'Happy!' Showrunner Brian Taylor On His Twisted New Series And the 'Twisted Metal' Movie You'll Never See [Interview]

Just in time for Christmas comes a raunchy, bloody show from one of the creators of Crank. Happy!, based on the comic from Grant Morrison and Darick Robertson, stars Christopher Meloni as Nick Sax, a disgraced cop who has a near death experience that allows him to see "Happy," a blu-furred, flying horse creature. Voiced by Patton Oswalt, Happy is the imaginary friend of a kidnapped girl and only Sax can help save her.

Brian Taylor wrote and directed the Crank movies, Gamer and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance with his partner Mark Neveldine before the duo split up for solo projects. Taylor spoke with /Film by phone about Happy! There are some spoilers for episodes one and two in this interview, but many are so crazy you still won't believe them. Taylor promises there's so much crazy to come and these are only the beginning. Happy! premieres December 6 on Syfy.Is Happy! The perfect Christmas show?

Absolutely. It's a present of love and joy to all the world.

Was the timing always part of it, that if it's set at Christmas it has to come out in December?

Yeah. The source material was set in Christmas and the villain is a deranged Santa Claus, so it was always built as a Christmas story. We shot the pilot at Christmastime in New York, which was amazing and then when we got picked up for series, we were faced with the challenge of continuing that Christmas story in the summertime in New York, so that added another level of adventure to the production. Christmas and all things Christmas are very much a part of the show as you'll see as the season goes on.

With people bundled up in the summer, was removing sweat a big issue?

No, I actually like my actors nice and sweaty anyway. If they didn't have it, I'd spray it on. I just think flesh on film looks so great when it's wet. It's something that I strive for so that aspect of it was fine visually. It certainly wasn't very comfortable. One thing we figured out quickly was, despite all of our best efforts, you could be shooting out on the street and everything looks great. Then halfway through a take, somebody walks by with shorts and a T-shirt in the background. Gotta do it agin. Those are things you can't predict.

Were any of the surreal things that happen in Sax's head things that could've been in Crank 3?

Absolutely. This is something I didn't even realize when I first got involved. I was invited to look at the material by Original Film and I was familiar with Grant Morrison. I knew he was a Crank fan because he'd said so in interviews. I met him briefly on a panel one time. We got along great, so we were sort of mutual fans and we always thought we'd work on something, but I didn't realize until I got in and really started looking at the Happy! comic book how influenced by the Crank movies it really was. There are scenes in the pilot that feel like a scene from Crank. When you've got the guy running through the hospital in a blood soaked hospital gown, running from cops and chugging coffee, it's very Crank-like. That's actually not something I brought to it. That's in the source material, but it does feel like the DNA of Crank really ran through the comic book.

I thought the head wound dance was Crank-y.

Yeah, that's our introduction to the character so we thought it should be a little special.

So that's all Morrison, not anything from a treatment or screenplay you never got to make?

No, that particular sequence that you're talking about wasn't there until very late in development. It was actually one of the last things I added to the script. We just really wanted to put across that this guy is so rock bottom that the day of his own demise would actually be like Christmas morning. It would be the greatest day of his life. It would be a celebration.

Was Jerry Springer in Grant's comic too?

No, actually for fans of the comic, they will see a lot of the graphic novel. The graphic novel is very contained. It's a four issue story that takes place over about 48 hours and, spoiler, in the comic book, the main character dies at the end. It's a very intimate little world that we expanded a great deal to turn it into more of like this sprawling, multi-level Warriors-like journey of evil to fill out a season and then seasons beyond. Fans of the comic book will definitely see stuff from the graphic novel in the pilot and a little bit in episode two. There's a version of that poker game in episode two that's in the comic, but past that it really just goes off in its own territory. Most of it is stuff we invented for the show, including Jerry. The idea of episode two was that's the episode where Sax is in denial that he has a daughter. We'd been half-jokingly referring to it as the Jerry Springer episode because it was the episode where the protagonist is basically saying, "That's not my kid" which seems like a very Jerry kind of thing. I'm always a big fan of just being completely literal with stuff like that. So if it's the Jerry Springer episode, let's actually get Jerry and make it the Jerry Springer episode.

Was Springer game to recreate his talk show as Sax's internal dialogue?

Actually, we shot that sequence on Jerry's actual stage with his camera people. We didn't even bring our own cameras. We showed up and we used their entire crew, their stage so everything is absolutely authentic and Jerry was amazing. He had a great time doing it. Probably the coolest experience of that whole episode was I actually got to stand behind the little sound board that they use on the show, so I could press buttons and make cows mooing and guns cocking and babies crying.

They have sound effects for that?

Yeah, they pipe sound effects in on the actual show. So when characters are going to fight, you hear that ding, ding, ding, ding, the ring sound. That's actually live in the stage while they're recording the show. When you see them on the show and you hear those sounds, that's all me pushing buttons on set on the day. We didn't add any of that later.

Does Happy look exactly like he does in the comic or did you make modifications to him?

There was a lot of thought that went into how would we animate Happy. My original thought was that we would do it hand drawn, like Chuck Jones style. We explored that a little bit and went down that rabbit hole for a while, or that Roger Rabbit hole for a while. At the end of the day, it just felt to me like there aren't really artists anymore who can do that kind of thing. They just don't really exist. It's sort of like a lost art and it was going to be an uphill battle. Then it felt like, in the comic book, Nick Sax is drawn and Happy is drawn. They both seem to be rendered with the same sort of line work. Just taking straight from Darick Robertson's artwork, those two characters are rendered with the same artwork, they seem to be living in the same world. It makes more sense for Happy to be a 3D animated photoreal creature, the way that Nick is photoreal because he is real. That made the most logical sense so we pursued it that way.

Were there any versions of Happy that were cuter or less cute?

Getting to the final version of Happy is a long, laborious process with a million notes, a million references, a million "send it back, I want this little tuft of hair a little bit lighter, a little bit darker. I want the horn to look more like candy. What kind of candy? This kind of candy. Let me show you pictures of the kind of candy we want. I want the hoof to look like this and I want the coat to look shiny like a horse's coat but not too shiny." Every little detail of character design like that, which is the first time I've done something like that on that scale, every little detail of it becomes a topic. You're always trying to push it and push it to get it just, just right. Then finally you arrive at the final version. So the Happy that you see is exactly the blend of cute and ugly that we were going for.

Does Syfy give you no restrictions on violence?

Oh, they definitely give you restrictions. We were definitely invited to go for it. That was the first note they had for us: don't censor yourselves, go for it, we really want to change what we're doing. We want to do things that are more edgy, more unpredictable, less safe. So we were encouraged from the get go to really attack it on that basis. Now at the same time, you understand it's one thing to say that and it's another thing to actually see what we intend to throw out there. Of course they're going to have a reaction but I gotta say, in general they've been very supportive of us breaking rules and taking things as far as we want to take them. The goal of the show is not to out-violent every other show. There's shows that are lots more violent than this show. The goal of the show is just to be as pure a version of itself as it can be and just be something different and something singular. Sometimes that means being a little sillier than another show would be. Sometimes it means being more dramatic than another show would be. Sometimes it means being more violent, but always attacking each element of the show with a very singular point of view.

Are they going to bleep the F words on the air?

I don't think so. We bleeped them on the Jerry Springer segment because that's what Jerry would do.

But when Sax says f***.

Yeah, it's going to televise like that.

happy tv seriesDid you learn anything from your experience trying to adapt Jonah Hex that helped you adapt Happy!?

Not really. The Jonah Hex experience is like a novel in itself. A lot went into that. I know a lot of people don't really realize this, but the final version of that movie has very little to do with anything that me and Mark did. Although we're credited as the screenwriters, our original draft that got that project greenlit was massively rewritten, to the point where it's almost unrecognizable. I have a lot of fans who've actually been very supportive and said, "Man, I know the movie didn't work but I can tell from the script what you were trying to do." That almost hurts more because I just want to tell them, "No, you can't tell from the script what we were trying to do. That script was terrible but our script was really, really cool." That falls in the category of things no one will ever see, on the ash heap of cinematic history. I wouldn't say that I learned anything from that that we could take into this. Mostly in this it was the experience of being able to work with Grant Morrison from the get go. You actually have the genesis of the IP. You've got the genius behind the original idea and you're able to really just get into his head. When you can sit around and actually jam around on ideas with a guy like Grant Morrison, that's a totally different experience. We just had a lot of fun because what I found out really quickly is Grant and I are in many ways the same kind of crazy. It was just a really fun environment to be able to sit with him and spitball ideas. What if we did this? What if we did this? What if we did this? He'd come up with something I responded to and I'd come up with something he responded to. You could just tell right away this thing was going to be bananas.

What were some of Grant's ideas for expanding the comic?

You'll see as the season goes on, there's a lot of stuff. It's baroque, man. It's broke and baroque. It's complex. We needed to add more villains. We needed to add more layers. We're also thinking ahead to future seasons. If people love the show and we're so lucky as to keep going, we've got a greater, deeper mythology of the bad guys and the good guys in this show waiting in the wings that we're only teasing little bits of right now. The little intimate world of Happy and Nick Sax established in the comic book, at the end of the day could end up being pretty vast and open up a lot of opportunities for satire and also just cool story.

Satire primarily of the grizzled detective genre or other targets too?

Not even so much the grizzled detective genre. Just when you look at it at its core, it's two characters that are completely at odds in the way they look at the world. That's inherent to the source material too I think. One of the main ideas is yeah, the world is just sh**, it's garbage, it's falling apart all around us. People are horrible and the evidence of that hits us in the face every day. You can just go on your computer and go, "Wow, I didn't think things could get worse but it seems to be happening." At the same time, there are amazing things in the world. If you look at it through a different lens, you see love and creativity and heroism, just all sorts of amazing things. It's fun to have two characters, one that's a complete nihilist and one that's a complete dreamer and have them battle each other for who will infect the other one with their worldview. Will Nick end up turning Happy into a cynic or will Happy actually show Nick a way that he can be happy.

Can you preview any of the crazy baroque stuff that's coming up on Happy!?

I kind of don't want to spoil some of it. The bad guys are coming from places you'd never expect. Episode 7 is going to blow people's mind. We packed a lot into every episode. The amount of story that we have, we could've easily built 13 episodes but rather than scale it down for 7 episodes, we just try to jam it all in. We figure more is more.

Is the shot of the camera attached to Meloni while he's running a Crank shot?

That's a bodycam thing. I don't want to call it a Crank shot. It's definitely something we would have done on those movies but the first time I saw that was on Mean Streets. Guys have been doing that gag for a long time. I will say that this particular rig was pretty lightweight. The camera was lightweight but the rig itself was a little cumbersome and awkward. Meloni is such a giant beast of a man, we put this thing on him and when he started running with it, the idea of those things is they're very rigid so the subject is stationary with the world moving behind them. The way he was running with this thing, the whole rig just started to bounce up and down. It almost looked like it was going to fall apart and it just looked amazing on camera, I think. It's the most violent version of a bodycam I've ever seen.

Could you reunite with Neveldine for Crank 3?

You never know. We talk all the time and we're always teasing around ideas for stuff like that. You never know. There could be news soon but I have nothing to say on the subject right now. I just talked to Mark last night.

Is Mom and Dad still coming out in January?

Yeah, EOne is doing some kind of release in January. We're hoping to have a theatrical release in Europe and Latin America. Here they're doing a streaming release. As far as I know, the latest that I've heard, that release is on target for January.

Was that a concept where you explained it to Nicolas Cage and he got it immediately and ran with it?

Not really. I just sent Nic the script. He loved it but really the surface concept, the comedy/horror concept, the engine of that movie is obviously kind of insane. But the human story of that movie is something he really responded to. It's a movie about the frustration of seeing all of your dreams and all of your sense of self evaporate once you become a parent. He could relate to that as I think a lot of parents can relate to that. It's a little bit like midlife crisis turned into a horror movie. He responded to that aspect of it with a lot of passion and brought a lot of his own baggage into the movie to great effect. I think it's one of his best performances.

Does it allow one of his outrageous performances we all love?

Of course. That's the thing. It's a werewolf movie in a way so he gets to play both sides. He starts out very mild mannered and then by the time it's done, he's off on planet Cage. Selma Blair is brilliant in the movie as well. I don't think we've seen Selma this good in a long time. I really think people are going to be blown away by what she does.

Are you still attached to a Twisted Metal movie?

I wrote a Twisted Metal script that's fantastic. I was talking about this a few months ago, revisiting this idea of Twisted Metal. The main thing with Twisted Metal is the game as a franchise just sort of stalled out. There was really nothing to draft off of. You want there to be a big release of a video game and then you could graft the movie off of it. At the end of the day, Twisted Metal always had sort of a cult following. It was never that massive, like Assassin's Creed type of hit. It was that other game. The problem with that project at Sony, it became a little bit of a tweener. It felt like a movie that needed 50 or 60 million dollars to make and it didn't really seem to have the fanbase to justify that. But the script itself was awesome. A lot of the set pieces in that movie were like beat for beat Mad Max: Fury Road set pieces. Maybe they wouldn't have come out as good as Mad Max. I'm not saying that, but conceptually and visually, I remember seeing Fury Road and going, "Yup, that's it. That's exactly what we were trying to do with it." Who knows? I love the script. If the climate changes or the tide changes over there and they want to make that movie, I would be so excited to do it. Twisted Metal was a script from six or seven years ago.

What are you doing next?

We're going to see what happens with the show. The initial reaction to the show has been great so what I'm doing next could be season two of Happy!

So in success, that would go as quickly as you have to get started right now.

We would have to start right now. This is one thing that I've learned because this is my first foray into television. The schedule that comes at you in television, there's no feature film that comes close. What we do on this show is the equivalent of making an indie action movie with an animated character every 15 days, and then just doing it one after another after another after another. It's crazy. The way that these things come at you like trains is like nothing I've ever experienced in film. If there's another season of this show coming up, let's start now. Especially because this show is ambitious. This is not just people in a room talking. Every episode is filled with so much. The animation alone is so complex and takes so long. So a lot goes into these episodes and it's pretty all consuming. I ended up directing five out of the seven [after the pilot]. I'm basically, along with Patrick Mcmanus, show running it. I'm rewriting every episode. The amount that comes at you, it's all consuming and there's just not really room for anything else in your life when you're working on one of these shows.