With a star-studded cast including Jeffery Dean Morgan and Zoe Saldana with direction by Sylvain White, "The Losers" hit the silver screen for the first time last Friday. It's been a long time coming. Based on the critically acclaimed Vertigo series by Andy Diggle and Jock, the story of an ex-CIA special forces team out for revenge began motion picture development back in 2005.
"It was roller coaster, but it was a very slow roller coaster," co-creator Andy Diggle told CBR News. "We didn't really hear from [Vertigo parent] DC Comics or from [DC Comics parent] Warner Bros., anything at all. Somebody emailed me one day and said, 'Hey, congratulations, I hear Peter Berg's going to make "The Losers,''' and I said, 'Really? Where did you hear that?' and they sent me a link to the front page of Variety. We'd be the last to hear about anything. When we'd read these things, we'd email the guys at DC and ask if it was true and they'd confirm or deny. They never really offered information up front. Because we didn't own the rights, we weren't involved in the development process. We'd occasionally hear someone was coming on and he dropped out and someone else was coming on and he'd drop out. It got to the point where every time we heard there was a new development, we got a little bit cynical. I wouldn't have signed a two-year exclusive contract with Marvel Comics if I'd known 'The Losers' was going to get greenlit a month later! But you know, I can't really complain."
Diggle and Jock's "The Losers" takes its name from an old DC World War II comics series and was originally intended to be a Vertigo revamp of that concept. "I pitched [editor] Will Dennis a couple of modern crime book ideas that he kind of liked, but I was the new kid on the block, I didn't really have any body of work, so he couldn't commission any of my own stuff from me," Diggle recalled. "I had to show that I could deliver the goods, first. So we talked about revamping an old DC character of some sort. I wanted to write a contemporary, crime-y, thriller-y - something in that genre. We started trying to think of a character we could revamp for Vertigo. I thought that 'Johnny Double' did exactly that. He was some character from 'Showcase' or something like that. I'd never heard of him, but Azzarello just plucked him from obscurity and revamped him in his cracking little miniseries. That was the model we were thinking of, find something as obscure as that."
Finding a DC character to grab from the ether wasn't as easy as it seemed. "We couldn't think of anything," said Diggle. "I was looking at all the online encyclopedias and stuff but we couldn't find anything that worked. One day, Will rang me up and said, 'Hey, have you ever heard of "The Losers?'' And I said 'Well, actually no, but it's a great title. I could do something with a title like that.' I went straight onto Wikipedia and read up on who The Losers were and all that, but I've still never read any of the original issues. I made it a point not to. The first thing I found out was that they were dead. They died at the end of World War II. I could either do a war story in which they're still alive, or we could find out they never really died. What if they never really died? What if they're just missing in action and they're kind of lying low for some reason? And then they read that they put the team back together in the '50s to pull a heist. A civilian mission, but they're all ex-army buddies like in the original Frank Sinatra 'Ocean's Eleven.'
"I started thinking of the story along these lines but then it occurred to me - Garth Ennis was already doing 'War Stories' at Vertigo, which already had the World War II angle covered. Howard Chaykin and David Tischman were doing 'American Century,' which was a '50s crime book at Vertigo. Both those bases were already covered, so to hell with it, let's just throw away the original concept, keep the title and come up with something completely new from scratch. The only thing I kept from my original idea was what if it was about a bunch of soldiers who were dead but it turns out they're not really dead, they're just lying low for some reason. It was originally pitched as a four-issue miniseries. It was going to be much more a military crime caper in the tone of 'Three Kings' or 'Kelly's Heroes.' It went through a drastic mutation."
Diggle's mutation of the original DC concept led to huge breaks for both himself and then-newcomer artist Jock in American comics. "It totally was [my big break]," Jock told CBR. "Andy had done one little miniseries and I had done an issue of 'Hellblazer,' but that was purely, Will Dennis said to me, to give me some kind of profile in the States. It was really just gearing up for 'The Losers.' It was our first baby, really. I've got to give a lot of credit to Vertigo for giving two unknowns a chance because they basically gave us the steering wheel of an ongoing series. Luckily, it went down okay. People seemed to like it. It was a steep learning curve because it was our first fully ongoing American work. I think because we were so hungry to do it well and make an impression that I think the series had a lot of fresh energy that we tried to put into it. Looking back, that was definitely the case. We both had a great time doing it and we were both trying really hard. It was nice to see it come on like this, it's amazing really what a journey it's been. Really, 'The Losers' was my first big American work and everything else I've done as come from it."
"['The Losers'] got noticed. It got really well reviewed. The people who read it loved it, I think it's the definition of a cult book," said Diggle. "Most people haven't heard of it, but the people who have read it really, really like it. They're quite fierce fans. It was always intended to be a comic that could be enjoyed by people who don't read comics. If you got a friend who doesn't really like comics, generally you'll give him a copy of 'Preacher' and that's the one that wins over non-comics fans. I wanted to write a book that would have that sort of crossover appeal. I've got brothers who don't read comics so I thought I'd do something that they would like, something that I would like, too - something you could put into the hands of a guy on the street and he'd enjoy it."
Though critically acclaimed, "The Losers" did not sell particularly well in single issues. But contrary to popular belief, the series was never cancelled. "It never sold gangbusters," the writer said. "Everyone always think it got cancelled - it was always intended to be two or three years long," Diggle said. "When we were getting into the mid-twenties, the sales were getting down to about 7,000 per issue. I actually emailed [Vertigo Executive Editor] Karen Berger saying, 'Look, the sales are really low - would you like me to wrap this up because I'd like to reach my ended without just getting cancelled mid-story.' She was great about it. She said, 'You've got this whole thing planned out, you know how it's supposed to end, we'll keep going until you finish the story,' which was great. I think it was doing pretty well in trades, which is often the way in Vertigo books. Even though the monthly sales weren't too good towards the end, the sales on the trades were high enough to warrant that. Yeah, it was great that we could keep going until we got to the point we wanted to hit. She was very cool about it."
Development on the "Losers" movie began in 2005. "The person that got the whole ball rolling was Pete Berg," recalled Jock. "Pete was not a huge comics reader and one of the guys that he works with at his production company gave him a copy of 'The Losers.' As far as I understand, Pete read it, loved it and said, 'We've got to make a movie of this.' He put together a first draft fairly quickly after that. But he got called off on another project. I think he went off and directed 'The Kingdom.' When we saw the trailer for it, it had almost a 'Loser-y' kind of vibe to it. Pete went off on another trajectory after that. He ended up doing 'Hancock' with Will Smith. The project kind of slowed down for a few years."
"We heard rumors of people being attached and during that time. One of Pete's friends, Jamie Vanderbilt, had done a draft rewrite and script revision since then, was on board," Jock continued. "We were hearing rumors of directors attached. Tim Story became attached for a little while, but nothing really came of that. It wasn't until Jeffery Dean Morgan officially signed on and Sylvain [White] was officially at the helm of it directing it did it really seem to be moving forward. I guess that was three, maybe four years after we heard it was happening. At that point, it was more like wouldn't it be great if it happened, but it probably won't - and sure enough, it moved forward and here we are today."
While Diggle and Jock weren't involved in the movie in any official capacity, they were called upon a few times by various would-be directors on numerous occasions. "We met Pete Berg first, who just wanted to sand it out and talk to us about it," said Jock. "What that actually meant was a night in an underground London pub just talking about the project. That was great. Since then, we met Jamie Vanderbilt a couple of times. Jamie was very keen to hear our thoughts on the various drafts of the script."
"It was more making suggestions. There was no official involvement, we certainly weren't paid, but we became friendly with Jamie Vanderbilt, the screenwriter," said Diggle. "He went through about five or six different drafts of the movie over the years. He would email them to me and I would give it a read-through and I would just send him my thoughts. I think I was sending them to Film 44, which is Peter Berg's production company. Whether they made it to Pete or whether they made it to Jamie I don't know, but the fact is Joel Silver was signing Jamie's paycheck and not me, so my opinion didn't really have any leverage. Some of my suggestions ended up in there and most of them didn't.
"But when Sylvain White came onboard, the space of the third act didn't work on the page. The Losers never met Max. They never came face to face with Max, the bad guy. I got on a phone conference with Sylvain and said, 'Look, I agree the third act doesn't work, you need to have these guys come face to face with Max. If it was me writing this film, this is what I would do.' And I just pitched him how I thought the third act would play out. I think he must have taken that straight to Jamie because that's what happened in the film."
"As for art direction, Sylvain was so into the material. Apparently the apartment he stayed in at Puerto Rico was covered with pages from the comic, so he was just immersed in the comic," Jock said. "Art-wise, Sylvain was really keen to get my art in the movie, so I did quite a few character shots and frame matches where it sort of zooms out of frames of the actors to my drawings, which is great. That's got to be a good thing, to see your artwork up on screen and to know that it's going to be seen by millions of people. It's been a really amazing experience."
Some fans may recall Jock's artwork on a promotional poster for the "Losers" film given out at last year's Comic-Con International in San Diego. "I was in my office and I pick up the phone and I hear, 'Jock, I've got Joel Silver on the phone for you.' It was like 'Whoa!' That doesn't happen every day," the artist said. "Joel called me and asked if I could do a Comic-Con poster, which is what that poster was. It was sort of the first official image released for the movie. That was kind of cool and we still see it around the Web, but it wasn't actually one of the one sheets that people are going to see out and about."
With regards to potential concerns readers may have about liberties the film takes with his source material, Andy Diggle believes such departures are onsequences of the medium of presentation. "You have to reinvent things. I'm not a purist who says it has to be exactly like the comic, because it's a different medium," he said. "A 32-issue comic is a very different beast from a 90-minute movie. Of course you have to reinvent. I was very surprised at how faithfully it copies the action sequences. They're very similar to the comic. I think they really nailed the casting, it really feels like the guys from the comic. That's really exciting and it's exciting to hear so many of my own lines of dialogue and stuff.
"At the same time, they've really jettisoned a lot of the stuff that made it make sense," Diggle laughed. "The film moves like a freight train - it's a really fast-paced thing. I think that sacrifices a certain amount of depth - I'm not pretending the comic itself is deep or anything like that, it's still an action book - but there was a certain grit and a certain political sense to it. They deliberately and consciously took that out of the movie, they didn't want it to feel dark and political. I think the comic is a lot more cynical. But the fact is that the comic was aimed at Vertigo readers and the film is aimed at teenagers. They're intended for different audiences. The comic is still a comic."
The highlight of the entire process came for both Diggle and Jock when they visited the "Losers" set in Puerto Rico on Jock's birthday. "It was literally the most surreal experience I've ever had," said Jock. "They stuck so closely to the look of the characters. Chris Evans is Jensen. It freaked me out, because here's this character that up until now had just been in my head. Sure, on the printed page as well, but essentially existed in my head, and all the cast got on so well together, even in between shoots they were calling each other by their characters' names. Me and Andy sat there on directors' chairs with 'Losers' artwork on the back of them and it was the weirdest experience to start with and these actors come in calling each other Jensen and Aisha. I turn and it's one of my characters with the same facial hair, the same glasses, the same haircut, the same t-shirt - they really fought to keep the characters very, very close to the comic. Jeffery Dean Morgan -- the costume designer was very keen to get him into something other than a black suit, but Jeff was just like, 'Nope. Clay wears a black suit and that is it.' So, all the actors were really into it and really took on board the characters and also mainly just clearly had got on really, really well for a buddy movie like this - a team of guys that got along so well just really showed up on screen."
"Everybody was super nice as well," Diggle said. "I know it was a hard shoot because they had to shoot in a lot of heat and humidity. We came in at the end of the shoot, so everyone was tired. They were all really good natured, upbeat, joking around and really friendly. They went out of their way to make us feel at ease, because frankly I was a little bit starstruck. It was super great."
The comic book creators are naturally excited now that "The Losers" film is finally in cinemas. "Though it sounds obvious, just the fact that it's happened is the thing that is most amazing to me," said Jock. "That me and my friend Andy just basically worked on a comic together in a little room in the UK to see it come out -- or at least an adaptation of it come out -- on such a huge stage is mindblowing, really. It's an amazing thing. So, my hopes for it are just that it does well and people like it. All the cast and Sylvain directing have two more movies lined up if this one does well, because there's a lot of material from the comics that Sylvain was keen to move on to. I just hope we get to see a couple more of them."
"Honestly, I'm excited about people discovering the comic that have never heard of it before," said Diggle. "Anything that gets people going and picking up comics that they never knew existed is great."