Showrunners Joaquim Dos Santos and Lauren Montgomery unpack the 'complex' season's morally gray villain

By Nick Romano
August 01, 2017 at 09:30 AM EDT
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Lotor. It’s a name Joaquim Dos Santos and Lauren Montgomery, the showrunners of Voltron Legendary Defender, had on their wish list of characters since the beginning of their Netflix series. But fans only heard the name uttered in the season 2 finale. Now, with mere days until the next premiere, the son of Zarkon is making his debut in EW’s exclusive season 3 trailer.

Hunk, for one, is already freaking out.

As Dos Santos explains over the phone, Lotor is “a way more efficient operator” than his father. Where Zarkon focused more on “brute strength and kicking down doors and taking over the entire universe by force,” Lotor is more “sympathetic,” morally “gray,” and willing to befriend neighboring planets to further his mission.

When we pick back up with the paladins in the season 3 premiere, there’s still no trace of Shiro after their showdown with Zarkon — and no Shiro means no Black Lion to form Voltron. The remaining team members will have to figure out what it means to be a unit without their leader while grappling with Lotor and his inner circle of generals, the four fighters also spotted in the new footage.

“They at least knew how to take on the Galra with Zarkon at the helm because they knew their pattern, they were predictable. Now they’ve got this new guy who is not predictable,” Montgomery explains. “So not only are they having issues with their teamwork, but they’ve also got this new villain that they don’t know how to go up against. So it’s just infinitely more tricky for them.”

Voltron returns to Netflix this Aug. 4 with seven new episodes as remaining season 2 revelations linger: Pidge discovered her brother lives, Keith learned he’s part Galra, and the Galran witch Haggar is really Altean. Season 4 will drop much earlier than usual this October.

For much more intel on what’s to come, read below for EW’s full interview with Dos Santos and Montgomery as they unpack the absence of Shiro, the rise of Lotor and his “tension” with daddy, the new premiere schedule, and much more.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The biggest reveal, especially for those who weren’t at Comic-Con, is the full shot of Lotor, and already we’re getting a sense of how he approaches conflict, but how do you two contrast him with Zarkon?
JOAQUIM DOS SANTOS: We had a chance to speak about him a little bit at San Diego Comic-Con. I think our big message to try to get across is that he’s a very different operator than Zarkon in the sense that Zarkon was all about brute strength and kicking down doors and taking over the entire universe by force and Lotor’s a way smarter operator — a way more efficient operator. So, he’s likely going to take that path and that might not always mean forced, it might mean befriending a planet or a system and taking them under his wing and providing protection for them. I think there’s a sympathetic aspect to some of his background that people might be able to relate to as the series reveals itself. It’ll make him very different from Zarkon, who’s our…establishing bad guy.

At what point during production on Voltron did you decide you wanted to introduce Lotor and how much mapping out did you have to do beforehand?
LAUREN MONTGOMERY:
We wanted to start with Zarkon because, obviously, he was such a huge part of the original show and we really wanted to set up the world with Zarkon in the lead and establish him as the bad guy and this is what the bad guys do. And we knew that before we could do something more unique that brings a lot more gray into the world — it’s not so good versus bad, black and white — Lotor kind of plays in that gray area, but we needed to do it a little later because we wanted to make sure the world was set up very clearly in the beginning. So I think that led us to introduce him here, which for us is about 26 episodes in and it just felt like a good break between our seasons and just a good place. We’ve done Zarkon’s arc and left him in a kind of really different place. We took him out — not completely, but really resolved his fight against Voltron and now we can bring in this new point of view and play with that.
DOS SANTOS: We had discussed Lotor pretty early on.
MONTGOMERY: Day 1.
DOS SANTOS: We were like, “Oh! We can’t wait to get around to him!”
MONTGOMERY: We didn’t want to throw everyone in episode 1. We wanted to space things out and introduce these lovely characters just a little bit at a time.

I don’t want to get into too spoiler-y territory because the premiere is this week, but what can you say in terms of his impact on Team Voltron? Because they’re going through their own identity crisis as a team.
DOS SANTOS:
Yeah, I think — maybe I touched upon it a little bit on the first part of the first question that you had asked — but he is oddly enough a sympathetic character in a sense. I always appreciate villains you can relate to on some level, that you might not agree with them but you can understand their point of view and I think he’s much more of that type of a villain than Zarkon ever was. So I think his impact on the team will reflect that a little bit…not that everybody is gonna be agreeing with him or signing up to fight for the Galra or anything, but he plays a very different game and so they have to recalibrate their mindset. It’s not just the big bad guy that’s just over the hill there waiting to fight.
MONTGOMERY: They’re in a situation now where Shiro’s gone and they’ve gotta pick up the pieces and they’re trying to figure out how to work as a team again. But on top of that, they at least knew how to take on the Galra with Zarkon at the helm because they knew their pattern, they were predictable. Now they’ve got this new guy who is not predictable. So not only are they having issues with their teamwork, but they’ve also got this new villain that they don’t know how to go up against. So it’s just infinitely more tricky for them.

In terms of the narrative and the character progression, what made this a good time to take Shiro out of the story for the time being?
DOS SANTOS: We’ve played with the idea before and it’s a big part of his character’s history with the original series, and I think it’s a strong story element when you take the leadership element out of the team and see how the team has to resolve that amongst themselves. Who rises to the occasion? Who plays backup? How things get shifted around. It really throws a much different dynamic on this season with our team almost starting on shakier ground than they did at the beginning where they didn’t have any knowledge of what they were doing in the first place. At least, they really understood the team dynamic there. Now, it’s almost starting another step back.

NEXT: Shiro’s disappearance and Lotor’s generals.

In terms of timeline, too — I saw the [premiere] episode that screened at Comic-Con — is it safe to assume that the Galrans don’t yet know that the Black Lion is out of commission?
MONTGOMERY: Yeah. It’s safe to assume both sides were kind of left not really knowing exactly how the fight ended. Our guys don’t know what state Zarkon is in. They don’t know, is he dead? Is he alive? Did we hurt him? They just knew they had to get out of there — and the same goes for the Galra. They know Voltron escaped, but they know about as much as our guys knew when they left. Our guys didn’t know Shiro was gone, so in their minds Voltron is still out there and they need to be prepared for it.
DOS SANTOS: Yeah, there’s like a big fog of war right now between both sides where they don’t really know what’s going on with the other.

In another part of the trailer, there’s this throwback shot to when Shiro was fighting Zarkon on that astral plane. Are we to assume that’s a clue as to Shiro’s disappearance and Zarkon’s vegetative state?
DOS SANTOS: I mean, I think all things are on the table at this point. I think we’re leaving that mystery hanging out there intentionally. So if people assume that, cool. If people assume that he was splattered on the inside of a cockpit, cool. [Laughs] All things are on the table.

I’ve just been going online on the Voltron Reddit and reading all these fan theories. Have you seen any of them?
MONTGOMERY: Uh, I don’t know. [Laughs]
DOS SANTOS: Possibly?
MONTGOMERY: I feel like we heard a couple, but I feel like there’s probably a lot that we’ve missed.
DOS SANTOS: Yeah, honestly, I think we barely scratched the surface because we don’t really have the time to do it, but it also, I think, keeps our sanity if we don’t get too deep into it. But we’ve heard a little bit of the theories and stuff that’s going on out there and, I mean, it’s awesome to see, people speculating.

Has anyone correctly guessed anything about the upcoming season?
MONTGOMERY: I feel like I haven’t seen a lot about the upcoming season so far. I know people pretty quickly guessed Keith being part Galra pretty early on.
DOS SANTOS: Yeah. There was specifically one piece of art we remember seeing early on where Keith unwraps his knife and, they had drawn a Galra symbol where the Blade of Marmora symbol was on his knife, but that was pretty close. We were, “Wow! Okay, they’ve got us.”
MONTGOMERY: We’d like to just pat ourselves on the back and say, “Wow, we’re doing a really good job of setting this up and people are figuring it out,” but I don’t know.

Are there any clues like this in the first few episodes that fans should be keeping an eye out for?
DOS SANTOS: In the first two episodes? I don’t think there’s any direct clues…The way animation works, that entire season has been written and it’s in the can and it’s been sitting around for a while, so we’re lucky that we are able to set things up. So, whether it’s something as direct as Keith’s knife drop, it’s not direct as that, but there’s definitely setup for stuff that’s gonna happen in future episodes.
MONTGOMERY: Half the fun for me is, I’ve seen a couple people theorize about things in past episodes, like, “What is this gonna mean?” And then I just kind of look at it and realize, “Oh no, that was just like a bad drawing.” [Laughs] “That was just a bad drawing that we didn’t get a retake for, but that’s fine.” That’s half the fun, just watching people theorize about…some of it’s legit and then some of it is just like, that is absolutely nothing and it’s never gonna amount to anything, but feel free. Theorize all you want, it’s fun.

What can you say, if anything at all, about Lotor’s inner circle of generals? Just from my point of view, I can’t help but make that connection to Keith because he realized he’s part Galra and someone in the first episode at Comic-Con said that Lotor’s generals aren’t fully Galra. Am I completely overthinking this or is there something fun to play with there?
MONTGOMERY: Yeah, you can kind of see from their looks that we’ve established a few different types of Galra, but I think his generals have some very unique looks so you kind of know that they’re not all purple, fuzzy people — and that was one of the fun things where it’s like, we could give him some regular commanders or we could give him something really unique and so we wanted to get some different shapes and different appealing looks to these people and our thought was, “Hey, maybe they’re half Galran.” And then we had to think, “Okay, what does that mean? Do the Galra like that? In this old Galra regime, this empire that Zarkon set up, is that frowned upon?” And the thing that we thought was kind of interesting is that, yes, he likes to think his Zarkon way — which is “Galra way! Galra blood! Take everything by force or just burn it down” — and Lotor is not that way. Lotor is very much open to everything. So if someone is half-Galra, he doesn’t have a problem. If they can do their jobs, then they can do the jobs and he’s gonna use them and, yeah, he’s just a more open-minded guy, but that also makes him more dangerous because, again, he’s unpredictable. He’s willing to do things by any means.
DOS SANTOS: It’s also one of those things, we’ve talked about it a little earlier, but it kind of makes him more sympathetic. So you can draw that parallel, whether it happens directly in the episodes or not, between, you know, he’s open to working with half-Galra, half-whatever and Keith is for sure that — whereas Allura, when she first found out that Keith was Galra put up way more of a wall. So what does that say about each of their characters?

Also with Lotor and his generals, my first thought in that episode was thinking back to Azula’s entourage in Avatar [The Last Airbender, which Dos Santos and Montgomery worked on], just by virtue of the fact that both she and Lotor are children of villains and that invisible general [in Voltron] also looks a little bit like an alien version of Ty Lee. Was that at all an inspiration for this new introduction of Lotor?
DOS SANTOS: I don’t think we can make a show for the rest of our lives without taking either some influence or comparison or a line being drawn between Avatar: The Last Airbender or [The Legend of] Korra. I think it’s just, there’s an interesting aspect of a character on the villain side, not necessarily being the scowling, big, purple monster type and if that means she’s got maybe a bit of a friendly demeanor, then you get that Ty Lee comparison where she’s almost sort of…I mean, hopefully we’ve done enough to differentiate ourselves from that and those were awesome characters in Avatar: The Last Airbender. We loved working on them, we loved drawing them, we loved being a part of them. So, if we took a little piece of that with us, then we wear it on our sleeves.

NEXT: Updating Lotor, the new premiere schedule, character progressions, and making the best show possible out of a toy-drive franchise.

With Lotor, specifically, how much from the original Voltron series are you drawing for his character and how much of this new iteration of Lotor are you allowing by virtue of the story?
MONTGOMERY: I think a lot of that you’ll probably just have to see in the show, but obviously the original Lotor was a little more like, I don’t know, a two-dimensional kind of guy. He had a creepy thing with Allura and then that was what fueled him and that was okay when I was a kid for some reason — a villain being obsessed with a woman and kidnapping her was just a thing that happened, and nowadays I think we look at that and we think maybe that’s not the best motivation for someone and maybe that doesn’t make them the most relatable or the most dynamic. So, clearly we have to evolve Lotor a bit, but I think people will be happy to see there are…We take different approaches to things. We like to cherry-pick things from old shows and then just do a new twist on it, so they might see some slight familiarity but I’d say a large part of our Lotor is gonna be unique to this show just ‘cause he kind of needs to be.
DOS SANTOS: Yeah, totally. I think the idea going in was that there needs to be an element from the original show that was there just because — and we wanted to keep it — the rule was we had to make sense of it and tie it into a more methodical, a more structured character aspect of him.
MONTGOMERY: I mean, there was one thing that I think you’ll definitely see is that kind of tension between the father and son that always existed in the old show. There was always a bit of a rivalry between Lotor and Zarkon and there’s some of that, too. Again, we’ve done our own spin on it. It’s not exactly the same thing that it was in the original, but it’s in there. It’s definitely a relationship that we thought would be unique. I think we mentioned Lotor was exiled. Well, why was he exiled? Clearly, there’s some sort of…
DOS SANTOS: There’s an issue there.

Also at Comic-Con you announced the new episode model for season 3 and season 4, and I know you mentioned that it’s to get more Voltron to fans faster. Can you talk a little bit about how that decision came about? Was that spearheaded by Netflix or DreamWorks, or did you two come up with that as you were going along?
DOS SANTOS: I would love to say we were smart enough to come up with that ourselves. But we make the show, we don’t think about necessarily the big overarching roll out strategies. That was something that was presented to us from I think meetings that happen on an executive level that are a little above our pay grade.
MONTGOMERY: Much higher above our heads.
DOS SANTOS: Yeah, but they’re nice enough to include us in on it and let us weigh in. There’ve been some meetings where we’ve given some pushback and DreamWorks has been kind enough to play ball with us and say, “You know what? We respect your creative decisions on this.” This was one of those decisions that sort of got presented to us and they said, “Hey, we’re thinking about doing this,” and we were ready to go to war. Creatively, it actually it…it makes sense in this instance. We’re excited people don’t have to wait as long between seasons because that can get a little tedious, as well. I just read somewhere, I mean not to…I think Rick and Morty’s an awesome show and I don’t know if this stat is correct, but it was like two years between seasons [Editor’s note: season 2 ended on Oct. 4, 2015 and season 3 came back officially on July 30 this year]. I mean, that seems unbelievable. You’ve either grown up and become a different human being or I don’t know.

I think around Voltron, what’s interesting is that Netflix still hasn’t really released their ratings for these shows. I think back to, like, Legend of Korra and Avatar, those seasons kept going and going and going. How are you two mapping out seasons for the future with this relationship with Netflix?
DOS SANTOS: I think from the beginning it was, the pitch was to do a big serialized story. So, I mean, we’ve been thinking in that direction since the inception of the series. We haven’t had to change course during the course of this series, but it has been different from working on Avatar and working on Korra where you have the guarantee for maybe 26 episodes and from there on it’s sort of nebulous whether you’re gonna do more. So you have to try and wrap it up and leave something open. So we’ve been lucky in that way, that they’ve been totally accepting of doing a serialized storyline.

You mentioned that Lotor was on your wish list from the beginning, but I’m curious, are we gonna start to see you go deeper in the histories of the Altean and Galran people? I’m thinking specifically of that reveal last season where Haggar is revealed to be Atlean.
MONTGOMERY: I think it’s definitely something that we’ve always wanted to do and we definitely wanted to have an episode that explains a lot of the mystery of, like, where does Voltron come from? And who were these original paladins? And whether that episode exists, you’ll have to wait and see.
DOS SANTOS: And if you look online and happen to see a bootleg of a San Diego Comic-Con panel, you might see a hint at something that will be a nice tease of something like that, that hasn’t been previously released — ever. We’re winking over the phone. Wink! Wink!

In terms of some of the other characters, too, there seems to be a lot to unpack with Keith, specifically with his Galra reveal but also to see how he’s adapting to the loss of Shiro. Since Jeremy [Shada] and Steven [Yeun] weren’t at Comic-Con, what can you say about Keith and Lances’ journeys moving towards this season?
DOS SANTOS: They both continue to evolve, which is, again, the advent of us being able to do a serialized story where the characters evolve along with the overall plot. So, it’s cool. They each are handling this situation in very different ways with the absence of their leader and where they go to from here and how they get there, they take very, I’d say, divergent paths but ultimately everybody’s gonna have to try and figure something out if they hope to work together as a team. So, that’s one of the interesting elements is getting those character dynamics from characters that are vastly different from each other to come together and work together. It’s the core of the Voltron message.

What can you say about Pidge? We heard a little bit about her character from Comic-Con. She’s always been one of my favorite characters, especially in season 1 with her coming-out moment. But now she has proof of her brother being alive in the Galra rebel unit. Are we gonna see faster movement, would you say, or is this something that’s gonna play out over time?
MONTGOMERY: Well, I think we definitely liked to keep that story going, whether it’s a huge leap in that direction or where it’s like she gets another bread in the bread crumb trail towards the end. I don’t think we can really say much more than that, but it’s something that we think is very, an interesting story that’s something that definitely pulls that character and it’s that thing that she has to balance with her duties to Voltron and then her feelings of obligations to her family, who she loves. I think it’s something that we want to see play out.
DOS SANTOS: I think it’s the strongest through-line since the beginning of the series.

I wasn’t at the WonderCon panel, but I did read up on that and, Joaquim, you said something when you were asked about some of the new weapons and abilities of Voltron that were developing over the seasons. You said, “Ultimately we are trying to make a show that is attempting to sell as many toys as humanly possible.” Could you elaborate on that a little more? Has that been a difficult line for you to walk?
DOS SANTOS: I may have been a bit misquoted on that.
MONTGOMERY: [Laughs] It’s said lovingly.
DOS SANTOS: It’s not to say that we’re trying to make a toy-driven [show].
MONTGOMERY: Yeah, no part of this is a cash-grab by any means from our eyes.
DOS SANTOS: Artistically speaking, we want to make a show that ultimately we want to see, right? But we’re not making like an art-house picture here. We want to make it a show that kids watch.
MONTGOMERY: It’s a show that ultimately was licensed by DreamWorks to sell toys — and we knew that going into it, but we also knew that we didn’t want to work that in and not care about it. We love the show, we love the original show, and, honestly, we love toys. We’re huge toy collectors ourselves, and so we strongly feel we can hit both things: we can make a show that features cool toys that tie into the story, they’re not just there and they don’t feel like these weird things that are shoved in just to be a commercial to kids. They’re things that we’ve actually had the fortune of us choosing the things that partially become toys. We get to kind of make the, I guess the decision of, “Hey, this is gonna be in the show…”
DOS SANTOS: We just want it to feel organic. We want it to feel like it’s part of the show…My big speech that I give — and by the way, Lauren, thank you for…Just attribute everything Lauren said to my answer. That would be fantastic. [Laughs] The big thing that I always say at the toy meetings is, when I was a kid, when I looked on the shelves, I would see the toys from the show, whether it’d be Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Batman or anything. As soon as I saw Arctic Thunder Batman, I started feeling a little, “Uh oh! That’s not really in the show. It’s just them repainting Batman blue and sticking an icicle on his head and calling him Arctic Thunder Batman.” We wanted to make sure that everything that comes out from the toy line feels like it’s either in the show directly or feels like it’s from the show. So, they’re nice enough to keep us in on all the development meetings on their end. So, yeah, I mean, it came from a…We realized we were working on Voltron. It’s a robot show, but at the same time, we’re trying to make the best show that we can out of a toy-driven show, at the end of the day. That’s a very long answer to a very short question. [Laughs] But it’s one that we do feel passionate about.
MONTGOMERY: Yeah, there’s a little more to it than, “We want to make a show that sells a million toys.”

Since you just came out of Comic-Con, what was your reaction like getting to watch that premiere episode with the fans? I know a lot of filmmakers and producers have said in the past that Comic-Con is sort of a test screening of sorts for some of their projects. Do you feel that? Do you still think it’s important to bring your shows, and especially Voltron, to Comic-Con?
DOS SANTOS: You definitely feel loved, that is for sure, and if it’s a quiet room at the end of a Comic-Con screening then you’ve got problems because you’re there with, basically, with the base.
MONTGOMERY: People who want to be there to watch your thing. For us, it’s always just been a really enjoyable experience to watch something with a crowd that I don’t want to say is unbiased because clearly some people were there for the show, but it’s their first exposure to that episode and so you just kind of get their very first impressions, and if people are smiling and cheering and laughing, then it’s a good thing. I think we’ve always had the fortune of that being the case so far with this show, and it’s just been a really great experience for us.
DOS SANTOS: But it’s chill-inducing. Hearing people react to stuff is like, I mean, you get goose-pimples. I get giddy. You get emotions that you don’t necessarily get after watching the same episode 15 times in the studio because you’re editing it and doing sound mixes.
MONTGOMERY: Yeah, like sound effects.
DOS SANTOS: Yeah. It’s like watching it again for the first time and it’s awesome.

At the Comic-Con panel, Tyler [Labine] mentioned that this season gets pretty dark, and I’m wondering how dark exactly are we talking?
MONTGOMERY: Everybody dies. [Laughs]
DOS SANTOS: The whole world dies! The show ends! [Laughs] No, I mean, you’re dealing with some pretty heavy things. You’re dealing with a lot of loss, you’re dealing with characters confronting maybe elements of their personalities that aren’t the best elements of their personalities.
MONTGOMERY: Maybe “dark” isn’t 100 percent. It gets serious, we start taking things a little more seriously. There’s still a lot of fun and lightheartedness to the show because we like to have laughs and have the humor to keep things entertaining, but there’s definitely a sense of, “Oh, things got ratcheted up a notch,” that I think makes all of the characters ultimately have to lose a little bit of the child inside of them and start thinking more of on the adult level. Like, “Oh, we need to come together as a team and we need to fight back against this.”
DOS SANTOS: I’d say maybe rather than “dark,” the better word is just “complex.” Things get more complex.

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