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Interview with Writer of Dragon Ball Z: Light of Hope, Derek Padula

By Alexander Hinkley in Interviews

derek padula author photograph

The pilot episode of Robot Underdog’s new live action Dragon Ball Z web series Light of Hope was released on Tuesday. The episode has been a smash hit so far with most Dragon Ball Z fans having nothing but good things to say about it. At the time of this writing, the episode already has 1.8 million views and is climbing fast. I had a chance to sit down and talk with Derek Padula, the writer of Light of Hope, to talk about his work on the episode.

Haven’t seen it yet? You can watch the 13 minute episode on YouTube here:

Also a shameless plug before we jump into the interview, if you’re a DBZ fan and like online role-playing be sure to check out my online RPG: http://www.alexsdbzrpg.com. It’s been running since June 2000 and is currently the most active play-by-post RPG in the genre.

Alex: So how did you come to be the writer for Light of Hope?

Derek: I was approached by Robot Underdog in late 2013 because they wanted to create a live-action Dragon Ball Z series and weren’t happy with their current script. They found me online and felt I’d be a good match, since I’m the world’s only professional Dragon Ball scholar, at The Dao of Dragon Ball.

At first I wasn’t sure if I should do it, because Dragon Ball Z has never been done properly in live-action before, and it’s a difficult project to achieve. Most consider it impossible. But I thought, “What would Goku do?” The answer was that he’d see the challenge as an opportunity to improve himself. So I said yes.

I rewrote the script from scratch, and penned all three episodes in about a week. I had never written a screenplay before, but the idea’s appeared in my mind while I was meditating, in inspiration. I know these characters so well that it was easy to write natural scenarios, and I believe, fitting dialogue that rings true to who they are.

That makes it sound easy, but writing a Dragon Ball Z project is extremely difficult. It requires decades of fandom to truly understand these characters. You have to watch every single episode countless times, read all the manga, and study these characters until they feel real to you. Then, you have to somehow express that on a page, and show them in contrast to one another. That’s a challenge unto itself, but then to bring it to the screen with real people? That takes a lot of hard work, determination, and sacrifice. It’s why people say it can’t be done. But I feel like we did it, and the fans agree.

Alex: The pilot episode surpassed a million views on YouTube in just the first day alone. Were you expecting such a massive reception?

Derek: No, but I am glad to see that result. We missed our projected release date by a full day because of technical errors with the sound, so I wasn’t sure how that would affect the reception. But the fans have spoken, and they feel it’s worth sharing. I think the reason why is three-fold.

The first reason is because of the common conception that Dragon Ball Z just cannot be done properly with real people. This was established by Dragon Ball Evolution and the other fans who have attempted such a project, to different degrees of success. So we had to go above and beyond and really show that it is possible. This was achieved through the right balance of martial arts choreography, special effects, and costuming, along with a genuine and original story, instead of just doing a shot-for-shot recreation of a trailer. We had to walk the line between anime and reality, and I think we succeeded.

The second reason is that we stayed true to the source material. Dragon Ball Z fans across the world can see from our work that we’re also fans. The quality speaks for itself, so they want to share it.

The third reason is that it touches a part of their hearts, reminding them of their youth, and just why Dragon Ball Z is such a powerful force in their lives. Fans have said to me that Light of Hope moved them to tears. The high amount of views is nice, but I wrote this to touch people’s hearts and inspire them to tap into their potential. When I hear from fans that it made them cry tears of joy, it’s the greatest reward.

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Alex: What made you guys decide on doing The History of Trunks in live action as opposed to some other story arc?

Derek: The History of Trunks is the most realistic arc in the Dragon Ball Z story. There are no aliens, talking pigs, or magical dragons. It’s just three humans against two pseudo-humans. So even though it’s still extremely difficult to do well, it’s the most achievable.

The other factor is that it’s an emotional story, it’s self-contained, and it has a darker tone that appeals to a modern audience. So we felt this would be a good one to start with.

Alex: Fan reception thus far has been almost all positive. What were some of the challenges that you had to overcome to make live action DBZ work as compared to Dragon Ball: Evolution which pretty much everybody hated?

Derek: If the Hollywood executives had bothered to watch or read Dragon Ball, then they would’ve realized they were on the wrong track from the beginning with their adaptation. If you don’t stay true to the source material, you’re doomed. Did they not bother to ask themselves why Dragon Ball is so popular? It’s because of the writing of Akira Toriyama, the characters, the conflicts, the deeper message that’s inherent in the series. 20th Century Fox took everything that’s great about Dragon Ball and threw it in the trash.

In contrast, everyone at Robot Underdog, the actors, crew, and myself, have been devoted fans of the series since we were kids, so we stay true to the source material. True fans can see the details, from the color of the Androids’ eyes, the way Bulma foreshadows that she’s working on the time machine, how Gohan jokes about Trunks’ dad having pride, the mentor to disciple relationship, the Super Saiyan transformation, the list goes on. There are so many details to get right, and we tried the best we could with the budget and time that we had available. With more than $10,000, it could have been even better. So if your readers want to see an Episode 2, please donate to http://robotunderdog.com/donate

Alex: How is a fight scene created? The choreography and pacing of every shot really makes them stand out.

Derek: The fight choreography is done by a talented group of martial artists and stuntmen called Creative Action Development (http://www.academyofmovementarts.com), led by Tim Storms, in collaboration with Lohan Buson, founder of Z-Team films (http://www.zteamfilms.com/lohan.html). Here’s a couple behind the scenes videos that you can watch that go into the details: http://youtu.be/g_eqB9AtwyQ, and http://youtu.be/mN2_adoe2wU.

I write every aspect of the scenarios, the environments, and all of the dialogue, but for the intricacies of the fight, I leave it to the professionals. What I do is set up the key moments for them to follow. For example, such as when Gohan prepares to fire the kamehameha, and it gets negated, followed by his transformation. Then they fight for a while, and that’s all done by the other team members. This is followed by the fight between Trunks and 18, which I also set up, but they choreograph. Then the moment where Gohan head butts 17 in the face, shoots into the ground to create a dust cloud, saves Trunks’ life, and they fly away. I write that into the script, but they make it real.

So I set up the pivotal moments in the timeline, and then the professional’s add their awesomeness to it. At that point in the script I write, “Insert awesome fight scene.” And then they do!

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Alex: Aren’t you actually a martial artist in real life?

Derek: Yes, I trained in Shàolín gōngfu for several years, along with Tàijí-quán and sparring. Then I studied abroad in Beijing, China and trained with a Shàolín monk and Tàijí sword master. At the same time, in 2003, I started practicing Fǎlún Dàfǎ meditation. And that’s what led to a much better understanding of East Asian culture, because I had to actually put the principles into practice and become a better person.

The martial arts are not about fighting. They’re about improving your character. This aligns itself with the concepts in Dragon Ball, where the characters are always trying to reach the next level. So that’s when I started to see the parallels, and began writing my book series, The Dao of Dragon Ball (http://thedaoofdragonball.com).

The idea I want to express in Light of Hope is that they’re fighting for a reason. Gohan and Trunks would prefer not to fight at all. But it’s the only way they know how to keep everyone alive, and they’re fighting for a hope that maybe, if they work hard enough, they can change their future.

Alex: Where was the episode filmed?

Derek: In Los Angeles, in a mountain setting just outside of the city. There were also some scenes shot indoors, but we tried not to show the specific locations in order to maintain the believability of that world. So I don’t know where they are in real life.

That said, I can tell you that the Capsule Corporation headquarters is located on the same cliff face as Tony Starks’ mansion in the Iron Man films.

Alex: Who is your favorite DBZ character?

Derek: Goku. He inspires me to rise higher and to endure. He’s always focused on what is most important in life, takes the world lightly, and is pure-hearted. Great inborn quality, excellent enlightenment quality, and a heart of great forbearance. He’s an ideal to strive for.

Of course, his eating habits…

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Alex: Tell me a little bit about your books.

Derek: The Dao of Dragon Ball books reveal the true culture of Dragon Ball. They help you better understand your favorite series, and in turn, yourself. I use them as the vehicle to explain higher concepts, such as the energy that they fire out of their hands, the supernormal powers, reincarnation, multiple dimensions, and the East Asian answer to the meaning of life.

At the same time, the books also reveal the origin of the Dragon Ball series, giving you the first unofficial biography of Akira Toriyama that has ever been written. The books are filled with thousands of detailed facts that I’ve spent 12 years researching, compiling, and transmitting back to you in a way that’s easy to understand. I do this work upfront so that you can just sit back and enjoy your adventure with Goku.

If you think you know everything about Dragon Ball, then these books are for you. They’ll show you more about Dragon Ball, and yourself, than you ever thought was possible.

Alex: As a Dragon Ball scholar, why do you think Future Gohan wasn’t strong enough to defeat the androids? I mean the dude had been training/fighting for thirteen years!

Derek: There is no official answer, so it’s something a lot of fans wonder about.

I believe it has to do with his struggling to survive, rather than a quest for power. Trunks on the other hand, is the son of Vegeta, and believes that more power is the only solution. Gohan doesn’t have a master who pushes him harder, so he’s doing enough to make a difference in the world, while still growing in strength with each battle. But without a master or being forced to near-death situations, he can’t reach the next level.

A longer answer involves a lot of speculation about the effect Trunks has on the main timeline after he goes back in time to save Goku. This leads to a butterfly effect that causes the Androids in one timeline to be stronger than the other. It’s complicated and would require a long time to explain. There are a lot of DBZ forums that discuss it to death, back and forth.

So instead I’ll just say that the Androids in the future timeline are so strong that Gohan can’t catch up to them, even after all those years of fighting. When he’s a Super Saiyan he can go toe-to-toe with one of them at a time, but when they gang up, well… You’ll have to see what happens in Episode 2.

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