Last week, CBR brought word from best-selling comic book scribe and increasingly A-list Hollywood screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski about his contributions to “Ninja Assassin,” the Warner Brothers martial arts film opening in the United States today, starring South Korean pop star Rain, directed by “V For Vendetta” helmer James McTeigue and produced by genre film icons Larry and Andy Wachowski. And while JMS holds a certain amount of sway for cluing comic fans into the story of a young man raised by ninjas who rebels against his former masters, the movie’s other screenwriter, Matthew Sand, has more than a few ties of his own to the comics world that’s becoming increasingly connected to Hollywood at the hip.
“I’m definitely a comic book fan. I’m not a rabid fan, but I grew up reading Marvel titles and DC titles,” Sand, who’s also briefly written indie comic stories like Komikwerks’ “Santa Muerte,” told CBR. “I collected a bunch of different comics in college, including some really obscure ones like ‘Shattered’ and ‘Dreadstar,’ which are sadly gone now. And I read comics now. I don’t think you can evade the fact that comics have gotten amazing. Watching graphic novels over the past few years has been like seeing an artistic form rising in my life. So, I do love comic books, but I know people who are so passionate and knowledgeable about them, like Larry and Andy, so I hesitate to put myself in the same league.”
Before diving into the Hollywood talent pool, Sand started out as an art dealer who realized he “wouldn’t be happy unless I wrote.” He explained that it was his shared sensibilities for action that hooked him up with the Wachowskis, who are attempting to tell a more graphic, anime-influenced action story in “Ninja Assassin” than they did with their last, kid-friendly directorial effort. “I was working for Joel Silver on something else, and they’d been working with Rain on ‘Speed Racer’ and basically decided they wanted to do a ninja movie starring Rain. I know Chad [Stahelski] and Dave [Leitch], their two stunt guys, were also involved in that decision-making process. My manager, Lawrence Mattis from Circle of Confusion, also manages the Wachowskis as well as Chad and Dave, so there was a lot of synergy in terms of my name coming up a lot from a lot of people.”
As with many “sure thing” movies that are fast-tracked into production, the process of writing the screenplay for “Ninja Assassin” was fast and furious. “[The Wachowskis] called me up just before the writer’s strike, and I flew out to Chicago, met with them, wrote up the story very rapidly and then went on strike for a while. Then after the strike, I came back and did another pass -Â again very rapidly. In fact, we were in production before we even had a draft done.”
Sand said that throughout the process of filming, he was able to work his own ideas for the larger story off his collaborators. “The thing I try to do as the screenwriter is be as much as I possibly can in the director’s head. My job is to give him or her the blueprint they need to make their vision a reality. With McTeigue and the Wachowskis, there’s a lot of back and forth conversations and spring-boarding of ideas. With this [movie] in particular, it was talking to the stunt guys and McTeigue and Larry and Andy about what they had in mind visually, but it was also me having to see the movie in my head. I have to imagine what’s happening there.
“I see a ton of martial arts movies. I’ve always loved them, my whole life,” he added, noting that his training in martial arts in college and grad school helped give him creative ideas for describing “ninja-on-ninja action” in the film. “For example, we were in an early meeting and talking about the ninjas and how they come out of darkness. I said, ‘That’s awesome. Them stepping out of darkness,’ and right away I started thinking about sharks and how they come out of the darkness and out of deep water. A lot of the action sequences then began with the idea of the ninjas moving in and out of action sequences the way sharks move in and out of deep water. I have no idea whether Larry and Andy or McTeigue thought about ninjas and sharks that way, but that was the metaphor I used to get those scenes down on paper.”
While the martial arts revenge genre has been almost exclusively the providence of Eastern cinema during its history, Sand did not feel as though his job was to adhere too strictly to the tropes laid out in famous kung fu movies, mostly because of the caliber of his bosses. “I tried to be respectful and knowledgeable about the material I was working with in terms of archetypes, but I was working with the guys who made, in my opinion, the greatest action movie of all time. There’s nothing about ‘The Matrix’ I could hope to improve upon as a writer. Ever. The action is just there. All I can try to do give them the material they need – Larry and Andy and McTeigue and Rain also, who did a phenomenal job -Â to sink their teeth into. And a lot of the time as a writer I think your job is just to get out of the way.”
What Sand was responsible for was the core story of “Ninja Assassin” and how Rain’s character of Raizo developed throughout the fast-paced sequences McTeigue and the Wachowskis had planned for the visuals. “It’s about the character growing up,” he said of what drew him to the movie’s lead character. “It’s an origin story. You can tell that from the trailer. It’s a story about a kid becoming a man. It’s all about that classic idea, a man coming to terms with his past -Â just as every movie is. But you’ve never seen that in this genre, not to my knowledge. What would it be like to be raised as an assassin? How do you live that down and eventually come to terms with that in real life? That’s cool. That’s what I fell in love with -Â that character, that arc, that journey.”
As for the future of his own screenwriting journey, Sand has a number of new projects on tap, including the script for “Brothers in Arms” – an upcoming Denzel Washingtion war film described as beingÂ “like ‘300’ with tanks” – and even some more work connected to comic books. Sand admitted that working on projects like Timur Bekmambetov’s planned adaptation of the Soviet-themed sci-fi comic “Red Star” has led him to think more about bringing some of his own stories to the four-color medium. “I think there are stories that I would love to see in comic books,” he said. “I was privileged to work on Christian[ Gossett’s] ‘Red Star’ and take what he’d done and work on bringing that graphic novel to a different medium. And you can’t help but think while working on a project like that, ‘Oh, do I have stuff I’ve written that I could see turned back into a graphic novel?’ But that said, I like being a screenwriter a lot. I enjoy the hell out of writing feature films, and I haven’t had a lot of massive hits yet that will allow me to explore other areas.”
Comic fans may end up seeing more of Sand’s work before they know it. “I did a screenplay for ‘Kull,’ and while we were developing the screenplay, they did a great comic book. It was fun to see my interpretation of the Robert E. Howard literature go one way and the comic going another way. They were interesting bookends on what Howard did. But I love the comic book, and it couldn’t be more different from what I wrote.”
“Ninja Assassin” opens today in theaters nationwide.