Grant Morrison had a very busy week. Among the announcements were a new ongoing series in the form of “Batman Inc.,” ten new pages of work with Frank Quitely in “Absolute We3,” film adaptations of his series “All-Star Superman” and “Joe the Barbarian,” positive-sounding forecasts for “Multiversity,” “Sea Guy Eternal” and even a collection of his controversial “Flex Mentallo” miniseries There was certainly no shortage of Morrison-related news coming out of Comic-Con International in San Diego this year.
But one of the most intriguing such projects wasn’t even on the radar until word got around over the weekend: Morrison is writing an independent film called “Sinatoro.” Produced by ZDONK and directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer, the movie is about…well, perhaps it’s best to let the press release do the talking:
The film tells the story of Sinatoro, a man with no past and no memories; the sole survivor of a car crash in the middle of a desolate American desert road.Â When he encounters the beautiful daughter of a cult leader, she convinces him to help defeat the forces of evil, which have overrun her town.Â His journey pits him against the world’s most dangerous gangster and allies him with a deranged astronaut, a drunken cowboy, and an army of hobos. Â As Sinatoro travels through an American landscape made of pop culture nightmares, he struggles to understand who he is and why everyone is out to get him.
Sounds simple enough, right?
CBR caught up with Morrison and Mortimer to discuss all things “Sinatoro” – apart from all the spoilery secrets they can’t yet reveal, of course.
CBR News: Grant, you’re insistent on letting comics be comics and letting film be film – letting the comics medium play to its own strengths without slavishly aping the structure and style of cinema. How does that translate in the opposite direction?
Grant Morrison: The idea for this was always very specifically a movie. We wanted to do something that took the language of movies and brings it into the 21st century. One of the things I was saying over the weekend was this idea that most of us have been playing video games and grew up watching MTV and music videos. The art that we’ve absorbed has changed. The way we look at things and the way we tell stories is a little bit different than how it used to be. I like the idea of introducing that back into the basic Hollywood narrative. Taking some of that, and all the building blocks we’re familiar with – the boy-meets-girl, the revenge story, the thriller, the murder mystery, the crime story – and combine all that together. It”s a little like what I did with Batman and Superman: take all the things we love about cinema and then put them together again in a slightly new way which still fulfills all the [original] functions. It still makes you laugh and cry and sing and dance.
How did the two of you get together to make this movie in the first place?
Adam Mortimer: Grant and I met over ten years ago. Long ago, right when I first got out of school, I sold a TV show to MTV. My main goal as soon as I sold it was “Now I can get in touch with writers who I really like and try to find a way to work with them.” Previous to meeting Grant I was a huge fan of “The Invisibles.” Reading Grant’s work had gotten me interested in comics again when I hadn’t read them for a long time. I hunted him down – he was speaking at a convention that had to do with aliens and conspiracy theories and futuristic technologies and Amazonian drugs and all that kind of stuff. I said, “Hey, I’m doing something,” and Grant’s so responsive to collaboration and people who come at him with enthusiasm, he said “Yeah, let’s go do that!” But then nothing happened with that show. A couple years later, I said, “Hey, let’s do a short film together,” but we never got that together. A few years after that, I said, “Let’s do a web series together,” and he actually came up with a great idea, but we never quite worked it out.
Morrison: It was God and the Devil sharing an apartment.
Mortimer: The ultimate cosmic sitcom. [Laughs] The motivation I had that I kept pushing on Grant was that if we do something on a low enough budget, we can do something in the film world that’s as visionary as everything you do in comics. Let’s not try to make a hundred million dollar movie where so many people would come in and say “You can’t do this and you can’t do that.” Let’s find the exact kind of project where we can do whatever we want, and people will be excited to support it. Last year Grant and [his wife] Kristan called me up from Scotland with this new idea and described the opening sequence and I was completely sold. And it was very easy for us to find exactly the right people – these very young producers, ZDONK, that are trying to do exactly this kind of thing, where you let creators come up with something and run with it. It’s been 10 years in the making so far, basically, to get me and Grant together making a film. [Laughs]
It’s interesting that the way you squared the circle of bringing the liberty of writing comics, where as everyone always says there’s no effects budget, to film was by using less money, not more.
Mortimer: Yeah. The number-one goal is to make a great movie. I think when a lot of people get excited about Hollywood, they get entranced by the power and the money they think they’re gonna get from it, and it completely destroys their ability to do the work they want to do. For Grant and I, the creativity is number one. We want to do something totally insane, and what we believe is that, left to our own devices, it will be more entertaining and connect better to audiences than these $200 million focus-group things that nobody ends up liking.
Grant, how does “Sinatoro” compare to the other film projects you’ve worked on?
Morrison: Well, first, it’s actually getting made. [Laughs] The other jobs I’ve done are all still sitting in development. The great thing about this is that it’s fast-moving. The other thing is just the creative end – we’re not getting notes on this. We’re actually developing something our own way. We’re not trying to do some oddball indie movie or some little cult hit, we want to do something that actually takes on Hollywood and says “Here’s what happens to Hollywood in the 21st century. Here’s our vision of the kind of movies you make – but we’re gonna be cheaper about it.”
From the synopsis and the promo image, it also seems a bit darker than some of the comics work you’ve been doing lately.
Morrison: Well, it certainly is dark, but only in the sense that “Batman R.I.P.” is dark. It’s about death, probably my favorite subject. [Laughs] We want to dance with death. There’s a certain element of darkness, but at the same time this is a psychedelic movie. It’s got music, it’s got color. At this stage it’s almost hard to describe because we’re really trying to put everything in it. We’ve got song and dance sequences in it, we’ve got shootouts, we’ve got really creepy gangsters and criminals. The darkest part of it is the very notion of it. The fact that it’s about death is obviously kind of dark, but as I said, we’re going to be dancing with that. It’s going to be a very spiritually uplifting movie by the end.
Mortimer: Yeah. It starts off in, thematically, an extremely dark world. But the experience of watching it…if we do what we’re trying to do, it’s going to be so dense with ideas and action and color that the experience will be of all this adrenaline and you feel all this imagination and it’s incredibly exciting and you walk away from it going “Wow, fuck, you can do all this in a movie!” And at the same time, it takes place in an extremely dark world. Like Grant said, his obsession with death, starting in an incredibly dark, cosmically impossible situation but then figuring out a way out of it – that’s sort of the opposite of dark. You gotta start dark, but then if you can give somebody just a spark, like “The world is even more fucked than you ever thought, but here’s a little idea of what you can do about it.” That’s better than not being dark at all. It gives a resolution to the darkness that nobody really knows how to tangle with these days.
Morrison: Here’s the first big movie about really scary things that’s gonna make you leave the theater singing. [Laughs]
That reminds me a bit of the structure of “Batman R.I.P.,” “Mister Miracle,” and “Final Crisis” – a refreshing change from the “hero’s journey by numbers” you get from a lot of genre movies.
Morrison: Well, that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re all familiar with these structures now. We’ve been made very familiar with them by books on how to write a story. I’ve said this lots of times before – I find that framework or structure actually works against you because people get too familiar with it. A hero’s journey, he fights the big guy at the end. We wanted to take all that stuff and tell it in a new way, and show a different way a hero could move toward his destiny.
What’s your working relationship been like on the project so far? Where’s the production at?
Mortimer: Well, right now, Grant’s writing it. It’s 90% Grant’s brain churning away. He’s putting down ideas, and whenever we have a moment we talk about it, talk about his new ideas, see where it’s going, and get enthused about it. Grant?
Morrison: I’m writing right now. For me that’s when it comes alive. The actual work only starts to catch fire for me when I’m in the midst of it. And the new stuff I’ve been coming up with over the weekend is… As Adam said, we’re putting our hero in a place of absolute no escape from the first moment of the movie, and watching him get out of that. The way we’ve set it up is to put him in increasing jeopardy to the point of absolute Armageddon – I think it will give it a really strong, driving feel.
Mortimer: Every time I see Grant, the movie has changed and become exponentially more interesting. It’s always evolving to become double the strength of the last time we spoke.
What can you tell us about your lead character, Sinatoro himself? I’m actually wondering how much you could possibly tell us, since as the film begins, he has no memory of who he is or what his life was like.
Morrison: That’s the great thing about him. Something like “Inception,” say: they did half an hour up front to tell us who he is. Which is fine, it worked, it’s fine. But we want to have the audience discover who he is at the exact same time as our hero discovers himself, so we created this blank slate. Obviously, the more he finds out, the more big reveals we get, and there’s a huge sci-fi twist right in the center of the movie which I think is gonna blow everyone away. That’s something I don’t want to talk about. But we set up a character as an absolute cipher and watch him discover, along with us, the rules of the place where he’s found himself.
Mortimer: From the first moment you see this guy, he’s this archetypal vision: very young, very handsome, very beautiful, absolutely no memory, absolutely no sense of what he’s doing or what he’s trying to accomplish. Because so much of this movie is about American pop culture and American zeitgeist, there’s gonna be something there the moment you see him where it’s almost a younger James Dean – the ultimate American hero, but he doesn’t know how to do anything, he doesn’t know where he is. With every moment he moves forward, he’s gonna double in strength and double in purpose and take on so much of the people around him that he has to deal with.
Morrison: They’re always telling us that the best heroes are everyman heroes. So we wanted to create the ultimate everyman, who’s a blank slate. We can all project on to him as a man of fate, the ultimate American hero.
It strikes me that a film about identity and amnesia and self-discovery is swimming up a current of Christopher Nolan, David Lynch, Brian DePalma…how do you make that material your own?
Morrison: I guess this movie is how we make that material our own. But absolutely, all those people you spoke of are templates for what we’re doing. We’re trying to combine everything, but hopefully by combining everything we’re going to create something new. Having written new stuff and being so deeply into the script, I really think there’s never been anything like it, even though there are so many things that inform the work. So that’s all I can say. We want to have a little callback to Hitchcock, to “Memento,” to amnesiac protagonists, which are kind of a staple of American cinema. We’re making that a real intrinsic part of our structure, but it’s quite different. I can’t tell you more without getting into specifics, so I all I can do is be vague. [Laughs]
Mortimer: A lot of it is going to have to do with the world that he’s in. All of the things you mentioned – if it’s “Memento,” if it’s Brian DePalma – have a twist on something that’s a very specific, grounded world we’ve all seen since movies of the ’40s and noir. In this case, we’re really creating an entire world, the totality of which you’ve never seen before. If there’s a moment in it that’s like a Western, or an aspect of it that feels like film noir, once you get the whole world…I think it’s all about density. Grant is so good at creating something dense that also keeps moving. I don’t think anyone else tries that.
Morrison: Once we get to the idea that happens midway through the movie, it changes everything. Once that happens, it’s not that kind of movie anymore.
“Density” makes sense to me, Adam, because Grant’s comics are the only ones I buy in monthy installments for precisely that reason: there’s enough going on that they reward re-reading.
Morrison: That’s great. I’m trying to do that, because comics cost so much these days, and I really do feel that people deserve to have the kind of experience that can be enriched by successive readings. We want to do that with the movie as well. The second time you watch it, you’ll get ten things more out of it. The third time you watch it, you’ll get a hundred things more out of it. I think it’s really important to have things that people can talk about and get involved with and get excited about – almost become, as they say, a cult.
Adam, your background is in music videos. How do you think that affects your work as a feature director? In my experience, many music video directors make genuinely formally inventive films, while with others, it’s just sort of a series of signifiers of style rather than style itself, and their moves end up being kind of dull.
Morrison: Adam’s that first group. [Laughter]
Mortimer: Well, I think we will do music in it. But there’s so many moments where we’re going for a specific kind of set piece, whether it’s a unique way to stage a gun battle or a unique way to stage a sex scene or a unique way to see a biker gang. I think what you’re talking about speaks to what I was saying about Grant’s density. If he comes up with a world that contains all of these concepts, I can be flexible enough and understand how to work visually so that all of these ideas will have their own visual flavor and pace and texture and fit together. If there’s anything that I’ve learned about music videos, it’s that every week you have to work with a different band with a brand new concept and execute it in a way that makes sense. I think that it’s not really the case that there’s a class of human beings that makes music videos and then goes off and makes movies in a certain way, because anything from “500 Days of Summer” to “Se7en” were movies made by guys who were quote-unquote “music video directors.” You know what I mean? Music videos have been a way for me to be a part of and explore pop culture and video art and to learn how to make films, how to work with a crew, and how to express something purely visually.
I suppose if there’s any way to define that group, it’s by the variety of work that came out of them.
Mortimer: Yeah. Since they’ve always been around my whole life, I have no idea how film directors became directors before music videos. Maybe they had to go work at a studio and be an assistant to somebody else and be told exactly how a movie is made and then go on and make a movie that same way. Luckily, with music videos, as soon as you say “Hey, I’m a filmmaker,” they give you a little bit of money and you can go out and start doing something. You can explore every possible way you want to shoot something, whether you’re trying to make a story or just make someone look beautiful. You have to figure it all out yourself. After years of starting from scratch on every project and figuring out “How the hell are we gonna do this?”, I think you learn what it takes to enter the Grant Morrison world and bring it to life.
Morrison: Also, when you think of how much cinematic innovation has come from music videos…I first saw the “Matrix” bullet time effect in a Rolling Stones video from 1996. Usually, music video directors get an opportunity to do stuff that’s a little bit more fantastic. They get a chance to test out the technology, because when you’re working on a short which may be three or four minutes long, you can actually budget for interesting new technology and try out new effects. I think there’s always been a certain sense that it’s a real source of cinematic innovation.
I’m sure we’ll be checking in with the two of you again as the film progresses, but for now, any final thoughts?
Morrison: As I said, I wish I could tell you the stuff that’s in this. “This is gonna be a gun battle like you’ve never seen gun battles, this will be a musical sequence like you’ve never seen musical sequences” – that’s very easy to say. [Laughs] But until we can talk about specifics, we can’t really give you more than that, so you just have to trust us that this is the greatest movie ever. [Laughs]
Mortimer: We’ve set up a Facebook page, we have a Twitter account, we’re working on the website. People should go look at that stuff, because as we generate everything we’re working on, we’re gonna keep people posted. It’s not like we’re gonna disappear now and come back when the movie is made. People will be able to constantly see what we’re working on and what we’re thinking about, and we want people to take part in that.
Morrison: We’re starting to work out how we’re going to roll things out. The very first collectible is that little postcard we made with the first image on it, and we want that to be a collectible. Anyone who made the mistake of throwing that away in San Diego will soon be kicking themselves. [Laughs] Everything we do is a potential future eBay item, and we wanted to be aware of that from the beginning. We’re tailoring the marketing of the movie along those lines.