How a Pair of First-Timers Captured the Trauma Behind the Scenes of 'Ren & Stimpy'
The animated show Ren & Stimpy was a cult hit in the 1990s. Little did fans know that more drama was happening behind the scenes than in front of the camera.
If you were alive in the 1990s it's impossible to forget just what a massive (and brief) wave was made through pop culture by the animated TV show Ren & Stimpy. When first-time filmmakers Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood, who barely knew the show, were introduced to it as a possible documentary subject, they were hooked on a multi-year odyssey that seemed like it was about to end when the story grew even more dramatic, and relevant, with revelations about the shows creator in recent years.
We sat down to talk to the film's directors, in conjunction with the Sundance premiere of their documentary Happy Happy Joy Joy.
NFS: So, the movie's amazing. Congratulations, guys. How did it all start?
Ron Cicero: The idea had been kicking around for a couple of years. Todd White, who's in the film, had worked with [Ren & Stimpy creator] John K. on a series subsequent to Ren and Stimpy and he kept saying, "You know, I know this guy John K., He's really interesting. You should be doing a documentary on him. And the timing was just never right and it was going to be a huge endeavor. Kimo and I had met doing camera and lighting years and years ago. I respected the short form docs that he was doing and so I called him up about collaboration.
I was working in the television commercial production business and my soul was starting to wither on the creative side. So I said, "Look man, let's do something together." And he said, "You know, Todd's been talking about this guy, John K." And the crazy thing is that Kimo had never seen the cartoon growing up in Hawaii, and I had seen it once, like 20 years ago. So we knew nothing about it.
We looked online and after an hour we said, "Hey, let's do it. Let's jump in and do our first feature." Had we known what it would have taken...we probably never would've spent less than an hour making that decision. But that's the beauty of being a first-time filmmaker. You don't really know what you're getting into.
NFS: First-time directors, but you guys have been working around movies for 20 years or more.
Cicero: When you are sitting in the director's chair and...the director's chair..the DP's chair, and the producer's chair, and you're taking on an endeavor, it was just basically the two of us. That is a completely different experience than being in a job that's creatively adjacent to those other filmmakers. I can't even describe how different it is. How many times you'd be on a set and go, "Oh, that director, he doesn't know what the heck he's doing." Not all of them, but some of them. And then when you're in that chair, you're like, God, how many people are looking at us going, "These guys don't know what they're doing."? Because there's just such a barrage of decisions to be made and it really is very different.
Kimo Easterwood: It did help us having that film background. I started in 1987 working in Hollywood on movie sets. Climbing up, becoming a gaffer, doing that whole thing for years. It definitely helped us make the film. We're going to go and do an interview. It wasn't like where some people that don't have that experience would be like, "Oh, well how are we going to light this thing? And do we have to bring a light or something?" So luckily we had that experience to know so we didn't have to worry about the whole lighting part of it and the gear and all of that. We had that because we've been doing it for so long.
NFS: I really noticed the interviews were all really beautifully lit, which is something that stands out for first-time filmmakers doing a documentary. I also felt like they were really nicely staged. In every interview, it felt like there was a deliberate production design to tell the story.
Easterwood: For John's interview it was something we thought about. Locations were chosen first and foremost on where the subject would feel most comfortable. Given the often sensitive nature of what was being discussed, you could understand why. The interviewee’s homes and studios were first choices.
We also knew that we were interviewing creative people and they generally surround themselves with interesting spaces. So, even though we went in cold to some of the locations, we felt reasonably confident we could make them work aesthetically. Plus, being a personal space, the locations naturally reflected who these people are.
When a subject wasn’t comfortable shooting at his or her house or workspace, we did find locations that reinforced their role in the story. For example, Vanessa Coffey’s location was reminiscent of her New York office at Nickelodeon which we had seen in archival photos. For Bobby Lee, Jack Black, and Iliza Shlesinger, we could choose locations with a bit of flair given their roles as celebrity fans.
Quite frankly, the entire film had a sensitive aspect [to it] and it took us a couple of months to get the first interview because of the breakup of the show and who chose to stay with John and who chose to go. It was like calling somebody up and saying, "Hey, we want to talk to you about the divorce that happened in your family 20 years ago and I know you don't know us, but we really want to talk about this issue that was incredibly sensitive in your professional career." There was...I think Chris Reccardi...it took us eight months to a year. Same thing with Vince [Waller] before they would actually sit down and trust us based on the prior interviews we did. So, obviously we wanted to be in spaces that they felt incredibly comfortable in and didn't feel contrived.
NFS: I think it's a fair thing to call what happened a breakup or even a divorce. With people from all sides talking to you, what was the process like?
Cicero: We were introduced to the subject matter via Todd to John K. He was originally going to be the subject. What happened was he refused to be interviewed, but we became passionate about the show. And so we dove in and said, we're going to tell the story about the show because we feel it's really this unheralded piece of art. And so we started the interview process. We actually finished the film that did exactly that. It celebrated the show, but John hadn't participated in that movie. It wasn't until the news broke about Robyn [Byrd] that he finally even answered our emails and decided that to participate. And then it took another six months before we got him on camera.
NFS: He was actually, in some ways, the last interview you got.
NFS: How did you start the process of building relationships and connections to the subjects in the doc without that John K. connection? Was it cold emailing people?
Cicero: It was cold emails. Like we could use Todd's name and say, "Hey look, you know Todd White told us about Ren and Stimpy and about John K. and we're really interested in the show and really [want to] celebrate your work. So, those emails would go out as we discovered who the main players were.
It wasn't easy. A lot of these emails would go unanswered because they just didn't want to talk about it and there would have been so much bad press and there had been so much bad blood about the breakup. They really didn't want to revisit that part of their professional life and personal life, because they were all very close when the breakup happened. So, once we got Bill Ray and Scott Wills to interview, and those guys kind of vetted us, then the word would slowly spread amongst the artist community there that we weren't looking to concentrate only on the conflict.
And we really were there to find out more about the artistic side of the show. And little did we know that was going to be upended by Todd's story, but nonetheless, that's, that's how it started.
NFS: So, John's story broke midway through production for you?
Cicero: No, it broke when the film was done! We had a version of the film that was completed. I mean we were literally typing up the credits. John hadn't participated, but we created the story about Ren and Stimpy and John was in the film through archival footage and archival photographs...he was kind of this mysterious character. The film worked, but it wasn't at the level that the second version of the film is now. Version one of the film was done.
Cicero: We sent it to Viacom to get their sign off on the licensing, and they're like, "We love this film." We're like, "Great! We love the film, too." And then the news broke and we're like, "Oh my God, now what?" We have a film that's essentially toxic. How are we going to celebrate a show that the creator now has made somewhat toxic? And then during this time is when John finally reached out to us and said, "Okay, I'll be interviewed." So yeah, it was crazy. I mean, it was right around the time of Icarus too. And we're like, Oh God, those guys were so lucky. They got this twist. But as a filmmaker, when that happens to you, you don't think, "Oh, I'm so lucky," you just think, "Oh my God, I just spent all this money in a year and a half of my life and it's never going to see the light of day."
NFS: That's crazy. So you had finished the movie, and then you hadn't finished the movie.
Cicero: To give you an idea, I sold my house and got rid of my car to pay for this movie and then it's like, "Oh, it's going to go nowhere." And then our original editor, Christina [Burchard], had started directing on her own and so she wasn't available to continue, so now we're looking for a new editor, wrap up these interviews, and get John on camera. But we're like, "How are we going to have a movie without John now?" And fortunately, he came around after, like I said, six months of meeting him almost every week, sitting with him, watching UFC fights, and getting to know him.
Easterwood: We would just sit with him and he's a huge UFC fight fan. I do Brazilian jujitsu and that became of our common thread. That's what we would talk about. Then we would, of course, broach the subject every other time that we were over there like, "Look, we really want to do this and here's our vision for the film. And just so you know up front, we are going to have to address the Robyn issue, and so that's going to be a part of it. So I want you to give that some thought."
Easterwood: And we agreed to give him all the questions ahead of time and we also allowed him to sign the release after the interviews took place, so he didn't feel like we were trying to do this gotcha kind of journalism. So, he eventually agreed.
And you know, looking back, given the sensitive nature of both the show and the Robyn conversation, it really helped that we were able to gain that mutual trust. And it certainly helped us too, because we had only heard Robyn's side and we had only read the press reports. And I think if you're going to do a film like this, you have to have empathy on both sides. We don't condone what John did by any means. That's an extremely important point. That said, as documentary filmmakers, you have to have empathy for your subject if they're going to share their perspective and who they are as human beings because ultimately this is a guy that did terrible things, but he's still a human being. We still need to know the why behind it. That was the most critical part of this...that it's not just what happened, but why this happened and how can we prevent this type of trauma from becoming a trans-generational theme.
NFS: What do you think are the big lessons for creatives in changing creative culture...a creative culture that has been sort of smoothing over of bad behavior?
CICERO: Robyn says it beautifully, "You don't have to keep inflicting pain on those around you. Use your art as a release to deal with that trauma, but you don't have to inflict that trauma on those around you." And I think there's a greater awareness now, hopefully, amongst creatives. You can battle those demons, but there's a limit to that and the people around you are not going to just put up with it. I mean, Kimo and I put up with a lot of craziness as men on sets at the hands of other guys just doing ridiculous things that today you would get fired for in an instant. As well, you should have gotten fired. There are these other tools that you can, in addition to your artwork, whether it's therapy or other things like that, where you can have an outlet other than turning your anger or that trauma onto others.
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by SmallHD : real-time confidence for creatives and by RØDE Microphones – The Choice of Today’s Creative Generation