'2 Guns' Producer: How I Accidentally Played Hard To Get (Guest Column)
Ross Richie writes about on-set conversations with Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg -- and how an executive who didn't get to make the movie at Fox wound up in charge of it at Universal.
Editor's note: BOOM! Studios chief Ross Richie wrote a four-part series for THR's Heat Vision examining how the comic book miniseries 2 Guns became the film starring Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.
“Well, Ross, you know the script is different than the comic book.”
Denzel Washington is worried that I’ll be upset -- there were changes between the shooting script for the movie 2 Guns and the original five issue comic book miniseries.
Let’s reflect on that for a minute Denzel is worried about what I think.
He thinks I’m what my buddy John Rogers (writer of the Transformers movie, co-creator of Leverage) calls a “fandamentalist”: a comic book fan inflexible about the source material.
You can’t be. If you are, then the original Bryan Singer X-Men movie is crap -- they basically substituted Rogue for Jubilee (Rogue was never that young in the comics and never had that kind of relationship with Wolverine), and Wolverine certainly didn’t join the X-Men like that. Tell me, which run of Uncanny X-Men had that X-Men lineup of Jean Grey, Cyclops, Storm, and Iceman? And Hugh Jackman’s six foot two Wolverine is, in the comics, five foot three.
But Singer's X-Men is a seminal comics-to-film moment, a great movie that pioneered and proved that transition's viability to a generation. Steven Grant, BOOM!, and I are all beneficiaries.
I explain we’d just spent two days shooting a scene that actually occurs on the sixth page of the first issue. And that the two main characters are the same, they have the same occupation, the villains are the same, the story goals are the same, and the basic action of the plot is the same.
It’s a pretty faithful translation.
Okay, there weren’t any exploding helicopters in the comic. But the diner with the donuts and the heist masks are all Steven and Mateus Santolouco...
I point this out to Denzel. He’s the kind of guy a lot of people try to sweet talk. I can only imagine how many have tried to put one over on him, how many Hollywood types run fast-talk past him hoping they’ll be able to manipulate him. He weighs what I’m saying, cocks his head, and says the line that his character repeats in the movie (and a line that Denzel wrote for the character himself):
“That is correct.”
“Yeah, I just talked to this exec [name redacted] at this studio [studio name redacted] and she said, ‘I wanted 2 Guns back in the day and was so sorry to lose out!’”
That phone call happened last week.
I, of course, know that this is a complete fabrication. No one wanted 2 Guns. Everyone passed.
But nowadays everywhere I go at the studios everyone says, “Yeah, we wanted that project!”
Yeah, wanted it enough to totally ignore it...
I’ve sold a fair amount of comic books as TV shows and movies. Everyone wants the next Walking Dead success story. But that desperation screws everything up. They sell the project to the wrong producer and the wrong studio. They’ve got stars in their eyes and they want validation, so they’re willing to listen to some farfetched sweet-talking from the wrong folks.
A lot of people suspect that Hollywood is the devil and that anyone they’re talking to from the business is Satan. They’re not. Hollywood is full of hustlers. Sometimes you have to hustle to get stuff done. And other times hustlers are just that putting the hustle on you.
Agents, managers, producers, studio executives... most are one phone call away from career-changing glory. They’re one degree of separation from that next great director, or the screenwriter who can change their life.
You can't fault them for talking fast -- after all, fortune favors the bold.
Me? I go the other way. I don’t fast-talk or fight fire with fire. I know the original comic book series was strong and good. If anything happens past that, terrific. But for me, the finished product needs to be right.
So I’m sitting in a room on the 20th Century Fox lot, and I’m meeting the chairman of the studio. Fox had a division called “Fox Atomic” and BOOM! had been talking about collaborating with them. Fox Atomic released 28 Weeks Later and was a division of Fox that was dedicated to producing genre movies. They like us, wanted to enlist us as their publisher of choice, show us some of the movies in their vaults, and have us work with them to produce cool takes on old ideas.
There are worse things sitting around for an afternoon, talking about reinventing classic pirate movies in cutting-edge comic book form.
I’m showing the chairman different kinds of series we do and I brought 2 Guns because it’s what I call one of our core genres at BOOM! because we’ve always published “guys with guns.”
This conversation is where our 28 Days Later comic book publishing deal originated and where we did the Jennifer’s Body tie-in (c’mon, you saw that one, it has the cover by Frank Cho where he drew Megan Fox? Story by Rick Spears and art by Tim Seeley, Jim Mahfood, Nikki Cook and Ming Doyle?) along with Howard Chaykin’s Die Hard Year One.
So the chairman pulls out 2 Guns and says, “What’s this?”
And not ever missing a chance to be a bit cheeky and have fun in one of these meetings, I say, “No, you’re not interested in that. You passed on that.”
People don’t say things like that to chairmen. They say stuff like, “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” and “How high?”
And I explain that his vice president had checked it out, and decided no thanks Fox Atomic had already turned us down.
Remember that thing about how nobody wanted it? Hollywood can’t ever make up its mind... After some playful back-and-forth where I recite the same pitch that I gave that huge producer who said it was “too complicated,” it’s clear that the Chairman is in. He wants it.
Suffice it to say, I left the lot that afternoon and expected their attorneys to call up and make an offer to buy the comic.
But that night I had dinner with Adam Siegel. He produced Wanted and Drive. “Guys with guns” was his specialty. We’re chatting back and forth and he says, “So what’s next?” And I say,“Listen, I’ll tell you about 2 Guns, but I think I sold it to Fox Atomic this afternoon and it’s too late. I haven’t gotten a call yet, but I expect they’re going to take it off the table.”
You know the best way to get Hollywood to make up its mind? Tell ‘em they can’t have it...
By noon the next day Universal was calling. They wanted it, and they didn’t screw around. They saw it as a chance to reinvent the cop buddy movie, from 48 Hours and Lethal Weapon through Rush Hour. I can’t say I disagreed with them.
I sold the project to them. The president of Fox Atomic was very upset. She called me up and let me know. That wasn’t fun.
Not too much later the entire division of Fox Atomic was shuttered. Dissolved. Went bye-bye.
The chairman became chairman of their television unit, leaving film altogether. The president, who had made her anger to me over losing the project known, was hired as the president of Universal Pictures.
I walked into her office, gave her a hug, and smiled: “Aren’t you glad I sold 2 Guns to Universal?”
“Call my manager and we’ll get together. Let’s do three or four things together.”
Mark Wahlberg. It’s an odd thing to meet a movie star and discover that they’re actually a pretty ordinary guy. But that’s Mark.
I figured you kept your head down around the talent like that. Be cool. Don’t stare. But Mark just walks right up to you. “Where’s my 3 Guns?”
We’re north of Magic Mountain somewhere in Los Angeles County in the spring of 2013, shooting four days worth of what the business calls “pickups.” It’s not reshoots -- reshoots are when you’re in trouble and you’re fixing things. Pickups means you’re picking up a few extra shots you missed the first time around to tweak a scene or clarify bits of information to make it all flow.
Every morning I’ve been on the set when Mark was working -- he’d approach the producers, shake everyone’s hand, check in, offer to do something. If we needed help, he’d call the financiers and ask for extra money to get that extra scene (like the bit in the movie where the guys are hanging upside down attacked by the bull, which wasn’t in the script originally).
Luckily, I’m prepared for this question. We had just announced the comic book sequel to 2 Guns, obviously called 3 Guns, which would ship the Wednesday after the film came out.
“So who do you think should be the third gun?” Wahlberg asks. Now, Mr. and Mrs. Richie didn’t raise no fool. No one knows casting like big movie stars. I publish comic books. I know when to shut the hell up.
“I don’t know, Mark, there’s a lot of different people who could play that role. What do you think?” Mark proceeds to list a fair amount of ideas. She needs to be up-and-coming. Have some heat, but hasn’t popped yet. But we’re not going to go just for heat -- she’s got to be seriously talented and be able to hang with the boys. Mark’s got ideas.
An hour later, director Baltasar Kormakur approaches me: “Where’s my 3 Guns?” I show him the comic book, take him through the plot. He says, “Who should be the third gun?”
As I might have previously mentioned, Mr. and Mrs. Richie (particularly Mr. Richie) taught me the hard way to know when to shut up and keep your head down. So I say, “I dunno, ask Mark.”
And Mark says, “I have no idea!”
It was clear to me that Mark was following the Ross Richie handbook on this one -- talking casting for a major role with your director is a delicate thing, and it would be important that the first time this was done that it would be done with Denzel involved in the conversation.
The most exciting thing, of course, was that a guy like Mark thought that there might be a casting decision to make on 3 Guns studio tracking said there was a shot at making a sequel.
Next: 2 Guns creator Steven Grant becomes unsurprised by my visit to Las Vegas the night before the Fourth of July...