Last December, Vertigo Comics delighted Quentin Tarantino fans as the publisher released the first issue of “Django Unchained,” the comic book adaptation of the filmmaker’s 2012 slave revenge flick. Drawn by “Scalped” artist R.M. Guera, the miniseries is adapted from Tarantino’s original screenplay by none other than Reggie Hudlin, writer, director and producer of the film version of “Django.”
A name familiar to many in the comic book world, Hudlin is best known among readers for his turn as the writer on Marvel Comics’ “Black Panther,” where his contributions included the marriage of Storm and T’Challa. Hudlin is also a seasoned Hollywood director and producer who launched his career in the ’90s with movies such as the critically acclaimed “House Party” and the Eddie Murphy film “Boomerang” before becoming the President of Entertainment for BET from 2005 to 2008. A friend of Tarantino for years, Hudlin turned his considerable talents back to the world of comics for the adaptation, translating Tarantino’s script into the visual medium and restoring many scenes that were cut from the movie.
With the second issue of “Django” due out in February, Hudlin spoke with CBR about the adaptation process as well as the debate about depictions of slavery the film has engendered and what impact he thinks the comic and film will have on Hollywood, comic books and audiences worldwide.
CBR News: Reggie, most comic book readers know you primarily as the writer of Marvel’s “Black Panther.” With your background in comic books, was it your idea to turn the “Django” script into a comic book miniseries?
Reggie Hudlin: Yeah, it kind of happened by accident. We had gotten the proposal from another publisher to do an illustrated screenplay, meaning that they wanted to publish Quentin’s screenplay and put photographs from production in to illustrate the script. Quentin loves to publish his screenplays but he thinks they should stand-alone as a piece of writing and not use anything as a crutch. I said, “Yeah, I get that, but frankly when I first heard the proposal I thought they were interested in doing a comic book or graphic novel.” And Quentin lit up! He said, “Yeah, that would be fun to do! Let’s do that!” [Laughs] And he wanted to do it with a real comic book publisher, we talked to some folks, and suddenly it’s there in your hands.
You were the one responsible for adapting Tarantino’s screenplay into comic book form — what was the adaptation process like?
Well it was great because at the time we were pretty deep into production. In production you make a lot of changes for all kinds of reasons; maybe it’s, “Oh, we found a different location,” or, “Oh, this actor had an idea,” or, “Oh, Quentin has a new idea.” But as I went back through the original script I was like, “Wow, here are all these things that are so great and that readers get to see the original material!” Our instruction to the artist was, “Forget the movie, this is it’s own piece of art, and just focus on what’s in the script.”
When it came to working with series artist R.M. Guerra, was there talk about him not basing any of his character designs on the actors at all, or was it more hand in hand with the production?
No, it was definitely not about basing it on the production. It was just, “Read the script and do what images come to you.” Guera had actually worked with Quentin before on illustrating a couple of scenes from “Inglorious Basterds” for “Playboy” magazine and Quentin really liked how that turned out. He liked that sometimes the settings were different, sometimes the people looked very different from the actors who were cast. We took the same approach. For example, you see Calvin Candie in the book and he’s very much a different look than DiCaprio because that character was first written as an older gentleman.
A little over a year ago, a version of the “Django” script leaked online and there was a lot of talk about the more graphic and violent scenes that got cut, with a lot of sexual violence directed at Kerry Washington’s character. When you were adapting the screenplay was there anything in there that you toned down or decided not to put in, or had any hesitation to show the violence against her?
We certainly don’t ever want to do anything that’s pornographic, so we’re always trying to exercise good taste in the adaptation. But the idea is the movie is the movie and the book is the book. We want to be true to what each thing is and people can see for themselves the choices we have made when adapting Quentin’s original screenplay into a motion picture.
The movie is now out in theatres, and one of the striking things about the film is the two types of violence portrayed in it — there’s the ugly, harsh violence perpetrated against the slaves and the much more cathartic violence at the end when Django rides back through town. When you were adapting the screenplay, how do you go about showing that idea in a visual format, and how do you make sure that you that distinction comes across to readers in a comic book?
Well, you have to respect each medium for what it is, and honestly comic books excel at delivering action! [Laughs] Superhero comics and cowboy comics and military comics deliver tremendous action on the page. That’s why it comes down to picking the right artist, and that’s why we feel so great about the art team.
Did you talk a lot with Quentin and Guera while adapting the script, or was the process more you and Guera working together with Tarantino’s blessing to do whatever you wanted with the screenplay?
Quentin was completely absorbed in making the movie, and he’s still very absorbed in promoting the film now. It’s a massive, massive, massive task. So he really kind of left it in my hands in terms of making sure this happened. I was always very excited to show him pages as Guera was drawing them and he was very excited. He’s a huge comic book fan and to see one of his creations exist in that format was a big thrill for him.
For you, what was the biggest challenge adapting the screenplay?
There are things you don’t have; you don’t have sound and movement, obviously, when you’re doing a comic book. A character in the script nods. A nod, which is a very simple gesture, is an almost impossible thing to convey on the comic book page, so you may have to give that character lines instead. You miss having music, you miss having sound effects — not that you can’t write some great sound effects on the page, but I always miss having those mediums at my disposal when I write comics.
Has doing this re-sparked your interest in writing comics, either doing another adaptation or writing an original story?
My interest in writing comics has never gone away, and I’m definitely working on some projects — I’ll be hopefully working on some classic characters and reinventing them, and also doing some original characters as well.
While the movie is doing great at the box office and the first printing of issue #1 of “Django” has already sold out, there’s been a lot of debate among black filmmakers about “Django” and it’s content and Quentin’s take on it. Did that debate influence what you were doing on the adaptation or did you have to consciously shut that out while adapting the screenplay?
No, it didn’t influence me at all. Again, I think the critical commercial success of the film has proven a point, in that we’ve got people all over the country and soon all over the world loving this film. It’s gotten incredible reviews and whether it’s film professors, other filmmakers, academics, the amount of people who have contacted me to tell me how much they enjoyed the film, were touched by the film, had seen the film four times, twelve times, there has been this incredible enthusiasm for the film! [Laughs] Plus we made a decision at the beginning that this is not the original film, this is an adaptation of that original script. It’s not like I’m going to be making changes because that is what that is.
Do you have a favorite scene that is either in the screenplay but not the movie or vice versa?
Yeah, there’re several scenes that I really loved and I’m glad to be adapting throughout the screenplay. There’s some dialogue exchanges that got trimmed out that are really just brilliant; there’s a couple of scenes that were one of Sam Jackson’s favorite scenes, one of Jamie Foxx’s favorite scenes, one of Kerry Washington’s favorite and are scenes that are making their way back. So you get more of everything!
As one of the film’s producers, you got to read the screenplay before anyone else. What was your first reaction when you read the script? What grabbed you about it?
Well, it knocked me out. When Quentin gave it to me it reminded me of a conversation we had had fifteen years ago talking about the topic of slavery and how most of them are what I call “Suffering” movies: there’s movies about black people maintaining their dignity while they’re suffering. I mean that’s fine, but my favorite movie about slavery is “Spartacus.” That’s a movie where there’s a lot of payback and there’s a lot of foot-to-ass action in it! [Laughs] That was always the kind of movie I wanted to make about that topic and that’s the kind of movie “Django” was. So I was very into it. I said, “Wow, let’s go, let’s make this movie!”
Because of that, what sort of impact do you think both the comic and the movie will have on audiences? Do you think this might open the door for more — I guess you could call Django a black superhero — but for more black hero vehicles to come out?
Well I hope so! I’ve always loved the concept of black superheroes, whether it’s Black Panther or Django. We need more of them. I would hope this box office success will encourage Hollywood to do more conscious investing in projects like this; I certainly know it has created an incredible appetite from the audience who wants more stories like this. That’s my job to deliver those stories.
To wrap up, is there anything you’d like to say directly to the fans, both of the comic and to those people going to see the movie over and over?
I’d certainly want to say thank you to those fans who got the first issue, we’re all deeply appreciative. Also I want to say to the folks who want more Django, this is a place where there is more Django to have! [Laughs] There’s more of all those characters you love or you hate, there’s more of it — so come along for the ride!
“Django Unchained” #2 is out in stores February 13.