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With Netflix’s One Piece live-action series finally out in the world, audiences old and new are discovering the adventures of Monkey D. Luffy (Iñaki Godoy) and his crew as they set out for adventure, and to find the titular One Piece treasure. Based on the long-running, and still ongoing, Manga of the same name by Eiichiro Oda, which itself received a still-ongoing anime adaptation over 20 years ago, there was plenty of existing story for the creatives to draw on in creating this latest adaptation. But what really spoke to them? Which moments made the cut, and which parts of the story made an early appearance.
In this post-mortem 1-on-1 interview with Collider’s Arezou Amin, One Piece showrunner Steven Maeda talked about the massive task of adapting Oda’s extensive world for the live-action Netflix series. He also talked about the challenges in jumping from Manga to a live-action series, getting to expand on the plot told in Oda’s original story, and bringing future plot points in earlier. He also talks about working with Oda, and finding the right cast to embody the Straw Hat pirates.
COLLIDER: One Piece is officially out in the world today. So far seems like everybody’s loving it, and rightly so. So how does it feel now? Now it’s finally out there.
STEVEN MAEDA: Huge relief just to have it out. Because it’s been four years for me working on the show and a lot of that, when you’re when you’re on a show before it airs, there’s a huge vacuum that you just don’t know if anybody is going to see the things that you saw in creating the show. And so today is a huge relief and fingers crossed
In these four years since you’ve been working on it, that is a very long process, so what were the early days of this One Piece process like for you to get the ball rolling because it is such a huge undertaking?
MAEDA: In the early days, we were really trying to figure out what the show was. And by that, I mean how much of the tone to embrace. The show is kind of wacky. The show is out there in its look and feel, and deciding kind of where to strike that balance, and then also trying to figure out what stories were going to be told and at what budget were those stories? And it wasn’t like any stories to dollars kind of formula or anything like that, it was more, can we tell the story stories we want to tell? Can we really go all in? Can we do all the flashbacks? Can we do the Lord of the Coast? That’s the version we wanted to do very badly. “Hey, let’s convince you that these stories are wonderful, Netflix, and then hopefully, you’ll agree with us and pay for them.”
There is a lot of story in this first season. It takes hundreds of chapters of the manga, which is like the first 12 volumes, and it’s all in there, and it never loses the heart. So I was wondering if you could talk a bit about the process of assembling that and deciding which bits you really needed to have, what you could take out, what you could change.
MAEDA: My big goal was to make sure that we show the uniqueness of the world and what a spectacle it is, and what a brilliant creation by [Eiichiro] Oda-san to come up with these characters and this world, but at the same time, not to lose the emotional underpinning of these characters. When I read the first 100 chapters, and read the whole rest of the manga, quite frankly, there are so many wonderful emotional moments in it, and it’s like, “Okay, this is really clever, it’s inventive, it’s cool. It’s exciting, but oh, they just broke my heart a little bit with that character’s backstory.” I wanted to make sure all of that was in there, and it all comes with a cost. But that was the best way to tell the story, and thankfully they agreed.
So we know that Oda-san was working very closely with all of you. I wonder if you could tell me a bit about what that experience was like.
MAEDA: It was good because, obviously, we got straight from the source information. It was very challenging. A manga and a TV show are both telling stories, but in a very, very different way and in a different structure. So we had to discuss pulling things forward and pushing things back and adding elements that are in the manga, but not until much later chapters. For example, the Marines, you know Garp, who is after Luffy and Koby and Helmeppo, and that story isn’t in the first 100 of chapters of the manga; it comes in around chapter 300 or something that they show up. And I thought I really wanted to have stakes and antagonists with teeth who are not just the kind of pirate antagonists that they were going to run into. So, I really wanted to push this idea that the Marines were hot on their trail, but why? It’s like, what’s the important thing about this kid? Then you discover, of course, that Garp’s grandfather and it’s like, “Oh okay, now I understand. This is a family matter,” which makes perfect sense. And it’s all there, it just wasn’t there in this structure of the manga.
I wanna kind of dig into that a bit because I noticed there were a lot of these later plot points that were brought in a lot earlier, like, we get a Baroque Works namedrop in the first half of the first episode, and that’s obviously not until much later in the manga. We get teases about Shank’s abilities, and there are namedrops, and a lot of that feels like it could just be an Easter egg, but it also feels like it’s more of a long-term setup. How did you decide which bits to bring in, and then also, was this kind of a wink at the later story, or is there a loose outline for a Season 2?
MAEDA: Definitely, all the Easter eggs that were put in were put in with a lot of thought and care. And, “Are people gonna notice this? All right, let’s just shade something in.” Sometimes, they were done because we thought it was cool, and other times it was like, “Oh, no, no, let’s set up Baroque Works as an antagonist who plays very much in the second 100 chapters a little longer. Let’s make sure that we set that up so that there are opportunities to reference back to. “Oh yeah, they did that in the first season.” So yes, they were done with a lot of thought and care, sometimes with an eye toward future episodes, and sometimes it was Easter egg.
Another thing that really jumped out at me about this season is there are these shifting character dynamics in the interactions. It’s not the whole group the whole time, and it’s not everybody kind of just in relation to Luffy. Can you talk about getting to play around with that and making little groupings out of the Straw Hats, and not changing their dynamic but expanding on it beyond what we see?
MAEDA: The thing about the manga is it’s presented to us in panels and follows pretty much the A story primarily, and one of the things that I really wanted to do was to make sure that we understood the Straw Hats as really dimensional as people. So, what was happening in between those manga panels? And then what were some other scenes that could advance the story and feel tonally and character-wise and emotionally like they were a part of the series and the underlying material, even if they weren’t actually there in the underlying material? So it was a real magician’s act trying to come up with storylines and those scenes that felt like they belonged, even if they weren’t actually in the original manga. As long as it feels consistent, that was the important thing.
The reason I thought about this was because Zoro and Nami were always my two favorite characters, so I was surprised this season. I was wondering if that choice was driven from a story point of view, was it actor chemistry, or was it just a combination of the two?
MAEDA: Story-wise and in script, a decision was made pretty early to introduce them together and around the same time and focus that all around Luffy trying to get into the marine base in Shells Town. So, it felt like an opportunity to jumpstart, a little bit, the beginning of Luffy starting to pull in his crew as opposed to doing it separately, the way it’s done in the manga. There was an opportunity to compact there in a way that still felt really natural. So we still get Zoro hanging from that cross, we still get Nami being a thief, but Nami’s story, particularly, is in a slightly different context, so that it allows Luffy to kind of pick them both up at the same time. Then immediately starts the kind of squabbling inter-crew dynamic of him calling everybody a crew, and they’re like, “Not a crew!” which we thought was really fun.
Were there any of these B plots that you wish you had more time to explore? Because we spend a lot of time with the Marines, but there’s Shanks and co. and all the villains. Was there anything you wish you could have explored a little longer?
MAEDA: Yeah, of course. That’s the thing about television is you’re constrained to roughly an hour of screen time, and usually a little less than that. So, yes, of course, it would have been lovely to be able to spend more time with Shanks, but I think we got some nice play with him and young Luffy in the Windmill Village flashbacks that play over the first two episodes. That was a real challenge trying to figure out where to put those flashbacks because we experimented with all sorts of different ways to do that, including starting with all the flashbacks, which didn’t work, it felt like it was a show about a little kid; putting all the flashbacks in the first episode, which then took too much story out of the present-day story; and then putting them all in the second episode, as well, which again then felt too late. So we ended up going with the balance of having those flashbacks begin in Episode 1 and continue through Episode 2 to play, and I think that ended up being the best way to do it.
I agree because then that way when you go back and forth with all the other Straw Hats and their flashbacks, they kind of have that present day. You’d already set that up.
MAEDA: Yeah. And it was really important to us to be able to tell those flashback stories because I think they really inform why the characters are who they are, why they’re making certain decisions, and it helps propel this mystery about Nami. Why is she acting this way? Is she really that cold-blooded that she would just want to steal from people because she’s a thief? It’s really satisfying, I think, when you then get to the explanation of that.
What were the challenges of specifically turning Manga into a live-action TV show?
MAEDA: The challenges were huge. And certainly manga and anime to live-action adaptations do not have the greatest track record, and of course, we were very aware of that. But again, it was saying to ourselves, you know what? There’s no reason why manga should not be adaptable to live-action if it’s the right manga and if it’s presented with the right love and care for the source material, but then also not afraid to expand out and do some things differently if it helps the show, this TV series part of the show, without being inconsistent with anything in the underlying intellectual property. So that was the real challenge, is trying to figure out how best to adapt, and it’s tough.
Certainly, we ran into the problem that there were some fights that went on for chapters and chapters and chapters and that unless you’re doing a John Wick-type show, which we were not, is really, really difficult. Those fights cannot go that long. And so you have to manufacture scenes and tension and conflict in other ways than sometimes what’s in the manga. But again, we try to do it with a sense of consistency and reverence for the source material.
The challenges in going from manga, from two-dimensional panels to three-dimensional live actions, were huge. Not the least of which was kind of figuring out what goes between the panels that are drawn because a lot of times there’ll be a fight, for example, that ends with a really cool pose or move, but you haven’t seen what led up to that. And how does Zoro fight with three swords in his mouth? What are the actual practical limitations of that? There are a lot of things to figure out to see, “How is this going to be able to transfer, and can we do this? Is it gonna look goofy? Is it something that we can pull off and have people go, ‘That’s cool! Maybe it’s not exactly how I pictured it, but that’s a really cool interpretation.’?” So those are the things that I was really concerned with, is trying to make sure that everything translated across.
Then, of course, the biggest thing, I think, the thing that a lot of people are commenting on today, is the tone of the show because it’s unapologetically out there, surreal. It can be very silly, but at the same time, is very sincere and genuine, and emotional. So a lot of it was kind of balancing that tone and trying to make sure that it felt like something people could grab onto. And then I would say the biggest problem, probably, was figuring out the balance between how much to stick to the source material, to the manga, and really do fan service for the hardcore fans who were so, so dedicated to the show and so protective, but then also have it be that somebody who had never heard of One Piece and is like, “What’s this show that’s popping up on my Netflix feed? Should I watch this?” was drawn in enough to be able to come into it and really get sucked in. So, it was finding that balance because I think you can’t just have one in order to be a successful show, you must get both segments of that audience.
In terms of actually making the show, from a pure filmmaking showrunner perspective and not necessarily from adaptation, what would you say was your biggest challenge there?
MAEDA: The challenge, which was also kind of a luxury in a way, was the amount of time and budget that we had to actually make the show. I spent a year in Cape Town, South Africa, prepping and shooting the show with our director and our line producer, and all of our cast and crew, and it was onerous. It was a tough shoot. It was lovely – Cape Town is a wonderful city and the crews are fantastic, but it was definitely a challenge to be working on a show for that length of time and making sure that everything was right. What was really lovely about it was the ability to go to work and be able to stand on those ships and watch the actors interact with each other on an actual, physical set that was just massive. We got to build so much out in South Africa. I’m very grateful that we were able to do that and not just have it be a pure blue screen or show shot on the volume.
I think in terms of like that pulpy, action-adventure tone, which I say with all the affection in my heart, having these physical sets there really does help.
MAEDA: It was huge, and the actors really appreciated it as well. I certainly felt different walking onto those ships, for example. I did not realize that the shipbuilders that we had in Cape Town were very, very good, and so we’re on an almost 1-to-1 replica of a giant ship, like Alvida’s ship or the man-of-war, Garp’s ship. Little things that you would not expect, that you would not be able to get if you shot that on stage somewhere, pop up, like the deck on these ships is curved like a banana. The stern is high, and the bow is high, and then it kind of slopes and does a little bow at the center, and it affects the way you walk, it affects what you see on camera, and that’s something I never would have known had we not built the entire ship. So I think that the physicality of it, the physicality of the rigging and the sails and the movement of all those things, just added a sense of reality and grounding to it.
Was it done by shipbuilders, set builders, or some combination?
MAEDA: Set builders, our construction crew out there who are phenomenal. They’re such craftsmen, and they build these things fast, they build them good, they look wonderful, and then before you know it, we’re tearing them down.
Do you have a favorite set? Because mine was definitely the Baratie.
MAEDA: I was gonna say the same thing. I have a lot of favorite sets. The Going Merry obviously is a wonderful, wonderful set, but Baratie was just magical. It was so big. And you know, such a beautiful kind of seamless build that incorporated some VFX but was mostly a physical set that we built. Then the dining room set, which was on a stage but incorporated the shape of the ship around and the kitchen. You could do not just a season of television but an entire series around that Baratie set, and it hurt me deeply to see it torn down.
The fish mouth bar was just a stroke of brilliance because you get, like, the patio– It was brilliant.
MAEDA: That was our production designer [Richard Bridgland] and our construction coordinator who came up with that one. And that was something that was not in the original manga drawings of Baratie, and I loved it.
You were the showrunner for Pan Am, which is one of my favorite shows. While it is a period piece, it’s also very stylized and it kind of has this tangible sort of larger-than-life feel, sort of like One Piece, but my question is, in trading planes for ships, does anything change in your approach to the show and how you prep, and how you kind of go about things?
MAEDA: Yeah, I mean, the tone of One Piece is different than anything else I’ve ever worked on because, obviously, if you’re doing a show like Pan Am, you’re squarely in a time period and trying to make things as realistic as possible for that period. With One Piece, it’s an alternate universe; there is no time period. As a matter of fact, it’s a melange. It’s a huge mash-up of time periods, and that was something that was talked about a great deal with a great amount of concern as far as how do we mix pirate garb with t-shirts with ball caps with sail phones and fantasy elements like that? And sea creatures. But then pirate ships that were fantastical, but also had to work and be really deadly pirate ships.
So there was a lot of trying to figure out how to make that mash-up work, and ultimately, what we decided on was to just go for it and put it out there, not apologize, not explain, not treat it irreverently, but just say, “Hey, this is a world in which the method of communication is snail phones and isn’t everybody using snail phones?” And just go with that. Also, something I’m very proud of is we and the prop team came up with derivations on the snail phone that were not in the manga, but we’re really fun. So, for example, Garp, in one of the episodes, uses a snail megaphone, and we’re like, “If this is a voice amplifier or a version of a cell phone, why not have it be a megaphone as well that could hail someone from ship to ship?” Likewise with—and I think this is in the manga—our prop design team came up with this little Bluetooth snail phone that’s like a little shell that goes in your ear. Mihawk uses one of them when he’s called for the first time, and it was the cutest little thing, and it’s got a little snail in it that we animated when you’re looking at a close-up of it. I think that we were unapologetic and just embraced the tonal differences and fantasy elements and just said, “We’re just going for it.”
I love Nami’s little Bluetooth snail phone. When it’s submerged underwater, she pulls it out, and it’s like coughing the water out. It was the cutest little thing.
MAEDA: We can’t kill a snail phone, but we can have it cough!
So making a series like this is obviously not a solitary endeavor, but from your perspective, in assembling the Straw Hat crew, this core five that we meet in this season, what was the key thing that you were looking for?
MAEDA: Definitely looking for chemistry between them, actors who really embodied the parts, and I think we found them in a major way, which I feel incredibly blessed and fortunate. To do so, we had a wonderful duo of casting directors, Libby [Goldstein] and Junie [Lowry], who scoured the earth, truly, to find these characters. We looked everywhere for them and also had some of Oda-san’s blessing, as far as what these characters would look like if they were from our world. He had written notes about Zoro being Japanese and about Luffy being Brazilian, which we got close – Luffy is a Mexican actor, Iñaki Godoy. But we really tried to find actors who embodied these characters, were very natural, and then had great chemistry.
Were there any changes that you made in adapting this from the manga that Oda-san was particularly fond of?
MAEDA: I think so. We had major, major consultation on a lot of the things that we wanted to do, and when he had issues with stuff, we talked about them and tried to come up with compromises and things that worked for him, for sure. So, yeah, that process was definitely a challenge. It wasn’t the usual studio notes or network notes process, but at the same time, it’s his world, and he created this wonderful sandbox, and we just get to play in it. So definitely, everything was done with an eye toward having him be able to bless the project and all the elements of it. I think he enjoyed the brain pursuit. He certainly didn’t think that we were going to be able to cast someone for Luffy as good as Iñaki, but I think he was really sold when he saw some of the footage.
The cast as a whole I have loved from the beginning, but Iñaki looks like animated Luffy come to life.
MAEDA: He does. He’s amazing. It was incredible casting, finding him, and then a lot of luck in getting him in the right place to be able to do the show. But he really does good by that character, and I have to say, I love Iñaki. He truly is that character. I mean, he is so much like Luffy. I do not think we could have found a backup for Iñaki who would have been half as good playing Luffy.
As a lightning round to close it out, I have two questions, and I know with anybody I ask this to, it’s like asking them their favorite child, but do you have a favorite Straw Hat, and do you have a favorite baddie?
MAEDA: Oh, that’s really good. I like that one. I think Zoro. I love the Straw Hats, all of them, but I really do love Zoro. I love the way Mackenyu played him as well. He’s just so badass and so much fun, and I love his backstory. Then as far as baddies, I would say, definitely for this season, Buggy the Clown. You know, we love Buggy so much that we conjured up a way to bring him along for the back half, by separating him from his head, which was really fun. But Jeff Ward really did a magnificent job in bringing that character to life, and I just love everything about Buggy.
One Piece is streaming on Netflix now.