When Leslie Levings revealed that director J.J. Abrams had sent her an email, her mom back home in Kansas City thought it was a prank.
The tiny, sculpted monsters Leslie creates — The Beastlies — sat by the register at Meltdown Comics, the Los Angeles shop where she worked. Abrams and his son stopped in, and the happy little horrors haunted his imagination. He wanted to know about the creatures and their creator. But it was Leslie’s day off.
Her co-workers told her all about it. She couldn’t believe it. And a few days later she got an email from the creative genius, the man behind “Lost” and the reboot of “Star Trek,” inviting her to his Bad Robot production studio to talk about her future.
Meltdown Comics is equal parts comic bookshop and comedy house. So her mom, Theresa, was convinced the email was a joke.
Luckily, Leslie took that 2010 meeting, leading to a long and fruitful monster mash-up. At first they thought her creatures could be turned into an animated short. Then they thought a game might work. Last week, after eight years of brainstorming and experimenting, Mattel and Bad Robot announced they would work together on “The Beastlies.”
Abrams had pitched Beastlies to Mattel a couple of years earlier, on the set of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Now Leslie’s creations are set to become what’s billed as a multi-platform project. Leslie can’t give us the details. But when a toy giant teams up with a production powerhouse, expect toys, TV and more.
“The Beastlies is a passion project we have been working on at Bad Robot for years with the creator of these extraordinary creatures, Leslie Levings,” Abrams said in a statement to Deadline Hollywood. “To finally bring The Beastlies to the world, in collaboration with the brilliant minds at Mattel, is an absolute dream.”
Sculpting has always been her passion.
Growing up in Kansas City, she loved playing with colorful Sculpey polymer clay to create little animals.
“When I was 11 years old and deep in my obsession with sculpting tiny things, there was a store in Brookside, a little shop that featured made-in-KC items, and they were sweet enough to sell my little sculptures,” Leslie, now 36, tells me over the phone from her L.A. home. The store is no longer open, but that experience helped shape her as an artist.
“I think the things I brought them were cute but were clearly made by a child, so I’m sure the store owner did it out of pure kindness. But at the time, having my art in a real store made a big impression on me.”
By the time she graduated from Pembroke Hill in 2000, she was ready to major in art and writing. She moved to California to attend Scripps College.
“I went to school for serious art, which is not exactly cartoony sculpting,” she says. “After I graduated, I couldn’t find my footing.”
Frustrated and looking for inspiration, she started working on a web comic with friends around 2006. Except graphic art isn’t exactly her superpower.
“I have a hard time expressing myself through drawing,” she says. “So I started sculpting the comic with the Sculpey clay I used as a kid.”
Once the clay got in her hands, a potato-shaped ball of possibilities, she pulled and stretched and pinched it into creatures. At first she made elephants, dogs and rabbits.
“Things slowly started growing away from that into a monster creature style,” she says. “I started to refine and refine until Beastlies started to look like something very specific.”
In bold blues, vivid purples, hot pinks and neon greens, these monsters have a Jim Henson meets Adult Swim meets Pixar vibe. The Beastlies are a funky bunch of lovable critters. Leslie calls them “small monsters with big feelings.” And what makes them so endearing isn’t just the fun colors or the bug eyes. It’s their character. She doesn’t go into the creative process thinking of who they are. She lets it happen in her hands.
“I think better in clay. The gesture or facial expression is often the first thing I have in mind, and I’ll tweak it as I go. I look at each one and try to think of what emotion or situation they feel like they’re caught in the middle of, then base a description around that.”
Her mood does play a part in it, but she says a bad day doesn’t result in a collection of Beastlies with an attitude. Her real-life loved ones are reflected, too. Like her dad, our very own human Beastlie and former Kansas City Star editor Darryl Levings.
“He has a fantastic sense of humor, and I think a lot of that I absorbed into Beastlies — a sort of friendly anarchy.”
And her fans are committed. Her work has been shown in galleries all over the world, from California to Tokyo, but we’re still waiting on a Kansas City show. She says she’s working on it.
Her to-do list includes handcrafting 15 Beastlies a week. They sell out in her online store (leslielevings.bigcartel.com) as fast as she makes them. At $50 a monster, that’s love. But it’s more than that. Just as Hello Kitty built a billon-dollar brand of connectivity, I see that same whimsical world-building in Beastlies.
Each of the quirky creatures has its own little personality. Online, she gives them each a narrative. There’s Norin, a turquoise Beastlie with purple polka dots who looks like an itty-bitty kitty dinosaur. He likes a chocolate chip before bed every night. He also likes routine. So if it doesn’t happen, he takes note.
And each one has an anxiety. Whereas Norin likes order, Lannie, a Gumby-green sea lion-ish puppy, likes the freedom to do nothing. She doesn’t want to be judged for it either. She’s bothered by commitment. Other Beastlies don’t like making choices, or they have fears of funny things, like fuzz.
“These stories connect them to people and help them look at their anxieties with a sense of humor that takes away its power,” Leslie says.
And that’s the beauty of these Beastlies. These happy little horrors have heart.
Jeneé Osterheldt is a Kansas City Star culture columnist, @jeneeinkc