Photography by Aaron Pedersen/3TEN; Illustrations by Josh Holinaty
Comic book writer Andrew Foley was standing behind the front counter of Happy Harbor Comics on Jasper Avenue, where he works three days a week. Hair slicked back, he surveyed me with a raised eyebrow. I had just asked if I could buy his graphic novel, Cowboys & Aliens and, when he started to shake his head, I suspected the shop was out.
I was wrong. Foley led me to a rack of comics, but stopped before pulling the glossy hardcover from the shelf and warned: “It’s not really indicative of my work. But you can also check out these, if you want.” He passed along two other graphic works, the Holiday Men and Parting Ways, both teeming with intricate black-and-white artwork and large sections of dialogue, and both noticeably more low-budget.
But Cowboys & Aliens stands apart from his repertoire in another way: Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig starred in the US$163-million big screen adaptation. At the time of our interview in May, when, to his chagrin, I purchased the Old West sci-fi, the film was expected to be one of the highest grossing movies of 2011. But Foley wasn’t then (and isn’t now) expecting to see a cent of ticket revenues.
Cowboys & Aliens is a straight-to-the-point comic, so fast-paced it already reads like a screenplay. The opening, written entirely by Foley, sets the stage for the conflict between the aliens and the humans along with an over-arching theme of manifest destiny.
Both the movie and graphic novel were actually the brainchild of Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, film producer and CEO of Platinum Studios. The interactive media company hired Foley and Fred Van Lente, now with Marvel comics, to write the graphic novel. From the onset, they knew whatever they wrote would be used to pitch Hollywood producers the same story.
Five years later, the IMDb credits nine people including Rosenberg for the screenplay, but none of whom are Foley or Van Lente. But Foley kept his hopes up that when the movie premiered in July, he would see his name in the credits. Somewhere. Likely buried in the back. Nowhere near screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, whose films, including Star Trek and Transformers, have generated over $3 billion.
Although Foley said his contract stated that his name would be included in the screen credits, Van Lente said his contract didn’t. “I signed my contract as a young kid who was dirt broke and had no significant credit to his name,” he said over the phone from his New York home. “All I cared about was the chance to write professionally and I just thought, from the title, Cowboys & Aliens is just a no-brainer great idea. And I wanted to be involved with it.”
Neither is expecting film royalties. However, they’re expecting to see a boost in book-royalty cheques because, naturally, the movie will have inspired new readers.(Van Lente received his first royalty cheque in July, and Foley received an advance against royalties after working for Platinum in 2007. Despite numerous phone messages, Rosenberg would not comment on any issues regarding Cowboys & Aliens.)
Any subsequent movie profits will go to those directly involved with the Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Studios film, including director Jon Favreau and producers Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg. The reason, Foley said, is work-for-hire writers don’t typically receive any ownership of the work.
Rosenberg isn’t new to the business of turning comics into movies. The former head of Malibu comics created the billion-dollar Men in Black franchise, which also began its life as a graphic novel. With Platinum Studios, Rosenberg aims to gather a collection of graphic novels to pitch to Hollywood.
Platinum co-produced Jeremiah, a Showtime TV series starring Luke Perry from 2002 to 2004, and the movie Dylan Dog: Dead of Night in 2010. But Cowboys & Aliens is its biggest project yet, although it has two more feature films in the works.
The company also creates digital merchandise such as wallpapers, screensavers, ring tones and mobile games. It also owns Drunk Duck, an online community for comic artists, writers and fans to share work.
Platinum began development on Cowboys & Aliens in 1997, the year it was founded. The idea for the book arose from a childhood game Rosenberg played in which cowboys and Indians formed an alliance against alien invaders.
Rosenberg was so determined to make it into a movie that he originally hired screenwriters for the initial version of the comic, which was scrapped. Van Lente was not allowed to read it because if any of the first writers’ ideas were used, they would have deserved credit and pay.
“I got a list of things they wanted and I started from square one,” Van Lente said. “They decided they wanted a boy cowboy and a cowgirl, but then I had to string events together into a plot.”
He submitted his first draft in 2001, the year Wild Wild West bombed at the box office. Rosenberg worried Cowboys & Aliens was too similar in tone, making it an unattractive investment.
That’s where Foley entered the picture. His job was to rewrite Van Lente’s draft, to pick up the pace of the storyline and eviscerate any traces of humour. “They said it initially read like a steam engine and they wanted a bullet train,” Foley recalled.
While Foley understood why Rosenberg wanted the changes (to make for a better potential screenplay), he believes Van Lente’s version made for a better graphic novel, or was at least more entertaining. “It was hard to make the changes. There’s the whole saying that ‘writers have to kill their babies.’ And it’s even harder when it’s someone else’s work.”
According to Lee Nordling, executive editor for Platinum’s comic department from 1998 to 2006, “It was a case of realizing which was the tail and which was the dog. In this case, the dog was Hollywood, not the comic-book readership. So, we were creating essentially indie comics.”
The Cowboys & Aliens graphic novel was successful as a pitch but, even though it made an Entertainment Weekly best seller list in 2007, not everyone sees it as a successful graphic novel. According to comic culture blog Bleeding Cool, Platinum fudged the numbers by making deals with retailers to offer the book for free or dirt cheap, and writing some major stores cheques that more than covered the cost of the inventory. “A few people started calling foul saying it wasn’t that great of a seller,” said Foley.
Entertainment Weekly later wrote a clarification stating the book’s sales were inflated by giveaways.
Foley has a hard time taking both compliments and criticisms because he doesn’t feel responsible for the good or the bad. “I always felt like I took some of the heat for the book because of stuff I didn’t have control over. And then as soon as there is a million-dollar movie being made out of it, it’s got Rosenberg’s name all over the front credits,” he said.
Before a recent redesign, Foley’s website listed Cowboys & Aliens at the bottom of his resume, headlined “dishonourable mention.” It was a joke, he said, by his wife who is a Web designer.
While Foley understood the terms of his contract and that Hollywood was ultimately in charge, it was still hard to see some of his favourite parts get cut from the graphic novel. Rosenberg was heavily involved in the editing process, and cut whatever he disliked, including an alien language written by Foley in English and translated into coding by a code letterer. But the contract clearly stated that Platinum owned the rights to the work.
Foley said some people see Platinum as an “intellectual properties farm” where creators sign away their rights (and often profits) for chances to see their names in print. But in this case, Foley believes he was paid well for the graphic novel. He wrote about 12 Platinum works and was paid the most for Cowboys & Aliens.
“There is a breed of predatory comic publisher out there that takes advantage of comic creators, getting them to sign away everything for nothing, except a printing bill, if that. But Platinum, to their credit, always paid,” he said.
While writing Cowboys & Aliens, Foley also worked on a series of five books called Done to Death, a black comedy mocking the vampire genre. One of the bloodsucking main characters is an awkward, stuttering guy – normal, aside from his penchant for murder.
The second issue of the series is about a novel being adapted to film. After the Hollywood types start getting killed off, the film is nearly abandoned – presented in the media as worse than the murders themselves. In the end, the movie does even better at the box office because of the killings. It reads like a commentary on Hollywood’s desire to sell movies at all costs. But, Foley said, he just has an ironic sense of humour.
Since Cowboys & Aliens, he’s also started screenwriting. Over a period of six days, three of which were spent at home while suffering from a sinus infection, he hammered out a screenplay based on an idea he’d been tossing around for years. The script caught the attention of an agent: “Now my name’s out there in circles that it’s never been before.”
On July 26, Foley received an invitation for a special screening hosted by Platinum in L.A. It came without a plane ticket, so he declined and, the next day, used a free preview pass from Happy Harbor to see it at a local theatre.
The opening weekend brought two surprises: Foley and Van Lente’s names appeared early in the credits, simply listed under “Platinum Studios,” with no mention of creative input; and what was supposed to be a blockbuster turned out to be a bust, grossing only US$36.4 million in the U.S.
But perhaps even more surprising, Foley thought the movie was better than his book. “I’m a sucker for Harrison Ford and a sucker for crotchety old guys. So if you have Harrison Ford playing a crotchety old guy, I mean, everything else is pretty much gravy.”