A Lonely Drive with John Heffernan

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Hoodoo psychics, jazz funerals, supercharged hearses, grave robbers and naked witches.  That’s what writer John Heffernan found at a Denny’s restaurant one early morning.  No, it’s not a twisted new Grand Slam meal, but rather some of the elements comic fans will find in Driver for the Dead, Heffernan’s new series debuting this month from Radical Publishing.

After reading a newspaper article about a hearse that was carjacked, only do be later discovered, its “freight” missing, the writer of the 2006 film, Snakes on a Plane, got curious.  As he researched incidents like this (which apparently are more common than one might think) Heffernan started wondering why a person would want to steal a body – and how you could guarantee a corpse got delivered from point A to point B without being “interfered” with. 

From there, characters and a story took shape - Alabaster Graves (a hearse driver who knows that there's more to the business of death than the undertaking profession might allow the public to believe), Marissa Freeman (great-granddaughter of an old hoodoo witch doctor, who rides shotgun with Graves and her great-grandfather’s corpse), Fallow (a necromancer who sustains himself by transplanting his own aging tissue with a steady supply of fresh flesh) and a mysterious and dangerous journey through the Cajun and Creole mysticism of the Deep South.

With the new three-issue series pulling into comic shops later this month, Broken Frontier spent some time chatting with Heffernan – about the creative process, his journey as a writer and, of course, those motherfucking snakes on that motherfucking plane.

BROKEN FRONTIER: What did your journey look like from being a guy with stories to tell to being a professional screenwriter and now comic writer?

JOHN HEFFERNAN: It’s a lonely thing, writing, and I’ve always been kind of a lonesome person so I guess it goes hand in hand.

It’s part escapism, part exhibitionism, part just looking at the world in a new and different and often sick and twisted way. I always had a thing for short stories. When I was a kid I was really into Stephen King and Clive Barker, still am, and their collected short works like Skeleton Crew and the Books of Blood were always my favorites. So I grew up on that stuff and as I got older I started writing my own short stories, some for pleasure and some for school. I was an English major in college, which in retrospect was not the most sensible use of four years of my time and thousands of dollars of my parents’ money but hey, it’s worked out so far. Besides, I can’t do math.

At some point I fell in love with movies and got it in my head that I wanted to work in the film business, doing what I had no idea, but something that would no doubt lead to great fortune and fame. So after I graduated I bought this big blue child-molester van with no back windows and drove out to Hollywood with about $500 to my name. Again, not very sensible and definitely not recommended. After a few lousy temp jobs I got a position working at USC Film School, which led to a couple of assistant gigs at a few different production companies. While I was there I sat in on a few development meetings and figured out that the best, or at least the cheapest, way to establish yourself creatively in Hollywood was to write a good screenplay.

So I read and did coverage on a bunch of screenplays, and I can tell you that one way to learn how to write a good screenplay is to read about five thousand bad screenplays. They were all so formulaic, so generic, so boring.  So I decided I would write one that would not be formulaic and generic and boring. It might not sell, no one might even read it, but it definitely wouldn’t be boring. I started writing a spec script and after a few drafts I showed it to my movie producer boss. To my surprise he liked it and helped me get an agent, and we ended up working together to create and sell Snakes on a Plane. I’ve been writing professionally ever since.

BF: I think I’m obligated to ask a Snakes on a Plane question…that movie is likely best known for the pre-release phenomenon that surrounded it.  What was were involvement in the movie and what sticks out to you most about the entire experience?

HEFFERNAN: Yeah, that was something. People heard the film’s title and just got inspired. All the fansites, the song contests, the unauthorized merchandising… which I still haven’t seen a dime from, by the way, although I do have a ton of bootleg T-shirts in a box in my garage. It was really fun, and very gratifying.

The only negative from all the sort of ironic fandom going on was that some people expected the movie to be a “so bad it’s good” campy romp send-up, which it really wasn’t. It was always meant to be more of an homage to the classic disaster/when-animals-attack flicks of the 1970s, like The Towering Inferno meets Kingdom Of The Spiders or something; a modern-day B movie but done well, not poorly. Good suspense, good comic relief, good action, good horror. And I think that’s what it ultimately turned out to be, and a lot of people really enjoyed it, but there’s not a huge audience for movies that people think are intentionally stupid, and some people who might have gotten the wrong idea about the film during that pre-release viral fanstorm might have missed out on the fun of seeing the movie in the theater on opening weekend.

But my most memorable experience from the film was seeing the completed airplane set for the first time. The producers basically bought a 747, cut it in half, and then put it on an enormous air-powered gimbal inside a huge soundstage. The interiors were done to a T—you could walk inside the plane’s cabin and completely believe that you were mid-flight on a real transatlantic carrier. Then, when the technician fired up the gimbal and ran the lights and the rain machines, the plane would roll and dive while you were inside it and you were tossed around like you were riding the most realistic plane-crash-simulator amusement park ride ever.

My other most memorable experience was the small part that I had in the movie: I played the FBI dog handler who sweeps the cargo hold with the German Shepherd just before the snakes are released. That was so cool, as I have a German Shepherd myself and they’re just awesome dogs. The only problem was that this particular dog just could not hit his marks to save his life, so we had to bait the set with little pieces of sausage everywhere to get him to go where we wanted him to go. That one scene took about 15 takes, and by the end of it I was thinking it was all my fault for trying to be a movie star and wasting all this film and everybody’s time and money. But I guess I was OK because the scene made it into the final cut of the movie.

BF: To most people, you don’t have that instant name recognition as a comic book writer, but you’re not really “just another Hollywood guy” trying his hand at comics.  Can you tell us a little bit about your involvement with comic books?

HEFFERNAN: I’ll actually take that as a serious compliment, because I certainly don’t want to be “just another Hollywood guy” trying his hand at comics. There are way too many posers out there who say they’ve been into comics forever but couldn’t tell you the difference between the Golden Age and Silver Age or Earth-1 and Earth-2 or that the new comics come out on Wednesdays. It’s all just a result of the explosion of superhero movies—writers want to go where the market is, and there’s nothing wrong with that per se, but you can always tell the guys who just talk the talk and the guys have been card-carrying geeks their whole lives. The guys who just want to do a book so it can be optioned for a studio release vs. the guys who want to do a 60-issue run of their own title for its own fanbase and its own loyal readers and have it mean something as a comic and nothing more.

For me, I’ve been a comic book fan since I was about six years old. I remember mowing my grandmother’s lawn for two bucks on weekends and then I would walk to the convenience store and spend 50 cents on a comic book and 50 cents on Twinkies and sit in the convenience store reading comics and eating Twinkies. Which probably explains the loneliness. I started becoming a “serious” comic reader in junior high school right around the time that Crisis and Watchmen were coming out. I started out reading the Big 3 and then moved on to more indie stuff as I got older. I loved Chris Claremont and John Byrne and the stuff they were doing at Marvel and DC but my favorite titles in high school were actually First Comics’ Badger and Nexus from Mike Baron and Steve Rude.

I also loved what was going on with the newly imprinted Vertigo stuff; Sandman was great, Animal Man, all of that. And I had a special place in my collection for my coveted first-printings of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. But I think I really started to want to write comics when I read Garth Ennis’ Preacher for the first time. For me, that was more than a comic, it was a religious experience. I couldn’t believe that a comic could be that good. So dark, so funny, so clever. Ever since then I’ve been looking to do a book of my own, and I knew that Driver for the Dead would be that first book, but I definitely don’t want it to be my last. I’d like to write more of my own stuff, but I’d also like to write on some big iconic characters too. I’ve got some ideas for the Punisher that would make the skull on his chest blush, believe me.

BF: I stumbled across an interview you did with Jimmy Palmiotti back in 2006.  In it you mentioned that you would be interested in doing your own comic property, but it would need to be with the right company.  What made Radical that company?

HEFFERNAN: First and foremost was the deal that Radical offered. It’s basically a 50/50 split in terms of creative ownership of the property and revenue sharing, which is appealing to any creator. Radical is also known for developing properties that can easily transition into other media, like film and games and television, and Driver for the Dead is no exception. But the clincher for me was the high production value that Radical is known for; their books just look so much better than anything else on the market. Publisher Barry Levine has a great eye for talent, and being a terrifically accomplished artist and photographer himself, he knows what looks good on a page and he knows how to work with artists. The company also has a very smart and collaborative editorial staff and art department, and working with them has truly been a delight from start to (hopefully not) finish.

I should also mention that I loved doing that interview with Jimmy Palmiotti; Jimmy is a truly great guy who should have his own comics industry award named for him. He’s also doing a book for Radical called Time Bomb which will hit stands soon.


BF: From the package that Radical sent to us, I had the plot format script for Driver for the Dead to work off of.  What does your writing process look like and why choose this style over a full script format?

HEFFERNAN: Well, I like to keep it simple. My process is pretty straightforward; first I’ll do a little research into the story’s monsters and magic and the history of the settings and locations, which in turn inevitably generates more story ideas and also helps to provide visual references for the artist later in the process. Then I like to flesh things out with a detailed treatment that outlines the plot and characters and the forces that motivate them—usually a 15-20 page piece of dense black text that forms the spine of the script.

From there, I’ll start writing the script itself, which I do in Microsoft Word. You might think that, being a screenwriter, I’d use a screenwriting program like Final Draft, but I don’t.  I know that some comic writers like Brian Michael Bendis and Steve Niles use Final Draft, and I can see how it could have its advantages, especially for a really dialogue-heavy guy like Bendis. But I actually find it a little confining when trying to do certain things like captions and panel prompts and art direction that’s unique to comics, so I just use Word. I’ve got my own style and it works OK I think; pretty basic, pretty easy for an artist to follow.

The interesting thing about comics is that there’s no one agreed-upon format as there is with screenplays; every comic book writer does it a little bit differently. So I try to read as many comic scripts as I can to see how different authors work, to see what techniques are being used and which ones are the most useful. Comicbookscriptarchive.com is a great resource for this. I like reading comic scripts from my favorite authors; guys whom I really respect like Garth Ennis and Kurt Busiek and Mark Millar. I’ll read their stuff and see what they’re doing formatically and sometimes I’ll try to incorporate some of their styles into my own. But really it’s just all about communicating your vision to the artist, making your idea for a scene or sequence clear and then giving him or her enough space to take your little mental visual sketch and run with it, to shape it and expand on it and make it better than you ever originally conceived in your own limited imagination.

BF: What has the collaborative process between yourself and artist Leonardo Manco looked like?

HEFFERNAN: Leo is awesome.  I’ve been a big fan of his since his run on Hellblazer. He draws great guns and cars and monsters, and really what the hell more can you ask for? He’s also incredibly fast and efficient. It’s like Christmas morning when you open your inbox and you’re expecting maybe a page or two and there’s five or six fully inked pages inside.

But the best part of working with Leo is how intuitive he is. It’s always amazing to me when I’m trying to get an idea for a visual across and I don’t think I’m doing a very good job of explaining it but then Leo will come back with an image that is not only exactly what I was picturing in my mind but also so much better. It’s even more amazing when you consider the fact that he lives in Argentina and English isn’t even his first language. All I can say is that we’re very much on the same multi-paneled page.

I will also add here that the process has been greatly facilitated by our editor, Renae Geerlings. Renae really loves and believes in the book and has a terrific eye for detail. If something’s not working she’ll fix it instantly. In fact, after having such a smooth experience on this title, I’m a little worried about working on other books in the future. Having a great editor and a great artist is a pretty damned good way to get spoiled.


BF: “Horror” as a genre has been in a renaissance period, both in comics and films, for a while now – why do you think this resurgence in popularity has come about?

HEFFERNAN: Horror is just one of those genres that always works. Doesn’t matter the language or culture, people just like to be scared. And there’s a lot of crossover between film and comic geeks so it’s not surprising that a resurgence in one will coincide with a resurgence in the other.

As far as film goes, you can usually do horror on the cheap, which means horror films have a good shot at being profitable so corporate studios and production companies will continue to take chances on them. Look at the Saw franchise. Those movies made millions and didn’t cost shit. In fact, sometimes in film production, the cheaper the better, because working on a low budget forces you to be creative and get the scare in a more inventive way. The low budget approach also opens the door to emerging voices and indie talents that could no way ever raise enough money to make a movie about, say, giant sentient transforming robots, but can and will scrape together enough cash to make a half decent ghost story or some serial killer tortureporn or even a zombie or werewolf flick. Throw in some good looking young actresses who just can’t keep their clothes on and you’ve got a movie, my friend.

I think this latest horror resurgence also owes a lot to the culture of remakes we find ourselves in, with new fans discovering Freddy and Jason and Leatherface for the first time. Diehard fans might not like it, but I do think it does help the genre as a whole just by adding more fuel to the fire. It’s the rising tide that lifts all ships, and it’s great to have as many people on board as can happen.

As far as horror comics go, there’s just something subversively entertaining about them, isn’t there? I mean, it was horror comics that led to the Seduction of the Innocent hysteria back in the Fifties and the creation of the Comics Code Authority and all that stuff that almost wrecked the industry. All those violent and sexual black-and-white images. They must have been striking a nerve somewhere and I suppose they still do. And the writers and artists who grew up on Creepy and Eerie are now doing books like Beasts of Burden and The Walking Dead and the wheel keeps turning as the young readers of yesterday become the creators of tomorrow.

I think that horror comics on the whole are very smart and appeal to smart readers, and the best ones are usually twisted allegories and morality tales that really pay off at the end. Delicious little pieces of sickness and revenge. The grimy little windows into the dark parts of our souls… everybody likes to take a peek now and then. My friend and fellow horror writer Hans Rodionoff likes to describe horror as a cheap car with a big engine. Lots of bang for your buck, you know? You may not be spending a lot of money but you’re definitely smoking the tires.  

BF: Let’s look to the future – let’s say Driver for the Dead  has been picked up for a live-action adaptation.  Who would you cast as Graves, Fallow and Marissa?

HEFFERNAN: All right, now we’re talking! For Graves, I think Gerard Butler would be killer. I also like Thomas Jane. I know that for most people the first Punisher movie wasn’t everything they thought it should be, but I gotta say I really like Tom in Hung and his voice would sound great with a low Cajun drawl. Josh Brolin could also be a strong possibility, as would Tim Olyphant, and possibly Josh Duhamel.

For Fallow, I like Gary Oldman, Lance Henriksen, Ian McShane… the usual suspects. Garret Dillahunt would be awesome. There’s an actor named Raymond J. Barry who plays Arlo Givens on Justified who has something deliciously creepy about him. And Peter Stormare works well every time.

For Marissa, I’d like to see an unknown. A young, hot, preferably Creole actress with just the right combination of strength and vulnerability who looks great in a tank top and jeans.

BF: What projects are next for you?

HEFFERNAN: I’m currently developing a project with Blacklight Transmedia called Time Travel Mutiny. It’s about a group of Special Forces guys who use an experimental time machine to travel a thousand years into the past to stop a threat to destroy the earth… and then decide they don’t want to come back, preferring instead to use their modern weapons and technology to set themselves up as god-kings in the Middle Ages. It’s kind of like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court but with machine guns.

I’m also writing a couple of spec scripts, one a Luc Besson-esque hitman story called Contract about a hired gun with a brain tumor who falls in love with the boss’s daughter; and the other a future-noir thriller called Murder Zero which is sort of along the lines of Blade Runner and Minority Report and Children Of Men.

Radical and I are also in talks now to do a second mini-series for Driver for the Dead as well as work together on creating another additional title. But like I said, I’ve been wanting to write on some big comic book characters for a while now, so keep checking the stands on Wednesdays and maybe you’ll see my name on some shiny bright covers and feel like giving ‘em a read. I’d be honored to hear what the true fans have to say.

Driver for the Dead #1 is on sale now from Radical Comics priced $4.99.  

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