CCI, Day 2: Chris Morgan – A "Wanted" Screenwriter

This summer, comic book fans have seen several top properties translated to film; the biggest of those being "Superman Returns" and "X-Men 3." Some fans loved these movies, while others, not so much. But with every comics-to-film franchise, the difficulties of the translation are obvious:

Do you make it for the comic fans, or does it need to be more accessible to the general public?

Do you make it with an "edge" and hide the fact that it's a comic book, or do you embrace the genre and all that comes with it, tights and all?

And what about those budget restraints?

Questions like these are what screenwriter Chris Morgan ("S.W.A.T.," "Cellular," and "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift") struggles with as he adapts two of comic properties: Dan Brereton and James Hudnall's "The Psycho" and Mark Millar's "Wanted."

CBR News had the opportunity to sit down with Morgan amid the chaos of this weekend's Comic-Con International in San Diego and chat about the challenges and the status of these projects. Let's begin by talking about "The Psycho." How do you describe the premise?

In the future, there are costumed officers that have super-powers. Our story is about Officer Jake Riley, who doesn't have any powers. In order to solve a mystery though, he ends up taking this drug that kills most people who use it but grants survivors super-powers.

He ends up taking it, survives, and uses his powers to go rescue this girl who is in distress, but who ultimately turns out to be a pawn (it turns out she's a mole who lures him in). So basically, it's a different take on superheroes. It's superheroes that are made through science, clumsy science.

Over at Universal, they bought the rights to the book and they love the story. An exec over at the studio, Jeff Kirschenbaum, has adored the project for years and shepherded it – it's like his personal baby. He and I hit it off really well on "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift," and he brought it up to me as a project that he liked. I said, "Well, let me see the book." And I read it and loved it.

So we're now trying to do a probably $30 million gritty, hard "R," psychological exploration thriller. Staying true to the comic book, we probably will shy a little bit away from the costumed superhero element of it, but we're really going to hit hard the idea of this drug altering you and giving you powers.

The cool thing about it -– that I love in the book -– is that the drug drives you crazy, which is why it's called "The Psycho." So you get these powers, but you start losing your mind. With our character Jake, he has his timeclock (from the moment he takes the drug) to solve the crime before he goes helplessly insane. There's a little bit of "DOA" to it, and I just think it's a great structure for a film.

I did it no justice in trying to describe the story, by the way ...

So is there anybody attached at the moment?

Basically, Universal has the project, we are developing the screenplay, and then we'll go out to talent. We're working in partnership with Circle of Confusion on it.

So who exactly are the bigwigs on this project?

David Engel from Circle of Confusion is producing, and Kirschenbaum, who I previously mentioned, is the VP of creative at Universal.

As opposed to an ongoing series – where you have many storylines to choose from – "The Psycho" is a graphic novel. It seems like it would be easier to adapt a finite property like this as opposed to a comic that's still telling its story.

I think so. That's the thing about graphic novels and comic books –- and Hollywood has just in the last few years started to realize this -– is that they're movies on a page with the benefit of art. And that's exactly what a script is without the art.

So, yeah, if you have a beginning, middle, and end on a graphic novel, it's absolutely easier. Because then you can come in, choose what's best, and add some of your own ideas where needed.

You're always trying to blend whatever you can bring to the story with the best parts of the [comic] story, and sometimes that's just leaving the comic's story alone, 100 percent alone. Some of the graphic novels are just awesome.

And then, a lot of other times, though, you'll work with the creators. I'm actually going to talk with Hudnall and Brereton tonight. I just want to see where else they wanted to go with the story. What else did they want to do? I'm going to bounce some ideas off of them, and hopefully, through collaborating, we'll come up with their full concept for the comic.

So do you have a completed draft of the script yet?

I don't have a finished draft yet. I just have a first act and a treatment that I'm working off of right now. I was working on "The Psycho," and then they needed a quick rewrite on "Wanted," Mark Millar's book that they're going to be shooting at Universal. "The Psycho" has therefore been put on hold for a few weeks, but then I'll be getting back to it.

This seems like a great segue into talking about "Wanted." You were assigned "Wanted" after "The Psycho," correct?

Yeah. The same exec that I worked with over at Universal said, "Look, we need a quick pass on this script. We have a director on board. We want you to change the third act – it's not working – and work with the director."

So they had a draft already?

Yes, they had a previous draft from other writers. Actually, a writing team composed of Michael Brandt and Derek Haas [screenwriters for "2 Fast 2 Furious"]. And I've got to say that they did an awesome job. Normally in this business, a studio will come to you and say, "Hey, we need a rewrite." And you'll read the script, and you'll see why they need a rewrite.

Well, with the Brandt and Haas draft, they did an excellent job of maintaining the tone and maintaining the character. Like, I basically left their introduction of the character and stuff like that completely untouched. It was spot-on awesome. I think if Mark (Millar) read it, he would love it.

width="143" height="190" alt="" border="0"> width="250" height="190" alt="" border="0">Chris Morgan recreates the famous last page of "Wanted""Salem" writers Chris Morgan and Kevin Walsh

It sounds like you really enjoyed what Brandt and Haas did. So then what changes are you making to the third act?

We're still settling on that. The director who came on is Timur Bekmambetov, the guy who did "Nightwatch" and "Daywatch." He's a Russian director and is a total visionary. He has 10 million ideas and I've seen some of the animatics he's been doing, and some of the stuff is going to blow people away.

With the third act, he wants to take what's in the comic book and twist it a little bit. So he's thinking about that, and we're bouncing notes back and forth. Really, we're dealing with the character of Wes, and following the journey from beginning to end.

When translating a property like a comic book, does the studio encourage you to talk with the property's creator? Or would they prefer that you didn't so you can focus on the property's filmic aspects?

I definitely want to, but it's like I'm told, "We've got a week, we need these pages, let's go." I was hoping Mark was going to be here at the con, but I guess he's not. As mentioned, I will be meeting with Hudnall and Brereton, and I definitely want to talk with Mark, just to find out where the story came from in his head; is there anything more we can service that he didn't put in the book, any little extra thoughts or ideas since having written it that he'd like to add now?

To me, that's where movies based on graphic novels can be made to excel; in bringing the creators in on it and getting their thoughts.

"Wanted" is kind of an interesting book in that it's set in the superhero world, but it doesn't take place in that shiny Spandex superhero world. How is the production viewing the "Wanted" world: happy Superman style or leathery X-Men style?

That has been a raging debate for the past few months. They love the idea of, "Hey, your dad is a supervillain." But I think they're trying to ground it a bit more in the world of a real-type supervillain, like a super-assassin. I know as of now we're hedging more towards that, although things have changed during the development of this in a heartbeat, so you have to wait for the final one to see, but I would say it's going to be slightly more grounded in our world.

The book is very mature. I'm not even sure if they'd let you get away with everything that takes place in the comic in a movie. How do you guys figure out what to keep and what to get rid of?

You know, everyone who reads it has something different that they love about it. And that's kind of my job, to figure out which moments will service the story and which moments are just fun throwaway things. That said, I think we squeeze most of them in. I'm really pleased with it; I think it will be a fun movie. And the studio is looking at it in terms of a franchise, maybe keeping Wes and following him along. We're not leaving it open, in terms of a cliffhanger ending, but I think -– just like the book -– you want to revisit him. Although, maybe Mark is done with him. We'll see.

I think you're going to love the character. We're transposing the guy from the book to the movie. He's just a great "voice."

Will we see Fuckwit and Shithead though?

Uh, as it currently stands, Fuckwit and Shithead are not adequately represented. There are other characters who are less, um, "superhero." There are certain things the studio wants to maintain, and there are certain things that they ... well, let's just say that they want this movie to be a hard "R," big action, gritty film, yet ...

My favorite page is in the book is the last page. I love the fact that after you've spent this money and read this book, Mark Millar is basically saying, "Fuck you. Go get a life."

So I've been fighting to put that in at the end of the movie. Everyone loves it in the book, but there's been some resistance due to fear of alienating our audience. But like, that's the fucking movie. To me, that's kind of the point of the story, and it's also the empowering thing for the audience. It's like, "You know, you just watched me do this, you go out and do it now. Don't rely on me and my movie."

But I think, in a nod to them, we'll probably have it as an after-credit sequence. So those who stay around and are dedicated will be rewarded.

In the comic, I know the character of Wes bears a striking resemblance to a certain rap star. When you are writing Wes, are you hearing Eminem speak? Or is there another actor you hear in your head?

You know, it's hard for me to get the Eminem image out of my head, just because –- to me -– Eminem is Wes. And now they are casting, and they're going out to a lot of different actors. And all I know is that every time that we talk about potential actors, I suddenly start thinking in my head, "Oh, my god. The voice is going to change." And the studio is aware of that. So depending on who they end up casting, there will definitely be a dialogue pass for him. But for me, it always has been Eminem.

I've gotta say I also love Wentworth Miller [star of "Prison Break"] as a possibility, I think he's awesome. There is a huge list of actors out there that they are going to, so we'll see.

Can you tell us if they've narrowed down the list of actors at all? Or even which actors they've talked to?

I know that they've spoken to Paul Walker, but there's a big list of people they're looking at. I don't think they've narrowed it down to anybody, and I don't they're in negotiations with anybody. But as the writer, I'm basically the guy who finds out after the fact, so we'll see.

What about the Fox, Wes' girlfriend? She looks like Halle Berry, but ...

Yes! It's going to be the hottest African-American woman in the entire universe. I don't know who that is right now though ...

You know, ahem, Rosario Dawson is here at Comic-Con promoting her comic book ...

She is here. I'd love to talk with her. She would be a perfect candidate, actually.

So what is the status of "Wanted" right now? Do the producers feel like they're getting closer to a green light?

They feel like they're getting closer. Right now they're focusing on the production side, and they are out to talent. Once they decide on talent, then we'll do a final pass on the script where all the stuff will be decided and hammered out. Oh! I know they were talking to Chris Evans [The Fantastic Four] as well. He would actually be a great Wes, I think.

So, once they decide on an actor, which they should probably know next week –- maybe -– then we're all going to sit down, walk beat-by-beat through the story, I get my marching orders, I turn out the draft, and hopefully from there, they'll be greenlit and shoot it.

You mentioned before about animatics. What exactly is this director's process when it comes to visualizing the script?

Timor is a man with a vision for things. Things will hit him differently all the time. He actually has an amazing system in that he has a visual effects company back in Russia that will just start generating scenes when Timor is reading a script, and then they'll send him animatics. He'll see them and go "That's great. Now I want to twist it this way and that way."

And he'll talk to me about it, and I'll have an idea, and he'll animate it. A scene may develop from that. Sometimes, I'll be the guy who helps him develop that, and other times, he'll come to me with something and say "What do you think of that?"

So it's a different process than I've ever been used to, but for me, it's kind of fun. I've never had people creatively just throwing stuff at me all the time, and I love that. More than anything else, I love talking about movies.

Working with Timor has been a dream for me. It's just been a creative, fun process. But yes, it doesn't go the way normal movies do.

When you initially read the book, was there anything that made you say, "Oh shit. How are we going to get away with this in a film?"

Not so much. The biggest thing for me was tone, because when I came on to the project, the question was "What rating is the movie going to be?" Because if it's a hard "R," there's nothing in there you can't do, but you have to commit to a hard "R," so kudos to Universal for doing that.

Typically, what would happen is that they would take a book like that and go "We need to reach the largest audience possible, so make it PG-13." And then you end up messing up the book, and then people don't go see it because it's not as good.

You know, God bless Universal! Because this time they're taking a hard "R" book, and they said "Fuck it. We're going to go hard 'R' with it, and you're going to come see it because it's going to be really damn cool."

They're basically taking a superhero story and making an "R" version for adults. I think it's going to reinvigorate life into the standard comic book franchise. It's good. They're basically trying to stay true to Mark's vision, and that's why they should be buying properties to begin with.

Many comic book properties often languish in Hollywood and never see the light of day. What do you feel the odds are that "Wanted" will actually make it to the theaters?

I'd be willing to bet on it.

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