The proverbial credits are rolling as the final issue of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' The Fade Out was released this week, and the duo return to Newsarama for the second part in our discussion about the series.
In this installment, the long-time collaborators discuss the Hollywood whodunit’s intricate mystery, what influenced (and didn’t influence) the book…and whether we’ll see any of these characters again. You can read part one of this interview here.
SPOILERS follow, obviously.
Newsarama: One thing I also like about this story is that it comes down to what was called the “detective who can't detect $#!+” story with 1975's Night Moves A good bit of the story, brought home in the penultimate issue, is that Gil and Charlie aren’t detectives, and chaotic forces unto themselves in the midst of the all this chaos. The mystery, as it were, is fairly simple...but it's still only solved in theory. What were some of the unique challenges in doing the story this way -- keeping all the details straight while also a bit muddy?
Ed Brubaker: I think the real trick was keeping Chandler's old phrase in mind when outlining each chapter. He said he wrote “who cares who dunnits,” not “whodunnits” - meaning that the mystery was just the spine to wrap everything else around.
The true complexity of the story is in the characters and how they react to what's happening. It's not just a story about a movie star who gets murdered. It's a story about the ripples that causes and the things people are willing to do in that aftermath.
What I was most interested in, what I'm always most interested in, is the characters and what they will do to survive or not. So, as long as I focused on that, it was just about revealing things when it felt right for Charlie or Gil or whoever to discover them.
It's always a bit of instinct, writing mysteries. You follow your gut and try to keep the unseen parts of the story clear in your head, even if you aren't going to reveal it all on the page.
Nrama: A specific question for Sean – what were some of the specific challenges in rendering Val and Maya, creating the visual similarities, but also making them distinct from one another?
Sean Phillips: Val was based on a specific actress from the 1940s, but Maya was just made up.
To me they look totally different apart from the hair color, Val is more realistic and Maya is slightly more cartoony. Her hair was always drawn as pure line, whereas Val's had some black shadows added. I thought of Val as being a natural blonde, but Maya was obviously a bleach job.
Nrama: Your previous collaborations had over-arching stories, but The Fade Out is in a way the longest story you've done together -- it's one continuous narrative for the 12 issues, with no mini-arcs, no stand-alone stories – It's more of a “novel” than any of your other works, something you've pointed out. What were some of the unique advantages and challenges of telling a story this way?
Brubaker: I think the advantage was giving ourselves the room to tell a bigger and more complex, even a bit sprawling, kind of story... but that was all focused towards one ending, instead of a bunch of partial endings. I'd been wanting to do one longer piece like this for a while, but it wasn't until our Image deal that I felt we had the security to do it.
The challenges weren't really any different than any of our other projects. They're always harder in some places than you expected, and you never land exactly where you planned to... although, the last half of issue #12 was almost exactly how I pictured it before I started scripting issue #1.
Nrama: That said, there are some self-contained elements to each issue – the shuffling checklist of characters at the beginning, the multiple points of view coming to the forefront, etc. Some reviewers even cited bits as a “jumping-on point,” something you denied. I was curious as to what you did to help yourself pace the story on an issue-by-issue basis.
Brubaker: I just followed my gut. I have a huge notebook full of outlines and ideas for chapters, and every time I'd finish one issue, I'd go through all that and start outlining the next few chapters, which always changed a bit as I went, so I'd have to constantly alter the running outline.
Nrama:In the research you acquired for doing this story, what did you discover that surprised you the most?
Brubaker: Well, I've spent most of my adult life reading books about old Hollywood, so I'm not too easy to surprise anymore. But that said, Devin Faraci's last article, in issue #12, about Cary Grant's LSD use, was pretty shocking to me.
Nrama:There's a number of specific works about Hollywood that are clear influences here – was wondering if Charlie's cracked glasses were a shout-out to Nicholson's nose in Chinatown – but one that's always fascinated me was the film The Blue Dahlia, which involves blackouts, war veterans, and caused Raymond Chandler to go off the wagon to rewrite the ending at the last minute. I was curious if that was an influence on this.
Brubaker: I mean, I know that movie, but I don't think I'd say it was an influence per se, anymore than any other film of that era was. I don't think Chinatown is really an influence, either.
I tried really hard to stay away from feeling like Chinatown or James Ellroy, because this story takes place in their world -- That's one of the reasons why it's about a writer, not a detective or a cop.
The biggest influences on it would be things like The Day of the Locust, or books about Hammett and Fitzgerald's time in Hollywood, and the stories I'd hear about my uncle's career and his friends who got blacklisted.
The whole idea was to do a noir about the people who made the noir films, so it's meant to feel like that era, but to feel more real and harsh, at the same time. So if you see little nods to other movies here or there, that's good, like little Easter Eggs.
But Charlie's cracked glasses, that's not a reference to anything. That's about the way he's seeing the world.
Nrama: The ending of this is interesting –
Brubaker: Let me just cut you off. I don't want to talk about the ending. Not just for fear of spoilers, but because I think it's important for people to figure it out on their own.
Once people put all the pieces together and get inside Charlie's head, hopefully they'll see some parts of the story that were left unwritten, and understand what he's going through.
Nrama: Fair enough. Which characters surprised you the most in the story, and which do you wish you'd done more with?
Brubaker: Brodsky turned out to be my favorite to write dialog for, actually. He's right up there with J. Jonah Jameson as far as fun dialog goes, and I am starting to work on an idea for a ‘50s era story starring him, even.
I wish I'd gotten to spend more time with both Maya and Dottie, really. Both of them have arcs throughout the book, but you have to piece them together by reading closely. For example, the back cover of issue #12 is the last beat of Maya's story, as well as Charlie and Val's.
But with Dottie, some people didn't even notice in issue #10 when it was revealed she's a lesbian. Dottie was one of my favorite characters, and she was very loosely based on stories my aunt told me about being a PR girl in the ‘30s and ‘40s for the studios.
Phillips: Yeah, Dottie and Brodsky were the most fun to draw too. The look of Dottie was based on a real person, and that always helps add a bit of visual depth to a character.
Brodsky, and a few other characters looks were based on models from the Fairburn books of artist's reference photos published in the ‘70s.
They are full of interesting-looking people and are a real help. Long out of print, though, and not available online!
Nrama:What was it like coming up with the films within this world? Curious if Maya/Val's film was fully plotted out.
Brubaker: That one I had a loose idea of what it was, but suffice it to say, it wasn't a masterpiece.
Coming up with the movie stills for the back covers every issue was a lot of fun – although the names were not always easy to come up with. I doubt Way Out West would have gotten released in the ‘40s. That sounds too much like a musical.
But I was so glad Sean was up for doing those. It made the world of the story feel even more real, you could picture Victory Street as a once-thriving little studio.
Nrama:By y'all's standards, a surprising number of main characters are left alive by the end of this story. Do you see yourself revisiting this world or any of these characters in the future? Hey, even the Coens have talked about revisiting Barton Fink.
Brubaker: Well, at first I would have said no, but then I started having ideas for a story about Brodsky, but it wouldn't be a direct sequel.
Nrama:Anything you'd like to recommend to our readers?
Brubaker: Sure, if you like The Fade Out, go listen to the podcast You Must Remember This, which is about forgotten Hollywood history. The episodes about the ‘40s are all great, especially the Gable/Lombard episode... but the series called “Charles Manson's Hollywood” is probably the best true crime podcast series I've ever heard.
A bunch of our readers wrote in about it, and I got totally hooked on it.