Michael Anthony Steele: Kids Screenwriter, Novelizationist, Ad Man

ANTMichael Anthony Steele goes by Ant and is a freelance writer for kiddos. He started his writing career as a staff writer for Wishbone, the PBS series about a talking terrier, and as a freelancer has written 25 episodes of Barney and Friends, five videos for BOZ: The Green Bear Next Door (a preschool show about a green bear, next door), and some 60 licensed books based on popular kids’ properties. Sometimes he is hired to write an original story starring an existing character, which he did for Shrek, and sometimes he is hired to turn an upcoming movie into a book, which he’s done most recently for The Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. He also does some more random stuff, like a recent book he wrote for the Department of Public Works. Also, he had George Carlin propose to his wife via this answering machine message. He works out of his home office in Dallas.

The Awl: Were you always a writer?

Michael Anthony Steele: Yes I wrote mainly for myself, just some stories. It was what I wanted to do, but I ended up getting a degree in photography, because that was something else I enjoyed, if writing ever fell through. But yeah, ever since I was a little kid, I’ve just written here and there, no real books or full screenplays, but mainly just stories, things like that.

The Awl: How did you get started in children’s entertainment?

Michael Anthony Steele: When I was going to school for photography, my roommate at the time was a good friend named Bob Trevino. He was in Dallas working with special effects, and whenever they needed a warm body, someone to lug some stuff or an extra pair of hands, I’d go and get paid for it. So by the time I graduated I was doing more work in the film business than photography. I’d also occasionally do art department stuff, set department, props. And someone recommended me for a job in the prop department at Wishbone, and I got a job as an assistant.

The Awl: And this was in Dallas?

Michael Anthony Steele: Yeah, the studio was in Plano, a suburb north of the city.

The Awl: Is there a big film and TV industry there?

Michael Anthony Steele: Yeah, it fluctuates. It was big for awhile: JFK, Born on the Fourth of July, those things were filmed here. And then it’ll just be a lot of commercial and industrial stuff. The film industry outside of LA moves around. It went to Canada for awhile, and now a lot of is in Louisiana. Back when I started it was really busy in Dallas. And Barney filmed here, too.

The Awl: What made you think to write an episode of Wishbone? Were you reading the scripts there and thinking, oh, I can do this?

Michael Anthony Steele: That’s exactly it. You work on a show for that long, and it was probably a good year that I was in the prop department on season one, 40 episodes. And you get to know pretty much everyone. And some of the writers were staff, some were outside writers, just like on any show. I had made friends with the head writer and was feeding her my spec scripts, and that was at the end of that season, and the next season the producers found my scripts and hired me on as a spec writer.

The Awl: Was it harder than you thought at first?

Michael Anthony Steele: Storytelling not so much, with writing you learn a lot, and I’m still learning. Not just grammar things but format situations. Every TV series is different as far as what people like, little tweaks format-wise. And then some TV shows want more visible scripts, and some want more dialogue and want to let the director take care of the visuals. But all these things you don’t know about: being out of the business, you stumble onto as you make your way. And the same with publishing; there are things you just figure out.

The Awl: What projects are you working on now?

Michael Anthony Steele: We just got back from vacation, my desk is pretty clear. But I just finished up a couple projects before I left. One is a kids book for the National Public Works Association, believe it or not. They actually kind of teach kids what public works is all about.

The Awl: So, what is public works all about?

Michael Anthony Steele: This one was about what public works does in a snowstorm, as far as plowing streets and laying down salt. Things kids may not know about. Busted water mains, downed power lines, school closings, all these kinds of things.

The Awl: How did you get this gig?

Michael Anthony Steele: Most of my work comes from word of mouth. People change jobs so often, and when they need a writer, they know me. This job came from a woman who used to work in the Wishbone publishing department. I do have some marketing through my site and all, but most of my work is word of mouth.

The Awl: How did you get into advertising?

Michael Anthony Steele: After Wishbone was over, I stayed on at the company and there was a lot of marketing and copy work for the Wishbone brand in general. So I did everything from print ads to audio announcements and in-store promotions, different copy for Happy Meal prizes or something like that, whatever came up. Steven Kavner, he was a producer on the second season of Wishbone, he stayed on too working on other things, so we got together doing that, and also working on some advertising for Barney. Steve started Salty Pretzels Entertainment, and we do a bunch of the advertising for kids properties. We kind of fell into it and were good at it, so we have fun with it.

The Awl: Do you feel like working on the ads uses a different part of your brain, or is it similar to writing?

Michael Anthony Steele: Kind of, but really it’s all about how you format it, the rest isn’t that different. You want to keep the end audience interested entertained no matter if it’s to tell them something with an ad or just entertain them with a show. So you want to keep their attention, show them something new. That’s what it all boils down to. Approach whatever problem or challenge or assignment you’re given and try to come up with something that hasn’t been seen or your take on it, try to come up with something new. It’s the same approach whether it’s an ad or a show. There’s a lot more politics in advertising. In publishing you work with an editor, just you and him, or you and her.

The Awl: Pre Wishbone, would you have imagined you’d be so successful writing for children?

Michael Anthony Steele: I wouldn’t have guessed for children. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and I am working on some adult stuff, not adult, ha, but you know, for adults, science fiction, thriller sort of projects. So if I had chosen to be a kind of writer, that’s the stuff I would have done. But I kind of fell into the children’s entertainment world and found out I was good at it.

The Awl: What is it like to write for kids?

Michael Anthony Steele: I guess it’s different for each age group. For example, one of the original Barney writers, Steve White, had a good piece of advice for writing for preschool kids and kids in general. He said, you can use all the vaudeville pratfalls and the oldest joke in the book on these kids because they’ve never seen it before, it’s brand new to them and it’s really funny to them. Stuff that we’d think was corny, and oh my gosh, that’s such an old joke or that’s such a bad joke, kids love it.

The Awl: Have you had to study child development so you know what’s appropriate, or is that just something you’ve picked up?

Michael Anthony Steele: I mostly just picked it up. In the past I’ve worked with church kids groups and at the YMCA. I was the site director for day camp, and my wife is an art teacher at a school. So we don’t have kids, but have a lot of experience working with kids, so really it’s just something I’ve picked up. Certainly on Barney and Wishbone there are people that are there for the educational aspect of it, so we had those resources available. And I’m kind of young at heart, I’m a sci-fi and geeky action figure kind of guy anyway. I still play.

The Awl: When you’re writing these TV shows, do you think about the adults that have to watch them with their kids?

Michael Anthony Steele: Yeah, sometimes, especially for Barney, because you know, Barney gets a bad rap. My advice to the adults is that it’s not for them, it’s for the kids, and the kids love it. It’s not a bad thing to hear the theme song over and over again, it’s a good song, it teaches manners, respect. The cool thing about the shows is that every now and then we did try to throw in jokes or references that the adults would get, that would go by the kids heads and make the adults chuckle. That’s always fun to throw those in there. So we’re aware of it. And I’m aware that a lot of the books I’m writing for the younger kids, their parents are reading them. So it’s something I try to be aware of, but the main goal is to write for the kids.

The Awl: What is the Barney set like? I imagine it to be bonkers. I’m always interested in the adults that do silly entertainment, whether they really are kids at heart, or whether they’re crude off camera.

Michael Anthony Steele: I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s crude, but adults are adults, we make our own jokes. Certainly not when there’s kid actors there. For Barney, I had a cameo on one episode and was visiting plenty, but I didn’t spend nearly as much time there, because I’m writing in my little hole over here. But they’re like a family, they’re really close. It’s not like wa-hoo! Barney fun all the time. But it’s a business, you create the image for the camera, and when the camera is off, you have fun like everyone else.

The Awl: So at this point how does it work with Barney? Do they come to you with ideas? Or do you pitch them?

Michael Anthony Steele: Well they’re on hiatus until next year, so there’s nothing right now. But every show is different, and for each show, every season is different. On some seasons Barney has said, ‘hey we have all these different topics, which one do you want,” or, “hey, we have all these different topics, you’re going to do this one, or, pitch us ideas.” But each show is different. Barney has one head writer, but there’s no staff writers right now, just a pool of freelance writers.

The Awl: So if one wanted to write for Barney, how would one do that?

Michael Anthony Steele: I don’t know! I was very lucky. I’ve never had a pitch a spec script since then. But a lot of people do that.

The Awl: Was the dog totally brilliant on Wishbone?

Michael Anthony Steele: Oh yeah he was great. There’s one main dog named Soccer who played Wishbone, and then there were two others that did tricks-and then there were stuffed dogs that did the more dangerous stuff.

The Awl: Were any dogs ever hurt in the making of this television program?

Michael Anthony Steele: No, no. We had an actor hurt once, but no dogs. An actor playing Don Quixote fell off his horse and cracked a couple of ribs, but as far as I know the dogs all stayed safe.

The Awl: What are the most fun projects for you? Or at this point is it all work?

Michael Anthony Steele: Well, they’re all fun, it’s always something I haven’t done before, a different property, this novelization of the Night at the Museum, that was fun, and when I got the Batman books that was fun, because I’m a huge Batman fan. And it’s always fun to get into the character. I didn’t come up with GI Joe but I have to write for him, so you try to get into that world and be true to the characters and the world.

The Awl: I’m interested in the process for the novelizations. How did you prepare to write Shrek, or the Night at the Museum book?

Michael Anthony Steele: I get the script and I read through the script, get an idea what’s going on, get it all plugged in my brain so I know what I can cut if I need to. You can never put a whole script in the junior novelizations, maybe the adult ones. So I put in all the dialogue, and then build it around that. I always get the script way before the movie’s done filming, so the script will change a few more times and things will change on the set, and you may not know which actor is playing which role, so I’ll scour the Internet and look for photos that have leaked from the set. For Night at the Museum I found some stuff that leaked on to YouTube when they were filming, so that was good, to see the uniform, the costumes. You want to know is it a fat guy or a skinny guy or blond hair or red hair, what the uniforms might look like. So much changes from the script to the movie, so if you find something that you know is going to be the exact same as the movie, you want to be able to use it.

Usually just when I’m almost done is when you get close to the end of the production and there will be more stuff leaked and IMDb will have the cast or the rumored cast up there. There are so many people going into making the movie, the writer writes the script but the production designer might have a whole different view. With Speed Racer, I just wanted to make sure I got as much right, and they were really tight with security, there was nothing leaking. I got the cast list, then a couple things that changed that I wish I’d known about earlier.

The Shrek projects was writing original stories. I did a lot of research on that, too, just immersed myself in everything that had been done for them so far. It was just before the second movie came out. There was a Universal ride, a 3D experience that was just released on DVD, so I had the first movie, the second movie in theaters, and you could buy this bonus 3D short that ties in with the first movie. So just to hear the characters in your head, wrap your brain around it. It’s kind of zen-like. It’s like a impressionist watching a movie star so he can get the best impression.

The Awl: After you’ve written these novelizations, do you feel some sort of ownership over the characters, the story?

Michael Anthony Steele: Yeah, you do get a little defensive about it, root for the movies to do better. With Speed Racer I really enjoyed the script and was kind of disappointed when the movie didn’t do as well as you hoped. The script for the Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, which I did the children’s book for, it was one of the best scripts I’ve ever read, but it just didn’t do as well as I hoped. There were some things in the script that were cut out for whatever reasons.

I’m kind of jaded going in watching these movies, I know how it is, for one, and I’ve seen how the sausage is made, so to speak. I’ve seen the process. You miss some things, are totally surprised by things. I don’t get to fully enjoy the movie like an audience member going in without knowing anything would.

The Awl: Do you think there will be a time when you’ll move on from kids writing?

Michael Anthony Steele: Some projects I have are totally not for kids. A lot of people do the opposite of what I’m doing, authors or screenwriters who will make horrors or thrillers or sci fi and then they’ll have kids and want to do something for their kids. I’m now working on the more adult stuff.

The Awl: I saw on your website that you’re doing a project called Clown Commandos. It’s kind of creepy! Is it for kids or adults?

Michael Anthony Steele: It’s a little for both: Justice League meets GI Joe meets Ninja Turtles sort of thing. I do some speaking engagements at elementary schools and I’ve shown the first episode there and the kids all loved it. A little bit of test marketing. So it can go either way, like GI Joe has comics for older kids and cartoons for younger kids and then they’ll be a movie for the adults.

The Awl: How did that come about?

Michael Anthony Steele: It was kind of a weird thing, my partner, Scott McFadden, had kind of had a fear of clowns, and I don’t know what sparked it originally. It kind of evolved from that. Not really as a therapeutic sort of thing, but clowns came up in conversation a lot. It started as Mortal Clownbat, and evolved from that. We’re just doing it for ourselves, to tell our own story, have fun. Whatever happens, happens.

Logan Sachon is a writer in Portland (Oregon).

Previously: Stephen J. Cannell.