You can’t keep a good hell-spawn down. Twenty years after Todd McFarlane loaned his signature creation, Spawn, to New Line Cinema for a poorly received live-action feature, the writer/artist/toy impresario is moving forward with plans for an all-new movie, this time under his own creative control. McFarlane is teaming with Jason Blum — an expert in making and marketing budget-conscious horror movies, as this weekend’s chart-topping hit, Happy Death Day, proved once again — for a Spawn reboot that he’s writing and directing. When Yahoo Entertainment caught up with McFarlane at this year’s New York Comic Con, he revealed how the success of R-rated horror movies like It has made him bullish on Spawn‘s commercial prospects, and why he’s using Jacob’s Ladder as one model for his directorial debut.
Yahoo: So where does Spawn stand now on his road back to the big screen?
Todd McFarlane: Two days ago, I sent off the last of Blumhouse’s notes, so we’re going to move forward with budgeting, so we’ll know how much money we need. We’ll likely put that money together in short order, because a hundred people want to give me money, and I’ve got lots in my pocket. Once we put the money together, we’ll go to Hollywood and start selling it as a pre-distribution deal that would guarantee us a release date we can all agree upon, and a certain number of screens. Those are the two things you need out of Hollywood, because they control the distribution channels and the marketing. I’m naïve enough to think that even if all the major studios say no, Universal will say yes, because they don’t want Jason Blum going anywhere else with this property!
The math I’ve continued to say is that the original Spawn movie opened at $20 million in 1997, and today, that’s a $40 million opening. I saw what happened with Annabelle: Creation in August, and It in September; R-rated movies can now open to $120 million. So the opening number for a strong-branded creepy movie with great marketing and distribution like Spawn is now between $20 million to $120 million. It’s almost impossible for me to imagine a less than $20 million opening, and I’m stubborn enough to say that I’d rather do the movie this way than to hand it to [a studio] and they make it a $140 million budget movie. That might actually be the better movie and the better marketing, but for me personally, I can’t do that.
You went through that experience once before with the 1997 Spawn, which you had less creative involvement in.
Just so we’re clear, it doesn’t bug me when other people make decisions when they have risk at the table. I’m not going to sit here and say, “Oh my God, what New Line did was better or worse than I would have done.” New Line was putting up all the money, so of course they should have the biggest voice. If you’re asking me artistically if I would have done something different, of course I would have. But I don’t know if it would have been worse or better. I’m OK with people having control of my life, as long as they’re sharing the risk.
In your dealings with Jason Blum, what do you think is the secret to his continued success with Blumhouse?
In my limited time with him, I would say that he strikes me as a guy who doesn’t overthink. He’s just like, “Let’s go and get it done.” He’s very supportive of going, “Hey, Todd, here are our notes, but at the end of the day, it’s your vision. We work for you.” My job isn’t to be egotistical, my job is to go keep pushing Jason. I just sent Blumhouse an email saying that I restructured five scenes in my script, not because they asked me to, but because their voice has been in the back of my head, and it keeps pushing me. I don’t want to be lazy or blinded by my own words and vision. The latest script is 114 pages, and when I first finished it, that number was 167. So I’ve gotten 50 pages out of it and tightened it up. His job is to encourage people, especially first-time directors, put a blanket of good people around them and then say, “Let’s make it.”
Will the new film be an origin story?
No. I always come back to Jaws — not that I have a shark in Spawn! But that shark was enormous. And at anytime in the movie, did they tell me why the shark was so damn big? No! Did it matter to me? No! All that mattered was that it was big and in the same vicinity as humans. Or John Carpenter‘s The Thing: where do the aliens come from? I don’t know! What was its reason for taking over bodies? I don’t know! It just was. I’m OK without an origin. Just give me a compelling story, scare the s*** out off me from time to time, and I’m along for the ride.
Is it derived from a storyline in the comic books?
It’s all original, other than the characters. To me, this story is my way of saying, “Spawn’s been around for 25 years, and he’s been evolving for 25 years. This is where he’s at now.” I can’t do the same story over and over. I wrote it, and I’m bored with it! I want to give the audience something a little bit fresh. Bring it into a hipster world and make it relevant.
Do you have any actors in mind for Al Simmons or any other characters?
I do, and I’ve talked to a couple of them. I’m not going to pressure them by mentioning names. There are two big roles: There’s Al, and then there’s Twitch. I’ll be ecstatic if I get one out of the two.
The ’97 Spawn was made when CGI was still in its early days. Do you plan to take advantage of the advances made in the technology since then, or go the practical effects route?
I may be proven wrong, but I can see 85 to 90 percent of what I want to do being done practically. There are a couple of moments where I need to show bigness where I won’t be able to pull it off with practical effects. But not head-to-toe digital stuff; I don’t want to go there. I also just don’t have the budget. To get there, the budget goes up, and I don’t get to be in the director’s chair. I keep the budget low, nobody’s got risk apart from marketing. It has to be this kind of a story to get what I need personally out of it. At the end of this movie, you’ll have to ask me the obvious questions: “Do you like directing?” I may go, “That wasn’t as interesting as I may have thought,” or “I made a thousand mistakes, but I can’t wait to do it again, because next time, I’ll get it down to 500 mistakes.”
The track record for comic book artists who step behind the camera has definitely been mixed so far: Frank Miller’s The Spirit and Dave McKean’s MirrorMask met mixed reactions.
Some of them didn’t work. I think some of it was inexperience, some of it was budget and some of it was trying to be too loyal to the material. I’m hoping that one of the things that works with Spawn is that I’m not trying to do the comic book or sell toys. And I own a toy company! I’m just trying to make a two-hour movie where people go, “That was kind of cool.” To let any tail wag the dog, I can’t do that. I think in some of those other instances, there were tails wagging the dog. And if I’m going to fail, I hope I fail dismally. Because if you’re like an all-time greatest failure, it only lasts for 10 to 15 years! Then it becomes hip and cool and you become a cult favorite. If I live long enough, maybe I’ll get it on the back end. [Laughs.]
Movies like Deadpool and Logan have shown the commercial viability of R-rated comic book movies, as well as the range of genres they can use as influences. Logan was a Western, Deadpool was a satire, and Spawn sounds like it will be in the horror vein.
Venom‘s also going to be R-rated, and I hope that thing kills. It’ll just advance the idea that you can do R-rated superheroes, and from a completely selfish point of view, maybe my movie comes out two months later, and I get the trailer to say: “From the co-creator of Venom comes Spawn!” I hesitate to use the word horror with Spawn, because everyone has a different definition of that word. To me, horror means Freddy Krueger or Michael Myers. So I think of Spawn as supernatural; it doesn’t mean gore or violence, it just means creepy, odd, bizarre, weird stuff. When I was younger, Jacob’s Ladder was awesome. I still remember that movie, because it unsettled me enough that I couldn’t get it out of my brain. I hope I can get a little bit of that into Spawn. Someone sees this movie at 22 and remembers it at 52.
Besides the Spawn movie, you’re collaborating with Kevin Smith on a Sam & Twitch TV series. Is that moving forward?
Just before New York Comic Con, Kevin and I met with the heads of AMC and BBC America, and we got an email saying they’re making their final decision in November. If they do say yes, our ask is for the full season. Not just a pilot, but can you commit to eight episodes so we can just get it going? Kevin did his thing with them, and I did mine, so we’ll see where it goes. We both have good vibes on it. It’s going to have a different voice and tone than what I would do personally, but it’s still part of the Spawn-verse. They hired Kevin Smith to be Kevin Smith, so my job is to get Kevin Smith unleashed for this and hope the audience is there for it.
In public, Smith always takes a self-deprecating tone when talking about his abilities. Do you see that in private, too, or is he more confident there?
The skill of a guy like Kevin is to let everyone else feel good about themselves and bring your own ego down. As long as you’re getting it down, what do you care? There’s two Conans to me: There’s Conan the Barbarian, which is who Kevin and I were when we were 24. And then there’s King Conan, who has lived long enough to know the only thing that matters is the victory. And there’s lots of ways to get to that victory. When you’re young, you want the light to be on you, but when you get older, you think, “As long as I’m winning the battles, it doesn’t matter.” I think Kevin is very smart. He likes to come off as “Aw, shucks,” but he’s way shrewder than people would know — in a very complimentary way. You have to be in order to survive as long as he has and have the following he does.
Watch: Kevin Smith shares a sweet moment with daughter Harley Quinn: