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Producer: '2 Guns' Was 'Too Complicated' For Hollywood -- At First

In Part 2 of his online diary, Boom! Studios CEO talks about busy producers who thought the idea "too complicated" -- and how Vince Vaughn couldn't sit still.

2 Guns - H 2013
Ross Richie with Mark Wahlberg

Editor's Note: Ross Richie, the founder and CEO of BOOM! Studios, wrote this look about his experience turning 2 Guns into a movie. Part 1 can be found here.

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“Too complicated.”

The guy that just said that is one of the biggest movie producers in the business. And no, I don’t mean you’d recognize a movie he made. I mean he’s one of the biggest movie producers in the business. You haven’t just happened to see one of his movies. You’ve seen lots of them. You’ve probably seen 10. He has three a year, and they’re the biggest movies of the year, every year. He’s been doing that FOR years.

I’m five minutes into a meeting. We’re at the point where you’ve already made jokes about Los Angeles traffic (always horrible), and the smog, and it’s time to talk business.

So here’s what I say: “Two thieves walk into a bank. What one thief doesn’t know is the other guy is undercover D.E.A. What the undercover D.E.A. agent doesn’t know is that the other guy is undercover Naval Intelligence. They’re both cops. They’re undercover from each other. They steal this cash looking to bust each other (and a Mexican drug cartel) and it ends up that someone else steals the money from them and they have to team up to get the cash. But the catch is they really hate each other.”

Here’s the thing: getting in to see this producer was seriously hard. Everyone wants to be where I’m sitting. I’d gotten a call: “There’s this guy, his name is Channing Tatum, and this studio thinks he’s a movie star.” You’re saying, “of course” but this was before 21 Jump Street and Magic Mike and post­Step Up but pre­G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. Tatum was not a household name.

But the tone of the phone call is incredibly clear: “Hey comic book guy, go over to this guy’s office, sit down, the thing is already pre-­sold. It’s perfect for Channing, the studio is going to make a vehicle for him, this is it, they already said they love it, they want it, go over there and crush this meeting because this is a no­-brainer. Oh, and don’t suck!”

“Too complicated,” the producer says and then busts out his Blackberry and starts doing e­mail. Right. There. In. Front. Of. All. Of. Us.

Yeah, this is back when people had Blackberries...

I’d love to tell you that I manned up and told him he was being rude. I’d love to have that epic, heroic moment where I leaned back on the sofa and said, “Hey man, what you’re missing is...” and saved the meeting. But the truth of the matter? The meeting was over. There was a bit more awkward chitter-­chatter and we were summarily shown the door.

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Steven Grant describes 2 Guns as a comedy. It’s not a comedy.

I’ve always been fascinated by his artistic voice, primarily because I often find it difficult to relate to him ­­ he and I have very different world views. I’m an unrepentant Generation Xer who grew up in Ronald Reagan’s America. To my eyes, the “sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll” of the 1960s had aged embarrassingly. ­ AIDS was terrifying the country so love was never free, drugs meant addiction, and the generation that said they’d “turn on, tune in, and drop out” bought button-down shirts and sold insurance. I was a suburban kid graduating from college into the worst job prospects in a generation. I didn’t believe “the company was going to take care of you." You needed to take care of yourself.

Steven was born in 1953, which puts him at age 10 during the Kennedy assassination in 1963. Kennedy’s assassination was a national event that's difficult to understand now. The untouchable corridors of power were touchable, mortal. The stark cynicism of killing a President was an idea bomb that changed how Americans saw their country.

Grant transmuted his obsession with the Kennedy assassination into one of the most significant books of his career, the early 1990s graphic novel Badlands. It’s his theory of what really happened. It’s also one of his finest works.

President Nixon’s Watergate scandal and resignation bookends the JFK assassination in 1974, when Grant was 21. Far more shocking than JFK's killing was the notion that a President would lie, cheat, and steal, and be exposed as corrupt. In between: the Vietnam War, which drafted the best and brightest of the next generation, and a Civil Rights movement.

The glorious United States that defeated the Nazis and was “standing up to communism” in the 1940s and 1950s with a white picket fence and a two car garage suddenly didn't seem so glorious. In fact, it wasn’t standing for much of anything. 

Steven Grant’s other early career­-defining moment is as a music critic in the Midwest. If you read his work closely, it's infused with a punk aesthetic -- anti­authoritarian, a nihilistic scream from the edge of the late 1970s that wants to burn it all down. Don’t trust the system.

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Most people know Grant’s work from The Punisher Limited Series, which changed comics. There was a lot of restlessness in fandom in the mid­-80s; The Joker had escaped Batman one too many times. It was getting to be a joke. Wolverine was turning heads killing bad guys, something that had never been done in any Marvel (or DC) series before. 

Fandom was hungry for a more “realistic” hero, and The Punisher gave them that in spades. The 1970s and the 1980s saw a crime wave the likes of which we’ve never seen since, with headlines full of the innocent victimized by callous criminal behavior. Bernie Goetz shocked New York City by shooting four men he said were trying to mug him on a subway train --  Trayvon Martin times four. Goetz became the subject of a massive national debate on crime, the legal limits of self-­defense, and race in America.

In an interview over at DVD Verdict Steven Grant commented on his interest in The Punisher as a character: “[He] was considered a third-­rate clown at Marvel. I had one of the marketing people tell me, a week before our first issue came out, that Marvel's readers aren't interested in the adventures of a psychotic murderer... I liked [The Punisher’s] real moral ambiguity, all his glaring self­contradictions. I liked his surety of purpose, even if he was wrong. I always viewed the Punisher as a villain. Certainly he's a criminal, he breaks the law regularly without thinking twice about it. He's a fascinating character. And I wanted to write crime comics, I wanted to write a story about a villain. Villains are much more interesting than heroes, particularly heroes as they generally are in comic books. I wanted to do a style of story and narrative that you didn't see in Marvel Comics (at the time), very terse, with a particularly philosophical viewpoint.”

Idealism isn’t in Steven's wheelhouse. There’s something stone cold about Steven’s worldview, stripped of innocence, fantasy, or romanticism. All that remains is the cold hard voice of “reality.” There’s not a whole lot of difference between heroes and villains, the authorities aren’t in control, and you shouldn’t trust anyone.

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This is all my theory, of course. Steven and I have never really talked about it.

At the core, 2 Guns is one of the purest expressions of this attitude and vantage point. Think about it: the cold, hard cynicism of government agencies so bad at their jobs that two undercover agents end up chasing each other. And they get manipulated into stealing cash from the CIA ­­-- so the government agents are busy tearing each other apart while the bad guys are getting away with it...

That’s why 2 Guns isn't a comedy. Unless you’re Steven Grant.

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Let’s just get this out of the way: Vince Vaughn is huge. I’m not a little guy. I’m six foot two and I’ve got some meat on my bones. I was the smallest guy on my high school football offensive line, but let me just say that they refer to me as “the big guy” in just about every room I walk into. But I’m shaking hands with Vince and I swear I’m staring at his navel.

It’s the Friday that The Dilemma is opening, the movie that Vince made with Kevin James (one of the greatest comedians of his generation) and Ron Howard (one of the greatest film directors ever) and Vince is a live wire. He can’t sit still and I’m not going to lie -- ­­ the meeting isn’t meaningful, Vince doesn’t care. There’s no focus. All I see in his eyes is concern that he’s got a major movie opening and he’s not sure how it’s going to do.

Here’s where we are: the 2 Guns script is working and people are excited about... it but we’ll get back to that later. Previously I’d gotten the phone call from Universal Pictures that was making Fast 5 --  while Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson could have been the titular 2 Guns, that's now gone away.

We’ve got David O. Russell (after The Fighter but before Silver Linings Playbook) directing and re­writing the script, and Vince is attached. The studio calls and asks for suggestions: Who should co-­star? It's the sort of thing you dream about, but don’t fall for the trap. They don’t really care what you think, they’re just trying to look like they care. They’ve got their own ideas ... but if you accidentally give them a golden suggestion they’ll pick it up and run with it. So I ask them what they’re thinking. Here’s what they say:

“We’re keeping a seat warm for Owen Wilson. We’re not saying Owen Wilson. But just think of it like this: there’s a seat next to Vince and it could occupy Owen Wilson. But we’ll see.­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­"

We’d had a flurry of activity and excitement at BOOM! over the comics we were publishing. There was a title we published called Talent written by Christopher Golden and Thomas Sniegoski and drawn by Paul Azaceta that had sold in a five way studio bidding war. It was so crazy that I didn’t know there was five studios involved until I read an article online that five studios had wanted it.

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Six weeks later we sold Tag written by Keith Giffen and drawn by Kody Chamberlain after a bidding war between two studios.

Everyone wanted to know what was next? I thought 2 Guns was really cool.

“Paramount is reading it this weekend!” There was excitement when I was told that. Monday came and it was clear: they were passing. Like Fox. Like Warners. Like Sony. Was it “too complicated”?

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Next: “Ross, you know the script is different from the comic book, right?”