Comics Writer Neal Shaffer Turns His Pen Toward The Big Screen—Though Studios Don’t Know It Yet
With built-in storyboards, pre-developed characters, and a ready-made fan base, directors and screenwriters have found comics an easy pitch to movie producers. Still, most mainstream comic-book movies come from well-established franchises—Batman, X-Men, Spider-Man. It’s much more rare to see something like Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition or the Hughes Brothers’ From Hell, both born as graphic novels, become successful on-screen adaptations. Hollywood, Marvel, DC, et al., have done their best to make sure every major comic-book property gets snapped up and given a blockbuster franchise treatment, while the small comic lives a lonely but not altogether undignified existence—with little fanfare in the comics world and an infinitesimal chance of a big-screen adaptation. Nevertheless, Shaffer, who has written three published comics, has spent the past six months working on an untitled screenplay that is operating straight from the underground-comics mode. And he doesn’t care that, according to the traditional movie-production process, he’s putting the cart before the horse.
“So many people in comics are chasing the Hollywood dream,” Shaffer says, leisurely sipping a beer at a Mount Vernon watering hole. “And while it might work out for some people, it’s really not the best way to do business for your book.” Lanky and wearing his winter scruff, he expresses himself with a restrained exuberance. He’s excited about the work he is doing but remains guarded about speculating just where it’s heading.
Shaffer (an erstwhile City Paper contributor) and his creative partner, Los Angeles-based director Rob Boocheck, are still in their project’s honeymoon phase, where everything can still play out as imagined without getting mired in those industry quagmiresstuck—stuck in turnaround or the dreaded “in development”—that stall so many movie ideas before they even reach a production meeting. The untitled screenplay is finished, and they’re shopping the project around with Boocheck attached to direct. “We’re pretty far along in the process, at the point where we’ll be taking the next step soon,” Shaffer says. “The plan is to shoot it this year sometime. I’m going out [to L.A.] in January to put the finishing touches on the script and start the gears turning on a couple of other projects. We’re both looking at this as a long-term collaboration.”
“I have representation as a director,” Boocheck says via e-mail. “So, the people who rep me will set up meetings with different meetings with studios and independent producers. Then the project will be nurtured by whichever company we feel is right for the project. Then once a lead is attached we’ll get funding. Then we shoot the sucker and release it to the hopefully adoring public.”
Yes, at the moment, everything is still rosy. The hard part is done—they’ve completed their story. Now comes the really hard part: finding out if anybody is willing to gamble on their work.
Shaffer’s function in the comic business is an unusual one. He’s a writer, not an artist, something that can work against someone trying to break into the business. Yet he has managed to tell three imaginative stories in comics, and he’s doing so almost entirely on his own terms.
“It’s a strange, strange industry,” Shaffer says. “There’s no other like it. It’s not like the record business or traditional publishing. Everything is on a shoestring budget, unless you’re with one of the big houses, and then you’re only writing from prearranged story lines.”
Shaffer’s first comics venture was a collaborative effort with a fellow Baltimorean, CP contributing illustrator Daniel Krall. One Plus One, a morality tale that takes place in and around Hampden, came about after two years of collaboration after the pair met while working at the now shuttered Borders bookstore in Towson.
“I think One Plus One started as an offhanded comment Neal made about mortality while we were driving somewhere,” Krall says. “We discuss these things extensively, sometimes exhaustively, but it’s a fun process. It was really a collaboration—Neal is a pretty solid visual thinker, and I have a good feel for how to construct a story. If we were working on our individual parts in isolation, it wouldn’t have worked as well. I don’t think I would have been as invested.”
The book was released in 2002 by Portland, Ore.-based Oni Press, and the relatively easy, if lengthy, road from idea to book may bolster Shaffer’s belief in his current movie project. Krall and Shaffer attended the Comic-Con International in San Diego in 2001 with treatment packets for their idea. Oni liked the idea enough to offer them a deal for a set of books.
“It was unusual,” Shaffer recalls. “Normally publishers want to see you work on a mini-book, not a whole set. We showed up with packets that were awesome, and Oni bid on it. Conventions are really only a venue for artists. It’s hard to break in as just a writer. You have to partner with an artist, and finding a good one isn’t easy. I’ve been really lucky.”
Through Oni Press, Shaffer met Boocheck. He started writing a semimonthly pop-culture column for the Oni web site in 2004, in which he’d tip his hat at things he found interesting. One was the video to Jet’s “Cold Hard Bitch,” which he found out was directed by a Los Angeles collective called Tomorrow’s Brightest Minds.
He visited their web site and e-mailed them saying he was writing about their video in the column. “At first, I was excited simply about the association with Oni, as I’m a big indie-comic fan,” writes Boocheck, one of the Tomorrow’s Brightest Minds creative heads. “Then I realized that Neal had written a comic called One Plus One that I had really enjoyed. So, I threw the praise right back at him and asked if he had ever considered writing a screenplay.”
Soon the two were batting ideas back and forth to each other. “I had wanted to make a movie about a world where magic existed as part of a counterculture,” Boocheck writes. “I wanted it to be a cross between [Marvel comic] Dr. Strange and Easy Rider. Neal came back with structuring it as a classic western: A rogue magician wanders into a small town looking to put on his show. The only thing is that town has outlawed magic. I loved this idea. So, from there Neal began to weave together the rest of the story.”
From working with Krall, Shaffer was already at ease with working on a narrative vision, thinking in terms of both story and visuals. “I think my chief writing skills are in dialogue, character, mood, tone, etc.,” he says. “I’m not nearly as good with straight ‘this happened, then he moved this way, then this happened’ type of writing. I want to work in the gray areas. The black and white is easy—it’s there and it doesn’t change. The gray is what’s interesting, the nooks and crannies.”
Shaffer’s writing leaves as much to the reader’s imagination as the story line will allow. Characters have unnatural abilities and appear beholden to greater powers, but they never explain the origin of these phenomena, forcing you to think about these things while the characters work to absorb the plot.
“Neal has an unusual writing style,” Boocheck says. “His strength is how he reveals information, and I think it gives him a unique take on screenwriting. Neal would much rather tell the story in an unconventional way. I was the other side of the coin—I kept trying to keep the story to a three-act structure while Neal could care less about traditional structures. In the end, I think we struck a nice balance.”
And now they’re about to see if anybody else agrees with them. “I think that Neal’s association with comics could only be a positive thing,” Boocheck writes. “It’s easy to see how someone’s writing translates into pictures when you have completed comic books to show. I figure that the movie industry loves to reap the talents spawned in comics and music videos.”
Regardless of what happens with this project, Shaffer is realistic about his work and its place in comics’ and movies’ big pictures. “Everyone in comics knows that money is hard to come by,” he says. “And every comic company has to make a choice, and so do we. What will your niche be? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to stop doing comics, but it’s a risk/reward proposition, and I don’t have a desire to be a big part of that industry. The big companies are all about numbers. I think you do gain a lot by going on a small level and by having faith in finding like-minded individuals and not working for Marvel—you gain respect. Numbers are less important than respect.”
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