Paul Benjamin is a writer and editor of video games and comics, including Metal Hurlant, Amazing Spider-Man, and several Marvel Adventures series. He was involved in the creation of the movie Cowboys and Aliens. Here's a look at the path a movie takes from concept to the movie screen from a guy who was there.
In addition to your supermodel work, you write things. From 1996 to 2000, you worked at Platinum Studios on movie pitches. One of those things: Cowboys & Aliens. Tell me how that story hit your desk. Were you assigned the pitch, or did you get to choose? Or did someone just say "Cowboys. Aliens. Go."
My work at Platinum actually started a little over a year earlier at Malibu Comics where I was the assistant to Scott Rosenberg, who was president of Malibu Comics after they’d been purchased by Marvel. That was my first job in comics and it came to an abrupt end four months after it began when Marvel laid off nearly the entire company, including Scott.
I went to work at Warner Bros. and was loving it when Scott’s one-year non-competition clause expired with Marvel. He called me up and asked me to help him to start Platinum Studios. At the time we had the rights to the extremely popular Italian comic, Tex through Scott’s partner, Ervin Rustemagic.
You may recognize Ervin’s name since he’s the main character in Joe Kubert’s powerful graphic novel, Fax From Sarajevo. However, Hollywood wasn’t interested in Tex because to them it was just another Western. One day, Scott proposed doing a Western with aliens and Cowboys & Aliens was born.
What was it like at Platinum back then?
Platinum consisted of just four people. I was the executive assistant. Scott and Ervin were the bosses, with Scott handling the Hollywood side of things in the U.S. while Ervin managed the rights to our international comics properties from Slovenia. Ervin held the rights to a wide variety of European comics properties and was a key member of the team since he brought us so many established series from overseas. Gregory Noveck was our Vice President. You probably know his name from his many years as head of film development at DC Comics. He’s running movie development at SyFy.
Basically, Scott, Gregory, and I worked together every day to develop pitches based on existing comics properties and to create new properties like Cowboys & Aliens.
Was it a back-and-forth process with your fellow creators, or just you in a room shackled to your desk?
Scott, Gregory and I would talk story, character, and plot and then I’d compile all our notes into a cohesive whole. I learned a lot in those days about how to hone a concept to its purest, most concise form. Gregory had the most Hollywood experience and was particularly adept at finding character and story.
Once we had the basics down, it was my job to work with Ervin’s team of European artists to create concept art for the pitches. I learned from experience how to hone a big idea into a single image; a talent that’s served me well as a comic book writer.
For example, I’d ask for a shot of a cowboy riding hell bent for leather, shooting his gun up at a spaceship covering half the sky. That particular image really sold the C&A concept and inspired the cover of the comic that came years later.
About how long from when you started until the pitch hit the streets? Once the pitch was gone, did that end your involvement?
As I recall, we pretty much took the pitch out as soon as it was ready. Scott had set up Men In Black, based on the Malibu comic book and the movie was getting great buzz just before it came out in theaters. We capitalized on that buzz to get meetings and had a ton on interest in C&A.
Multiple studios bid on the project, leading to a high-priced sale to DreamWorks and Universal who teamed up to buy it. I was involved in the project – giving notes and screenplays and such -- for the rest of my four years at Platinum, working my way up from assistant to VP. In that time, Universal and DreamWorks went through several different screenwriters before they gave up on the property.
Then Sony bought the rights and hired more screenwriters before they eventually gave up as well.
By then Platinum was actually developing comics based on our original concepts. Though I was involved in the comics development, the main editor driving that side of things was Lee Nordling, the guy who literally wrote the book on comics (“Your Career In The Comics”). Lee was an excellent mentor and his lessons continue to serve me well as both a writer and editor.
How much of the movie resembles your pitch? Did anything survive from your pitch to the movie?
It’s been a long time, so I’ve forgotten a lot of details from that original pitch. However, I very clearly remember the artwork I commissioned from Ervin’s team. There was the shot I mentioned earlier plus another with Native Americans using alien technology for a wide variety of purposes, much like they used every part of the buffalo.
There was an image of a wagon train coming across an alien ship crash site in the middle of the desert. The image that most influenced the final film version is a shot of a cowboy decked out with alien gear. He had a six-gun and a rifle, but also wore hi-tech sunglasses and had an energy blaster. That image is is a clear inspiration for the promo image of Daniel Craig with his wrist blaster.
I got goose bumps the first time I saw the standee in a movie theater.
What other pitches were you involved in at Platinum?
Over the course of my four years with the company, we developed dozens of properties and set up quite of a few of them. There was Jeremiah, on which we partnered with J Michael Straczynski for the series on Showtime. We also developed the Italian comic book Dylan Dog which recently, if briefly, hit screens starring Brandon Routh.
Other projects never got made, such as the futuristic Nathan Never based on the Bonelli comics from Italy.
One of my favorites was Million Dollar Heroes, a comedy about two highly competitive, millionaire comic creators (back in the early days of Image when such a phenomenon seemed commonplace) who make a bet in which they fight crime dressed as their own characters. I had a strong hand in developing that one and would have loved to see it get made.
Another project called Unique got set up based on my concept involving multiple realities, as did my character “The Weapon,” but like so many properties in Hollywood, they have not yet become a reality.
Then again, it took C&A around fifteen years, so I suppose I shouldn’t give up hope.
From an interview with RevolutionSF in 2007,
you said you were working on a DC superhero movie script. Can you talk about it now?
You know, I have no idea if I can talk about that. I’ll play it safe and just say that I was developing a project based on a popular DC superhero along with my friend Aron Eli Coleite back before he went to work on Heroes. It was a lot of fun and I’m still proud of the story we created, even if it never did see the light of day.
Pimp your upcoming works.
Right now I’m in a weird place where I can’t pimp my upcoming works because everything I’m working on is top secret. Hopefully I’ll have an announcement soon about a very cool video game project.
Also, I’m about to move to Uzbekistan for my diplomat wife’s first post in the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service. I’m hoping to take advantage of the low cost of living and a house paid for by your tax dollars by doing some self-publishing.
That said, your readers would most certainly dig some of my previous work that has just become available from Humanoids. The Metal Hurlant Collections contain a ton of short stories I edited during my time as Senior Editor where I worked with Kurt Busiek, Geoff Johns, Guy Davis, Ryan Sook, Cully Hamner, David Lloyd, and many more.
They’ve also released hardcovers of books such as I Am Legion by John Cassaday, Weapons of the Metabarons by Travis Charest and Jodorowsky, Metal by Butch Guice, Dominion by Jamal Igle and others.
I can’t say enough good things about the Humanoids books. The company has always put quality above all else. You can see their books here Humanoids.com and buy them on Amazon.com.
You can also see more about my world travels as well as my work in comics and video games on my blog.
Who would win: Cowboys or the Harlem Globetrotters?
If you wrote the sequel, who should the cowboys fight?
Actually, I’ve always wanted to do a prequel called Knights & Aliens. It would be like Game of Thrones but with alien creatures serving as the inspiration for the mythical creatures we’ve come to associate with medieval fantasy.
But if I were doing a sequel, it would be a Star Wars crossover with young Han Solo Harrison Ford versus older, cowboy Harrison Ford.
Which I guess means Chewbacca would have to go up against Daniel Craig? My money’s on Chewie every time.