Brian Michael Bendis on The “Surreal” 15-Year Odyssey of the “Powers” TV Series

by  in Movie News, TV News Comment
Brian Michael Bendis on The “Surreal” 15-Year Odyssey of the “Powers” TV Series

“Powers” has finally reached the live-action finish line — and for co-creator Brian Michael Bendis, it’s still a surreal experience.

About a year after Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming‘s creator-owned “Powers” debuted at Image Comics in 2000, the series was optioned by Sony Pictures as a potential film project. That didn’t happen, but the show continued on its Hollywood path, this time being developed as a TV series. A decade later, with the comic still running as a part of Marvel’s Icon line, a pilot was produced by FX — that wasn’t picked up.

But it wasn’t the end of the line for “Powers!” The concept was once again granted new life, this time as the first original series for Sony’s PlayStation Network, in that platform’s bid to compete with Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus. The first three episodes are available today on PSN, with subsequent installments of the 10-part first season unveiling each week after that. The show stars Sharlto Copley as Christian Walker and Susan Hayward as Deena Pilgrim — neither obvious choices based on the comic book depictions, but as Bendis puts it, actors who “embody the spirit” of Oeming’s drawings. The series has granted the Eisner-winning comic writer a higher mainstream profile than ever, including an appearance as a guest this past January on “Late Night with Seth Meyers.”

CBR News spoke in-depth with Bendis days before the launch of the live-action “Powers,” to hear his thoughts on the series’ long journey to production, the unique opportunity of getting Oeming’s art represented on the show, why novelist and comics writer Charlie Huston was the right choice for showrunner, diverting from the source material and how it might actually be a good thing the show took a long time to make.

CBR News: Brian, congratulations on the launch of the “Powers” TV series — obviously, this has been a long journey for you.

Brian Michael Bendis: Only a third of my life. [Laughs]

What are you feeling right now, being close to people actually seeing the show? Does it still feel a little surreal, or is it sinking in?

It’s never not been surreal. Every element of it is surreal. You and I, we’re big fans of all nerd stuff, and TV and film and comics, so any behind the scenes stuff that you actually realize you’re standing in the middle of, and not watching HBO’s “First Look” — it’s surreal. Being on the set of the show is surreal. Watching people who aren’t me and Mike alone in our rooms making their living off the show is crazy, and watching people dedicate so much of their spirit — like the actors, bringing so much of themselves into something that was literally me and Mike alone in a room, it’s crazy. It’s nuts.

The best part is, there are many people in my life who don’t believe the show exists. Still. And I’m very, very excited that as the days tick on, and now the advertisements are out, the more and more people who did not believe me kind of have to. A little bit.

The trailers didn’t convince them? “Oh, he just had that commissioned, he did that on his own.”

My best friend from high school texted me right after “Seth Meyers,” and goes, “It literally looks like you Photoshopped yourself into ‘Seth Meyers.’ It doesn’t look real.” I go, “You are absolutely right. That is exactly what it looks like.” [Laughs] It’s very, very bizarre.

What was your level of involvement in the show? You and Mike are both executive producers, but I know there’s a lot of stuff competing for your time. How closely did you work on it?

Charlie Huston and Remi Aubuchon are the showrunners, they worked on the show 11, 12 hours a day, if not more so. I came in, I was in there the first days of the writers’ room, I was there for the last days of the writers’ room, I wrote episode nine. I was there for the first days of filming. Any day, I wake up and there are things that need my attention about the show — whether it be casting, or whether it be the dailies, or the different cuts of the show. I’ve been giving notes as the assemblages of the episodes come in.

Charlie kept coming to Mike with different ways to involve him that enhance the show. I’m so happy. He found this way to include Mike’s voice as an artist on the show. I can’t think of another time where that’s not the first thing that goes when something gets adapted. You don’t see the voice of the artist. But he found a way to do it that didn’t throw you out of the show, other than that excellent little bit in “Kick-Ass,” where John Romita Jr.’s stuff shows up. That was all Charlie. He found a way to get Mike on the show.

Anytime we’re at this place where we need a visual idea for something, the first person they call is Mike. Mike’s also one of these guys who draws constantly — all day long. Just give him something to draw, and he’ll draw it. He’s kind of like John Hurt in [“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”], where he’s drawing in the air, and you just put a piece of paper in front of him, and stuff shows up? That’s Mike every day of his life.

Curious to hear more about Charlie Huston as showrunner, because he’s something of an unexpected choice. What made him the right guy from your perspective? Obviously he has a lot of writing experience, but this is among his first credited TV work.

He’s done other television stuff, and he’s actually had a couple of things at HBO. He actually has experience. But what happened was, when we did the first pilot at FX, it wasn’t an abysmal failure as some pilots are, it was kind of right on the bubble. It was good enough where they put a writers’ room together to work on the season, and one of the writers they hired was Charlie. As the episodes came in that they were putting together, the best one was Charlie’s. It was funny and fun and dark and sexy and all these cool things. I called Sony, and I called John Landgraf, who’s president of FX, and I said, “I know we’re all struggling to find ‘Powers’ as a TV show. As far as I’m concerned, this is it. Charlie’s is it.” And they agreed, because the next day everybody was let go but Charlie, and Charlie was put in charge of the show.

Then from there, FX didn’t end up going with us, even though they couldn’t have been cooler with us, and Sony said, “Listen, if for some reason this doesn’t go, we have a plan.” I’m like, “I would like a plan.” This was the plan, and the plan has come full bloom. So they teamed us up with Remi Aubuchon, who created “Caprica,” worked on “Falling Skies,” “X-Files,” all these great shows — it was just a great mix of stuff. Charlie’s one of us. He worked on “Moon Knight.” He’s a novelist of high acclaim, but he’s also one of us. No one knows genre better than Remi. It was just the right guys in the room. People who understood, it’s a cop show. One of the big struggles was that some people would have a hard time wrapping their head around the fact that it’s a cop show, and not a superhero show. And there’s a big difference. A cop show with superheroes in it is different than a superhero show with cops in it. So we got it there, and finding its own voice as a TV show that was like the comic but different, that lived on its own spirit — that’s all stuff that I was hoping for. So that stuff I’m very, very excited about. That’s what I really, really wanted. And it’s hard to do. It’s a lot easier to say than do, that’s why it took so long.

In terms of being like the comic but different — the show definitely doesn’t have boring casting throughout.

Oh, no, no. I’m very, very happy with the casting.

Looking at both of the leads, neither are who you would first expect for Christian and Deena. What can you share about what the philosophy was behind casting the show, what you were looking for, and how it added to the final product?

Here’s the thing: People would say, “Why didn’t you hire people that look exactly like Mike Oeming’s drawings?” I am obviously Mike Oeming’s biggest fan on the planet Earth. He’s my brother. No one on the planet looks like Mike Oeming’s drawings. If someone who looked like Mike Oeming’s Walker walked into the room, you would scream in horror. With Mike’s style, that wasn’t the goal. The goal was to find someone who embodied the spirit of Mike’s drawings. And that we were very successful in doing.

Sharlto completely carries around the weight of Walker with him, as you’ll see as the series goes on. Deena, boy — Susan got it on the first audition. She got the role against women who actually kind of look like Deena in the comics. Her looking different than the character was never even brought up. It was, “Who’s the best actor for the part, and who’s got it?” And she had it. And delivers. Wait until you see episode six — such a great episode for her. You really get to see Deena, all the flavors. It’s really fantastic.

Based on the first episode, the series does seem fairly close to the source material — for this go around, was everyone able to agree on that? That it didn’t take much to adapt to TV, and pretty much worked as is?

Well, the idea that it’s Deena’s first day — we needed someone’s eyes open to walk you into the world. But a lot of the other elements are very, very different. The case is different. There are a lot of bits and pieces that are very, very different than the first year of the book — from Calista, to Olympia, all that stuff happens later. Charlie was very smart in cherry picking the elements that would make the best TV show right away, versus what we did in the book.

But in the overall package, it does feel like the same world as the comic.

That’s what we wanted. The whole time while working on this, I’m consulting on the Marvel movies. And the best stuff that people remember from the Marvel movies, you’d be hard-pressed to think, “Oh, that’s based on that.” Spiritually it’s totally that. The Iron Man stuff that people love is not based on any book. I thought a lot about that. I wanted, “Oh yeah, that’s ‘Powers,'” but you’d be hard-pressed to find the page they took that from.

On our best day, “Powers” makes the most of the comic medium. And you want the TV show to make the most of the TV medium — or the streaming medium, I don’t know what they’re calling it. But make the most of the medium that it’s in. I think both you and I have seen faithful adaptations that at best fall flat. They’re interesting — “I’m glad I saw that, that was interesting” — but it doesn’t have the energy of being its own thing. These actors, and everyone involved, had that same notion in their head, making it your own thing.

At this point, the landscape is different on TV even when it was a few years ago for the FX “Powers” pilot. There are so many live-action TV projects based on comic books now, and it’s explored in just the last year or two. How do you see “Powers” fitting into that? Or do you see it being its own thing, and not necessarily a part of that trend?

This is why the time it took us to make this show worked out for the best. One of the problems we were going to run up against a few years ago was, the mainstream audience not understand the rules of the superhero genre, and how “Powers” flips them on its head, like the comic audience did. The comic audience got “Powers” right away, because they knew exactly what the rules were, and exactly how we were fucking with them.

Over the course of the last few years, there’s a movie out every three months that opens up a new flavor of superheroes, and now there are TV shows, as well. So the mainstream audience — whether they’re aware of it consciously or not, know the rules. They’ve seen Batman, and Superman, and Fantastic Four, and X-Men, Avengers, Guardians and Thor — all these flavors have taught you the rules. Like it did in comics, here comes “Powers,” to be that other thing. We were that other thing, and we continue to be that other thing. Here we are as a TV show. There’s a lot of that audience who’s taken it all in, and I think will be hungry for another flavor — something that will flip it all on its head. Let’s murder some superheroes, and see what’s that like. That’s what we’re going to be.

“Powers” has always been a scrappy, indie book, even though Marvel has published it for 10 years. We make it in our house! Just like we did when we first started. They don’t make the book for us, we make the book. The TV show has the ability to be that thing — not to pat ourselves on the back — but for a more sophisticated audience, hungry for a different, more adult look at the way we would treat our superheroes. We’re going to be here for them. That would be great.

The first three episodes of “Powers” are available today via the PlayStation Network.