It’s very hard to pull off non-Superhero fare in comic books, and harder still for it to find traction with audiences. You can reverse that trend by picking up a new slice of modern supernatural noir from Dark Horse Comics, The Cleaners.
Written by screenwriter Mark Wheaton and Joshua Hale Fialkov with art by Rahsan Ekedal, The Cleaners follows a team of SoCal crime scene cleaners led by a former surgeon named Robert Bellarmine, Bellarmine’s team is willing and able - and perhaps unnaturally curious - to take on the types of jobs that other can’t, or won’t, handle.
I had a chance to chat with creator Mark Wheaton about the series, plus his screenwriting career. And, in the interest of full disclosure, I was the Best Man at his wedding.
The Cleaners will be in stores on November 12th, and a special preview story is currently available on MySpace Dark Horse Presents.
KP: So, brass tacks… tell me what The Cleaners is.
WHEATON: Cleaners is a comic book about a group of trauma scene cleaners in Southern California who are on retainer for motels and grocery stores and anywhere else there can be an accident involving blood or biological fluid. If you clean it up yourself, it’s a $10,000 fine from OSHA, so these guys are extraordinary high paid hazmat janitors that deal with that sort of thing. In the course of their work, whenever they come across a crime scene that suggests the supernatural - something that will go unsolved because the police don’t want to press it or don’t have the resources to pursue it - they’ll take it up as they’re willing to accept more esoteric reasons for something to have happened. They work to explain away what appears to be the supernatural using cutting-edge science.
KP: So how would you describe the tone of the book?
WHEATON: It’s a series of four-issue arcs relating to what appear to be supernatural events related to a single crime. In the first arc it’s called Absent Bodies. They come across an incident on the job when they’re sent to clean up like a large blood spill in Sun Valley, specifically in the area where E.T. and Poltergeist were made.
KP: So in a stereotypical suburban setting?
WHEATON: Spielberg made certain movies in the 80s on a frontier, where it’s a house in a suburban sprawl, but he’d choose the house that was backed up against the wilderness.
KP: It was in a brand new development.
WHEATON: Exactly. And this is out in the neighborhoods where those are shot, because the thing you never see about Los Angeles-set things is they try to stay away from the whole movie of it all. But if you live here, all the time you pass like the caterpillar jungle gym from E.T. at the playground and you’re like look, that was in E.T. You pass along Hollywood Blvd. and you’re like oh my God, Harrison Ford was standing right here in Hollywood Homicide! Holy shit. Or, not.
KP: So every day is like the Universal back lot tour?
WHEATON: Yeah, because you’re on Melrose going to the comic shop and you pass the record store that was in The Hidden. You go down by Sony you pass Flynn’s that was in Tron. If you know what you’re looking for, you’re always seeing something that you’re like oh, I’ve been here before. Oh wait; no I haven’t. That was in Battle for the Planet of the Apes.
KP: Does it make the artificialness of the movies more real or does it make the reality of L.A. and Hollywood more artificial?
WHEATON: The second one. Definitely. It just makes you second guess - just because you’ve seen this in a movie, just because the guy walking towards you looks familiar, don’t say hi to him. That’s Ice T and you don’t actually know him, you just owned the Body Count album when you were in junior high. It’s weird when you see somebody you recognize and you’re like, “Hey!” And it’s Mindy Kaling from The Office.
KP: So would you describe the sort of tone of the book as horror? X-Files? Supernatural? Humor? Ghostbusters?
WHEATON: It’s more of a crime book because it’s a procedural, but one where the crime scene has already been released by the police and there is supposed to be no evidence left to collect. CSI types, forensics, all that is done. In the short story that’s on the MySpace/Dark Horse Presents page - The Body Colony - it’s released to the manager of the Rite Aid where an attack has taken place. In Absent Bodies, it’s released to the four homeowners whose houses on the back fence have blood on them. So once it’s released, the families have to hire somebody to clean it up. That’s where this former surgeon - Robert Bellarmine - and his team come in. He tries to figure out why the police weren’t able to close the case. Los Angeles has become an even more unpoliceable megalopolis over the past few years. The crime rate is ridiculous. And as you know, if you don’t solve a crime within 48 hours you’re over. So by the time an unsolved case hits our titular trauma scene cleaners, it’s pretty assured that the cops are not going to be solving this one.
KP: So it’s Quincy.
WHEATON: Sadly, Quincy is way before my time, but it’s always sounded like it’d be right up my alley. For us, it’s just a nasty little crime story where they try to prove over and over that the supernatural doesn’t exist. If somebody’s like oh it must be a werewolf. Like no, no it’s not, it’s this instead. This is what a werewolf is. Supernatural is not as far-off as you think, because it’s easy to write things off. You say, “Oh it’s a werewolf, we’ll never catch a werewolf, who believes in werewolves?” But Robert’s team feels that if there is something that might be a werewolf, whether or not they can prove it, they should try to stop it on its own terms rather than approach it like a more typical serial murderer.
KP: So it’s sort of a procedural Kolchak? Or how about a blue collar X-Files?
WHEATON: If there was a TV show that the lead would be like, Robert would be the guy on Hawaii Five-O. He’s somewhat humorless, but he tries really hard. He hasn’t realized yet that he’s out of his goddamn mind.
KP: So who is the Chin Ho of the group?
WHEATON: There’s this elderly guy, Harlan, who was a crime scene photographer for the LAPD who might fit the bill - or Knut, their lab tech, who is off on his own planet as well. The people who are drawn to this job often are a little nuts. Yeah they’re looking for money, but to not just work for a trauma scene cleaning outfit and take their check and go home, they also have to gravitate towards the bad, more unsolvable type scenes, too. At the opening of Absent Bodies, they’re at a hotel - the Standard Downtown - doing the job that makes them money, but then they discover a case related to what might be supernatural and they push everything aside to stay on that one. So, there’s something driving them. If they’re gonna be on Robert’s team, they’re gonna be a little off the grid. And you learn in the first arc that there are problems with all of them. That they’re all just fucked in the head.
KP: So basically it’s Sneakers.
WHEATON: It’s Sneakers if Sneakers was depressing and sad. (laughs)
KP: Well River Phoenix is dead.
WHEATON: It’s true. See that’s the thing; even though it wasn’t in a movie, every time you pass the Viper Room and you see that little phone booth, you’re like, oh yeah, that’s where they say Christina Applegate was doing an impression of the death of River Phoenix. If you live around Sunset and Hollywood, your life is Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon.
KP: That’s a way to spend a day.
WHEATON: But it is weird; every time you pass the Viper Room you’re like, oh yeah.
KP: So it’s a profound and deep history, but so much of it is artificial feeling and strangely tacky.
WHEATON: And pop. As much as River Phoenix is revered as an actor and was very talented, it’s not the same as the motel in Memphis where Dr. King was shot. It’s like when you do drive down Wilshire and you pass where they are just destroying the Ambassador, there’s a part of you that’s like, “Oh yeah RFK was shot in the kitchen there,” but then you’re down another block and you’re like, “Oh yeah, that’s where Hugh Grant got a blow job.”
KP: So you’re living a pop culture anecdote.
WHEATON: Yes. You pass Boardner’s where they’re all reading the reviews in the opening of Ed Wood. And that aspect of Los Angeles is one I really wanted to get across in Cleaners.
KP: When you’re talking L.A. crime fiction, how would you compare it to classic L.A. crime fiction of the 40s?
WHEATON: I grew up on that stuff. I grew up reading west coast crime bits, both San Francisco and L.A. Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett stuff, but also more modern, into the 50s and 60s. Like Jim Thompson’s first book ever - Now and On Earth - which isn’t really a crime story, it’s just a troubling story about his time working and struggling in the factories here, but it is a Los Angeles book in his style. Ross MacDonald’s Lou Archer stories are here. And Charles Willeford. Again it’s more San Francisco, but Charles Willeford wrote about California crime. Probably more than anything, Cleaners tries to feel like Edward Bunker, because Bunker wrote out here but because of the people who took care of him, it overlaps with Hollywood. If you read his autobiography that he dedicated to his son, it talks about the kind of people he knew. There was a woman - Louisa Wallis - wife of producer Hal Wallis who took care of Bunker when he was a juvenile delinquent and when he went to jail was instrumental in helping him get his novels done. And when you read No Beast So Fierce, it’s all L.A. It’s all just like weird L.A. locations and shit. And I think more than anything, though there is a back drop with like the Chandler, I really feel that Cleaners is not meant to feel an influence from television and film, but hopefully coming out of Ross MacDonald and Edward Bunker. I’m not claiming something so presumptuous as to say it’s anything on that level quality-wise, but the ultimate goal is to do something that’s as realistic and evocative as some of the great crime fiction that was written about Los Angeles. Even today with Walter Mosley. I just got the new Socrates Fortlow, The Right Mistake yesterday at Barnes & Noble. Walter Mosley is another great Southern California crime writer. I just want Cleaners to have a place in that more than against the X-Files.
KP: When you talk about melding that with the supernatural and bizarre elements, what is the inspiration for those? What well do you draw from?
WHEATON: My mom used to teach Ray Bradbury in school in Dallas. She taught Something Wicked This Way Comes and Martian Chronicles, and I got into the short stories of Bradbury and the short stories of Richard Matheson when I was very young. I’ve always liked that style of Americana what-if, particularly with Bradbury. Similarly, I’ve always liked that approach to the supernatural, and those guys were writing in Southern California as well, and it’s taking that almost sunny approach to just a supernatural thing happening in the middle of a cornfield, that “everyday supernatural” that Ray Bradbury did.
KP: You mean that horror in the light of day?
WHEATON: Yeah. Bradbury really captured that a great deal in Something Wicked where you just have this ordinary town and, you know, Mr. Dark’s Carnival descends and just bad things happen in what’s essentially a Horton Foote play. I’ve always really liked the idea of approaching a story. This is a bad example but when you watch an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you are looking at a heightened world. Sunnydale is a heightened universe from the second you walk in. But something like the book Something Wicked, it starts as such a peaceful little community. It’s like Stephen King’s It. You have such a normal everyday thing, and then something insidious is visited upon it. I like that better than an X-Files where there’s so much happening in the world. I like the idea that the supernatural or the possible supernatural’s the exception, not the rule.
KP: When you look at your approach to comic writing, this is the first book you’ve done, correct?
WHEATON: Yeah I wrote a short story meant to be published in the second book of Jason Rodriguez’ book Postcards, but I think that might be on hold for a bit. That was the first thing I ever wrote. It’s like a little 12 page short story. But this is my first non short story certainly.
KP: How would you compare then structuring a story and the developing characters compared to screenplay form for a film?
WHEATON: It’s interesting because it’s all about pacing. You have to lock each image in time and that’s not so easy. You can be so uneconomical in screenplays because you can rely on actors; you can rely on a lot of things to trick the audience in regards to pacing and setting. Like on stage you take a ladder, you staple gun a leaf to it. The audience buys that it’s a tree. In film, you’re in a location. Before a word is even spoken by a character; before anyone walks in front of the camera, the audience - from the frame of reference they’re bringing into it - says, “A-ha; you’re in Moscow.” But with comics, you’ve got none of that. You remember those old books that were done where it’s frames of Frankenstein or frames of like a Marx Brothers movie or Ninotchka where it’s four thousand frames of something with the dialogue written under it? It’s like that, where you choose the most evocative image of a moving story and freeze frame the action, even though the reader and you both know that there is movement going on. Also, unlike screenwriting where the different voices of the actor are a cheat to make the voices different in the audience’s head, you’re now writing for something to be read. So you can’t write for the spoken word like you do in a script. You have to differentiate voice in a different way.
KP: What did you find to be the biggest challenge?
WHEATON: First; pacing. How to give enough visual information to make somebody really feel the geography of a setting. After that, it became pretty easy; it’s just about then looking at the art and saying, “Oh, that came across, that didn’t come across.” That thing that I thought would work for a reader doesn’t work in the slightest.
KP: What’s your collaboration with the artist been like so far?
WHEATON: I really like working with Rahsan because he’s here. We can have a really very easy shorthand about Southern California. He lives and breathes So Cal. He lives in Glendale. When we talk about Sun Valley, he knows exactly what’s being referred to. He’s been everywhere that is referenced in the books, and I’d imagine that that is why the book looks like Los Angeles. The standard downtown looks like the standard downtown. Sun Valley, you don’t suddenly have Kilimanjaro in the background.
KP: There’s your supernatural element.
WHEATON: Yeah. Well, there are a lot of books that feel like they’re in anytown USA.
KP: Right. They’re in Generitown.
WHEATON: Right. But having an L.A. based artist do an L.A. based book that wants to feel a real sense of its own geography I think adds tons. More than that, he’s got this great clash of styles - a real moving form for the natural world, the curved lines of nature. But then when it’s something constructed, it’s rigid, humanity-enforced architecture. The humans are then stuck in the middle - half-geometric, half-societal. It’s a terrific style.
KP: This is his first book as well, right?
WHEATON: Oh no. Rahsan has done work on Warhammer for Boom quite extensively before this. That said, I think I can characterize this as a jump up for both of us, trying to get on a Dark Horse book like this. I think that just means we both have a lot to prove and we really wanna kick ass here. That said, his learning curve is a lot less than mine. He figured out Cleaners, the look, how it was gonna be, all of that, a long time before I did, so I’ve been playing catch up with him throughout issues 2, 3 and 4, and then into the short story. The only thing that we didn’t have space for in the Body Colony short story that I would have liked was to establish the Rite Aid in Echo Park next to Dodger Stadium. I would have liked to show that, but there’s the need for economy. But it would have been fun to have one more big panel to show that this is Los Angeles, not just a Rite Aid.
KP: When you talk about the transition, you are a screenwriter.
WHEATON: What are you talking about? I write chick lit.
KP: And a rather successful one financially. What is your view on the accusations of screenwriters essentially carpet bagging into comic books?
WHEATON: I don’t think it’s unfounded in the slightest. I think it would have been a lot harder for me to get into comics if I wasn’t a screenwriter. The worst is when you hear of comic companies that won’t make a comic unless they can sell it in the licensed property, sell it as a TV series, set it up as a movie, but that’s the reality of the business at this point. I’m sure it’s not everybody. I mean fuck, I was reading the new Unknown Soldier that the author went to Uganda to research. And it’s amazing. It’s brilliant. But then on the flip side, you read a ton of comics that feel like a bunch of storyboards, and it’s something that was obviously made for film or television. But then, it does work, so why not? 30 Days of Night was a screenplay before it was a comic in the same way that 25th Hour was a screenplay before it was a novel. That said, if there are a bunch of crappy comics out there that look like storyboards and only go four issues and are really awful, they’re not going to get bought, so the market will correct itself. And if it doesn’t remain financially viable for a screenwriter to move a project along in comics, then they’ll get out of it. The one thing I can say in my defense is I’ve been a comics fan since I was in elementary school and I never thought in a million years I’d be allowed to write one. I think part of the reason I work so hard on it is because I don’t want it to be something that you read and say, “Oh, this is just a screenwriter,” though you might anyway. Like with the chick lit book I wrote - it’s one of the reasons I spent so much time working on that, to make it a viable entry into women’s fiction. Not something that feels like a copy.
KP: So you come at it from a point of respect for the medium you’re going into, not just for a quick buck.
WHEATON: I’d like to convince myself of that, yeah. Because the economy being what it is I don’t know how much of a quick buck Cleaners is gonna make, but all I hope is that it makes enough that we do the next arc.
KP: So you’re in it for the long term.
WHEATON: If possible I would like to do Cleaners for years to come, but I would like to do it the same way as the first arc - four issue miniseries where each one is based around a single crime. One of the reasons I was very interested in working with Dark Horse was because what Steve Niles has done with Cal MacDonald, taking it into short fiction and novels much the way Hellboy has been taken into short stories and novels. More than I see a TV or film outlet for Cleaners, I see a crime novel outlet for Cleaners. If Cleaners moved out of comics, I would hope to move it into prose, not so much features and television.
KP: How far out do you have things planned?
WHEATON: I know what the last two arcs are, and I know what the next two arcs would be, and then there’s a lot of arcs in between. It’s not like a series where you’re making it up as you go along; I know what the end is on this one. When I pitched the beginning of this series to Dark Horse, I also pitched the end and they were pretty excited about it.
KP: So Cleaners is not an open ended story.
WHEATON: Cleaners has an ending. There is an ending to Cleaners. The first four issues are not an origin story of the team, but you hint at where they came from, particularly Robert. And if there is interest in continuing the series, it will just further evolve all those characters and further evolve Los Angeles and further evolve the world that they’re in. That said, getting there could go on forever, theoretically.
KP: But you have an endgame in mind.
WHEATON: I have an endgame.
WHEATON: I really, really love not only working with them, but what Dark Horse has always meant to me. Dark Horse, as a publisher, taught me that comics weren’t just super heroes. When I was in elementary school I was into X-Men and X Factor, Secret Wars 2, all that sort of stuff. When I got to high school…
KP: Really Secret Wars 2?
WHEATON: Are you kidding me?
KP: Not the first Secret Wars? You went straight for 2?
WHEATON: I was too little for Secret Wars. Secret Wars 2 was when I was a kid. I had a thing for crossovers. Inferno was another great one, but it started with Secret Wars 2.
KP: The jump-suited Beyonder and his wonder perm?
WHEATON: Beyonder was like Steve Perry of Journey fighting the Marvel universe. You have to admit, the Beyonder is fuckin’ cool.
KP: But the perm.
WHEATON: How many Marvel characters had perms? Seriously? Tony fucking Stark.
KP: And if I remember correctly, didn’t he show up on earth first in L.A.?
WHEATON: I believe so. At least in Secret Wars 2.
KP: Isn’t that why he chose the jumpsuit and the perm? I am the Beyonder! I’m Steve Perry of Journey! (laughs) I should be more like you! Don’t stop believing! All right! They’ve been duly noted, human!
WHEATON: (laughs) Yeah but I was a Marvel kid. I wasn’t into Captain America and the Avengers, but I was certainly into mutants.
KP: Really? Who’d you identify with? Who is your token mutant?
WHEATON: Honestly? On the playground. When I was in elementary school…
KP: You were Dazzler, weren’t you?
WHEATON: Definitely, I was Dazzler. Nah, every kid on the playground was either Batman or Superman. I was Wolverine, and I have to say no one knew who Wolverine was. All these kids were all like Batman, Superman, and occasionally Battlestar Galactica characters. Nobody had any frame of reference for Wolverine. Although you know, snickety snickt, giant claws, adamantium.
KP: You were the little kid in the corner going snikt-snikt.
WHEATON: Yeah I was, it began my long descent to where I am now. (laughs) Being the idiot who liked Wolverine means that…
KP: The adamantium bones.
WHEATON: (laughs) Yeah.
KP: I can’t fly, but I have a healing factor. You can’t hurt me.
WHEATON: I know. Well we also tried to play Battle of the Planets so I guess that wasn’t too bad. It was like Battle of the Planets and I was like Wolverine.
KP: No Voltron?
WHEATON: No, Voltron was a little past my time.
KP: What do you mean a little past your time?
WHEATON: I didn’t watch Voltron. By then I had graduated to Duck Tales thank you very much. (laughs)
KP: At which point you latched onto Webby.
WHEATON: Hey. Duck Tales was the shit.
KP: Did you watch Gummy Bears prior to that?
WHEATON: No I did not. I watched Duck Tales. I didn’t watch Rescue Rangers, because I thought it sucked. I kind of watched Tale Spin. I was a hopeless, hopeless nerd as a little kid.
KP: GI Joe or Transformers?
WHEATON: I watched Transformers. Didn’t watch GI Joe really, but read both the Marvel comics of Transformers and GI Joe religiously. I probably still have issues 1 through 50 of Transformers and 1 through maybe 114 of GI Joe.
KP: Well GI Joe is epic.
WHEATON: GI Joe gets epic. Once you get to about issue 30…
KP: Well once Springfield really plants itself in the mythos, and you have all the politicking and Cobra Commander’s son coming in and being a force.
WHEATON: And you start getting into the relationship between Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes. Zartan comes along, when the in-fighting happens between Destro and the Baroness, eventually Serpentor around what, issue 48, 49 or whatever that was. The whole like Invasion of the Body Snatchers Crimson Guard stuff, Bongo the balloon bear.
KP: Was it Fred?
WHEATON: Fred. Yeah, the Crimson Guards. Like all that weird shit from issue 33 through issue 52. The golden age of Marvel GI Joe comics. Holy shit. The best. Oh wait your question was about Dark Horse.
KP: Oh no, my question’s about everything.
WHEATON: Eventually when I was a freshman in high school and I went to the comic shop again across from Klein High School. I started reading all the Aliens series - Earth War, etc., then Aliens vs. Predator, which I thought were the greatest fucking comics. They weren’t slapstick. Those Alien comics took the mythology seriously, and they were great.
KP: They weren’t slapstick until Aliens meet Abbott & Costello.
WHEATON: That just wouldn’t work. Because there’s no motive behind the Aliens, and I think that Abbott & Costello would have had a problem with that.
KP: There’s more motive if it’s the Predator hunting Abbott & Costello.
WHEATON: Abbott & Costello meets the Predator would be great. It’d be very short.
KP: I see green blood!
WHEATON: Yeah, they wouldn’t last.
KP: I don’t know. I think Lou would take ‘em out. He’d get Bud, but I think Lou would still be triumphant. This is for Bud!
WHEATON: “When there’s the full moon I turn into a wolf.” “Yeah, you and five million other guys!”
KP: “For you, Abbott!” What, you can’t see Lou Costello slathered in mud?
WHEATON: The image just popped into my head so I guess I can.
KP: “You’ve been a bad boy. Now you boy.”
WHEATON: “B-b-bud! Get to the chopper!” The Predator 2 scenario would be better with Bud & Lou. I can see Bud Abbott standing in the Predator ship at the end looking around all shocked instead of Danny Glover. That could be Bud Abbott. Because he goes the whole movie not believing, not believing, not believing, and then at the end, you know… it all comes around for him.
KP: Suddenly Richard Dreyfuss comes out from the bathroom. I think we’re just mixing and matching things now.
WHEATON: It’d still be great.
KP: Honestly isn’t this what Dark Horse used to be about? Dark Horse was built on licensed properties and crossovers.
WHEATON: Right, but then those licensed properties had ads for like Hard Boiled. And then you had Dark Horse Presents, and when you buy a copy of Dark Horse Presents for an Alien short story, and there’s Concrete.
KP: I will give all due props to the house that Mike Richardson built.
WHEATON: Dark Horse rocks.
KP: There was no other place you could go? Or wanted to go would you say?
WHEATON: Well, if you can have a shot at Dark Horse with that legacy where you’re at Meltdown on Sunset where they divide it by presses - by publishing houses - your book is going to be next to Hellboy, The Goon and BPRD. You can’t really ask for anything more than that.
KP: Just touching briefly on subjects outside Cleaners, and something current and relevant in the screenwriting world, it’s my understanding that you were at one time attached to the Platinum Dunes/Michael Bay Friday the 13th.
WHEATON: I wrote a draft for New Line and when Michael Bay got attached to produce, I started over and wrote a draft for them as well.
KP: Is it a reimagining, a remake, a sequel? What exactly is going on with it? What was it when you were attached?
WHEATON: When I was attached I had pitched it as a non-supernatural, new Part V. It took pieces of the existing mythology from the first four films, but it wasn’t a remake. If you remember, in Part V, Jason’s not the killer - it’s Roy the paramedic, who turns out to be avenging the death of his son. Part VI then begins as Corey Feldman watches Jason’s brought back to life with a lightning bolt, and from then on Jason is supernatural. And of course, the franchise gets to space, gets these demon worms, etc. The series became something other than what I think people really liked in 2, 3 and 4; the Steve Miner and Joe Zito years. My pitch was all about that.
KP: Just as a quick aside, I loved the idea of Corey Feldman as the universal observer of cult fiction, sort of like Forrest Gump.
WHEATON: He watches the C.H.U.D.s rise. It’s like, “Look, it’s the C.H.U.D.s!”
KP: Yes. He’s off on a backpacking tour in the jungle as Schwarzenegger runs by chased by a Predator.
WHEATON: Hell, he is in The ‘Burbs after all.
KP: He is in The ‘Burbs. I honestly think he is the Forrest Gump of genre filmmaking.
WHEATON: He is. But he should have been in Fright Night. He should have been in Monster Squad. He should have been in Alone in the Dark.
KP: If you’re gonna have just one Corey…
WHEATON: You can’t quarry more Coreys.
KP: I’m so glad that that line is in the interview.
WHEATON: I’m not. Thank God I get to edit it, right?
KP: Well see. I still have the tape. I can put shit back in. You, I’m assuming, were an aficionado of the Friday the 13th series.
WHEATON: Oh yeah.
KP: What was your opinion of what Platinum Dunes wanted to do with the franchise? Were you on board with it? Were you concerned?
WHEATON: Frankly, I loved what they did with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but for the record I probably shouldn’t talk about the movie they made as I’m sure they have their marketing in place and I don’t want to interfere with how they’re positioning the film. They let me write two drafts of what I wanted to do with the franchise, and that’s all I could ask for. They were great to work with, very encouraging. I introduced them to fansites like Bloody-Disgusting and Dread Central, etc. It was a great time. We got Jonathan Liebesman on as the director at one point who was a very good friend of mine and who I just ran into a couple of weeks ago where we talked about what the movie might look like. I actually had a fantastic working experience.
KP: So what is your take on the resuscitation of those classic 80s horror franchises? Positive, negative, concerned?
WHEATON: It’s funny that we mention Abbott & Costello because you talk about the Glenn Strange Frankenstein. There were so many different Draculas, so many different Frankensteins. For better or worse, I mean. I don’t think Lugosi was the greatest Frankenstein but he was an interesting Frankenstein. But then you have John Carradine in House of Frankenstein. For me, I’m not a fan of the John Carradine Dracula. But I’m glad that they kept going. I’m glad because then you get Abbott & Costello meet Frankenstein with Glenn Strange as the monster who is an utterly fun Frankenstein. It’s the makeup, it’s the image, not just the story.
KP: Then would you say the same thing about other horror franchises? You know when you look at Halloween and…
WHEATON: Yeah, why not?
KP: Nightmare on Elm Street?
WHEATON: Elm Street never really did anything for me, but they went through different incarnations of Freddy. I mean look at Nightmare on Elm Street 2, the Jack Sholder one; the mythology in Nightmare 2 is different than the mythology of Dream Warriors which is different to the mythology of Freddy’s Dead and the mythology of New Nightmare. I mean they do change the mythology in there.
KP: And your take on Freddy vs. Jason?
WHEATON: Again, it’s a re-invention. Jason’s weakness is water, Freddy can haunt his dreams. It’s the same masks and make-up, just a different take on the mythology.
KP: When you’re talking about Dark Horse, they were the ones who first put that sort of genre clash of these cinematic cult icons.
WHEATON: Robocop vs. the Terminator.
KP: And that obviously was the inspiration for every something vs. something that’s tried to make it to screen in recent times.
WHEATON: But before that was Spider-Man vs. Superman. That was years before the Dark Horse Aliens vs. Predator.
KP: Yeah but then you’re talking superheroes. I’m talking about cinematic cult figures. You can say that Superman and Spider Man are iconic figures.
KP: But I’m sure Arnold Schwarzenegger at the time would not have said that Predator was about the Predator.
WHEATON: This is true. You’re right. Freddy vs. Jason is similar to Bride of Chucky. You have a franchise behind you and you’re looking to re-start it, so it’s self-referential, it’s re-invented. There were a lot of different twists and turns that the Jason mythology took throughout 8, 9 and 10 and I think that reinvention continued with Freddy vs. Jason.
KP: Reinvention or wandering in the desert?
WHEATON: Reinvention is good.
KP: I guess another genre thing that your involved with is Fangland.
WHEATON: Yeah it’s a book by Jeff Marks, a former 60 Minutes producer.
KP: What is the basic premise of Fangland?
WHEATON: Fangland is a modern day retelling of Dracula, but whereas a lot of the films of Dracula have focused on Dracula as lBela Lugosi, sexy beast that he is, the actual Stoker Dracula…
KP: I just had a vision of Terrance Stamp.
WHEATON: Terrance Stamp?
KP: Not Terrance Stamp. Ben Kingsley.
WHEATON: Sorry, Sir Ben Kingsley.
KP: Yes. Make sure you append the Sir.
WHEATON: I know I’m dead meat.
KP: Can you see him playing Dracula?
WHEATON: I think he’d make a great stage Dracula. Like if they ever brought back the like…
KP: When was the last stage production of Dracula?
WHEATON: There was the one Edward Gorey did the production design for in the seventies.
WHEATON: Yeah, it had Frank Langella as the Count on Broadway and later became John Badham’s follow-up to Saturday Night Fever. But then there was a ballet; I think the Winnipeg Ballet did a Dracula and that’s what Guy Maddin did as a movie, DraculWHEATON: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary. So there was a recent Dracula ballet.
KP: But not Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Dracula.
WHEATON: The Phantom certainly comes close. Yeah, there hasn’t been a straight Dracula revival. In regards to Fangland, the Stoker book takes on a lot of the ideas of, “We’re in England, everything’s safe. All that stuff is superstition.” And then Dracula shows up on their door, not on the frontier but in the oh-so-technologically-modern London. Fangland that idea that few really believe in the supernatural anymore. We’re in the modern day. Who could believe this? It then tells the Dracula story on the backdrop of that. I think Variety called it Dracula meets Network. Without giving anything away, I think that’s fairly accurate.
KP: So what is the status of that project?
WHEATON: I turned in a draft a couple weeks ago. The strike put it on hold for a bit, but everybody got back together this year. I’ve been running notes and turned in a draft to Das Films and Hillary Swank’s people a couple weeks ago.
KP: So Hillary Swank’s attached?
WHEATON: To produce and star, yeah. I think the actual press release said something like as a “producer with an eye toward starring.” So you should go with that.
KP: I know that just based on your IMDB listing you’re certainly not limited to what some would call genre pics.
WHEATON: I like to type.
KP: It’s gonna be on your tombstone.
WHEATON: “At one point, this man liked to type.”
KP: Let’s do a rundown of the projects that I’m assuming you have in play.
WHEATON: If I say, “oh goodie” does that come out right on paper?
KP: Only if the transcriptionist actually puts the “does that come out on paper if I say oh goodie?”
WHEATON: So it is written, so it shall be done. Because you know I’m gonna have to ask for all the Friday the 13th stuff to be deleted.
KP: Too late now. So let’s go down one by one. Are you ready for this?
KP: Cape Town.
WHEATON: Can’t actually talk about it. Just started. But as the title suggests, I’m doing my third Africa-set script.
KP: What is it?
WHEATON: The title is Cape Town so it must refer to South Africa. That is all I can say.
KP: Then we’ll go on to Chosen Few.
WHEATON: Chosen Few’s a project I did for 2929. Turned it in right before the strike. Rewrote on it this year. It’s about Task Force Faith and the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir - one of the worst battles of the Korean War. It’s a big epic war picture. I actually like writing those. When I did Son of the Morning Star - a Custer/Crazy Horse thing - it really got me into doing big epic material. This past summer, I got to do another huge epic thing with a French filmmaker, and it was the same kind of fun - mountains of research. For Chosen, I have books on Korea rising to the ceiling. It’s really fun to work on that type of material.
KP: Unfinished Country.
WHEATON: Might still get made. I wrote that thing back in 2003, so a lot has changed in South Africa since then.
KP: What is that in the chronology - what was the first script you wrote? You came to L.A. in what, 2000?
WHEATON: Something like that. The first script I ever wrote that got out there was Striking at Kings which was being optioned by Showtime. It had been a stage play I wrote in college and adapted to screen all about the war between Edward R. Murrow and Joseph McCarthy. We got killed by Good Night, and Good Luck, but Zide/Perry, the producers behind American Pie and Final Destination were producing and we got close a couple of times. Off of that I met Blue Star Pictures who I eventually did The Messengers with, after I wrote - on spec - Unfinished Country, which then got set up at Miramax. Miramax sent me to Johannesburg to research it further at the hospital in it, Baragwanath where most of the action takes place. At last blush, it’s not being financed by Inferno. When that was announced in the trades, they announced Samuel L. Jackson in one of the leads and now, on Inferno’s site, they show that Jim Sturgess is now attached as the second lead.
KP: Okay so tell me about Chinese Wall.
WHEATON: Legal thriller. Takes place in Washington DC and Nigeria. That’s being done with producers I actually really love - Rainmaker Films, based out of London. Clark Johnson, who directed S.W.A.T. and The Sentinel as well as pilots and multiple episodes of The Shield and The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Street among many other things is directing. When he got attached, we went to London and worked on it with the producers, which was fun and I think that one might actually get made. By day, we’d work and work and by night, I’d run off to see Frost/Nixon or We Will Rock You: The Queen Musical. Because of the people involved, that’s been really fun to work on.
KP: I see something listed as the Untitled Harlem Project. Anything you can say about that?
WHEATON: No and it’s probably dead, but never say never. Suffice it to say, I loved working with State Street as it was to be directed by George Tillman, but it’s been awhile on that one. That said, I just got off the phone with George’s producing partner and we may work on something else that we’re interested in. Though I can’t really talk about the Harlem Project, I’m really proud of what we managed to come up with on the page.
KP: Personally I must say that I can’t wait to see a project that I’ve held near and dear for quite a while, just because of the title and the script - Night of the Scorpions.
WHEATON: Okay, you’ll laugh, but Night of the Scorpions has done well for me. That thing is always optioned somewhere. Somebody is always picking up Night of the Scorpions. It’s had multiple directors, it’s gone through over a dozen producers, it’s had talent attached, it’s had locations scouted, it’s been discussed as theatrical, straight-to-video, television and even as a four-hour miniseries. It’s been optioned so many times and I wrote that thing in 48 hours. I hope it gets made one day. I love Night of the Scorpions.
KP: What do you really feel about it?
WHEATON: Night of the Scorpions is the only good thing I’ll ever write.
KP: What about Day of the Grubs?
WHEATON: You joke, but Shaun Hutson, the great British gory horror novelist, wrote these amazingly grotesque Slugs novels. They are some of the best killer insect things you will ever read. Shaun Hutson. He’s amazing. He would write the greatest Day of the Grubs you’d ever seen. Kind of already did.
KP: Yeah but I wanna see Mark Wheaton’s Day of the Grubs.
WHEATON: No one wants to see Mark Wheaton’s anything.
KP: I would not say that. What about March of the Millipedes?
WHEATON: Too military.
KP: What about Scent of a Centipede.
WHEATON: It’s a video game property, right?
KP: Speaking of video games, what’s this announcement that came down about you working on a video game?
WHEATON: I can’t really talk about it, but yeah. I worked at Vivendi Games on a couple of games before Vivendi and Activision merged and destroyed that.
KP: So it’s no longer a going concern?
WHEATON: Probably not, no. You can never say never, because I’ve been shocked when things come back around, and I have to say writing video games, just like writing comics, is an education. You learn so much about writing action and just communicating information very quickly and economically to your audience in video games. I had a grand time working with those guys.
KP: You’d do it again?
WHEATON: In a heartbeat.
KP: So you have the choice of all the projects you have currently in play, and some that are no longer in play. If you had the choice, besides Night of the Scorpions, you could pull the trigger on one and get it made instantly which would it be?
WHEATON: You think this would be tough, and I’ll pretend that it’s tough just so that no one gets their feelings hurt.
KP: Hold on; put a little more filler in. We’ll pretend a little bit longer.
WHEATON: Hesitating, hesitating, hesitating… but it’s because it’s what’s new. The French project I worked on this summer.
KP: You mentioned a couple of times but no real context for it. Would you like to talk about the chick lit?
WHEATON: Not really. Suffice it to say I wanted to prove that I could write 125,000 word first-person chick lit novel, and I did, and you’ll never hear my name associated with it again because I’m hoping to publish it under a fake name.
KP: Done and done.
WHEATON: There you have it sports fans!
KP: Now we’ll do something you haven’t written. If there’s any one project you would love to take a crack at, what would it be? Doesn’t have to be an existing property either. Let’s say there’s a story that you always wanted to tell. Although maybe you don’t want to mention that.
WHEATON: I don’t mind because they’re all long shots. I’ve always wanted to re-adapt Alan Sillitoe’s Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. I’ve always wanted to do a big epic project about the different phases in the life of Mao, similar to Downfall. Actually came close to doing that a couple of times here and there.
KP: Ending with Apocalypse Mao.
WHEATON: Heh - yep. The good thing is, the research helped inform Chosen, so it’s never wasted. I’ve always really wanted to do something about Houston and where I grew up there. Always wanted to write a very small story about life in Indiana, because I went to grad school there.
KP: Has your perspective on Houston changed any post witnessing what happened with the hurricane?
WHEATON: It’s weird to say this as a bleeding heart liberal, but Republican Bill White, the mayor of Houston, not only did kick ass things during Katrina that he knew might have an adverse, long-term effect on the city, he has also shown real leadership during Ike. Last summer, I drove out to Louisiana to take a look and spend some time down there and I just got back from Houston a couple of weeks ago. Even though it’s not the same as you didn’t have the same levels of flooding or loss of life, there was still real devastation. It’s odd seeing the paired destruction of places I used to hang out, in Louisiana and Mississippi, but also in Galveston. It’s shocking. Places you knew, places you will never return to because they don’t exist anymore. It’s weird and alien. New Orleans can never again be the New Orleans that sold a 17-year-old me cheap liquor off Canal Street.
KP: So if there’s one project you could point to that’s probably closest to your beliefs and how you grew up and exemplifies, someone would go that’s truly a Mark Wheaton project, which one do you think it would be?
WHEATON: When I was in college, I wrote a series of plays called Life in the Floodplains about Houston. It sounds really crass, which is probably half the reason I’m a screenwriter, but whenever I’d need money to get by, I’d submit them to like collegiate playwriting contests, and take the money I’d make from winning and then write a third or fourth Floodplains play. There was Floodplains, Big Time & Elmer, White Girl, and The Shirkworkers. It all came from stuff I picked up working in factories during the summers. I work a twelve-hour shift, listen to what other people said and come home to write it down. So, that’s straight from my experience. But then, even in stuff like Messengers, you get a lot of crows. I’m a bird watcher, so that’s personal in a way. My chick-lit novel takes place during a writing fellowship outside of Paris, which is something I did last year, so it’s close to my experience in a way.
WHEATON: And Cleaners. Because, that’s what this interview is about and because I drive around picking up corpses.
KP: I want that so to be in there. And then, “And Cleaners.”
WHEATON: You know what the best thing about writing comics is? When they call you and say, “Hey, we need to come up with what we’re gonna call the letters page.” And you’re like, oh, too bad, Tomb of Dracula already used Tomes to the Tomb. But yeah, Cleaners - at its heart - is oddly religious and by the time issues three and four roll around, hopefully you can see that in the comic, which is “me” in a way. If I’m lucky enough to get my second comic off the ground, called Chavez Ravine which I’m doing with an artist named Tony Fleecs, it’s even more religious, so it’s even closer to me in a way.
KP: So almost a decade in, do you view yourself as a Los Angeleno, or still a transplant from Texas?
WHEATON: It depends on the day. To be honest I don’t consider myself as much a Los Angeleno as I consider myself a Laurel Canyonite, because Laurel Canyon, where I live, is all trees and canyons and birds, which is like Texas. You can look out and be like, “Oh I’m in the Travis County - hill country.” And so it’s like bringing like a little part of outdoor living in Texas. The hills are not what people typically think of Los Angeles. They think of Training Day. But I don’t know. I’m a resident of Laurel Canyon. I live near Harry Houdini’s old house and where the Doors used to crash.
KP: So do you still have a bemused attachment driving through downtown or on the Strip?
WHEATON: Um… yes, but when I go back to Texas, I don’t feel connected there as much as I once did either. When I’m in downtown Houston by the art museums and all the weird places I used to hang out, it feels like a memory. And when I’m in Los Angeles, it certainly feels like home; it’s where I go, it’s my grocery store and my barber and all of that, but it’s still fantasyland in its own weird way. Los Angeles is still such a strange, strange place that it’s really hard to pin down the nature of the city. You have to pick apart and then say okay, I understand the nature of Laurel Canyon, and I’m trying to figure that out, and once I get that maybe I’ll branch out into Hollywood or Los Feliz or Silverlake.
KP: So it’s just a sweaty, steamy, sometimes scuzzy Disneyland?
WHEATON: Yeah, but that still doesn’t get across the magic hour feel to everything. When you’re this sun-drenched, it’s just a little strange. It’s strange to live in a place without seasons.
KP: So it’s like the sun sickness you’ll get in the northern reaches during those never ending days up north?
WHEATON: It’s not that. It’s just that when somebody calls you from London and it’s pissin’ rain and they’re just like, “God I wish I was there in sunny Southern California.” You talk to somebody in New York, where it’s like, “Oh my God, it’s cold and snowing - I wish I was in Southern California. Ha ha.” And you’re like, yeah, it’s great! Yeah, it’s great. Everybody smile. Fool the world.
KP: So you feel you’ve come from central casting, and you’ve got a role to play in the back lot of L.A.?
WHEATON: I play the guy who’s conned everybody into thinking I’m a writer, and so they pay me to write. When they figure it out, they’ll chase me out of town.
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