On most movie sets, a level of precaution has to be taken to ensure the safety of crew members, creative cast and onlookers. Explosions have to be monitored. Sets have to be fortified. Guns have to be checked and double checked to make sure they only contain the proper trace amounts of gun powder. However, when CBR News was invited out to the set of Warner Bros. June 18 adaptation of the famed DC Comics Western series "Jonah Hex," we were warned to keep an eye out for two additional potential hazards: mosquitos and crocodiles.
And so, as we arrived on the outskirts of New Orleans early last summer, our eyes were on the swamp in case a gruesome lizard decided to slink across our path, but soon after hitting the set, all focus was given over to the towering, torchlit centerpiece of the night's shooting.
"Have you seen my boat?" laughed "Hex" director Jimmy Hayward, gesturing to the 100 foot red and grey recreation of the infamous Confederate "iron ram" battleship the USS Merrimack. The imposing structure was promised as only one major set piece for the film, which tells the story of Josh Brolin's title character -Â a disfigured former Confederate soldier turned bounty hunter in the early 1870s -Â and his battle against former plantation owner and anti-government outlaw Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich). The cast is rounded out by Megan Fox as Hex's prostitute girlfriend Leila, Michael Fassbender as Turnbull's psychotic lackey Burke and Will Arnett and John Gallagher, Jr. as the Union Army officers tasked with bringing Hex in.
"This is Turnbull's boat and he's going to take it to Washington to blow up the White House," Hayward chuckles again, checking the monitors to line up a shot where Malkovich will give an impassioned speech to his Confederate fallout followers. Dressed in a Consolidated Skateboards T-shirt featuring a graphic of an army tank, the director bobs back and forth between chatting up the press, discussing shots with his cinematographer and goofing around with his cast. Though "Jonah Hex" is his first live-action feature, Hayward comes from a high-caliber creative background as an animator for many of classic Pixar films, including the first two "Toy Story" movies and "Monsters, Inc." before directing the 2008 animated adaptation of Dr. Seuss' "Horton Hears a Who!" The director was chosen for the picture after impressing both WB studio brass and Brolin with his enthusiasm for the material and his strong visual style.
"My animated background has kind of nothing to do with what I'm doing," Hayward explains of how he'll pull "Hex" together. "Really, at the end of the day, rhythm comes later; I have to provide the material to create that rhythm. It's a totally different way of working. This is like - you go out and capture something and then you shape what you capture. That's shaping something and shaping it and shaping it and shaping it, getting to do it five and six times."
Of course, the big question surrounding the movie is what shape "Jonah Hex" will take. Unlike more marquee DC character such as Batman or even comics with a central story arc to draw from like the recent "The Losers," the Western anti-hero with the grisly-skinned outlook has run through multiple permutations since he was introduced by John Albano and Tony DeZuniga in 1972's "All-Star Western" #10. Hex comics have presented traditional Western revenge tales, gruesome supernatural stories, far-flung future shoot 'em ups and the current more straighforward character study courtesy of writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray. The film's road to the big screen comes by way of a screenplay by Hollywood's new schlock masters Neveldine & Taylor (of the "Crank" franchise) with subsequent rewrites by Hayward with Brolin's input. The recent trailer for the film reveals a mix of classic film Western, steampunk style gadgetry and maybe even a bit of the supernatural.
Asked what he'd be drawing on to bring his vision to life, Hayward explained, "There's lots of action, lots of sort of seventies-feeling western stuff and sixties-feeling stuff. There's a lot of really traditional stuff. And the supernatural pops up; it comes in there. The undead show Jonah Hex his destiny. I'll leave it and that. Or the dead rather...the seemingly undead to him. He doesn't know when it comes or when it goes, so that's the cool part for us."
Even though "Hex" looks to aim for different goals from the average superhero movie, Hayward (sitting back in a crew chair embroidered with the logo from the current "Hex" comic) professed a history of comics study as part of his own creative life and a strong connection to Jonah Hex in particular. "I would go through phases. I fell out of superheroes and got really into stapled-together stuff and became a big Dan Clowes fan. [I] got into that whole scene for a long time before I came back. I actually lived over Al's Comics in San Francisco for ten years, right above it. Sacred Rose Tattoo and Al's Comics are right across the street from the 500 Club. So I could get drunk, get tattooed, and get geeky books all within forty feet of my house and go pass out. So I really stayed with comics for a long time.
"I sorta dipped in and out of it, but this is a book that I always loved. When I came into the meeting with Warner Brothers, I had a digest, a 'Western Tales' digest, with me. I told Josh this story; it was one of my favorite ones when I was a kid - when Jonah Hex is tied to a stake out in the desert, and [his dog] Iron Jaws bites off his bonds and then gets bitten by a rattlesnake. So Jonah Hex staggers through the desert for miles to get to the town, but when he gets to the town there's only a person doctor, so he kicks in the door and goes up the stairs and the nurse yells, 'You can't come in here, you can't bring a dog in here, this is a people doctor!' And there's this guy getting his foot worked on upstairs and he's like, 'Take that thing outside and put a bullet in his brain! It's a stupid dog!' So Jonah Hex opens the window and grabs the guy getting his foot worked on and throws him out the window to his death and then goes, 'Doc, you gotta fix my dog!' His sense of comedy, his sense of humor...I was into it that long ago that I still remember those stories that I loved so much."
Hayward kept up with the comics and their creators after he landed the directing gig as well. "I talk to Jimmy pretty regularly. I love Jimmy, and Justin's great too. Those guys are hilarious, great guys...great sensibilities," he says. "I can't help but be influenced by the comic because we've done so much, but whenever we can stick stuff in there, it's great to be able to do it. But, I do really love the idea of his native background - a tomahawk's one of his weapons for sure. When we first started on the movie, he had a knife, and I'm like, 'Dude! It's got to be a tomahawk!' It's like little things like that that I draw from the comic that I think are so important. Like I said, the choice of Turnbull's story, and mixing in some of the old comic book reasons for why his face has been burned into some of the lore and stuff like, that, really drawing upon the origin material as opposed to just creating new stuff out of nothing."
However, a heavy amount of film influence played into "Jonah Hex" as well. As Malkovich waved a torch high upon the deck of his battleship and worked up a frenzy with his drawling Southern accent, Brolin sat below, slurping a bit through his Hex prosthesis, and explained the films he thought of while helping the studio assemble the creative team. "There's a lot of them. There's things that I saw recently, and there was a director, and I don't mind saying so, that we were trying to get - Chan-wook Park, who did 'Old Boy.' There was a Japanese director [Takashi Miike] who did 'Ichi the Killer' that I liked very much. We talked to Sergey Bodrov who did 'Mongol,' who I thought was incredible. There was a lot of people who've done a lot of things that I really appreciate, and then you go back to the Italian Spaghetti Westerns that our Spaghetti Westerns were based off of so I've seen everything. Everything.
"I think...at least my idea was 'Let's bring something again that's primitive and guttural but then let's also do something beautiful where you're outside and this isn't a typical Western setting. It's lush. It's green. It's beautiful.' To me I love that the studio is like 'We don't have a model for this. We don't know.' They don't know whether to be supportive or angry or anything, and I like that. It's good. So if it works, we'll have created something original that other people can copycat, other people can splinter from and try to make their money based on what we did. That's my hope. Who knows if it'll work or not, but that's my hope."
On set, everyone from creative producer Andrew Lazar to Production Designer Tom Meyer tried to nail down exactly what this "Hex" will be. A Gothic, Southern Western pulled back from the typical dusty trails of movie gunslingers. A "hyper-real" action movie that slides in and out of physical reality. An over the top comic book picture with a cast of tortured souls at its center.
Later, as Brolin got into place to film a scene where Hex sneaks around Turnbull's men beneath a dead, starless sky, Hayward talked about finding the balance between big and small, classic and modern. "We did a big finale battle a little while ago where we did a lot of very traditional, classic sort of Spaghetti-ish sort of stuff, and then we mix it in with a lot of crane work and a lot of modern action film techniques. So you kind of fuse those things together, and when you go back out to the really snappy stuff, it really has more value and meaning. I honestly think that if you tried to show like a [Sergio] Corbucci movie to today's audience, they would be texting each other like, 'WTF?' I don't think the pace and everything would [work], you know, and so I think it's a matter of utilizing, using that as a starting, a jumping off point, because I don't want to copy anything. But using it as a jumping off point and really using it as a touchstone and starting from there, you're going to new places with it."