Sterling Gates has already dedicated most of his life to comic books, but now he can add the experience of screenwriting a comic book film.
The Posthuman Project, for which Gates shares a writing credit with Matthew Price, has been chosen for the Comic-Con International Independent Film Festival in San Diego. The independent movie, which has already won multiple awards during other film festival showings, will be screened in San Diego on Saturday morning.
Described as a "superhero movie by way of John Hughes," the movie follows a group of teenagers who gain superhuman abilities right before high school graduation, mixing a character-focused, coming-of-age story with a special effects-laden, superhero team-up.
Gates, a comic book writer who's best known for his acclaimed run on DC Comics' Supergirl, has known Price since he was in college, working at a comic shop. While Gates ended up moving to California and becoming a comic book writer, Price was a journalist and co-owner of Speeding Bullet Comics in Norman, Okla.
"Matt and I stayed friends, and in February 2012, he called to ask for my help on a script he was writing. They wanted to shoot a comic book movie in Oklahoma on a microbudget, using all local cast and crew," Gates explained. "Matt was kind of stuck story-wise, so we talked a lot about what he was writing and the story that he wanted to tell and we re-broke the story over the phone."
Eventually, Gates became a writer and creative consultant on the film. "Once Matt finished his drafts, they called me again and asked me to rewrite the script. Matt did a fine job, but they asked me to drum up the character work, smooth out some of the rougher edges of the script, and restructure it in case they wanted to take it to the web, all with an eye towards their microbudget," Gates said.
What interested Gates most about the film was that it focused on the relationships and problems of teen characters through the lens of the traditional superhero team-up story. "All of these kids have identifiable problems, and it's only through gaining superpowers that they're able to deal with them — some with violence, some with their newfound strength, some with healing, both figuratively and literally," he said.
The movie tells the story of Denny (Kyle Whalen) and his brother Archie (Collin Place), who come from a broken home. The action starts when Denny and Archie go on a mountain-climbing trip with a group of friends — including Kyle's ex-girlfriend Lisa (Alexandria Harris), his athletic friend Adam (Josh Bonzie), and their tough-but-loyal friend from the wrong side of the tracks, Gwen (Lindsay Sawyer). At the top of the mountain, the kids run into a troublesome villain (Rett Terrell) — and end up getting superhuman abilities.
"I thought it was really interesting to do a teenage team movie," Gates said. "And it really is a teenage movie. I know X-Men and The Avengers are considered the great superhero team-up movies of our time, but all of those characters are at vastly different stages of their life from our characters. I think it's really interesting to have five teenagers on the cusp of adulthood thrust into this crazy superhuman story. How do they look at the problems we throw at them solely from a teenage perspective?
"And really, anyone who's ever met a group of teenagers before knows each one will react differently in any new situation. What happens to their personal problems when these superpowers enter into the mix? Do they overcome them and triumph? Or are their failures made worse because these powers complicate their lives?"
Besides being an Oklahoma-based cast and crew, most of the people involved in The Posthuman Project are "huge superhero fans," Gates said. "Kyle Roberts, our director, is probably most known for doing stop-motion recreations of cartoon opening theme songs. His X-Men stop-motion video was huge on YouTube, something like 1.2 million views.
"One of Kyle's main strengths is in digital special effects," he said, "which you really need for a comic-based story. His eye was always towards getting these huge moments out of performances and making sure the effects land for audiences. It was a gargantuan amount of work, and he really stepped up to the task."
"Everyone involved wanted to make something that reflected what they personally believed about the hardship of teenage life and examine those things through the lens of superhero tropes," Gates said.
Some of those superhero tropes will feel familiar to fans — for example, there's a post-credits scene that teases a sequel, and there are chapters with cliffhangers that transition with comic book-inspired artwork. "The cliffhanger transitions happened because -- at the production's request -- I structured the script to be a weekly web series," Gates said. "At some point, they decided to cut it as a feature instead, so Kyle and his team came up with these great visual transitions that pay homage to the medium that inspired the film."
There's also a scene where Archie is being bullied before he gets superpowers (and fans can probably guess what happens after). "Bullying was something I really wanted to tackle in a big way. Matt set it up in his drafts and I tried to really bring it to the forefront in mine. When I was 12 or 13, all I wanted was one superpower: super speed," Gates said. "I wanted to be The Flash, because the bullies at my school were the stars of the track team, and they would run you down any chance they got.
"So Archie's story touches on what happens when you don't have strength to confront your bullies, then what happens when you're given the physical and emotional strength to confront them. What do you do? What would you do?"
Despite the film's bullies and villains, there are light-hearted moments, as the kids experience the darker parts of life with humor and friendship. "There are these really light moments, but there are also some dark moments," Gates said. "I think Kyle and his crew wanted to make something that was family-friendly because he was expecting a child while he was making Posthuman. He wanted something kids could watch and identify with. I tend to skew things a little darker, though, so I tried to make sure there was an edge to some of the scenes.
"There's actually a moment in there that I would have never written in my life, where the teenagers are driving along and they start singing in the car," Gates said. "Kyle asked me to do that scene because he had an O Fidelis song in mind for it — O Fidelis is a fantastic local Oklahoma City band — and Kyle really wanted a big musical bonding moment with the characters before everything goes bad. I was frankly astonished at how well it turned out. The actors and the band did an amazing job with the song, particularly Lindsay Sawyer, and it's now this really great moment that's unlike any other moment I've seen in an indie feature. And it's definitely not a moment I've ever seen in a superhero story."
Gates said he was also surprised that the project came together, despite its small budget and limited shooting schedule — a total of 24 shooting days over four months, followed by 10 months of post-production.
He also helped the filmmakers put together a 16-page prequel comic book that will be available at screenings. "Matt and I put that story together, and it features an Oklahoma City artist named Mario Wytch," Gates said, "It's a quick tale that takes place before the events of movie, expanding the universe of the film and fleshing out Denny's backstory."
The writer said he believes fans will see more and more people putting together their own comic book movies, now that technology and crowd-sourcing are making the process easier.
"Which is not to say this was easy at all!" he laughed. "Honestly, for me, it's a miracle this got made. What Kyle and his producing team were able to accomplish with essentially nothing but gumption and sweat — I mean, they squeezed blood from every stone they could find to get this finished.
"I wake up some days and can't believe we've got a tiny, independent comic book movie going to all these film festivals," he added. "It's almost a dream. I wake up and think, 'did this actually happen?' I watched the first cut of Posthuman when I got home from Comic-Con last summer, and we're screening our final cut at Comic-Con almost a year later to the day. I'm ecstatic people are finally getting to see what our two-and-a-half years of work has produced!"
The Posthuman Project will be shown at the Comic-Con Film Festival on Saturday, July 26th at 11: 35 a.m. at the San Diego Marriott Marquis and Marina, next to the Convention Center, on the north end (Hall A) of the center.