Jon Favreau

Why Cowboys & Aliens Needs to Succeed

On July 29, Cowboys & Aliens opens in movie theaters across the US. Directed by Jon Favreau (Iron Man), executive produced by Stephen Spielberg (do I really need to name one of his credits?), written and produced by Damon Lindelof (Lost), and starring Daniel Craig (Casino Royale), Harrison Ford (1 or 2 successful movies, can’t remember the titles) and Olivia Wilde (House). With an estimated budget of $100 million and big star names this is meant to be a big ol’ Hollywood blockbuster.

And most people may not realize it’s based on a comic book. More accurately, Cowboys & Aliens was first an original graphic novel published in 2006 by Platinum Studios and HarperCollins. The concept was created by Platinum chairman Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, and was executed by writers Fred Van Lente (Action Philosophers) and Andrew Foley (Parting Ways) and artists Dennis Calero (X-Factor) and Luciano Lima (Grifter and the Mask).

Comics are still battling a perception problem. The majority of Americans still think comic books = superheroes, maybe with a side dish of funny animals. The truth is that comics have as much if not more diversity as any other entertainment medium and art form. It’s just not as easy to find. Most comic book stores still predominantly sell superhero comics and the industry’s two largest publishers (holding over 75% of the market) almost exclusively publish superhero comics. But there a number of publishers, like Dark Horse Comics, Image Comics, Fantagraphics Books, First Second Books, Drawn & Quarterly, Boom! Studios, Archaia Entertainment, and lots more, that are carrying an ever-expanding selection of great material for readers of any shape and size that could fill up every section of a library. A change is happening, but even so, the perception is still comic book movie = superhero movie. This is reflected from the entertainment press and marketing to audiences’ own descriptions.

Cowboys & Aliens graphic novel (HarperCollins)

Perceptions are changed slowly and gradually. The problem is that a series of big successful Hollywood movies based on a comic book that isn’t superheroes has never really been trumpeted as based on a comic book or graphic novel. There have been notable exceptions, but the lasting impression doesn’t seem to stick. The Mask, Men in Black, From Hell, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Ghost World, A History of Violence, Road to Perdition30 Days of Night, and Red all did reasonably well but either lacked in reach or in leading with the message about their source material. Sin City and 300 are about as good as its gotten but largely because of the strength of Frank Miller’s name. The Walking Dead on TV has been a big leg up. But when this summer season alone has four big superhero movies enforcing the perception, it’s an uphill climb.

With comics sales leaking away every month, comics needs a big influx of readers looking for a wide variety of entertainment. To help put a kick in that awareness, Hollywood and their audiences need to see that big (and successful!) popcorn movies can come from comic books that aren’t about superheroes. And Cowboys & Aliens fits that criteria perfectly with a great high concept, fun setting and lots of explosions.

This year has already seen two failures for non-superhero comic book movies. Priest was based on a Korean comic (or manwha) of the same name by Hyung Min-woo. It was published in the US by Tokyopop, which was in the midst of shutting down its domestic publishing arm as the movie was released. Surely not a good sign. The movie performed about as well as you’d expect, despite some eye-catching trailers. Before that was Dylan Dog: Dead of Night starring Brandon Routh (Superman Returns). The movie was based on the Italian comic book series Dylan Dog, an acclaimed horror comic created by Tiziano Sclavi. Unfortunately it failed to capture the surreal nature of the comic and the main character’s charm in reacting to the horror he investigates.

Both of those movies failed for any number of reasons, but that they have the common link of being adaptations of foreign comic books not about superheroes isn’t good. Cowboys & Aliens needs to be the start of a new trend where Hollywood (and their audiences) starts to see the value in non-superhero comic books that are filled with ideas and concepts people want to experience. It can’t establish this perception all on its own, but with no other movies that fit the bill this summer, it needs to at least push the needle in the opposite direction.

Also released this summer is The Smurfs, which is adapted from the classic Belgian comic Les Schtroumpfs by Peyo, but it’s more associated with the popular animated series that ran on NBC throughout the 1980s, or the little figurines. The Belgian comics have rarely been translated and published in English, which surely contributes to this perception. Papercutz has been doing a great job importing these fun comics to the US.

Otherwise, it’s up to The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn in December, based on the Belgian adventure comics by Hergé.

Your Brad Link of the Day – Iron Man movie had no script

This is amazing. One of the best modern superhero movies had no script, according to actor Jeff Bridges in this interview at InContention.com.

The 2008 hit Iron Man, starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Bridges apparently relied on the actors and director Jon Favreau improvising scenes out based on a plot outline.

“They had no script, man,” Bridges exclaims. “They had an outline. We would show up for big scenes every day and we wouldn’t know what we were going to say. We would have to go into our trailer and work on this scene and call up writers on the phone, ‘You got any ideas?’ Meanwhile the crew is tapping their foot on the stage waiting for us to come on.”

“You’ve got the suits from Marvel in the trailer with us saying, ‘No, you wouldn’t say that,’” Bridges remembers. “You would think with a $200 million movie you’d have the shit together, but it was just the opposite. And the reason for that is because they get ahead of themselves. They have a release date before the script, ‘Oh, we’ll have the script before that time,’ and they don’t have their shit together.

“Jon dealt with it so well,” Bridges continues. “It freaked me out. I was very anxious. I like to be prepared. I like to know my lines, man, that’s my school. Very prepared. That was very irritating, and then I just made this adjustment. It happens in movies a lot where something’s rubbing against your fur and it’s not feeling right, but it’s just the way it is. You can spend a lot of energy bitching about that or you can figure out how you’re going to do it, how you’re going to play this hand you’ve been dealt. What you can control is how you perceive things and your thinking about it. So I said, ‘Oh, what we’re doing here, we’re making a $200 million student film. We’re all just fuckin’ around! We’re playin’. Oh, great!’ That took all the pressure off. ‘Oh, just jam, man, just play.’ And it turned out great!”

Bridges says those “suits” keep telling him, “It’s just a comic book. Maybe we’ll bring you back.”

He also talked about it on his own site in his Making Iron Man photography book, which includes some great images of one of the “script sessions”.

As I said, we were lucky to have Jon as our director. His skill as a writer/improvisor was welcomed, indeed. While the story of Iron Man was pretty much in place, the actual scenes often had to be written on the day we shot them. Once the panic subsided, it was kind of fun, really – sort of like making a multi-million dollar student film. After all was said and done, I think we came up with some good stuff.

Yay! Improv saves the day! (Sorry for the not-so-stealthy plug.)

Now Hollywood, that doesn’t mean fire all of your screenwriters. This worked because fantastic actors and improvisers were able to pull it off by collaborating with a uniquely talented director who also had a knack for improvising. So, cool trick, but use with discretion.

What’s interesting is that this method of movie-making is eerily similar to the mythic “Marvel Method” of making comics in the 1960s. Marvel Comics’ primary writer and editor then was Stan Lee, who became so overwhelmed writing nearly every book put out by the publisher that he started to similarly jam with his better artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. According to legend (some of it still hotly debated today), Stan and the artist would talk out a story idea for an issue over the phone or in person. Stan would then write up a 1 to 2-page plot outline, which would be fleshed out and expanded into a full 23-page (sometimes more) comic book. Stan would then go back and fill in dialogue and narration captions. Eventually Stan got so overworked, and the process became so reliable, that Stan let his best artists turn in full issues of their own stories with plot cues written in to help Stan script. While this resulted in the wildly successful heyday of the Fantastic Four and Amazing Spider-Man comic books of the ’60s, this process led to a lot of intense debate and resentment over who should be credited (and receive royalties) for what.

Now looking back to today, IMDb lists Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway as the screenwriters for Iron Man. Did they just write the outline? I’d be curious to hear their version of this story.

(via io9)

Your Brad Link of the Day is provided to me by my friend Brad Beacom via Google’s Gmail chat. It may or may not actually occur on a daily basis. You may or may not have already seen it. (But in those instances, some classics are worth revisiting.) You may or may not find some enjoyment in it. Essentially, I take no responsibility for anything.

Liked Iron Man? Be a Hero and Help Out

So, how ’bout that Iron Man movie? Pretty cool, huh? You bet it was!

It’s, like, totally over 90% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. It MUST be awesome.

It is so totally the best superhero movie ever in the history of ever since ever first started.

Way.

Yeah, it was tons of fun. You know what’s not fun? Liver failure.

Sorry, I know. Bummer seque.

Sadly, one of the comic book artists that made Iron Man so memorable for hundreds of thousands is suffering. His name is Gene Colan.

Yes, yes. Funny last name. Go on, get it out of your system. I’ll wait.

(*snicker*)

Yes, okay, where were we? That’s right, Gene Colan.

In late 1965, Gene Colan took over drawing the Iron Man stories in an anthology comic called Tales of Suspense. He replaced Iron Man co-creator and artist Don Heck, who is credited in the Iron Man movie along with fellow Iron Man creators Stan Lee, Larry Lieber (Stan Lee’s younger brother) and Jack Kirby. Gene Colan’s time with the character proved so popular, that in 1968 the character graduated to starring in his own comic book series, The Invincible Iron Man.

Gene Colan also had a significant run of drawing Daredevil in the mid-1960s to early-1970s, but most people don’t really have fond memories of the Ben Affleck movie, so we’ll just gloss over that part. He also made his mark on Howard the Duck, which was an even worse movie, but the comics were great satire.

Anyway, on May 10th, writer Clifford Meth announced that Gene Colan was sick and because people in comics back in the 1960s and 1970s didn’t get health insurance or 401K plans or anything else beyond a simple flat rate per page, Gene and his wife are facing immense medical bills. As the Iron Man movie rakes in over $200 million worldwide, it seems a shame that some of that financial gratitude can’t be passed on to one of the first artists to portray the character. Without his hard work and talent, it’s possible the character never would’ve lasted long enough to make it to the big screen. So, if you would like to help out in some small way, there are a few ways you can help:

  1. Donate to The Hero Initiative – This not-for-profit organization exists for the sole purpose of helping establish a safety net for comic creators like Gene Colan who did not financially benefit from the success of the comics and characters they worked on. And there are many. Make a donation and ask that your contribution be directed to help out Gene Colan.
  2. Bid on a fundraising auction item – Writer Clifford Meth has begun an auction to help raise money for Gene Colan. The auction started today and includes (or will include) lots of fun stuff by Stan Lee, Harlon Ellison, Neil Gaiman, Gene Colan himself, and lots of others.
  3. Buy cool Gene Colan stuff – Marvel Comics and The Hero Initiative have teamed up to help raise money for Gene Colan. If you’re going to any comic book conventions this summer (I’ll be at Comic-Con in San Diego), be sure to look for limited edition art prints. Additional Gene Colan-themed items will be released by Marvel in August and September.

Okay, that’s my spiel. And if you haven’t seen Iron Man yet, go see it!