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Sarah Michelle Gellar - "Southland Tales" Movie - Guardian.co.uk Review

Friday 23 November 2007, by Webmaster

The walls are coming down

If you can’t make a movie with your story, why not write a graphic novel? Ryan Gilbey on how films and comic books are transforming each other

A movie was once just a movie - a self-contained entity, perhaps with a lucrative line of tie-in products that might include a comic-book spin-off. But now there is a cross-pollination between cinema and graphic novels that cannot be described or dismissed as mere merchandising. It used to be the case that studios would simply adapt a graphic novel for the screen, usually with dubious results. Increasingly, though, the traffic is moving in the opposite direction, with film-makers themselves branching out into graphic novels, incorporating that art form as an alternative storytelling tool rather than simply an adjunct or cash-in.

When Joss Whedon’s television series Firefly was cancelled, and he was preparing its movie sequel, Serenity, he first bridged the narrative gap between the two by co-writing a Serenity comic book; his television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer was prolonged in a similar vein, with season eight now emerging as a graphic novel long after the season seven finale. And when Darren Aronofsky’s initial attempt to film The Fountain collapsed, the director diverted his energies into collaborating with Kent Williams on a graphic novel version based on his screenplay; the result is strikingly different from the film that was eventually made.

Kevin Smith, who has been a prolific comic writer for Marvel and DC, has the most form in this area, alongside Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo, Santa Sangre), who has written comic books since the 1960s. Like Whedon, Smith used the comic format as connective tissue with his book Chasing Dogma, which revealed what happened between the on-screen action of Chasing Amy and Dogma. He wrote a Clerks series and a Bluntman and Chronic collection, based on the comic-book characters glimpsed briefly in Chasing Amy; he has also promised, or rather threatened, a graphic novel sequel to his much-maligned Mallrats. But none of these crossover titles quite matches the scope and audacity of Southland Tales, the new graphic novel/movie hybrid from Richard Kelly, director of Donnie Darko.

Ancient civilisations believed that a man could not reach full maturity until he’d had one of his movies savaged at the Cannes film festival. If this is true, then Kelly is as seasoned as they come. After the phenomenon of Donnie Darko, the 32-year-old writer-director was invited to bring his follow-up to compete at Cannes in 2006. Southland Tales, a satirical science-fiction comedy-thriller set in Venice Beach on the eve of apocalypse, starred Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Justin Timberlake, and ran to almost three incomprehensible hours. This newspaper’s Peter Bradshaw was not alone in considering it "one of the most embarrassing films ever to be shown at Cannes".

Now Kelly is back with a shorter and more coherent cut of Southland Tales. Perhaps even more helpful in deciphering the picture is the emergence of a three-volume graphic novel prequel. Like Star Wars, the Southland Tales movie drops anchor at episode four in the story; Southland Tales: The Prelude Saga fills in what happened in parts one to three. Kelly maintains that he always intended Southland Tales to be a fusion of graphic novel and cinema; the new edit of the film even incorporates Brett Weldele’s illustrations from the book. Eighteen months on from his festival nightmare, and with the film only now ready for release, Kelly is happy to talk. "The problem was that the novels weren’t finished by the time we took the film to Cannes," he says now. "I was the only one who really knew how it all connected. Everyone else, including the cast, was in the dark about the greater puzzle because I had it all locked away in my head. I didn’t feel I could complete the final edit until I’d written those three chapters."

In a previous age, any film-maker with such gargantuan ambitions would have shot the prequels as movies in their own right. For Kelly, the graphic novel crossover seemed both a logical way of managing an unwieldy narrative, and a reflection of the film’s characters, who are mostly pop-culture icons with crossover potential - action heroes who write movie scripts, porn stars who lead political discussion shows while plugging their new line of energy drinks. "It felt organic to explore those kind of ideas in comic form. My idea all along for Southland Tales was that the film should feel like it was actually born out of a graphic novel. But I think the film stands alone even if you don’t look at the novel or go to the website. I’m not going to do this with every film I make. Given the subject matter, this one felt like it needed to bleed into other areas."

No one has quite mastered this "bleeding" across disparate media like Max Allan Collins, who divides his time between film-making and writing graphic novels, prose novels and computer games. After his graphic novel Road to Perdition was filmed by Sam Mendes, with Tom Hanks playing a gangster on the run in Depression-era Chicago, Collins wrote five sequels, two in prose and three in graphic novel form. He thinks it’s understandable that film-makers should want to move into comics. "Even for well-known movie directors and writers, getting the green light on a Hollywood production can be an ordeal," he says. "With a name that can attract readers, and an interest in comics, guys like Kelly and Whedon can get their ideas up and running, with the added bonus of getting new work in front of the public. The graphic novel is very sophisticated, yet it’s an ’old school’ form - writing and drawing - that isn’t inherently expensive to produce."

While it may seem radical to spread an ongoing narrative across separate media, graphic novels and cinema have long enjoyed this intimate relationship. The prime example of how the two worlds have nourished one another is the work of Frank Miller. This godfather of the graphic novel has always exhibited a cinematic sensibility in his comics, referencing the likes of High Plains Drifter and the Japanese Lone Wolf & Cub series of comics and films. But Miller’s influence has itself become apparent on cinema ever since the publication in 1986 of his graphic novel Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, without which Tim Burton’s Batman, and all its moody, superhero-oriented descendants, would most likely never have existed.

Now Miller, who once worked with Aronofsky on what the latter has called "a hard, R-rated Batman script" that was never filmed, has become something of a talisman in Hollywood. Following the success of Sin City, an adaptation of his stories which he co-directed with Robert Rodriguez, and the smash-hit 300, based on his graphic novel, he is now shooting his solo directorial debut, The Spirit, adapted from Will Eisner’s comic. "I think Frank’s ultimate goal has always been to work in movies," observes Dave Gibbons, co-author with Alan Moore of the revered graphic novel Watchmen (which is itself currently being filmed by 300 director Zack Snyder). "He had an abortive dalliance with the industry when he wrote two Robocop sequels, which were generally an unhappy experience for him. But now he’s managed to make the transition to movies without compromising his vision at all, which is wonderful. His sense of story and graphics is just right for these times."

Collins, who worked with Miller on the comic book series Ms Tree, also believes he is a natural film-maker. "He has an ability to create striking images and knows how to draw upon Asian and European sources for his inspiration in a compelling way. It makes a lot of sense for graphic novel creators, particularly writers or writer/artists, to go into film. Comics writing requires a storyteller to think in pictures, which is the perfect training for film-making."

In a broader sense, this marriage of film and graphic novels is indicative of the multiple channels through which entertainment experiences are being delivered. Film premieres can now be held simultaneously in the real world and in the virtual realm of Second Life - as happened with the documentary Strange Culture at this year’s Sundance film festival. Computer game manufacturers no longer confine themselves to current movie spin-offs; the success of retrospective film-based games like Scarface and The Godfather has made it profitable to loot cinema’s past for new ideas. In such an environment, the movie/graphic novel crossover looks positively orthodox.

Collins maintains that this dispersed, multi-media approach is the way forward. "The walls are coming down," he says. "The writers and film-makers of today and tomorrow need to be flexible and versatile to survive and stay vital; as storytellers, they need to be open to all methods of storytelling - in fact, it’s starting to be expected of them."

"I don’t think we have any choice in the matter," agrees Kelly. "The music business is clearly self-destructing now that bands are making their albums available online for free, and the current writers’ strike hinges on the future of digital media. You’ve got people like James Cameron and Robert Zemeckis pushing into 3D and motion-capture to keep people in the theatres and make cinema an experience that’s truly unavailable in any other way. We’re at a chaotic kind of crossroads, and I think the blurring between graphic novels and movies proves that beyond any doubt."

Southland Tales is released December 7. Southland Tales: The Prelude Saga is published by Graphitti Designs