Actor, screenwriter, director; all these things accurately describe James Zahn. He’s worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood, acting in Ocean’s 12 and Prison Break. Now, with his next project, he’s becoming a multimedia magnate, adding in comic writer to his résumé. A long time coming, the Death Walks the Streets project kicks off this month with a #0 issue of the comic. Death Walks the Streets: Issue #0 is co-written by Zahn and his co-screenwriter Ben Brezinski, with art by Guilherme Balbi, Alex Silva, and Javier “Java” Tartaglia and letters by Kurt Hathaway. The book also marks the first time The Scream Factory will publish a comic in print, as opposed to the digital distribution model they’ve been using with Wowio.com. The book kicks off with a regular edition and a Wizard World Exclusive edition with a cover by Mark Kidwell at Wizard World Chicago later this month. Newsarama had a conversation with Zahn to find out all the details about the movie(s), comics, and what life is like as an ambitious project takes shape.
Newsarama: Start off by giving us the general premise of Death Walks the Streets (DWTS) as a concept.
James Zahn: DWTS is a multi-media project involving feature films, comics, and new media. It's a crime-horror hybrid that brings together a wide array of supernatural creatures in a visually slick world. Think Ocean's 11 and Goodfellas thrown into a blender with Lost Boys and Universal Monsters, and then served up with a side of Blues Brothers."
The tagline of "Vampires. Demons. Zombies. Werewolves. The Mob." pretty much sums up what we initially set out for, but the project has evolved. At the center of the story is Michael Labou, along with his friends Danielle and Malcolm. They're a trio of very human characters in an unconventional situation. They're good people wrapped up in a world of international organized crime - all very good at their jobs even though they don't necessarily agree with what they're doing or who they're working for - something I think that almost everyone can identify with. They're based in the City of New Marshall, where humans are far from the only inhabitants.
The movie has long been intended to start off with Michael being released from prison and setting off to find a fresh start and a new life with his friends at his side. They get roped right back into business and everything changes. Redemption is sought, but the obstacles become a lot greater.
NRAMA: How does the comic story fit in with the overall story?
JZ: The comic begins three years prior to the events of the first screenplay. Michael isn't in jail yet, so we get to see who he was before that. Some characters will mature over time, while others will regress.
NRAMA: Death Walks the Streets the movie has been in production for quite some time now, what’s the current status of the film?
JZ: I'm not sure "production" is the right word to use. Actually, it's far from. The film has been in-development since 2004. That's when Ben Brezinski and I wrote the first screenplay based on an outline I've been sitting on for years. We hit the public radar a lot earlier than we should have, which has been the old "double-edged sword". Normally when you first hear about a film getting off the ground, it's actually been in-development for several years. There are exceptions, but it generally takes about 5 years to get from script to screen. Ben and I had achieved a slight amount of local notoriety from working on some things in Lake County, Illinois. Music Videos, short films, commercials, etc. A reporter from Lakeland News here approached us about doing a story on those things in January of 2005 and we were fresh off of the first draft of Death Walks the Streets. We talked a little bit about that and they changed the focus of their piece and when it came out in February it was a front-page feature on all the papers they distribute. "Local Filmmakers Search For Hollywood Ending" was the title, and it set off a snowball effect for us. Within the next couple of weeks the story spread to the Chicago Tribune, Fangoria, and so on. Here we are in 2008 and we're "still searching." Since the whole thing was new to us, we just went with it. We set up on myspace, started doing blogs and video podcasts, and all of a sudden we had this huge audience but the project was in it's very early stages. There was no cast, no crew, no money - just a screenplay. We thought we'd do what we always did and find a way to creatively shoot the thing here in Illinois.
The problem was we wrote a much bigger movie than we could pull off. People started coming to us about working on the film, buying it outright, producing it, etc. and we made some novice mistakes. The project spent just shy of three years with a company that things didn't work out with. In the meantime, the community support that sprung up around it kept growing, and the media coverage also continued. The one looming question with everyone started to be "Where the hell is the movie?" It got really frustrating for Ben and I, along with some other members of the cast and crew that had become attached to it. People were calling it "The biggest movie not yet shot", and others started questioning if it was "real" at all. We were getting invited to do public appearances and such, with no movie. DWTS somehow ended up nominated for "Most Anticipated Film" at the Spike TV Scream Awards, and the video podcasts actually Won the "News & Documentary" category of this "MyEmmy" thing that myspace was having in association with the National Television Academy. As time went on, some ugly things went down that thankfully Ben and I were not directly involved with, and we kept plugging away knowing that one day we would make this film. Where others would've quit an moved on, we kept going.
Last summer my wife and I actually had to sell our house in order to stay on-track with things so this film could get made. You do what you have to do, and make sacrifices when needed. Creative projects run into problems all the time. Projects get shelved, cancelled, lose funding, you name it. It's just the nature of the business and in the end you have to do what's right for you under the circumstances. For us, the right thing to do is deliver a kick-ass film regardless of how long it takes.
NRAMA: And that brings us to this year, right?
JZ: Yeah, in January of 2008 we started fresh, putting the past three years behind us. We re-grouped to see who was still with us, and much to our surprise most of the attachments stayed in place. The first month of the year was spent re-building the business side from the ground-up. We were fortunate to have people like Robert Kurtzman (Visual FX), John Roome (Composer), Gregory Hill (Production Designer), that were willing to keep going with us and keep working just to get the film made. Right off the top, those three guys have done some incredible work already, and continue to do so.
As far as the status of the film right now, we're working on the financing for it. Sets and Props are designed - FX sitting there waiting for us - its pretty much ready to go when the money is there. Just last week, Kurtzman sent blueprints for one of our weapons down to WETA in New Zeland for a quote. It would be pretty cool to have our weapons made by the same guys from Lord Of The Rings if it works out. We have a producer's rep that's already gotten the project in front of distributors and we've entertained some early offers. It's a really weird situation to be in. Once we make the movie, there're people waiting to see it. Until then, work continues at a steady pace.
Since Ben and I got into all of this to tell stories, one of the first things we did was get the prequel comic into motion. We got a team put together and Death Walks the Streets: Issue #0 was in the art stage by the end of February.
NRAMA: Why do a prequel in the comic book format? Are you a fan of the format?
JZ: I've been into comics since I was a kid. The first thing that really hooked me was what John Byrne was doing with Superman at the time. A friend showed me the first couple issues of his run on that and I was sold. I'd always gotten the occasional comic - mostly Marvel stuff like Spider-man, Star Wars, X-men - but that era of Superman turned me into a weekly fixture at the local comic shop and really opened my eyes to the bigger world that comics had to offer. While still buying whatever grabbed me (and whatever my parents would allow), I soon became a "DC Kid". I was getting all the Superman-related titles, along with Batman, Green Lantern, etc. The bargain bins allowed me to go backwards into a lot of the mid-80's Crisis-era stuff. Then the summer of '89 hit and those were the days of Batman. At the same time I used to do a lot of drawing, and at one point thought I might even be able to draw comics one day. In fact, I got in trouble in Junior High for drawing a re-creation of Byrne's cover for She-Hulk #1. One of my teachers took offense to the anatomical proportions of my half-assed drawing, and then really went off upon seeing what I was trying to duplicate. She took the comic and the drawing and called my parents. That cover was hardly provocative, especially by today’s standards. So yeah, you could say I'm a fan of the format. Interestingly, we're doing a horror book using an art team that's mostly done work on Superhero titles.
NRAMA: Is this part of the overall story that you originally wanted in the film, or did it come after that story was complete?
JZ: Not at all. This is a completely separate tale from the film. We're setting some things up for the cinematic world, introducing readers to some of the characters, locations, etc. - but this is not an adaptation. That's not to say you won't see hints of things in flash-back or flash-forward, but the idea is to tell some fun stories that will gear up for the film without giving away what the movie is intended to be. Ben and I wrote this fresh for comics. Over the course of the film's development we'd been introduced to some other art teams and even outside writers to handle the comics. There were two other "prequel" series' written that were scrapped in favor of this new one. There's a recurring theme of "fresh starts" in this saga that have been mirrored by real life, so it felt appropriate to wipe the slate and start fresh with the comic as well.
NRAMA: You actually plan for two or three films, and possibly an ongoing comic; will these stories intersect, or be telling different parts of the overall story?
JZ: They might intersect at points, but it's always evolving. We've established that this run of comics takes place before the first film. There's a three-year gap in the timeline between DWTS I & DWTS II, which could easily be filled with a comic mini-series. DWTS II is called "The Long December" and the screenplay was completed in '06. Since we started this, the crime-horror genre has really taken off, and there's a few properties out there that have since come out that appear to be treading in similar waters, yet they're not even close to what DWTS is. There will likely be some inevitable comparisons made before people even get to experience DWTS, but we're confident that once it's all said and done readers and viewers will see how this world stands apart.
NRAMA: Death Walks the Streets #0 is the first book that will see a print run (albeit limited), not just a digital run, from The Scream Factory. How did you work that out with the fledgling publisher? How can readers get their hands on it?
JZ: Working with The Scream Factory is something that came out of left-field for us. Back in '06 Ben and I had a table at the Fangoria Weekend of Horrors event where we were attempting to generate interest in the DWTS project. When we were setting up I ran into Scott Licina, whom I'd met briefly at Wizard World a few years back. We were both hunting down a guy to sign in and get set up for the Fango thing. A couple hours later we met Mark Kidwell and immediately hit it off. We became instant fans of his work, and he really took an interest in what we were doing. Later that year we ran into Mark again at Wizard World and we started talking shop over cigarettes and Diet Mountain Dew in the courtyard outside the Convention Center. He told us about the impending launch of their new comic line, and there you had Scott again. Mark approached him about bringing DWTS into that fold, and Scott and I discussed the possibility of it becoming one of their titles. That didn't work out at the time, which in retrospect was a good thing for everyone involved. Mark and I stayed in contact, and earlier this year he offered up his services for some cover work. Over the course of two years, the scope of DWTS had changed, and Mark also had BUMP get released and the movie version of that was in-development with Robert Kurtzman set to direct and handle special FX. The comic prequel to Bob's movie THE RAGE was partially released by Fangoria Comics and was about to be released in it's entirety through The Scream Factory on Wowio. Essentially we were all working with the same group of people, but on different projects. We were about a month into production on DWTS #0 when Scott reached out to me again. We spent hours discussing possibilities for the future, and eventually he invited us into The Scream Factory fold. The description of TSF as "an alliance" is really fitting, as everyone brings something unique to the table, and we're all working together to reach a common goal. At the core of that is the desire to tell great stories, regardless of the medium - and to have a good time while doing it. On the business side, Scott's been a wealth of knowledge and someone that gives you the extra push to take something good and make it better.
As for #0 itself, you can currently pre-order a copy through our official site www.deathwalksthestreets.com . It will also be available in the near future through MerchDirect, who is in the process of taking over the operations of our official store. It'll be up soon at www.merchdirect.net/deathwalksthestreets . They'll ship that book to almost any country on the planet for a really reasonable price that we couldn't pull off on our own. We also plan on doing a traditional release to comic shops, but that's all in the planning-stages right now. Not sure when we'll be soliciting. One thing we really want to address is cost on future issues. It's no secret that the economy is in a state of distress right now, and many comic readers have been forced to cut back on their weekly pull. #0 carries a $3.99 cover price, but we really want to get that into the more manageable $2.99 range. Unfortunately that was something that wasn't feasible for this one, but we hope to achieve that on #1 and beyond. Also, we're tentatively on a quarterly schedule right now - so the cost should be a little easier to swallow than if we were going monthly.
NRAMA: Will the upcoming mini-series be on Wowio.com, then?
JZ: That's something we're certainly discussing. Obviously the entire entertainment industry is making a move to the digital realm, and we'll be there with it. Personally, whether it's movies, music, or comics I still prefer having a physical product in my collections - but Wowio is great. You can't go wrong with free comics, and many readers (myself included) have been introduced to titles they wouldn't have otherwise checked out after seeing them on Wowio.
NRAMA: #0 is going to be at Wizard World Chicago- will you be there as well?
JZ: Ben and I will both be there along with the rest of The Scream Factory crew. We'll have the Wizard World Exclusive version of #0 available, along with the standard version, and a 12x18 limited edition art print featuring an image from Issue #1. The WW Exclusive of the book is limited to 300 copies, and the print is limited to 500 pieces. The exclusive has cover art by Mark Kidwell with colors by Milen Parvanov. Mark will be there promoting BUMP, and would be happy to sign the DWTS book as well.
NRAMA: The movie has a cast in place; there are people genre fans will definitely recognize here, right?
JZ: There's a partial cast in place. Right off the top, the two most recognizable genre stars are Christian Kane and J. LaRose. Christian has been attached to the role of Michael Labou for a couple years and is most noted for his role as Lindsey McDonald on the TV series ANGEL. J has become known as "Troy the Chain-man" from SAW III. He's also in the upcoming REPO: THE GENETIC OPERA and an episode of NBC's FEAR ITSELF. We're actually going to be making some cast changes, so I wouldn't put too much stock in anything that's not on the official site. Doing the comics has opened up some ideas that prompted Ben and I to do one last massive overhaul of the DWTS I screenplay before we shoot it. That will prompt some character/cast changes in itself, but also sites like IMDB are largely inaccurate. Up until about a month ago we had people on the movie listing that we've not only never met - but a few we'd never even heard of!
NRAMA: As a story in the horror genre, will this be slow-burn-thriller-horror or more of shock-and-gore-horror?
JZ: It's a little of both. For #0 we skipped a lot of lengthy exposition in favor of jumping right into things. It's almost like the pilot episode of a TV series. People have been waiting for "Vampires. Demons. Zombies. Werewolves. and The Mob" so we're giving it to them right out of the gate.
NRAMA: Now that you’ve seen some art from the project, how does it feel to see your ideas visualized? What’s the coolest thing so far?
JZ: It feels great to see the DWTS world taking shape. There're some locations in the comics that have been adapted straight from Gregory Hill's set designs for the film, so it's got a feeling that we're already establishing a continuity between the comic and film worlds. It's also been a learning experience and there're a few things we've already pin-pointed to do different on future issues, mostly dealing with page layouts. The "coolest thing so far" is just being able to finally tell some stories and have a book to put in readers hands!
NRAMA: Open talk time: Any teases or anything else you’d like to say to your potential fans?
JZ: Well, Issue #1 is already at the art stage and being prepped for Fall. It's a special Halloween issue and we're pretty excited about that. Looking at the initial artwork I can almost feel the brisk air and smell the burning leaves. You can get your first peek at that if you visit us at Wizard World. Issue #2 is the winter issue and will be underway soon. That one is largely an origin story focusing on one of our central villains.
On an unrelated note, my Wikipedia page is largely bogus. After reading some things about myself that I wasn't aware of, I posted a bulletin on myspace inviting people to have some fun with it. Unfortunately the Wiki Police saw that as "vandalism", but somehow most of it stuck. "According to Wikipedia..." I'm heir to some fortune and Stephen Colbert's running-mate in the 2008 Presidential Election. So, if you happen to look me up after reading this article, just beware of what you might find on there.
Finally, we're looking forward to sharing Death Walks The Streets, the comic AND the movie, with all of you, and hope you'll give us a shot!