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What Makes a Good Story?

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Todd McFarlane continues his discussion on what makes a good story, how to build a real world story and how it affects his plans for characters.

McFarlane’s Mark is produced by Sam Moyerman and Frederik Hautain.

BROKEN FRONTIER: I wanted to start today by continuing our discussion from last time.  You had started talking about Spawn movie ideas and comparing it to old monster movies in the sense that in those films there was only one element of the fantastic set against a real world setting. 

But in those movies (Dracula, Werewolf, Frankenstein) aren’t those characters you’re talking about the bad guys with the secondary characters chasing and trying to kill them?  If you go this route in the film would that be a change you had to make with Spawn?


MCFARLANE: Depends on what your perception is, right?  Depends on the motivation.  For instance, in Jaws the shark was the bad guy, but if you give me one monologue with that shark I could turn him into a sympathetic good guy.  That conversation would go like this: boats tipping, Quinn is starting to slide down into the shark’s mouth.

QUINN – Why do you do this?  Why are you such an SOB?!?

And the shark stops for a brief minute and gets his only speaking part of the movie and it goes

SHARK – Excuse me Mr. Human; let me explain something to you.  I am not eating you because I want to; I’m eating you because I HAVE to.  If I don’t, you are trying to kill me!  Oh, now why are you trying to kill me, because one of us sharks came and ate a few humans?  To you all, all of us sharks look the same.  I am not that shark, but it doesn’t matter to you humans because you just get into your boats and come out trolling the seas to capture the one bad shark.  Because we’re not all bad and you ended up catching 400 of us!  And of that 400, one was my wife, and 2 were my kids; so you slaughtered my whole family!  I got nothing left, you pink jerk.  I can swim to sea, or I can defend my home because I have done nothing wrong.  CHOMP!

And all of a sudden the audience would go, “That poor, poor shark.”

So the question then is, can I set people up for one thing and then during the movie turn it to make it not what you think.  Due to circumstances good is bad and bad is good and NOTHING is what you thought it was.  Can I do it?  We will see.

BF: Well, that's definitely something that you can do with Spawn, bringing him in as the “unknown” and having Sam and Twitch as the cops trying to figure him out.  Seems like it could fit that mold.

MCFARLANE: We’ll see.  I don’t think it’ll be an easy pull but that has always been where my head is at in thinking about the movie.  To me, Jaws has always been about Sheriff Brody and Quinn – the guys hunting the shark.  With a Spawn movie, Spawn should be the shark.  Then the movie becomes about Sam and Twitch.

You’re asking the question, “Why should I be afraid for them if I already know that Spawn is a good guy?”  But I think the book has shown over the years that there are many sides to Spawn.  Spawn’s definition of good may startle the viewership; leave them wondering how he can be a good guy. 

Part of it is also that I would need to sell the story to people who aren’t Spawn fans or even comic book fans: those who might just be going to see the movie because it looks cool and they liked the trailers.  So I’d need to tell a different kind of story to that person, where they don’t care about the mythos of Spawn; they just want a freaky story that makes sense at the end of it.

BF: That is always something that has been on people’s minds, how you would want to handle the Spawn movie.  And it fits with a lot of the darker themes you’re bringing into the book with the new art and creative team.

MCFARLANE: 
And it’s unconventional too.  People are going to say “Hey, where are all the super villains in the book?” because there are none.  But if you like the way the book looks and reads then you’ll definitely enjoy what I have planned for the character -- if we ever take it back to television or Hollywood as it’ll be closer to that.  Full of urban settings and darkness, plus those “things that go bump in the night.”

If you’re looking for Spawn beating up on a bunch of super villains after issue #201, you’re not going to be happy.  But that does not mean there won’t be cool stories.  We mentioned Bendis and Maleev, they did that for 50 issues on Daredevil!  Sure, they brought in a few super villains here and there, but to me, the stuff that was the coolest was the urban stuff.

BF: Very true, the superhero and super villain stuff was definitely downplayed for the more urban storytelling.

MCFARLANE:
What was nice about it was the superhero aspect reared its head when it needed to, but it wasn’t the driver of the story.  As I get older, one of the reasons superhero comics tend to bore me is that it’s always seems to start with the idea that it has to be big and fantastic and then try and fit the real world into it.  I’m the reverse of that with my thinking: build me a world that I believe in and then fit the fantastic into that.  Which is what Jaws did, it’s what Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Exorcist did. 

They were all set in the backdrop of reality and put the fantastic on top of it.  We have a tendency in comics to go the other way.  Any sense of reality can be dropped by the wayside for the fantastic.  We’ll do something crazy like blow up Times Square and then in that world there are no repercussions in the very next issue.  Because in our world there would be no repercussions of blowing up Times Square, but if you fly a plane into an IRS building they’ll talk about it for 4 weeks [laughs]. 

We just seem to walk away from that in superhero comics and the heroes mostly walk away without even getting bruised.  That’s what I’ve grown tired of.

The building falling on someone’s head has no value to me unless I care about the head it is falling on.  It’s like doing a really big action movie, but I was never the biggest fan of them.  If I were to give you a list of my favorite movies there wouldn’t be an action movie in there.  They are all talking head movies, because for me blowing things up and doing action movies is easy.  That’s something I could do.  Give me $300 million and I’ll put stuff on the screen that will wow you visually.  A harder skill is to do “talking heads.”  That’s why you’re seeing the dynamic of these extremes of movies going up against each other, like Avatar and Hurt Locker.

Avatar
was fantastic.  It was a spectacle of a movie with a big visual wow factor.  But Hurt Locker is a movie where you say “Wow.  They had no budget.  They had no stars.”  Even the subject matter is not expected.  They made a guy walking down the street into a tense, exciting moment.  To me, that’s as exciting and magical as the stuff that James Cameron did with Avatar.  Cameron had everything at his disposal.  He was the home run hitter who went up to the plate in the bottom of the ninth and hit the home run that everyone expected him to.  Applaud him for that.

But Kathryn Bigelow had nothing and she dapped a double with the game on the line when no one expected it.  So I’m way more enamored with something like Hurt Locker than I am with Avatar.  I applaud it but I am more jealous of Hurt Locker because I wonder how Bigelow made the movie she did.  I know how Cameron did his – he had a lot of technology and $300 million.

That’s something that’s more prevalent in comic books, but I’m less worried about huge sales than telling a great story.  Something that I can give to my neighbor.

    

BF: There’s no doubt it’s a viable debate in terms of storytelling, but I must admit to finding some humor in you using an analogy equating movies you don’t prefer to home run hitters when you’re the same guy who buys all the record home run baseballs.

MCFARLANE:
[Laughs] No!  I applaud them because I know they’re giving the audience what they want.  I understand that those are attention drawers and people like that stuff.  And it’s not like I don’t enjoy it too, it’s just not my preference.

And besides, my favorite baseball player is Ichiro.  Skinniest guy on the field, but he always shows them.  Maybe it’s because I’m a small, skinny guy myself, but I’m always yelling for him to go out and play the game right and show everyone that you don’t need to be the biggest guy on the field to make a huge impact.  And Japan won the World Baseball Classic playing that way.

But to get back to it, the best action movies have always been the ones with some real character development.  It’s doable, there are some that are out there where they have their cake and eat it too.  The key is to not forget about the characters and just go around blowing up buildings.  We do that all the time in comic books – they don’t care about the dialogue and characters.

I always tell people to read their dialogue out loud and figure out if they would ever say that in real life.  Ever.  I don’t believe people talk the way we write them in comic books.  So when you find the writer who finds that voice and gives a true personality to the character I’m jealous of that ability.  It’s the hardest thing to do.  Maybe it’s because I’m an artist, but to me doing a big alien invasion and blowing stuff up is the easy part.

BF: Funny you should mention the dialogue.  Most of the times I find the most emotional scenes in comics are the silent ones.  Eliminate the dialogue and show the character in the moment and that resonates more than anything they could say.

MCFARLANE:
Movies have that too and they get a sound score with it.  So they can play certain types of music to really draw out those emotions they want from you.  We don’t have that luxury, so if we can pull it off just in pictures then someone is telling a heck of a story.  There’s no sound and we’re still pulling those emotions.

Even when I look back on stuff, we were going over some books for a trade paperback the other day and I looked at some of the dialogue and it didn’t ring true at all.  I’m of the belief that if you have to take more than 3 minutes coming up with a line, then you probably don’t need a line there at all.  If you can’t come up with it naturally then just get out of the way or you’re impeding on what’s already there.  I run into that from time to time with even my own writing where I’ll reread it and realize that I was just writing for the sake of writing and added nothing to the conversation.

Read through a good Hollywood script and you’ll realize how sparsely dialogued it is.  Because those writers get it; they know they have camera movements and movie scores to fill out the scene.  We can’t do that in comics as easily so when guys who can write that stuff it really tugs at your heart.  The melodramatic we do really well, making the really dramatic work without any camera movement and musical scoring it’s very impressive in comics.

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