Simpsons Movie: Why Did It Take 18 Years

After eighteen seasons, four hundred episodes, and innumerable awards and honors, “The Simpsons” has become a feature-length picture.

In the eagerly awaited film based on the hit TV series, Homer must save the world from a catastrophe he himself created. It all begins with Homer, his new pet pig, and a leaky silo full of droppings–a combination that triggers a disaster the likes of which Springfield has never experienced. As Marge is outraged by Homer's blunder, a vengeful mob descends on the Simpson household. The family makes a narrow escape, but is soon divided by both location and conflict. The Springfield citizenry has every reason to be out for Simpson blood.

The calamity triggered by Homer has drawn the attention of U.S. President Arnold Schwarzenegger (voiced by Harry Shearer) and Environmental Protection Agency head Russ Cargill (voiced by Albert Brooks). “You know sir,” Cargill tells the president, “when you made me head of the EPA, you were applauded for appointing one of the most successful men in America to the least successful agency in government. And why did I take the job Because I'm a rich man who wanted to give something back. Not the money, but something. That something is a devil's plan to contain the disaster. As the fates of Springfield and the world hang in the balance, Homer embarks on a personal odyssey of redemption–seeking forgiveness from Marge, the reunion of his splintered family, and the salvation of his hometown.

Starring in THE SIMPSONS MOVIE are series regulars Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Hank Azaria, Harry Shearer, Pamela Hayden, and Tress MacNeille.

Producing the feature are series executive producer James L. Brooks, creator Matt Groening, current showrunner Al Jean, as well as Mike Scully and Richard Sakai. Sakai has been with the series since its inception, while also producing or executive producing such hits as “Jerry Maguire” and “As Good as It Gets.”

The script is written by James L. Brooks, Matt Groening, Al Jean, Ian Maxtone-Graham, George Meyer, David Mirkin, Mike Reiss, Mike Scully, Matt Selman, John Swartzwelder, and Jon Vittiall series veterans. David Silverman, the series' supervising animation director, is helming the feature. Silverman has been with the series since its debut, and co-directed the hit animated feature “Monsters, Inc.”

“The Simpsons” came to life twenty years ago, when Matt Groening was asked to provide animated segments for the comedy series “The Tracy Ullman Show,” airing on Fox network. Groening didn't want to give up rights to his popular “Life in Hell” cartoons, so he created, on the spot, the Simpson family characters. The Simpsons has been a hit from its inception in 1988 as a weekly half-hour series, becoming a pop culture phenomenon.

For Groening, THE SIMPSONS MOVIE presents the chance for the filmmakers and audience to experience something the show couldn't offer: “We wanted to tell a long-form Simpsons story on the large canvas of a motion picture screen, and hear a theater full of people laughing at the same time,” says Groening.

As early as the show's first season, the studio had approached Groening and Brooks about turning the TV phenom into a motion picture. So why did it take 18 years to bring The Simpsons to the big screen

Al Jean, the series' current showrunner and a writer/producer on the film, says: “We waited 18 years, because we didn't want to do it just because we could; we wanted to make a movie because it was right. We wanted to create a story that demanded the scope offered by a film. THE SIMPSONS MOVIE is not three episodes of the show strung together. It has heart. It centers on the forces that can tear apart a family and a town, and it looks at how a man might put his life back together in such a situation.”

“What separates the movie from the show is scale,” adds Brooks. “We have one hundred speaking parts in the movie, and we created scenes we couldn't begin to draw for the series. Most of all, we wanted a Simpsons movie to be a real moviegoing experience for the audience, while staying true to what we do with the show. We were wary of straying too far uptown.”

The TV show didn't have the manpower to concurrently write and animate a series and a picture. “At the time, we didn't have a team of writers or animators sitting around looking for something to do,” Groening points out. “Unlike most series, The Simpsons never goes on hiatus. We were devoting all our energies to the show, and never wanted to hurt it to do a movie.”

Over the years, Brooks expanded the series' writing staff, which at least dealt with the manpower issue. “We got to a point where we had two writers' rooms going at a given time,” says David Mirkin, a noted comedy director in his own right (Heartbreakers, Romy and Michele's High School Reunion), a producer-writer on the show and a writer on the movie. “So the guys who were with the show early on could go off and write the movie while the show continued to roll along, its quality unaffected.”

In 2001, a Simpsons movie inched closer to happening when the series' cast signed a new deal, which included terms for them to voice the characters in a feature film. But there remained the task of finding an idea that would warrant the big-screen treatment, and then creating a shootable script.

In November 2003, writing began in earnest on a script for a Simpsons movie. “There were four of us who were central to making the decision to move forward with a script,” explains Brooks. “At a certain point, we just felt like doing it. We asked ourselves the critical questions,” recalls Mike Scully. “Did we think we could come up with a story that warranted a motion picture–How would making a movie affect the production of the series”

The producers set very high standards for themselves and their work. We started writing the script and didn't stop,” Brooks adds. “The hardest thing was to pay long and extraordinary attention to every beat and joke; to stress out daily and still make it appear that we were a loose and carefree bunch of kidders. There was never that moment where we considered giving up, so we kept working on it. As ideas began to form for a movie story, the producers were intent on not recreating “The Simpsons” for the big screen, opting instead to retain everything fans have loved about the characters. “The difference is, we're telling a story that demands ninety minutes and a big-screen format,” says Al Jean. “And there's not just one story. Each Simpson family member has a story arc of growth and redemption, even the baby. We wanted the film to hold audiences emotionally through the end, and that was perhaps our biggest struggle. THE SIMPSONS MOVIE also had to have big scenes, locations and themes.

These creative goals demanded the strongest possible writing team, so the producers hand-picked a lineup of star-writers who had been with the show since its inception, several of whom had served as show-runners. They all knew and loved the characters. In addition to Brooks, Groening, Jean and Scully, THE SIMPSONS MOVIE all-star writing team included David Mirkin, Mike Reiss, George Meyer, John Swartzwelder and Jon Vitti. (Ian Maxtone-Graham and Matt Selman, current executive producers on the show, later joined the writing ensemble.)

While the writers' commitment to creating the best possible Simpsons movie script was unwavering, they didn't take the all-star designation that seriously. “It wasn't like every minute of all our meetings was spectacular,” laughs Al Jean. Like any all-star, we'd hit and miss.” Still, each of them embraced the opportunity to collaborate on a long-awaited movie starring the characters they had helped shape.

For these writers, working on THE SIMPSONS MOVIE had an emotional and creative resonance. “It was incredibly exciting to be working on a movie and have the honor of being selected to write the script,” says Mike Reiss. “More exciting than doing the movie was to be in a room with that group of people,” echoes Jon Vitti. “It was a privilege to see these guys at work every day and just a horrible nightmare trying to keep up with them.” Adds David Mirkin: “It was great to be back together, because there's a very specific, special energy when we all congregate. It was also very sick energy, mind you.”

The writers were so invested in the characters, and intent on creating a movie worthy of The Simpsons that, at least in their early sessions, they had trouble coming up with a first draft. “We cared so much that we were too tight at the beginning of the writing process,” says Brooks. “It took us a year to just get loose and start having the kind of fun we always have with the show.”

Eventually, the writers came up with an outline for a script, which Brooks approved. They then carved up the outline into seven chunks, with Jean, Scully, Mirkin, Reiss, Meyer, Swartzwelder and Vitti working separately, writing about 25 pages each. They reunited a month later and pieced together the seven chapters, producing a very rough first draft.

Over two years of rewrites ensued, encompassing at least one hundred script drafts. It was a painstaking and grueling process. “Even though the movie is three times the length of the TV show, it was hundreds of times harder to write,” says David Mirkin. “We chewed up a lot of pencils and ordered a lot of late-night pizza to keep going,” adds Matt Groening. “It was always a matter of writing and rewriting, with an emphasis on rewriting. We were always tinkering with the script, and never stopped trying to come up with a better line or scene.” “We were determined to keep on rewriting until the animators died of exhaustion,” laughs writer Matt Selman. “If we didn't have a release date, we'd still be working on it.”

Everyone was grateful to have James L. Brooks back in the writing room. Brooks was a show-runner in the series' early years, later serving as an inspiration and consultant to the show writers. (“The series was my full-time job for three years and has been a part-time job since then,” he notes.) For the movie, Brooks reconnected with the characters and world he had helped develop.

“Jim's participation is the movie's big secret,” says Mike Reiss. “He put us through almost too many revisions to count. This is Jim's M.O. He works right up until they pry the script out of his hands.”

“We had to expand our thinking and get out of the twenty-two minute structure of
sitcom storytelling,” adds Mike Scully. “And that's where we counted a lot on Jim because he's made so many great films. THE SIMPSONS MOVIE required us to readjust the way we told stories for The Simpsons, and Jim was a great influence in that area.

Jim was doing more work than any of us,” claims John Swartzwelder, who has
authored more scripts of the show than any other writer. “It was amazing to watch him create these odd things that we'd stick in the movie and see if they'd work.

“It was an incredible thrill to work on a film with Jim Brooks,” sums up Al Jean. “I'd say once in a million, but I hope there are more.” Several of the writers credit Brooks with making sure the script included important emotional beats. But Brooks himself says the story's comedy, action and emotion have equal weight.

“There's nothing more important to the Simpsons franchise than clocking laughs as much as you possibly can and including big set pieces,” he explains. “And this made creating story emotion more challenging. We always started with the laughs. But we needed that emotion, on which the jokes hang together and which leads the audience to care about what happens to the characters.”