One of the animation industry’s true crazy person types returns to his infamous, short-lived, Emmy Award-winning 2014 series to bring animation fans an all-new special… or is it an episode… or a pilot… that’s sure to bring a grin to the face of all us closet subversives.
In a move most diehard contemporary cartoon animation fans likely support, one of the cartoon biz’s true crazy person types, JJ Villard, returns to his short-lived, Emmy Award-winning 2014 series, King Star King, for a new special, King Star King!/!/!/, animated by Rough Draft Studios, now airing on Adult Swim and streaming on HBO Max. Yes, it's hard not to grin at the mere thought.
And yes, it’s the same JJ Villard who began his reign of animated terror years ago with the incredibly nasty Charles Bukowski short, Son of Satan (2003), a Best First/Student Film winner at the 2004 Ottawa International Animation Festival, and equally crazy-assed Chestnuts Icelolly (2004), which took the Grand Prize at the Ottawa festival the following year. He followed those gems with years working on kids’ and family films at DreamWorks Animation. and yes, that’s one really, really big pivot.
King Star King!/!/!/ is kind of a special… kind of an episode… kind of a pilot. We’ll explain later. “It's insane… I mean, it was about two years ago, I got a phone call from Adult Swim, and it started off with an apology,” he shares with a laugh. “We're sorry. And I was like, ‘For what?’ And they're like, ‘Canceling King Star King.’ And I was like, ‘Okay.’ They're like, ‘We want to bring it back.’ And I said, ‘Okay, in what capacity? Series, feature or special? And they said, ‘We want to do a special.’ And I said, ‘I'm in. Let's go.’ So that's how it all kind of started off.”
The special stars Tommy Blacha returning as the titular hero, as well as Andi McDowell, Robert Englund of Freddy Krueger fame, Will Sasso, Rachel Butera, and noted filmmaker and raconteur John Waters. “John’s like a hero of mine,” Villard says. Such a hero, in fact, that Villard had to force himself to focus during recording sessions, lest he repeat an early career mess-up he can laugh at now. According to Villard, “Yeah, he's so awesome. And what was so weird was we were recording him from Baltimore. I mean, he is the Baltimore mascot. He's all about... a lot of his movies we're filmed there. He writes about Baltimore in his books, and it was just like, ‘Wow, I'm recording John Waters in Baltimore. This is nuts. Yeah.’ But you got to separate the fandom from being a director. Because my very first actor hero that I worked with was Linda Blair, from The Exorcist. And I geeked out, and did such a shitty job directing, we didn't get what we wanted at all. So, we had to bring her back in. And I was like, ‘All right, JJ, snap out of it. Fucking be professional.’”
So, in the special/episode/pilot, though we venture back to the world of King Star King, this time… things are a bit different. We’re talking balding, big belly, middle-aged different. Works at Amazon different. Villard explains his new approach, noting, “Well, it's just like with any artwork, you got to make it personal. Because you're spending such long hours in the office making this animation, which is very tedious work, that if you're not making it personal to a certain degree, you're going to go fucking crazy. You're going to really hate yourself and the project.”
OK. So how “personal” are we talking here?
Very. According to Villard, “I was drawing King Star King all ripped and buff, like I used to be back 10 years ago. No, just kidding. I wasn't ripped and buff at all. But I was drawing King Star King all ripped and buff, and it just didn't feel right. You could feel it in your nerves and veins when your body's rejecting artwork. And so, I'm like, what the... and then one day I just drew King Star King more like with my body. And that's how he became a middle age overweight guy. And I was like, ‘This is good. This feels way better. I feel like I'm putting myself into this.’”
Villard, who has a family, gave King Star King a family too. “I pitched it to Adult Swim, and at first, they're like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. We don't know about this.’ But they took a week to digest it and they came back and they're like, ‘Actually this is really good. We love it.’ And I said, ‘Yes, bald King Star King. Let's go.’"
With the new paunch and shiny dome comes a new design aesthetic, as well as Villard’s new mindset in dealing with his artists. “So, one of the inspirations [for the special] was [my own life] experience,” he reveals. “I realized how late my layout artists, who... they clean up the storyboards… how late they were staying [at work] during the original series. I put them through hell. I mean, they got through that hell because I was so fueled with energy and positive optimism. That's what got them through. But I was like, ‘If I ever create a show again, I am not going to have the designs be this detailed.’ So, we simplified the designs. That was the very first thing I wanted to do. And I did. These also get shipped overseas. So, you don't want bad vibes from Korea when they're animating these characters, you know? You feel that shit in your daily routines. So yeah, that was the first thing I wanted to do.”
He continues, “Next thing was, look, we change what art we like over time. I used to be very into some underground comic book artists like Christopher Forbes and Power Masters and Kevin O'Neill, who does ‘Marshal Law,’ and ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.’ But I changed to the point where Greg Sharp was one of my new favorite artists. He's my age. I hit him up, I said, ‘Would you like to be the art director?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ And that's a huge thing, to have an art director that you want. Your number one choice of art director saying yes. It was just a euphoric moment.”
For Villard, easing off the gas and trusting Sharp and his design team paid off. “The personalities of artists are all different,” he says. “You get some very introverted guys. You get extroverted guys. You get guys that don't like a lot of notes, that you’ve got to be more precise with in what your vision is. But with a person like Greg, we had a week's worth of me showing him a lot of reference material, not only with his own work, but with work I wanted the show to look like. So, you take what you love about his work, you take reference material for what you want the show to look like, and you blend that all together and just fucking pray... hope to the animation gods that it turns out within the ballpark. So, if we can get within a B average, I'm happy with it. But he knocked it out of the park and gave it an A+.”
Villard also shares that one big mistake he made during the production was taking on two projects at the same time, and though it killed him, the results justified the effort. “One huge challenge on the show was I did the foolish move of taking on this and doing another pilot at the same time,” he laughs. “So, I was working seven days a week, 12 hour days. And the art is not the problem. It's just the constant influx of emails from execs. It just drains you. It fucking kills you, and you're losing your goddamn mind because you're pushing on two projects that you're deeply involved with that you're giving 110 to, that you want to turn out fantastic. Thankfully both of them did. But I aged a lot during that process.”
“You’ve got two different visions going at the same time that have to be clear, that don't look at all like each other,” he adds. “You're ping ponging. You’re going from project to project. [The second project is] a Cartoon Network pilot… we're going to be done with it in March. It's a children's show called Scaredy Cat.”
It may have taken years off his life, but Villard clearly enjoyed getting back into kids’ cartoons. “So Scaredy Cat, it was so fun to do, and it's been so fun to jump back into kids' cartoon because my career started at DreamWorks. I was there for about five years working on Shrek 3, Shrek 4, Monsters vs. Aliens, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, and Trolls. All those animated features are fun, they’re for kids, they’re very specific. You know exactly how far you take the jokes. The majority of my jokes got thrown out, and you just get used to rejection. It's just a standard thing working at DreamWorks. You realize at Adult Swim how much free rein you have with your comedy when you jump back into a children's show.”
In discussing the possibility of more King Star King episodes in the future, Villard notes a last-minute contractual change makes that a distinct possibility. Plus, he’s got plenty of ideas. “I want King Star King to fight Joe Rogan,” he laughs. “And I want King Star King to fight Logan Paul. So, we'll see what happens. But yeah, it was originally supposed to be a special. Just a special. But when we handed in the first animatic, Adult Swim loved it so much they said, ‘Can you make this into a pilot instead?’ So, I was like, ‘Okay, what do you need me to do?’ And they said, ‘We need you to change the ending to make it seem like there's more episodes to come.’ So, I said, ‘Great. Okay, fine.’ So, I had to call my lawyer and redo the contract because now it's a pilot. And then we had to rewrite the ending, which takes time. So, if you look at this thing, you're going to say, ‘Hey, it seems like it's for Christmas, right?’ But it's coming out on Valentine's Day. Well, the reason was because we had to rewrite the ending and the schedule got pushed out exactly two months, so we had to drop it for Valentine's Day instead.”
Wrapping up the conversation, Villard notes that just like he’s got a middle-age paunch and receding hairline, he’s also not quite the notorious creative madman he used to be, and that “staying edgy” is difficult after years of animation development wars. “So, believe me, when I wake up in the morning, I am well aware how fortunate I am to have gone through the gauntlet of fucking development, which is so hardcore,” he concludes. “I mean, it would drive a monk fucking insane. I realize how fortunate I am, and I try not to take advantage of it.”
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.