By Antony Teofilo
"Abandon hope all ye who enter here."
So reads the welcome mat to Hell in the Dante's* DIVINE COMEDY. Can there be hope in Hades? Maybe not. However, if a steady diet of trite, formulaic, Summer popcorn flicks is your idea of four months of Gahanna on earth, there may be a small, albeit searing, light peeping through the Dark Wood of your local cineplex.
On July 12, Dreamworks' ROAD TO PERDITION opens in theaters across the country; if you're looking for something different, you will have found it. Based on novelist Max Allan Collins' hard-boiled nouveau graphic novel in which a Depression-era hit man and his son seek asylum in a mythical Northeastern city called Perdition (literally defined as "eternal damnation"), ROAD TO PERDITION provides a stunning spice rack to the often (but not always) bland staple diet American audiences have come to expect when the weather gets hot as hellfire.
In the coming days, it will be my pleasure to introduce you to the cast of extraordinary characters and creators behind one of the most enthralling juggernauts to come floating down the river Styx in a good long time.
We'll begin, as any good journey to hell should, with the Ferryman himself, Max Allan Collins. Collins and artist Richard Piers Rayner spent four years creating the graphic novel that would become the movie. We spoke about his first impressions of the film, some of the differences between the original story and the film, the explosive dynamic between fathers and sons, and what the future holds for him.
|Mac Allan Collins and Antony Teofilo
ANTONY: What's your initial reaction to the film version of ROAD TO PERDITION?
M.A.C.: This was a thrill. I've only seen the picture once, but I was blown away. The cinematography and the music, all of the acting...
ANTONY: I haven't had a chance to read the graphic novel yet, but I've heard that it's very different than the original project.
M.A.C.: That's not really true. I hear that from people. Sometimes I think that some of the people involved with the picture frankly may be a little embarrassed that the source is a graphic novel. There's a tendency to try to distance themselves [from comics]. And that's the ongoing stigma of funny books. People that are really into comics know that they're a legitimate visual storytelling medium like movies. The movie is quite like my book in plot and theme. The movie's compressed; my book's very long. It's a three hundred-page graphic novel.
There are a couple of elements that have been added that I think are strong. They played up the father-and-son relationship between the Irish Godfather [Paul Newman's Mr. Rooney] and [Hanks'] Sullivan character. He was O' Sullivan in my book, he's Sullivan here. It's more overtly father and son, which I think is a smart thing. In my ROAD TO PERDITION, it's a long episodic story, and there are a lot of different hit men trailing the father and son. Those hit men were rolled up into one character for the movie. I did not create the "Cameraman" character. [Overall] I couldn't have been happier.
ANTONY: What was the inspiration for ROAD TO PERDITION? Did you have a message about fathers and sons that you were trying to get across?
M.A.C.: That kind of stuff I never think about. The subtext is taken care of for me by my subconscious. I always say people write non-fiction and essays to tell us what they're thinking, and other people write fiction to find out what's on their mind. I find out what's on my mind when I write fiction.
I was driven by two major elements: the story of the real John Looney, who is called John Rooney in the movie, and his son Connor. I ran across them when I was working on one of my Nate Heller historical novels. The story was one of these gems of research that you stumble upon that you can't use in the project you're researching, so you put it on the shelf and say, "Someday I'll find a place for this."
Also, for many years, I've been a fan of the classic manga LONE WOLF AND CUB, which was a series of Japanese movies that was called SHOGUN ASSASSIN in the U.S. It's the story of a wandering samurai who has been betrayed by his shogun. The samurai is seeking vengeance, and he's fighting, and he's doing all these wonderful samurai things while he's pushing around his baby son [in a carriage]. Go back to the Clint Eastwood movies where they turned the Samurai into a gunfighter. I thought it would be fun to turn the samurai into a gangster. While the idea of the son had its source in LONE WOLF AND CUB, I didn't want to use a baby. I liked the idea of an adolescent so it can be a loss of innocence story, and a story about coming of age. It's also a companion piece to my half million-dollar movie MOMMY [distributed by Troma films], which, to some degree, inspired a ninety million dollar movie. I wanted to do a father-and-son variation on that theme. I have to say the father-and-son theme can be found in a lot of what I do going back to the very first books I published. It seems to be something that's on my mind. It probably has something to do with my relationship with my own Dad who I lost about a year and a half ago.
I also think that I would probably not have written ROAD TO PERDITION before the birth of my son. My son was born, in...he'll kill me for not knowing this, I think he was born in '82. I would not have written this kind of story if I hadn't been a father, and had a kid sort of that age when I was writing about him.
ANTONY: Like you, I lost my Dad a couple of years ago. I think this story will strike a chord with folks, especially men, who have suffered that kind of loss. Gratefully, I didn't feel this way until my Dad died, but there's that inevitable moment for everyone when your father's no longer Superman...
M.A.C.: That's the punch line of the movie. The kid doesn't want to answer the question of whether his Father is good or bad. [John Sullivan] was just his father. There's a story of unconditional love here for both father and son that transcends the terrible things that the father does. It's a rough movie. I didn't know that [Dreamworks] would have the courage to make it as rough as they did. The graphic novel is very rough, and it's also more melodramatic. The violence [in the book] is bigger in scope, it's nastier. It's more samurai-like. Sometimes Sullivan dispatches ten people, which they have in the movie, but in the book it happens all the time. It's more of an adventure story.
The way they've done it in the movie focuses in on the character study in a nice way. As we speak here, I don't know what the critics are going to say. My guess is the critics are going to be very favorable to this picture for the most part. I do think it's a coin toss on how the public is going to react because it's a picture for grown-ups. I mean, if there's ever a Dreamworks amusement park, they'll have a hell of a time coming up with a ride.
ANTONY: The pace and the visual style of this movie were refreshing, despite the fact that the film's world is painted with such a dour, but appropriate, depression-era palette. Did you see any of your own style represented in the cinematography here?
M.A.C.: Very much so. I know that the [graphic novel's] artist, Richard Piers Rayner had a big effect on the filmmakers. There are any number of panels essentially recreated in the picture. One that jumped out at me was a panel from the book with Michael Jr. looking up at the Chicago skyline reflected on the glass. That's a very powerful image in the book. From a writing standpoint, the very terse, clipped style of the father. I'm very talkative, my characters are not.
ANTONY: It's a very classic '30's father / son dynamic, not a lot of talk between the two.
M.A.C.: You made a good point before...I wonder if men are going to respond to this picture more than women. Once in awhile there'll be a movie about a father and his sons or sons that men who are notorious for not going to movies respond to, like FIELD OF DREAMS. I think this movie may be one of the movies that those types of men could respond to.
ANTONY: At a time when patriotism is one of the hallmarks of contemporary American entertainment, you're telling a story that's about the more tragic side of the American dream. How does a story like ROAD TO PERDITION get produced today?
M.A.C.: It's definitely a challenge. It goes back to what we were talking about earlier. Will people take to an adult, dark picture like this post-9-11? This picture was done, sold and produced, before 9-11. Could it happen today? I'm not sure. How it's received may speak to that. There are nostalgic aspects of this story that people will respond to in a very positive way. It does portray that almost-Norman Rockwell family life. It's rather tragically interrupted, but we have big little books and cereal and school. It's a very classic mid-western upbringing that these kids have.
You're hitting it right on the nose when you say that this is the dark side of the American Dream. We have the story of the immigrants, whether they're Irish or Italian or Puerto Rican or Chinese who come here and doors are closed to them. So they go through the doors that can be opened, and those doors happen to be criminal enterprise. You are talking about the distorted reflection of capitalism. You've got a board of directors in this movie. You've got Frank Nitti, beautifully played by Stanley Tucci. I envision Nitti as the first CEO of the mob. The guy who, after Capone, said 'We're going to be businessmen'. That's exactly how he's portrayed in this picture.
ANTONY: Tucci's performance was so calculated. It's rare to see a gangster who lacks obvious malice.
M.A.C.: Yeah, there's no malice. While he's not warm, I think he's genuine when he says he's sorry about what happened to the man's family. Nitti's also frustrated that he can't take the best hit man in the country onto his team. The back-story, which is only sort of referred to in the movie, is that the tri-cities area is a very profitable place for the mob. In the balance books, Michael Sullivan just can't be worth as much to [the Chicago mob] as the Rooney family. It's a matter of business.
A difference between the movie and the graphic novel: [concerning the scene where Sullivan goes to visit Nitti] in the graphic novel, Sullivan shoots his way out. After Nitti says no to Sullivan's request for vengeance on the Rooneys, there's a John Woo-type action scene that goes on for about twenty-two pages of carnage. When Sullivan comes back out to the car, his son asks him, 'So how did it go?" Sullivan says, 'I made my point.' A decision was made to take the violence down a notch in terms of action adventure, but they went very hard-line and disturbing with the depiction of violence. It probably betrays my sick mind, but I was just sitting there grinning when some of these horrifying images are on the screen. I thought, 'Alright, [the studio] had the balls to do it.' It's not a feel good movie, even though you end up feeling good about the father and the son because they make a positive journey. Well, the father has a negative journey, but he and his son bond.
ANTONY: Do you think a father like Michael Sullivan can find redemption through his son?
M.A.C.: I think that one's open to interpretation. They certainly say that in the movie. I'm a little more open-ended in the book. In fact, that's one of the major differences between the book and the movie; in my version, the boy kills the hitman in the kitchen. When Nitti says, "This kid is going to grow up and come looking for you", that's more where I'm coming from.
ANTONY: Is there any historical basis for your portrayal of Frank Nitti, or is this a more imaginary Nitti?
M.A.C.: Nitti is someone I've researched a lot. I did three books, TRUE DETECTIVE, TRUE CRIME, and THE MILLION DOLLAR WOUND that were published in the '80's. They were the Frank Nitti Trilogy. My researcher, a guy named George Hagenaeur dug into Nitti's life in great detail. We found out things about him nobody knew. He died a supposed suicide. I have a theory that it wasn't exactly a suicide. He fascinates me, the version of him in both the book and the movie are consistent with how I see him according to strong historical underpinnings. He was a barber by the way, so the very natty way that Tucci looked in the movie was absolutely on the money. One of the worst jobs you could have in Chicago was to be Frank Nitti's barber. He would have been very demanding.
ANTONY: Will we see more graphic novel work from you in the future?
M.A.C.: I actually have a Batman graphic novel I'm working on for DC Comics. It's an interesting project because I'm collaborating with a Japanese artist. This is the first time the character has been licensed to Japan. Kia Asamiya [SILENT MOBIUS] drew it, and I was given a rough translation, and was given carte blanche to turn it into something Americans can enjoy. It's about three hundred pages, and I'm about halfway through. I'm going to be doing a graphic novel based on the CSI TV show. A comic book graphic novel that was serialized a couple of years ago called JOHNNY DYNAMITE (which has been optioned for the movies) is going to be collected in graphic novel form for the first time. I did a character for years called MS. TREE that ran for many issues. The artist, Terry Beatty, and I haven't done anything on MS. TREE for almost ten years. There's continuing movie and television interest the character. In the wake of ROAD TO PERDITION, we're talking about doing a MS. TREE graphic novel. I've got two movie scripts that I may put into graphic novel form because, hey, [ROAD TO PERDITION] worked, although I would hope next time I would get to do the script. One of these days, it won't just be 'based on'.
I do plan on doing two ROAD TO PERDITION sequels, following Michael up through the years, but those will be in novel form. And I'll only do them if I can sell them [laughs].
Return in a few days, fellow pilgrims, for more interviews, stories, and photos as we continue along the ROAD TO PERDITION. You'll get the inside scoop on this extraordinary flick from its creators, including director Sam Mendes, (AMERICAN BEAUTY), Cinematographer Conrad Hall (AMERICAN BEAUTY, COOL HAND LUKE), Costume Designer Albert Wolsky (GALAXY QUEST, BUGSY), everyman extraordinaire Tom Hanks, and living legend Paul Newman.
See you in a few days!
*Note to the ViewAskew faithful: The Divine Comedy was written by 13th Century allegorical poet Dante Alighieri, not Dante Hicks.
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