Producer Don Murphy knows comics are cool. He’s been working to bring comics to the big screen since well before “X-Men” and “Spider-Man” lit up the box office. Moreover, as the producer of “From Hell,” he knows Alan Moore’s comics are cool.
Murphy with Stuart Townsend on the set of ‘LXG’
But where “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” is concerned, Murphy spotted a cool movie waiting to be made months before the book was published or even announced.
“I was on the phone one day going over some ‘From Hell’ information with my friend Alan,” Murphy related in an interview with Comics2Film/CBR News conducted in late June. “I just happened that day to say, ‘Dudeski, what else are you working on?'”
At the time Moore was just beginning to develop his “America’s Best Comics” line for WildStorm, which would eventually be absorbed by DC Comics. Moore told Murphy about all the books from that line including “League,” which he was doing with artist Kevin O’Neill.
“By the time he was done pitching me my jaw was on the floor. ‘OK, that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever heard,'” Murphy said.
And so, in June of 1998, more than six months before the comics was to be published, Murphy had the movie set up at Twentieth Century Fox. On July 11, 2003 the movie open in theaters everywhere.
FULL STEAM AHEAD
Those of us who watch the development of comic book movies know that a five-year stretch from option to release is actually pretty rapid. Movies like
‘Spider-Man,’ ‘X-Men’ and ‘The Hulk’ suffered a far more difficult course of fits and starts before they eventually made it to the big screen.
Unlike many big movies, LXG only had one significant misstep before charging ahead. “We had a writer who came on and seemed to get it quite well,” Murphy said. However, after a year that writer was still struggling with the material and Murphy brought comic and screen writer James Dale Robinson on board.
We asked the producer why this project moved so fast when so many others languish.
“One: It was a really good idea, that’s for sure,” Murphy said of Moore’s concept. “Two: the president of production throughout the whole process was a guy named Tom Rothman. From the moment he bought it until later on he always liked it. It was always his thing.”
Rothman took a very hands-on approach to what would become a pet project, helping it avoid the setbacks other films may suffer.
One thing that did turn out tricky was the hiring of the director. Murphy knew from the start that “Blade” director Stephen Norrington “had to be the guy.”
Murphy enumerated a series of is-he-or-isn’t-he moments that kept Norrington bouncing in and out of play until he finally was signed.
“Getting the studio to agree [to Norrington], but not agree to make the movie that minute.
“Losing Steve Norrington to ‘Ghost Rider’ but, in my heart, knowing he’d be right back. A couple months later he was.
“Losing him again, because the studio wasn’t ready to make the movie yet, to something called ‘Tick Tock,’ which is a Jennifer Lopez bomber movie.
“Then having 9/11 happen and no one’s going to make a shopping mall bomb movie and ending up with Steve Norrington [as the director of LXG].”
While circumstances seemed to thwart it, Murphy was committed to having Norrington helm the movie. “The studio had flirtations but I always wanted Norrington.”
A BOY’S OWN ADVENTURE
Murphy, a self-professed anglophile sees “League” as a specific kind of British literature. That was part of the reason he wanted Brits Norrington and Robinson on board.
“There’s a whole genre in England which is called the ‘Boy’s Own Adventure,'” Murphy told C2F. “Allan Quatermain really comes from that genre which is like novels for fourteen year-old boys who want to go off and change the world.
“This movie really is a ‘Boy’s Own Adventure,’ and it struck me that that’s what it was and that’s why I really held out for James. He was British and he got that,” Murphy said. “I really held out for Norrington because he was British and got that. Except for Shane, all the rest of the characters are from either Britain or the main colonies: Scotland and Australia and like that.”
Murphy credits Robinson’s dedication to the project as another critical element for keeping it moving. “Although he had to write 932 drafts, his draft got it made.”
A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN
However, early Internet reviews of Robinson’s script were less than enthusiastic. The movie version of LXG was shaping up to be significantly different from the comic book.
“The fans tend to go nuts on the Internet,” Murphy said, but he likens the situation to the making of “From Hell,” where they compressed Moore’s massive graphic novel into a two-hour film space. Murphy admits that might have been better adapted as an eight hour HBO mini-series but adds, “That wasn’t what I was trying to make. I was trying to make a feature and people can like it or not like it but it tries to capture the flavor of ‘From Hell’ without clearly even trying to be ‘From Hell.’
“In this particular case, we’re trying to capture the flavor of what Alan and Kevin did, while trying to do a big, summer blockbuster,” the producer said of the changes.
While the comic may work fine as a comic, certain pacing issues had to be addressed.
“If you actually go back and read the comic again, you’ll see that for all of its brilliance they spend about three issues having tea and meeting each other and talking about what they should do, and then three issues trying to avert the crisis which is, ‘Oh my God, someone’s going to drop bombs on London,'” said Murphy.
“This, unfortunately, everyone decided, is not the stuff of which big blockbusters are born. It needs to be a bigger menace, a bigger goal, just bigger. So then the idea became how to take the idea, with an ‘Indiana Jones’ type feel to it and make it bigger.”
The producer also defends the choices of adding characters like Dorian Gray and Tom Sawyer to the big-screen version of the team.
“Dorian Gray is not a completely out-of-our-ass kind of thing. He appears on the wall in two or three panels of ‘League,'” Murphy said.
The decision to include the young, American Sawyer may have had some motivation in demographics but Murphy also sees the character as a legitimate choice for the “League” roster.
“People don’t know this, I guess, or don’t bother to look it up, but Twain wrote two sequels. One was ‘Tom Sawyer: Detective’ in which Tom was about fourteen or fifteen years old and he solves a murder. So the idea that, six years later, he could have joined the American Secret Service is not completely deranged.”
With a roster made up of pre-existing characters from literature, there was a question as to whether or not the studio would be able to use all or Moore’s planned players. While many of the characters are now in the public domain, a few were not.
“The Invisible Man is not in the public domain. I don’t know how the comic book manages to use ‘The Invisible Man’ but they do,” Murphy explained. “When it went to Fox’s lawyers, the H.G. Wells estate is still copyrighted. However, the idea of an invisible man is a public domain idea. Which is why we have a different last name than Moore [did].”
Another element from Moore’s original concept had to be changed. “The comic book, when he first pitched me it, had Fu Manchu in it. Fu Manchu is not in the public domain so that’s why he became the yellow doctor lord of lime house,” Murphy said, noting that an heir to the character’s creator, Sax Rohmer, had already optioned Fu Manchu elsewhere.
Check out part two of C2F/CBR News’ interview with Don Murphy as the producer discusses the tensions between Norrington and actor Sean Connery, the Prague flood, his other comic book movies and more!