In Harley Quinn, Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker found a challenging entrée into the world of animation, which would subsequently become their most critically acclaimed effort to date.
Created in concert with Dean Lorey, for the streaming service DC Universe, the adult-oriented comedy centers on the escapades of the titular Harley and her partner-in-crime Poison Ivy, watching as they rise to power in Gotham, and ultimately, fall in love.
In recent years, the character of Harley Quinn has gotten the big-screen treatment via two-time Oscar nominee Margot Robbie. Inhabiting the character thus far in 2016’s Suicide Squad and Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey—which was released in February—the actress will soon reprise it in James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad.
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But with the Harley Quinn series, Halpern and Schumacker wanted to dive deeper into the complexities of the character than any live-action DC film has—at the same time, opening the door to other R-rated, animated comic book adaptations.
In September, news emerged that the series was renewed for a third season, and that it would be moving permanently to HBO Max. Below, its creators discuss this transition, teasing Season 3 plot details, and their interest in making an animated Harley Quinn film.
DEADLINE: Harley Quinn has attracted a major audience since its debut last year. What has that been like to see? Were you confident from the get-go in the show’s success?
PATRICK SCHUMACKER: Well, we wrote the first two seasons in a complete vacuum. The writers’ room started as early as November of 2017 and finished in January of 2019, so we had all the story arced out. All the production drafts were actually done all the way back then, so we really had no idea what [to] expect, other than the nominal reactions that we got from the New York Comic Con teaser. That was just an independently animated piece that was used for promotional purposes, which kind of set the tone, and people seemed genuinely excited about that. But still, even when the trailer first came out, I think people had a lot of questions.
It seemed maybe a little bit off-brand, this idea that we’re kind of taking the piss, making fun of some of this world. My interpretation of the online reaction [was that] there was quite a bit of concern from the fans that we were only going to be poking fun at these beloved characters, and it wouldn’t be done with love. But I think since the show has come out, fans have appreciated that yeah, we’re making a lot of jokes at the expense of these characters, but it is done with love, and with a pretty deep knowledge of their legacies. And while these are sort of bastardized versions of all the characters, for the most part, they still have their core moral compass.
That was pretty evident, as early as when we got to test the animatics with a couple of the early episodes’ focus groups. They saw how far we were going with Commissioner Gordon, making him this really flawed character, but still, they managed to find him very funny, and he tested very well. I think that ended up giving us a lot more confidence and license to keep running in that direction with a lot of the characters, so it’s been really gratifying.
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JUSTIN HALPERN: I think that Pat and I, most of our career has been on shows that either have not resonated at all, or resonated in a very bad way. [Laughs] So, to be able to work on a show and have it go out there, and have people not just like it, but be very vocal about how much they like it…Like, my favorite show growing up was The Simpsons, and…my dream has always been to make a show that had that sort of resonance. And obviously, this is in no way anything comparable to the resonance The Simpsons has. But to see people quoting lines, and using GIFs from the show and things like that, that, to me, is so cool.
DEADLINE: Tell us a bit about the origins of the series. What did your pitch on Harley Quinn entail?
HALPERN: Warner Bros. came to us—Susan Rovner, specifically, who’s no longer there, but was a big supporter of ours. She came to us and was like, “Look, we want to do an R-rated, animated Harley Quinn show. We have no idea what it is, or what we want it to be about, but we want it to be a comedy. Do you guys want to pitch on it?” And we couldn’t say yes fast enough.
We’d almost exclusively worked in network [TV], so the chance to have a different relationship with Standards and Practices was exciting, and also, we just loved this character. It was one of those characters where there had been work put into it, but it felt like she never had her own story. This is obviously pre-Birds of Prey, and it just felt like there was so much to mine.
Our first take on it, which is what we ended up doing, was like, “Look, we want to do Mary Tyler Moore, but if she was a psychopath.” Pat and I love sitcoms; we love the history of sitcoms We’ve worked in sitcoms, and to be able to take that kind of template and put it within the craziness of a show like this, we felt like we could tell some very funny, interesting stories that hadn’t been done.
Also, at the time, there was going to be a Deadpool cartoon. As we were starting work on ours, we heard that. We had no idea what they were doing, but we wanted to make sure ours was a take that we believed in—[that] we weren’t responding to anything else. So, that was kind of how it came about.
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SCHUMACKER: The only thing I would add to that is that Warner Bros. has a very, very rich history and legacy of all of these characters, and Looney Tunes, et cetera, et cetera, that are all classics. They’re beloved, and they’re also kind of all-ages, and this was like the first time that the studio was broaching the possibility of doing something that was adults-focused—adults-only—for television, let’s say. Just as an ongoing series, this was the first time that they were looking into that, so that was really exciting for us, as well. Because it felt like, “Oh, we have the chance to, in success, maybe open the doors for a whole other world of Warner Bros. animation.”
It seems to have performed pretty well. We, ourselves, are starting to develop other animated pitches, and I know of other adult-skewing properties and whatnot that the studio is looking into now, post-Harley’s breakout. So, that’s been really exciting, too, just in terms of the legacy of the studio, and how ingrained in animation it’s been over the years, but to be able to break out into a new branch.
DEADLINE: What were you looking to explore in Harley Quinn’s first two seasons? And how will these ideas inform Season 3?
HALPERN: The idea that interested us in the first season was, if you’re in a toxic relationship with a larger-than-life person that sucks up all the oxygen in the room, and you’ve been in that relationship for a long time, how do you figure out who you are, once you’ve extricated yourself from that relationship? So, the first season was all about Harley figuring out what her identity was without The Joker, and that was why we didn’t do any dating stories. We didn’t do any stories about her falling in love with somebody else in the first season, because we didn’t want her to leave this relationship that defined her, and jump into another relationship.
Just by definition, you’re a bit defined by who you choose to be with, so once we ended the first season, she had figured out who she was. Now, the question was, what do I want? And in the second season, Harley ultimately realizes that she wants to be with Ivy, and explore a relationship with her.
So, I think in the third season, the general idea we’ve been talking about…And the room hasn’t even started yet. These are just conversations between Dean Lorey, and myself and Patrick. [But] the idea [is], when you’ve mostly been in toxic and bad relationships your whole life, how do you then be in a good one? How does the baggage that you bring from all these other relationships affect the relationship you’re in that you really want to work?
DEADLINE: Reportedly, you’ll also be examining Poison Ivy’s origins, and Commissioner Gordon’s low approval rating in Gotham.
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HALPERN: Definitely. We spent two years digging into Harley, and Ivy was her own character, but her stories were told mostly in relation to Harley. So, I think in this third season, it’d be interesting to flip that, and dig deeper into Ivy and her life, and tell some stories through her point of view. So, we’re excited to be able to do that because it feels completely new—somewhere to go that we haven’t gone, that isn’t going to make the audience feel like, “We saw two seasons of that. What the f**k is this?”
Then, I think with Gordon, we’ve always portrayed the Gotham Police Department as really incompetent. Also, everyone goes rogue any time they want to go rogue, and I think we’re seeing, in real life, the actual repercussions of things like that. Obviously, it’s a comedy, but those themes were already baked into our show.
SCHUMACKER: Yeah. You’ve probably seen [this]…It’s made its way around Twitter, for sure, the Zoom that the LAPD and Mayor Garcetti put out for a sort of town hall, essentially, for Angelenos to come together and voice their criticisms of the LAPD and the Mayor’s office.
I tweeted out—and this was genuine—“I would love to open Season 3 on an actual Zoom, where the GCPD is just being berated by the city of Gotham for their ineptitude.” [Laughs]
HALPERN: Yeah. It’s like having Gordon deal with the reality of, policing in Gotham has completely failed, and him realizing, “What is this new system that we need to put in, in order to effectively police Gotham?” And is he even capable of it? Because the system is so f**ked up. Gotham’s a terrible place to live. I mean, if you think of all of the cities in comic book lore, can you think of a worse major city to live in than Gotham? Like, it’s just constantly under attack. And why does Metropolis look like this utopia, when Gotham is this total cesspool? So, being able to also dig into that, and have Gordon go on a journey within the third season, would be very fun.
DEADLINE: Do you expect Harley Quinn to return by the end of next year?
SCHUMACKER: That would be, I think, an optimistic guess. I don’t know if they’ve announced the episode order number yet, but let’s just say, we’re not doing two seasons back to back, like we did. That may give us some relief, in the sense that there’s not as big of a production load. So, I would say optimistically, we’re looking at probably the end of 2021.
DEADLINE: How did you feel when you heard about the show’s transition to HBO Max? What do you think it will mean for the show?
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SCHUMACKER: We were thrilled to hear [that]. I mean, it’s a conversation that’s been months long. It was a matter of when, not if, for a very, very long time. We kept hearing that week in and week out, and then obviously there were some organizational changes at HBO Max that I think slowed things down a little bit, perhaps. But at the end of the day, we got what we want, and we’re thrilled.
In terms of HBO Max, in the cursory conversations that we’ve had with some of the executives there, who we’re just kind of friends with, they’re all very excited. We haven’t even had our official kickoff call that you usually have before a season, with all the development and current executives. I think we’ll get to hear directly from them in a professional capacity next week, but my hope is that fundamentally, the show will remain exactly as it was on DC Universe. And I don’t think there’s any reason that it couldn’t, aside from DC Universe not really having the Broadcast Standards and Practices at all. [Laughs] It was so infrequently that we got any notes on any use of violence or language, or anything like that. It might be a little different on HBO Max, but I kind of doubt it.
DEADLINE: Has production on Harley Quinn been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic yet, in any capacity?
SCHUMACKER: Not really. We were already in post-production, finishing the last couple of episodes of Season 2, when the lockdown happened, and aside from watching cuts or listening to mixes in the comfort of our homes, it wasn’t really that different.
DEADLINE: Do you expect that it will affect your work on Season 3 in any significant sense?
SCHUMACKER: Honestly, I think it just depends on how long we’re in this situation. I think if it does affect us, it’s going to happen much later in the game, because we have the luxury [with] our schedule of writing quite a few episodes before we go into production. I would say that 80% of the episodes, in theory, if we maintain our schedule, will have been written by the time we start recording. But I think at that point, hopefully things are a little bit more lax, in terms of our ability to move around.
For me, it’s really about interaction with the actors, right? Like, can you go into a recording studio? Can you sit across from them, with the glass in between you? Is everybody comfortable enough to be able to do that? Because I feel like we’ve gotten really good performances out of everyone, and it’s really an interactive experience between the director and the actor. I’ve had the privilege of getting to direct a lot of the voice performances, and just that energy, and that ability to give the actors the ability to improvise in person is so important, I think, to the show.
That is how these records go; they’re very improvisational. You have people who are so skilled in that. So, I think that’s the thing that could potentially be affected if we’re not back to some semblance of the past way of doing things. But I feel pretty confident that we’ll have enough lead time to work that stuff out.
DEADLINE: Both in animation and live-action, the DC Universe is always expanding. Having said that, would you have interest going forward in making an animated feature centered on Harley?
SCHUMACKER: Yeah, we would love that. When we were waiting for a Season 3 pickup, we were kicking around ideas with the executives over at Warner Bros. Animation about that sort of thing, because we were like, “Well, we have stories to tell with these characters. We want to continue going with it, and if Season 3 can’t happen, maybe we can do something in the feature space, which is sort of independent of a network picking up the show or not.” So, that is something that has been on our [minds]. Right now, we’re not planning on it, but it is absolutely something that we would be interested very much in doing down the road.