Scavengers Reign Creators Reflect on the Epic Sci-Fi Story

The following contains spoilers for Scavengers Reign, streaming now on Max.

One of the biggest animated surprises of the year is the Max original series Scavengers Reign, a science fiction survivalist series that concluded its 12-episode season this November. After a spaceship crashes on a remote planet filled with its own distinct wildlife, the survivors attempt to traverse the harsh landscape to return to the wreckage in the hopes that they can escape. However, with plenty of deadly alien species, including a telepathic entity known simply as Hollow, this country will prove more dangerous than they anticipated.

In an exclusive postgame interview with CBR, Scavengers Reign writer and executive producer Sean Buckelew and supervising director Benjy Brooke talked about the twists and turns the animated series took across the first season, explained the deeper themes and character arcs behind the story, and teased the creative possibilities of a second season.

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Hollow uses their telepathic powers

CBR: Hollow starts out as this adorable creature and turns into this ravenous, sinister monster. How was it charting their trajectory across this season?

Sean Buckelew: There were a lot of discussions about the anthropomorphization of people projecting things onto animals. We talked a lot about dolphins and how dolphins have what humans would perceive as a smile but are pretty smart and do horrible things to each other with a kind of vindictiveness and violence. But because they have that smile, they’ll forever be Flipper to us, and we’ll be like, “Oh, they’re so cute!”

With Hollow, there was a feeling of this thing being neutral. It doesn’t have any intent. Typically, in its life cycle, it just brainwashes these little creatures. Hollow has the brain of a squirrel, and these creatures have the brain of a mouse, and that’s as advanced as it ever gets. There’s a cap on how sophisticated the thing can be, but it has this ability to mind-meld with things. When it mind-melds with Kamen, who is not only a human with an advanced brain but is a broken man in a lot of ways, this creature that should have no access to this brain power gets it from a bad source.

It’s the two of them influencing and goading each other. You can see, at the beginning, Hollow is using this advanced brain to get larger and larger prey. It was trying to contextualize it with a rational, natural explanation.

One of my favorite scenes in the season is Hollow, with Kamen inside them, finding Fiona’s body and lying by it. It calls into question how much one is influencing the other.

Benjy Brooke: It seems [like], by the end, they’re sharing one soul with one inhabited body and mind. That moment is like one of those videos where you see a cat crawl up to a phone when it sees a picture of its dead owner. There’s just something universally appealing and tragic about that kind of thing [and] the fact that Kamen becomes an animal and Hollow becomes a human.

Buckelew: It triggers this weird, subconscious therapy session when you crawl up to the dead body of the spouse where it was sort of your fault that you force majeured her, or whatever. I think, by the end, we found them having equal agency, but we also treated Hollow like an animal instead of a thinking person. It’s maybe got slightly more refined instincts by the end, but it’s still scrambling to survive rather than anything more devious.

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Kris surveys Vesta

Exactly halfway through the series, you introduce a new group of scavengers, which serves as something of a wild card. How was it bringing that element into the show?

Buckelew: Part of it was practical, trying to let these stories play out in their natural course. We had a parallel Hollow narrative and a parallel Levi narrative in our heads. We knew it was going to reach this climax, but I don’t think we totally knew when, when we set forth. It became more of a thing of not trying to parse this thing out as long as we could, and then get to Episode 12. If it’s getting to a point where it feels like these two things can converge in Episode 6, let’s pay it off in Episode 6.

When you start having that conversation in the writers’ room, if Levi gets ripped apart, having a character by themselves is just not going to be that interesting, so let’s twist this thing. It’s also about having interesting characters that complement Azi in a particular way. It’s important that Azi is with these people because Kris and Azi are going to butt heads in a more electric way than Kris and Ursula would butt heads.

Brooke: It opened up an opportunity to show how characters coming to this planet by choice interact with it and how characters who are introduced for the first time and are fresh interact with it because most of the characters you see, other than Charlie, have been there for months before the story starts. There’s something refreshing about that, especially for three characters who are brazen and overconfident to interact with the planet. Immediately, the consequences of that are apparent. It was definitely shaking up the dynamic in an interesting way.

Buckelew: There are so few characters, and it’s kind of a long con for some of the characters, but we don’t actually have the storylines meet until Episode 6, which I think was a fun and deliberate choice. Once we got there, we were like, “It’s actually kind of fun to have people talking to each other about things that aren’t just necessarily the planet!” [laughs] It was introducing new dynamics, and we held off on a lot of these things on purpose. The next meeting isn’t until Episode 11.

We talked a little about Daenerys in Game of Thrones and what a crazy choice it was to have this completely separate storyline that wouldn’t come around until many seasons later. Let’s be patient with that because, when they do, it’ll pay off because you’re really anticipating this moment. Those characters were great. Kris was maybe the most fun to write just because she doesn’t apologize for anything. [laughs]

Brooke: Barry became a favorite of everyone working on the show because he introduced an innocent element into the show and [was] somebody who grew up on the fringes of the galaxy. There were a lot of conversations about how he grew up, and there was a backstory of Barry and some trauma that didn’t get described in the actual show. It was in the back of our minds as we were working on the character. He’s just such an interesting person and an element to throw into the mix, where suddenly they have to think about caring for this kid who has an innocence about him.

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Barry checks his compass

There are a lot of quieter moments that show off the landscape and creatures. How did you figure out the pacing for each episode and the season overall?

Buckelew: Benjy had assembled this insane team of artists, just incredible people. With Benjy himself guiding that, it immediately gave us confidence to slow this down and have slightly ambiguous scenes in the script that we know are going to be filled out in an interesting way. That’s the bread and butter of the show, so we baked it in early and let it be big elements of the plot, knowing confidently from early stages that these artists [were] going to bring real magic to it. It’ll pay off if you give a page to a creature because maybe it’ll be the best part of the episode.

Brooke: Philosophically, I’d say it’s something that all of us as artists — Joe Bennett, Sean, myself, James Merrill, Charles Huettner — and all the artists that we’ve been working with for the last 10 years, we all wanted to bring this feeling to animation. You can sit on a shot a little longer than you’d expect to. You can keep the camera steady, just as a philosophy about filmmaking, and apply that to a story.

What’s great is that people are inundated with such frenetic action and animation in general, with so much information overload right now, to present something that’s slower and done well is a shock to the system in a way that speed used to be a shock to the system. We’re at a good place in media history to be able to slow it down and have that be a surprise.

What did the series bible look like in terms of creating this vast, interconnected ecosystem and how it operated before the arrival of humanity?

Brooke: It all started with the writing. You guys were just constantly writing ideas, pitching, and shifting.

Buckelew: It was a little bit of plot driving the creatures in certain ways. In the case of the snails laying eggs on the beach, the bigger, super-structure of the episode is that there’s a storm on Vesta. That came first, and then it felt like there was going to be this fun thing where everyone takes shelter. At that point, it felt like Sam and Ursula were more brazen and aggressive about going inside of things. Whatever womb fantasies we had, they were the ones that were going to act that out. Then it felt like they were going to go into the womb belly of this mother snail, this creature that protects its young with a snorkel thing.

That evolved into, “What if that was part of a cycle of feeding when it rains? These beetles go around prowling because they know this happens, and all the babies are going to be defenseless at the bottom of the snorkel tube.” It gets screwed up when you put people in the middle of it because they kill the beetle, and that’s not what’s supposed to happen. It’s a little bit of everything, needing something to be more exciting and then thinking about it in the dimension of natural life cycles.

I think that happened a lot, trying to show the complete cycle, like when Sam gets pricked with the thing and becomes a doppelgänger. But let’s see this through and show that this isn’t just a random occurrence that’s bad. This is this plant’s way of propagating by extracting DNA from creatures, infiltrating groups of creatures it presumably needs to grow, and that’s how you get this expansive forest. You get this natural sense of expansion, and then no creatures near it, and then it contracts again. It’s this breathing thing in the middle of the planet. It sucks if it stings you because you’re going to die. [laughs]

Brooke: I think that describes all of natural history and the evolution of the ecology perfectly. [laughs] The bible itself developed from the writing, and then we go to the final character and creature designs. That also continues to develop with the animation and storyboarding. The little furry creature in Episode 11 came together in the animation with the little tongue that flopped around. With the ecosystem that developed, we can now create Ursula’s field guide, and we’d love to put that together. All of this exists, and we can move into another biome in future seasons — God willing. There’s so much to explore!

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Sam lays down and recuperates

All the characters in Scavengers Reign go through it, but Sam really goes through it. How was it creating his journey for the season?

Buckelew: I think we pegged Sam as the analog for someone resistant to transition. There’s a parallel there with Levi, what’s going on with her and Azi’s relationship to it. Sam is the other side of that coin. There’s a universe where Sam plugged into the wall and lived for a hundred years, like the old woman they encounter. His will is to say, “That’s no life to live. I’d rather not do that. I’m losing the things of myself that make me feel like myself, and without that, I’d have no interest in anything.”

That’s how we conceptualized it, and he needs to guarantee that he finds the Demeter and Ursula can get there. That’s his responsibility, that people are going to be okay — or that there’s a chance they will.

Brooke: Bob Stephenson, the voice actor, has such gravitas, but he’s also really good at being beleaguered. [laughs] It worked so well to put that voice through all that shit. In the first episode, he says, “God, I hate it here,” and it’s really believable that he fucking hates it there. Putting that guy through all this [is] kind of fun.

Buckelew: We’re also subverting the expectation that we’re building up Sam and Kamen to have a big confrontation. Actually, life is disappointing, and that’s not what you’re going to get. Kamen lives and Sam dies. Kris gets off the planet, and Azi doesn’t. I feel like we always have a little sense of comeuppance, but the worst person gets to win sometimes. That’s life. [laughs]

Brooke: Sam’s resistance to change is throughout the whole show and the moments where he’s leaning into it, like Episode 8 when he’s getting all manic. The moment that really gets me every time is in Episode 10, the death scene. When he watches the bug crawl on his hand and lets it go. It’s this beautiful moment of release and acceptance of the cycles of life.

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Kris and Terrence watch their ship burn

Did you have any discussions about how to calibrate the violence? There are some scenes where you really go for it.

Buckelew: Honestly, not at all! It only occurred to me how violent and upsetting certain moments were when we put it out there. Episode 5 we watched here at the studio, and I was like, “Oh, Jesus. They really snapped that dude’s neck and threw him on the pile. That’s pretty fucked up!” [laughs] Another scene we kept talking about when we were writing was that scene in The Revenant when Leo DiCaprio gets ravaged by the bear, which is such a crazy scene, but it was about treating violence in that way.

Obviously, there’s gratuitous stuff, but it’s always contextualized. To me, there’s no evil ever on the show. Animals are violent with each other, and is that morally wrong? Is it a horrible sight to see lions killing gazelles? I think the violence is part of this sublime quality to the planet. It’s beautiful, and it’ll crush you.

Brooke: I like making something where violence is actually upsetting because, if you’re making something and violence is a joy to experience, you’re serving a dark impulse in the human viewer.

Buckelew: We had this rule that our characters don’t know martial arts, and we would use the refrain that, “they’re acting a little too much like a ninja in this scene.” That was a way to mediate violence being bad. I see some comments from people going, “Why don’t they have guns or lasers?” I’m like, “I don’t know, I don’t want to shoot a gun.” I don’t think most people want to shoot guns and are capable of killing another person. That’s not how humans are programmed.

I wouldn’t kill Kris. I’d do what Azi did. I’d come in all blustery and go, “Fuck, you called my bluff. I can’t actually stop you because I don’t want to inflict violence on another person because that’s deeply antisocial and horrible and not what an average person would do.” [laughs]

Brooke: Especially if you haven’t seen another person for six months. You’re definitely not going to kill anybody now. [laughs]

The one overt act of human-on-human violence is when Kris slits Terrence’s throat, and even then, that’s an act of mercy.

Buckelew: I also think she’s hardcore. I think Kris would kill someone and has maybe killed people before because she’s just like, “I don’t give a fuck.” But again, it’s trying to contextualize that in a serious way instead of making it feel cartoony.

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Kris stands in the darkness

Scavengers Reign Season 1 ends on a cliffhanger for Kris in space while humanity builds their own community on Vesta. What can you unpack from that finale, and how that might carry over into a Season 2?

Buckelew: We want this to feel like a complete story. We’re not that into mystery puzzlebox-type stories, so we had a feeling [that] if the streamer gods don’t smile upon us and this is it, you won’t feel short-changed and that this was the preamble to another story and so incomplete. If Season 1 is the journey of the Demeter, that was completed. But for us, there is so much more to explore. You’ve seen 10 square miles of this planet. We’ve barely scratched the surface.

The opportunity of time, you can see in the coda that there’s a time jump. Time opens up this whole possibility and sense of utilization on the planet, digging into the unknown, understanding things and these processes and life cycles. That time jump affords us so much. You’re back in the thick of it again, with all this new shit that has been figured out. But we’re also throwing a real curveball of these dudes who are on this ship.

They elicit this feeling of space monks or whatever people are calling them. We have a feeling of where that’s going to go, but trying to have it be as tantalizing as possible. If Kris, Barry, and Terrence were this other force that was different from all our main characters, here is another kind of force that could fold in one way or another in a second season.

Brooke: The first season is all about change — facing change, fighting change, embracing change, change as a natural force, and humans being a force of accelerated change. All of those themes will carry into the story as it goes and how far you can push that idea of transformation and change for humanity.

Buckelew: When we first conceptualized the main story arcs, there was this feeling [that] the big way of constructing it was having three people with different relationships to being stranded. One is overcoming this by any means necessary and using what’s available on the planet to build a transmitter, bring the ship down, overcome it, and escape. With Azi, it’s about maybe being stuck here forever and wanting to live some kind of life – if that is her life, she didn’t choose it, but it’s better than being dead. For Kamen, being stranded like this puts him in a mind prison.

Brooke: Ursula takes it as a challenge to really understand it completely.

Buckelew: In a Season 2, there’s a similar feeling of new characters, as everyone [is] waking up and their relationship to this predicament. Do they try to bring the comforts of Earth or accept that they live here now and go into Vesta? To me, that’s the fun of it, pushing your characters through that litmus test and seeing which characters are going to naturally have a problem and which are going to grow together.

Created by Joseph Bennett and Charles Huettner, Scavengers Reign Season 1 is available to stream in its entirety on Max.

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