Boilerplate Creator Discusses His Bad Robot

You had me at Victorian era robot. And apparently the same goes for Mr. Bad Robot himself, J.J. Abrams. Earlier this summer, it was announced that the mastermind behind geek-gasmic projects like "Lost," "Fringe," "Star Trek" and the upcoming "Undercovers" is attached to produce "Boilerplate: History's Mechanical Marvel" for Paramount Pictures in hopes of bringing the 170-page hardbound book to the big screen.

Created by Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett in 2000, Boilerplate also has an impressive web presence with a complete online virtual museum, featuring fictional biographies, newsreels, timelines and a gift shop. The official story goes:

Boilerplate was a mechanical man developed by Professor Archibald Campion during the 1880s and unveiled at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.

Built in a small Chicago laboratory, Boilerplate was a prototype soldier built for "preventing the deaths of men in the conflicts of nations". Although it was the only such prototype, Boilerplate was eventually able to exercise its proposed function in several combat actions.

Boilerplate embarked on a series of expeditions to demonstrate its abilities, the most ambitious being a voyage to Antarctica. Boilerplate is one of history's great ironies, a technological milestone that remains largely unknown.

We spoke with Guinan about the proposed movie adaption, his expectations for an Abrams-led production and what's next for Boilerplate, the Mechanical Marvel.

CBR News: Are you a fan of J.J.'s other works like "Lost," "Fringe" and "Star Trek" and how pleased are you that he's the person who is going to bring your creation to the big screen?

Paul Guinan: I've seen a few episodes of Lost and Fringe, but didn't follow them regularly. I like "Fringe" more than "Lost," probably because it's more science fiction-y. J.J. Abrams was my first choice for "Boilerplate" because my wife/co-author, Anina Bennett, and I both loved his work on "Star Trek."

The Star Trek universe is, let's face it, overloaded with history. We were deeply impressed by how J.J. incorporated so much of that history, while telling a compelling, entertaining, energetic story that didn't require the viewer to be familiar with all that baggage. Longtime fans, such as myself, were treated to plenty of inside references to past TV episodes and movies - some quite oblique, such as Kirk eating an apple during his Kobayashi test like in "Wrath of Khan" - and yet those who were new to the material still enjoyed the movie and didn't miss out on important information. This approach is exactly what a "Boilerplate" movie needs: incorporating the complex world history that's presented in the book, but without encumbering the story or slowing down the movie. So, yep, we're both pleased as punch.
How involved will you be in production?

That remains to be seen. The development process has barely started, so it'll be a while until the picture goes into production. Anina and I will gladly be as involved as they'll let us be. I began my professional career doing storyboards, and I've done production design, so I'd enjoy working in those areas.

Do you have any idea what it's going to look like, live action with CGI, animated, maybe "Forbidden Planet?"

Funny that you reference Robbie the robot from "Forbidden Planet" - that's another "Star Trek" connection. When Gene Roddenberry assembled his original production team back in the 1960s, he screened two movies for them: "Forbidden Planet" and "Horatio Hornblower." Gene wanted "Star Trek" to be a fusion of the two. So, in a way, Robbie is Data's granddad.

But I digress. Again, it's too early to say for sure, but we're hoping for a live-action movie with CGI. For long shots of Boilerplate in action, CGI will be needed, but for closer shots, they might use a life-size animatronic figure. My question is: Will Anina and I get to keep one of those full-scale Boilerplates after the film wraps?
Who do you think could suit up as a live action Boilerplate?

Well, I wouldn't wish the wearing of a Boilerplate suit on any actor. A celebrity voice could be fun, but you'd never see the performer anyway. I'm more concerned about who might play Boilerplate's inventor, Archibald Campion. Johnny Depp is one of my top picks, and not just because Johnny's a huge fan of my father's paintings and has hung out with him, drinking stout while listening to gypsy music. The guy's a great actor, and he has the ability to make an obsessive character like Campion both convincing and sympathetic.
Finally, what else are you working on, and specifically, anything Boilerplate-related?

Yes, a Boilerplate spin-off book is in the works right now. "Frank Reade: Adventures in the Age of Invention" will feature characters that appeared briefly in the "Boilerplate" book, a family of inventors. The format and premise are similar to "Boilerplate," insofar as fictitious protagonists have adventures in authentic historical events. Boilerplate and the Campions will make cameo appearances.

For "Frank Reade," I'm adapting hundreds of engravings and early color litho images from 19th-century dime novel stories featuring robots, airships and other outlandish inventions. This material, which predates Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, is unknown to most science fiction fans. It's exciting to help bring this lost legacy of American science fiction back into the zeitgeist.

As with "Boilerplate," Anina is co-writing this new book. She gave heart to my tin man, adding a whole new dimension to "Boilerplate." Now she'll bring her wonderful wordsmith wizardry to the story of Frank Reade and his progeny, Frank Jr., Kate Reade, and Frank III. She's taking a more biographical approach this time, playing up the family dynamics through letter/diary excerpts like the ones she wrote in "Boilerplate." The Reade family members have different sociopolitical viewpoints, unlike Archie Campion and his sister. The book is slated for publication by Abrams - no relation to J.J. - in fall 2011.

We also just finished a two-page Boilerplate story that will appear in the upcoming "Liberty Comics" annual benefit comic for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. It takes place in 1909, when Archie Campion signs a deal with Essanay Studios for a movie featuring his robot.

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