Amidst the usual media-fueled hubbub of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, aside from the Kevin Smith Red State circus and Lucky McKee’s The Woman audience freak-out, a surprise announcement was made from one of the unlikeliest of places: former Guns N’ Roses/Velvet Revolver guitarist Slash.
Slash announced not only the formation of his production company, Slasher Films, but also the entity’s first property: Steve Niles’ Wake the Dead. With producers Slash and Rob Eric and director Jay Russell behind it, it looks as if the property has its best shot at seeing the silver screen nearly eight years after its being first optioned.
Niles’ Wake the Dead is a modernization of the Frankenstein legend and a property many fans have long clamored for. Niles, a longtime comic writer and author, is best known as the creator of the phenomenally successful 30 Days of Night as well as the Cal McDonald series of stories. Wake’s production team of director Jay Russell (Ladder 49, Tuck Everlasting, The Waterhorse) and veteran screenwriter James V. Hart (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Contact, Sahara) is a seemingly incongruent choice, but, along with Niles and Slasher Films, the idea that they will bring a unique telling of the story to the screen is an exciting one.
Steve Niles spoke exclusively with Dread Central from his home and had a lot to say about bringing his much loved property to light.
Dread Central: I wanted to get started by getting some of the specifics of Wake the Dead and the recent announcement that was made. The property had been around for a while, right? I mean, I’d read that it was with Dimension for bit, correct?
SN: Oh, yeah… This is officially, I believe, its third home. It’s been that “development hell” thing. Nothing really specifically went wrong either time. The first time we had Joel Schumacher and really great writers, but we couldn’t get synced with what Dimension wanted. Then, years passed and nothing happened and the rights reverted back to me. I finally hooked up with Jay Russell and he joined the fight. He and I together… this is the second place we’ve been, and we’ve just been basically pushing a freaking boulder up a hill for five years or more now. I just really feel like now… meeting Slash… what they’re telling us, I think it really sounds like it’s gonna happen.
DC: How did Slash come into all of this? I know a lot of guys in rock are comics fans and I know you do music, so…
SN: I came out of music. I was in the DC scene… Slash and I were having this conversation at Sundance because people kept asking us, “What’s the connection between horror and punk rock, metal… rock and roll?” I finally said, “Rebellion?” They’re each forms of rebellion in their own way. God knows, your parents don’t want you listening to rock and roll or watching horror movies because they’ll warp your mind. So, you can see the connection there. I don’t know… I think it’s a natural team-up. There are a lot of guys in music doing comics. They’re not just teaming up with me.
DC: And that’s kind of been that way for a while now.
SN: I mean, Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance…
DC: A lot of comics dig horror as well. I mean, Brian Posehn… Patton Oswalt… Joe Rogan…
SN: Yeah, a lot of the comedian dudes… Yeah, yeah… I knew Brian for a little while when he was doing The Last Christmas, that Santa Claus thing. It’s no different than… I’m just a freaking little punk rock kid from Washington, DC, and I got into comics and then literally stumbled into movies like a drunk. It just happened.
DC: So, ok… Great minds think alike and you guys formed this bond based on a mutual love of horror flicks, but you have so much stuff out there… you’ve done so many titles and they’re all great… but why did the focus finally stop on Wake the Dead?
SN: You know what… we didn’t focus on it, that’s the one people keep coming back to. 30 Days of Night is the most popular thing I’ve ever done, but unfortunately the studios have decided that they don’t think it’s that big of a deal and I can’t do anything. Thankfully, I still own the rights to a bunch of my other stuff, and if this is what they’re responding to… I think the great thing with Wake the Dead is that we have a screenplay. We have a director. We have so much ready to go. Really, we just need a budget and some actors and we’re ready. So, you never know.
DC: This is really embryonic. Do you have a proposed budget?
SN: Not yet. They do, but… I’m learning the business stuff. I’ve always tried to keep my nose in the creative, but you just got to get more hands-on these days.
DC: Is there even a tentative release date?
SN: No. We are just back from Sundance, just in the middle of trying to figure it out now. We have all of the elements together; can we pull it off? The one thing I always tell people because it illustrates it best is… When I sold 30 Days of Night, I sold five or six different things immediately after that. 30 Days of Night was the only one to get made in those ten years following. So, it’s just this very big, confusing clusterfuck…
DC: Do you go into that experience thinking, “Ok, this ain’t going to happen.”?
SN: Always. I always say, “I’ll smile when I’m watching it on the screen.”
DC: So, Wake the Dead… you’ve compared it to modern day Frankenstein. Is that pretty much the synopsis?
SN: You know, where this came out of was frustration with – I’m gonna say it, “Grampy Niles is comin’ out” – the fact that kids today won’t watch the original Frankenstein. They won’t watch anything in black and white. Christ, they won’t watch the Hammer Frankenstein, and they don’t want to watch period pieces. I have a whole opinion on that that I won’t go into, but… I remember, at the time, they were doing all of these Shakespeare comedies disguised as teen comedies right under kid’s noses. They called them something different, but basically they were telling Shakespearean stories to kids and they were eatin’ it up and not even knowing it. That gave me the idea to try to do that with some classic horror stories. Really, what Wake the Dead is… it’s not the novel, it’s not any movie that we’ve seen. It’s the entire Frankenstein legend formed into a new story. It’s about a medical student who decides to start playing with bringing back the dead and things go awry, of course.
DC: You previously mentioned Wake the Dead‘s director, Jay Russell. Here’s a guy who’s not exactly known for his genre work. Waterhorse, Ladder 49, Tuck Everlasting aren’t really genre-friendly titles. So, I look at that and I think about him doing Frankenstein and I think, “Ok, that’s interesting… he could potentially bring something totally new to the property.” How does someone like him come aboard?
SN: Well, some of the best horror movies are made by so-called “non-genre” directors. I don’t know why we have to have directors specifically delegated to do specific genres. I mean, Steven Spielberg made Jaws, which was one of the greatest horror movies of all time.
DC: Or Duel…
SN: I will lay money – and I’m sure somebody will argue with this, but – at least ninety percent of the people making films today, the biggest stars we have, the biggest directors, all started out in genre films. And then it just becomes the ugly step-sister, and I don’t understand why that happens. There have been some real successes. Jay doing a horror movie intrigues me more than just about any horror director doing it because of what he will bring to it. Plus… he made My Dog Skip which… I can’t watch that movie. It brings me to tears. He understands that fundamental thing about horror, too, which is that you have two kinds: you have the kind where you just line up the teenagers and you put numbers on their chests and you hack them to bits one by one OR you tell a story in which you care about the characters so that you’re invested in it. When that happens, the horror is so much more potent.
DC: In the marketplace there’s so much PG-13 product, and I was talking to Clive Barker recently and he had said that it was because of the age of people who are going to films. A lot of the audience who are older are of the opinion that the whole “theater-going experience” is such a nightmare. So, when studios do exit polls to see exactly who is going to theaters, they find that it’s mostly thirteen-year-old girls. As a result, they end up making films for thirteen-year-old girls, and we end up with movies starring actors who star in television shows that are aired on The CW.
SN: Yeah. The biggest problem right now is instead of trying to bring the audience to the creators, we’re being put in the position to pander to the whims – and frankly, the laziness – of the audience. “But I don’t WANT to read Let the Right One In. It has subtitles…” So, they remake it. That’s the reason. Americans won’t read movies. So, they remade Let the Right One In. You can do a remake… whatever, I don’t care. But THAT is the dumbest reason of them all. “They don’t want to watch the original Nightmare on Elm Street, so let’s remake it.” Hey, you know what, fuckers? If you don’t remake it, they’ll watch it because it’s the only thing out there.
DC: It’s iconic.
SN: There’s just all this pandering going on. The second anybody whines… “I don’t wanna….” It’s like, “OH MY GOD!!!” I think focus groups have almost destroyed movies entirely.
DC: Agreed, because you can’t please everyone.
SN: You can’t… and you shouldn’t try. Ever.
DC: But then… seemingly out of nowhere, you have something like Black Swan coming out.
SN: I know! When something good comes out, it rises to the top so fast.
DC: How does James V. Hart get brought on as screenwriter?
SN: Through my reps at CA. They basically brought him up and I said, “You mean the dude who did Dracula?!” It was too good, and he’s friends with Jay Russell, so they teamed up to help and he’s a great guy who really knows his horror and a great writer. I’m big on collaboration. I was like, “Let’s get more people in the party!”
DC: Have there been discussions about structural changes as they adapt the story from comic to film?
SN: Oh, yeah… there are lots. Lots and lots. There’s just some stuff that works in comics and you try it in movies and it doesn’t quite have the same effect either because… sometimes something works just because the artist drew it so great. You just can’t duplicate it. It’s this intangible thing that can’t be duplicated. When I do my comics, they’re usually four issues and that’s about half a movie. So, there’s lots of room to expand, but the basic structure is there. We’ve also added some stuff so that the comic book doesn’t serve as a spoiler. Which is another thing… It’s not that that many people bought Wake the Dead, but hopefully they will when the movie comes out. I always hate when they put out movie adaptations that tell you the whole story. Jay came in and he had his ideas and Jim had his ideas and all good ideas go in.
DC: I read something about another project of yours called Soulless. Is there anything you can tell us about that?
SN: That was me and Jay sitting around talking because we had Lurkers and we couldn’t get anybody to bite on that one. David Slade wanted to do that for a while and then something changed there. So, Soulless is just an idea we sat down and talked about. I honestly don’t even want to describe it because I don’t want anybody to steal it, but we’ve got a really gritty cop horror story that takes place in Koreatown and, with any luck, it will be as scary as The Exorcist.
DC: During the writing process, do you ever worry about “parallel thinking” when you have a property that hinges so much on a concept? With my book, I kept seeing things in other media that were close to the idea and I got nervous.
SN: You know… Generally, if it’s too close, I feel uncomfortable and I will make a deliberate effort to steer away from it. Let’s face it… there’s always going to be a certain amount of that because we’re all trying to tell very similar stories and there’s going to be overlap. I have an editor whose favorite pastime is pointing that kind of thing out. He knows I’m going to erase everything and start from scratch. I don’t want that. I’ve been accused of stealing so many times. I don’t steal. I don’t.
DC: Well, I think we all sort of swim in the same pool, you know?
SN: Yeah, well… Look at The Walking Dead. I watched the TV show. It’s absolutely fantastic, but… I’ve also seen just about everything in there before. I mean, “Oh my god, somebody got bit! What’s gonna happen?” We all know! But it’s seeing Darabont do it SO classy and with such quality that made a difference. Inevitably we’re all going to go over the same ground. I actively try to avoid it and I still get accused of ripping things off. I just had a book come out called Mystery Society, and some reviewer said I was ripping of Mike Mignola’s BPRD. I handed Mike a copy and he was like, “WHAT!?!” There’s nothing similar at all except there’s a group of characters.
DC: Is this collaboration with Slasher Films the first in an ongoing relationship between you guys?
SN: Well, that’s always the hope. We all get along real well and it’s been me, Jay, Slash, and Rob Eric and you know what? We end up nerding out about horror movies as much as we do working. If this relationship translates into a good working relationship… Jay and I have a slate of stuff we’d like to do. I have a backlog of stories published and unpublished. I’m looking for a home – for comics, movies, books, everything – where things can be done on an affordable budget and we can get them out to an audience in the best way. So, yeah… I hope so. I think Slasher Films has a very good chance of becoming our home for a while. I hope so.
DC: Is there any progress on the Cal McDonald stuff?
SN: Yes. Right now, we’re working on drafts of the script at Universal. We’ve got Scott Bernstein working with Mike Richardson from Dark Horse trying to get the script in shape. I just sort of wait until they’re happy with one and then I’ll read it. So, that’s moving forward and, in the meantime, at Dark Horse… I’m writing a Criminal Macabre/Goon cross-over comic which is SO fun. I love these jobs. I’m sitting like, “What’s the sound of a wrench hitting somebody’s head?” This is like the greatest work ever. And then, I’ve already written a new Criminal Macabre comic for Free Comic Book Day that’s going to be a flipbook, a two-sided book, with Mike Mignola. Then, there’s a new one-shot coming and then, following that, we’ll launch a new Criminal Macabre series, all with the new artist, Chris Mitten, who’s just knocking the thing out of the park. I think we finally found a Criminal Macabre artist that’s going to stick around for a while.
DC: Dude, you are always just crushed with stuff. It’s so amazing to me. I really admire your work ethic.
SN: You know what… maybe it’s just a mental defect, but I feel like the laziest fucker on earth. I look around and I see Robert Kirkman and Warren Ellis and Mark Millar and guys like that and I think, “Damn, I need to get to work.”
DC: What’s interesting is that you do – like you were saying – those four-shots whereas someone like Mignola’s been working on Hellboy forever and it’s like this massive opus.
SN: The single biggest problem for me is constantly having to shift gears. I’ll literally be working on something for Disney and then have to pull back on that to do a completely R-rated horror comic. It usually takes me a minute or two, but… I could have a lot worse problems.
DC: [laughs] You could be diggin’ a ditch.
SN: I’ve been paying my bills with comics now for almost ten years, from writing really. I worked retail up until then… so, I’m really lucky and I’m not gonna complain. And even if I have to work 24/7, I remind myself what it is I’m working on and that seems to put any of my whining to rest.
Our thanks to Steve for taking the time to speak with us. Look for more on Wake the Dead soon!
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