Todd McFarlane went fishing, and he hooked a big one.
"We caught a big fish. We landed a Marlin and we're gonna see if we can't go fishing and catch another big one, too," McFarlane tells SYFY WIRE. "And we're just beginning."
The legendary toymaker and co-founder of Image Comics is riding a major wave of momentum on the news that Academy Award winner Jamie Foxx has inked a deal to play Al Simmons in McFarlane's adaptation of his own beloved comic book series, Spawn. The news that Foxx will be playing the betrayed CIA agent turned Hellspawn of Vengeance in the planned trilogy is a major shot of adrenaline for the project, which McFarlane has famously been developing for years. As he points out, it also gives the project an air of credibility that will pay instant dividends.
"I think Jamie's involvement will now upgrade the type of people who want to be involved," McFarlane said in an interview shortly after the big casting news was announced. "I've already gotten some calls from Hollywood celebrities wanting to get involved in some way."
McFarlane's almost quixotic quest to adapt his signature character to the big screen has taken years to gain traction. But things really started moving in the past year with the news that Jason Blum and Blumhouse Productions would produce the gritty, low-budget feature. McFarlane is writing and directing the film, his first time in the director's chair for a movie. The news that Foxx will take on the titular role had the always animated McFarlane even more enthusiastic than normal. No doubt the actor is excited as well, as he's getting a chance to redeem his superhero movie resume after his turn as Electro in the middling The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014).
During our conversation, McFarlane revealed that he and Foxx have been discussing working together for several years. He also talked about the role that the popular duo Sam & Twitch could play in the film, and how the success of Deadpool (a character created by fellow Image Comics founder Rob Liefeld) and Logan helped his passion project.
I think a lot of people are surprised to learn just how long you and Jamie Foxx have been discussing the role of Spawn.
Yeah, he phoned me about five years ago and said he was interested in Spawn. We chit-chatted about the direction, and I told him to come to my office so we could chat about it and I could show him some visuals and he could see all the stuff I have in my office that I've been thinking about [for the movie]. He came out with one of his managers and we had a good conversation.
The story for the movie I had back then is the exact same story I have now. He saw it wasn't a superhero movie and blah blah blah… then we both went off in different directions. But I never forgot that meeting. I was like, "Wow, that was nice of him to come all the way to see me." Usually, when you're talking about big stars, you have to go to them, right? So now when I'm writing, and most writers will tell you they write with someone in particular in mind, whether it's an actor, a character from a movie or even someone you know personally. From that day forward, I always had Jamie in my head as I was writing the character. So when I got it done — "Hey, as a Canadian, I owe an obligation and I stick to it. And, oh, by the way, he's also an Academy Award winning actor! It's not like I have to be nice to a mediocre actor. I have to be nice to a superstar!"
Here's the thing. Being a first-time director, I may be naive about the process. People tell me I may be trying to reach too high with my casting ideas. But my thinking is, the worst they can do is say no, right? Let's go ask! So we have one star in the books, now I'm going to see if I can't find another star to join Jamie in the film in the Twitch role. I'm hoping to land another A-lister to play opposite Jamie. Hopefully, we'll have one more big announcement and then we'll cast the rest of the roles. So we'll have a legit movie and I'm too naive to think I can't do it.
Are Sam & Twitch going to be key roles in the movie?
Twitch will. Sam is not in this one. I'll probably write him into one of the next films. Twitch is the character [who] I keep calling him my Sheriff Brody [from Jaws]. That movie is about the shark and how the shark moves and what he does. That's my Spawn. Twitch is like Brody, who's part of the human contingent who's trying to find out if this thing really does exist. As I've said before, I don't want to do an origin story because you waste too much time in getting where you want to go. This is about, "Do you even believe that Spawn exists? If you do, then he's here."
I'll establish that, and if the franchise keeps going, we'll be able to go explore some of the stuff that the hardcore fans know about and bring in other characters. But for now, I need to just put a marker in the ground for moviegoers and not just for Spawn comic book collectors.
You've said that you want to make a movie that harkens back to classic horror films like Halloween and The Thing, where it's more about mood than gargantuan special effects sequences. That's quite the risk for a comic book adaptation, no?
With the budget we have, that's the way I'm going with it. The success would be — aside from any box office — a few critics or fans leaving the theater and saying, "Wow, you know what? There really are a lot of different ways you can do a comic book movie." From a $10-million film to a $200-million blockbuster.
Right now the lane isn't as wide as it can be. I'm hoping after my movie comes out, post-Spawn, that people will stop thinking they have to spend $100 million on these types of movies. I'm hoping people say that the lane for making these movies has gotten much wider. It's now between $10 million and $200 million. That's how wide you can be creatively with these movies and people coming down the pipeline can stop and say, "Oh, I can do something in between and not try to do what Marvel is doing." Because if you don't have the money, then all everyone will be doing is a poor man's Marvel movie. And I think that's a fool's game.
How much has the success of Deadpool, a hard R-rated comic book movie ...
First, you and I disagree on the definition of a hard R movie (laughs).
Fair enough. That film's rating is more about the language and violence.
It was an R-rated movie, but not the kind of R that I'm going for.
But did that movie help convince people that your vision for Spawn is a viable concept?
In a bizarre way, yes, even though I think the tonality of Spawn and Deadpool are miles apart. But what that film's success did was, when I said I wanted to do an R-rated Spawn movie, people did what you did, and go, "Oh, like Deadpool." Internally, I'm thinking, "No, not like Deadpool." And I don't mean because Deadpool isn't good. Just content-wise and tone-wise, [it's different].
What Deadpool did is it got people in Hollywood comfortable with the idea of R-rated superhero movies. And then Logan comes along and proves that it wasn't just lightning in a bottle. I'm hoping upcoming movies like New Mutants and especially Venom come out and prove again that people will accept an R rating for these types of movies that have mainly been all PG-13.
Jamie Foxx is as versatile an actor as you'll find in Hollywood. He's also bursting with charisma. What was it about him that convinced you he's the perfect guy to play Al Simmons?
Jamie is incredibly charismatic and I think that will help us a ton on the marketing and promotional side, getting the word out. He's fun to talk to and listen to. He'll be a great ambassador for Spawn. But more importantly, I've seen him in so many roles where he's shown the look, the demeanor, and language I'm going to need in this movie. I've seen him be a badass and in this film, I need him not to be charming but to be a badass. And I've seen him do it, so I know we're good.
He can save his charm for when he's doing interviews with you! (laughs)
In the long rich history laid out in the Spawn comic book series, the Hellspawn issues have the darkest vibe. Will your film share some of the tone and aesthetic from those stories?
Yes. The other part is that there will almost be nothing that's in the movie that I won't be able to show you a page from somewhere in the 280+ issues of Spawn we've published. I'm not really making anything up out of the blue. I'm really piecing together elements and moments from various Spawn stories. Anything that's in the movies, I'll be able to pinpoint a page in a particular issue where that scene came from. I'll hit it with a bigger visual drumbeat in the movie because I need to speak to a larger audience that may not know who Spawn is and will be looking at it through a different lens. They want to be entertained and creeped out, and I have to deliver that.
When can we expect to see concept art of Jamie as Spawn?
The physical look of him? I'll probably hide that [until the film's release]. We'll show some hints of it and we'll have to reveal some moments in the trailer and things like that but there won't be any quote-unquote "hero shots" or posters or anything like that showing the full character that we're used to seeing in superhero movie marketing. It's going to follow more of the pattern of classic horror films, with dark imagery and someone standing in the doorway in the shadows. I want to keep with the mood and the feel of the movie we want to make. I doubt I'm going to say, "Here's Spawn in all his glory" in a preview shot.
I don't actually intend to show him from head to toe in the movie. You're never going to get a hero shot in the movie.
The classic horror films we've mentioned all had great movie posters. We know you can draw a little bit. Are you going to design a poster for your movie and spare us another Photoshopped comic book movie monstrosity?
Ha! Thank you for asking. You know what? I'll probably do some artwork for the movie but I think there are way more talented people who can paint the really cool creepy stuff in the Spawn world. Some of the people I've employed over the years on the comic would be great. We're already working on the costume right now and some of the people I'm dealing with are super talented. I'm like, "Wow! That's way cooler than I could do."
What I want to convey in the marketing is that there's this thing out there and you better hope you're not a bad guy. Because when this thing comes, unlike Superman, Batman or Spider-Man, it's not going to be gentle. It's going to bite, and it's going to bite hard."
What's the timeline for the project? When can we expect you to start filming?
We have schedules in place internally. I've been working on this movie a lot the past five or six weeks. It's not social media worthy, it's not sexy. We've been working, though, we're just not telling people about it every single day. Because at this point, all people care about is who's in it, and when's it coming out. Hopefully, we'll have another announcement soon, maybe by New York Comic Con. And then we'll start filming.