A Sit Down with the Hageman Brothers: From Ninjago to Star Trek

I caught at least one news outlet reference the upcoming Nickelodeon’s animated Star Trek series writers, brothers Daniel Hageman and Kevin Hageman, as something in the ballpark of “the LEGO writers.”

That statement rang true when I first interviewed the Hageman Brothers, as they’re known as in the public eye. At that time the duo were on the cusp of breaking free from their LEGO roots yet still firmly engrossed in expanding the Ninjago mythology for the small screen.

Four years late and the Hageman Brothers no longer fit into simply a “LEGO writers” mold. They’ve worked with Guillermo del Toro on two projects and won a shiny Emmy for the first, Netflix’s amazing Trollhunters. A recent foray into horror, the second del Toro collaboration, arrives in theaters on August 9th.

Kevin and Dan were kind enough to take a little time out of their busy schedules and answer a few questions for us. Please enjoy!

Let’s go back to the early days after you both came to Los Angeles from Oregon and escaped a future inheriting your father’s shit factory building business. Kevin, you went to film school. And Dan, you wanted to be a music composer for Kevin’s films. What dose of reality happened that derailed those ambitions?

When Kevin graduated, it dawned on him that he would need someone with a lot of money to fund a movie. And I felt the blow equally, because who would hire me to do the music if Kevin could land a film? Thus, we began to write a full length feature off a short Kevin directed in film school.

What’s the story behind how you guys got into writing screenplays? Is there one specific A-HA! moment you can recall?

We enjoyed writing. It was like directing a movie in our mind’s eye. Our first feedback was from someone in the industry Kevin met on the plane. Our recollection is that it was the 2nd unit director on the first Predator film, so to us — royalty. He told us… “This is not bad.” We swooned, and kept writing.

Looking at your IMDB pages it looks like you both went from set production interns and miscellaneous crew in the late 1990s to landing the LEGO Ninjago pilot around 2010-ish. What were you doing in that decade in between?

Kevin worked his way up the ranks at Dark Horse Entertainment. My IMDB credits are comically incorrect. Though as much as I would like it to be true, I never worked on a series called Nightcap. I was at the University of Oregon until 2000.

What’s the story behind working on the LEGO Ninjago pilot in relation to developing the story for The LEGO Movie?

We developed The LEGO Movie first. When Phil Lord and Chris Miller got involved, LEGO asked us if we were interested in doing a 44-min special for LEGO ninjas. Fortuitously, we said ‘yes.’

Ninjago fans are passionate to say the least and might drive this franchise to another 10 years of success. I ask this on their behalf: would you ever consider returning to write a March of the Oni-type set of episodes or something along those lines if the stars aligned?

Given the right circumstances, of course!

At what point did you decide you’re more the “Hageman Brothers” to the public eye and less “Dan and Kevin”?

When we started, we always fancied the idea of calling ourselves the Brothers Hageman. Afraid of sounding too highfalutin, we settled with Hageman Brothers.

I’m a huge Guillermo del Toro fan and have been since blindly watching The Devil’s Backbone many years ago in a pitch black home theater. Did you actively seek out working with Guillermo on Trollhunters? If not, how did that working relationship ignite and ultimately win awards?

We always respected Guillermo, but it was Dreamworks Animation that sought us out, after our work on Ninjago. There’s nothing better than breaking story with Guillermo. We both love to tell earnest stories, and his imagination is unrivaled. Plus — nicest dude ever. True story — after finding out we were working on a show that combined Ninja, Djinn, and Pirates — his response was, “Whoa man, you’re really giving that sugar to the kiddos.”

What approach did you take with translating Trollhunters from a book to screenplay when your previous work to date was not adapted?

The book never came out until we were halfway through writing the show. Guillermo and Marc Guggenheim had created a feature script that gave us a loose guideline. It was beautiful and amazing, but too dense. It needed to be paced out in a show format to get the full impact of the world-building.

Was it hard for you to work in a writing room environment with a larger team on Trollhunters when you were accustomed to working with only one another on Ninjago?

Ninjago was easy when it was just us, but the drawback is that we didn’t have the criticism to iron out the kinks. Working in a room is preferred, because you have talented people around you to make the work better.

What’s the biggest takeaway or advice you can share that came from working with Guillermo? And with Dreamworks Animation?

From GDT: Your ambition should always exceed the budget, and remember to show the small moments — that’s where the humanity lies.

From Dreamworks Animation: Surround yourselves with an excellent team. We felt fully supported.

Your next project to arrive, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, is your first live-action project and second book-to-screen collaboration with Guillermo. It’s also your most mature content created thus far. Was that a deliberate career pivot on your part.

When Guillermo asks, “Do you want to write a horror movie?” You say, “Yes!” We had a blast.

You’ve mentioned previously that sometimes your stories are naturally too dark because they’re emotionally driven, and other writers come in and tone them back with humor. Along this train of thought, did your style mesh perfectly with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark where you don’t need to make 6-year old’s laugh?

We think there’s a preconception that movies for a younger audience shouldn’t go to dark places, but we were raised on films that weren’t afraid of that. Just look at E.T. Also, we would hope a 6-year-old wouldn’t see Scary Stories. I saw Poltergeist when I was 8 and it scarred me — or maybe made us the writers we are?

Your Nickelodeon Star Trek animated project is a return to your roots in a sense. Was this something that fell in your lap or did you actively seek the job out?

They pursued us, and we’re glad they did, because it’s quickly turning into our favorite project.

How would you compare the target age and tone of the Star Trek project to Ninjago, or is it still to early to share that information?

Our aim for all of our projects is that this is a show that the whole family can enjoy.

Star Trek was a massively passionate fan base like Ninjago. You must feel well-equipped to accept any praise or criticism with Star Trek from your Ninjago days experience.

Haha, yes. That thought did come across our minds.

Will you continue to regularly interact with Star Trek fans on social media like you have with Ninjago fans over the years?

We love interacting with fans. Star Trek is a little more or a guarded IP, so we’ll have to police ourselves more. Tommy wouldn’t last a day keeping all those secrets. 🙂

Editor’s Note: Tommy refers to Tommy Andreasen, a producer on Ninjago dating back to the pilot whose spoiler-leaking exploits on Twitter are well known among fans.

With Ninjago and Trollhunters you have both writing and executive producing credits. Some of our readers might not know what a producer does. Can you break down a few of your main producing duties on those shows?

An Executive Producer credit allows us more control on the end product. We overseeing the writing and are at the table for all the big decisions.

You cracked a joke on social media after Phillip Lord and Chris Miller, the duo who took your The LEGO Movie story and turned it into a screenplay, landed their nine-figure deal with Sony. Is the lucrative superhero realm a sandbox you want to play in down the road, or do you imagine eventually slipping into R-rated fare?

If the right R-rated project comes around, we’d absolutely do it. Rating is just a language for what audience it is for. As for the Superhero genre, we haven’t dove in head first on anything, but if a story moves us, we’re in. We love films like Wonder Woman and Logan. Also Guardians of the Galaxy.

Nostalgia is a powerful draw in entertainment. Star Trek and Star Wars aside, is there one entertainment property from your youth that you’d love to re-imagine for modern audiences?

Hm. We love Time Bandits, but couldn’t think of anyone better to handle that than Taika Waititi, so it’s in a good place.

How are you displaying your Emmy’s from Trollhunters? I imagine them in a curio cabinet near a toilet i.e. what could have been and proudly what was.

On shelves in our respective offices, mixed in with toys and scripts.

Last but not least, this tweet cracked me up because you recorded it during a break at the 2019 Daytime Emmy Awards. You guys must be a hoot to work with. Cheers!

We had no idea what Aaron Waltke (one of our Trollhunters writers) was doing behind us. After seeing the video, he cracked us up too.

Hageman Brothers Interview 2019

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