Mighty Ducks: Game Changers Producer on Season 2 and Emilio Estevez's Return
Nearly 30 years after the first film premiered, Gordon Bombay (Emilio Estevez) is back in the Disney+ streaming series , as 12-year-old Evan Morrow (Brady Noon) fails to make the cut to join the now ultra-competitive powerhouse Mighty Ducks junior hockey team. Finding his way to the dilapidated Ice Palace rink with his mom Alex (Lauren Graham) and his own team of misfits, Evan is just hoping to remember his love of the game in the win-at-all-costs environment of youth sports.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, The Mighty Ducks franchise creator Steve Brill talked about how the TV series came about, his previous idea for a Broadway musical on ice, getting Emilio Estevez to return to the character, bringing back some of the original cast members, his desire to get Joshua Jackson and Kenan Thompson to appear, assembling this new cast of kids, and the long term plan for the series.
Collider: This show is very entertaining and it’s very impressive that you’ve pulled managed to successfully pull this off. How did this series come about? Had you been thinking about bringing back the franchise in some way, whether it was another film or now this TV series, for a while?
STEVE BRILL: Yeah. I never thought we were done, after the third movie. We were like, “Okay, there should be a fourth.” It didn’t necessarily have to be within that decade of the ‘90s, but I always thought we should revisit it, and that we could revisit it with the characters as they got older and still played hockey, none of them professionally, but we could keep it a Minneapolis story with this group that we set up. And then, I didn’t crack any stories in the 2000s. I thought about doing a Broadway musical. That was my big thought, about how fun it would be to do The Mighty Ducks: The Musical, and do a Disney Beauty and the Beast type of production with kids on ice on Broadway and with songs. If they can do Spider-Man, then you can do The Mighty Ducks, so I was thinking about that.
But then, nothing happened until streaming became a possibility, because that was the one way to tell the story that we wanted to tell. Most people aren’t making movies like this for theaters. It seemed to be too small a scale. But a streaming show made me think about reinventing the franchise as a five-hour movie, which I know is something people say, but in our case, it really was thought of that way, where we arced it out like a classic sports The Mighty Ducks movie with this ragtag group coming together and finding their way. We could just arc it out that way, and then get into the stories individually and per episode, but have this overall arc. I thought that would be the best way to do it, so that’s how we crafted it.
Now, I must see The Mighty Ducks: The Musical on ice.
BRILL: I’m not off of this idea. Back in the ‘80s, there was a musical called Starlight Express, that Andrew Lloyd Weber did, where it was people on roller skates in the round. I remember going, “We could have kids skate, or use roller blades that look like skates, and it could be really cool to watch visually, like a dance. Like West Side Story, we could do Sharks and Jets types of showdowns and songs. Why not?”
Since Emilio Estevez wasn’t even really acting anymore, were you ever worried that you wouldn’t get him to do this, or was he always game to coming back to it, at some point?
BRILL: He was not particularly game for many, many, many years. He wasn’t against it. It just wasn’t on his radar. I had to have a real pitch for him, to bring him back. We had done our thing in the ‘90s, so he wasn’t interested in bringing it back for nostalgia’s sake. But if you were able to arc out a season and be able to do five hours, or two and a half movies, then we could get into stuff and explore his character more. And then, he became more interested and the timing worked out for him. But he was not banging down my door to play Gordon Bombay over the last 25 years.
Did you breathe a sigh of relief when he said yes?
BRILL: Yeah, I did. I had to think about a parallel without him and with him. It was not last minute, but he was not a sure thing until we got the go-ahead to do it. I called him and I’d been keeping him abreast of everything and talking about the development, but when we got the go-ahead to do 10 episodes, I called him and said, “Okay, it’s real,” which was something he wanted to know. He was in a bar or restaurant in Cincinnati, where he has a place, and he was like, “Okay.” He hung up the phone and he told a bunch of people in the restaurant to ask what they thought about it, and everyone was like, “Gordon Bombay back has to happen.” So, he called me back and said, “All right, I’ll do it.”
For you, as a creator and writer, what was it like to bring the character back to life again, and then what was it like to actually see him bringing the character back to life again?
BRILL: That was cool. It’s a dream come true for somebody who’s in the narrative storytelling business to be able to revisit and dig back into something that you worked on very hard and many years ago. That was really fun and challenging and interesting and creative. It was great. These characters go forward and they have lives, and to come up with what happened to him and what’s gonna happen to him again was great. The idea in my head was to bring him in a big circle, where he’s almost back, in some ways, where he was at the beginning of Ducks 1, when you meet him. He’s certainly more broken down, but he has a long way to go. We’ve knocked him down. Emilio’s character in the first film was just young and brash, and he had a mountain to climb. I like being able to do that again with the character. I always thought Gordon Bombay was an elite athlete who didn’t get his shot, for a bunch of reasons. He was a good hockey player and he could have been great, so the idea that character just never realized that was something I wanted to revisit. What happens when that person now is 50 years old?
What have you enjoyed about your working relationship with him, over the years? Does it feel any different now on this show than it did on the movies?
BRILL: No, it doesn’t. It’s so funny, we were kids and I’ve seen pictures of us on the set, recently, when we were young, and we were really young. We were in our 20s. It feels the same. He’s just a very funny, connected, warm, great guy and a great hang. He’s been a friend of mine. We didn’t lose touch or anything, but to be able to work together again, it was very much like back in the old days, only we’re much older. It was really fun to then have the kids from the Ducks come back. I wouldn’t say we raised them, but we were there with them from 11 to 16, with most of those kids, which is a really important part of kids’ childhood. We were parental figures, we were friends, we were mentors, and to be back with those kids, who are now 40 to 45 years old, was trippy and awesome.
How and when did you decide the right time was to bring some of those original cast members back and what you wanted that story to be? Was it something that fell into place pretty quickly and easily, or did you spend a lot of time thinking about how to do it the right way?
BRILL: We spent a lot of time thinking about it. Pre-COVID, we wanted to layer in all of the characters throughout the season more, where they could be part of the fabric of Minnesota, and they could come in and out and play different roles, and some would guest star for a reunion, or something like that. We arced it out, thinking about them always having a presence. And then, when COVID happened, we couldn’t do that. We couldn’t keep people up there and only bring a certain amount of people in for one episode, so we put all our eggs in that basket of Episode 6. If there were a Season 2, I think we’ll go back to that idea of getting everybody as part of the fabric of the show.
Was it hard to figure out who you wanted? Did you ask everybody, and this was just who was available?
BRILL: I would have loved to have virtually everybody there, but then that would have turned into a cameo fest, which could have been cool. So, I looked at the core group – the ones who all went through Ducks 1, 2 and 3 together. That was the first mandate. And they had to be Minneapolis based still, so it became that core group. I would’ve liked to have had more, but certain people had different jobs and couldn’t come up for a month. People had to come up for a month for that job because of quarantining, so there were restrictions. I would have loved to have had a few more, but that might’ve made it too disperse. And we’ll get those people back. We’ll get Josh [Jackson] and Kenan [Thompson] and Portman [played by Aaron Lohr], and all of those people. I’ve got to figure out ways to bring them back into the universe because I want that and I think people want that. But for now, you’ve got this really solid group of core Ducks people. I was really excited about that.
It was fun because they feel like they really didn’t miss a beat in finding their characters again. Did it feel that way on set?
BRILL: Good question. They imprinted these characters from 11 to 16 or 17, which was their formative years, and they were able to access that right away. It was hilarious and it was awesome. I was so happy. I think Matt [Doherty] was a little nervous because his character was a lot of the comedy relief and now that he’s older, he wasn’t sure if he was still that light comedy guy, or if he should be more dramatic, so we went with a little bit of both. It was really fun.
You were in the three films, so do you think you’ll appear in the TV series, as some point?
BRILL: Yes, one hundred percent. Josh [Goldsmith] and Cathy [Yuspaalso] wanted me in. Everyone wanted to see Frank Huddy, which was my character from the first one. And then, in the second one, I play a different character. People don’t understand, but I am Frank Huddy. I’ve just now taken a job at Knott’s Berry Farm because I had my problems. I wanted to revisit what happened to my guy and I actually wrote myself a part and I was going to do it, but I did a really dumb thing. While I was up there directing, I didn’t clear myself as an actor working in Canada. I just thought, “Well, I’m directing, I’m writing, I’m producing, so I’ll just act here.” But I needed an acting waiver and I didn’t get it, so I couldn’t put myself in. That’s okay because when I look at the role I had written, I probably would’ve cut myself, but it just leaves me open. I definitely need to come back. I have to bring that character back. I’m the one who put Emilio’s character into the Ducks. I was the prosecuting attorney in the first one. I was the one who made the whole movie happen, as a character. I prosecuted him and he had to go do community service, so without my character, there was no The Mighty Ducks movie.
With a show like this, you have to find quite a large number of kids and they all need to be very talented. What are the challenges of that? Were you ever worried about making any casting mistakes along the way, or not being able to fill every role?
BRILL: It is. I do have a particular experience of doing this from the three movies, from a movie I did called Heavyweights, and from a movie I did called Drillbit Taylor, where you really just take a deep breath, you get the best casting director that you can, and you say, “Let’s go!” You pound the streets and beat the bushes and you just see everybody. People used to have to submit VHS tapes from around the country, so it’s a little more streamlined by being online and being able to get these rooms going with auditions. You literally are processing a thousand people and the casting directors are funneling them to us. And then, you’re also looking at kids who are on shows. We looked all over. I always thought it would be fun to get kids from different places because that just adds to the texture. We were able to go around and get kids from around the country for some of the other roles, which was fun but daunting.
What do you think Lauren Graham brings to this Mighty Ducks world?
BRILL: I see her as the epicenter. She grounds everything and it’s, in many ways, her storyline about her and her son and what she does and what actions she takes. That grounds all of the action and the energy. She also brings this incredible thing that I don’t know if I’ve ever seen it before, with her charm. People call her the best TV mom of all time. Beyond that, there’s a warmth and a humor and an accessibility that she brings, which is often astonishing, how she can bring it to every scene. She’s a very good actress and a very good person.
What is the long-term plan for this series? Have you thought about or talked about how many seasons you might need to tell the story that you’re looking to tell? Do you have a solid plan for a second season, or have you thought further down the road then that?
BRILL: Yeah, we have a plan. We have many plans. As we’ve learned from this last year, you can’t make plans. I would have loved for the second season to be in Europe, playing an international tournament, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. But there are many plans. All of the characters would be back and Lauren Graham would fully be a lead figure. To explore her character would be endlessly fun, and her with Gordon Bombay, and then each individual kid and the story of the team and what the next step would be. We’ve got it all laid out. And then, we’d also bring back people, and wrap up storylines and re-explore storylines from the movies, like I talked about with Josh and Kenan. So, we have a lot to do.
Do you see this more as open-ended, as opposed to knowing a set number of seasons?
BRILL: Josh and Cathy come from television, so they understand what a season is. I look at it like a movie. This first season feels like Ducks 1. To me, the next season instinctively should feel like Ducks 2, which took the kids to a new environment. You have to move the characters along, as a group, into some new things, so that’s what I’m thinking about and that’s what we’re thinking of about.
The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers is available to stream at Disney+.