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E-MAIL THE AUTHOR | By Christopher Stipp

February 24, 2006

AN ARM AND A LEG

Before we jump into this week’s article I had to preface my comments by throwing out a little trailer love for a strange, yet alluring, trailer for an animated movie. I was going to include it last week but my love for all things Roy Stalin/BETTER OFF DEAD got in the way.

It’s nice to see the kind of animation made famous by A-Ha for “Take On Me” make a surge back into the mainstream. Now, this movie most likely won’t be classified as mainstream but it got my attention and I am feeling in the sharing mood. The movie is called HIGH MOON and you can find the animated trailer right here. If you’re a fan of a hip soundtrack and a voiceover-less viewing experience I highly recommend just peeping out the trailer. Props go out to Pat V. for shooting me the link on this one.

I wish I had my planned column all ready for you, there have been some sweet trailers making their debut, but when I had the last minute opportunity to talk to Todd McFarlane about his involvement with David Fincher directing one of Brian Michael Bendis’ best works I had to drop what I was doing and find out what’s what. Sure, there have been other people to talk to Todd regarding this flick but since I wanted to talk movies and not action figures or trying to “scoop” when he planned on making a comeback into comics I think you’ll find this 1/2 hour I spent with him on the phone a little refreshing. So, I apologize there isn’t a slab of trailer goodness here but I wanted to give some of you closet comic nerds (present company included) a little pick-me-up. I hope you enjoy.

Now, on to the interview!

One of the most poignant transitions for any comic book fan that was hooked on Batman, X-Men or, in my case, G.I. Joe was that moment when superheroes just didn’t carry any emotional currency anymore. The moment when comics were just 15 minutes worth of reading that ended with some kind of Saturday Morning Serial cliffhanger and made the fan feel like they just pounded a fistful of colored panel Pixie Stix was the moment when that reader either waned in their interest for their fictional heroes or they felt empowered to seek out alternate reading.

Watchmen and The Preacher replaced the mustachioed evil villain tropes we all knew by heart; Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman replaced whatever half-penny fill in writer was continuing the further misadventures of whatever Spider-Man or X-Men spin-off was planned for that month; and, it was here that comic book readers became more aware that the medium they indulged in so delightfully, without much regard to resonant moments in their storytelling, was about to grow up. I grew up.

Many of those who still read comic books after long tenures of service, I am about to go on 20 years this May, know exactly what I am talking about here. There is room, no doubt about it, for all varieties of comic books.

One of the most poignant transitions for any comic book fan that was hooked on Batman, X-Men or, in my case, G.I. Joe was that moment when superheroes just didn’t carry any emotional currency anymore. The moment when comics were just 15 minutes worth of reading that ended with some kind of Saturday Morning Serial cliffhanger and made the fan feel like they just pounded a fistful of colored panel Pixie Stix was the moment when that reader either waned in their interest for their fictional heroes or they felt empowered to seek out alternate reading.

Watchmen and The Preacher replaced the mustachioed evil villain tropes we all knew by heart; Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman replaced whatever half-penny fill in writer was continuing the further misadventures of whatever Spider-Man or X-Men spin-off was planned for that month; and, it was here that comic book readers became more aware that the medium they indulged in so delightfully, without much regard to resonant moments in their storytelling, was about to grow up. I grew up.

Many of those who still read comic books after long tenures of service, I am about to go on 20 years this May, know exactly what I am talking about here. There is room, no doubt about it, for all varieties of books. Those who want their mind to traipse elsewhere can find what their minds are nagging at them to read by lingering long enough at their local comic shop. One of the things that made Brain Michael Bendis’ “Torso” stand in stark contrast to the books making Wizard’s Top Seller lists was its blend of true crime storytelling that infused Marc Andreyko’s art in such a way that commanded true attention. The story would prove it couldn’t be ignored and its eventual trip towards the big screen took a leap when Miramax decided to pick up the property. The problem was, though, the house that made its name on shaping original ideas a visual reality decided to sit atop the book and not do anything with it.

Enter, stage left, Todd McFarlane.

The man who originally helped Bendis get the book out to the masses, the man who thought moving it to Miramax was all but a done deal to breathe life into the graphic novel, found himself snatching back the property when Miramax eventually didn’t move on getting “Torso” jumpstarted. He has been all hips and elbows since then, pitching and selling the story, has landed the help of Bill Mechanic to come aboard to defibrillate talent to attach themselves to it and it’s paid off. With screenwriter Ehren Kruger (THE RING, JOHN CARTER OF MARS) ready to pen the adaptation and heavy hitter David Fincher (FIGHT CLUB, ZODIAC) anxious to add the stylistic element the book deserves to have preserved the movie has never seemed more poised for greatness. The reality of it, though, isn’t filled with as many superlatives as one would hope. Todd talks about the mountain ahead and how he plans on getting to the top of it with a movie that not only fans will like but will draw in an audience who never has to realize they’re watching a comic book unfolding before them.


The first real news I heard of this was that “Torso” was going to be made, Fincher is going to direct, Ehren Kruger is going to write it and I am wondering if there has been anything new to add since the announcement itself? One of the things…sometimes they put out those PR things slightly…prematurely. And what’s going on now is that we’re just making sure all the contracts are finalized. I was just talking to Bill Mechanic, one of the producers, and he was saying that his just got finalized and one of the other guys just got finalized. I think the PR people sometimes jump the gun…they do it for two reasons: one, they want to get it out and, two, sometimes it puts the studio into a pressure cooker; if they balk now, it’s already been announced, they don’t look good. So, sometimes it’s done as a negotiating tool. But, minus all of that, which is all inconsequential, arguably because most of the work had already been done when this announcement came out. Because, a lot of people announce things like this and then have another 8 months or year of negotiating contracts. We sort of did the leg work far in advance and most of the credit for that goes to Bill Mechanic. He used to run Fox.

He was blamed pretty heavily for FIGHT CLUB’s initial theatrical run.

Yeah, yeah. He was able to nurture a lot of relationships with some people and you start going on the producing side and you hope you can call some of those friends up, call a couple of markers up…He’s been talking about David for a long time. We’d gone and met with him before, trying to work through it, and I sort of thought that once he got behind ZODIAC that would end that conversation, but obviously Bill has been pushing that boulder up the hill and knew that the studio was only going to get excited if he got a couple of A-listers.

What grabbed Bill’s attention, initially? What was it that made Bill say, “I’ve got to get this made”?

For Bill, when we pitched it to him, the very first time, he sort of sees the same things I do. It’s sort of a no-brainer it seems like.

You’ve got a brand name in Elliot Ness as everyone knows who this guy is. You’ve got a quasi sequel, but not quite, and then you’ve got, arguably, historical data, which you can argue is America’s first serial killer, this is the case where the word serial killer comes from, so all the details that come with it, when you sort of do the pitch everybody just says, “Wow.” I mean it’s got a lot of Hollywood moments in it; they’re all factual. You can look them up in the microfiche. And, again, World War II breaks out and because all of a sudden there are, arguably, some political ties that get pushed underneath of all it, you just go, “Wow.”

To me, this is cooler than putting Capone away. At least I think it’s on the same par and, more importantly, sort of the first half of that story, the young kid turning into the knight in shining armor, is more consistent with what happens in the media today. We like to build our heroes up and then we like to deconstruct them. So this is the story of a man coming into town, literally the hero, and by the end of it all gets kicked out of the town. And, arguably, it’s still an open case. We deal in facts. If you go to Cleveland it’s still an open case. Elliot Ness’ version of events is that he solved it, if you believe him. He did his job yet he still got railroaded. They wanted him to change his job description and he goes, “That’s not what you hired me to do. I’m not a detective, that’s not what my job description is. But, okay, you want me to be a detective, fine. And, you want me to stop this guy, fine.” And, in his mind, he did both. Because the end result was hidden from the public they didn’t think he did either. He tried running for mayor and can’t even win that candidacy. Somebody runs into him at a bar in New Jersey at the end of his life and he’s almost penniless and destitute. And then he recounts his Al Capone days which results in this book called the “The Untouchables.”

So, we’ve only really seen half the Elliot Ness story. And the second half is just as cool, if not cooler. For us, Bill got it.

The trailer is…(BOOM) “Based on a true story” (BOOM) “America’s first serial killer” (BOOM) “From Elliot Ness” (BOOM) “Comes Tom Cruise” Or whatever. Whatever actor is in it. And you’ve got to ask how that trailer does not get people into seats? You go check, check, check. And then you add a director who has a reputation and it’s “You’re in!”

And I am sure there are thousand stories out there of people saying, “I don’t understand why don’t they want to make my movie?” Then it began to try and convince everybody to belly up and get it done.

And you’ve talked about who you thought you’d like to see, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, who you’d like to see play this character…

Well, you know, historically, Elliot Ness is a lot younger than people think. He was in his early 20’s when he came to Chicago. By the time he put Capone away he was like 26, 27, he was a kid. You could say Kevin Costner was more of a Hollywood kind of thing, not quite exact casting. So, you could put someone in the role that’s in their mid 30’s and it’s historically correct which opens the door for a lot of actors.

One of the guys who Bill is quite fond of is Matt Damon. He’s the one he keeps saying, “That would be cool.” He’s at the right age, got those boyish looks, likable, all the traits that Elliot Ness had.

Once we get a viable script that the studio feels they can spend money on then we can go back into that equation and there might be more candidates at that point.

And so you’re still waiting for Ehren to finish his first draft?

Yeah, he’s going to have to sit there, go through his first draft and, hopefully, that’ll happen around the same time David has gone through his press junket, if you will, for ZODIAC and can catch his breath for a minute.

He’s got another movie in development…

Yeah, I have it right here…BENJAMIN BUTTON…

Yup. It might make sense for him to go from one kind of thriller, suspense movie, take a bit of a breather, and then come back in.

I am sure, depending on whatever the studio’s wants and needs are, and how fast Ehren can…at some point the studio could put the bum rush on but I hear that BUTTON is developing quite nicely so it’s not like it’s in development hell.

On the same token I know that Miramax, you were waiting a long time for them to do something with this and the rights came back up, how long have you been waiting to do something with this story?

You know, someone said the date and it was longer than I thought.

It’s one of those (laughts) things where you don’t see the sands of time going through…and all of a sudden you go, “How long has it been?” I think…I want to say…I bought the rights from Bendis and Andreyko almost seven years ago. It’s been that long. I would have to see when we sold it to Miramax as they sat on it for a while…and then we sold it to Bill…I mean it only feels like a few years.

Have you talked to Bendis at all about this? About having Mechanic on board, having Fincher on board…?

I haven’t talked to Brian recently. I do talk to Andreyko and Mark is, obviously, quite pickled. Because, at the very beginning, in earlier conversations, when I was talking to Brian about it he was saying, “We should just do a low budget one and we should write it ourselves and, Todd, you should direct it.” It’s true, you can do all that stuff, but, to me, there are way more qualified people that can come in there and do it, especially from a directorial point of view. It was like, “Thanks for the encouragement but you can sell this someplace, bigger than we’re talking about here.” And I know when we were taking our first couple of meetings Mark was saying that Brian is a fan of Fincher too.

I don’t think you’re going to get too many people that are going to sit there and bellyache if you get an A-list guy, in any capacity, to make a movie because that means you actually have a chance to put it in front of people, connecting, after all these years. I don’t think Mark or Brian are any different than anyone else and want to see their material on the big screen.

Exactly. And just thinking here about Alan Moore, who hasn’t really bellyached but has had issues with those involved with LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN to bring it back to Mechanic and even V FOR VENDETTA which he wants his name completely removed from, is it important to have the guy who initially wrote it get excited over the making of their material?

I think so. When all is said and done Mark and Brian will be able to give their own personal view of it. Mark works in Hollywood, I know that Brian has sold a few things there but I think they are both savvy enough to understand that Hollywood is an inexact science and that once you let something go it may come out better or worse, very few times does it ever come out the way you want it. And that’s the kind of commentary you get from people who sell the source material. They go, “Oh my gosh, it turned out better than I hoped.” Or, “They killed it.” You rarely hear, “Ehh, it had some good spots.”

I think we understand that this has to be a character driven movie. It can’t be a slasher movie. We’ve seen those, it’s too easy. Hopefully when Ehren does his homework and, I’m guessing, will have long conversations with both Brian and Mark and sort of pick their brain and will go, “Oh. Got it, got it, got it.” He’ll be able to say to Bill, “Now I know how I can sort of get into this.” I always thought it could be in the deconstruction of that hero. Hopefully Ehren can get in there and write something that you go, “Oh, okay.”

As producers are you able to control any of that or can you only hope Ehren comes through?

I’m sort of in an awkward position and only insofar in that I sold it to Miramax and Paramount…I’m sort of looking over Ehren’s shoulder, offering words of advice. I’m not supposed to be doing that, for legal reasons, but not sound legal reasons. Big studios want something, they get conservative, they get conservative. So, my capacity is going to be more just making sure the production gets going, we’ve got the right people…

Has Fincher just signed on in name or has he talked about his own vision of what he’d like to do with the material?

I know that his initial contact with the material, he’s seen it, have you seen…

Yes. Loved it.

Yes, so did I. As co-owner of Image comics when I read it I was blown away by it. So, you can see the movie just playing out in your head as you’re reading it, right?

Right.

So, I think David had read it and the one thing he did say was that he sees this as being very stylistic. Now, maybe when he gets there, when we start the movie, maybe it doesn’t have the same commentary as it does in the beginning. When you look at that book and you see it in that sort of film noir look I think it’s some of that that’s intrigued him besides that it’s a hell of a story. You can see that it’s a great story and you can get a little stylistic with it. So, I know he was intrigued by the black and white part of it, I don’t know if he’ll continue to be intrigued by black and white but, all of a sudden, you see movies like SIN CITY and you go, “Okay.” You can do some quirky stuff to what extent? But, there have been other movies, like HISTORY OF VIOLENCE and ROAD TO PERDITION that, to me, fall into what this story is about.

Both of those stories were graphic novels but I don’t think your average moviegoer knew that. They were basically watching a glorified comic book. But what they did was take a medium, a genre, and they mixed it and they made it very seriously and it wasn’t about guys in tights running around doing flips.

And, even though there is violence in both of those movies, you can still get your wife or mom to see them because, “Oh, it’s Tom Hanks, Paul Newman is in it…” And they present it as a real movie. Same thing with HISTORY OF VIOLENCE. Viggo, you just saw him in his trilogy, this is him in a quiet role, and, again, it’s sort of intriguing given that, intellectually, there’s a lot of violence in it but you go, “Oh, what would I do in his position?” So, to me, my guess is this thing will fall close to that category except we have, hopefully, the added bonus of this also being based on facts. But, you get a star, and put him in there and have people say, “Oh, I like that guy.” And it just happens to be against a backdrop of some criminal case.

And I know you’ve been quoted as saying that you’ve become less enamored with the superhero genre. Is this just an evolution of your own sensibilities…

I know I find myself as I get older wanting to stray away from some of the conventional superhero stuff. It doesn’t mean you can’t look at any of the stories from the comic book world because here’s one example that you pulled out of the comic book market. The other two I just mentioned, again, there are plenty that don’t have guys in tights. As a matter of fact, maybe the marketing see that as a kind of a drawback.

I think that’s one of the problems with big movies that come from comic books. When you look at movies like ROAD TO PERDITION and HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, like you mentioned, the marketing seemed frozen, confused. I wondered for both of them if I was being sold an action movie, a thriller, a drama. Do you see that as a potential road block and, if you, what would you do to prevent that from happening?

In this case, I don’t think so.

What you’ve got here is a pre-built brand name. Once you say Elliot Ness, boom, a lot of people will go, “Oh, okay.” And then you go, “Well, what is he doing?” And you say that he’s got to catch America’s first serial killer. And, like I said, this is too easy of a trailer. This is an easy trailer to get people in but now the question is, “Can you keep them there for 2 hours?” That becomes an exercise for Ehren at that point.

I think that once you get a grip of what you’re going to do with the character, there’s too much there. And a skilled writer like Ehren he’ll find a spot, he’ll find a groove and it’s just a matter of finding what the studio wants out of it. They want more action, they want more character development, is this something they want to put out to get some Oscar attention…

Right.

Like those other two movie I mentioned, we can go down that path in terms of putting it out there, and if we get some nice visuals from David and get his whole crowd, it’s very wide, plus he has a large cult following, you could potentially have your cake and eat it too if all the pistons are firing on all cylinders.

Do you see this as the next evolution of comic book movies or do you think that people are getting tired of seeing guys in tights?

Naw, I don’t think so.

It just becomes a gentle reminder that if you’re looking for comic books you can come in with an open mind. There is some nice comedy out there, some nice drama and, obviously, there is action which is a mile high.

Do I think there will be any shift? No, not as long as the BATMAN’s, the SPIDER-MAN’s and X-MEN’s make as much money as they do and they are going to continue to mine all that. I’m just saying that once you get past the A guys, and you can count the A guys on two hands, then it becomes a matter of whether it’s better to look for stuff like Torso compared to the 25th most popular guy in DC comic books?

I laugh

So what’s the biggest step from here?

I mean, the big contract, on some level, is Ehren’s. Once his is done then he gets to write. I haven’t checked in yet so they may have finished him off already. The big credit goes to Bill Mechanic for sticking with it for as long as he did because he could have walked away from it. He had a couple of opportunities but he was like, “No, let’s keep going with it.”

I am really interested to see how this looks if it’s done right.

Yeah, done right I think it will blow a lot of people’s minds away going, “I had no idea that happened.” It’s what every executive said after we pitched it. There are big Hollywood, wild moments and you can go, “They’re making it up,” but no, this is how it went down.

It just got caught in a political wheel and it’s why it didn’t get exposed and, once we went to war, we got distracted. To show you how big it is, how big the story was at that time…that we somehow neglected in our history, Hitler mentioned it.

Really?

Yup.

In one of his speeches he used this case, one of his big propaganda speeches, he used it as the proof of the degradation of America’s society, The Mad Butcher, the Torso Killings. And then, a few days later, they find another torso in Cleveland and it has the word “Nazi” carved into it. I mean, it’s crazy stuff like that. If Hitler was aware of it you can imagine how big it was. And, somehow, we’ve lost it in the annals of our crime stories for some reason and hopefully this movie will put it back on the map.

And, really, for me, from a comic book point of view, it says to me that comic books are still a viable medium. If people are like, “I don’t want to see a movie of guys in tights,” then, you know, you don’t have to. As a matter of fact, if you don’t want to read about guys in tights, you don’t have to. All you have to do is spend 10 minutes in a comic book shop and you’d be amazed how wide a range of material is there.

You go into Blockbuster and you see the movies are all round and flat but it’s the subject matter that differentiates itself from kid material to our material, right?

Right.

And comic books are no different but, in this country, have such a stereotype of the word “comic book.”

It’s a stigma, really.

It is. Superman and Archie, that’s it. Really, go up to someone who has seen ROAD TO PERDITION and tell them that was from a graphic novel and they’ll stare at you blankly. They don’t know what to do with that. “I like comic book movies??” No, you like good material, that’s what you like, and that’s all I am saying. The comic book marketplace has a lot of good material and I hope it continues to have good material.

I agree. My first comic book was G.I. Joe number 47, that was almost 20 years ago this May, and even still I see the same variety of traditional comic readers; somehow that stigma is just not going away.

I did a book called Sam and Twitch that Bendis wrote and we got the new one, The Case Files of Sam and Twitch, and that’s all crime fiction stuff in comic book form. So, it’s like you don’t want to read Superman anymore, fine, there’s other stuff. You don’t have to stop reading comics, you just have to go out and find something that’s your taste now. There is plenty of that. The Vertigo lines are part of it, just make a little bit of an effort.

Hopefully this movie will help to chip away at that stereotype.

Yeah, I ran into a guy and I told him I make toys and he said, “Oh, for kids.” And I told him I do animation and he’s, “Oh, for kids.” Then it was that I did comic books and it was like, “Oh, you do kids stuff.” And I have to say, “Uhh…not really.” Animation can be anything you want it to be, toys are clay that you can put into any form you want. “What you’re doing is remembering YOUR childhood. You’re remembering your Leave it Beaver mindset. And you haven’t updated that mindset yet.” And I guess that’s our job, pushing that boulder up the hill.

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