Todd McFarlane elaborates on casting Jeremy Renner in Spawn and remembers Steve Ditko

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Jul 10, 2018, 1:36 PM EDT (Updated)

Todd McFarlane was having a fine old time on summer vacation in his native Canada, playing his new favorite sport, Pickleball, and no doubt thinking up new toy designs. But his longtime passion project, his feature film adaptation of Spawn, keeps getting in the way and making news.

The latest blast involves the news that Jeremy Renner, he of the multiple Academy Award nominations and co-star of Marvel's multi-billion dollar Avengers franchise, is the latest star to join the cast. Renner will be playing the fan-favorite Detective Twitch Williams opposite Jamie Foxx as the titular character, the long-gestating R-rated film that McFarlane wrote and will direct for Blumhouse Productions. Twitch is best known for being part of the detective duo "Sam & Twitch," but in McFarlane's movie, Twitch will be taking center stage alongside Al Simmons/Spawn. That dynamic is central to the movie, according to McFarlane. The creator said without Twitch, Spawn can't make any headway in his battle against evil.

"Twitch's partner Sam – who is not in the movie – is someone who in the comics, doesn't get along with Spawn because they are too similar," McFarlane told SYFY WIRE during a phone conversation that took place shortly after the Renner news broke. "They're emotional creatures. Spawn tolerates Sam, but he needs Twitch, especially in the film."


Image credit: Todd McFarlane Productions, Inc. 2018

Renner's casting signals that the film, which will be produced by Jason Blum, is well on its way toward production.

"We're putting together a good team," McFarlane said. "I've gotta figure out a way to keep their names straight. Jason, Jamie, Jeremy. I've got the Triple Js. I don't know if that's some kind of slang for some narcotic or something but, all three of my fishing expeditions have ended in success."

McFarlane makes an observation he's told us before: His naivete is leading him to keep reaching for actors most people have told him he's nuts to go after for his modestly-budgeted horror comic adaptation — and yet he keeps landing the big fish. "I keep saying I'm too dumb for my own good," he said. "People tell me not to go after guys like Jamie Foxx or Jeremy Renner. I say, 'Well, let's ask them. If they say no, we'll move on.'"

During our conversation, McFarlane was his typically candid self. He explained what makes Renner a great fit for Twitch, whether his performance as Hawkeye mattered at all to McFarlane, and also clarified what his previously stated plans to keep Spawn hidden in shadows means for his signature cape. And while he didn't offer any concrete date on when production on the film may get underway, he seemed to indicate that it is fast approaching.

The artist also shared his first thoughts on the passing of legendary Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko, and his influence on his own spin on Spidey. Read on:

I know some fans may see this news and think, "the guy who plays Hawkeye in The Avengers movies is going to star in the Spawn film!" But that's not what you were thinking when you sat down to talk with Renner, is it? Was it movies like The Town and Wind River that convinced you he was the guy to play Twitch?

In my meeting with Jeremy, I had to be as honest as possible. I told him, "Jeremy, I can't talk to you about Hawkeye, because I've never seen you. I've never seen an Avengers movie. I assume you were good, but that's not why I'm here today. I'm here because of The Town, The Hurt Locker and Kill the Messenger. The guy plays real human beings and I'm entranced as a moviegoer. That's what I needed for Twitch."

The Town

Jeremy Renner in The Town. Credit: Warner Bros.

It's funny, early on when I was casting the film, they would bring me these guys who were six feet, four inches tall, 280 lbs. and full of muscle. I was like, "wow, really?!" (laughs). I mean, the general public doesn't really know what Twitch looks like so I guess I shouldn't be so slavish in regards to a certain look I'm after, but I can't have a six foot four guy play him. Maybe in the sequel I can cast someone like that to play Sam, that's a big dude. But for Twitch, I need a guy who just feels real. And that's how I feel about Jeremy. Some big stars distract me when I'm watching them in a movie. Like, I always know that's Meryl Streep when I see her in a film. But Jeremy does a great job portraying the everyman.

In the Sam and Twitch relationship we know in the comics, Twitch is the brains of the operation, if you will. The true detective who more often than not can deduce what is happening. Since you've already said Sam isn't in this movie, will we see the Twitch/Spawn relationship take this type of approach?

Well, it won't be a 50/50 partnership because Spawn has a lot of powers; Twitch doesn't. But Spawn needs Twitch. Al Simmons has always relied a lot on his physicality and emotions. He understands that Twitch is sort of his counterpart and that Yin-Yang aspect is important. Twitch has certain skills that Al knows he himself doesn't have, being methodical and more intellectually-driven. He brings a certain humanity to Spawn that he just doesn't have, since he's quote-unquote not human anymore.

When can we expect you to get in the same room with Jeremy and Jamie and pore over the script?

Ha! Probably not for a few months. As we get closer to starting production though, we'll start rehearsals. But the exact start date is not quite locked down yet.

Did Renner mention to you if he was a fan of the Spawn comics, or if he familiar with the character and his mythology?

In all honesty, I don't know. He was curious as to who this character was, what's his motivation, what he's about … basically, he was a really good listener. He wanted to see if the character was interesting enough for him to be engaged with. I assume every actor when they ask a simple question like, "tell me about the story," that it's layered with like 9 or 10 different things they want to learn about. But I don't think I ever asked him if he even know who Spawn was. I don't even know if he knew the character at all. And it wasn't necessary.

I've been saying for months and months to anyone who would listen to me that for Twitch, I just need someone who can act their ass off. I don't need them to go to the gym; I just need them to act their ass off. It's the same rationale I had for Al Simmons, Jamie's character. I'm not concerned whether they can look believable jumping over buildings. That's not what the script is about. If the audience isn't engaged with the actors, then the film isn't going to work. I just need actors. They're not going to be buried in costumes and prosthetics or covered by CGI. It's a film about a man named Twitch Williams that becomes entangled in this world along with Spawn.

You've talked quite a bit about making this on a tight budget, $12-15 million, with minimal CG effects and how you don't want to fall back on a lot of the familiar elements of comic book movies. But Spawn will still have his cape, right?

Oh yeah.

Just making sure. Because Spawn's gotta have a cape.

Oh yeah, no doubt. All the classic elements of Spawn will be there, I promise you. It just won't be high noon with a klieg light on him. I know that formula works for Marvel and DC and possibly if I had a $200 million budget I would think about it slightly differently, but I don't. And so I can't compete on that level so I have to create a story that makes sense within the confines and budget that we're dealing with. And that's why I'm going for this dark, mysterious version.

I have all these things in my head (laughs) that I've been planning for a long time. Eventually, the movie will come out and people will tell us, "Oh, that was cool." Or they'll say, "Todd, what were you thinking?" The world is a big place and there's a lot of geeks. If we don't exceed our budget parameters, I think it increases our chances of success of hopefully creating a franchise.


Spider-Man #1 - 1990

I wanted to take a moment to ask you about the recent passing of Steve Ditko. Your take on Spider-Man, the character he co-created, seemed to have been a direct descendant of Ditko's lanky version. How big an influence was he on you?

Unfortunately, I never got to meet him. And your observation is 100 percent accurate. I was coming to the character sort of, post-John Romita, which was this perfect, Norman Rockwell-like version of Spider-Man. I knew my art style would never get there.

Ditko, who predated Romita Sr. was so … I always called it quirky. It was odd, funky artwork and I was able to tap into some of that oddness and put a modern art style on top of it. Some of the stuff Ditko did was just etched in my brain, like all the extra webs and the webs underneath the armpits, which I thought was cool. I thought the blue in the costume was darker than what Romita did, and maybe it wasn't, but in my head it was. Ditko's Spider-Man was so different. He didn't seem nearly as worried about anatomy as some other artists. And that helped me. My Spider-Man, I ignored anatomy. I went for the "cool" factor like Ditko did.

It's a shame that some of the pioneers and trailblazers of the comic book industry didn't really get their rightful due when they should have. And some of us now who took inspiration from these men like John Buscema, Gil Kane, Jack Kirby and Ditko, and how we do an updated, polished take on what they did, and all of a sudden people respond to it. But they don't really know who the original source was. So yeah, if anyone out there liked my Spider-Man, that's because there was a Ditko-esque Jiminy Cricket sitting on my shoulder, inspiring me every day.