In Depth: "Surrogates" Robert Venditti, Part 2

On Wednesday, CBR brought you an exclusive, in-depth interview with writer Robert Venditti, the creator of "The Surrogates," the Top Shelf graphic novel that is now a major motion picture starring Bruce Willis, in theaters today. In part one of our two part interview, Venditti shared the story of how he broke into the comics industry, almost by accident, and how he got his first project off the ground under equally unusual circumstances.

In part two of our interview with Venditti, the writer shares the remarkable story of how the comic book got turned into a movie in almost record time, recounts his first visit to the Boston set of "Surrogates" and gives us a look ahead at what readers can expect from him next.

One of the things that makes your story even more incredible is that, in 2005 the book sees first publication, it's finished in 2006, and here we are, only four years later, and it's been made into a movie starring one of the biggest actors in Hollywood, Bruce Willis. How quick was the initial interest from Hollywood?

The initial interest was immediate. The first issue came out maybe a Wednesday or two before Comic-Con International in 2005, and when we went to the convention, producers were already coming around. At that time, comic movies were popular - "Spider-Man" had done really well, "X-Men" had done well and production companies were already looking outside the normal mainstream comics of Marvel or DC, and producers were coming around at the beginning. It was very surreal - as of Wednesday, I was unpacking palettes for the Top Shelf table at the convention and I was standing there thinking no one would come by to buy this stupid little comic book they never heard of for $3, but producers actually came around to the table having been told to check out "The Surrogates." I couldn't believe it was happening. The best I can figure is that there had been some early press on the book - Comic Book Resources being the first, Wizard had an article, too - and somehow, they must have heard about it through there.

So I had all this immediate interest, and I met with studios, and waited for the bidding to begin, but nothing really came from any of it. I think part of it is that most of those guys were going into it as one of a million pitches they were making to studios. But in their defense the full story wasn't even complete yet. One issue in print, two issues in .pdf format on disk, and the last two in script. It was in March of 2006 when the first four issues were out and the fifth was imminent, when a producer named Max Handelman (whose wife is Elizabeth Banks) contacted me. They were starting up a production company and asked if I was available to talk. We talked for a while, and I could tell he was just a good guy. He wasn't like other producers just pretending to be "go go go," and was down to the earth and seemed to have a lot of respect for "The Surrogates" and had actually read the story. I spoke to Chris Staros about him, and since he didn't have anything produced at the time, I knew a lot of people were going to say "Why go with an un-established producer?" But it felt to me as similar to my situation years ago getting started at Top Shelf, and I went with my gut on it and he was the one who really brought the whole thing together.

If there's a common thread throughout your story, it's that it seems that when you trusted your gut, you batted 1.000. You took several of huge leaps of faith - putting on hold a move to see if you could make it as a writer and then going with an untested producer. It doesn't sound like the odds were in Max's favor, based on what you've said.

I don't think the odds are ever in anyone's favor in Hollywood.

Well, there is that!

I was raised to be the kind of person who just judges a person by who they are and not what they can do for me and I try to do what I think feels right and something I can feel proud of. I try to treat people the way I would want to be treated myself. And throughout this whole process, I trusted my gut with Chris, and with Max, but Chris trusted his gut with me just as well as an employee and as a writer. So I guess there was a lot of guts going on being trusted.

How did guys like Director Jonathan Mostow or Bruce Willis or Disney get involved?

Well, Max's approach was to bring in a larger producer to help him with the project. He had been roommates with a guy named Todd Lieberman, who was over at Mandeville Films, which is a production company with deals with Disney, and has a done a lot of all ages films. Max was at a party with Todd talking, and Todd brought up "Sin City" as an example of a film he'd like to do, something dark and edgy and different than their all ages stuff they'd been doing, so Max brought up "The Surrogates" as something to look at. They were interested in it, and they put a package together to pitch to Disney, and then they got writers and put it all together as one ready to go pitch, which was the opposite of what previous producers had tried. It was never really shopped around anywhere else.

How did Bruce Willis get involved?

I don't know. A lot of it, honestly, I believe is just luck. In November of 2006, they showed interest and Disney decided they wanted to do the film, and the contract was finalized in August 2007. We signed the contracts and within two months, the screenplay was done. A month later, Bruce Willis was on, and they started filming in April 2008. Everything went extremely quickly; a lot of it had to do with being in the right place at the right time. What had happened, the screenplay was turned in maybe a week or two before the big writers strike that threw a big monkey wrench into the works of Hollywood, and Bruce Willis was involved in an Oliver Stone movie that was getting ready to film, but when the strike happened, it killed the project because Oliver Stone is a member of the Writers Guild and likes to do a lot of rewrites as he films, so the project couldn't move forward and Bruce Willis ended up needing a movie. "The Surrogates" was a complete screenplay done before the strike, which Bruce then signed on for. Seriously, one day there's a story about the Oliver Stone film being killed, then the next day Bruce Willis is in "The Surrogates." In a way, since Bruce had a hole in his schedule, we actually benefitted from the strike, when so many other people suffered from it.

Being part of the process and seeing it happen - what I've learned about film making is that there are so many hurdles that must be cleared before it can be made. I now believe every movie that's ever been made has been made differently, and the only way in which that [particular] movie could have seen the light of day. You hear a lot of people say, "Oh, that movie would have been better with this dude attached," and the truth is, if that were the case, most likely it would not have been made. For good or for bad, there seems to be only one way that a movie can be made. It's like winning the lottery.

Way back in 2002 when I was writing the book, before I even had a publisher, my wife and I were talking one night about if they were ever going to cast a movie for this story who would be good, and we both thought of Bruce Willis. He's one of those very few actors in Hollywood who can do action sequences, but also do emotional personal scenes like with Greer and his wife, and now, five years later, they cast him in the role that we were talking about in our pie in the sky days.

The film differs in many ways from the film -the world is still basically the same, but the whole idea of people dying when their surrogates are killed is definitely new, and Harvey Greer has seemingly become two characters from the graphic novel, instead of just one. Did they talk to you about these changes?

I never tried to overly involve myself in the process. I tried to look at it from the perspective that screenwriters and directors are creative in their own right and they're inspired to do something creative with the story that I wrote, and I just want to get out of the way and let them do it and have fun with it. I was a consultant on the screenplay. I was aware of the changes and reading the screenplay; it was never like anybody was calling me asking me what I thought about it, but I was fine with not being involved in that way. I expected it though; it's how Hollywood works. I think overall, the film zeroes in much more on the specific trait of the surrogates as a means of providing consumers beauty on demand and appearance, while the book is much more about the surrogates providing identity as opposed to appearance.

Can you tell us about your experiences visiting the set in Boston?

I'd never been to a movie set before and didn't know quite what to expect. It was much larger, much grander in scale and much more intricate than I anticipated it being. I went into this process baffled by the idea that people could spend so much money to make a movie, not knowing where all that money went, and came out of it amazed that they can make them as cheap as they do.

I visited the set twice. The first time I went with Brett Weldele, and the second time I went with my wife. I kind of expected going in that I would be in the way and that the whole time people would tell me to go away, get out of the shot, stuff like that, but everyone was really open and welcoming and generally excited to have me there and show me what they were doing with the story. I remember coming in to the set that first day. We walked in during the middle of a take, so we held back and were very quiet, but as soon as that take was over they brought Bruce Willis over to meet us and we were introduced to Bruce as the two guys who are the reason why we are all here. That really amazed me, that they would even look at it that way. That's how the whole visit went. We had the run of the place. Everyone would stop to talk to me, be it the production designer, the director, the cinematographer, everyone. The production designer gave us a whole tour of the production offices and all these concepts he had done and his thought processes behind them. It was amazing to see the creativity of these guys at work, and that they would stop and take the time to talk with us about it. It was a really unique experience.

Wrapping up, you have this movie coming out, you'll be in LA for the premiere, you've been exposed to this large scale production when you went out to the set, and you've been talking to all these big powerful people in Hollywood - how are you going to feel months later after the movie has been out in theaters and the attention has died down? Are you going to be OK?

Yeah, as I disappear into the ether! Seriously, I'll be fine with that, I realize that will happen. I'm very realistic about the fact that not everything I do will be turned into a movie. I always kid that there's nowhere for me to go but down, but I'm fine with that. In a lot of ways, I'm just like anybody else trying to get their writing career off the ground. And hopefully I'm at the beginning of my career, and I look forward to doing a lot more writing, and that's what I got into this business to do. I'll take whatever successes that come from other avenues, be it Hollywood or somewhere else. When it comes down to it, I just want to write a comic. I understand I'll be the flavor of the month for a little while, and then I won't be anymore. I'll just go out and try to earn it for myself again.

Let's wrap up by talking about the future of your comic work. You've released a prequel to "The Surrogates" titled "Flesh and Bone," which takes us back before the big riots that gave rise to Zaire's group and to the ubiquity of surrogates in this world, and takes us back to a much younger Harvey Greer who also, I noticed, doesn't have quite the ponch he has later in life. Tell us a little bit about that book.

It's just like you said: it's set 15 years before the first book, and it really just shows you the origination of all these characters. It's a real challenge to write because it tells the story of the first anti-surrogate riots that you read about in the supplemental material of issue three of the first series. So going into it, the reader already knows what all the events are and how it will transpire, so the challenge for me as a writer is how am I going to tell this story in a way that will still keep them engaged and have some level of suspense. But I was really pleased with how everything ended up and feel like I was able to keep it fresh. So far it seems to have been received really well. One of your reviewers seemed to really like it, which is nice.

And you have plans for sequels to "The Surrogates" as well, don't you?

From the beginning I always wanted it to be three books, the first book, then a prequel, and then a sequel. I always wanted to write them in that order. But I have also thought up two more books I'd like to do, that fall between the prequel and the first book on the timeline. It's just kind of an idea that lends itself to a lot of stories and possibilities, and it's something I'd like to come back and revisit over the years, hopefully for a long time to come, but also still putting in other stories and writing work in between those "Surrogates" stories.

Are there other cities in "The Surrogates" world that have stories worth telling? Thus far it all takes place in a futuristic Atlanta, Georgia, but I figure the rest of the world has surrogates all over the place, too.

Other places certainly have surrogates, if not the entire world, certainly the US, but all the ideas I have right now, things will be staying in Atlanta.

Do you have any other creator owned work outside of The Surrogates planned?

Yeah, there's a book called "The Homeland Directive," which is a modern day political/medical thriller that will be out from Top Shelf in 2010. I actually wrote it, and it was finished before I ever started on the "The Surrogates: Flesh and Bone," but we wanted to get the prequel out before the movie, so it was pushed back. Mike Huddleston is the artist on it.

Outside of "The Surrogates," you've been doing some work for Marvel and you have a single issue coming up with them pretty soon, don't you?

I have a story in a one-shot coming out in October called "Iron Man: Iron Protocols," and my story is called "The Ark." I have also done a Captain America story for them. Like I said earlier, I'm just trying to get my career off the ground and I'm just getting in the system there at Marvel, and hope to do more work for them down the line, but I also want to focus on my own stuff as well.

So are superhero universes ones you want to spend more time in as a writer, or a balance of creator owned and work-for-hire work?

Yeah, very much the latter, but I would like to do superhero stories with DC and Marvel. They're so much a part of the American mythology and it's always fun to get to play in that sandbox, but I also have a lot of my own non-superhero stories that I want do, and I even have my own superhero idea I would like to do on my own one day, but I would like [my career] to be a balance of established properties and my own properties.

If you had your choice, which superhero would you write from DC or Marvel tomorrow?

Captain America is always a favorite of mine. Again, that goes back to my grandfather and his stories about WW II and the Depression. Batman is really interesting. A character I never heard of until a few years ago is Deadman, I think he's great. I think because I come into comics with little knowledge, with the exception of the bigger characters like Batman or Spider-Man where there's a certain amount of common knowledge, but I think it would be fun if Marvel or DC threw a character at me that I wasn't familiar with and had to learn about. I'd really like and embrace a challenge like that.

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