Warren Ellis warned us. In a blog post dated December 8, 2009 — not long before the movie version of his book RED would begin shooting — Ellis talked about how the book and the movie were destined to be distant cousins. “If you were to film 66 pages of comics,” he explained. “You might, might just about get 40 minutes of film out of it.” And as we all know, 40-minutes does not a feature film make.
Enter screenwriters Jon and Erich Hoeber, producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura and director Robert Schwentke, a creative team that set out to turn Ellis’ beloved 66-page into an action vehicle for star Bruce Willis. As we found out on a visit to the set of RED last month, it is indeed very different. And while fans of the book would be called to instant alarm by the word “change,” we set out to give the process a chance. And after thirty minutes spent with producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, we’ve got a pretty good idea of what this new, cinematic version of RED will look like. And we’ve got a feeling that you will be pleasantly surprised. So I’m here to outline some of the book-to-screen changes for you, based on the conversation that I shared with di Bonaventura and several other journalists. Please beware if mild spoilers (for movie and comic) and enjoy.
It’s a road movie.
One of the major differences between the comic and the film is that it is more on-the-run. In the comic, we meet Paul Moses (Frank in the film), who is a retired CIA agent who has been trying to lead a quiet life, until a mysterious assassination attempt draws him back into a world he had long since forgotten. In the book, Paul goes right the Washington and causes all sorts of problems at CIA headquarters. In the film, as di Bonaventura explained, the character is still the target of a hit. But instead of going after the CIA headquarters, he begins putting the band back together. “You meet Frank,” said the producer. “He’s alone. But as soon as he picks up Mary-Louise [Parker] he’s got her. Then he goes and picks up each person as the band starts coming together.”
There’s a badass band coming together.
The characters you will recognize from the book will be Frank and Sarah, his long distance retirement representative. Beyond that, there are a lot of new characters to be picked up along the way. Former assassins who, like Frank, are being targeted for elimination. And it isn’t going to be populated by a bunch of second-rate actors. We’re talking about serious talent here. The ever-eccentric John Malkovich, playing an insanely paranoid former spy. Brian Cox as a devious Russian with some history with Frank. And the always lovely Helen Mirren, among others.
“If you think about the comic’s really about Frank,” said di Bonaventura. “And now this movie’s about Frank with Bruce [Willis] and Joe with Morgan Freeman and Marvin with John Malkovich and Sara with Mary-Louise Parker and Victoria with Helen Mirren and I always forget people…Ivan—Brian Cox.” All of these characters, former government killers.
And did I mention Helen Mirren?
“Helen Mirren is a phenomenal wet works sniper,” said Lorenzo, his eyes lighting up as we’ve clearly reached one of the film’s coolest new additions. “And she runs a B&B and that’s what she does. And when you meet her she’s like serving tea and making flower arrangements and you’re like who’s this lady? What the hell is going on? The next thing you know she’s firing a 50 caliber machine gun… In a long white evening gown.” That’s not in the comic — but I dare anyone to complain about Ms. Mirren and her elegant use of heavy artillery.
It’s thematically consistent.
What’s important, I believe, is that RED holds the same theme as the book. The unexploded bombs of the Cold War era. The folks that are left behind by society. Said di Bonaventura: “…there’s an underlying idea in this movie that we have all related to which is…and we’ve coined the term for “Red”—Retired Extremely Dangerous. Have you guys heard that? And the notion of our society the way we just cast off people, you know whether it’s old or whether it’s dead-end jobs or all the sort of notions of how difficult our society can be on people, this movie sort of has that underlying notion behind it is the empowerment of all those people who are sort of getting left behind, you know?”
Of course, it isn’t as dark.
One thing that sticks out immediately about the comic is its grim nature. It’s a brutal, blood-soaked lone gunslinger story that goes down a very violent and dark path. The film will be a “hard PG-13,” as di Bonaventura describes it. But don’t let that frighten you, as PG-13 can be pretty hard if you know how to work it. And a seasoned producer like di Bonaventura knows how to work it. “I made tons and tons of R-rated movies,” he explained. “And it used to be uncool not to be R. Now you can push PG-13 to a place that in our crazy rating system as long as we don’t say the word fuck more than once, you can pretty much do almost anything you want.”
But as he also explained, there has been a lightness — some comedy — added to the story of Frank Moses and his fight to survive. “A lot of comedy,” says the producer. “It’s really funny. I mean, it’s an action…I guess if I had to be pinned down I’d say it’s an action/comedy as a movie—as a genre.”
The essence of Frank.
That’s what matters, explained di Bonaventura. When asked what fans of the original book can look forward to, he was quick to explain that the Frank is still Frank (or Paul, for purists), and that’s what matters. “I think Frank is the character they’re going to recognize and I think that’s what we were very true to, you know?” he said. “We tried to keep what was…in essence of what it was. From a storyline point of view it’s very different. It’s much more expansive … And we hoped that they enjoy that fact. Warren enjoyed it. He thought it was a fun thing to have done. I hope they feel that way.”
“As he [Ellis] said, there wasn’t enough to make a movie out of, so given that fact he appreciated where we took it. Look, you’ll never please everybody all the time. I’m sure they’ll be people like how come this isn’t dark enough or how come this isn’t…you know? And I respect that, but for us, the writers really deserve a ton of credit.”
What have we learned, class?
If we’ve learned anything from the history of both Bruce Willis and Lorenzo di Bonaventura, a solid action comedy is well within their wheel house. During our conversation with the producer, he made reference several times to Ocean’s Eleven, a film worked on during his days at Warner Bros. It’s the lighter tone and the stacked cast of serious talent — which also includes Karl Urban (Star Trek), Julian McMahon, James Remar, Richard Dreyfuss and Ernest Borgnine — that make will give this project life beyond the 66-pages of material from the original book.
There is plenty more to come from my visit to the set of RED, but I’m saving a lot of it for later. For now, fans of the book should feel good, as the project is clearly in good hands. One of the most important things is that Warren Ellis is on board. Between his blog post and the sense we got from di Bonaventura — that Ellis’ approval mattered to him — it is clear that the film, no matter how different it ends up being from the book, will be something that carries its spirit to the big screen.
The other thing I learned — conducting an interview over semi-automatic gunfire is not the easiest thing to do. But more on that later.