Guest Post: Comics, Legends and Some Halloween Horror

Part of every great Hallow’s Eve, in addition to carving Jack ‘O Lanterns, fake blood and candy, involves a good old-fashioned horror film. To help our loyal fans prepare in advance, enlisted the help of our good friend Bryy Miller, screenwriter and president of Lefty Films, to grab sneak peek screenings of two Halloween-themed releases, Dark Country and Trick ‘r Treat, at the inaugural Long Beach Comic Con, as well as two very rare, special comics panels. His reviews and coverage, below the cut.

Dark Country is ©2009 Sony Pictures Entertainment, all rights reserved
Dark Country is ©2009 Sony Pictures Entertainment, all rights reserved

Review: Dark Country

It seems like there’s a secret race going on in Hollywood right now–the race to get the first good 3D horror film into society’s hands. Next year, we will be witness to Halloween in 3D, just like My Bloody Valentine before it. But Hollywood is forever searching for a film with that magical blend of scares, good story, and unobtrusive effects.

Dark Country is not that film. Described as “heavy noir” and Twilight Zone by the director/star, Thomas Jane, Dark Country seems to have a very odd definition of both of those things. If by “heavy noir”, you mean one or two ludicrously written monologues at the very beginning of the film (which foreshadow the ending but make absolutely no sense when everything is supposed to “tie together”), then yes, it is heavy noir. If by Twilight Zone, you mean completely random, then yes, it is the Twilight Zone. The film simply did not know what it wanted to be: noir, horror, sci-fi… no idea. It kept jumping from one idea to the next whenever it felt like it. With this style of leapfrog, you can forget about any sort of a coherent plot. I felt like it was making it all up as it went along.

As for the threadbare plot, it revolves around newlyweds Dick (Thomas Jane) and Gina (Laura German), two strangers that take a trip through the midnight Las Vegas desert, hoping to get back to civilization before the heat of the morning. Before they go, though, Dick has a run-in with a man in black, who warns him to stay on highway 95. Soon enough, the two get lost and are subject to a plethora of thinly connected and fully undeveloped anomalies. What’s worse is you can figure out both the ending and the twist – at least the coherent parts – when the first signs of supernatural spookiness begin. This is a very dumb movie trying to be a very smart one. I had absolutely no investment in Dick or Gina’s lives or their plight. Thomas Jane stumbles through the movie doing his best impression of a nerdy Marv from Sin City. In a piece involving two characters for the entire film (minus a few parts with a corpse and Ron Pearlman, who is by far excellent in his small role), we find out very little about either of them and get even less dialogue. Gina’s plot is left murky and vague, and the movie keeps shifting gears with her. Is she “in on it”? Is she a helpless bystander? Her plot hinges entirely on the climactic reveal, and when it happens, we are left with an even further confusion as to who exactly the character is in relation to everything. Because, let me tell you, it just does not work. The ending has no relationship to the beginning. None at all. Even the “heavy noir” monologues that act as portents do not add up.

It’s going straight to DVD. Good for it. I guess. I mean, there are going to be people out there that will gobble this up, and that scares me. In five years, the studio executives that think blood and gore sell will be right. We need better horror films, and we need better 3D horror films.

Dark County went on DVD October 6th, 2009.

Trick r Treat image ©2009 Warner Brothers Pictures, all rights reserved.
Trick 'r Treat image ©2009 Warner Brothers Pictures, all rights reserved.

Review: Trick ‘r Treat

Halloween films are either all about slashers or Christmas nowadays, very rarely celebrating the holiday itself. In recent years, it’s even become “hip” to move away from the supernatural as your death-dealer. Rob Zombie even had the bright idea to put out BOTH of the Halloween remakes in August. They have Halloween in their titles, for Pete’s sake!

I am happy to report that Trick ‘r Treat, a movie that has been shelved for two years but has been getting critical reviews from screenings all over the country, is chock full of everything that we love about the holiday. It is filled to the brim with costumes, falling leaves, black, orange, and a boat-load of intricately-made Jack O’ Lanterns. Four stories make up this anthology film, all taking place and sometimes crossing over each other in a small Ohio town. It actually could be considered five stories, as the first story takes place even before the opening credits. The stories are thus: a high school principal who has a very odd way of connecting with his son, a crew of young women trying to find the perfect date for the ugly duckling of the group (who is complete with Little Red Riding Hood costume, as well as being Anna Paquin), an urban legend that proves a little too real for some very nasty children, and a cranky old man (Brian Cox) who gets a visit from what could be called the Ghost of Halloween Present. Besides the occasional crossover, the stories are connected by the themes of the holiday: always check your candy, never go out alone, don’t blow out a Jack O’ Lantern before the night is through, and give out candy to any and all young trick-or-treaters. Not following any of these rules is the equivalent of taking a knife to a gun fight in this film. Once you begin to think about the events taking place, you realize that this film is really about “them”, and less about “us”. I mean, why can’t the spooks enjoy the holiday – a holiday created for “them” – as much as we do? All they want to do is protect what is theirs.

My favorite story would have to be the urban legend vs. the unbelievably but intensely realistic trouble-making children. It was scary and edgy. Things happened in it that not only set up the end of the film, but revealed a whole lot about what was actually going on without saying anything. My least favorite is Anna Paquin’s Red Riding Hood tale, which saddened me, as it had my favorite scare as well as my favorite supernatural creature. I did enjoy how it used the now ordinary idea of twists and turns in a movie to scare you, it always keeps you guessing as to what is really going on. Then, when you think you know what the deal is, the rug is pulled out from under you. It scared you by pitting your preconceived notions against you. That was fun. It was interesting and smart. But the ending of the Red Riding Hood tale is rife with a clichéd song and an ending sequence that goes on way too long.

I highly recommend at least renting this film to see if it is for you. It’s a thrill ride with enough humor and scares to last you through this Samhain season. All Hallow’s Eve. Whatever you want to call it.

Trick ‘r Treat went on DVD October 6th, 2009.

COMICS TO SCREEN PANEL has covered (and will continue to cover) a number of films (including most recently Whiteout) that are direct adaptations from comic books or graphic novels. In fact, it seems that the near future will bring a panoply of such projects–Hollywood’s newest bandwagon. Helping to break down how comics are made into films was a fascinating panel consisting of Buddy Scalera (moderator and host of Long Beach Comic Con), Chris Leone and Laura Harkom (SyFy’s The Lost Room, Red 5’s We Kill Monsters), Jeph Loeb (Heroes, Lost, too many comics to count), and Mike Fasolo (Robot Chicken).

The first round of questions went to Laura Harkom and Chris Leone, a writing team currently working on a miniseries for Red 5 Comics called We Kill Monsters. They gained fame, however, with a ridiculously well-written miniseries for the erstwhile Sci-Fi Channel called The Lost Room.

BS: First I’m going to address Chris and Laura, how you two came together as a team, produced The Lost Room, and then we’re going to get into how you got into comics.
LH: Let’s see. Well, how we came together as a team, we went to school together. We went to college together, um, we didn’t really know each other all that well in college, and then we moved to Los Angeles around the same time, and had different careers: I was a studio executive, Chris worked in Visual Effects. But, you know, we kind of knew each other from writing, the writing program, and eventually realized, well, that’s what we should be doing, so we teamed up to start writing together.
CL: So we’ve written a bunch of scripts, but the only thing that’s been done has been The Lost Room, now, so most of what we’ve written has never been done.
BS: We’re going to talk a little bit about how you guys are stepping into comics.
CL: I’m kinda obsessed with comics so its, kinda, it’s not an alien format to me. The cool thing about a comic book is I can write it, and we hire our artist, but, kinda like The Lost Room – which took twenty million dollars – basically Laura and I funded it ourselves [WKM, not TLR] and we just wrote it, and it’s a comic book. See, see, check it out. It’s called We Kill Monsters… the title is pretty self explanatory. I come out of visual effects, I understand what it takes to build a CG monster, but you can just draw it, so y’know…
LH: Yeah. I mean, we thought “should this be a TV show?”, and then we thought, the way television budgets are, we would never get to execute the monsters the way that we wanted them. But whatever you can imagine, you can have drawn, for the same price as any other page.
CL: The insane thing about Hollywood is that the odds are of making it are even better if it’s a comic book. Why can’t it just be a script… for us, it’s fun to do a comic book and it’s cool. Odds are someone will come knocking on our door and say “hey, this should be a movie” and it’s “no shit”.
BS: Is Hollywood looking at comic books as an incubator? Is that your experience?
CL: I don’t know. I don’t know how they see it. It could be “it’s got pictures, it’s like a movie”, I think it’s something that – someone published it, therefore –
LH: It’s validated.
CL: – it’s validated. Well, someone published it, must be worth something.
LH: Yeah, someone took a chance on it and thought it was a good idea. So if it bombs as a movie, the idea can always come back to “well, it was successful as a comic book…”
BS: How was it transitioning from writing to the screen to writing to the page?
CL: Well, in some ways, I’ve read ten thousand comic books, so I understood it. In some ways, there were things that I didn’t get. Right? So, looking at a panel, you have two guys driving. I have the guy on the right, the guy driving, speaking first. Well, that doesn’t seem weird. But then you look at the panel, and he’s on the right, so the word balloons will cross. So the artist was like “no, you gotta have the guy on the left talk first” and I had to rewrite the whole page. It’s a funny little rule, but it’s obvious once you realize it.
BS: We were just talking about the differences and challenges of writing from the page to the screen. I was wondering if you could weigh in here.
JL: The really big difference is money. And, uh, I don’t mean in how much you get paid. In terms of how much responsibility you do have. When you do comics, you’re only really limited to your imagination. So if you want all of Rome to burn, you can write ‘all of Rome burns’. Your artist is going to kill you, but you can do it… you have to be realistic… or you can do ‘Luke gets in an X-Wing, and then double page splash, he blows up the Death Star’. Particularly in television you have real responsibility, and the other thing that is difficult to do, and once again, the transition goes the other way, in television it is real easy to write two people talking. It is the responsibility of the director to make that interesting… in comics, it’s incredibly boring. The biggest understanding is: on a page, what you’re able to convey, uh, versus film. The trick is to make it interesting.
It is then that the entire panel gives a shout out to Final Draft, the most widely used screenwriting program in the film industry.
BS: With Robot Chicken, it’s a little different, as opposed to working with live actors, it is animated figures.
MF: We write as though they are normal people, although we can’t have someone do a backflip… we write normally, and we hope our puppet department can do what we want our puppets to do. Usually, a page is a minute of screen time. [For Robot Chicken] one page is a minute and a half… on a very good day, we can get our animators to do ten to fifteen seconds of animation in a day… we can put together an episode in a week, but we have fifteen animators working eight hours a day.
BS: Laura, could you tell us what was the mental transition for you, the screenwriter?
LH: Sure. My experience with comics was pretty limited. When I was a studio executive at Warner, I was in charge of the DC Comics projects. So, that was really – but aside from a lifelong obsession with Batman, which is another story, I didn’t have much experience with comics per se. I got a really cool crash course from some of the best people in the business. Like Paul Levitz and Jenette Kahn, who were running DC at the time. For me, it’s – I still think comics are more directing than writing. In a comic book… it’s ten times more specific. What’s in each panel? As Chris was saying, who speaks first?
JL: By the time you get to the second season [in TV], you know what the actors are capable of. And, particularly, a serialized show, you try not to do an episode where the audience goes “what show is this?”… you are really trying to work in something that looks a lot like the previous episode and the next episode. You are writing down a very thin corridor. Whereas in comics, every time you are working with a different artist or working in a different character, you can change up whatever you want.
BS: Chris, working with a blank slate, what was your biggest challenge?
CL: Well, one of – well, I mean – basically that. Is this one big splash page or is this sixty? Trying to – I know where I need to end – but how do I get there? It is still limiting, so many pages of paper. The first issue was the most questionable… on layout, once we figured that out, the train just kind of rolled.
JL: I can’t draw… one of my kids is in second grade, and I went to What’s Your Dad Do For A Living Day. I don’t know how to draw. The kids started giggling. I couldn’t figure it out, but by me drawing a stick figure on the wall, that was drawing to them. The things I see in my head, you just can’t teach that.

The floor was then opened to questions. The first question was about if it feels different to see your creative work as a comic or as a film or television show.

CL: For me, it’s about the same. It’s a little more exciting to have a TV show because it’s more expensive – still, at the end of it, it’s “tee hee hee, I made this”.
LH: It depends. There’s differing levels of involvement. In television, writers are much, much, much more in charge of the whole production because they’re also producers. In feature films, writers are much more disposable and replaced… even if they’ve created the project. With comics, that process is pretty rare, it’s more like television.

The next question, taken with grace and respect by Jeph Loeb, was from an enthusiastic albeit confused young writer who was in search of a “game plan” as to how to get started in the field.

JL: The best thing you can do, and this is going to sound ridiculous, is write. My screenwriting teacher, back in the day when we were writing on cave walls, used to say “get a book, and every day, write a scene”. Write something every day. You can’t cheat. You have to write every day, and you can’t say “well, yesterday I wrote five pages, so today…” – it’s a little bit like exercise. You will be a better writer than when you began. If three people have a problem with what you’re doing, you have a problem, and you need to address that problem. What you write, those are not your children, and when you have children, you will know the difference. You can’t get rid of them.

Absolutely terrific advice, for those of you reading this and hoping to break into the field.

Legendary comics writer, artist, screenwriter and childrens author Berkeley Breathed, with his creation Opus.  Photo by Associated Press.
Legendary comics writer, artist, screenwriter and children's author Berkeley Breathed, with his creation Opus. Photo by Associated Press.

Berkeley Breathed is one of the last veritable newspaper comic legends. He made the comics section something magical alongside the likes of Bill Waterson, Jim Davis, and Lynn Johnston. His two comics, Bloom County and its spin-off, Outland, ran from 1980 to 1995. He never did conventions, until now. So it was a rare treat when Mr. Breathed finally came to Long Beach, partially to unveil The Bloom County Library, the first volume in a series of mega-sized books collecting his first strip in its entirety.

This is what he had to say about his work, his process, and his life:

Berkeley Breathed: Um, so this is a comic con? Cool. The kids love it. You know, I haven’t been to one before. I didn’t know what they were, I didn’t know what people showed, I didn’t know what people talked about. So I asked Scott, my editor, “what do you think I should do?” “Show some slides” “Slides?” “Show your old favorite slides to them”. So I thought about that. It didn’t make much sense, but I do what my editor says, so here are some of my old favorite slides.

Breathed then clicks a button controlling the projector that has lowered. A montage of playground slides, de-evolving in quality and safety as the thing goes on, plays to the amusement of the crowd.

BB: … it made me think of were sources of ideas come from. Um. I love NOW, looking back on my career, as to figure out where ideas came from, both my ideas and what I most admire in others. If I came to hear someone speak… I would like to hear the process. I would like to hear where they thought of that idea for that movie, for that – Sophie’s Choice. Did they start it at the choice, did they write it backwards… that’s what this place is really all about. Even more so than comics.

Breathed then shows us a slide of one of his very first drawings, done up in his junior year of high school. It is a graphic but comical image (a staple of Breathed’s work) of a man in a spread pose… with his head blown off. He received an F. Later that night, after some advice from his father, he wrote one simple word as a caption: Gesundheit.

BB: I still got an F. But she added “you get an F, but you are going to be very wealthy someday”. It was the first clue that I had that drawing a picture and writing … and put them together, and the whole is larger than the sum of the parts. That was really the first clue I had of probably where my career was going to go. I had no history in comic books. I had not read them as a child. Cartoons did not come natural to me. It was a side effect that I was fired from every other department in the University of Texas for making stuff up. I was fired on the news side for wholesale manufacture of stories. It didn’t go well. But I didn’t think of the comic strip first, I thought of an editorial cartoon. This is my first and only editorial cartoon:

He then brings up a slide which parodies the ‘Star Trek’ poster, but replaces ‘Star’ with ‘Far’. It was a commentary on Austin, Texas’s new busing system. It did not go very well, either, and he was fired once again.

BB: I was making the mistake of arguing that it was a perfectly funny cartoon. So. Bloom County. [I] Came up with a penguin one day. The strip needed an animal, I was desperate for an animal in the strip, I was desperate for a focus in the strip, and was without a clue as to how you do a comic strip, but specifically, one without a college readership which had themes of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, which was easy. It needed a focus, Opus came along at just the right time.

He then shows a slide of Opus, Bloom County’s central character. A shy, lovesick, sometimes outrageous, and often social commentarily depressed penguin. Breathed then puts on a slide of Dick Van Dyke dancing with penguins during the famous painting scene in Disney’s Mary Poppins. He explains that this is the image that Opus was born from.

BB: I named it Bloom County, by the way, because most strips are named after their main character. I had no idea who was going to be in my strip. I actually hated the name of the strip for the rest of my career, mainly because Charles Schultz hated Peanuts, as he told me one time. He wanted to call it Wee Folks, which was actually a worse name. He was actually told by a syndicate – he was told to name his strip that [Peanuts]. Garfield was an odd source – it was a good source for one of my odder ideas:

Breathed puts on a slide of Bloom’s secondary character, a speechless and often drooling mad-eyed cat named Bill. Tall, lanky, and in one slide, eating Snoopy alive while a horrified Charlie Brown peeked around the edge of the panel. There was an open briefcase at Bill’s feet, proclaiming the words ‘Get MET, it pays’. He then explains that his editors forbid the mockery of other strips, let alone the mockery of companies like MET. Doonesbury, which Breathed openly admits about being way too close in art and writing style, was put on the editorial page. Breathed then tells the story of how he was invited to the Reagan White House. He shows an image of a random panel that just so happens to have a portrait of Nancy Reagan in it.

BB: So the next morning, I get a call at 7:30 … I need to hold on because the President of the United States needs to talk to me. It’s 1982. I was new to the game, I thought maybe everyone gets a call from the President of the United States. (Laughs). I thought it was fake … I get a call from the local newspaper, I knew it was legit. So he calls me, and it’s President Ronald Reagan. “I just wanted to call up, I was reading the paper yesterday, and I came across Nancy, and I just wanted to tell you, I loved it”. And I said, “Mr. President, you don’t want anything?” and he said “No I don’t want anything, I just got a kick out of it”. And I said “Well, would you like the original?” “Oh, well, I didn’t think you fellas gave those up”. And I said “You know, there is a short list of people that we give them to, Mr. President, and guess who’s on it?” – and he was so endearingly charmed that he was on that list. So, in those days, back in the days when they had big state dinners, they paid you back with a big state dinner. (Pause) There have been strips and themes that always don’t work. One was overweight. Classic, but, uh – thundering, deafening silence after each of these strips that I did. Another thing – Cosmetic Surgery. Cosmetic Surgery was never funny to people. The notion of stuffing your body full of artificial materials to do whatever we do is, in the abstract, very funny. The last topic is big medicine. I thought there must be a way to bring in big medicine – the medical industrial complex – which is just now being talked about – into the strip. If we get scared enough, we go running to them. This is the last one, and it is what got me out of the cartooning business entirely:

Breathed clicks, and a comic involving Opus and a woman in a Burquini (a body burqa) appears.

BB: This is pretty much the last of the Opus strips. I had a character that became Muslim. I had her in Muslim garb. That sent the Washington Post, and its writer’s room, and its lawyers, into a tizzy that I had not seen in 25 years. I thought I saw it coming. I approached it with more sensitivity than I cared for. She comes out in a Burquini. What they [the Washington Post] didn’t know is that a Burquini is absolutely real. It’s sold actually out of Southern California by a Muslim corporation, it’s sold to women around the world to wear on the beach. It didn’t matter, I could not put it in the strip, they did not want me to. I was on the phone at six o’clock at night before the deadline with the publisher of the Washington Post – who I had not heard from in ten years, and he was on the phone telling me “Fix her hair so it doesn’t look too askew” because that would reflect badly on the Muslim community, and I could see things had gone so over the top… I couldn’t even mention Ron L. Hubbard’s name… it was getting weirdly more conservative. It was getting more political. As far as cultural commentary, it was shrinking. And I’m on the phone with the Washington Post publisher about how to fix her hair.

Breathed then goes on to talk about his past and future children’s picture books. He talks about Red Rider Came Calling, which was a story based on a real bicycle stuck in a real tree. His next, Mars Needs Moms (currently being made into a feature film by Disney), is based on his own son, Milo, having a temper tantrum directed towards his mother. But the most compelling tale came from one of his future books, Flawed Dogs. It is the tale of a Dachshund who, through a series of jealousy and betrayal, lands in a prison-type environment for… you guessed it… flawed dogs. They eventually break out and go on a mission of revenge against the Westminster Dog Show. One of the images of revenge is a dog, having shaved a poodle, draws Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes going to the bathroom.

BB: I haven’t heard from Bill for fifteen years, and I’m going to hear from him now. I have the greatest collection of letters in my file – we’re both fighting the syndicates, early 90s. He’s in the middle of a horrible fight that I never had, because of licensing. As you know, Bill Waterson would have nothing to do with licensing. He was probably losing two to two hundred and fifty million dollars a year in the balance of that decision not to do it. In those days, you didn’t own your comic strips, so here was a guy – he was hired labor, as far as they were concerned. We all were. So he’s having terrible fights, scared terribly that they’ll start making the stuff that, for whatever reason, he feared terribly. We wrote letters back and forth, and sweet Bill Waterson has a deadly sense of humor, so he draws these great drawings – always at my expense – of a power boat, me one foot on the dock, pouring dollar bills into the gas tank, while the syndicate head is selling merchandise to pay for the power boat. I’ve got a whole file of these things that I can’t show you – maybe I should, that would get him out of the hole.

Click! A new slide shows up of a woman comforting a helpless dog in the snow. They hug each other. He is looking up at her with such… pain… as well as love. Breathed then tells us that this was his inspiration. He tells us what it is:

BB: This is – this is a picture of one of Michael Vick’s fighting dogs. That was removed and was going to be destroyed until a shelter came for him. This is the moment when he – for the very first time in this dog’s life – years in brutality, taught only to hated, faced only with hate, faced only with hate and cruelty that you and I can’t imagine, never having felt any kind of kindness from a human being in his life, this is where he is receiving it for the first time, and you can see that everything that makes a dog tick is still there, and he’s becoming a dog again. And for a storyteller, this is like the bicycle in the tree. This is what we live for, this is what I live for.

A broader silence fell over the room, as I think I realized for the first time just how amazing this guy actually is. He knows exactly why people write. It was really cool.

“Bloom County Library: Vol. 1” went on sale October 6th.

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