You’ve most likely seen writer Steve Dildarian’s work before. That is, if you’ve watched major league sports events in the past 10 years or any television in general. Dildarian worked as a copywriter for world-renowned San Francisco advertising agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, where he created a series of spots about a certain set of amphibians for a beer company. After giving Budweiser lizards and an eager donkey something to talk about, he worked with girlfriend Leynete Cariapa to create the short film Angry Unpaid Hooker, a prelude to the new animated series The Life & Times of Tim set to debut on HBO on September 28.
Photos courtesy of HBO/ Jason Merritt; HBO/ TIMS LIFE PRODUCTION
JoshSpear.com: The show feels different from other animated series in that the protagonist is a city-dwelling everyman trying to get through life one awkward situation at a time. Is Tim an autobiographical character for you?
Steve Dildarian: Tim shares a lot of my points of view on the world and on people. I write from my own attitudes and the way I see the world, which you can see in the topics this show takes on — religion, corporate America, and the like. We're not out to make a point like South Park. If anything, Tim is the normal guy in the room in these situations.
JS: You've written other pilots and have worked on the Angry Unpaid Hooker concept for years. What has the past year been like for you?
SD: It's been crazy. My girlfriend Leynete and I started working on this idea as a short in 2005, and neither of us knew anything about animation. I drew some characters with Bic pens, then put them in iMovie after Leynete filled them in in Photoshop. They started as 10-second videos that resembled characters talking in flip books. We liked the underproduced crudeness we were creating and decided to stick with it. You'll see that the characters now don't walk while they're talking. The editing is well-timed though, and we work to make the sounds and movement feel fluid.
Now that our process for the show includes 20 people, we're still trying to replicate that same style and not overcomplicate things. We brought on a team of illustrators, after effects people, and editors who don't have animation backgrounds. We didn't have a lot of time to bring the team together, so we had to go on gut instinct in deciding who to bring on. We wanted to ensure that their taste levels and personalities were in line with ours.
JS: What is your writing process like?
SD: For the Bud lizards, once we had the core joke and established characters, I could write the copy in a short amount of time. It didn't feel labor intensive. My work is situation-driven, not joke-driven. When I'm writing a good piece or have a clear idea for an episode, there is no struggle in writing. It feels effortless and starts writing itself. I tend to analyze after the fact and look at the themes later.
JS: How has your writing schedule changed now that the show is in production?
SD: I'm in L.A. from Monday through Wednesday and in Northern California the rest of the time. Being up here allows my peace of mind to be priority number one, and it lets me write and think straight. I'm pretty much working always, and I have a piece of paper with me all the time. Most days I walk our dog to a fishing boat I bought and stay out there from about 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Most of the show has been written on that boat. I'm pretty disciplined, but I can't sit all the time. At any time I've got a good hour in me to write, and I work on the boat and spend time with the dog during that time too.
The biggest challenge in this process has been going from being a writer doing his own show on a boat to being the guy who's in charge. It went from being a cozy arrangement with my girlfriend, making a little film, to bringing in 20 strangers to replicate that makeshift, homemade process. There's the sudden responsibility to keep people motivated and know when to be firm or delicate. You realize it's important to slow down and use the same 30 seconds it takes to react rudely to someone when you're stressed as it does to be nice.
With the show, the thing I'd really like to pass along to our staff is a strong work ethic. I've always got a new round of notes and am continually working. I think it's the nature of any creative person to never stop rewriting, reediting. With strict deadlines, it often boils down to how long people work and whether we leave at six or ten.
JS: You work with your long-term girlfriend. In what ways is it different from other working partnerships you've been in?
SD: I've been accused of not being the most collaborative person, and in this business a lot of people put up barriers. But I was with two of my partners in advertising for three or four years. I know it works when I'm with someone who challenges me and makes me better than I am. Often that's a person who's more knowledgeable than I am, and they push me to do something that's a bit more intelligent and nuanced. You realize that the end product isn't about you, and I've learned to surround myself with good people and not be so rigid.
This is our first project together. It's been a head down period, and we haven't figured it out perfectly. On the next go round we'll need to find a way to take the pressure off, but there's no letting up until the work is done right now.
JS: What would you like to see happen with the show? Did you sign on with HBO in hopes that people would quote the show in a Flight of the Conchords way?
SD: HBO believes in giving freedom to the voice and vision of the show as it's written. They're opinionated but they don't forget why they bought the show. It really frees the creators up to tell the story. And it's great to know we have the freedom to write episodes that vary from 20 to 30 minutes.
I really just hope there's an audience for the show. My gut says there will be. People have tended to respond to my humor in a broad way — my work has crossed a lot of ages, themes, and styles. This show is definitely more risquÃ© than the "Pizza pizza" work for Little Caesars, for example.
I think I've got enough stories to tell for the show to last a while. At the beginning I thought, how will I write 20 of these? But it evolves. The series started with Amy, the girlfriend character, being pretty one-dimensional. By the end we knew she needed to be less of a joke and more of a real person. The show is essentially a character-driven story that tells about relatable situations in an animated way.
I used to wonder why every other animated show was so over the top. Why is there not a show about an average guy if so many of them are watching animated series? I came to this not as someone who watched those shows but as someone who had a point of view. We wanted to create something that could be funny in a smarter, more understandable way. And the fact that it's set in New York helps.
JS: You've spent your career with top ad agencies and networks. What are your recommendations for people vying for entry level jobs and first deals at those places now?
SD: Television and advertising aren't all that different — you're making it from scratch as you go along. All I know is what I did — I didn't have a backup plan. If you do, it's like a ticking clock until you fall back on it. And not stopping — I've been writing TV pilots for 10 years, which is a long time. Success is often a measure of who's stuck it out the longest. I know a lot of people who gave up when they really could have made it happen with one more year of work.
JS: What television shows and films have had the most impact on you?
SD: Growing up on the East Coast, I really liked Honeymooners. Curb Your Enthusiasm was the first thing that really made me sit up since then. It was an eye-opening experience as a writer. It showed me that I could write for TV too — it demystified the process. Seeing that I could write about my own attitudes and the point of view of the main character really clicked for me.
As for films, there was a lot that I didn't see until recently — Godfather, ET, I would sneak into whatever you would watch as a horny teenager, but I didn't watch many in college and didn't have time to much after that. I was pretty out of the loop. But always, all that matters is whether it gets me. I don't look at films critically or as a piece of work. It just matters if the story really gets me.
JS: How would you describe your younger self, the one who was sneaking into Porky's?
SD: I was very much in the middle. I wasn't a jock or a person who got picked on — I could easily slip in either direction. A lot of creative people were like that when they were younger, I think. It lets you develop your personality traits and defense mechanisms. As a result my comedy came out of a very real place — my effort to communicate with the world. It's like the way an animal adapts to the world.
Writing gave me a chance to get out of public speaking and prove to people that I had a good personality. If anything, writing a TV show was my plan A from the time I was 15. It's creative and challenging. And with the digital changes and lines being blurred now, you get to try so much you haven't done before.
JS: Where will you watch the first episode when it airs?
SD: We had initially talked about a wrap party, but watching other people watch my work is unbearable to me. During the Super Bowl I used to watch by myself knowing that it was playing around the country. It's more relaxing to watch my work in a vacuum, knowing it's floating through the airwaves.