Monday, November 09, 2015

THE 12 DAYS OF MUERTO:Day 8.... Going Hollywood

Day 8: In the Summer of 2001 I prepared once more for the San Diego Comic Con. I started exhibiting there in 1998, the year I debuted that first issue of El Muerto.

My friend Carlos Saldaña (one of the first people I talked to before I started self-publishing) contacted me prior to the show to let me know that he was not going to be able to attend the show himself, as something had come up in his scheduling. He told me that he was going to be interviewed by a reporter from NPR, so he told the reporter to contact me at the show for an interview. I thought that was nice thing for Carlos to do.

So during the convention, the reporter indeed shows up. He was interviewing several Latino creators, as I assume he was starting to notice a slight movement amongst Latino writers and artists in creating their own stories. I did the interview, and it all seemed to go well. After he left I got on with the rest of the weekend and just put the interview, like a few others I had done, in the back of my head and filed it under 'Experiences'. Whether it aired or not, it was nice to do it.

I eventually heard it, as a friend of mine had recorded a copy. Pretty straightforward interview, I thought. Turns out someone heard it who would think something else of it, and soon a series of events started that opened up another road in my life..,

It was some weeks later that I got a letter in my P.O. Box. It was from a production company, and the letter was from an assistant to a filmmaker, Brian Cox (no, not the actor from X-MEN 2, folks!). He was inquiring if I had any copies of my comic, as they had heard the interview and were interested in reading the story. I sent them an invoice, they sent a check, they got their books (which at that time only consisted of the original DAZE OF THE DEAD: NUMERO UNO EDITION and SUPER COMICS BLAST) and that was it for a few weeks. The assistant wrote me to say that Brian liked the comics but had to leave the country for business. He asked if I would be available to meet with him when he got back. I responded in the affirmative and thought to myself, "Well, this is interesting...".

Some months later, I'm in Brian's office on Sunset in Hollywood. Real down to earth guy, no sense of that hotshot Hollywood baloney I dreaded. We made our introductions, he asked me about myself, then about the character and story. Lots of questions, some I didn't have complete answers to. I told him as much, as I was only on the first issue of the story. But his questions were honest questions about story, from one creative to another. I never got the sense he was trying to get some type of upper hand or swindle me out of an idea. He genuinely gained my trust, and for me, at that stage of my fledgling movie career, that was very important to me. 

So at the end of the conversation, he asked me point blank: "Would you be interested in turning this into a movie?". My answer, I remember it clearly even today: "Well, I wouldn't not be interested!". We shook hands and agreed to be in contact.

Suffice to say, Brian had more traveling to do, but eventually he approached a producer he had worked with before, Larry Rattner. He pitched the comic to Larry, with the idea of turning it into a movie. Larry, it turns out, had recently met a trio of businessmen, Bruno Leon and his two sons, who together had dealings in book publishing and music production. The Leones were interested in making their first movie, so Larry approached them with this idea Brian had to make a movie out of my comic.

(That's total serendipity: Director likes my comic, turns to a independent producer with the idea of making a film out of it. Producer likes the idea, turns to some investors who agree to finance the idea!)

What followed were several months of meet and greets. Me being wined and dined by Larry and the Leones, Larry taking me to a film festival here and there to educate me about film production and distribution, additional sit downs with Brian to talk more story. Eventually I got a lawyer, because we were moving to the contract and negotiation stage. At one point I told Brian and Larry point blank:

"Look guys, this is a great opportunity. We're all getting along and we seem to have open lines of communication. My only fear is that once I signed and we moved forward, that I wouldn't want the production to run away from me, for me to lose having a hand in the partnership."  They both assured me that wouldn't be the case. They mentioned that this was a small production, our communication would always be open, there was no studio or 'suits' to run the show, etc. I took them at face value, and of course with my lawyer we bounced the contract back and forth several times between Larry and ourselves.

At one point I asked my lawyer (Jean-Marc Lofficier, himself a comics writer & editor, who also represents such comics luminaries as Paul Pope, Stan Sakai, Stephen Bissette and others) about receiving 'creative control'. His response was "That means you have the right to be ignored"! Basically it's not something one can easily claim from a production company. Regardless, I went with my gut instinct, and confident in the final terms Jean-Marc had requested, signed the contract.

I was in the filmmaking business. And got a nice check to boot! (This photo was taken after leaving Larry's office. I went to meet my friend Michael Aushenker, who was working down the street at the time for the Jewish Journal. We had previously agreed to meet for lunch after I was done with the signing. This Brinks armored truck happened to be parked on the sidewalk so I thought it good karma to take this shot!)

During the drafting of the contract, Jean-Marc got me an Associate Producer credit and a 'based on the comic book by Javier Hernandez' credit. I also asked for a stipulation that I would be on the payroll during the production of the film, which I don't think that's something everyone asks for, but I sure as heck wanted to be on the set everyday the film was getting made! Plus I had arranged with the screen printing company I was still working at that I would take a leave of absence once filming started. Mind you the contract was signed in February of 2003, about a year and a half after first being contracted by Brian. Believe me, things can move slow in the movie biz, even for small production.

So Brian got to work on the script, using my origin comic as the genesis of the screenplay, then spinning an original story from there. I didn't have a problem with that, as I looked at how elastic Batman, for example, could be in terms of being presented one way in the comics, another way on a tv show and yet again reinterpreted for the big screen. But always having that core identity.

February 2004 came around, and the script had gone through a few drafts. But also the deadline came up, as I signed a year beforehand. Of course I was ready to resign with the producer once again, and thanks to a stipulation in the contract (which any decent lawyer would make sure to include), there was another payment for rights.

I was prepping my new book, EL MUERTO MISH MASH, and the screenplay was finally getting to it's final draft. Larry and I would give notes to Brian after each draft. At one point, during a meeting in Brian's office, I pointed out a page in the script and told him, "I'd like to play this guy. Can I do that?".
He smiled and said, "Oh, you want to do the Stan Lee thing, huh? Ok, but this guy's wearing a mask."
My quick reply was "Yeah, but he can remove it and I get my big reveal!". So, I scored my cameo. (It was a scene where El Muerto is walking into a Day of the Dead festival and runs into a guy in skull mask...)

Once we all decided that the script was done, it was time to turn to the big question. Who's playing El Muerto? At the time, THAT 70s SHOW was in it's prime, so I suggested to Larry and Brian "What about Wilmer Valderrama?". 

As you can see, I intentionally injected myself into all aspects of the process. And just as they assured me, I was always a member of the filmmaking team. They definitely afforded me the respect as the creator of the source material. I don't want to exaggerate my role, these guys were professionals and the film was in their hands. But I was always able to express my opinions. Brian always told me to let him know what was on my mind, but to have reasons for any ideas or issues I raised. Which is a fair way for anyone to collaborate. Just saying "Because I said so" or "Well, I don't like that" isn't productive, or mature. I don't think every comic creator (if they even own their own work) gets this involved with their adaptation. Maybe they don't want to, I don't know. But since I lived in LA and the film was being made here, I didn't see any reason not to work on the film. I just wouldn't want it any other way. I imagine if Warner Bros or another of the huge studios was making it, they wouldn't want the creator sticking his nose in the business. But this was a particular opportunity so I took it.

Tomorrow I'll take you into the production of the film....

El Muerto and all related characters are ™ & © Javier Hernandez 1998-2015


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