Film Courage: I heard you say or maybe it was your producer say “We will believe it when we have a call sheet for The Happytime Murders.” So it’s been what 16 years?
Todd Berger, Co-Writer of The Happytime Murders: Yes! 16 years…so my friend Dee Robertson and I, that puppet short film I made in college, I wrote and he directed. And then we both moved to LA in 2002. I think he moved here a little earlier. That’s when we hatched the idea “Let’s do a feature!” Puppet, human, buddy cop movie and do it as a feature. We came up with the characters together and the story and then I wrote the script. And the original plan was he was going to direct it, we’re going to go out and direct it ourselves. We’re going to raise a little bit of money and then go shoot it and then we realized “Oh, it’s very expensive to make a puppet movie. You have to build every set because you need puppeteers under the floorboards.” So our thought of doing a cheap little indie quickly went away.
And we tried to set it up a couple times over the years but it didn’t really pan out. And so we put it on the shelf and for years people would get interested in it and Dee and I would always say (Dee who is still heavily involved as an executive producer in the movie) we’d always be like “We’ll believe it when we see a call sheet.” They would attach an actor and everyone would get excited and we were like “Yeah, we’ll believe it when we see a call sheet.” Or they’d get a bunch of money, they’d set it up at a financing company or a production company and we’d be like “Yeah, we’ll believe it when we see a call sheet.” Just because of the years…I mean we set it up at the Henson company in 2007 and years…nine years went by where a lot of times where it would look good but not happen and our joke, Dee and I’s joke with each other was “We’ll believe it when we see a call sheet.”
And then…one day…I get a call that Melissa McCarthy is doing the movie and they’re going to shoot it and I’m like “Yeah, I’ll believe it when I see a call sheet.” Still…still…and then one day I got a call sheet. And then one day I got an email with a PDF in it with THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS shooting day one. And I was like “Oh? It’s real. Like it’s really real, like it’s not going to fall apart, it’s really happening.” I went to set and I got to see these puppet characters that Dee and I had come up with when we were probably drunk at a bar in 2002 and these locations that we had imagined years ago and it’s like “Oh, they built the set and they built all these puppets and here they are and they are actually shooting this movie. It’s real and we’re on set and here we are.” But still I was like “No, something bad is going to happen. A meteor is going to hit the soundstage. Still something bad is going to happen.” And still part of me sitting here with you right now, the movie is going to come out in a couple weeks, I still think something horrible is going to happen. Part of me…my pessimist personality is like “Something horrible is going to happen.” But I’ve seen billboards and bus ads. I’ve seen commercials, this movie is really happening, it’s really coming out unless this is all some really elaborate prank that you guys have all been pulling on me which I would be kind of surprised.
Film Courage: It could be a Philip K. Dick reality distortion, we don’t know is it real? Am I really a puppet? We don’t know.
Todd: I would not be surprised if I wake up tomorrow and I walk out into my living room and I see my wife and I’m like “Oh yeah, THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS interview I did yesterday went really well.” And my wife is like “What’s THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS?” And I’m like “Wait, what?” And I go to my computer and it never existed at all, it’s all been a dream.
Film Courage: Well if you’re like most people (myself included) I get nervous when things are going too well.
Todd: Oh, if something is going too smoothly? Oh yeah.
Film Courage: This is a bad sign right here.
Todd: I don’t trust if anything goes smoothly. Not just with making movies but with anything. If I get a new router for my WiFi and I plug it in and it works right away I’m like “What’s wrong? There’s no way! There’s no way it was this easy. Nothing is ever this easy.”
Film Courage: Didn’t you write the script in an interesting way, you went to a motel or something?
Todd: Right, so when Dee and I first came up with the character, like we slowly came up with the characters for a loose outline for the plot and then I was like “What I’m going to do is I’m going to write the script and Dee you’re going to be kind of like my bouncing board. You’re going to be in the room with me and I’m going to run stuff by you, we’re going get a hotel room and I’m going to sit at the laptop and you’re just going to be in the room pacing (or doing whatever it is that you’re doing) and helping me.”
So we went online and we just found the cheapest hotel room we could possibly find which was by LAX and it was an Inn and it was like $39.00 and the only food…we had this grand vision of being bohemian artists and you rent this hotel then you show up and it’s the saddest LAX hotel and the only food anywhere near there was AM/PM where we could go get coffee and like a 24-hour Subway that we could eat at. But we were hold up in the hotel for I think it was one night and then we sat in the lobby. We had to check out at a certain time and we just sat in the lobby of a hotel across the street and we just banged out the first draft. I mean it wasn’t good, I mean it was like 75 pages in 24 hours or something like that. Just writing…just writing…just writing…it was pretty awesome. We should go back to that hotel. Like the night of the premiere we should do an afterparty in that sad little LAX hotel room.
Film Courage: Were there moments there where you were like “What are we doing?” Like you’re almost living out a writer’s fantasy out of an 80’s movie?
Todd: Yes, as a writer you always have this vision of writer’s are supposed to do and I’ve even done it since. My jam now is I love to get a hotel, like if I’m on a deadline, I’ll get a hotel for a night or a day and I’ll just stay up all night writing.
Or I wrote a novel a few years ago and when I did the second draft of it, I got a room in Palm Springs for a week.
And a couple times I’ve been on deadline for a script on an assignment. And I’m like “Oh? I was supposed to write this over the last 8 weeks and I haven’t started it so I’m just going to get a hotel room.”
But I did have a grand vision of “Oh, you’re supposed to drink while writing?” Isn’t that what Ernest Hemingway did? So I would buy a big bottle of whiskey and put it on the table and be like “Okay here we go.” And I’d go have a drink and one drink in I’d be like “I don’t want to write anymore. I just want to sit on that big comfortable bed and watch a movie.” So I can’t do that, I think some people can…drink whiskey while they write? That’s what writers are supposed to do but I can’t. I just lose it. I have one sip of whiskey and I don’t want to do anything other than this right now.
Film Courage: What about a nice hotel versus a seedy motel? Because with one you kind of get tricked that life is good and safe. The other one you realize that there’s a desperation to some of it.
Todd: Well, the difference between a nice hotel versus a seedy motel, the only thing…(Watch the video interview on Youtube here).
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