An Interview with Illuminatus TV Showrunner Brian Taylor
by Prop Anon
In December 2019, Deadline announced that Illuminatus!, the legendary underground novel, was on its way to becoming a tv show with Brian Taylor, writer/director of the movies Crank, Gamer, Mom and Dad, and the tv shows Happy! and Brave New World, slotted as the showrunner.
Like Wilson, Taylor has taken risks with his craft. Whether it was developing “the Rollercam,” an innovative camera technique used to film Crank with his creative partner Mark Neveldine, or beta-testing the Sony RED camera while filming the underrated sci-fi gem Gamer, Taylor welcomes the inclusion of what Discordians call “the random factor.”
Wilson would give props to the risks Taylor has taken. Choosing to be the showrunner of a story with as labyrinthine a plot structure as Illuminatus! may be Taylor’s biggest risk of all!
In his last movie, Mom and Dad, starring Nic Cage and Selma Blair, Taylor presented a film that moved fluidly across the comedy, horror, and drama genres. This tonal shift, as he called it, is not only a desired type of story smart audiences want these days. It is also something Robert Anton Wilson mastered. It takes great wit, irony, and heart to make conspiracy theories funny and Wilson, arguably, is the first ever to have done it. As Happy!proved, Taylor can present shocking material with an ironically raucous gaiety, adding to the feeling of high voltage electricity than runs through all his movies.
There is no doubt that he possesses the gonzo style of sex, violence, and humor found in Illuminatus! However, as the astute Wilson reader knows, he and Shea masterfully utilized those pulp elements to draw the reader in to tell them about individualist-anarchism, critical thinking, and comparative religion. I hope that Taylor and his team can capture these more “esoteric” elements of the story. Perhaps by doing so, they will have outwitted the Curse of Greyface and accomplished the long-term goal of Discordianism — to make the whole world Popes!
I spoke with Taylor on October 5, 2020, as the California wildfires burned through more land than has ever been recorded. As the world has been jettisoned into Chapel Perilous and the walls are tumbling down, I wanted the straight dope. When will we get to see the Illuminatus! tv show?
Robert Anton Wilson once said that his biggest professional regrets was not seeing any of his books made into TVs or films, so, when Deadline announced in Dec 2019, that Illuminatus! was going to be a tv show and you were going to be the showrunner RAW fans sent a ripple of frenzy rumbled through the RAW-sphere.
BT: The Wilson Estate also has been super supportive and really stoked with everything I brought to it. They were over the moon. They were like “Oh my god, he would have loved this,” which is really good to hear.
Is this going to be the first project where you are the showrunner?
BT: Well, I was basically the showrunner on Happy! I guess for the purpose of this interview, it’s a good reminder that this show is not set up yet. Just because I’m developing it doesn’t mean that anybody will buy it or that it will ever be made. We hope so. This is a big ambitious swing. Making Illuminatus! is not like making Fleabag or something. This is a big fucking show. It’s a major work, a globe-spanning super ambitious piece of television. I felt the same way when Grant (Morrison) and I got a chance to take a shot at Brave New World. There’s been a lot of versions of Brave New World, but Illuminatus! not everybody can crack. Illuminatus! is not just sitting there waiting to be made. It’s an incredibly layered, abstract, and ambitious piece of literature. In order to honor that and honor its spirit the tv show must be just as subversive, just as chaotic, and just as impossible to pin down.
In terms of the time period of the story. Would you place it in the 1970s, like it is in the book, or would you update it and place it in present day?
BT: I think you have to make it contemporary. Why not? If you take out the names and dates, the book feels almost like it could have come out yesterday. Everything in it is more relevant now than it was then. I would have loved to hear Robert comment on what’s going on today. One of the major tenets of Discordianism is breaking down what they thought was a shared truth that was actually a lie. We were all living in a reality that we all agreed was real, but it actually wasn’t. Their idea of using subversive pranks to break down the idea of truth, to show the illusion that everybody’s living under and bring a sense of chaos to all of it was amazing. Sadly, that idea has been co-opted by the very authoritarians that Robert Anton Wilson would have hated. Promoting a type of chaos has become the active strategy of authoritarianism, starting in Russia and continuing here with Trumpism. The idea is to just completely break down and destroy the sense of shared truth. I wonder what Wilson would have thought about that.
How far along are you in the development process of the new Illuminatus! then?
BT: We’ve cracked how to bring it into the present day. That’s the main thing. How do you take these characters like Hagbard and move them into 2020, and then have that be relevant and potent. I think we’ve cracked all of that. We know what the pilot would be. We kind of know the shape of the first season and where we’d like it to go. I think it should be a three-season piece, where each season would roughly follow one book of the trilogy.
One thing that we learned doing Happy! was that shows metastasize and build themselves. We started out on Happy! with Grant (Morrison’s) comic book. That took us through about an episode and couple of scenes, which took us past the comic book. Then it was like, “Now where are we going?” And you’re in uncharted territory. Whereas I don’t think we are going to overtake the scale of this book and run out of material. But I do think that it’s going to have a way of metastasizing and becoming something different. How do you talk about Leprosy Mu (the biological warfare agent that gets loose during the novel) in a post-Covid world?
Production-wise, how far along is the show in terms of getting to the first table read?
BT: We are still in a stage where we’re looking for a partner. We need a network. We need somebody who is willing to take a chance on this thing. Obviously, it’s a complicated time to set up a show this ambitious, but it is also a good time to work on a project like this. You can basically build out the entire thing so that when it’s time to roll cameras you’re ready to go. It feels like that type of show to me because it is so global, and it really wants to hop around from location to location… it would need to be cross-bordered production. So, you’d want to go to Texas and shoot all of Texas. Then go to New York and shoot all of New York. Etc.
So, you’ve worked with some great actors. Michael C Hall, Nic Cage, Chris Meloni, Jason Statham, Patton Oswald and, of course, the great Glenn Howerton. Have you approached any of them about appearing in Illuminatus!?
BT: Yeah, when we have the network and it’s more a go, a lot of those names you just mentioned are people I’d want to get involved. And those are all really smart people and people who would get the book and be inspired by it. There are some actors that would react with “Ah just send me the script because I don’t want to read all that.”
Illuminatus! is not the most inviting text. You want people who are really on the page. People who get it and love it. If you are doing something that’s really complicated like this, trying to make something different, you need everyone to be on the same page. Especially when it comes to television, which is exponentially more difficult to make well than movies. I didn’t realize that until I got into it. The amount of work involved in showrunning and how quickly it comes at you… there’s nothing that can really prepare you for that. It makes directing a movie feel like a cruise. It’s like an avalanche of stuff coming at you on a daily basis. And it’s all you can do to keep up, if you are trying to do something really ambitious — and Happy! was ambitious and this is even more so. One thing you figure out quickly is that you gotta have people helping you. You gotta have people involved that really get it and are not fighting against you all the time but who are helping it be better. On Happy!, the number one guy like that was Meloni. He deeply got the sense of humor of that show. So, it was like having an extra producer, an extra writer and director on set all the time who was just pushing it, not just to be better, but to be what it should be.
Sometimes you get the guest director come in — the show has a weird tone, weird sense of humor and material — so some directors and even actors would come in and not get it. They didn’t get the sense of humor, they didn’t get the irony, and they didn’t get the tone. It’s just like we were talking about. It’s that meta-modern idea of embracing all tones simultaneously. A lot of guys don’t know how to do that…they’re just used to one thing. It’s amazing how one person can come into the mix who just doesn’t get what you’re doing and the whole thing can come grinding to a halt. So when you have a situation where everyone gets it, it takes on this momentum and becomes really fun despite how difficult it is. Something like Illuminatus!… you have to have people who just deeply get it.
Yeah, you are perhaps going to have to have some sort of vetting process that involves lots of acid and strobe lights. How did the book hit you the first time you read it. Were there weird synchronicities around reading it?
BT: I was not one of those guys who read it as a teenager. I came upon that book later in life when my artistic sensibility was already established.One of the main feelings that I had reading Illuminatus! was this sort of revelatory feeling that this is where all this shit comes from. This is the seminal piece. This is the seed. Like everybody got everything from this book.
I always used to tease Grant (Morrison)…like when American Gods came out, I was like “Grant did you get any royalties on that? Somebody else is making The Invisibles.” When you read Illuminatus! you’re like “oh shit man, this is the original! This is where The Invisibles came from. This is where everything came from!” A lot of things that I look for as an artist and a lot of my sensibilities were formed by that book without even knowing about it because it influenced so many things that influenced me. And there is that psychedelic quality that the book has where you just fall into it. When you read the book, you feel like a different person. It definitely has more of an effect on your life than a book normally does. It kind of takes you over a little bit, and when you’re finished reading it, there’s this period of coming out of it that which feels like you are coming out of a dream and back into reality. You realize that that book was taking you someplace else. But because it’s Illuminatus! and its Robert Anton Wilson, you think, “Well, I think I’m not coming out of reality, but maybe I was coming out of something else.”
One other thing. Illuminatus! is just so smart and funny. I found that I just missed him, and the world misses him. I’ve seen these interviews where he talked about the things he looked forward to and where he thought the world was going, and there was this whole alternate, intellectual, metaphysical kind of thought in the 90s about where things were going. The Terrence McKenna school — we are going to find a way to get free of these monkey bodies and we’re going to find a way to enter other dimensions and we’re going to expand intelligence and extend life. We’re going to break free of a lot of these things that have held us monkeys back for thousands of years.
There’s a sadness when you hear him talking about that now because it didn’t happen. The world now is even more fucked up than when he wrote Illuminatus! It just seems like we’ve been completely incapable of breaking free of that stuff. We’re still fighting the same pathetic cultural wars, the same primitive religious wars, despite our best angels pushing us forward to get better. The vast majority of humanity is just this epic failure. It’s sad. In a way, you miss him but it’s also like I’m glad he didn’t live to see this. Selfishly, I want him here because I want to hear his perspective. I want him to put it in a context that isn’t so scary and sad because he just kind of had a way of doing that.
Orson Welles once said that when Hemingway died there was a period of about ten years where nobody spoke or wrote about Hemingway in America, but then suddenly Hemingway came back. Welles concluded with, “I think it’s mainly true that writers go into total eclipse right after their death.” So perhaps there are these gestation periods, and the world is now ready to start hearing the message of RAW. I mean the whole fucking planet is collectively going through Chapel Perilous right now. We are living in Illuminatus! right now.
I really hope there’s a network out there that is smart enough and brave enough to pick this show up.
BT: I think it’s going to be a really special show. It would be one of the greatest things I could hope to do. Grant and I were really excited to take a crack at Brave New World, but at the end of the day that sort of became very much a studio thing. It didn’t really express the punk rock mad energy that we thought Huxley deserved. Huxley was another one. He is up there on the Mt. Rushmore with Wilson. I think he deserved more. But that’s Hollywood. Sometimes things just get dulled down.
Coming out of Brave New World with Grant, I am not going to let that happen with Illuminatus! It’s better not to make it at all than to make the compromised version with no teeth. If we’re going to make it, it would have to be something that would make Robert proud. It has to be something that strives to have that type of impact and embraces the spirit of the material. If it can’t be that then I really believe it’s not worth the time to do it. Let the book stand. The book is always going to be great. So that’s the challenge. The challenge is… we’re going to do it and we’re not going to let it get polluted. We want to try to give this to people to mainline the pure dope of Illuminatus! Let’s see if we can pull it off. If we can, then it will be amazing!