Films inspired by comics have grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. This year alone has seen, or will see, the release of a number of comic book films, including "The Punsiher," "Spider-Man 2" and "Catwoman." In the case of those three properties, all were established characters, created for comics and taken by Hollywood and put on the silver screen. It doesn't usually happen the other way. Naturally, there are exceptions.
In steps "The Dark Agent," a short film written and directed by Michael Kehoe and making its debut at Comic-Con International in San Diego later this week. A pulp action film starring a super hero, it captures a lot of the fun of the early 20th century action reels with a 21st century sensibility. Once the film was made, it became clear to Kehoe that making the short film wouldn't be enough. There were more stories to be told and the best place to do that would be as an original graphic novel. CBR News sat down with Kehoe to learn a bit more about "The Dark Agent."
Starting with the film, the concept for "The Dark Agent" came to Kehoe while working on the film "The Last Samurai" while on location in Japan and New Zealand. Kehoe's wife had recently given birth to twin boys and the new father naturally missed his kids. Being out of town six months will do that two you. Then, the story came to him.
Kehoe said, "Each day I thought about them and it hit me as a father missing his children. What would happen if they were in danger? What if I could not be there for them? Then I thought, in years to come, what if they could sense danger and I could actually see what they see? What if I was able to save them from the danger that they experienced in a premonition? That thought gave birth to the concept, an idea of a father connected to his son mentally, having the ability to protect his child and doing it at any cost. As a father, I would sacrifice all I have for my children."
Upon returning to the states, Kehoe pitched his good friend Frank Woodward, who gave him his full support, which inspired Kehoe to put pen to paper. With 20 pages written, he passed it by his friend who assisted him in bringing together his story. So he wrote and rewrote until he was happy with the finished product.
"Creating a super hero for a film takes several steps; finance, time and relationships," said Keho. "What I mean to say is that if you don't have the comfortable budget to create the world that was in your head you must compromise to a certain extent and stay the course of your dream. Time is important because you are asking so much of it from your friends to support you in your efforts to convey the vision and not everyone will work for free nor do they have the time.
"So, Frank and I decided to go back to the roots of the serial heroes of the 30's and 40's. I screened old serials like the 1943 Republic adventures titled: 'Manhunt in the African Jungle' starring Rod Cameron, Duncan Renaldo, Lionel Royce, Joan Marsh and roy Prucer, the 'Bulldog Drummond Serials' with John Howard, John Barrymore and Ray Miland. I went back to some of my favorites when I was young such as 'Where Eagles Dare' with Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood and even some of the Twilight Zone series. With all that in mind we created a short story that has three acts and hits you with a surprise in the end. "
The first "The Dark Agent" graphic novel is set to hit stands early next year. Originally the plan for "The Dark Agent" was to produce a short film and follow that up with a feature film. Once the short was completed and response was good, Kehoe felt that it was only right for this hero to exist in the world of comics. In addition to Woodward's assistance with story development, Kehoe is joined by artist Robert Roach (who self-publishes the comic "Menthu") and inker Larry Welch. The story actually has nine chapters than span over three generations. For the short film, Kehoe and Woodward decided to start with chapter seven due to the fact it's set in the present day.
"…it really is the one that grips the young audience and makes them wonder how the hero came about," added Kehoe. "In fact, Frank had a great idea by getting a test audience of kids from our neighborhoods from ages 6 to 13 and we screened the rough cut of the film with a temp score and some scenes not completed but the kids got it! They were right on to it and followed the story and asked the question that we wanted to hear: "How did he start out?" The surprise ending hit them like a brick wall and they never saw it coming."
But you ask, what is "The Dark Agent?"
"Chapter one is where it all started," said Kehoe. "It's the story of James Hill, who is part of the secret service in 1939. He is sent on a mission to a castle in Nazi Germany as a German officer to assassinate a scientist who is working on the ultimate weapon, a suit that will go into production for the Nazis in the field making them invincible. James Hill discovers that the scientist is being forced to create the suit that is not quite finished and convinces him to destroy all his work and escape with him. In doing so they are confronted by the Nazis in a hail of gun fire and the scientist is shot. Before he dies, he hands Hill a satchel with the finished suit. The suit is fire-retardant and chemical resistant with triple-weave kevlar protecting his form. A silver ring on his chest is a highly sensitive alloy wired with electrodes and magnetic sensors reading his emotions. The electrodes read the emotional level of danger and create a cloaking device camouflaging its occupant. Hill makes his way out getting himself in mess after mess escaping into allied territory.
" James Hill is a complicated character with many problems just as the average Joe has in the real world. James lost his mother when he was 6. His father worked in an embassy in Tangiers as a cover, but he was really a spy. He wanted James to stay in the states and have the life he never had. But adventure called James and he started flying crop dusters at 14 in Kansas at his uncle's farm. Until one day he felt a great pain as if something in the universe was suddenly gone. It was, his father was killed and James felt it. We wanted to give James a choice in life and make either choice difficult with regret hanging over his head. I lost my mother when she was 50. She was my biggest fan and supported everything I did. This venture is another salute to her memory.
"There are many colorful characters that populate the world of 'The Dark Agent.' We wanted to take history and fill in adventure with World War II as the back drop. This is Chapter 1 through 3. All of the stories have something that is connected to American history."
That's just the beginning though. The character in the film is a different hero, but the roots go way back to that first meeting in 1939.
Production on the graphic novel moves ahead. Kehoe has written the first chapter and Roach is penciling the first 20 pages of the book to debut at Comic-Con International. With nine planned graphic novels, the duo will be busy for the foreseeable future.
"Frank Woodward and I have been developing this project for about a year now," continued Kehoe. "We have had some incredible input from the team at substormmedia.com lead by Craig Hamar along with Eddie Negron, and James Hamar. Substorm created our website at www.thedarkagent.com each of them are comic gurus and Frank and I hit the jackpot when we were introduced to each of them. They took our vision and seasoned it with a look and feel they created. I was amazed when they expanded on our ideas and their input was never clouded by ego. The Web site will give you a feeling for the character and the journey the film will take you on.
"Frank and I have been working with Michael Papac who is a top prop master in the film industry and owner of Stembridge Gun. Mike is in the midst of creating the weapons that we have dreamed up and in the process we have learned the depth of Mike's knowledge of weapon history. Both Frank and I have taken our time by meeting with these creative minds and getting to know them as a person. Through that we have cracked the ice and opened the door to adventure."
Kehoe, a Brooklyn native who now calls Los Angeles home, has been involved in film for a while. His first job in the industry was as a production assistant for the training on "Rocky IV." As time passed he spent time working on many films in craft service, which is where he met Woodward. His first short film, "Second Dance," premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1994. And there's been no stopping since, his first feature "Dominion" came out in 1995. In 1999 Kehoe wrote, produced and directed the indie feature "The Art of a Bullet." "The independent world is tough," admitted Kehoe, "but a great place to submerge your mind in as you learn about yourself and the career you love. Like Cool Hand Luke, I'll never give up."
Production on "The Dark Agent" took place over three weekends and Kehoe called in favors from everyone he knew to get the project done.
"We had a very talented director of photography by the name of Daniel Gold. Frank and I felt comfortable with Dan because he responded to the story as a young comic book reader would.
"Gamila Smith created the costume and she just took over. I was amazed at the passion she showed in the first moments of our meeting. She had a talented designer by the name of Perry Meek who formed the costume from her ideas and the image Frank and I conveyed. We had a slight problem that was mainly my issue because I could not come up with the face of the hero. So, I sketched out some ideas and drew page after page of ideas and finally came upon one that I thought was possibly in the running.
"The next day I brought the sketch to Gamila who had called another talented gent by the name of Robert Short who designed the creatures in 'Bettlejuice.' I was floored that Robert was interested and he showed me a sketch he threw together and The Dark Agent came to life. I was then introduced to another talented visual effects supervisor Mitch Susskin, who was drawn to the project by the look and the throw back to the 30's and 40's.
"I brought in two top stunt men, Paul Short and Simon Rhe, they did in one day what would normally take months to rehearse. Our production designer was an old friend John Hinkle who was a one-man show and threw together the look that we so needed. Another asset to the team was Don Coufal, who doubled as producer and boom operator. Dan Romero was another producer who supplied us with support that would have broke the bank the first day if not for him.
"Our sound mixer was the Jeff Wexler. his credits include 'The Last Samurai,' 'Almost Famous,' 'Jerry Maguire' and the list goes on. My first assistant director was Michael Risoli who I was a production assistant with years ago.
"The most important element was the catering and we didn't have to look far. My partner Frank Woodward is the top caterer in the film industry. His credits include just about every Tom Cruise film to date as well as a score of well known films around the world. Frank applied the same attention to the film as he does to his company, For Stars Catering. He kept the dream alive by financing and feeding! Two top priority points when making a film. Frank created an atmosphere on the set when the name For Stars Catering was heard. It didn't matter how small your job was you are important to Frank and that is what made the film."
Fans in attendance at this week's Comic-Con International in San Diego can check out the film and art from the first graphic novel. The film will be screened at CCI on July 24th at 2pm.