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Todd McFarlane Doesn’t Want His Spawn Film to Feel Like a Superhero Movie

Todd McFarlane. Photo: Getty Images

San Diego Comic-Con may have evolved from a celebration of comic books to a full-blown entertainment-industry trade show, but there are still comics creators who can draw a crowd there. Todd McFarlane is one of them. The writer-artist had his first brush with stardom when he drew Spider-Man comics for Marvel in the late ’80s and early ’90s, then came into his own as the creator of lethal vigilante antihero Spawn at the company he co-founded, Image Comics. He’s since gained even more success as a toy entrepreneur, but Spawn remains close to his heart, and he just announced that he’s making a movie about the character with horror powerhouse Blumhouse. We caught up with McFarlane at the convention to talk about how the deal came together, who he’d like to see play the lead in the movie, and how Spawn is like the shark in Jaws.

So Todd, what’s the news?
In 2017, we got to break the news on the Spawn movie after me sort of teasing the fandom and saying I’m working on the script. I finally finished the script in February. But there are literally thousands of scripts in Hollywood. So what you need to do is actually attach real people to a project to make it actually happen. So we announced that the producer of movies like The Purge and Insidious, Paranormal Activity and, more recently, M. Night Shyamalan’s Split — who just announced Glass with them, too — and Get Out, which was a giant hit in Hollywood. The thing that’s in common with all of those movie franchises is [they’re produced by] the same production house, called Blumhouse, run by a guy named Jason Blum.

So a couple of days ago, Jason and I got married, and we go, “Let’s go make a Spawn movie.” And here’s what he does: He does R-rated, dark, low-budget movies. And the reason I say low-budget is not because we hope it looks low-budget, but I wrote a low-budget script because I’m going to be directing. So I always wanted the next version to be something I wrote, produced, and directed, and we’re on our way. It’s going to happen.

How’d the deal come together? How did you and Jason meet?
The way we got the deal put together was in February or March, when I went on my Facebook and I said, “Hey, fans, I’m done with the script. Here it is.” I sort of quickly went through some pages. Then people in Hollywood started phoning and then somebody knows somebody who knows somebody, and then all of a sudden I was talking to literally a dozen-plus producers. Some, obviously, much bigger than others. But they’re going, “Hey, we heard that you got the script.” I go, “Yeah, I’m not trying to sell it, but you can read it if you want.” And Jason was a geek. He sort of reminds me of myself. A bit of a rebel. He’s going up against giants, right?

And [he’s] saying, “No, no. We don’t need the $100 million movie. We can do these sort of small movies.” Everybody in Hollywood now needs their Get Out movie. And after talking to a round of producers probably four or five times each, I just went, “Jason’s the guy.” And here’s the other thing, too, that Blumhouse will give me, is that when I keep saying — and I’ve been saying for years — I want to do a dark, non-superhero, supernatural thriller that will just scare you at times, just mess you up, and has weird, odd stuff. Like, when I was a kid, things like Jacob’s Ladder. He’s done those movies. So now, when I say I want to do it, they’ll go, “Oh, and you’re attached to a guy that does that.” So now you don’t have to educate. They’ll just go, “Well of course it’s going to look like that. Because that’s what both these guys have been doing their whole life. Let’s go.” And now it’s just a matter of putting the rest of the project together.

What does a “non-superhero” superhero movie look like? What does that mean?
Look, Spawn comes from the world of comic books. So, by its very nature, the de facto definition, people are going to [assume it’s a] superhero movie. Because he came out of the gate when we started Image Comics, myself and some of my partners, and he’s got the typical stuff. The costume, the powers, alter ego and all those other things, the trappings of a superhero. The big PG-13 movies that are now in Hollywood right now, The Avengers and Justice League and Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, those movies are rocking. And they’re doing great. But I knew that if I wanted to direct, I’m not going to be able to do something that’s $100 million and ask them to put a new director behind it. So I needed to come up with something that was tight.

The movies I watched when I was a kid were movies that, if you took the one fantastic element out of it, the rest of the movie was completely real. So even if you look at a movie like The Omen, if you take Damien out, there’s nothing else fantastic in the movie. It’s a real world. If you took Regan out of The Exorcist. Even going back to when I was a kid, if you took Frankenstein out of the original black-and-white [Frankenstein], the doctor and Igor and everyone else in that movie was still human. And so that, to me, falls into more what you consider to be horror movies, if you will, today. Once you take the Jasons out of it, or the Freddy Kruegers, everything else is real. There’s not a bad guy or a good guy. They don’t have a headquarters, they don’t have ray guns, they don’t have cars and all that other stuff.

So for the people who are looking for superhero trappings, not only am I going to say it’s not gonna be in this movie, but at some point they’re gonna see the trailer. You’re gonna see the evidence that it’s like, oh, no, you just want something cool and dark and creepy that happens to come from a comic book, that has some superhero trappings to it — then that’s it. So I’ve got two daughters, and they used to go to all these scary movies. And I go, at some point, I’m gonna make a movie that my own kids can go to and that I’ll be able to direct.

And how’s this going to be different or similar to the old Spawn movie, the one that came out in 1997?
How different will this be from the original 1997 [movie]? Night and day. It will be night and day. Again, I’m not saying that it will be better or worse. I’m just saying it’s going to be opposite. The first movie was PG-13, relying on big wow moments and special effects and, again, trying to be really loyal to the origin of those first few issues of the comic book. I’m not worried about that. I’m not a big fan of origin movies anyway. I think it wastes too much time. Why do we need three Fantastic Four movies that are all origin stories? I don’t get it. So, to me, I’m just going to play with the brand for those of us that have been around it for a long time. And, if not, for somebody that knows nothing about Spawn, I’m hoping that they’ll see the trailer and go, “Wow, that looks kind of cool and creepy. I’m going to go see this thing. What’s it called? Prawn? Spawn? Spam? Spawn. Yeah. That’s it. But I thought that the trailer was cool.”

Here’s what I know. When the PG-13 movie came out and then, very quickly, at the same time we did three years of the HBO [Spawn series] that had all the R ratings on it, and that was animated — easily a 20-to-1 ratio, since that time to today, people like the HBO [show]. Why? I think it was just edgier. It was ballsier. You can go into hard drama with it. You can show the underbelly of a world and not worry that you’re showing something that might not get past the PG-13. So the world Spawn lives in is dark. It’s ugly, it’s seedy. And, to me, there’s only one way you can do that. You have to be an R. Because then you can basically do the proper drama for it.

Are you nervous about directing?
Am I nervous about directing because it’ll be my first crack? No. You know, intellectually, the answer should be “yes.” And I’m sure it will be, but I’m always that guy that … I learned a couple of things from TV, and one of them was this cool commercial that said, “Never let them see you sweat.” It was an underarm deodorant, and I thought it was a great life lesson. So even if I’m not nervous, or even if I am nervous, I’m not going to be able to show it. Because here’s what I’m gonna do: Day one, I’m gonna get all my people together when we’re gonna shoot, and I’m gonna let them know I’m the biggest rookie that’s there. That I’m going to rely on all their expertise to make me look good. Because I think I’ve got a good eye and, with Jason and Blumhouse, we’re gonna surround ourselves with really good people.

But here’s what I won’t be: I won’t be indecisive. I’ve been around indecisive directors, and they drive you crazy. I have directed this movie in my head 100 times. By the time I explain it to anybody, I could have directed it. Which is why I insisted on doing it. So, I don’t know. If I’ve got the right camera and video photographer, and cinematographer, and people that do some of the special effects — and great actors, more than anything else. And there’s a good script. I mean, I have to deliver a good script. If all that’s there, me pointing the camera in the right direction and saying “action” — that should be the easiest part of it. And then I get a good editor later on, good music and good sound. I mean, all those other parts are going to come together and they’re going to make it look like I knew what I was doing the whole time.

I know you can’t give details, but what can you tell us about the story?
The lead isn’t really Spawn. Which was always sort of odd when I was pitching it for years and years to Hollywood. And then I remember telling them the Spawn character himself doesn’t talk. And I remember Hollywood getting weird on me, saying, “What do you mean? How can you have a movie and the title character doesn’t talk?” And I go, “Well, I understand your reservation. But when I was a kid, I saw this movie. I don’t know if you guys ever saw it, you can get on Netflix. It’s called Jaws. And if you ever saw it, the lead character in that movie didn’t have a lot of talking lines.” What that movie was about was the humans, the catalyst. And the catalysts were Sheriff Brody and a couple of the other people, like the captain and the scientist that were on the boat. And the monster, which was the shark, would make his appearance when needed to actually get you jumpy. You know, I’m way more in that world. And so the lead character is a cop. A character called Twitch, who’s been in the books since issue No. 1. So he’s been around for the same 276 issues.

It’s just sort of his journey as he’s trying to deal with his own fallen world and his own sanity. [Makes whooshing noise.] Something is moving in the background. The shadows are moving around. And so, you know, is it real? Is he going insane? What is it? And then, you know, I’m not going to ever have Spawn in a latex suit, standing there going, “I am here, boys and girls, and I will save you and your day will be grand.” No, no. It’s just going to be moments where things are gonna happen and then, like a shark in black water [makes sound of shark attacking] and you’re going to be gone. He’s just gonna take you out. Spawn is a character that isn’t owned by corporate America. And so he doesn’t play by the same rules as Superman and Batman. And so when he takes you out, he doesn’t worry about whether he’s hurting you. Spawn is the guy that would have killed the Joker a long time ago.

And you mentioned Twitch. Is this going to be connected to the Sam and Twitch TV show that Kevin Smith is working on?
So the lead character in the movie, Twitch, we’re also developing off to the side a Sam and Twitch show on BBC America. We hope to get some good news, that they say, “Yeah, yeah, we’re going to give you a go on that.” So we’re waiting. Hopefully in the next couple weeks they tell us. Kevin Smith is attached to that, to write and direct those episodes. He’s got a different voice than I do, and I don’t believe it’s fair for me to come onto something like Sam and Twitch and say, “Hey Kevin” — who has his own unique voice — “don’t do your stuff. Do my stuff.” Because, at that point, why wouldn’t they just hire me? They hired, and we picked. I was part of the process of picking Kevin Smith for a reason

So Kevin has a voice, and he has a lot more fun in what he does. They want to put it next to shows that are a lot more fun on the BBC America, if we get to that point. So will [the show and the movie] be linked up in a simpatico? No. So you go, “Hey, if you like something that’s a little more lighthearted and fun, then you should go over there. If you like stuff that’s dark and moody, you can go over there.” And if you can just say, “Hey, I don’t have to have everything tying together seamlessly with continuity,” then you can go watch both of them. I mean, there’s four iterations of Batman I can watch at any given time. There’s the cartoon, the video game, the TV show or the movie, and the comic books. Just pick the one that sort of suits you and put it on your plate and go and enjoy it.

Last question: Can you dream cast the movie? Who would you love to see play Twitch or Spawn?
You know, given that the big lead was Twitch, when I was writing, I had Leonardo DiCaprio in my head. I don’t know if people have seen The Wolf of Wall Street, but there was a manic-ness in him. He was able to go up and down and up and down. It was almost dizzying, emotionally, to go with him. And there are parts in this movie where I’m gonna need an actor to be able to make those moves, both in terms of normality, in terms of manic, in terms of anger and in terms of joy, and be able to go to some extremes in it. But will we ask? I’m sure we’ll ask. But again, you’re shooting for the moon.

Here’s what I think. I think we can get a good character, a good actor. I’ve talked to a couple big-name actors already for that role. I think we can get it because, again, I think I can shoot that character in about 20, 25 days. And I don’t need them to go to the gym and get into spandex, because I’m going to do all the creep stuff practical, like you do on most thriller horror movies. And then, the Twitch character, which is the lead, I’m hoping I can find a really, really top-flight actor who I can say, “Lookit, I know you’ve been dubious about going into a ‘superhero movie,’ but here’s the gig: You can be in a superhero movie, you can be the lead. You get the most camera time, you get the most lines, you don’t have to go to the gym and you don’t have to wear any spandex. And you will be the guy. What I need you to do is just act your rear end off as good as you can, and you will be in a superhero movie.” And I know there are people in that city that are sitting on that fence, and I may be able to push one or two of them over.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

McFarlane Doesn’t Want Spawn to Feel Like a Superhero Film