McFARLANE On SPAWN: Animation, Movies & Creative Control


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On Monday we <a href="">talked with</a> artist and Image Comics founder Todd McFarlane about Image United, the "jam session" comic that launches this week.

In Part Two of our discussion with McFarlane, we discuss the future of the Spawn franchise outside comics, and in particular, his plans for both an animated series and a live action Spawn film.

Newsarama: This animated feature we've heard about... just to start out, Al Simmons becoming a villain in Image United wouldn't influence that, would it?

Todd McFarlane: No. I'm of the mindset, whether it's right or wrong, that each one of the things you do in a different medium should be its own thing. It shouldn't be a replication. Two reasons: It would bore the heck out of me personally. And then where is the motivation for the audience who's seen this before? It's one of the reasons why I'm not really enthralled when they take comic book movies and try to get exactly the comic book on stage. I've read that! I just think, wow, they didn't add anything new to it. Sin City was like that. It was a hell of a comic book. But there weren't any surprises for me in the movie because it was soooo true to the comic. I don't mind if people try to do something that isn't exactly the same. And in the case of Spawn, that's what I want to do. For me, Spawn animation, Spawn comic books, Spawn movies, Spawn toys -- they can all be unique and don't have to tie together.

Nrama: What's the status on the Spawn animation?

McFarlane: The animation, we've put about a year and a half of work into it; we got pretty far along, then we got into a bit of a legal tussle. So it got boxed up and put into a corner. But at the end of this year, all that work and all those rights come back to me. So I'll have them in my hand on December 31st, and I'll walk into Hollywood probably the next month and start going, "Hey! Here's what we got!" And if anyone wants to bring the animation back, we're a year and a half into it. So we could literally hit the ground running. We don't have to develop it; it's done. We've got 90 minutes of it scripted, voiced, backgrounds, characters -- everything is done other than finding the studio to actually do the frame-by-frame.

I'll probably do a little diligence to see if I need to beef up the script a little bit and fix up the storyboards a little better, to make sure it's all where we want it to be.

Nrama: It sounds like a long animation. Is this going to be a feature length movie?

McFarlane: It was written that way. But to me, the presentation would be that there's a couple ways to skin the cat. You could start it with a 90-minute pilot, then go into a weekly show. Or you could cut it into two 45-minute shows and put in commercials in so you can have two one hours. Or I can cut up the 90 minutes into three parts, and you've got your first three episodes written and developed and ready to go. Then we'd hit the ground with episode 4. Those would be decisions if we sold it to a cable network, then they would tell us what they're looking for, and how to best use utilize the work we've already done.

Nrama: Now these legal problems you had -- are those also affecting the future of the planned Spawn live action film?

McFarlane: No. That's waiting on me personally. I've got guys going, "Todd, the day you can start, go." Although, I'll do my due diligence. But my goal is to write, produce and direct it. I've got a standing offer from three people going, "When can you start? Show us the script, and once we get it finalized, you can start directing it." They're not even hesitating on any of it.

But for me, I've got my other company, and the economy has sort of given me a couple body blows, so I've had to stay on top of my company a little bit more. Because you might imagine, if I go to make that movie and I walk away from my company for five or six months, I have to have work in order, and everything has to be a little bit on auto-pilot. And the last year has...[sighs] you know, just when you think you're on solid footing again, a curve ball gets thrown at you and you have to sort of recalculate stuff like that. But I'm starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel here that will sort of let me put my ducks in an order and allow me to finish up the script.

Nrama: Have you started writing it?

McFarlane: The outline's all there, and lots of notes, so the process is about half done.

You know, the big guys are bugging me too. They want to do some big, CG extravaganza with Spawn. And I'll go and listen to all the offers. It might happen that way. But for years, I've been leaning toward keeping it small and tight. And to do something with a reasonable budget where, oh by the way, they'll let you be involved.

And if it works, because you didn't put that much money into the budget, it doesn't have to be this big blockbuster success before they'll let you make another one.

Saw is a good business program to look at. The Saw franchise. Not in terms of content or anything like that, but in terms of keeping it small, keeping it tight, and when you put it out, your neck's not out very far, so if it works, you make another one. Where the big guys, by the time they make one, there are three Saws out. You know?

Nrama: You know, you started Image so you would have creative control of your artwork. And you said earlier that you like getting the pages from Image United last so you can kind of control the backgrounds and the line width and everything. Is this wish to control things part of your decision on the Spawn movie plans?

McFarlane: Sure. I've had this debate with my agents. If we do this big extravaganza of Spawn and it works, and I'm the producer on it, so what does that get me? I've been producer on a lot of stuff. It doesn't seem that it would actually do as much for me creatively as if I actually directed it and wrote my own story. Then, people will go, "Wow, look at that little thing that guy did that made money." That would give me way more opportunities to do more than just produce.

But the other one would get the bigger budget, bigger stars, bigger effects, bigger directors. I mean, it would be a lot more polished. So you'd get all that.

You're right, though. In a weird way, I sort of feel like I'm at the same crossroads I was when I was working with Marvel. When I left Marvel, it was like, OK, Todd, you get all this creative freedom, but you have to give things up because the brand name isn't as strong. You're going to have to give up the eyeballs you used to get when you were drawing Hulk and Spider-Man and stuff.

In hindsight, we actually didn't give up eyeballs. We actually got the same if not more eyeballs than what we were getting, and we got all the creative freedom. So I'm sort of in the same predicament. I can be the producer on a big extravaganza, if they make it, and that's a giant if. Even if they make it, you sort of go, OK, I get some input. But that's not the same as being able to take what's been in your head for the last 10 years and put it onto the screen. You may get fewer people, but if the budget is down low and the success is moderate, everybody's smiling, and you get to do it again.

I've dealt with Hollywood. What I do is give them an idea and they regurgitate it back to me. And I say, "What? I could have done that." They have their approved writers and directors, and I understand that. Everybody has to be comfortable with the people working on the movie. But it doesn't necessarily mean the quality you're getting back is going to be that much different. It's not going to be Iron Man with a lot of special effects, but you can do a lot artistically with it. It's not going to be cheap production value. I can't blow up Times Square and have a car chase going down the middle of Santa Monica freeway. But I can do a tight, contained, creepy, odd story.

Nrama: You've said before that the new Spawn movie is going to be R-rated, as opposed to the PG-13 vehicle we last saw with the character. Will it be an origin story?

McFarlane: No, I think continuity is baggage. I don't care about the origin. I think the first movie of every superhero is, arguably, the worst one. They have to give up the first movie to get the origin across. I don't care! When I go see a movie like The Grudge, that girl coming out with the black hair? I don't give a sh*t what her origin is. She's just creepy. What do I care where she came from? I've had these run-ins with Hollywood a thousand times. I never ask why she is who she is, as long as she serves the purpose of the story. They always go, well what's her story? Who cares?

There's a reason Wolverine was one of the most popular characters. They didn't give his origin. That's why he was so popular. Everybody's going, whoa! Why does he do that? So they clung to him. And if you gave his origin in the first two issues, I don't think Wolverine would have been nearly as exciting a character. Now we've got plenty of his origin, but they held back at first. And you didn't need to know all that.

Hitchcock didn't give you everyone's origin story. I was always more scared and interested in psychological stories when I was a kid than stories about people's head getting cut off.

Nrama: And that's what you want to do with Spawn? Something more like a Hitchcock type of terror?

McFarlane: Yeah. Exactly. You will never, in my version of Spawn, see the character standing there in his costume. Never. Why? Because he's not a superhero. He's a thing. He's a sentinel. He's an aberration. He's just a shadow out of the corner of people's eye. He just moves so fast that only a couple people even know about him in the movie, and they question their own sanity, 'cause some of them are a little off center and they're going through an emotional state. So they're letting their own paranoia get to them, they think. So they start to think, did that shadow move? Or did I just have too many beers? Was that a noise on the back of the porch? Or am I just imagining it because my husband is on a business trip?

That to me is a little more generic. You don't have to have been a comic book geek to go see it. My daughter and her friends can go see it. And out of curiosity, I think the comic geeks will go, even if it's just to go so they can write blogs and say they hate it. But the bigger thing is that I don't want to do a superhero movie for superhero geeks. I want to do a creepy movie that happens to also come from a comic book.

So we'll see if I ever get there. And if I do get there, I guess we'll find out if that's even the correct path I should have taken. I don't know.

Nrama: And this darker, horror feel you're describing for the movie... is that the direction of the animated series too?

McFarlane: Somewhat. It's got the same dark sensibilities. They kind of go together that way.

Nrama: Are you trying to clear your plate so you can do the movie?

McFarlane: Yep.

Nrama: What about the comics' projects you're doing now?

McFarlane: At some point, depending on my time, I'll have to walk away from that for four or five months, or get somebody to do some inking or writing while I just do pencils, just to take the burden off of me.

Nrama: Then to finish up, Todd, with everything that's going on at Image right now, how do you think Image United has or will shape the future of your company?

McFarlane: Well, I don't think there's going to be some major change in policy or anything. A lot of people, even 20 years later, don't understand that Image Comics doesn't really own anything. It's a publishing house. So Image doesn't really get to dictate policy. The creative people have to be able to go along with it and agree with the policy. It's one of the reasons why I think companies like ours still have a lot to offer, because you the creative person get to either say yes or no to those policies. Not the conglomerate. You the individual. We will empower you to say yes or no to a lot of different things.

But my sense of what Image United will affect is that we'll try to cinch that loose continuity just a little bit tighter. I don't think it'll ever get quite as tightly knitted as the big two, but we'll get it a little bit tighter. So you'll have more instances where, for example, in Spawn you might see a character that you recognize as someone from Darkness. It won't be a big deal. Nothing that you would put into the solicitations, but just an acknowledgment that these guys are floating around in the same universe.

And I'm hoping this curious little experiment we're doing will get a few more readers interested in these characters again and the Image Universe. And who knows? Maybe people will like it so much, when it's all done, they'll say, "Hey! Are you guys going to do this again next year?"

Nrama: Are you?

McFarlane: [laughs] I don't know! Depends on how many hairs we have left.

be sure to come back to Newsarama Tuesday at 7 p.m. EST as all seven creators from Image United participate in an 90-minute online interview/chat. Click Here for more information on the special event!

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