Under a Hunter's Moon with Writer James L. White

A comics interview article by: Matthew McLean

James L. White, author of Boom Studio’s Hunter’s Moon, recently took some time out of his busy writing schedule to sit down and talk about his work in comics and film (you may recognize White’s name, as a screenwriter on the critically acclaimed film, Ray). Here’s Boom’s teaser for the series: “Stockbroker Lincoln ‘Linc’ Greer, divorced dad, is looking forward to a hot date in a remote cabin for the weekend. When his date cancels and he gets stuck with visitation rights with his son, he takes the boy hunting in the wilds of Oregon. Before he knows it, his son is kidnapped and a voice at the other end of his cell phone tells him to do what he asks - if he ever wants to see his son again! Linc soon finds that he's the only African-American man in this small mostly white logging community. Isolated and alone, he's got to face a contentious community and save his son!”

Matthew McLean (MM): For those not familiar with Hunter’s Moon, what is the core of the story?

James White (JW): The core of the story is a Kafka-esque mystery, a man getting thrust into a world that has him totally confounded. He doesn’t know who’s his enemy, who’s his friends, what’s around the next turn, who is in that shadow. He just doesn’t know and he’s pushed to his wit’s end because the puppeteers, if you will, have taken his son. And they’re pulling their strings to make him dance to their tune because they’re threatening the life of someone he didn’t know he loves as much as he does.

MM: That’s got to be a harsh realization.

JW: For me, it was sort of Hitchcockian in some ways. Because if you look at Hitchcock’s stuff, including The Birds, at the core of most of Hitckcock’s suspense stuff is love. Whether it’s The Birds with the lovebirds or North by Northwest where he falls in love. My favorite one is Notorious where Cary Grant has to has to send Ingrid Bergman, the woman he loves, to go live, eat and marry a spy to uncover what’s going on.

MM: I suppose even Psycho in some ways is about love.

JW: Exactly. If you look carefully, if you peel back the layers, a love story is at the center of his work.

MM: Interesting, I hadn’t thought about it that way. Now, to talk about the project itself, on the heels of your success with 2004's Ray, how did Hunter's Moon find its way to BOOM! ?

JW: I don’t know if this is on or off the record, but we share the same lawyer. [Laughter]

He introduced us, introduced me to Andy and to Ross. I really, really like both of them. Anyway, we were tossing around ideas and they asked me did I have anything that I wanted to do. They were looking for something sort of like a one man against the world story, sort of like High Noon. So I said, I have this idea for a piece called Hunter’s Moon and I pitched it to them and told them what it was all about. They said, can we see it? So I put it together, they read it and we moved on from there. Then they put me together with Ed [Dukeshire], who I like a lot. He’s a very smart guy. I haven’t met the artists. I’ve spoken to them on the phone, but I really enjoy their work.

So that’s how it all came together.

MM: Interesting. Now, you’ve got a number of Hollywood projects cooking right now. Why did you make the choice to bring Hunter’s Moon to comics?

JW: One of my favorite films – I have a lot of favorite films – but one of the my recent favorite films is Road to Perdition and that was a graphic novel. And sometimes with something like this and me having done Ray¸ which is a bio-pic, and I’m doing Robert Johnson, which is another bio-pic, sometimes it’s hard for people to see that you can write something other. This, by doing Hunter’s Moon in a graphic novel, it gives people a chance to see the words and pictures as if they were sitting in a theater.

MM: Are you seeing this as hopefully a stepping stone into a larger project?

JW: Yeah. People will look at it and say, “Wow.” This is not a bio.

MM: The focus of Hunter’s Moon, up to this point, has been on the likeable, if deeply flawed, characters, Lincoln Greer and his son. Where did the inspiration for these two and their relationship come from?

JW: For me, I often see characters that are men of color – if they were successful they were always the perfect successful black person. And if they were failures, they were usually a thug, total failures and not someone you would want to associate with.

So the thought came to me, what about a guy who did everything right, by the numbers; married his sixth grade sweetheart, succeed when he grew up poor. The opening scene where they [Greer and his father] were hunting because that was the only way they could live. To go from that, take the work ethic he learned from his dad, move to Portland, Oregon where he is a successful investment banker who’s about to open his own investment banking company. But somewhere along the way he realized he had missed the part of dating where you see other women. Really the whole thing. He had just known one person. So he’s sort of trying to relive his childhood now. So that’s where Greer came from.

Then I thought about the child of that. Here he is, Wendell, comes along, with two successful, dominating parents. He’s trying to be, as most young people are, wants to be as hip as his peers, he wants to be a rapper, but really he wants to be anything but what his dad is – and that’s this hard-working, grind-‘em-out, business man. He doesn’t want to hear anything about being a lawyer, he doesn’t want to hear anything about being successful, he doesn’t want to hear about how hard his grandfather had to work, what he had taught his dad. He doesn’t want to hear that crap. He wants to hear his lyrics, he wants to perform.

So that’s how that came about.

MM: So the tension between Lincoln and his son Wendell, in some ways, is caused by the fact that they both want to live their life on their own terms?

JW: Yes. They’re both pretty much alike, actually. Wendell is just like his dad. But, as you just said, he wants to live it on his own terms. As Linc, indeed. Linc didn’t take poverty, he didn’t accept it, he looked at it and said, “this is not for me.” And that comes from real personal experience – I didn’t accept it. I said, this is not for me. They use to tease me when I was a kid, my grandmother and the rest of my family, would say, “Jimmy you have a beer bottle wallet with a champagne taste.” And I didn’t dare say it, because I grew up in the South and they probably would have wiped my mouth, but the thought always came to me, “How do I get a champagne wallet?”

[Laughter]

JW: But if I had said that to them, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

MM: Would have been a very short childhood.

[Laughter]

JW: Exactly right.

MM: Well, Hunter’s Moon as well as being a story of a father and son, as you mentioned Greer has his son kidnapped very shortly after they reestablish their relationship. So in that way it’s a thriller in which Lincoln faces increasing psychological pressure that eventually leads him to question everyone around him. How did you synthesize his thought process? Or have you been in a similarly pressured situation?

JW: No, I haven’t, I haven’t. Thank God, I haven’t. I have the ability, when I work, doing my job, which I love: I’m not jaded by Hollywood, I love what I do. I have the ability to put myself, to become totally into what I’m writing about. For example, when I was writing Ray, a lot of it I wrote with my eyes closed. Particularly his dialogue, because I wanted to do it as a blind man.

And I do the same thing here. I have three children. So if the walls are closing in around me, and one of my children has been taken, what would I do? How would I do it, how would I handle it? What would be my weaknesses? What would be my strengths?

With Lincoln, as the story unfolds, you’ll find that he goes back, reverts back to everything his father taught him to rescue his son.

MM: Interesting. Now in the case of Ray you were actually able to work with him.

JW: Mr. Charles? Yes, absolutely.

MM: You were able to kind of pull on him for inspiration for his character.

JW: Oh most definitely. His thing with me was, “Tell the truth Jimmy, just don’t make me look too bad.”

[Laughter]

MM: I guess that’s all any of us can hope for, really. But in the case of Lincoln Greer –

JW: He’s total fantasy.

MM: Total fiction. So in that case, in the case of Greer, what challenges did that particularly represent for you?

JW: It drew me to what I love to do and that’s write. It threw me into the world where I had to reach down to every creative force that’s inside me and create this world, create this man and let it all function. Because for me, I don’t try to write a contrived story. I set my characters off on a road. Sort of like if your taking your child off to ride a tricycle, you give them a little push and they just go along while you walk behind them. That’s kind of the way I do my stories – just give it a little push and walk behind it. I write down everything that I see in everything that they do. Let the story tell itself. I don’t try to have something happen on page 32, the story let’s me know what has to happen. That make sense to you?

MM: Absolutely. I hope it makes more and more sense as time goes by.

Now speaking of the pressures that Lincoln is under, he faces a number of adversities in Hunter’s Moon; racism, the law, criminals, and, ultimately, his own paranoia. What would you say his biggest challenge is coming up in the future issues?

JW: To where we are now [issue #3]? Well, I hope’s it’s a huge surprise to the audience as it is to Lincoln when we see who’s behind this. The big challenge then becomes, not only do they have Wendell, they have him. How does he now get he and Wendell out of the grips of these people? It gets pretty intense. And then Sheriff Dale begins to suspect that this is not adding up. He never quite bought that Linc was a criminal anyway.

MM: OK. So let’s talk about the beginning of the story a little bit, because I don’t you to give anything away. That sounds fascinating and I want to read about it. So let’s talk about the beginning.

JW: [Laughter] Alright.

Unlike a great many books on the market right now, the character development at the beginning of the series is mostly through dialogue rather than action. Did you worry about how you and the art team were going to make this visually appealing for readers?

JW: Not at first, I really didn’t. They just wanted me to write, so I kind of…just wrote. When Ed came in he got it right off the bat.

MM: Ed Dukeshire?

JW: Uh-huh. I can’t say enough kind things about him. He’s a very smart, capable guy. Ed did most…well not most – all! [Laughter] All of the translating of my words to the artists.

MM: So he basically took it and broke it down into pages and panels.

JW: Yes, he did. He did a wonderful, wonderful job. I don’t have the expertise at that. I’m a writer, not that type of editor. We collaborated in the sense that he would call me and say, “What about this, what about that.” We would go back and forth. For the most part, it was Ed – my hat’s off to him.

MM: Among other things, Hunter’s Moon has some great art. Did you write out your ideas in prose and then hand it to Ed who then broke it down into frame and panel descriptions?

JW: Given I write films, I wrote it like a film, like I was setting it up for a photographer. A movie script has to be written in a way that you can see it, that you can visualize it. So when the cameraman, director, photographer, when they look at that script, they say, “We get it.” So I wrote it like a movie script.

MM: What would you say the biggest differences are between working as a screenwriter and as a comic book writer?

JW: Not a lot for me, there wasn’t a lot of difference. I stuck to the themes of the story and did the writing. So, there wasn’t a lot of change. The same principal applies; stay true to the writing. I just had to put paragraphs differently, but storytelling is storytelling to me. And that’s the key – storytelling.

I think so many people have gotten away the art of good storytelling. That use to be the thing. Now, people are going for how contrived they can make something. My example is that I would bet you, I don’t know because I don’t know the writer, in the scene from the Terminator, which came out in ’84 or ’83, something like that, when Arnold says, “I’ll be back.” I guarantee when that writer wrote that he had no idea that that line was a going to become so famous. Because he wrote it as part of the story. Nobody was thinking, this is gonna be a great line.

MM: They didn’t create the scene around the line.

JW: Exactly. What happens now is that so many people write contrived stuff, “Let me see if we can do this, wouldn’t it be cool if we had that”. Then they try to make a movie or a graphic novel around this one thing. And they fall flat on their face. They don’t tell any story.

MM: I could see why you would believe that trend was becoming prevalent.

[Laughter]

JW: Mmmhmm. There’s so much stuff, there are so many things that have become destroyed because people are trying to be way too cool. Just stop it and tell a story.

MM: Well, speaking of story-telling, the third issue of Hunter’s Moon has recently come out. We’re looking forward to the fourth and fifth. Do you have any other projects, comic book or otherwise, that you’d like to talk about?

JW: I’ve got a bunch. I’ve got a thing called The World That Was that I want to do, which takes place in Area 51. It’s based on the premise that for the last 60 years we have been fighting not to keep people out of Area 51, but to keep something in. The whole stories about what that is.

MM: I won’t ask what it is.

[Laughter]

Is that something that you are working on with BOOM! or for a movie…?

JW: I don’t know who’s it is. I write everything in a script form so…we’ll see which way it goes.

MM: If at some point it does end up as a comic book, by all means please let us know. I would certainly like to keep an eye out for it. That’s really all the prepared questions I had for today.

JW: Tell everyone to watch the Robert Johnson thing that’s comin’ up.

MM: Robert Johnson? What’s that?

JW: I’m doing the life story of Robert Johnson, the guy who supposedly went to the crossroads and sold his soul to the devil.

MM: Oh! The guitarist.

JW: Yeah. I’m doing that right now for HBO films.

MM: That should be very interesting to see, because that has played into modern culture so heavily.

JW: Yeah, rock’n’roll, all that came out of it. Looks like it’s going to be a feature film, theatrical release, though. We’ll see.

MM: I think that that’s going to be a lot of fun. There are so many people that know just that part of the story – just that there’s a guitarist that went to the crossroads and sold his soul to the devil.

JW: What caused it was this, in the South – I’m from the South, grew up in the South – in the South if you were black three things come standard issue: Grits, fried foods, and Jesus. So how did this man get away from Jesus? That’s the way I approached it.

To tell the story I used the template of Citizen Kane. His son – and this is based on the truth, I interviewed his son – had to go to court to prove that he was Robert Johnson’s illegitimate son. To inherit his daddy’s records and legacy. As he goes in search of his father, we get to meet and see his father.

MM: That should be really interesting. I mean, and I don’t think I’m alone in this, I know absolutely nothing factual about the man. Everything I know about him his folklore. Quite frankly, it’s gotten to a point where I think a lot of people don’t think he was an actual person.

JW: Oh he was real. The other thing about him was that people miss him. These were young men, nineteen, twenty-something year old guys. Robert Johnson died at 27. Like Jim Morrison was 27 when he died, Hendrix was 27 when he died, Janis Joplin was 27 when she died.

MM: That’s an unlucky number.

JW: Well, I’ve had a lot of fun on it. I’ve given them the second draft and I think they’re happy.

MM: We’ll look forward to that. Or I will, certainly. Thank you for taking the time.

Be sure to visit Matthew McLean’s website here.

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