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'2 Guns' Producer: Waiting for the Check, and Invoking Saint Peckinpah

BOOM! Studios CEO Ross Richie wraps up his four-part diary on the making of the movie, starring Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg -- a story that starts before a holiday, and ends with the Black List script drawing all the right attention.

2 Guns BTS - H 2013
Behind the scenes on the Albuquerque, NM set of '2 Guns'

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. Part 3 is here.

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It’s Tuesday, the third of July, 2012. I’m sitting in the lobby of an agency. The Fourth of July in Hollywood? The town's empty. So the day before the holiday, everyone's planning to bail early -- agents, studio executives, producers, managers all know everyone else is going to show up in the morning and be gone by noon. It becomes a self-­fulfilling prophecy. Everyone’s bailing early, nobody is working.

So naturally, this is the day Steven Grant -- pictured here with a trunk full of fake cash -- is getting his paycheck for the underlying rights to 2 Guns. His big payday.

Steven Grant

But if no one will process the check today, that check won't go out till next Tuesday. Nobody wants to work today.

If I’m Steven, I don’t want to wait till next Tuesday.

So I tell Brianna, my assistant, to call Steven and relay the following: “Ross is in Las Vegas for the Fourth of July and he’s staying over at one of the casinos. He’s wondering if you want to pick him up and go to dinner tonight.”

I’m not in Vegas. I’m not at one of the casinos. I’m placing a different kind of bet -- I'm in the lobby of that aforementioned talent agency, waiting for that aforementioned check.

If Steven says yes, Brianna buys a last-minute flight to Vegas (I'll be in the air for only an hour). I’ll cab it over to a casino in plenty of time for dinner.

Steven says yes. Dinner's all set. Ticket's bought.

My grand plan? Instead of trying to navigate the phone system on a pre-holiday, asking, “Is Steven’s check ready?” I will actually go to the lobby of the talent agency and sit in there, knowing that if they realize I’m out in the lobby they’ll cut the check. A little bit of gentle pressure to make sure that Steven is taken care of.

I sit for an hour, watching agent after agent leave. I wave to them as they head out for a holiday weekend, knowing that if it gets down to that last person I’m not leaving this building without a check. Steven’s check. And, lo and behold, my plan works: I get the check.

I'm going to Vegas, baby.

Steven, a Vegas resident, isn't really into dining at one of the casinos or on The Strip. We head over to one of his favorite local eateries, and after we order a drink, he turns to me …

“You’re not staying here at one of the local casinos. I think I know why you’re here.”

I should have never tried to pull a fast one on a guy who writes crime stories for a living.

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*************

Fast forward: I’m on the set of 2 Guns out in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Private Hudson is asking Commander Adama a question.

It’s the cool of the morning on the set, which, OK, is not technically in Albuquerque -- we’re about an hour southeast, on a ranch that’s doubling for Papi Greco’s Mexican ranch.

Let me clarify: Bill Paxton, known to this nerd as the “game-overing” Private Hudson from Jim Cameron’s 1986 classic Aliens,­­ wants to know why Edward James Olmos,­­ known to this nerd as Commander Adama, because, well, if I need to tell you what genre-­defining TV show that’s from you need to hand over your nerd card, is so good at a Rubik’s Cube. ’Cause man, he’s whizzing through it …

“Did you learn how to do that on the set of Blade Runner?”

My geeky head exploded.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­

A long time ago I worked for a company called Malibu Comics. Malibu signed a distribution deal for a year with a new start­up called Image Comics, and that launch would, no lie, change the business. Image was the hot Marvel guys -- McFarlane, Lee, Liefeld, Silvestri, Larsen, and Valentino -- the top artists in the business breaking out to do their own thing.

Naturally, Malibu inverted the formula and went for established veteran writers to kick­start their Ultraverse line: Steve Englehart, Mike W. Barr, and Steve Gerber along with some newer talent like James Robinson, Len Strazewski, and Gerard Jones.

Dark Horse answered by launching the biggest wave of creators from the 1970s and 1980s: Frank Miller, John Byrne, Mike Mignola, and Art Adams formed Legend along with Dave Gibbons. So Malibu answered back with Bravura: Walter Simonson joined Howard Chaykin and Jim Starlin.

The co­-creator of the original Silver Age Green Lantern, Hal Jordan, joined the line -- the incomparable and vastly influential Gil Kane. And Gil’s writer for his series, Edge, was Steven Grant.

Steven had blazed a bit of a trail. A Midwesterner, Grant’s probably know to most of you for writing “The Master of the Obvious” and “Permanent Damage” for 12 years on Comic Book Resources and telling it like it is. Often sardonically, often with sarcasm. Steven’s in on the joke. You can’t get one over on the guy, he’ll see it coming a mile away.

But what’s hard to understand without historical context is that Steven had been one of the early champions of creators’ rights. The first vanguard in the mid-­1970s was Star*Reach, Mike Friedrich’s outfit, which published a wide swath of cutting­-edge creators (Jim Starlin, Howard Chaykin, Barry Windsor-­Smith) who had worked at and around Marvel and DC but were hungry to own their own characters and stories. Star*Reach, as a business proposition, didn’t succeed -- it was a noble failure, an experiment that pointed the way for independent publishing.

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After that came Eclipse in 1978 publishing Sabre: the writer was the legendary Don McGregor, a fan favorite from his work on Jungle Action starring The Black Panther and Killraven: Warrior of the Worlds in Amazing Adventures. McGregor brought an aspirational literacy to the medium that filled the pages with words and shot for depth and character development. His partner on Sabre was hot artistic sensation Paul Gulacy, the young Turk who was tearing it up on Master of Kung Fu, certainly one of the hippest books on the market.

The shot heard ’round the Direct Market, however, was when The King came calling. The biggest artist in the history of comics, Jack Kirby, had signed up with Bill and Steve Schanes of Pacific Comics to publish Captain Victory. The guy who’d co­-created Captain America, Thor, The Hulk, The X-­Men, and The Avengers decided he needed to own his own creations and he’d take a risk on someone who wasn’t Marvel or DC to do it. It was 1981.

In the midst of this, Steven launched one of the longest­-running, longest-­lived creator-owned comics with Whisper. 

At 37 issues,  Whisper, from my back-­of-­the-­envelope calculations (adding Cerebus and Elfquest in there), was probably the ninth­-longest-running first-generation independent comic book series. That might not sound huge, but remember, there were literally thousands of new series launched from hundreds of new publishers. Publishing 12 issues was an accomplishment;­­ landing in the top 10 was a career.

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Steven helped change the business with Whisper. Then he did it again with The Punisher. This 2 Guns thing is just the most recent example of a guy who’s lived his life on the cutting edge of comic book creativity.

*************

The first draft of the script is something you never forget. When you pop open that PDF, it’s taking a jump into a massive chasm.

Did you just waste $250,000 of the studio’s money? I know a different project where, after spending $1 million, the draft was unreadable. Will the script be the thing that you champion that no one understands -- and you’re talking to a brick wall because it’s not what the studio expected?

I’d sold the film rights to 2 Guns to Universal Pictures, to be produced by Marc Platt Productions with Adam Siegel. Siegel and I are working on the project. Siegel comes up with an inspired idea:

“Let’s hire a TV writer.”

“Why do you want to hire a TV writer?” I said.

“It’s where all the good stuff is happening,” Siegel said. He’s right, of course. The cutting edge right now is in basic cable where the richest, smartest, most complex characters are being created and explored. I was up for it.

“There’s this guy I’ve set up a conference call with, he created the Showtime series Brotherhood.” I’d seen Brotherhood. It’s a brilliant, complex, smart exploration of a relationship between two men who are on (seeming) opposite sides of the law. I can see a lot of parallels to 2 Guns. “His name is Blake Masters.”

We got on the phone with Blake. Now when you get on the phone with the producer of a movie, they’re waiting for your “take” on the material. The “take” is how you’re going to change it. How are you going to adapt it from comic book format into a movie script? Where are things going to change? A big question mark for everyone, for instance, was the character that became the Mark Wahlberg character, who’s undercover Naval Intelligence in the comic book. It seemed a bit obscure; we were open to someone altering that, perhaps making him undercover ATF or NSA, or another government agency.

Blake's first words: “It’s a Sam Peckinpah movie.”

You could hear a pin drop. I know Peckinpah,­­ director of The Wild Bunch and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. When I was in college and getting a degree in film, I wrote my senior paper on Peckinpah. He was one of my favorite directors. While Peckinpah had terrific artistic chops, his movies never performed commercially. The Wild Bunch was box-office poison; movie star Yul Brenner had famously walked out of the premiere because it was too bloody and “amoral.” To this day, if you want to make a studio run away from financing your movie, say “it’s a Sam Peckinpah movie.”

Adam says, “Okay, what’s your take?”

Blake is content to not really have one. “I think we do the comic book. Sure, the plot during Act II needs to change, but the characters all work and the roles they occupy all make sense. The setup is something you can easily drop into script form and the tone’s all there. I want to basically transplant the comic book into script form.”

John Ford, one of the greatest film directors we’ve ever had, the director of The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the director Orson Welles called one of the most important of all time, said, “90 percent of directing is casting.” And I think that’s true.

Casting is my job -- and getting out of the way comes along with that, because if 90 percent of directing is casting, 10 percent of directing is directing. You gotta know when to shut up. Whether I’m casting Steven in a role to write a crime thriller for BOOM!, or casting Blake to write a script, or casting Universal to develop the movie over Fox Atomic (lucky break because a year later Fox Atomic wasn’t even in business), casting means you pick your partners.

Immediately after we hang up with Blake, Adam says, “What do you think?” I tell him Blake had me at Peckinpah.

*************

Blake delivers a brilliant script, and Adam does a phenomenal job of sanding off the harder edges to make it studio-­friendly without compromising the intelligence or complexity.

We make The Black List --­­ I know that sounds bad, but The Black List is a list of the greatest unproduced screenplays in Hollywood --­­ and the rest, they say, is history.

We get some heat. Everyone in town is talking about the script. The big names came calling.

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For me, it’s a rocket ride. Everything is in The Matrix bullet time. I'm­­ the kid who was 9 years old reading Marvel Two-­in-­One, lucky enough to work with Steven Grant, lucky enough to work with Universal, lucky enough to work with Adam Siegel, lucky enough to work with Blake Masters.

People ask me nowadays how I got 2 Guns made. And I explain that Hollywood is a place that gives you very little control --­­ unless you have $100 million to finance a film.

If you have any success, it’s all about picking your partners …

And I’m damn lucky to have had Steven Grant pick me.