Even though orange isn’t in our color wheel here at Conventional Relations, there’s always one thing we’ve been able to make an exception for: Nickelodeon.
For many kids who grew up in the 90s, Nickelodeon was a constant place of entertainment, refuge, and comfort. Shows like “All That,” “Rugrats,” “Double Dare,” and “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” defied the norms of children’s television and offered an unparalleled escape from the troubles of reality. To this day, nostalgia runs rampant among the millions who grew up with Nick on their TV screens. Soon, we will be able to relive the glory days of Nick through a new documentary that will explore the channel’s golden age.
From directors Scott Barber and Adam Sweeney, “The Orange Years: The Nickelodeon Story,” will recount Nickelodeon’s rise in popularity under visionary Geraldine Laybourne, who turned the network into an eight billion dollar juggernaut. The documentary features interviews with Laybourne, as well as iconic Nick stars like Kenan Thompson & Kel Mitchell (All That, Kenan & Kel), Marc Summers (Double Dare), Melissa Joan Hart (Clarissa Explains It All), Tom Kenny (SpongeBob SquarePants, Rocko’s Modern Life), Larisa Oleynik (The Secret World of Alex Mack), Lori Beth Denberg (All That, Figure it Out), Danny Tambarelli (All That, Figure It Out, The Adventures of Pete and Pete), Michael Maronna (The Adventures of Pete and Pete) and more.
“The Orange Years” will be available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and VOD November 17th, through Gravitas Pictures.
Andrew got to speak with co-director Scott Barber about making the documentary and the lasting impact of Nickelodeon. Check it out below!
Tell me about yours and Adam’s history and how you started working on this film together.
One thing that’s really interesting is that Adam and I are actually childhood friends. We’ve been friends since the early ‘90s. We basically grew up together and we would always spend the night at each other’s houses watching Nickelodeon. So it was a very special thing for us. Both of us were in that target demographic where we were from broken homes and homes where mom and dad both have to go to work so it meant a lot to us. When Adam’s folks split up, he moved away and Nickelodeon kind of kept our friendship together because we would call each other on the phone and watch SNICK together. Nickelodeon was very important in our lives and also in our friendship.
As we grew up, we both followed a similar path of being super into filmmaking. Adam had written some scripts, I was into cinematography and editing and things like that. As we kind of reconvened when we were both adult men we were like “Wow, that’s crazy, we’re both into the same stuff.” So we wrote scripts together and tried to sell them. We kind of got tired of always putting our future and our careers in other people’s hands. We said “Man, we need to make a movie ourselves from start to finish where we’re not having to worry about other people.” We thought, “How can we do that?” and one of the ideas was a documentary. I had some background in making mini docs. We had to decide what to make a documentary about. We had a list of things and one was Nickelodeon. We knew that was certainly something people would be passionate about and it would have an audience, but we didn’t know if there was a story there. We started doing research and once we figured out about Geraldine Laybourne and her work, that’s when we were like “Okay, there’s definitely a story here. This is the one we need to do.” We knew nostalgia would bring eyes to the table, but her story was actually what would intrigue people and make it feel like a real documentary.
The first thing we did was a crowdfunding campaign. We did it really early. Hindsight is always 20/20. Now we would have done it totally differently, but at the time we just did whatever we could and it worked because the film is now coming out, but we hadn’t reached out to anybody. We had no inside track at Nickelodeon. We were just two guys with a dream and we filmed ourselves talking about what we thought we were going to do, put up the IndieGoGo and it was successful. So we got the money for the initial funding and we just started making trips out to interview these people and that was the beginning of the journey.
Alisa Reyes came on very early. I can’t stress enough how awesome she is. She’s just a great person and a super smart business woman. We contacted her when I was going through the list of people we wanted to interview. She was one of the first people we reached out to and I explained to her what it was. “Hey, this is a documentary about the golden age of Nickelodeon.” She was like “Yeah, that sounds cool. I’d love to do it.” Then she called me back and I thought, “Oh man, I hope it’s not her saying she can’t do it.” She said, “I want to do it, but I want to be even more involved. I want to help you make this.” So she came onboard as a producer. She was one of the first producers we got and she helped us a lot because it was kind of like cold calling – when you’re just calling people and they don’t know you, you don’t know them. Adam and I were first time filmmakers so it’s not like we could show them other films we had done. Because Alisa knew all these people, she was able to call a bunch of them and help us. She connected us to a lot of people.
Another producer we brought on was a guy named Lee Leshen. Lee has done a couple of pop culture documentaries and that’s kind of his thing. I think we reached out to him because Adam and I knew we needed somebody who had a pedigree, because we did not. We needed somebody to come onboard and give us some guidance. Lee was into it and he had worked with Adam F. Goldberg on “Back in Time” so they knew each other already. Once we got our first trailer and it debuted at New York City Comic Con in 2017, we were starting to get some eyes on us and Adam F. Goldberg saw it and said “Yes! I wanna come on as a producer. This sounds awesome.” We were already well into the film at that point, but he came on and was like, “What do you need to cross the finish line? What do you not have?” He was a super helpful guy. He helps out a lot of independent filmmakers just out of the kindness of his heart.
What were the biggest challenges you faced making the documentary?
One of the biggest challenges was just starting. When we were in the very beginning, it was hard to book interviews because you’re trying to sell somebody, but you don’t have anything to show. It got easier and easier after we got Marc Summers and Kenan Thompson. Once we had about fifteen interviews and we were able to cut it together and make that first teaser, it got a lot easier because people could see we had some high quality talent attached and we had a vision.
One of the hardest parts of independent filmmaking like this is you have to do everything yourself. You’ve got to be willing to wear multiple hats. The upside is that you get to be in control of everything: the look of the film, the way it’s edited, the soundtrack. I even got to record one of the songs for the documentary and I got to work with a guy I’m a fan of named Daron Beck who’s in a band called Pinkish Black. We didn’t have a bunch of people above us telling us what to do. It was a really good thing that we got to be involved in every aspect, but when it came time to sell it, we went from being in charge of everything to being in charge of nothing. We basically shipped the film off and said, “Okay guys, sell it!” They did a great job, but it was just like Tom Petty said, “Waiting is the hardest part.” We went from working on it everyday and it consuming our lives to now it was in the hands of somebody else. Those things just take time – they’re trying to contact Netflix, Hulu, distribution companies. They even pitched it to Nickelodeon. It just takes time, but it was really hard going from having all of the control to zero control.
Since you grew up watching Nickelodeon, was there anyone you were star-struck by?
We were star-struck by almost everybody. One thing I’m proud of is if you look at how many people we have in our documentary, there’s a lot. There’s like thirty people in our documentary. We only made about six trips. We would go to LA and book fifteen interviews and then we’d go to New York and book like ten interviews. We’d have five to eight interviews everyday, so in one day we’d meet Marc Summers, Alisa Reyes, Lori Beth Denberg, and Danny Cooksey from Salute Your Shorts. It was like overload. All day long we were meeting people that we grew up with. I’m more of an eighties kid, so for me Marc Summers was Nickelodeon. He didn’t just host Double Dare, he hosted everything. In some ways, I feel like he was a babysitter to me. It was very surreal to meet him.
Even though I didn’t grow up looking at this person, I was personally very starstruck when we finally got to interview Gerry Laybourne. She was one of the last interviews we did. I had been researching her and basically learning about her life everyday. When I finally met her, it was like “Wow.” The fact that she’s a legitimate visionary and changed the world of media certainly didn’t help my nerves at all.
The documentary features original animated sequences. What role do they play in the documentary?
You have these stories that people will tell and if you don’t have any archival or B roll footage to help illustrate those stories, what do you do? Our documentary’s got a lot of interviews and we didn’t want that to get boring. We decided early on that we wanted animation to help bring these stories to life, but the animation had to fit the style. There’s a guy named Jeff Johnson who’s another old friend of mine and he’s a very talented animator who has a style very similar to the Spumco style, the company that did Ren and Stimpy. Marc Summers tells a really funny story in the doc about when a kid’s dad threatened him on the set of Double Dare. I sent that to Jeff and said, “Work something up so I can show the rest of the guys what this would be like.” He just killed it and knocked it out of the park. He did about four different sequences where he illustrated stories and brought them to life. I think it really gives the documentary such a great feel because it feels like Nickelodeon.
Why do you think this particular era of children’s television is so fondly remembered?
That’s kind of the whole lynchpin of our documentary. When you bring up those eighties and nineties Nick shows to people, they get really passionate. More passionate than for other shows from that era. It can’t just be nostalgia. There’s a reason why these shows resonate so much and it’s the hard work that Gerry Laybourne and her team did to connect with kids in a real and authentic way. They actually asked kids, “What’s it like to be a kid?” Not just showing them two shows and going, “Which one do you like better? What are you into? You’re into cars? We’ll make a show about cars!” They actually asked them what it’s like to be a kid and made shows that reflected that. The kids on those shows felt real. They didn’t get kids who had perfect teeth and frosted tips and could sing and dance because that’s not really what kids wanna see. They wanna see kids who look like them and stories that feel like what they’re going through. Even a show like “Pete and Pete” that’s very abstract and bizarre still hit themes that kids were going through like Little Pete growing up and outgrowing Artie. Going from being a little kid to being a big kid. That’s a hard time. I can remember having a Mario Brothers shirt in sixth grade and everyone thought it was cool and then I wore it in seventh grade and got beat up for it. I can remember putting on my Mario shirts and being sad because I still wanted to wear them, but I was like “It’s not cool to talk about Ninja Turtles and Mario. Now, you’ve gotta talk about junior high stuff.” Even though “Pete and Pete” was very abstract it still reflected that journey that kids go through.
Do you have an all-time favorite Nickelodeon show?
Oh my gosh. It’s so incredibly hard especially because those shows mean so much to me and then I got to know the creators and hear how talented they are. If I had to pick an all time favorite, I’d say “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” One, I love horror films to this very day and I think “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” kind of started that. Who doesn’t want to be a part of the Midnight Society and go out into the woods with your friends and tell scary stories? I also love the fact that it pushed the envelope quite a bit in that the whole point was to scare kids. Could you imagine pitching that to the networks? A lot of those shows were very similar to the Twilight Zone in that they did not have happy endings. They ended where the kids lost. Sometimes the kids were trapped in another dimension or with a vampire chasing them. Finally, I think Nickelodeon did such a fantastic job of casting all their shows, but you think about “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” You cast the Midnight Society, but then every single episode you have to cast new people whereas no other show had to do that. For the most part, everyone was pretty good. You look at how many people went on to be famous, clearly they had an eye for talent.
They were all Canadian, right? I imagine the talent pool was even more limited.
I know, right! It doesn’t make it into the documentary, but DJ MacHale [co-creator of “Are You Afraid of the Dark?”] talks about how originally he started coming to LA and casting was both a curse and a blessing. There were more kids that were into acting, but really it was the whole Canadian aspect that made it feel more natural because those weren’t the LA kids that were super polished and had a super polished acting style. By the end, they were casting out of Canada, the east coast and the west cast, because they had to get so many kids. Neve Campbell, Ryan Gosling, Elisha Cuthbert: all those people got their start on “Are You Afraid of the Dark?”
You also have a documentary about GWAR in the works. How is that coming along?
I’m really excited about that. It’s in the editing process right now. We’ve pretty much wrapped filming and it’s such a beautiful story. It’s pretty much 180 degrees away from what you would think of a GWAR documentary. At the end of the day, it’s a human story. GWAR is one of the hardest working bands out there. As crazy and out there as they are, those guys create all those costumes and elaborate props themselves and set that show up everyday. You know, I’m a theatre guy. I remember what it’s like to set up a play, but those guys have to set it up, break it down, and move it to another city every single day. GWAR is not even a band. They really have more in common with Monty Python or a travelling circus. I’m really excited to get that out there.
Do you have any other upcoming projects?
Something I’ve learned is that just because a film is over, it doesn’t mean your work is done. We’re promoting and pushing The Orange Years until it comes out and I’m working on GWAR in my spare time. You’d be surprised how much Nickelodeon and GWAR have in common even though you wouldn’t think that at all. I got slimed in both. I guess every documentarian has their style and my style is I have to work on documentaries on things that are gonna spray me with goo.
It’s been working well for you so far! Is there anything else you’d like to add?
There’s an analogy that I like to use. Adam and I started this thing and I kind of think of us as like Sam and Frodo in the Lord of the Rings. It started with us, but once we left the Shire there was a whole fellowship of people who made this film. We had so many talented people work on this. Alisa Reyes, Lee Leshen, Bill Parks, Suzanne Scudder, Shawn Cauthen. It’s like Janga. If you pulled out any of those pieces, this film wouldn’t have gotten made. Me and Adam are credited as the writers and directors, but all the producers weren’t just producers – they were also gaffers and PR people. Everyone had to wear multiple hats. We got to work with an amazing team and one thing I learned is a film is not made by one or two people. Even an indie film. We had some amazing people and that’s the only reason this film got made.