Marc Guggenheim: Invoking the Paradigms on HalcyonA tv interview article by: Geoff Collins
Though he's usually busy making a name for himself in Hollywood as screenwriter of film projects such as Green Lantern and television series such as FlashForward and Eli Stone, the comics industry is still lucky enough to claim Marc Guggenheim as one of its own. Most recently, he and his wife Tara Butters wrote the acclaimed miniseries Halcyon for Image Comics, now available in trade paperback.
Geoff Collins: In the forward for Halcyon you mentioned how the Watchmen movie inspired it. How did you and Tara go from the idea to a story?
Marc Guggenheim: Basically, it was really sort of simple. My wife, Tara, had never read Watchmen, so she didn't know the story and, quite frankly, she was a little underwhelmed by the movie. She said, "You know, it's funny, I was sort of bored until the very end. And the end made me wonder what happened to all these characters, all these superheroes, afterwards." She was much more intrigued by where the story could've gone once it ended, rather then the story that got them there. It just got us talking, really, and we started talking like, "Yeah, what would happen?" It became a discussion that transitioned from those specific characters to a discussion of "What would happen if there wasn't a need for superheroes?" That turned into, "Well, what would cause such a change in the world?"
Because my wife is also a writer I guess we sort of have no choice almost to start thinking in terms of story. What started out as the normal philosophical conversation you might have after watching a philosophical movie -- and I would certainly put Watchmen under that kind of category -- started becoming a story discussion. The more we talked about it the more we realized that there was a very interesting story there. That's how it sort of evolved from that initial discussion. It was pretty organic.
Collins: How did Tara's lack of comic book writing experience influence the story? Did it help?
Guggenheim: It helped enormously. Not only does she have a lack of reading comics she has a lack of reading comics. She hasn't even read Watchmen, which should give you a good idea of her level of experience. She's read a couple of mine, but she hasn't read all of mine. It really helped because, first of all, I think she was able to offer a very sort of unique, uncluttered perspective. Even though we were dealing with these paradigms and tropes that are common to comics, she was able to approach all of those tropes sort of fresh, from a real original sort of pure storytelling perspective, as opposed to storytelling that is influenced by decades of reading comics.
The other thing that she brought to it was an incredible sense of story. Regardless of whether it's comic, movie or TV show, she has this very mathematical brain when it comes to how a story should break. When we broke the story we didn't really think in terms of issues. I sort of imposed that we'd have to break this down by issue at some point, after the fact or later on. We really just tried to figure out: Who are the characters? What journeys are they going on? What interesting twists and turns can we take? And then, from there, sort of break it down into a five-issue structure. The funny thing is that if you have enough stuff going on and your story is broken well enough then you can find your issue breaks fairly easily.
Collins: So were you guys making a conscious effort to avoid being like Watchmen or were you trying to draw parallels to it?
Guggenheim: That's a great question. We were trying to be honest with ourselves about the role Watchmen played. It's definitely not meant to be a sequel to Watchmen, it's not meant to be a send up to Watchmen, and it's not even, quite frankly, meant to be a tribute to Watchmen. We didn't aspire to the kind of storytelling that Watchmen does and we didn't aspire to that kind of tone or that kind of world. Just knowing the comic book industry as I do, I knew that dealing with superhero paradigms, flipping them on their head, people were going to make the inevitable comparison to Watchmen just like they would make the comparison to The Authority or The Boys or any number of comics that take well known superhero paradigms and play with them.
You know that there are certain Superman stories that you can't tell, there are certain Batman stories you can't tell. The way a lot of writers long before I came along solved that problem was they had a Superman-esque character, a Batman-esque character -- they played with the paradigm. I think Watchmen did that as well. It's relatively well known that all the Watchmen characters were paradigms of the old trope comics. Even of those characters, Ozymandius is a Superman-esque paradigm. Rorschach is a Batman-esque paradigm which is split in two characters in a way. Batman is represented in Watchmen by both Rorschach and Nite-Owl. I didn't feel we were so much paying tribute to Watchmen as filling in the same kind of field.
Collins: How do you get a balance between the paradigm and original character work?
Guggenheim: That was the trickiest part. What you try to do is you try to make the character as unique as possible so that you're creating an original character, you're not just ripping off Batman or Superman or whatever. At the same time, you want that character, while being original, to invoke the paradigms you're trying to make reference to. With each character it was the same challenge, but we found different solutions.
In the case of Sabre he's like Batman in the sense that he has a war on crime and he has devices and isn't powered. He's different from Batman in that we just wrote him differently. We didn't write him the way that we would write the character Bruce Wayne/Batman. We gave him a little bit more of an edge, a little bit more of the feeling that he's a little bit unhinged, the feeling that he is slightly less tame.
In the case of Zenith, who we always said was our Superman paradigm, A: we made her a woman and B: we gave voice, particularly in the third issue, to the idea that she felt a little burdened by the responsibility of being the greatest superhero on earth. Which is something that Superman would never do. Superman would never complain about what a drag it is to be Superman.
To a large extent, we started out with the paradigms and then we introduced voice in their characters and personalities as our most original contribution. If we did our job correctly, you can recognize the paradigms in the faces of Halcyon but you definitely are still reading brand new characters.
Collins: Had you and Tara written anything together before?
Guggenheim: No, we never had. This is our first collaboration. The way we met was I worked on Law and Order and she worked on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, and we'd occasionally help each other solve story problems. But we had never actually written anything together before. This was a bold step in our marriage. The funny thing is that we were very pleasantly surprised at how easy it was. I remember we were working on breaking the story and I was going to her, "This is fun – we're having a good time! This is working out well." It was fortuitous. Otherwise we'd be working on a trade paperback and a divorce coming up.
Collins: Are you two working on anything else now?
Guggenheim: Not at the moment. Both of us are slammed with our own careers. In many ways it was sort of folly to add something else to our plate back when we did Halcyon. But we talk about it. I talk about producing something that she writes with her writing partner that she has in television. At some point down the road I'm sure there will be another collaboration, but no plans at the moment.
Collins: Obviously you two were writing this more for enjoyment then money or career. How did that compare to writing for a living?
Guggenheim: I have to be honest, all of my comic book work I do for the love of the game. I don't think I'm telling any dirty secrets when I tell you that Hollywood pays a lot better then comic books. Whenever I'm writing a comic book I'm taking a pay cut and doing it for the love of the game. The only way that it compares to our work in Hollywood is that part of the trade off -- and this is certainly true for Tara, who doesn't have as much of an innate love of comic books as I do -- is the creative freedom that the medium affords, particularly when you're doing creator owned work.
Tara's never had the privilege of writing something and not getting notes from a studio. Everything that she has written goes through twenty writers with notes. That's the way Hollywood is. That's actually the way the comic book industry is in danger of becoming. Comic books should be careful because you don't want to make the same mistakes that Hollywood does. The creative freedom of, "Hey, we can do anything," and not even just the creative freedom of absence of notes but the creative freedom in terms of, "You want to blow up a city? Fine. Big tsunami in issue two? Ok." The creative freedom that comic books affords you, again, not for just love of the genre and love for the medium is that there's no budget.
You're limited only by the talents of your artist, really. In this case we had Ryan Bodenheim who is ridiculously talented. I think she really enjoyed that. There was no idea that was too crazy, there was no plot twist that was too outlandish, there was no set piece too big, and there was no producer or executives telling her, "No, you can't do this," for different reasons. I actually think the experience made her realize -- I don't want to speak for her -- she was like, "I kind of get why you do all this comic book stuff."
Collins: When you were going through the final battle and killing off all these characters, how did you make the characters more then just cannon fodder?
Guggenheim: That's a great question. I'll tell you, the one thing that was very true was that we didn't really realize until we started scripting the final issue how many people would be cannon fodder. All of the characters were created without any regard to what their fate would be. When we started writing we sort of knew what would happen with Zenith and with Sabre but we didn't really know what was going to happen with all the other characters. We knew that Triumph -- spoiler warning -- was going to die in issue three, but that was the only death we sort of planned. Everything else was sort of a surprise in the writing of the fifth issue.
Brief digression -- at least when Tara and I work, and we do this separately as well, you can outline and break a story but you also have to give yourself the freedom to experiment and discover new things when you go to write the script. One of the things we discussed when writing the script was we got to the fifth issue and suddenly Enos is dead. The short answer to your question is no one was really designed to be cannon fodder, so no one was written to be cannon fodder. It just so turns out they became cannon fodder.
Collins: Without working with notes or anything, how did you settle disputes over how to work out the beats?
Guggenheim: It's funny. I think even when you do have the notes you have to break the story yourself. The notes come after, once you have broken the story. We meandered a lot in the breaking. We sort of shifted as we were talking about it from little moments. Like, we knew we just wanted a moment where Transom just falls from exhaustion. We knew that wanted to put Zenith at the top of a building at the beginning of one issue and reveal that she can't fly and at the end of the issue she's dead on the ground.
We talked a lot in terms of those character beats. Then the conversation would meander back to what caused what we call in the book the Global Humanitarian Phenomenon. What caused the GHP? So we would sort of go back and forth between these sort of little character vignettes and the over arching story of what caused the GHP. The biggest question was: How are we going to stop it? I don't mean like how are we going to stop the GHP but how are we going to end the story? That got a lot of conversation and a lot of discussion time, because we realized, "What's the most expected thing? What's the thing the readers will be expecting, and how do we subvert those expectations?" That took a lot of discussions, but the whole time we're taking notes and we're writing things down.
Ultimately what I did was -- because of the two of us I'm the anal retentive one -- I took all of our notes and all we talked about and tried to structure it and organize it into an outline. Then, you look through the outline and see what plot holes there are and that creates more discussion. You take another whack at the outline, and you keep working away at it, and working away at it. At least that's how Tara and I did it.
Collins: When you are working on a screenplay what kinds of problems cause the film to stall out before production?
Guggenheim: Well, first of all the vast, vast, vast majority of screenplays don't get produced. They stall for any number of reasons. They stall out because the script sucks; they stall out because you can't find a director.
I'll give you an example, I don't think I'm talking out of school here: The Lone Ranger, the movie that's in development with Disney. That is potentially stalling out as we speak. The poor box office of Cowboys and Aliens has a direct impact on that. Sometimes a movie stalls out because another movie in the same genre just did very poorly in the box office and the studio loses confidence in the genre. Sometimes it stalls out because you have written it for a particular actor and the actor has to pull out of a project because of another project.
The truth is there are fifty million answers to that question and all of them are true and all of them happen. One thing that I will say is that any time a movie gets made it's a miracle. The stars just so have to align and the trap doors that take a movie out of contention. Even when a movie is made, all of the people can look back and cite numerous times that the movie nearly didn't get made. That's incredibly common.
Collins: Is it more stressful working on a movie than on comic books?
Guggenheim: They're stressful for different reasons. At the end of the day it probably is more stressful working in movies then in comics.