[Excerpted and substantially expanded from a lettercolumn I just wrote…]
As I write this, I’m still getting over an enjoyable but exhausting San Diego Comicon. The big Astro City announcement there was that Working Title Films, who’ve made such terrific movies as O Brother Where Art Thou, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Billy Elliot, Shaun of the Dead and more, has optioned Astro City and is developing it as a feature film. It’s a long process, and we’re right at the beginning of it—and it feels very strange to type that, considering how long ago this whole journey started.
It was in 2002 or maybe even earlier that a young screenwriter named Jonathan Alpers contacted me about turning Astro City into a movie. I told him what I’d told everyone else who’d called: I wasn’t interested, I was happy to have the book remain a comic book as it was intended to be, and I had severe doubts that the series could successfully be translated into movie form at all.
[To give you an idea how long I’d been saying that, at one time I had a little patter worked up, where I pointed out that what’s important about Astro City are the characters, the relationships, the emotional connections of the story. The big superhero action and explosions and such were important too, but they were the context, while the humanity of the characters was the real meat of the story. So you’d be telling a story that’s all about relationships and emotion, but you still have to pay for all those special effects. “Basically,” I’d say, “in Hollywood terms it’s a $200 million chick flick. No one’s going to make one of those.” And then Titanic came out and I had to stop saying that.]
Anyway, I told Jonathan that I wasn’t interested, but unlike everyone else, he wouldn’t go away.
He kept calling, talking me into the idea, getting me to see how Astro City might work as a movie after all. And he introduced me to legendary producer Ben Barenholtz—who, among other things, produced the Coen brothers film Miller’s Crossing, distributed Eraserhead and Return of the Secaucus Seven, brought John Woo’s The Killer to the US and even appeared in Night of the Living Dead (as “Cowboy Hat Zombie Hit by Sledge”). And Ben did the rest of the convincing. I remember sitting in his living room, talking about story structure, and saying, more or less, “No, no, if you took this issue, this issue, these parts of that issue and wrapped it all up like this, you’d…hey. You’d have a workable movie, wouldn’t you?”
And once we got there, we were at the beginning of the journey. The second beginning, actually, since the first beginning was Jonathan not taking no for an answer.
And we started talking to people—to agents, to producers, to studio heads, to writers and more, and there was discussion of changing our ideas to make it an ongoing TV series or an HBO mini-series or an animated project, and every other different way you can imagine to approach it. And I found myself doing things I’d never once expected to be doing—pitching to Dawn Ostroff, getting a phone call from Ethan Coen, talking story with James Yoshimura (of Homicide: Life on the Street), touring Johnny Depp’s office (it’s nice!), making TV execs late for a meeting with Lisa Kudrow, having lunch at Bob’s Big Boy with Frank Marshall (and snagging the check!) and on and on. It was all a bewildering experience, but Ben kept us focused, moving forward when that was the right way to go, backing out to try something new when that was smarter.
And there were two, maybe three more beginnings in there, somewhere.
Last year, in the wake of Watchmen underperforming and studios suddenly getting skittish about superhero movies (right up until an Iron Man or Spider-Man movie changed their minds again), I was thinking maybe I’d been right the first time and was perfectly content to go back to the idea that Astro City is a comic book, and that’s what it should stay. And that’s when Ben, on the advice of the Coens, showed Astro City to Working Title Films, and they liked it a lot.
In September, I met with Eric Fellner and Evan Hayes of Working Title in Los Angeles, and I’m not sure how much I can say about the meeting, because the contracts I’ve signed seem to value confidentiality a lot, and hey, it’s not like “wait and see” isn’t one of my favorite phrases anyway. So I won’t tell you much of what we talked about, except that I liked them, they liked me, and we apparently said the right things to each other to make us all think going forward was the right thing to do. And after mulling it over for a while, and talking with Ben, they said yeah, let’s do this.
And off it went to the hands of agents and managers and lawyers (notably the charming and ineffable Nick Harris of Mosaic Media, on our side), and nine or ten months later, here we are, at the beginning again. The fifth beginning at least, maybe the sixth. It all depends on how you count.
[I get the impression moviemaking is an ongoing series of beginnings. You winch yourself slowly, slowly up the hill to the top of the roller coaster…and then whoosh, calloo callay!, you’re headed off on your ride very very fast, and there are no safety rails and most of the time you crash spectacularly. But some of the time you make it through, to the bottom of another steep steep hill, and you start winching up, slowly, slowly…
[Make it through enough times and you wind up with a movie. Crash along the way and you join the majority of attempts, and if you can, you pick yourself up, go back to the beginning and start up that first hill again. I admire the people who do it for a living, and it’s been a thrill so far, but I’m not sure I could stand it full-time.]
Anyway, here we are at the beginning again, and I couldn’t be more jazzed about it.
The people at Working Title are smart and visionary and their movies are built outward from character far more than from spectacle and action—which is one of the things we talked about at that meeting; I don’t think anyone will mind if I let that slip—and I think that’s just the right approach to Astro City. I’d been saying all along that what we needed was moviemakers who were great at character drama and emotion, and could add spectacle to the mix, as opposed to someone who was great at spectacle, and might not realize that character and drama were even necessary.
The next step is to work out what the story will be and how best to realize Astro City up on the big screen. And that falls to me, at least to begin with—I’m starting work on the initial treatment, and as I type this, am scheduled to have my first serious creative meetings on the matter next week.
And I’ve got several different versions of that outline we worked up years ago, but now that we’re actually digging into it and there are real people on the other side of the table, everything’s wide open again, too. Is this a multi-narrative film like Pulp Fiction? Is it skewed toward adults? Teenagers? Strong central adventure plot or a mosaic approach? Dreamlike with surface metaphors, or more realistic with the metaphors solidly buried? Can I do something with Mike Tenicek and the Hanged Man from “The Nearness of You?” Ben Pullam and his girls, from “Welcome to Astro City?” Brian Kinney and the Confessor?
[And hey, since Queer As Folk nicked Brian Kinney’s name, would we need to change it?]
So right now, my mind’s all full of, “Can we get the Hanged Man and Shadow Hill in there? Is animating Looney Leo too big an expense for a cameo appearance? Can I have Samaritan fly around buck naked in his dreams? Who’s our viewpoint character? How do we keep it grounded in real human emotion?” and all kinds of other stuff.
And swirling around in all that are images from John Sayles and Marc Forster movies and Roches songs and bits from Breaking Away and Lord of the Rings and even the opening credits of Angel, and none of it’s going to stop swirling until we have those first meetings and I have some solid ground to stand on and can start building a story that’ll suit the terrain.
And I know this is only the beginning, and there’s a long long road and a lot of high hills and roller coasters with no safety rails between here and your neighborhood multiplex, and the odds are that we’re gonna crash, maybe several times.
But everyone faces those odds, and most of them don’t do it with such intelligent and capable people at their sides. It’s been a series of interesting beginnings so far, and here we are at a taller precipice, and steeper ride. Whatever comes, I’m sure it’ll be a fascinating experience.
So that’s what I’ve been doing, behind the scenes. Wish us all luck, will you? This is, after all, only the beginning.
[And let me say, just to wrap this all up, that for all the major reasons I’m happy we’re working with Working Title Films, I’m also, in a very minor way, delighted to be in business with someone whose company acronym is “WTF.” It adds a certain absurdity to the memos that reminds me to keep things in perspective.]
[Oh, and click on the picture at the top of all this for a much larger view. This isn’t an image that’s been seen much, but I think it’s one of Alex’s best.]