No one wants to hear the words Howard the Duck in comparison to their latest work of cinematic art, but a flood of recent behind the scenes rumors have equated the upcoming Warner Bros. supernatural Western Jonah Hex to that much maligned cult oddity which featured a man in a duck suit making love to a crimped punk rocker while battling a space demon more concerned about the state of his fried eggs than his plans to envelope and destroy the Earth. Plot wise, Howard's stately persona has very little to do with Jonah Hex and his scarred-up face, except that they're both lesser known comic book entities whose audiences have failed to push them into the general pop consciousness before their films' release.
While Hex certainly has a long, enthusiastic, and constantly growing fanbase, the comic has never reached the same worldly status as our more recent big screen adaptations. It's a dilemma facing most major movie studios at this juncture in time, as our first tier heroes have already dominated the past decade in film. Now, directors and producers are being forced to turn to lesser-known commodities hoping to cash in on their cult status while also pushing them into the upper echelon of entertainment. Which can be a hard road to hoe when most audience members aren't familiar with the source material. The ruse certainly worked for Iron Man, a less significant Marvel character whose Cineplex incarnation has transformed him into an A list player capable of standing toe-to-toe with both Spider-Man and The Dark Knight (as this past weekend's box office numbers will certainly attest). This was made possible through a great script, a dedicated director in Jon Favreau, and a winning performance from Robert Downey Jr.. It's an enterprise built more on quality than pulp continuity, and director Jimmy Hayward is hoping to bring that same type of euphoric melding of ingredients to his take on this Civil War cowboy with the blistered cheek and the fast draw hand.
In the studied world of comic book lore, Jonah Hex has a colorful history that strongly resonates with lovers of horror fiction and spaghetti westerns in equal measure. The cowboy made his first known appearance in 1971, starring as the main character in both DC Comics' All-Star Western and Weird Western Tales before getting his own self-titled run of books in 1977. Hex's stories always hewed more towards an adult audience with gritty tales focusing on alcoholism, prostitution, and farming. Though steeped in the Western cultural of the late 1800s, those genre tropes were often subverted and sometimes drifted into the world of the paranormal.
A bounty hunter best known for the sickening rope of skin attached to a hole in his cheek, Jonah's life has been quite storied throughout the years. His mother ran away with a traveling businessman and later became a whore. His physically abusive alcoholic father sold him into Apache slavery for a pile of pelts. He later became part of the tribe, and a second son to the chief. His bride got hacked to pieces by a warring Indian faction just days before their wedding. He joined the Confederate Army during the Civil War, only to later be seen as a turncoat when he surrendered to the Union forces. Twice. He then became a bounty hunter, and its this area of his life that is most referenced in the many newsstand issues featuring the surely gunslinger. It is also known that Hex died in 1904 from a shotgun blast to the chest. Despite the character's back-story being quite adequately fleshed out, the creative forces behind this new incarnation are going in a decidedly different direction with the title.
Shot in Louisiana on the outskirts of New Orleans, Jonah Hex embodies the standard Western archetype in both its look and feel. Yet, it is substantially different from anything we've ever seen in the genre before. All thanks to its graphic roots in pulp literature. This isn't necessarily the real world, though it doesn't spin off into unrecognizable areas of whimsy, either. It is a dusty, dirty trail of dead bodies and heavy action as visualized by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, the creative force behind Crank and Gamer. Known for their blistering, kinetic, no-holds-barred, all-bones-broken style of hyper ballet, the duo was meant to direct the picture before stepping down due to creative difference with Warner Bros. over what, exactly, the end product should be. As it stands now, their shooting script remain mostly intact, with animator and Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who director Jimmy Hayward making this his live action feature debut.
Rumors of Hex not quite living up to recent comic book adaptation standards have stemmed from Hayward being replaced by I Am Legend director Francis Lawrence during some intense reshoots earlier this year. The fact that the trailer wasn't released until just recently also became fodder for speculation, as the film has publicly traveled a rocky road since its inception as a summer blockbuster a few years back. It is a bit weirder than your average Friday night comic book fare. A scarred cowboy with crows coming out of his mouth battling undead Union soldiers certainly has the potential to be a cult sensation, but will general audiences hungering for a bit of summer action flock to this delightfully odd mix of genre fare?
While on set in New Orleans, Hayward proved to be quite candid about his history as an animator and the fact that he wouldn't have considered himself the best person to bring this coarse tale of bullets and dust to vivid, screaming life upon first read of the script. It was his love for both the film Western and DC Comics' Weird Western Tales that convinced him to parlay his talents into this live action world, "This is the type of film that I have always loved. I got into animation by accident, and I always intended to go to film school. I just never got there. By the time I was twenty, I was animating on Toy Story. It didn't make since to go to film school. I stayed in animation for a long time. I got here through writing. All filmmakers experiment with animation. I just wound up doing it for a long time. I went to "film school" at Pixar for ten years. Then I wound up here. And it makes total sense to me. People ask me this question a lot. Fair enough. Almost everything in this movie is practical, too. There's not much digital stuff. We blew up a battle ship the other day. There were helicopters, seven cameras, and crash cameras. No digital. I have always been a fan of Jonah Hex. When I found out they were making this movie, I thought, 'Damn it! I wish I had thought of that!' Then I got an opportunity to come on and develop it and write on it. Then I wound up directing it. Which was great for me, because when I came into Warner Bros., I had a Weird Western Tales digest that I'd had since 1978. I read the comic as a kid. I loved Hex because he was an anti-hero. Everyone else had big packages, capes, and spandex. Jonah Hex was just a badass. I've always had an ironic sense of humor, and I loved that about the character. We're trying to bring that into the film."
Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor set out to develop an origin story with their script, and that element is still the thread that holds the finished film together. Hayward says about the plot, "This is the legend of Jonah Hex. It's about how he got his scar. It offers the entire back-story to who he is. It tells the story in reverse. It starts with the murder of a scarred bounty hunter. We find out how he got that way. We tear off the layers and expose who Jonah Hex really is. And why." When the original comics are brought into question, the origin of Jonah Hex's infamous scar is not open to discussion. As we've all seen by now in the trailer, Hex no longer receives his tattered facial wound from the Apache Indians, but rather earns this keepsake from the film's villain Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich). Which will certainly be a point of much debate and contention amongst the bounty hunter's most ardent fans.
Longtime readers shouldn't worry about the thematic oeuvre of the film, and its logical push towards a more standardize Western theme, though. "We are doing something very traditional, with some supernatural elements to it. There isn't a ton. The dead show us Jonah Hex's destiny. There are moments where he doesn't really know what he is looking at. For the most part, we play it traditionally. Then when you least expect it...There is a battle ship in the movie! There is a fine line, but this isn't a horror film. It's an action movie. Hopefully it's a thrilling picture. It hops genres. We're not sure about the rating. I am noting making this film for the MPAA. We'll find out soon. We're keeping the ironic frontier justice of the comic books alive. In terms of it being a blood and gore fest? It isn't really. That doesn't drive the story. I think that is one of the changes I brought to it. I changed the tone of the humor. For me, watching someone's eyes is more important than watching someone's brains fly out the back of their head. It comes from working at Pixar. It's not a G rated thing. Its that story drives everything. The story should compound every move you make. I don't know how much story you can derive from watching exit wounds and red matter splatter all over stuff."
Jonah Hex is being embodied on screen by former teen heartthrob turned Oscar nominated actor Josh Brolin, who very much looks the part with his latex cheek in full-on melt mode. About the performance, Hayward says of Brolin, "He hasn't brought very much. He's talentless." This, of course, is a joke, "No. Josh is amazing. He gets this character inside out and backwards. We have a totally shared feeling for who this character is and who we want him to be. Josh's become a good friend, and it's been amazing to collaborate with him on this. He embodies Hex." Both director and actor wanted to keep the rope of skin hanging from the left side of Brolin's mouth, despite the fact that it inhibited the actor's speech, "It was one of the things I really fought for. Keeping that rope over his mouth," Hayward assures us. "I wanted to make that happen. Even when Jonah Hex had that leather studded codpiece in the future, he still had that on his face. It's the one thing that has survived throughout every incarnation of the comic."
The make-up piece that Josh is forced to wear pinches the skin on his neck, painfully pulling back his cheeks. The actor described the torturous process in detail, saying "This is the sequence of events in the morning: We have a piece of fabric that connects to my cheek. That connects behind my ear. We attach it together, and it pulls back half my face. The rest of it is two prosthetics. Then we put two teeth pieces in. With a wire that crawls in and pushes up my cheek. It pulls back my mouth. We do some more prosthetics, and then we paint it. I've been seen walking around New Orleans with half a mustache and half a beard, which really doesn't matter. Nobody cares. Nobody can tell. Everybody is drunk. We then cover the other half in hair. Then we paint the rest of my face. There is such a razor's edge between drama and absurdity. And the feeling of this being a comic book."
If one is looking for a bit of optimism from the actor about the film itself, Brolin doesn't have much to say in this department. "I'm not sure where this film is tonally. My wife put it best. She said, 'It's a strange set. It feels like everyone is lost at sea in a canoe. But we're all tethered together.' I think we're doing extremely well in spite of ourselves." Brolin is very honest about what he's gotten himself into. He knows this isn't your typical weekend affair, "There is no model for this. Even the studio is going, 'How are we supposed to sell this? What is it? What is the tone?' If we succeed, I think it will be a success of incredible originality. If it doesn't work? Well, you just move onto the next one."
Brolin remembers reading the script for the first time, "I didn't like it at all. But I couldn't stop thinking about it. I kept dreaming about it. I dream a lot, and this thing kept coming back to me. There was something about it that I really did enjoy. This type of Western with cojones. It wasn't one of these new, stylized Westerns. It brings this idea of having one foot in death and one foot in reality. You can get away with anything, and justify it. I love having that luxury. No one can call us on our shit. 'Jonah Hex doesn't do that!' Well, guess what? Jonah Hex can do what he wants whenever he wants. Whether its here or in the Afterworld. It becomes very metaphysical, spiritual, existentialist. That's what keeps me interested. I might be full of shit, but that's what I create to keep myself interested." And the character has certainly kept the actor interested throughout the shoot. Josh has quite a keen sense of just who this Old West gunslinger really is, "He's a loner. He's lost an incredible amount. He has watched his wife and kid die right in front of him. He accidentally killed one of his mentor's sons, who happened to be his best friend. That brings in a revenge factor. It is so emotionally wrought with all these different feelings of love and loss. I love how convoluted it all is. The hero is not necessarily the hero. And the bad guy is not the bad guy. Everyone is intertwined. Its something I have always believed in life. The greatest guys are capable of doing horrible things. And the villain is always capable of doing something very wonderful. You don't see that a lot in film."
At the moment, its unclear whether Jonah Hex will connect with an audience, or if this is simply a one shot deal. Brolin hasn't really put much thought into a sequel, but he isn't against the idea, "Now that I have this make-up on my face? I know I will go home and I will forget about it when it's all done. It's like having a baby. I like the idea of it. For me, selfishly. It's not obvious as a character, and as a tone. And what we can do with it. I love Megan Fox's character. I love what she represents. You have this incredibly beautiful girl. It's Beauty and the Beast. We could have gotten anybody for the role. At one point, Melissa Leo was up for the part. But there is this pain in Megan's eyes. This youthful rebelliousness. There was something there. I liked who she was. I liked the idea of this incredible beauty being amongst this setting, and her being the most broken out of anybody. That's the connection between us. You would never put someone that gorgeous with this guy. But, yes, you would. As long as they share an emotional parallel."
One of the odder creative decisions made by Hayward was that of casting comedic actor Will Arnett in the very serious role of Union Army Lt. Grass. Though Hayward spoke of ironic frontier justice, there isn't much to laugh about in terms of Arnett's latest on-screen persona. Will explains, "The character I play is a corporate figure. He represents the new US government. He is an outsider in this environment. He is in the Union, on the winning side of the Civil War. He's been sent from Washington with very clear orders. He needs to take care of this job and get Hex to so some things for him. He is a pretty humorless guy. If there is any humor to be found, it comes out of the fact that he's actually quite humorless." This wasn't a role that Arnett was actively looking for, "This was something that came to my attention because of Jimmy Hayward. I'd actually worked with the guy before. We got along really well. We have a lot in common. We're both Canadian. When he was putting this together, he wanted to met up and talk about. It's a real treat to do something like this. It's interesting, and really rewarding."
Despite the film being quite action packed, Arnett wasn't too heavily involved in that aspect of the story, "The only stunts I do are the horseback riding. I'd never done that before in a movie. It was challenging. The first scene I did a couple weeks ago had me and John Gallagher Jr. riding a couple of horses into town. We wanted to make it look authentic. We didn't want to make it look like a Yankee that comes in and stumbles around. We worked pretty hard on that. It is the coolest entrance on a film I have ever had." Will was also involved in the big battleship sequence that serves as one of the film's greatest set pieces. But he missed most of the gunfire there, as well. "I come in as this battle is already happening. We're going to arrest people and make a big impact. Of course, we have very little. All we can do is threaten them with arrest. I ridiculously claim through a bullhorn that they are all part of United States custody. Then they start launching at us. I run for cover and cower under a turret. The boat explodes, and of course Jonah has been responsible for all of this. We walk back after everything is done, and the boat is sinking. And I say, 'That's what they get for messing with the United States military!'"
John Gallagher Jr. is playing Arnett's right hand man in the film, "He's a second lieutenant in the Union army. Lt. Grass is my boss. Our job is to seek out Jonah Hex and basically recruit him to work for us. We want him to bring in Quentin Turnbull. We represent the authority. Arnett is the anti-Jonah Hex. He believes in rules and regulations. He believes in laws. He is building telegraph wires, because he believes an age of communication is coming and it is going to end this lawless era that has existed for so long. You get the sense from my character that he'd rather have Jonah Hex as his boss. My character is torn between his Union duties and wanting to emulate Jonah Hex a little bit. He has a man crush on him. He thinks the guy is a cool badass. I have some nice scenes with Josh were I am enamored and in awe of what a tough guy he truly is."
Gallagher, for one, is a strong supporter of the film and the material upon which it is based. He believes it will find an audience once it hits theaters, "There is a strong resurgence where people want to see these unsung comic books become films. Jonah Hex is more of an underdog comic. People have longed for this, and they want to see the story done justice. Jimmy Hayward is very commited to the original comic, but he also wants to add some new twists and turns."
With a strong story and a cast that includes Josh Brolin as Jonah Hex, John Malkovich as terrorist Quentin Turnbull, and Megan Fox as the surely love interest who holds her own in the face of danger, it is quite possible that the finished film will find an audience eager and willing to make this one of the biggest hits of June. It's also quite possible that we're looking at one of the biggest bombs of the year. Which shouldn't be seen as all bad. Its been far too long since we've had a genuinely great turkey the likes of which Howard the Duck wouldn't associate himself with. Either way, Jonah Hex is guaranteed to be a fun, wholly unique ride the likes of which we've never seen.