In the summer of 2012, Disney Channel started airing its most unique show yet.
It was a sci-fi, mystery, horror-lite cartoon inspired by everything from Twin Peaks to The X-Files. We’re talking, of course, about Gravity Falls.
Created by animator Alex Hirsch, the series follows the adventures of twins Dipper (Jason Ritter) and Mabel (Kristen Schaal) Pines. The siblings are sent to spend the summer with their great-uncle, or "Grunkle," Stan (Hirsch) in the town of Gravity Falls, Oregon, where all sorts of strange things happen. Joined by a large ensemble cast of quirky characters, Dipper and Mabel set out to uncover the mysteries of Gravity Falls, and the interdimensional beings that want to take over the town.
Though aimed at (and popular with) kids, Gravity Falls also captivated older teens and young adults. A large community grew around solving the many mysteries of the show through fan theories and speculation. Nearly a decade later, the show still has a large following at conventions. There even was a worldwide treasure hunt, with clues showing up everywhere from Los Angeles to Russia and even Japan.
Gravity Falls ended with its Season 2 finale in February 2016, and plans for a possible film fell through after Disney decided the show wasn’t popular enough. But Alex Hirsch hasn’t given up hope on continuing Dipper and Mabel’s story — even though he’s signed a multi-year contract with Netflix to develop new projects.
“My dream, if I had a magic wand, would be to make a really kick-ass Gravity Falls video game that is really, really in-depth to the lore of the series and includes new canon that has been in the periphery of the series,” Hirsch tells Inverse, “but I've never found a place for it.”
In a long and winding Zoom conversation, Hirsch reveals the story he never got to tell in the show, how he snuck secret codes into episodes, and his idea for a Gravity Falls video game.
This interview has been edited lightly for brevity and clarity.
How much of your initial concept of the show revolved around having secret codes and symbols that fans could put together?
I was a very paranoid kid. I grew up in the '90s when The X-Files was in full swing and you had conspiracy tabloids like The Weekly World News. So instead of making friends, I spent most of my time looking for hidden codes in the universe.
I was particularly enamored as a kid with the idea of subliminal messages in media. The idea that in the '60s they thought there were satanic messages that you could hear if you played a record backward. I loved the idea that the world was a giant Easter egg hunt to be solved by someone weird enough to spend their time doing it.
What was the response from Disney when you pitched adding cryptograms at the end of each episode, or Easter eggs that wouldn't pay off until months later?
I was very lucky with my timing. I came to the Disney channel at a time where they were really looking to reinvent their brand and to build a new roster of animated shows with fresh new voices.
When it came to the hidden codes and the secret messages, that was never really a priority in the conversations with the channel. I pitched the show as a funny and exciting character comedy with some action and some adventure. All those little hidden elements would be things that I would sort of add into the series late at night, like I would stay up at 3:00 AM just to try to see if I could stick something in there for fun. I think the way Disney looked at it was, as long as the show was still entertaining for general audiences, then I earned my dessert to put in the extra strange elements.
None of us predicted how well it would be received. I thought maybe two or three people would notice some of these secrets, because it was on a kid's channel. And I know that kids are smart, but I also know they have a lot of things competing for their attention, so I had no idea that this would catch on the way it did. For Season 2, I really doubled down and tried to really reward the fan community with as many pieces of bait for their attention as possible.
How did you manage to balance feeding into the mystery of it all, without it overtaking fan enjoyment of the show at face value? You even poke fun at the obsession with fan theories in the show itself, like having Dipper squee whenever Stanford mentions he's the author, or Soos demanding Stanford's backstory aligns with his fanfic.
There's the show itself, and then there is the time spent in between episodes wondering and theorizing. I intentionally tried to create a show that could be enjoyed in that way. One of the challenges of sort of the modern evolution of fandom is that fans have gotten so excited and so enthusiastic about their ability to participate that sometimes certain fans can lose track of what comes from the show and what comes from themselves.
Part of the nature of the internet is all information is presented equally, because it's all there on your phone. You can receive information that comes from the president, or from a TV show, or from an 11-year-old, and it all comes out the same. So it's very easy for a piece of fan art to be mistaken for an actual screenshot of an episode, and then someone could get rightfully confused when they realized that that wasn't what the show is actually about.
Sometimes it can go too far, but I do believe that is a small sliver of people who seem like they're a larger group because they're so loud. The majority of fans, particularly when I meet them in person are funny, smart, cool, savvy people who love and connect with the material. So I try not to focus too much on the spots where it goes a little bit too far.
Did you ever think about changing a plotline or a backstory because of fan theories?
Well, I had the benefit of having a roadmap of how I wanted the story to resolve and what the big broad beats of the mystery were before I even started writing the series. So I knew that I had to pay off what I set up and that I was going to broadly stick to the outline of my series.
The thing that I mostly paid attention to was less anyone's individual guesses about mysteries and more just how people were reacting to the series itself. How people were reacting to characters, how people were reacting to the emotions. If I noticed that people weren't as interested in a certain character as I thought they might be, then in Season 2 I might spend less time writing that character, because I realized I have this big sample size of an audience.
I remember realizing when people started really responding to Bill Cipher in Season 1. I always planned that he would be a big part of Season 2, but I increased how much of Bill Cipher would be in the series because I knew they were so hungry for it. I didn't change the underlying story, though.
Was there ever the opposite? A character that people responded to but you didn't get the chance to explore as much in the show as you wanted?
Yeah, I love the Pines family and the citizens of Gravity Falls, and they're like family to me. They live in my brain and in my heart, and even though the show is over, they are still in my head talking to me every now and then. If I was ever to create more stories in that world there are definitely dynamics that haven't been explored.
Wendy [Linda Cardellini] is probably a character who I didn't get to do as much with, like we never did a full episode about Wendy — and it wasn't for lack of trying. We tried to crack a few of them in the process of writing and none of them quite worked. If I had more time, I think I could have cracked it, but we always have to be mindful of schedule and budget. And we've got a lot of stories we're trying to tell, but I think if I ever told more Gravity Falls stories, I'd probably use that chance to get to know Wendy a little bit better as a character.
Even though you've repeatedly said that you ended the show on your own terms and are not planning a third season, you've still gone on to tell more stories in the world of the show with the Journal Number 3 and the recent comic. Is there a particular medium you'd like to try out for more Gravity Falls stories?
I love exploring different mediums with these characters. My dream, if I had a magic wand, would be to make a really kick-ass Gravity Falls video game that is really, really in-depth to the lore of the series and includes new canon that has been in the periphery of the series, but I've never found a place for it.
I think Disney has, to my understanding, sort of shuttered their interactive department and is very protective of their IP. And I've never had the chance to really get my hands in a video game space for these characters. This is one of the things where I regret that I don't own Gravity Falls. Cause if I did, I would pair up with a sick indie studio and make the world's greatest Gravity Falls game. Because I don't own Gravity Falls, it's up to Disney to decide what they do with that IP, and they don't seem super savvy about video games right now.
You are currently working on a lot of secret projects at Netflix, can you tell how working on Gravity Falls has prepared you for it?
Gravity Falls was the first series I'd ever made. I was just a kid in my early twenties teaching myself how to write scripts, so it was more or less boot camp or a trial by fire. Everything I know about entertainment, I learned mostly from that job and from all the hard lessons of just writing and producing and voicing and directing and just seeing what worked and what didn't.
I'm very lucky to be at Netflix right now, and I'm involved with a number of secret projects that I'm not allowed to talk about. Fans of Gravity Falls know that when I put my heart into something, it's usually something that they might like. So I hope they follow me into this next adventure when the time is right to announce what it looks like.
Has your experience on Gravity Falls made it any easier to work on your current projects?
I definitely have the benefit of experience when it comes to having an eye for what works and what doesn't and knowing who to hire. But the thing about writing is, it's always hard.
There are so many books out there and lectures and talks about screenwriting and about how to create characters and how to create television. But every time you start something fresh, if you really want to do a good job, it's always going to be a hell of a challenge. It takes a lot of humility and a lot of honesty and a lot of feedback, to make something that really stands the test of time. I think if anyone ever tells you that it's easy, they're probably not giving it a hundred percent.
You've never shied away from speaking out about arguments you had with Disney censors, whether it was over a spin the bottle reference, or two old ladies kissing. Nowadays we have Steven Universe and The Owl House making huge steps forward in regards to LGBTQ+ representation. Do you see Gravity Falls as sort of paving the way for that?
With big companies like Disney, it's always a push and pull, and it always depends on who the current management is, and who the current leader of the company is. Executives are always changing, mandates are always changing. So one week Disney might seem extra conservative about certain things, then another week they might seem a little bit more progressive and open-minded, and then another week they might backslide.
I've definitely seen a lot of progress since when I worked there, but I also know that each moment of progress that you see is hard-won and is not something that can really be taken for granted.
When I was there, I noticed a lot of fear in the way that the company was run, that there was a feeling that they inherited an incredibly lucrative brand from a brilliant, innovative man, Walt Disney, and they could either choose to try to innovate as he did, to try to grow the brand, or they could be fearful and choose to try to guard the brand and just sit on that pile of money and not mess with the golden goose. When I was there, there definitely was a lot of fear about protecting the brand that sometimes got in the way of the brand's growth.
I hope they continue to follow Disney's example and constantly innovate, and that means in all categories, technology, storytelling, and also the types of people you bring into the company.
Likewise, there seem to be a lot more cartoons that fall into genres since Gravity Falls ended, what do you think has been the legacy of the show?
I try not to get too caught up in what the trends are or what the industry is doing, but I think Gravity Falls had a little bit of an influence on the industry by having continuity that didn't just reset at the end of every episode. When we made the show, there were no half-hour animated comedies in the West that were aimed at kids that had continuity. There was a sort of iron wall between kids' comedies and anime and action shows when it came to format, and I've seen much more mixing and mingling of genres and much more continuity since the show ended. One of the exciting things about this moment with streaming and with the internet and so much content is that you're seeing all of these old walls between these different types of storytelling start to evaporate.
One of the questions I always see fans asking themselves and theorizing about is what Dipper's birthmark is about, and whether there is a connection with the aliens that appear in a late episode of the show. Any chance you would set the record straight?
Between Twitter and fan conventions, I think there is not a question that I haven't already been asked before, meaning that if I haven't given an answer yet, it's because I'm keeping the secret. I do like to leave a few things left, at least for now to the imagination of the audience. Some answers are satisfying, but sometimes answers are not as satisfying as being able to wonder about it yourself.
That's for the video game to answer.
That's exactly right. Hey Disney, if you're listening, please put me in charge of a video game. I will make you money. Do it.