A Delightfully Odd Conversation With Aqua Teen Forever Creators Dave Willis And Mike Maiellaro [Exclusive Interview]

Those who weren't present in 2000 during the debut of Dave Willis' and Matt Maiellaro's "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" may require lot of context here. Broadcasting in 15-minute episodes on Cartoon Network's then-nascent late-night Adult Swim brand, "Aqua Teen" featured a trio of anthropomorphic fast food items that engaged in crass, idiotic adventures. There was Master Shake (Dana Snyder) an idiotic blowhard and would-be leader of the group. There was Frylock (Carey Means), the group's intellectual, who was possessed of curious, crystal-based superpowers. And there was Meatwad (Willis), the "kid" of the group. They lived next door to the horny and cantankerous Carl (also Willis), who hated them with a passion. The Aqua Teens were slackers par excellence, spending their time and energy on trivial activities like swimming in Carl's above-ground pool. Sometimes there were mutants and Moon Men.

"Aqua Teen Hunger Force" was bafflingly perseverant. The show lasted through multiple seasons, several title changes (once being called "Aqua Unit Patrol Squad 1," as well as "Aqua Something You Know Whatever"). The show's sense of humor was caustic and aggressive, its characters blunt, crass, and often self-destructively idiotic. It was the perfect TV show for marvelously intoxicated college students who were up too late and consuming powerful edibles. 

In 2007, "Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters" was released to the utter contempt of the world's film critics. Regardless, the show persisted until 2015. Now, in 2023, audiences will finally be treated to the Teens' cinematic sequel, "Aqua Teen Forever: Plantasm." It's just as odd as one might hope. 

/Film recently sat down with the fast food franchise's creators, Willis and Maiellaro, to get the skinny on their new film. Their replies were as flip and as odd as their creations.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

'I Look Like A Ghost'

[Note: Maiellaro was wearing a stylish cowboy hat, a sparkly country-western shirt, and was holding a double-necked guitar throughout the interview.]

Am I going to get a solo? 

Maiellaro: Well, I would play it for you. But, because of the Airpods, you can't hear it. 

"Aqua Teen Forever: Plantasm" is very funny and very strange. It comes after a hiatus in the franchise, but prior to its release, you were working on the three-minute shorts called "Aqua Donk Side Pieces." Was that a way to get back into fighting shape?

Maiellaro: Yeah, we wanted to slowly get our vast audience used to this show coming back. And since it was so funny at 12 minutes, we just did threes. Y'know, to give a little taste of it. Get 'em roused up for it. And then -- BLAM! -- the movie. 

What possessed you to bring back the Aqua Teens?

Willis: Well, you say this like it was our choice. To "bring it back," like we're George Lucas and we're gonna go like "I'm gonna do sh***y prequels!" Nah, they reached out to us. And the show was always great, you know? But we burned out, maybe, on it. I wouldn't say they canceled it. They just sort of drew it to a close, and it kind of made sense at the time. And then, years later, when someone calls you and says, "Do you wanna make more?," you're receptive to it.

[pause, then sarcastic] It's a really interesting story, isn't it?

Maiellaro: It is. Keep going.

Willis: [Commenting on his own video broadcast] I look like a ghost! I look like the ghost of Dave facing the window. Can you even make out my features?

Maiellaro: No. 

Willis: That's alright. Alright. Whatever.

'Everything They Like Sucks'

Could you elaborate on any trepidation you might have felt in coming back to the characters?

Maiellaro: No, I don't think there was any. I think we just got back into our groove we'd been doing for so long. Once we got a story, we just hit it hard and wrote the best screenplay.

Willis: I looked at the Hollywood Reporter yesterday, and we didn't get nominated for Best Movie! 

Maiellaro: I know. And I think they know that. So there's new announcements coming out today. 

Willis: I just feel real pissed off. It was the best animated movie, and, in many ways, the best movie. And we did not [get Oscar nominations] for either. 

Maiellaro: Best Director. Best Actors. We're in the movie. We directed the movie, and we wrote it. We did a lot to make this movie. 

I hear you did. It's the Academy and their prejudice against animation. 

Willis: I think they hate quality. Not just animation. Because everything they like sucks. 

When writing the screenplay for a new Aqua Teens movie, what is your process from a story perspective? Your work feels very stream-of-consciousness. Do you write one draft and adhere to it?

Maiellaro: It took a couple years to write this thing, so I think we really, like, take every word we put down seriously, and make sure the sentences are structured perfectly. The trepidation was being the best in English. Trying to like ... "Am I better than Dave, is Dave better than me? What school did you go to?" 

Willis: [begins chortling]

Maiellaro: You know what I'm saying? You've been there, right? You've done that?

Well, I have a spellchecker on my computer...

Maiellaro: I'm talking about grammar. Drawing the audience in with words. It's different.

'I Was A Fool To Not Get Residuals On That'

There's a moment in the film where the Mooninites [pixilated aliens from the Moon] hijack the film and implore audiences to text them. I foolishly texted them and received their running commentary on my phone throughout the movie. Did you write those texts as well?

Willis: You did?

I did. I'm still getting texts this morning. 

Willis: [laughs] Yeah, you're gonna get texts forever. We have your number now. We're gonna let you know whenever we have some cool, exciting projects coming. Repeatedly, we're gonna do that. I've been getting e-mails from BurialInsurance.com for two years now. Shoutout to BurialInsurance.com. I think one time I Googled "Am I going to die?" and now I got put on a list, and BurialInsurance.com is all over me. "Whenever you want to unsubscribe from life."

In the preview for your 2007 film "Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters," it was announced that Dave worked on an industrial film called "Know Your Fryer," and that Matt worked was the assistant director for the second unit of "Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth." Could you tell me about your experiences working on those films? 

Willis: True story: I am the voice of a Chick-Fil-A industrial [film] about their fryers. Chick-Fil-A is headquartered down here, and I went over there, and ... yeah. So somewhere, some zitty 16-year-old kid is watching something with my voice saying, "And now you want to make sure the tender fillet is golden and flaky and crusty on the side. Check your settings." 

I was a fool to not get residuals on that. Because that's played probably more than the rest of the stuff I've made combined. 

'It Was Nothing But Gallons Of Blood, Chains, Thorns'

Perhaps you could cut "Know Your Fryer" into a new piece and get royalties from the new work.

Willis: Chick-Fil-A owns it! And they said it's God's will that they own it. And they asked me to have a blessed day, but I'm not happy about it.

Matt, could you tell me about working on "Hellraiser III?"

Maiellaro: I have such sights to show you. [Holding up a Lament Configuration.] From the first movie. I love. I actually, on purpose drove -- I had $10 to my name, and I'm working on "Hellraiser III" because I was such a fan of one and two. It was amazing! I was first A.D. on the second unit. And it was nothing but gallons of blood, chains, thorns. It was just carnage for six weeks. And we shot right in the middle of the Bible Belt, and we weren't allowed to tell people what we were doing because they didn't want to get harassed. But hanging out with the Cenobites? I recommend it.

When time passes in the Aqua Teen universe, do characters age? Were you concerned with writing older versions of the characters? Did they grow?

Willis: Well, they're immortal. And immortal people don't age. They'll forever be teenagers. 

Doesn't Master Shake mention that he's now in his mid-40s? 

Willis: Well, that's a mistake. That's the one mistake we made in the movie. We're fixing that right now. 

Maiellaro: The "Teen" thing is branding to get those young kids in to watch the show. "Hey, I wanna watch a show about people like me!" 

And who can relate to anthropomorphic talking fast food better than teenagers?

Willis: Exactly.

Maiellaro: All of Gen Z is all over it.

Willis: The entire Catholic diocese.

'Everything We Wrote Was So Good And Funny That We Couldn't Put It All In There'

When you were writing the movie, was there ever a point where you said, "That joke's too weird," or "That joke's not funny enough"?

Willis: You know what? Everything we wrote was so good and funny that we couldn't put it all in there. And that's why we're doing so many movies. We had to pull out the equally funny stuff. I swear to God, it's 20 movies of just mind-blowing comedy.

I look forward to the next "Aqua Team Hunger Force" movie. The next 75 minutes that we'll see of your "Human Comedy"-like magnum opus in another 10 or 15 years.

Willis: You know we're doing another season right now. Of the show.

Tell me about the new season.

Maiellaro: [Our publicist] Nicole won't let us.

Willis: We're not allowed to talk about it.

Maiellaro: We can't say anything about it.

Willis: But what we are allowed to say is that the movie's coming down on HBO Max on February 8th.

Maiellaro: Nicole is just right off-screen here with a gun pointed at my head. [laughs] She whispered in a very low, threatening voice really close to me, "You don't say a thing about the new season. Except that you're making five episodes. That's it. You say 'HBO Max, February 8th, and Cartoon Network Adult Swim March 12th' and then you shut your mouth."

Willis: That's another Nicole. The real Nicole is actually really sweet and nice, but she has this sort of second dimensional Nicole that comes out.

I don't want to pry further and put you in potential mortal danger.

Maiellaro: Do you want her phone number? Because you should call her and tell her that we don't need to be treated like this.

We'll talk after the interview.

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