too.”

Ursula (Sunita Mani) in Scavengers Reign episode 3. (MAX)
Ursula (Sunita Mani) in Scavengers Reign episode 3. (MAX)

On pulling beauty and epicness out of the mundane

Ayla Ruby: “I have to ask; I think this might even be my last question, but I have to ask about the animation. So it’s all so beautifully drawn, and it’s won awards, and just it all comes together greatly. Was there anything, any sequences or anything that was just really cool that really turned out that you were really proud of? Besides all of it because, it’s all amazing.”

Joe Bennett: “No, for sure. We definitely were thinking about trying to find as many little vignettes in each episode as possible, at least having every episode have a couple of vignettes. For instance, the creature that Ursula looks at in episode three in the bush wall. And having that feel very self-contained, its own little story within the episode. And I guess a lot of it was also just trying to pull as much beauty and epicness out of something that feels very mundane. And I think we were trying to do that as much as possible.”

“But when we did pull those scenes, and we knew what we were working with, it was all hands on deck just trying to make everything feel as clean and beautiful, and yeah, we would be very precious about it. I think that it was also because we don’t have a ton of fighting scenes, or whatever you want to call it; it was thinking of it more, of finding moments, even if it’s a sad emotional beat or a dramatic beat, and really giving it the same love as you would something like an anime fight scene or something. I don’t know.”

On what folks should ultimately know about Scavengers Reign

Ayla Ruby: “That makes a lot of sense. And I talked about the flower sequence you mentioned earlier because I was just so blown away by it. It was beautiful. And so, is there anything you want people to know about Scavengers Reign? Is there anything that they should take away from it?”

Joe Bennett: “I think everybody that worked on it was extremely passionate about it. I feel like a nice family came from it, and I am so fortunate, so lucky to have just such a maverick, incredible crew that worked on it. And yeah, I hope that if there’s anything to take away from this, just an appreciation for how much time and, effort, and sweat we poured into this thing. We didn’t want to really take any shortcuts, and we’re all big fans of traditional animation and really doing the in-betweens and really doing the hand drawing and all that stuff. And so we tried to get as much as that as we could in the show. Yeah, I don’t know. James, do you have anything to add to that?”

James Merrill: “No, I think that was very well said. I mean, maybe what do I want people to know? Every viewer counts; tell your friends.”

Joe Bennett: “Yeah, please tell your friends.”

James Merrill: “Like it.”

Joe Bennett: “Yeah.”

Ayla Ruby: “Well, thank you both so much. This has been lovely.”

Joe Bennett: “Thank you.”

How to watch Scavengers Reign

All of the episodes of Scavengers Reign are now streaming on MAX . Check them out, and like James and Joe said, tell your friends! You can also check out our review of the series and another exclusive interview via the links below!

Scavengers Reign Review: A Disturbing and Beautiful Animation Achievement

Scavengers Reign review banner

Exclusive Interview: Sean Buckelew & Benjy Brooke of Scavengers Reign

Scavengers Reign Interview

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Ayla Ruby

I am a writer and interviewer based somewhere in the Alpha Quadrant. I love all things nerdy - but Star Trek and Spiderman have special places in my heart. Find me at @TulinWrites on Twitter. And visit my other website for more reviews and interviews: movieswetextedabout.com

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