In an era where pop culture opposites of all kinds are facing off in titles from comic shops to multiplexes, the May, Liquid Comics release “Dinosaurs Vs. Aliens” (published through Dynamite Entertainment) is carrying a noteworthy creative pedigree as it weaves its story of early giant lizards and futuristic insectoid aliens. Written by acclaimed comics scribe Grant Morrison and painted by his “18 Days” collaborator Mukesh Singh, the 96-page original graphic novel is the planned first step towards a film being developed by “Men in Black” director Barry Sonnenfeld.
With names like that involved, comic fans curiosity was piqued a while ago, but CBR News went to Morrison for a more complete scoop on how the project came to be and what it might come to be. Below, the writer describes how he first hooked up with Liquid Comics to tackle the high concept, what’s at its heart beyond eight-year-old fever dreams and Cretaceous explosions, how drafting a screenplay of the story in tandem with the graphic novel hasn’t impacted the latter in a negative way, and why exactly you should care about thunderous lizards who can’t speak.
CBR News: So let’s begin at the beginning — not of the earth, but of this collaboration. We know that Sharad Devarajan at Liquid brought you onto this project, but what can you tell me about how the “Dinosaurs Vs. Aliens” galvanized your own ideas on this kind of big sci-fi epic, and what was that first contact with Barry like to bring it all together?
Grant Morrison: My first thought, when I heard the project title, was that it sounded like the ultimate no-brainer, “beat this” iteration of all those “Monsters vs. Aliens,” “Cowboys and Aliens,” “Dinosaurs vs. Seventh Day Adventists,” “Predators vs. ET” type genre mash-ups that have been cropping up recently. With a working title like that, it had the potential to be the dumbest monster movie ever made, or the biggest sci-fi action blockbuster of all time. This being Barry Sonnenfeld, I suspected he’d have a unique approach, so when Sharad suggested me as writer on the comic book project and offered to introduce us, I was keen to see what Barry had in mind. As I suspected, he had somewhat higher aspirations for this one and saw the story as a big allegorical take on Manifest Destiny and imperial expansionist politics. I was instantly hooked, we got on well, and I was brought on board to write the screenplay too. It wasn’t long before the characters came to life, and the story started to grow in all kinds of unexpected directions, to the point where we now have a potential trilogy worked out!
Like “Snakes on a Plane,” the project title leaves no doubt as to what to expect from the movie, so the trick was to deliver on the basics but also create an engrossing, epic story with a cast of diverse and memorable characters, both reptile and extra-terrestrial. We’ve talked about a different name for the movie when it comes out, but no matter what, I’m hoping “Dinosaurs vs. Aliens” will be part of the title somewhere.
I think if there’s any question that stands out in terms of the story spine is the “Who” of the project. Considering the era in which this story starts, are we dealing with a cast of aliens approaching a savage earth? Some talking dinosaurs a la some past CGI film projects? A mix of the two?
There are no talking dinosaurs in this one, but one of the first ideas I brought to the project was, “what if natural selection, over millions of years, meant that saurians were smarter than we usually give them credit for?” In some ways, it’s the next level from the animal stuff in “We3” and relies even more on grunts, body language, camouflage, display, gestures and movement, where the dinosaurs are acting as if for a silent film. In fact, imagine “The Artist,” but with bloody, razor-sharp fangs! It’s amazing how much depth of character you can convey in non-human creatures without using speech. In fact, I think it makes the dinosaur characters more primal and archetypal.
We have a large population of crows around where I live in Scotland, and being highly intelligent and social birds, they’re fascinating to watch. I’d been reading about a module in crow brains which seems to explain why they’re extra clever and that led to the notion of brainy dinosaurs with their own rudimentary form of culture.
So the reptiles in “DvA” are a good bit smarter than usual, which goes some way toward making them visually and behaviorally different from Spielberg-type dinosaurs too, and less predictable.
In comics like “Final Crisis,” you’ve explored the life of the earth in epochal terms. How far does this epic stretch time wise?
The story’s set in the Cretaceous era, but it has profound repercussions for the rest of history.
Let’s talk a bit about each side of this concept’s multimedia coin — comic and screenplay — in their own turn. As a comic, this is your first straight up original graphic novel in a while. What was the process like of breaking out the story as a whole rather than writing in serialized chapters? What advantages in general were there to doing the comic as its own beast?
Because the comic was written at the start of the process, it’s quite different from the way the screenplay eventually turned out. I started with the aim of doing something that felt like the kind of stories I used to love in Marvel’s “Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction” black and white book back in the ’70s, so hopefully it’s got a bit of that feel.
The comic allowed me to test a lot of the ideas in an early form before reworking and expanding on them for the screenplay. If you think of how “Blade Runner” or “I, Robot” freely adapted original science fiction short stories into Hollywood blockbusters, the comic book “DvA” stands in the same kind of relation to the movie version; the comic is like the original novella and the screenplay is the reworked Hollywood adaptation.
Mukesh Singh is back with you again after “18 Days.” While that project was very much a multimedia kind of affair, this is straight comics work. How has his lush painting style mixed with sequential work, and what are your favorite parts of his design and character work here?
Mukesh is something special and constantly exceeds my expectations. He’s a very intelligent and thoughtful artist who does his research and works out every detail. He has an innate understanding of design, scale and composition, allied to a drawing ability that leaves some of comics’ biggest names in the dust. He has, seemingly effortlessly, nailed the difficult task of giving emotion, individuality and pathos to lizards and bug-like aliens.
On the film side, Sonnenfeld has a very unique yet still big audience/big hearted style. How does that that matche well with this concept, and how have you been trying to write to that strength?
This is a concept Barry’s wanted to pursue for a while, so it grows directly out of his particular sensibilities — that means a big, involved story about a very relatable group of characters. You will laugh and cry with these dinosaurs and their insectile tormentors!
Of course, one of the hallmark’s of all of Barry’s films has been his camera work, dating back to his days working with the Coen Brothers on films like “Raising Arizona” but coming on through to blockbusters like “Men In Black.” How has his visual style influenced what you’re doing on both the screenplay and with Mukesh on the comic?
Apart from approaching the comic in a “cinematic” style — with photorealistic images and well-researched settings – we haven’t really tried to recreate Barry’s directing style or camera work. We’re leaving that for the movie!
Overall, you’ve written a few Hollywood screenplays over the past few years that, sadly, haven’t seemed to have found quite the right director to bring them to final form. What have you learned overall about the process of screenwriting in that time that has helped make “Dinosaurs Vs. Aliens” a reality? Do you think your making this with Barry from the ground up bodes well for the project’s long term health?
It’s true — I’ve discovered it’s possible to have a house and a lucrative sideline as a screenwriter and consultant in Hollywood without any hint of my work actually reaching the screen yet! “We3” and “Joe the Barbarian” are still in play, with producers, directors and writers attached to both projects, and I’m already taking calls about “Happy!” before the first issue is released, but the comics are my first love – if I didn’t have them as a reliable outlet for my imagination, I’d probably go mad with the frustrations and reverses of the movie development process. Having said that, I’ve learned an immense amount about the nuts and bolts of commercial writing for the screen and I think my work has improved as a result of having those tools in the box too.
You can never be too sure about anything to do with the movie business but given Barry’s close involvement with “Dinosaurs vs. Aliens,” I think this one has the best chance of making it to the screen. The previz is currently being put together by a big effects house, we’re wrapping up the final dialogue polish on the screenplay this week and Barry wants “Dinosaurs vs. Aliens” to be his next picture. He has a pretty impressive track record and everything we’ve heard or seen about “Men In Black 3” suggests another big hit, so I’m more than cautiously optimistic about “DvA.”
“Dinosaurs Vs. Aliens” ships to comic shops this May from Dynamite Entertainment and Liquid Comics.
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