While Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray didn’t create Jonah Hex, the writing team has been sauntering side by side (by side) with the riotous wrangler for nearly five years telling the tales of DC Comics’ Western anti-hero in the pages of his own monthly ongoing series.
So when the opportunity presented itself to visit the set of the upcoming “Jonah Hex” movie during its production in Louisiana, Palmiotti and Gray couldn’t say, “No.”
No doubt armed with “Jonah Hex” trade paperbacks, the two were welcomed by the cast and crew with open arms, and while there were major differences and subtle nuances to both the character and his world transitioning from the comic to the movie, Palmiotti and Gray were quite pleased with what they saw and now know for sure that the movie will only raise the awareness of the entire franchise and, thanks to endless commercials being shown during the NHL and NBA playoffs, make Jonah Hex a household name.
Directed by Jimmy Hayward (“Horton Hears a Who!”), Jonah Hex is played by Josh Brolin (“No Country for Old Men”). The Warner Bros. movie is steeped in supernatural elements – a theme Palmiotti and Gray rarely explore in the ongoing series. Megan Fox (“Transformers”), who plays a new character introduced to the mythos named Leila, works in a brothel and is Hex’s only connection to the real world. Hex’s arch-nemesis, played by John Malkovich (“Burn After Reading”), is also walking the line between living and dead in the movie version and is gathering an army that he plans to use to unleash Hell on Hex and whoever else stands in his way.
CBR spoke with Palmiotti and Justin Gray about the time they spent in Louisiana and discussed Hayward’s vision, Brolin’s performance and what the movie means to the future success of the “Jonah Hex” ongoing series from DC Comics.
First off, after living and breathing Jonah Hex’s Wild West for the past five years, was it a surreal experience stepping onto the set in Louisiana?
Jimmy Palmiotti: It sure was – exciting, surreal and a whole lot of fun.
Justin Gray: It is always fun being on a film set, interacting with the crew, actors and director, but seeing Josh as Jonah was amazing and like Jimmy said, very surreal.
Who arranged for you to visit the set?
Palmiotti: Andy Lazar set it up. He is a producer on the film as well as an old friend. He originally helped sell “Ash” to Dreamworks for me back in 1996. As soon as Andy got the go ahead on the film, we met up and offered our help in any way they might have needed it.
Were the cast and crew aware of you and your work on “Jonah Hex?” Had anybody on set been reading your ongoing series?
Palmiotti: When we got to the set, they knew we were coming and were pretty excited because they had done their research. As well, a chunk of the crew was talking to us about the Tallulah Black character, so we knew we were among readers. The art director had a folder with art from our books and they were matching some of the art to the set design, which was all pretty cool.
Gray: Oh yeah, they were well versed in our run, and extremely complimentary. In fact, a number of people were asking if we had the latest issue with us so they could read it.
While you’re no doubt sworn to secrecy on many specific plot points, what can you share about the major differences between your work and depiction of Hex and what they’re doing with the movie?
Palmiotti: You get the major differences right away in the trailer. The movie Hex talks to the dead, has surreal weapons and is a bigger and broader make up of the comic character.
Gray: When you’re looking at making a wide release feature film, you have to appeal to as many people as possible and as I’ve said many times before a western is a hard sell regardless of the medium. With the monthly book we write, [readers get] a mash-up of straight western with spaghetti and grindhouse, stories that have a pulp nature, but are firmly rooted in the realism of the old west. I really think the way the film is shot and the differences will appeal to a young audience, and that’s what makes sense in terms of marketing.
If you can share, what specific scenes did you see filmed?
Palmiotti: We saw a grave robbing scene and a main scene with Turnbull, Jonah and his family – a lot of fire, swearing and the scene where Turnbull brands Jonah’s face. It was all pretty cool and all shot in a bug and critter-infested swamp.
Gray: The branding scene was awesome because we were watching Josh and John work out the way the wanted to play it, very emotional and visceral to the point where Josh decided to start spitting on the other actors as part of the scene, and I don’t think anyone knew he was going to do it. For anyone that’s never been on a set, one of my favorite aspects is watching the actors – how they work with the performance. It is amazing.
Can you describe the look and feel of the movie based on what you felt while visiting the set?
Palmiotti: It’s a heavy metal, over the top action western.
Gray: I really think Jimmy [Hayward] was going for an action-driven spaghetti western that embraces the core emotional elements of who Hex is. Granted, the film alters some of the core mythology, and that might not sit well with all fans of the comic, but believe me, fans should be rooting for the film to do well because it will help ensure they get their monthly Hex fix.
From what you saw and heard, do you think Akiva Goldsman et al. have a good feel for scripting Hex and the others?
Palmiotti: Akiva added some dialogue that made some real sense to us, so in my eyes, he can do no wrong.
Gray: When you’re talking about dialogue in a film, 80 percent rests in the hands of the actors’ ability to deliver the lines with emotion, authenticity and power. From what I’ve seen, there’s a strong cadence and rhythm to it.
From the trailers and your own reports, the film evidently combines supernatural elements with traditional Western storytelling tropes. Is that something you think was necessary to separate the film from other Westerns and is it something that you would consider including into the mythos you’re constantly expanding each month in the ongoing series?
Palmiotti: We have visited a few times the supernatural elements of Jonah’s world. Taking it much further in the film comes down to how they are going to sell an almost unknown property to the regular summer movie goers. Making it a straight western might have been death in the box office, and I understand that on some level. As far as making the film elements part of the book, well, we don’t own the character, so if [DCU Co-Publisher] Dan DiDio said tomorrow Jonah has to start talking to the dead from now on, we would deal with it how we saw fit.
Gray: In my opinion, it always goes back to your target audience and what you think is going to put asses in the seats. Westerns as a genre have been saddled with a certain perception, and that’s not always going to grab the attention of a young audience. You’re not going to get a big theater draw if you’re looking at the sweeping epic of a “Lonesome Dove.” I seriously doubt that “Unforgiven” would have had the impact it did without Clint Eastwood, because he has been synonymous with Westerns for forty years. That film was Clint putting his western life behind him, and no one has been able to fill that void. I think the only expectation this film has is to deliver an enjoyable summer action movie and on that level I have faith it can succeed.
A friend of yours, Thomas Jane, was actively pursuing the role of Hex, but Warner Bros. eventually landed on Josh Brolin? You mentioned him earlier, but what did you think of his performance?
Palmiotti: Thomas would have been amazing. I think he is a fantastic actor and really gets the character and showed how much he loved it by trying to get the part. I am happy to say he got to record Jonah’s voice for the animated short.
As far as Josh, we got to see him act his ass off and he is just brilliant in the part: funny, mean and insane looking. Everything we were looking for in an actor. No matter how the film plays, what we saw is amazing. Josh nailed it out of the gate.
Gray: When Josh asked us what we thought of him in the role, I said, after seeing “No Country for Old Men,” how could they not cast him? Everything that you need to portray Hex is there on screen: the stoic confidence, the cunning, the bravery and a tragic element that Josh delivered with such style and power.
What about John Malkovich as Quentin Turnbull?
Palmiotti: I am a fan of John ,and I think he is good in just about everything he is involved in.Tthis is another memorable character for him to add to the resume. Off camera, he is friendly, quirky and personable.
Gray: I love John’s work. The funny thing is that he can effectively deliver an astounding dramatic performance and he can deliver a wonderful campy performance that might be more difficult. “Con Air” is a wonderfully bad movie, but I’ll watch it every time it is on because it somehow transcends its flaws and John is hysterical as Cyrus the Virus. Hopefully his Turnbull is somewhere between the two.
Megan Fox’s performance is already being panned, and the film isn’t even out yet. Do you think this is a backlash from her pulling out of “Transformers 3,” or does she have what it takes to be a femme fatale in a big budget comic adaptation?
Palmiotti: Transformers backlash? Is there such a thing? Let’s be honest, who really cares who the girl is in “Transformers 3?” I think almost any beautiful person in the entertainment business has the public pick on them at one point or another. I also think it’s just stupid to pan anything you haven’t seen yet, but of all of Megan’s roles, this one is her biggest to date as far as screen time and playing with the big boys. I met her at Comic-Con [International], she was super nice to me, we spoke about the role and that was it. I personally don’t care how beautiful she is, all I care about is how she will be in that part — a very important part, I might add, in the big picture of things. I am not in the school of basing my like or dislike of a person based on what others say, so yeah, I think not only will she be good in this movie, but she has the chops and is still growing as an actor. I would hire her to play a character of mine any day.
Gray: I think whenever you have someone skyrocket into the public eye, even though she has been working for a while, there is going to be a contingent of people who are vocal in their opposition, jealousy or whatever. I think Megan gets a bad rap, and honestly, if she’s willing to stand up for herself and take a director to task, that’s not my problem or my business. I actually haven’t heard anything about her performance, but then again I’m too busy with my own life to worry about gossip and slander.
Finally, and we talked about this over on CBR a few weeks back, but what does this movie mean to the overall Hex franchise, and specifically your ongoing series?
Palmiotti: That’s really simple. The movie raises public awareness of the character, got us to write an original graphic novel and get it in bookstores, got a lot of foreign markets to take a good look at the comic and start translating them in different country,s and if the movie does well, it looks like not only will there be a sequel, but we might have the chance to pick the numbers up some and be around for a few more years without the cloud of cancellation hanging over us. If the movie doesn’t do well, it’s business as usual for us, and again, more people know who Jonah is. It never hurts.
Gray: We just want to keep delivering enjoyable and thought-provoking Jonah Hex stories, and the movie is a big step in that direction. I like everyone involved in the film, Warners and DC have been amazing to us and to work with. Non-superhero based comic book movies need the industry’s support just as much as those great heroes we’ve all grown up with. DC Entertainment is doing some amazing things to bring their characters into the public light where they belong because they’re our pop culture. The better those films and TV shows featuring your favorite DC characters do the better it is for comics. So get your butts to the theaters on June 18.
“Jonah Hex” comes to theaters across North America on June 18.
For more Hex news, movie and otherwise, visit CBR’s Jonah Hex Hub.