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Twisted Metal Boss Talks Needle Drops, Video Game Origins, Easter Eggs in Surprise 2023 Peacock Hit
As 2023 comes to an end, we look back on one of our favorite sci-fi shows of the year.
With a new year finally upon us, SYFY WIRE is taking a look back at the biggest genre debuts of 2023. So far, we've explored the curious ending of M. Night Shyamalan's Knock at the Cabin, what could have been in The Last Voyage of the Demeter, the cosmic delights of Asteroid City, and the arrival of a new genre icon named M3GAN.
Today, we're revving the ol' engine for an exclusive interview with showrunner Michael Jonathan Smith, who, thanks to the recent conclusion of the WGA strike, was able to hop on Zoom with us for his very first interview regarding the small screen adaptation of Twisted Metal (stream the first season on Peacock right here).
Set in a post-apocalyptic version of the United States where civilization collapsed in the early 2000s, the live-action translation of the hit video game franchise stars MCU vet Anthony Mackie as a wisecracking delivery man on a mission to find a true sense of belonging. The show, which set a streaming record over the summer and recently nabbed a Season 2 renewal, co-stars Stephanie Beatriz, Samoa Joe, Will Arnett, Thomas Haden Church, and Neve Campbell.
Twisted Metal showrunner looks back on Peacock's hit video game adaptation
Out of all the video games to adapt, why did you choose this one in particular?
I grew up with the game. Twisted Metal: Black was my drug in 2002. I really love the excitement of playing the game, I love the chaos. There's nothing better than when you use the special [weapon] to blow up a car and drive right through it and you hit the ferris wheel and that's rolling down the road. That vibe just feels amazing. I thought that [in a] world where Mad Max: Fury Road exists, there's a hunger for those kinds of stories.
What got me really excited about it, is that it felt so timely in a weird way. Because so much of the game is, ‘Every character has a drive, something they want, and you’ve got Calypso, who's dangling that hope as a carrot for something better.' I think that dynamic of someone who has the power and someone who doesn't felt very prescient when I was writing it in 2020 during the pandemic ... It also felt like it was a great IP to adapt, because it's been out of everyone's minds for a long time. What's so cool about those games, is that there are story beats and backstories that are really exciting and relatable and funny, but I think no one's ever tried to craft a story together. I'm so proud we were able to modernize it and find a new story that allowed us to have an opportunity to do all the cool car stuff, while still giving you things that I care about, which is exciting characters. Not that I don't care about the cars. I love the car stuff too, but I want characters you root for and I want comedy and I want dramatic surprises.
What did you feel like you had to get absolutely right when adapting Twisted Metal for the world of live-action?
Sweet Tooth. It's tough because there are so many versions of Sweet Tooth and what do you adapt and what storyline do you pick? My mandate to the writers was, ‘Let's capture the essence of who this character is.’ I think what's great about the series, is that every game kind of does its own thing. So this is our opportunity to be like, ‘We’re going to do our own thing, while still keeping what's great about this character and not betraying that.’ I think that came down to, ‘Let's make him look exactly like he stepped out of the game.’
Speaking of Sweet Tooth, how did you come up with his backstory in Episode 7? I feel like I was just starting to get over Gordy's sitcom rampage in Nope when you have this kid stabbing a Golden Retriever with a pair of knitting needles...
He’s dressed up like a clown and we were diving into, 'Where does this want of being a clown come from?' We liked this idea that at his deepest core, he wants to be loved by fans, by his parents. And the more we talked about that, the more we're like, ‘Well, what would be a funny place for that to come to fruition?’
Honestly, I hadn't seen Nope when it came out; we were shooting that scene when the movie came out, so I was delighted that we were in a similar mental space. But what was cool was that as we were writing it, we were just [asking] ‘What would be the most heartbreaking thing to a character who is an actor?’ I don't remember if it was me or another writer who came up with it, but just the idea of, 'What if he was upstaged by a dog, a being that is the most neutral positive thing that could exist?' I was thinking a lot about Full House and how the Golden Retriever upstaged the actors occasionally. Just the idea that Marcus did everything he could to be loved by his parents, by the fans. He got a taste of it and then this damn dog walked in and stole that away. It just felt funny and heartbreaking and a way to get Needles Kane in there. To have knitting needles become part of it.
The show has some truly great needle drops from the late '90s and early 2000s. What was it like cultivating the soundtrack?
When I was coming up with the pitch ... I watched a lot of YouTube [play-throughs of Twisted Metal]. It brought me back to not only what it felt like to play the game, but also what I was doing at the time I was playing the game. What was the music playing in the background? What were the movies I was seeing? I would go out with my friends, hit up Friendly’s, and go see Changing Lanes with Samuel L. Jackson. Then I’d come home and play Twisted Metal on my PlayStation. I wanted to capture that feeling of nostalgia ... because the ‘90s and early 2000s was the height of the games.
While we're on the topic of movies from that period, I really appreciated the Master of Disguise reference in Episode 4…
It’s so funny, Dana Carvey had to approve it. Our amazing script coordinator, Becca Black — she's coming back as staff this year — was in charge of getting that cleared. The voice had to be close, but not Dana Carvey’s.
I spoke with James Parnell (the show's supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer) a few months back, and he told me how multilayered the sound effects for each car became throughout the process. Can you talk about that aspect of production?
The big thing was I really wanted to put animal sounds, organic sounds into the design of the cars. With the convoy, when you see these trucks, I was like, ‘Let's have whale sounds!’ Because I wanted to feel that feeling of when you're driving in the middle of night and you feel a truck pass you. You're the only two on the road and you feel that shuddering metal. It’s like you're in the ocean and there's a giant whale passing. I wanted to feel the sportiness of these cars, [wanted them to] feel alive and dangerous. I think we had a bear in Outlaw.
That reminds me, we never actually see Agent Stone die onscreen — we only hear the gunshot go off. Thomas told me it was his idea on the day to keep the character's fate a little ambiguous. Will Stone be back at some point?
I don't want to totally close the door, but it's important — not just for Stone’s arc, but for Quiet’s arc [as well]. So I think never say never, but maybe not this year.
What major lesson or lessons did you learn on Cobra Kai that you were able to apply on this project?
Give the fans what they want, but not in the way they think they want it. I learned a lot about how you bring back characters or make references in a way that doesn't go against the story you want to tell. A lot of it was us talking in the room and saying, ‘What do we want the story to be? Where are our characters in this moment?’ For instance, Bloody Mary. John and Quiet just hooked up for the first time in a ball pit. They're in a great place and we want this to feel like the height of their relationship, but then it’s starting to come down. And what is the story that comes from that? We came up with, ‘You bring your partner to a work event and your ex shows up.' We looked at the roster of characters and were like, 'Bloody Mary! That's perfect!’ Her whole storyline is tied into that. So there was a lot of kismet and a lot of, ‘What characters do we want to pull from? Who are the fan favorites? Who are the ones people aren't expecting? How do we retell that story in a way that gets people excited?'
It's really about trying to fit in the audience's shoes, give them a thing and not feel like we're telling them, ‘This is what you want!’ We want to give them enough that they feel like they're checking off the boxes, they just may not realize it.
Anything to add?
I'm so beyond thrilled that people watched the show, loved the show, and really had fun. Because, at the end of the day, that was the goal. I wanted to make a show that was fun and light and still made you care about the characters and feel an emotion and laugh. That's the kind of comedy I like. I like things that are a little silly. I love the heavy TV shows too, but I wanted to make something that was just like, ‘God! This is fun to watch. I just want to live in this world with these characters and enjoy.'
It was so tough with the strike because I obviously couldn't do press and talk about the show. But I read every comment and watched every video. It was fun to watch people talk about what they loved and even the things they didn’t. It was cool to see the reactions and see it out in the world, because it's something I've been a part of since 2020. This is a show that took a while to come together and I'm so thankful of the producers and Sony and Peacock that believed in the direction and saw what this show could be. I'm just excited to make more, man.
The complete first season of Twisted Metal is now streaming on Peacock.
*This interview was edited for length and clarity*