Mark Verheiden is an American producer and writer who has worked on some of the biggest comic book adaptations and superhero series in the TV world. He has produced and written for Daredevil, Constantine, Hemlock Grove, Falling Skies, Heroes, Battlestar Galactica and Smallville as well as having written feature films such as My Name is Bruce, Timecop and The Mask.
After attending a couple of his panels at London Film and Comic-Con, I sat down with Mark to talk about television, comic-books and what it’s like to write for them.
I’ve always loved comics and when I grew up in Portland, Oregon; when I was young- very young- I started a fan group for comic-books and basically, it was a group called an APA, and what happens in an APA is people print up their own little magazine, and they’d send them to a central mailer who would staple it together and send it back to all of the members. So it was a way for people to just be creative in a small group. Obviously, this was before the internet.
Anyway, people who joined early included Paul Chadwick who created Concrete, Frank Miller who everybody knows [Sin City, The Dark Knight Returns], and Randy Stradley and Mike Richardson, who co-founded Dark Horse Comics. So I met all these people up in Oregon when I was really young. I always wanted to be a writer, and I moved to Los Angeles in the 80s to try to break into screenwriting. I had some small success; sold a couple of movies, but nothing career-making.
Randy and Mike had formed Dark Horse Comics and said ‘do you want to write for us?’, so I wrote a comic called The American and after that I went on to the Aliens and Predator spin-offs and then the comic thing sort of exploded, so I wrote a whole lot of comics for a few years.
And then one day, out of the blue, I got a call from Joel Silver, who produced Predator, and to me it was like getting a call from- it was incredible- getting a call just out of the blue from this guy. And he said ‘I liked your comic, could you come in and tell us how it ends?’ he’d only seen the first issue, ‘we’d like to use that story for Predator 2. So I went into the meeting, and I told them how my Predator comic ended and as I was walking out they just said one of those cursory ‘have you got anything else?’’ Because I don’t own Predator, that doesn’t do me any good financially so I said ‘as a matter of fact I have this book called The American’ and they bought it.
So my first screenplay, was for Warner Bros and was The American and then the movie thing sort of took off. And so I wrote Timecop after that; I wrote The Mask, I’ve sold twenty-three feature screenplays, of which four or five have been actually made. So that’s kind of the rise-up, I guess.
After you challenged us [at the future of Comic-Book Movies panel] to find that film you wouldn’t mention; I looked it up, and although I haven’t watched it yet, it is on my watch-list.
Which one was that?
My Name is Bruce.
Oh no! My Name is Bruce is a good one! The really early one was Terror Squad, and it starred Chuck Connors, and it came out around 1987.
I think I have heard of that.
It’s… it’s quite something. It’s an insane story. Terrorists attack a school in Kokomo, Indiana; they come in over the Great Lakes, and swim up to this school, and there’s a- it’s kind of famous for this- there’s a school bus chase where the bus is being chased by cops or something. But we couldn’t afford to have this big bus jump over a train track, so as it comes around this corner, suddenly it turns into a van, and that jumps over the train. It was insane.
Anyway, that’s Terror Squad; Terror Squad actually played on HBO a few times, which… stunned me. And that was my first credit. My Name is Bruce I did much later, and that was really fun. I did that with Bruce Campbell and he’s a great guy.
And you’re a big fan of The Evil Dead.
In a way, The Evil Dead is why I’m in the movies. Mike Richardson and I were huge fans of Evil Dead 2, which I think is one of the greatest movies ever made.
It is fantastic.
And we always- when we saw that, back in the eighties, we said ‘if we’re making movies, that’s who we want to work with: Sam Raimi’. So we got in touch with Sam and he ended up producing Timecop, so I met him then and we stayed in touch; I’ve done a couple other projects for the Sam Raimi universe, and then, working with Bruce, I did My Name is Bruce.
You’ve been saying about how the comic book movies took of, and obviously yesterday there was the panel [on the future of Comic-Book Movies].
I was just wondering, because you had your hands in Heroes and Smallville etc. and I’d say the whole thing really started to take off around 2000 and has been building since then; the things you’ve worked on serves as some of the groundwork for where we are now.
So how does it feel to be one of the people who started this whole phenomenon that we’re in now?
I guess it depends on if you like those movies or not. I love ‘em, so- look, it’s funny. When I first started pitching movies, and I’d done a lot of comics and I’d sold The American to Warner Bros., I started getting a few meetings on other projects.
At the time, having written comics was not a good thing. I’d go into meetings and they’d say ‘what are your credits?’ and I’d say, ‘well, I haven’t anything produced but I wrote the best-selling Aliens comic’, and they go ‘we don’t care’. And they really didn’t.
And what’s happened is the old guard that did not understand comics have left. They’re gone, they’ve left the business, retired; whatever. The new people that have come in are the ones who grew up on Marvel and DC and loved them, and now they’re in charge, so that evolution; I think it really started in ’89 with the Batman movie; the Tim Burton one where everybody said ‘oh! You can kind of do this straight, and it works’.
I think Smallville showed, for the first time in a while that you could do a superhero- well, in the show, Clark Kent didn’t wear the super-suit- you could do a show about an empowered character like that and you could make it work. And of course, Smallville lasted ten seasons, which is astronomical.
I was on the first three series, and for me it’s always fun to be part of the beginning because you’re creating a world. I’ve been very lucky, in that I’ve been able to pick and choose- well, they’ve chosen me- but I’ve been able to work on stuff that I’m passionate about. That’s not always true in the TV business. Sometimes you take a project; you’re offered, y’know, a cop show or whatever (and I’m not putting those down) and you want a job, so you take those. And I have been able to sort of stay in the worlds I like. It’s been pretty conscious, actually, in that I like fantasy, I like science-fiction, I like the superhero genre; I like comics. But I’ve been lucky in that those shows have been available to hire me.
Anyway, that’s not really an answer to your question, which is I’m very proud to have been part of it, and Heroes was an interesting experience. I was on the last two seasons of that, and I’m very proud of the work we did on that show; I wish fan reaction was better to the last seasons, but so it goes.
Do you think writing comic books sort of lends itself to writing TV? What with them both being serialized fiction.
I think it does. I’ve had a lot of friends in the TV who wanted to go into comics and I think it’s not as easy as it looks. They’re two very different mediums. So when people talk about comics and say they’re storyboards for a movie, I go ‘well, no they’re not, they’re their own independent art-form’ and to try and take a movie person and turn him into a comic book guy really quick; there’s an adaptation process because they’re different forms, despite the fact they’re pictures and have word balloons and stuff- they’re different art forms.
That said, I think that writing for comics, the serialized aspect and from a professional stand-point, wanting to hit deadlines, and basically working with editors and working on the process is great on a professional basis.
And comics obviously generated the amazing movies that we’re getting so they’ve become home to some amazing writers and artists who write stuff, which, y’know sounds a little condescending, but shouldn’t be as good or better than movies, and in fact, having worked in movies- better than most movies, frankly.
They’re really just too really different mediums. But any time that you write, you’re using that creative part of your brain and that helps in anything you’re jumping into.
Speaking about working with higher ups, George [Jeanty] said yesterday about how he thought it was crazy that DC; they’ve got the TV and they’ve got the movies and they keep them completely separate. Having worked with them, what do you think about that?
Frankly it was more visible when I was on Smallville; it was frustrating because it felt like Warner Bros. – the movie side- I shouldn’t say anything too mean- the movie side really felt like the TV side was it’s own thing, and they were very protective of the other characters, so, the ‘for instance’ is for a long time on Smallville, when I was there, we thought it would be great to do young Bruce Wayne and have them cross. It wouldn’t be a whole show, but there was talk of having a spin-off for the young Bruce Wayne. And it just would not happen because of the protectiveness the film side had for the Batman movie. Well now it feels like there’s much more synergy, especially now that Geoff Johns is taking over, and he has a foot in the TV side and the movie side; I heard he was here in London working on Justice League right now. With him- he’s a great guy, he’s a great writer, really smart- I’m hoping that it starts coming together in a more synergistic way, so its not that kind of war between the film and the TV sides.
It always amazed me; this is just a general comment; when I worked in Warner Bros. and I worked with Warner Bros. a long time, that there was not more synergy between the comics and the film and TV. And in fact they seemed competitive to the point where it seemed like ‘well, we’re going to try and kill that’ and I’m thinking ‘you’re all in the same pocket here! Why aren’t you all trying to make money?’
I couldn’t understand it; it’s some corporate thing that I just don’t get. Separate departments; I think it’s changed now. But that’s how it was.
I was just thinking about how you wrote the [unmade] Teen Titans script; I think a light film like that would work well to clash with the darker tone of Batman v Superman.
They’re teenagers, so y’know. But it was fun yeah, it wasn’t endlessly dark.
Less kicking Superman in the teeth and hitting him with sinks?
No, it wasn’t Batman v Superman.
I thought that would have been great. And I know the whole Cyborg/Justice League has been a thing for a while, but I much prefer Cyborg starting out in the Teen Titans.
He’s cool. He’s in it. Along with Wonder Girl, Kid Flash, Nightwing. Yeah, I was- As I was saying on the panel, I was disappointed to do the entire script and then find out ‘well actually, you can’t use Robin/Nightwing’, and we had a meeting after that, where they said ‘well can’t you just swap Nightwing out?’ and I said, ‘well, yeah, but then it’s not the Teen Titans, so if you want lots of angry fans coming in and saying ‘hey, where’s Dick Grayson, where’s Nightwing? He’s part of the Teen Titans’… this story we created was Nightwing central. We had Alfred in it too! And they said that was fine and then that wasn’t fine either.
But hey, I got paid to write it very well, I just think it’s money out the door, but as long as it goes here [gestures to pocket], that’s okay.
Returning to The American, you were saying that would be what you really want to adapt [in the aforementioned panel].
Yeah, I’ve already done it once, so why not?
So where would you take it? Would it be TV, would it be film? What sort of thing would it be?
Well, I’ve tried several times. I wrote the feature script for it at Warner Bros. which they still have but just haven’t done anything with. I tried a TV version. I think that was sort of in the 90s before Smallville. So there wasn’t an appetite for that sort of character; he is a costumed character and just for whatever reason just couldn’t get any traction.
I tried to bring it back as a movie, but the problem is and this gets very ‘inside’, but to set it up somewhere other than Warner Bros. we have to buy that old script away from them and they want a lot of money, so it becomes prohibitive to get into it.
Like the whole Spider-Man thing with Marvel.
Right, so somebody has to decide to throw some money at it to solve some problems.
I would love to do it as a TV series, I think it would be a great show. If you haven’t read it, then the series is basically about a world where they’ve invented the ultimate anti-terrorist combatant and he’s called ‘The American’ and he goes into these terrible war-torn situations and tries to solve them. And in the first story I did, you see The American get killed and shot to pieces, and then two days later another ‘American’ is on stage in costume like ‘well I survived and I’m fine’ but this reporter saw him die, so he’s like ‘what? What’s going on here?’ and you discover there have been 155 ‘Americans’ over the years, with plastic surgery to make them all look the same, and they’ve just been killed one after another in these terrorist things, and they pretend they haven’t been, to keep up this facade of ‘we have this great fighter’.
So basically if you take the idea of ‘the Last American’, he basically says ‘I’m going to be that guy, and if I die this over’, and put him into situations, I think it’d be fun.
My final question is, to anyone who wants to get a piece of this comic-book boom, whether that’s writing for comic-books or TV, what would you say to prospective writers? What advice would you give?
A couple of things.
If you wanna work in comics, there are two ways of going into it:
One is you’ve always wanted to write Batman (pick your character of choice) but that’s a very specific thing that will require you to become commercially viable to DC Comics, to hire you to do that and then you’ll be working in their editorial world. That can still be very satisfying. I’ve written Superman, I’ve written Superman/Batman [the comic, unrelated to the film]. Those were fun to do. So that’s one way to do it.
If you’re a creative person in terms of wanting to create your own character, I would create your own character, there’s so many ways to fund the books now like Kickstarter, so if you’re a writer and you don’t draw maybe you could do a Kickstarter to raise enough money to hire an artist, and do your own book.
And then you own the- ugly term- ‘IP’, you own your own IP [intellectual property]. And that’s been great for me; I own Timecop, I own The American, I did a series called Stalkers at Marvel that I own, but we haven’t done anything with since. It’s still out there. And I wrote a book for Dark Horse that I kept the rights to called Ark that I sold to Sony as a feature.
So if you want to break in, if you can present your own property, what’s great about comics is that it’s more than just a script and more than just an idea or treatment; it’s actually a fleshed out object where they can go ‘oh that’s the story I get it’. I would say do that.
If you wanted to just break into TV and movies? In the UK I’m not sure. I live in Los Angeles. And I moved to LA to do that. The centre of that business is still kind of in LA. I have a friend from Australia who actually commutes from Australia to Los Angeles, which is insane. Not every day, but you know, a lot.
You kind of have to, for Television, more or less, again I’m talking more about American television; you kind of have to be in Los Angeles.
Write your own spec scripts which can be episodes of a series you love, or probably better, an original, and start kicking at those doors. That can be a daunting procedure, but everybody I’ve met who really really wanted to do it, and had some talent finally got their shot. Sometimes it can take several years, you have to be patient and you can’t quit.
When I moved to LA I didn’t know anybody, so slowly kicked on those doors myself many years ago. But yeah, it’s a fun business; I highly recommend it!
By the way, this is the time of so much TV that if you wanted to beak in, it’s amazing; four hundred scripted shows; that’s insane. When I started there were maybe twenty, it’s insane- maybe thirty. It’s incredible, so come on in!