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Interview: JJ Villard (JJ Villard's Fairy Tales)

JJ Villard’s Fairy Tales launches on Adult Swim this coming Sunday, May 10. It’s an extreme take on fairy stories, full of gross-outs and grotesqueries, with many voices provided by horror film icons. Listen out for Robert Englund, Linda Blair and Jennifer Tilly, as well voice-acting legend Alan Oppenheimer, Willow star Warwick Davis, Robocop’s Peter Weller and more.

As for the titular JJ Villard, his early work included his 2003 acclaimed student film Son of Satan, a brutal interpretation of an already brutal story of child cruelty by Charles Bukowski. Villard crashed back into the spotlight a decade later with King Star King, an Adult Swim show that was extreme even by that block’s standards. (Villard’s own description of the series as “He-Man on drugs” doesn’t start to cover it.) In between, Villard spent several years at DreamWorks, which may sound like hell for such a maverick, but he says he doesn’t regret it.

Find out why below, where Villard talks about his newest project and broader career. Warning: Very salty language ahead!

AFA:Many animation studios have made parodies of fairy tales. Was it at all difficult to find your own spin?

JJ: Yeah, that was the big challenge for the writers and me in the room. The writers rolled their eyes. Once we got into it and did the first episode, Goldilocks, it just went smoothly. We understood how far we could push things. We tried to stay within one third of being true to the fairy tales, and the other two-thirds we branched out and did our own shit. I don’t think the fairy tales have ever been told this way, but I think that the visuals will draw people into thinking it’s a charming, fun, clean show, but then they’ll realise they’ve entered the nightmare of JJ Villard’s Fairy Tales.

You have an amazing voice cast. Aside from persuading them to be in the show, how difficult was it to set up the recordings? Were they all based in L.A?

About half of them were in L.A. The other half were around the country, and Warwick Davis was in England. We just worked it out; with today’s modern technology, it’s not too difficult. But I do prefer being there in person, because there’s an energy in the room. I usually go into the sound booth with the actors to create that energy… I made the huge rookie mistake of explaining to Peter Weller how I wanted a line to sound, so I read his lines. He said, “Don’t you ever direct me like that! What kind of novice are you?” I felt so bad for doing that. But halfway through, he was like, “This is some funny goddamn stuff,” and he was so cool after that.

All these actors have been in thousands of movies, and they’re all such veterans of this game. All these people are my favourite actors from the horror genre. But I promised myself, I cannot geek out, I gotta stay grounded to get the best results.

Did you know any of these actors before making the series?

No, and out of the hundred actors we asked, these were the only ones who said yes. We had a lot of rejections; we even had rejections five or ten minutes before the recording. Some people must have read the script right before the recording and said, “I ain’t doing this shit.”

Did you ever have more than one actor recording in the same place at the same time?

Linda Blair was leaving and Robert Englund showed up. Oh man, that was incredible. They already knew each other; I guess this acting community’s really small. I go to monster conventions, Los Angeles has a lot of them, and a lot of these actors were there. I guess I thought, “Wow, these people are still around,” and that was a bit of the idea of using all these iconic actors. That and watching Ed Wood use Bela Lugosi in all his movies (laughs).

The animation for Fairy Tale was made in South Korea.

As the creator, you get to pick who you want to animate your show. You can pick anyone from a local animation studio in L.A., or studios in Mexico, India, England, France… I just happened to see Saerom Studios, which did Dora the Explorer. I thought, “This is so great,” that’s one of my favourite kids’ shows, and they’ll bring that innocence into my show. That was why I picked Saerom; they also did Regular Show and Adventure Time, their resume’s insane. We sent them a test and it came back awesome.

There’s a lot of tricks to using overseas studios. For instance, suppose you have this one scene in an episode that’s really important, you want the animation to be awesome and pristine. Send that over to Korea and say, “This is the new episode, we want to just check out how you do this, to see if you can handle the rest of the episode, because it’s something new and unique.” So they’ll put their best animators on that.

The fairy tales in the series are Western; are they familiar in South Korea?

That’s a good question. They specifically told me, our fairy tales are completely different here, we have great fairy tales. And I was like, send them over, I want to read them! We’re gearing up in case there’s a second season, and I’ve told the buyers I want to do American folklore, Aesop’s fables, Bible stories, I want to branch out from just fairy tales. Because there are fucked-up stories with all those genres. Doing South Korean stories would be awesome.

In your designs, you’re very fond of weird teeth and mouths.

Yeah, I always think it’s funny when you show a character from a distance and they have the clichéd regular round teeth, but once you do that close-up, you start noticing the flaws in their teeth, like all of us. You find out a lot of people have peanuts and raisins as teeth, and I love that pattern – you just fuck up their close-ups and visuals.

It’s also an artistic choice; a lot of shows don’t do that. I have a tendency to show more detail with (character) close-ups and on larger characters, because they’re bigger, you can see more on them.

Going all the way back, why did you decide to get into animation?

I was a little bit like Forest Gump, just going with whatever happened in my life. I realised early on I was better at art than at anything else. In high school, I met a professor who taught animation at Florida University. I asked him if he could tutor me and he did; we did really crude pieces of animation. I used that as part of my portfolio, and fortunately got into CalArts.

The competition is highest at a school like that, but even there, there are lazy kids and kids who don’t see the opportunity they’re having. We had all these major speakers: John Lasseter graduated from there, Tim Burton, Brad Bird, Craig McCracken… When these guys come in, they usually stay afterwards for thirty minutes to talk to students informally. It was at that time that I would go out of my way to speak to them and try to get some form of personal contact, like an email.

There was a guy named Frank Gladstone from DreamWorks Animation who gave me his email and we stayed in touch for two and a half years. I would show him my student films and constantly pressure him – “Is this something DreamWorks wants?” The film I did in my junior year was called Son of Satan. It got into the Cannes film festival, and that’s when Shrek 2 got into Cannes. That really helped me get my first job, on Shrek 3. 

Were you a fan of the Spike and Mike animation festivals?

I did the whole film festival circuit when I was in college. No-one else was doing it; it was always about standing out. How can I be different from all my peers? To this day, people are better than me in animation, in character design, in background art, whatever. So how can I bring my own unique spin? What I did was whenever I finished a student film, it was free to put it into film festivals, so that’s what I kept doing.

I met Spike [of Spike and Mike] at the Annecy festival, who seemed like a cool guy. But I was thinking, Wait a minute. None of these guys are going to make me money. They’re all cool, they’re all great, they’re all rebellious animation dudes, and I was like, Fuck, I gotta get into this industry. So I had to say goodbye to the independent film festival circuit. I realised that the challenge of getting a TV show, being successful in animation, is a lot harder than winning a trophy at a film festival. You can come home with a shiny piece of plastic, but it’s not going to help you buy a home.

Are you a fan of John Kricfalusi, creator of Ren and Stimpy?

I like the first two seasons, and I think those seasons were so good because of all the limitations Kricfalusi was given. I personally like Standards and Practice notes, you know. If you’re just given a free rein to do anything, it doesn’t feel so much like you’re in Catholic school, breaking the rules when you draw on the desk. You can benefit from limitations. “Rubber Nipple Salesman” [from Ren and Stimpy’s second season] is fucking crazy. Obviously, he’s drawing contraceptives, and how he got that done, that’s so fucking hardcore.

I learned to work with executives. It’s part of the whole process; why fight it? It’s part of the game. I’ve had ruthless executives, people that are just trying to make my life hell. I don’t give a fuck. I take it as all part of the game, and that’s it. I learned that very early on at DreamWorks. It was a culture shock when I first found out that people were not in showbusiness or animation for the art. Some of them were in it for money and all they wanted to do was provide for their family. That’s generally most of them. When you learn that, your heart gets a little cold, but you just carry on.

Was the experience of working with executives the main thing that you got out of your time at DreamWorks?

Absolutely. I don’t regret my time there at all. It just turned my heart cold; you work on a sixty-second scene in Shrek for like three months. If we spent three months on a sixty-second scene in TV, I would be fired so quickly from the major networks. We get six weeks to do an eleven-minute storyboard for TV and that’s it. I’m one to move fast; when your show starts, it’s a bullet train with no brakes.

They take three years on average to make a feature film, and if you look at them, they’re overthought. There’s just too much thinking going on. Who gives a fuck about the continuity of a scene? I purposefully have a character walking right in one scene, and then in the very next scene, when he’s saying a new piece of dialogue, I’ll have him moving left, to say fuck you to feature storyboard artists. Look how lucky I am, I can do whatever I want on TV (laughs).

Once you finish a storyboard for an episode of Fairy Tales, how long does it take to make that episode?

We’re really lucky; we were given one year to do six episodes. A lot of cartoons at Cartoon Network have to finish 22 episodes in one year. We just got lucky. We did end up being a couple of weeks over schedule, but I was like, who cares? We had no recurring characters. The biggest thing was we came in under budget and that’s huge. If quarantine hadn’t hit, I would have spent the extra money on a crazy premiere party, but that’s not going to happen now!

Your previous Adult Swim series King Star King was shown online first, and then on TV. Was that because of the show’s content?

(Laughing) Absolutely! About halfway through (making) the season – I’d say more than that – Adult Swim looked at it. Mike Lazzo [formerly in charge of Adult Swim until his retirement in December 2019] called me up and said (southern accent): “JJ, I can’t put this on TV. It’s borderline porn.” I said “What? Mike, you’ve got to work something out here. I’ll blur it out, what parts did you not like?”

He said, “It’s all of it! I’ve never seen so much saliva and whatever’s happening with these girls…”

And I was like, “All right, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to premiere this as Adult Swim’s first online TV show.” So they did that and the ratings were really good. So without them telling me, they went ahead and aired it at 4 a.m., when all the cokeheads and crack smokers are coming down from their highs, that’s when fucking King Star King came on. And the funniest part is the next segment was kids’ Cartoon Network, so it went from King Star King to (high-pitched voice) Steven Universe!

That’s wonderful.

Yeah. The show got cancelled so quick, and the craziest ironic part is that right after it got cancelled, it won the first Emmy for Adult Swim. They kind of scratched their heads – “We might have made a mistake” – and now they want to do a King Star King special.  

Will that happen?

It could, I’m not against it. I think it would be fun to do a 45-minute animation. It would just be so strange, because that was my first series and I learned so much from that show, on what not to do. Especially, there’s way too much detail on the characters. That’s why when I created Fairy Tales, I pushed back on all that, and the artists were coming to work smiling because these are the easiest characters to draw. I didn’t have any bad vibes or witchcraft coming from Korea, they’re just like, Thank you for these simple character designs!

Lastly, given what happened with King Star King, do you think you will be able to get away with more from Adult Swim in the future?

It’s just a timing thing. King Star King happened right as #MeToo was starting. It was the worst timing you can imagine. People’s mindsets were changing and (King Star King) was just vulgar and bad humour, I guess. My humour’s changed since then, I find different things funny now than I did five years ago. Comedy’s a weird, strange thing, it’s constantly changing. If you think about ten years ago, Jackass was huge; where did all that go, that slapstick comedy? But then something like (the Cartoon Network series) Apple & Onion comes out and that’s such a great, funny show, so good. Comedy’s just constantly changing…

Andrew Osmond is a British journalist specialising in animation. His books include BFI Classics: Spirited Away100 Animated Feature Films and Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist. His website is anime-etc.net.