Getting into the Humanity of BoJack Horseman with Lisa Hanawalt

BoJack Horseman’s Lisa Hanawalt talks realistic relationships, BoJack’s journey, and male seahorses in the show’s latest season!

When the irreverent BoJack Horseman originally graced Netflix with its presence, I don’t think anybody realized that the animal-based comedy series would end up being one of the most human and emotional shows to come out of the medium in recent years. BoJack Horseman is a lot of things. It’s a pitch perfect satire of Hollywood and the entertainment industry’s every machination. It’s a brutally honest introspective look at a man in pain who is desperate to better himself. It’s got one of the most enviable voice casts that’s been assembled, with the likes of Will Arnett, Paul F. Tompkins, and Aaron Paul being only some of the talent on display. And it’s also just hooves down one of the funniest programs currently airing on television.

BoJack’s latest season sees the horseman in the middle of the Oscar race, his legacy hanging in the balance, with the series going to some of its most painful places yet. With season three premiering last weekend, we touched base with the person responsible for the Netflix series’ look, producer and production designer Lisa Hanawalt. She shared her opinions on the series’ progressive characters, the season’s stylistic departures, and if BoJack can ever truly be happy.

Den of Geek: This season digs into some especially human issues and really cuts deep. When the season was in its planning stages, what was ultimately looking to be said?

Lisa Hanawalt: Well, that’s a difficult question for me to answer because I don’t write the show, but I guess with every year I want to challenge myself because I get bored really easily. But I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen until I get the script. So every episode there are definitely surprises. You know Raphael [Bob-Waksberg], who’s the creator of the show and my friend, he’ll kind of hint at what he’s thinking about in terms of what’s happening, and I’ll be like, “Come on! Just tell me…” Of course though I don’t know what’s going on until I read the script, and even then things will change by the final draft. So I’ll kind of try and figure out who the main characters of the episode are and what the emotional core of things is and then base my designs on that.

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The fourth episode of the season, which takes place underwater, is essentially a dialogue-less episode. What’s the story on how that episode came to be?

I know that Raphael had been thinking about doing a silent episode for a while and I’m just so glad that we got to do it. We realized that something like this was going to rely heavily on the visuals, and so the storyboarders and the director for the episode, Mike Hollingsworth, really went to town creating gags for this—like I think there are references to old Chaplin films—I just wanted to go nuts on the designs! It was very exciting that we were underwater and I get to draw all of these characters that we haven’t seen before. I really wanted to cram in as much as possible. Like, “Okay, good! I get to draw a pufferfish, and a jellyfish woman…”

We have a limited amount of characters that we can do in each episode based on our budget, but I really wanted to pack everything in there. The baby seahorses I just wanted to be heartbreakingly cute, and it’s even a callback to Harper, BoJack’s imagined daughter. When he goes on this drug trip in season one, episode eleven, he imagines that he has this daughter. So his interactions with the baby seahorse are kind of informed by that hallucination.

Yeah the seahorse stuff is great! I also know about the ferocity at which seahorses give birth, so I was glad that you got to show that happen.

So gross!

I’ve also got a lot of love for the season’s second episode, which is set back in ’07. The previous season has a similar flashback episode in the ’80s. Do you think these yearly “removed from time” installments could become a yearly tradition?

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It’s nice to be able to go back and build his backstory because we’re missing so many years! We saw the beginning of Horsin’ Around when he has this friendship with Herb Kazazz, but then we jump to present day. I don’t know if we’ll do it every single season and make it a tradition, but it’s certainly fun to explore their pasts. And also to see stuff like when Diane meets Mr. Peanut Butter.

Todd wasn’t in the last one, either! It’s nice to see where he was at in his life.

I also love that Jessica Biel is in it as Mr. Peanut Butter’s former wife. And she played herself, which is awesome!

That’s so good. On the topic of that time period, all the material with The BoJack Horseman Show is a great commentary on projects with good intentions and high ambitions that just slowly get compromised. Why do you think the show decides to explore that area of too much ego and freedom decaying something?

I think that’s sort of the model message of the season: Getting what you want and that not necessarily being a good thing. You think certain things will make you happy—that certain benchmarks are important—and then you hit them and just nothing changes. It’s really dark.

It is! I think BoJack is one of the smartest shows out there. It really has a lot to say about gender, sexuality, and mental health. This season has an episode about abortion. Why do you think it’s important to have these sorts of discussions?

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It’s funny that it still feels like such a taboo issue to explore, even though it’s such a big part of people’s lives and is such an important issue politically. But yeah, I’m really glad that we got to do that episode. It’s also not just a straightforward take on it, either.

This season is also a big one for Princess Carolyn with her story running pretty parallel to BoJack’s. The show does a great job of using her as an example of people that value their jobs over relationships.

I also think that Princess Carolyn hasn’t been given a good reason to value a romantic relationship over her career because her relationships have been really shitty. Like her time with BoJack was not great! But yeah, I’m curious to see what happens between her and Ralph. A lot of the time with characters on this show you don’t know whether they’re good or bad until you get to know them better. I think that’s a large point that the show’s trying to make—that people are neither just good or bad, but rather complicated. With Ralph it’s like, “Is he going to be good for her? Is he not?” We’ll have to get to know him better in order to figure this out, which I think is very similar to real life. I feel similarly about Judah, her assistant. He almost seems a little too robotic at times, or like, what’s your angle? But it sort of looks like he’s just a really good assistant.

There are so many great animal background gags in the show—“Koalafornication” is one of my personal favorites. Do you have a particular favorite or one that you were eager to sneak in?

I like the Starbucks menu in the second episode. It’s just a lot of random nonsense that I filled in there. We just needed a lot of something and figured that people could pause on there and it’d be funny. That’s my favorite, when I can just go off and write something that makes me laugh. I like the painting in the bedroom in the Labrador Peninsula. I like whenever I get to fill in some fun artwork in the background. Oh, I really like the Moby Dick painting in the hotel’s lobby!

Is there a favorite animal design of yours this year that you hope becomes everyone’s new favorite character?

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I think the seahorses are a personal favorite in terms of new characters. Sextina Aquafina is probably my favorite to design for because I just get to look up a bunch of pop stars and come up with crazy new outfits for her. I’m constantly pushing for more outfits. I’m like, “Can we please get at least four different outfits on her this episode? I know it’s a lot of extra work, but I just really want to draw them.” Oh, and also the mustangs at the end of the season!

Establishing that killer whales are all strippers is another weird piece of canon you set this year, too.

Yeah, it’s very specific. I just like the idea of combining sea world with a strip club. It’s so crazy but it also weirdly makes sense in this world.

I love that the show released a random holiday episode as a surprise after the first season. Do you know if another one of those is happening?

I don’t know. There are no plans to do so at the moment, but I definitely wouldn’t rule it out in the future. I also just love the idea of releasing something as a surprise. Beyoncé style! I would like to see a Halloween in January episode! That’d be really cool.

You could even do it as a BoJack Horseman Show episode now instead of Horsin’ Around! You’ve got more to pull from.

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Ooh, good point! I would really like to see an episode of The BoJack Horseman Show. We’ve only seen them putting it together. That’d be really interesting. Probably really surreal.

It’s a pretty dark season for BoJack, but do you think that he’s ultimately capable of finding happiness?

I don’t know! I don’t know…That’s a question that I try to like answer in my own life and I don’t know. From myself, I think that BoJack maybe just needs to learn how to be less hard on himself? Because it leads to him treating himself and others really poorly. He seemed to be on the right path when he was jogging at the end of last season! But then he kind of goes off the rails…

Yeah! I felt the same way, where it seemed like he was learning, but then he just falls even harder this year.

I don’t know…He’s also such an addictive personality type that he tends to go in these cycles. He thinks he’s okay for a while and then he makes the wrong decision again. Maybe if he’s able to surround himself with people that help him so he doesn’t make the wrong decisions. He needs to stop pushing away the people who are trying to set him on the right path. I don’t have a lot of hope for BoJack, but also, it’s not a lot of fun to watch a show where someone is happy and has everything figured out. So maybe it’s for the best that he’s kind of a trainwreck.

All twelve episodes of BoJack Horseman’s third season are available on Netflix right now.

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