Schifrin, Hama & Salvatore Form "Spooks" Squad

Being a storyteller seems to be exactly what Ryan Schifrin is supposed to be. The son of composer Lalo Schifrin ("Mission Impossible" theme, "Rush Hour 3" score), the younger Schifrin is a graduate of the University of Southern California film school and is the writer and director of the Bigfoot monster movie, "Abominable." Now, he has branched out into comics with "Spooks," a mini-series co-written and developed with fan favorites (and Schifrin's personal favorites) "G.I. Joe" writer Larry Hama and fantasy novelist R.A. Salvatore. Schifrin, along with Hama and Salvatore, spoke with CBR News about the Devil's Due project set for release in February.

"'Spooks' is about a secret government agency, the Department of Supernatural Defense, whose sole purpose is to protect us against monsters – vampires, werewolves, witches, zombies, Headless Horseman and so on," Schifrin told CBR News. "Sort of like 'G.I. Joe,' but instead of fighting Cobra, they take on classic Halloween bad guys." In the mini-series, the most powerful witch in the world plans to raise an army of the dead and conquer humanity, enlisting the aid of vampires, werewolves and other nefarious creatures to help her in her goal. The Spooks are tasked to stop her.

"On the surface you can look at it as military versus monsters," Schifrin said. "But there's also an allegory to terrorism and the current state of the world (a hostile group sneaking into our country and planning devastating attacks and it's up to our armed forces to deal with the threat)."

The team leader is Frank. "He was once their top field agent and now runs the organization. Thirty years ago his family was slaughtered by a vampire that he's been hunting ever since," said Schifrin. "He gets wind that this vampire has come out of hiding and is in the United States, so Frank goes back into the field, hell bent on getting revenge.

"His adopted daughter is Felicia," Schifrin continued. "She's their forensic and magic expert, sent to analyze crime scenes to determine if the Dark Arts were used. What no one knows, besides her dad, is that Felicia is half-witch. She has magical abilities, but they are in their infancy. Felicia is tired of hiding who she really is, and is eager to develop her powers.

"The James Bond of the agency is Zach. He's a young Iraq vet who is one of the lucky .001% of humans that is immune to lycanthropy (werewolf disease), which is why Spooks recruited him in the first place. Zach is struggling with his own inner demons – there was an incident in Iraq that he feels a lot of guilt over, and he channels that into dishing out as much pain as he can against monsters. He also has a big crush on Felicia."

On the other side, Schifrin said the leader of the monster coalition is a powerful witch named Patience Van Anders. "She was the apprentice of the most powerful warlock in history, who is now in captivity. She steals a Druidic spell book that contains many dark secrets and will enable her to cast a spell that will raise the dead all across the entire world, and she plans to perform this ceremony on Halloween. She feels that humanity has botched things up so badly, and doesn't deserve dominion over the Earth.

"My favorite holiday has always been Halloween," Schifrin said as he spoke about the origins of the Spooks concept. "I was having a conversation with Dan Alter, one of the producers of film 'Hitman,' about how I love horror, and fantasy and action. We came up with the basic notion of a government agency that battles the classic monsters. I wanted to make it really epic, along the lines of 'Star Wars' and 'Lord of the Rings.' I wrote a screenplay and developed the characters, the plot and the big action set pieces. I then asked R.A. Salvatore to look it over and bring his own ideas to it."

Said Salvatore, "I served mostly in an editorial/overseeing position, while Ryan and my sons, Bryan and Geno, worked through the details of the treatment. I injected a lot of little pieces and helped them work toward consistency of tone - I made them clarify exactly what this project was supposed to be. The main thing I noted with the original concept of 'Spooks' was that it lacked focus."

"He and his sons went through and made the tone much darker," Schifrin added. "More 'Aliens' and less 'Men In Black.'"

Schifrin talked about how the creative team came together, including Salvatore. "After I finished the screenplay, Dan and I looked at it and realized that this would be a huge movie," said Schifrin. "Since it wasn't based on a video game, a comic, or a remake, it would be difficult to get a movie studio to pull the trigger. Dan suggested we turn it into a comic, which would also help give it a brand name.

"I've been such a huge fan of R.A. Salvatore's work over the years," he continued. "I would await the release of his novels with the same excitement as a new 'Star Wars' movie. His 'Dark Elf' character is one of the greatest action heroes in any medium – those books are always topping the New York Times Bestsellers list, and have sold tens of millions of copies. I'm actually shocked that they haven't made a 'Dark Elf' movie yet – no offense to 'Eragon,' but it seems like 'Dark Elf' would be a no-brainer!"

Schifrin and Salvatore had been corresponding via e-mail for some time, but when Schifrin's film "Abominable" aired on the SciFi Channel, it was clearly time for the duo to meet. "He watched it and really got a kick out of it," said Shcifrin. "We finally met in person at Comic Con in 2006. I told him all about 'Spooks,' and asked him if he'd like to work on it with me, and develop it further. The idea of having one of the greatest fantasy authors of all time bring his creative juices to 'Spooks' really appealed to me. I sent him the screenplay and he and his sons went through it, and came up with a new treatment, which changed the tone and added some great plot and character ideas as well."

"[Salvatore's former editor,] Steve Saffel, who is putting our 'Spooks' website together, called me up and said he had just run into Larry Hama, and gave me Larry's phone number," continued Schifrin. "Now, I've been a 'G. I. Joe' fan since I was eight years old. For people who don't know, Larry basically created 'G.I. Joe' in the '80s. He wrote the file cards on the back of the action figure packages, and he wrote every single issue of the Marvel comic for 12 years. I asked Larry if he'd write up character bios for 'Spooks,' similar to what he did for 'G.I. Joe.' He did, and I took Bob Salvatore's treatment and Larry's bios to Devil's Due, and Josh Blaylock really responded to the material."

The next job to take care of was finding an artist. "By pure coincidence, I got an email from Adam Archer, who had seen 'Abominable' and just wanted to let me know he'd love to collaborate someday," said Schifrin. "I looked at the 'Friday the 13th' art he did for Wildstorm, and I thought his style was fantastic."

"Once we had the green light to do the comic, I asked Larry if he'd like to come on board and co-write it with me. With all of Larry's experience and skill, I knew we could make something really cool. So Larry and I set about to adapt the treatment into a 4 issue mini-series. It's been a great learning experience for me, seeing how Larry works – he really is a master of keeping things visual, exciting and based on character and managing to fit it all into the allotted pages."

"I'm totally not interested in knowing the ending," said Hama of how he collaborated with Schifrin. "If you asked me right now, how this ends, I could not tell you. I never knew how a single issue of 'G.I. Joe' was going to end until I got to the ending myself. In later books when I was told to make it all fit and come to pre-arranged ending, I followed the orders and did the job, but it just wasn't the same. Ryan seems to know the ending of this thing, and he keeps wanting to tell, me, but I try to ignore it."

Hama continued, "I keep the suspense up on my own part by working in the present, and trying to craft the story as it is revealed to me in small sections. I reformat it as a visual sequence and that's how I go about working on the story with Ryan. He says, 'oh, this is the scene that takes place in the graveyard and these are the characters and this is what has to happen and this is the information we are imparted, etc.' I then draw the scene like a storyboard. I can draw faster then I can describe stuff with words. I'm not really a writer. More like a penciller with a word-processor. Writing scripts for me is a convoluted process where I have to see a whole movie in my head and then I have to try to write a description of it. Lately, I have found that it is easier for me to storyboard the movie I see in my head than it is for me to try to describe it in words."

This concept has been approached in comics before. "Creature Commandos" comes to mind and examples in films are numerous. Asked what sets Spooks apart, Schifrin answered, "In both comics and movies you have a lot of things, from 'Hellboy' to 'Underworld,' that on the surface would seem to have similar elements. I felt that in order to really stand out and separate ourselves from all the other vampire/werewolf stories out there we needed to make it as epic as possible. To be perfectly honest, I think of 'Spooks' as epic fantasy. When George Lucas was putting 'Star Wars' together, he didn't think of it as sci-fi -- it was fantasy in a sci-fi setting. Obi-Wan is a wizard, Luke is a farm boy, Darth Vader is a black knight, the Force is magic. I spent years studying Joseph Campbell's Heroes Journey, mythology and fairy tales to really understand how these things work. That's one reason I became such a huge R.A. Salvatore fan all those years ago – I recognized that he was a master of telling these kinds of stories and I learned a lot from reading his books. I knew that fantasy movies would eventually become hugely successful, and I'm thrilled that 'Lord of the Rings' and [the 'Harry Potter' and 'Narnia' films] made it a viable theatrical genre.

"So, with all of the fantasy stories out there," Schifrin continued, "if I tell another tale that has castles and dragons and knights, it's a very crowded field. So, my idea was to take classic Halloween iconography and craft an epic tale in that kind of setting. Since I'm such a nut for both fantasy and Halloween monsters, it felt very natural to blend the two together."

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