A few years ago, I had the privilege of speaking with voice actor Christopher Sabat. I guess the interview was supposed to be about the then-upcoming Dragon Ball Xenoverse, but I mostly spent that interview talking to him about his favorite moments voice acting, missed opportunities, and farting around with Bill Zoeker.
Now, with three classic Dragon Ball Z movies returning to theaters, I was able to get on the phone with Chris Sabat and not only discuss his time with them, but how it feels having Dragon Ball back in the spotlight and bigger than ever before. From scriptwriting to carrying on conversations with himself, from the early days of DBZ's English dub to the upcoming Dragon Ball Super: Broly, Chris had plenty to share.
Thanks for doing this interview! First off, how've you been? How are things?
CHRISTOPHER SABAT: Oh my god. It's been such an insane year. Adding these movies into the already-crazy Dragon Ball year I'm having right now... dude. I cannot explain to you how much I fantasize about taking a time machine back to 1999 armed with all the knowledge I have now, all of Dragon Ball Z, because all those fans from 1999 are somehow twenty years older, and it's just... bonkers.
Yeah, we've talked about that before, right before Resurrection F came out, how the people who watched Dragon Ball Z when it first came to the US as kids now have kids of their own. I mean, when I went and saw it in theaters, there was like a bunch of adult fans there, and they brought their kids with them to see it, and they were having the time of their lives--it was like a spiritual experience for me.
It's really funny you mention that, because this morning I got a call from Sean Schemmel (Goku's voice actor), and--okay. Sean calls me, and he leaves these really long messages, and I rarely listen to them. So I just end up calling him back, 'cause I hate listening to voicemail, 'cause why wouldn't you just send a text? So anyway, he calls me and it sounds like he was telling me this right before he went to sleep, and he goes:
"Chris... it just dawned on me... there's... people. There's... kids. And they watch Dragon Ball Super, like right now! They're watching it on TV! Which means... twenty years! THEY'RE GONNA BE ADULTS AGAIN! WE'RE GONNA HAVE TO DO THIS ALL OVER AGAIN!"
It's true, though!
You're here forever.
Yeah, it's never going away.
So, I wanted to bring up the special-event Dragon Ball Z movies--well, two movies and one TV special--that are coming to theaters. Starting with that TV special, Bardock: The Father of Goku, you did a lot more than just voices. In this special (and the other TV special, The History of Trunks), you did voice direction, and then for the first Broly movie, you adapted the script for the dub. Can you tell us a bit about what it's like being on both sides of the mic, some of the challenges you faced?
Well, I definitely learned the hard way on Broly: The Legendary Super Saiyan, just how hard it is to write. There are so many people in this business--actors, directors, engineers and so forth--who are like "it can't be that hard to write these scripts!" I was certainly in that category when I took on the job of adapting The Legendary Super Saiyan, and I'll be honest, I got about halfway into that script, and realized: (long sigh) you have to do these things, you have to write these things, on your computer. Your computer is connected to the internet. The internet has way more interesting stuff on it than what you're doing, and so it's impossible to stay focused!
Like, it was really hard for me to focus myself and write that movie, and I just put it together. Dedicated writers have a special skill: it's called "being able to get things done." [I type this as I check Twitter for the tenth time in ten minutes.] It was hard, man. I think I wrote probably 60% of it and then I had to ask Eric Vale (Trunks), who was also one of the writers at the time, and went "hey dude, can you help me out with this? I don't think I'm gonna finish it."
So there's a lot of things to writing that you don't initially realize, it's like you're uncovering these layers upon layers. It's kinda like reading a story and doing a sudoku puzzle at the same time, it's a mystery how some of these parts get put together because you'll just see a line and you understand what it means and what its place is in the story, but then the biggest drag is having to script all of the reactions: any time someone turns their head or opens their mouth, or they're scared or screaming or punches or fights you have to script that out and laboriously write out every single detail. I kinda realized that directing is more my thing compared to writing, that was a serious lesson I learned.
Regarding the movies, what were your favorite projects to work on?
I'd say The History of Trunks and Broly: The Legendary Super Saiyan were definitely my favorites. History of Trunks because I'm a huge Trunks fan--they coulda made ten Future Trunks movies and I would have loved them all, there's just so much in that universe to tell stories with, so many paths you could have explored. I want to know more of what it was like for Trunks growing up, the epic struggles and battles he went through.
Broly: The Legendary Super Saiyan was great because, I mean, like I said it was my first foray into writing, but specifically because it's the first time you ever really get to see Vegeta lose his shit. At that point in time, when we were dubbing that, aside from when he lost to Frieza, there was never a moment when Vegeta didn't have total confidence going into something. This was a case, though, where everything is going on around him and he's just all "what? who? what's going on? no! why?! he's too strong!" It wasn't in his personality, and those were some key moments for me while working on the movies.
It's funny how you naturally ended up on my next question. In the first Broly movie and in Fusion Reborn, we get to see Vegeta kicked around--physically, of course, but I mostly mean emotionally and mentally. You generally don't see real fear take over for Vegeta, like real, paralyzing fear. How does it feel getting to portray so many sides of this character, who usually presents as this toxic tough guy but has a whole lot buried underneath?
Dude, that has been the biggest gift of all characters, is to play Vegeta. This guy who you think is gonna be this one-sided, sniveling kinda one-note villain character, who ends up becoming--I think--the most endearing character in the show. There's a reason you always see Vegeta paired up with Goku, because I just don't think Goku is as fun without Vegeta. Goku's just--I think--a rather unrealistic character, he's a bizarre "hero" in a lot of ways, especially when you start analyzing how he really was versus the way we were kind of instructed how to rewrite Goku back in the earliest days of Dragon Ball Z. When you dip into what Goku is, what his real character is, he's absolutely not a traditional "hero" type, he's a very selfish and kind of thoughtless character.
"Yeah, let's have a tournament!" "Goku, trillions of people could die." "Yeah, but it'll be fun!"
Exactly! And I think that's one of the few times--I mean, I love Super, and I especially love that moment in Super where you finally get a picture of how Goku's selfish behavior can really can affect people. Yeah, it always works out, luckily, but he's never afraid to let his friends and family suffer for what he wants.
But anyway, Vegeta, you see so much about him over the series and the movies, and he's just the best character to play. He's sarcastic and gets to say mean things, which is really fun to do as an actor, because Vegeta is like that friend that you have who says the things that you really wish you could say, but are kind of afraid to, y'know? The friend of yours who kind of embarrasses you, but you're kinda happy to happy to have him around when you really need to get something done? But then he becomes a family man, and proves that he can be a good father and a good husband and a good man, and what a remarkable shift we've had after all this time with him.
Cartoon characters rarely do that, y'know? The Hulk's always gonna be the Hulk, and Captain America's gonna be Captain America, but Vegeta's a really interesting guy, and we get to see all sides of him.
In Broly: The Legendary Super Saiyan, Piccolo and Vegeta have some great, very intense back-and-forth. Now, you voice both those characters--how did you approach that? Did you just record a conversation with yourself all at once, or record all of each characters' lines individually?
For the sake of the characters, I had to make sure they stay consistent. I always record one, then the other. I usually started with Piccolo, then Vegeta, and then would go back to make adjustments on specific lines after it was all done. I love getting to do this--when you're talking to yourself, you can craft some of the best, most natural-sounding dialogue because you know what's coming next, you know what the "other person" is going to say. I'm harder on myself, I work harder with myself when I'm working with myself as opposed to working with other actors.
It sounds simple, but it's not, and I second-guess all my decisions and thank goodness I have Rawly Pickens, he's been working at Okratron 5000 with me for a billion years, and he's actually directing most of Dragon Ball Super with us and he and I have worked together forever. It's gotten to the point where there's so many things happening, so many games and so many series and all this promotion we have to do all at once. Small things to check, "what do you want to call Vegeta's new form" and the like.
When I started out as a director, I really wanted something to be mine. I wanted ownership--I didn't mind sharing it, but I really wanted to do as much as I could myself. As I've matured, I realize that when doing everything at once, all those individual pieces start to suffer, so I'm grateful to have someone else working on Super making sure it's as good as possible.
Oh no, I totally get that, I'm kind of a control freak myself. But as you spend more time doing your job, you have to let a few things go, and actually trust the people around you to do just as good a job with the tasks you can't, if not better. It's still tough.
Yeah, especially on the other side of the mic. I mean, I've voiced so many Dragon Ball characters over the years, and now I've got people asking me if I'm gonna voice anyone else in the Universe Survival Arc, and I'm like "well, no, man!" There's so many great people working now, they have so many options. Back when we were first dubbing DBZ we just needed anyone who could read English at all, but now we have this massive acting pool, and that's been my life these days, is just casting the Universe Survival Arc, tons of new characters and we're just trying to get them all mapped out.
Back in the day you voiced like, Piccolo and Vegeta and a couple members of the Ginyu Force and even Yamcha way back when, so you're doing all these characters and all these voices, and now you're actually able to get everybody in there and not, y'know... kill anybody.
Oh for sure! Like I said, back then we just needed anybody who could read a script and people who were getting paid barely anything for their time, and now I can afford to use Jason Douglas (Beerus) and Monica Rial (Bulma) and all these really experienced voice people! At this point with Super, we're really just casting and letting these people know what's been going on with their characters so they can just jump in and kick ass.
Dude, yeah. On that subject, Chris Ayres (Frieza) is a champ, just recovering and jumping right back into things!
The thing is, we are on a mysterious time clock with him. So, they haven't finished animating Dragon Ball Super: Broly yet, we haven't finished getting all the materials yet, and I haven't seen the film yet. He's still waiting on transplants. So at any time, we could literally be in the middle of recording for the show and they call and say "there's a donor ready," he'll have to get up and go.
That's rough. Like, I know he has all of you there to support him, but it still must be really scary for his family. All the best for him, man.
Oh, I'll definitely let him know. He's a freakin' champion, he's just--I loved Linda Young, she was an amazing Frieza back in the day. But once we got into Dragon Ball Z Kai and we got to hear Frieza's newer voice, and we tried to bring Linda in, but the character just talked too fast and she chose to step down. Chris was the only one we saw who was able to read those lines that fast and with that much power. I was so happy to see Frieza in the new feature, it's good to see him in the trailer and see him still as part of the... well, "extended" family.
The release is still a ways away, and now that I know that you haven't seen too much material for it, what are you most excited to see in Dragon Ball Super: Broly?
Oh god, the animation of the fight sequences, man. I want to see this gorgeous, beautiful, theatrical fight to the finish. I hope Vegeta gets a real chance to shine, maybe a Fusion? It just looks freakin' amazing. I think I'm most excited to see what Akira Toriyama's vision for Broly is, that this is the true telling of Broly's backstory and purpose, where he's from and why he's here, how he came to be. I'm fascinated. The old movies will still exist and you can enjoy them, but they're a nice way to prepare you for what the real story will be.
The trailer shows off these little glimpses of life on Planet Vegeta, maybe on the day it was destroyed or even before that--I'm excited to see that. We don't know too much about Saiyan culture, so I'm excited to see more there.
Yeah, I'm definitely interested to see how this whole thing unfolds. I wish I had anything in front of me to see what it's like, I'm gonna be scrapping as soon as the thing comes in to see what it looks like.
Okay, last one: so far, what has been the most hype moment for you while recording for Dragon Ball Super?
Hmm. Most... hype. I mean, this technically counts: the most hype moment for me was finding out there were gonna be this new movie, Battle of Gods, that was such a huge and welcome surprise to have a new story and a new adventure after only working on the original stuff for so long.
But my favorite recent thing... probably watching Resurrection F in the theater with people. Vegeta's scene at the end where he tells Frieza "don't you ever resurrect again," even though he ended up getting robbed right after. Every time I watch it, in Japanese or English, it's just so impactful.
One more! Last time I looked online, like eleven or twelve million people had watched the Dragon Ball Super: Broly trailer that we launched at SDCC, and the hype is so incredibly real.
Alright, and that's everything! Thank you for your time, Chris, and I'll see you around!
My next questions go out to you all! What are your favorite moments from the Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z movies? What are you most excited to see in Dragon Ball Super: Broly? And what are your most hype moments ever as Dragon Ball fans? Sound off in the comments and let us know!