Comic Book Day: Mark Long’s RUBICON is SEVEN SAMURAI Meets SEAL Team Six
by Dan Casey on August 21, 2013
Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, a seminal tale of masterless samurai banding together to defend an oppressed village from a group of scurrilous bandits, is such a universal story that it has been adapted into different versions and media time and time again. In The Magnificent Seven, it became a western. In A Bug’s Life, it became an animated children’s feature. And now, thanks to the powerhouse trio of Meteor Entertainment CEO Mark Long (responsible for free-to-play mech shooter Hawken), Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, and SEAL Team Six founding member Dan Capel, it finds new life as a graphic novel set in the backdrop of modern Afghanistan. The ronin are now elite members of the U.S. military, and the bandits are members of the Taliban, terrorizing an Afghan village and forcing it to grow poppy, which it can turn into heroin. As always, it remains a powerful, compelling narrative with universal themes that draw the reader in.
The graphic novel dropped this week, published by BOOM! Studios’ Archaia imprint in a gorgeous slipcase edition. Recently, I sat down with Mark Long to talk about adapting one of the most famous stories ever, what motivated the modern setting, and the intense transmedia nature of the project, which is being simultaneously developed as a graphic novel, a free-to-play video game and a feature film.
Nerdist: First of all, I just want to say I really enjoyed what I’ve read so far. I got a little sneak peek at one of the PDFs and I really — especially once it dawned on me that it was Seven Samurai, I was immediately super excited!
Mark Long: Thanks!
N: So tell me a little bit – how did this project come into being? I understand that you coordinated with Mr. McQuarrie and Dan Capel, who’s part of SEAL Team Six, so tell me a little bit about how this came into being?
ML: I know — it’s such a crazy mix, the three of us, right? First of all, I can probably send you the link for this pull, but if you want to read it, I know we’ve got it up on the site for reviewers. I don’t know if Archaia has released it yet, but I’d be happy to give it to you.
N: Oh, great!
ML: I’ll just feign ignorance and give it to you before anyone else. [laughs] So here’s the deal: the three of us each knew one of the other guys but the three of us had never been together. Chris was up here in Seattle for a number of years — he’s back in LA now. I met him first when he was up here. He was interested in writing for games, which I thought was righteous, because the guy’s a fucking Academy Award-winning writer. Most screen writers I meet have a dim view of game writing, but he’s very forward thinking, and wanted to know more about the medium and just was interested in working on a game, but the projects they pitched just never kind of came to fruition. So we continued to stay in touch.
Chris has a brother who has a brother who was a SEAL — I guess you’re always a SEAL — he was a SEAL commander, and that was his connection to Dan. He had commanded the team that Dan was on. I had met Dan when I briefly worked on the Rogue Warrior project. My studio worked on it before Bethesda took it back in-house and made it into the awful game that it turned out to be, but Dan was Dick Marcinko’s protégé and right-hand man, so they showed up together. But it was really Dan and I that kind of hit it off more than Dick, and the thing that I love about Dan is that if Seth Rogen was a Navy SEAL, that’s what Dan is like. He’s just profane, and funny, and loud, and he’s just hilarious. He’s a force of nature. When you’re together with Dan, there’s just no telling what the hell is going to happen later. He’s had this incredible career, going all the way back to being the youngest member of SEAL Team Six, then he went on to Red Cell, and I think he ended up being 17 years on the teams and was injured in a parachute accident, got out — and can’t really talk about what he does now; let’s put it that way [laughs].
He sent me a voicemail from somewhere, and, well, we just wanted to continue working with one another. I had just finished my first graphic novel — actually, my second. I had developed the Shrapnel trilogy with Nick Sagan, who is Carl Sagan’s son, published by Radical. And then in that process I wrote a book with Jim Demonakos, who is kind of the Forrest Gump of comics up here in Seattle. As a matter of fact, he was named “Geek of the Year” last year here in Seattle. He’s owned comic book shops; he’s an editor and marketing guy at Image; he’s in the nerdcore band called Kirby Krackle.
ML: He runs the Emerald City Comicon up here.
N: Oh, cool!
ML: So we created a book called The Silence of Our Friends, published by First Second, and Nate Powell illustrated it. Nate, of course, won graphic novel of the year in — 2009? 2010? — for Swallow Me Whole. At the end of that, I decided I wanted to write something completely on my own, so Dan and I had that idea in our head. This is turning into a long, terrible explanation, I’m just realizing. If I’m not getting you where you need to be, just interrupt me.
N: No, no! I think it’s all interesting background.
ML: So Dan and I happened to be in L.A., and we invited Chris to dinner, because the three of us had never been together. And it was one of those really marvelous, three bottles of red wine dinners, and as you can imagine, Chris is an excellent raconteur. He can tell a story and have your rapt attention. But what was hilarious was, Dan and I talked about stuff we wanted to do, and he had the Hollywood attitude, like “Dude, that’s never going to fucking happen! But if you want to talk about stuff that’s never going to happen, I have some great ideas.” And so the three of us were talking about ideas that he had for movies, ideas we had for games and comics, but at one point during the conversation, Chris said, “You know what I would really love to do is a movie about tales from Afghanistan — something like Zulu.” That just took my breath away, because I love that film — it’s kind of an Alamo, last-stand film, and I just went, “Oh my god, dude, that is such a fucking good idea!”
N: That does sound like a really good idea.
ML: But this was almost three years ago, so Afghanistan was just box office poison. Now, since we’ve killed Bin Laden, it’s a completely different story — everybody in Hollywood is running around with their SEAL movie idea. But at the time, it was literally the worst idea for a project, and so we decided that we wanted to do it — it would just be fun. So I went back to Seattle. I couldn’t get the idea out of my head, so I e-mailed Chris and said “You know what would be better than Zulu would be Seven Samurai.” He said “Absolutely.”
You have warriors defending the ostensibly helpless villagers, and I get the moral problem. It’s not just rice the bandits want to steal, but it’s the poppies — heroin — that the Taliban want to steal. So I asked Chris, “Look, this is your idea, but we’d really love to do a project together. We want to ask your permission to do it.” He said, “You know, in Hollywood, not only does no one ask your permission, they steal your idea!” He said, “Absolutely! And I’d love to collaborate on it.”
So then I had the very intimidating experience of turning pages over to an Oscar-winning screenwriter. But he was just like a Zen master: he would just give me one note, and it would be just absolutely brilliant. One problem that I had, and I think it’s common with this kind of story, this “man on a mission” story, was how to differentiate the characters. It’s one of the most brilliant things about Seven Samurai, every character of the seven is fully developed, which is a miracle in the small number of scenes, even though the movie goes on for a long time, a lot of it actually is that last act — the rainy defense of the village. But he said something like, “Just give each one of them something they want more than anything else in the world; something they’re willing to die for.” And isn’t that what it is? That’ll be the secret of how you create a character that is memorable.
ML: And then Dan’s contribution was primarily color, technical detail, but also sometimes whole scenes. Like if a version — or page Z opened, or went to them rolling down a hill with a guy strapped to their hood — did you see that?
ML: That’s straight from Dan. That’s completely realized by him. I don’t know if it’s a real story that happened, but he said, “OK, picture this.” And this is so Dan: he calls me at like 1 o’clock in the morning and goes, “Dude, just picture this: Tight frame of what looks like a guy’s face, and then next frame, it is a guy’s face, but there’s a bag over his head, and then the next frame you pull out even further and he’s strapped to the hood of this car! Two guys are bobbing into this Taliban-owned village with a guy strapped to the hood of their car.” I was like, “Dude, that’s fucking brilliant. I love it!”
N: Yeah, that was a really nice reveal. You mentioned that he gave primarily technical advice. So I’m curious; how true to life are the military details in the book? Are there any elements that you kind of had to fudge a bit to give the book a more cinematic quality? I would imagine that that scene in particular might be one of them.
ML: Well, I suspect that that scene is actually a real scene. So there’s your answer! Like that kind of detail, you don’t invent stuff like that. I’m sure that happened, or Dan did that. The book is extremely authentic. He helped too with all of the dialogue. I tried to make – one thing I resisted in the book was narrating or annotating. I love it when I’m in a world where it isn’t explained to me, and I have to breathe with my spine, if you will, to catch up. So there’s a scene later where he’s called in a gun ship, a Hercules gun ship, and I asked Dan how you do this, and he said “Well, the first thing I do when I get on the radio is I tell them I’m not” – I can’t remember the acronym – “I am not ATGF qualified! That means I don’t know what the fuck I am doing!”
I said, “Well, what would you do?” He said, “We have these lasers on our rifles, and I would just point it up and say ‘I’m lassoing you in,’ you’d make a spiral motion, and the pilot can see the circle on the sky, or on the cloud above it, and they’d look at the cloud and go ‘yeah, right underneath that is where I need to go.’” Clever shit like that.
N: That is really cool! Getting back to the core story, Seven Samurai, it’s a classic tale. It’s been adapted and retold countless times. So what was it exactly about the Afghanistan setting that you thought made it a sort of ideal setting for this story?
ML: Well, first of all, I want to say that we cleaved very closely to the original Seven Samurai, as far as structure. Two reasons I did that. One: you talk to a lot of people today, and their kind of film, their encyclopedia of film knowledge kind of ends at the local video store, so if that video store didn’t have Seven Samurai, they probably never saw it or a million other classics. I’m kind of surprised by my younger friends that don’t know some films that I consider a really important part of the canon, and so one part of us was, we want to reintroduce people to this audience. We’re very up front at the beginning, that this is Seven Samurai and I’m personally hoping that people will want to see the film if they haven’t ever seen it, or see it again, too, and see what a brilliant piece of storytelling it is.
And second of all, there’s a term in storytelling, and you hear it a lot in Hollywood, “the way in”: what’s our way in? Some of the most successful stories are places that we haven’t been to before. Apollo 13 was a really interesting thriller; we all knew how it ended, but really we were going into the world of NASA, which we thought we knew, but if you go back and look at that film again, you’re exposed to the entire culture of NASA and what it meant to be an astronaut or an engineer in flight control, that kind of thing. But you need a way in to those stories, and what’s brilliant about Seven Samurai is that if you take out the villagers and what they’re doing, it’s just – you’re kind of stuck with another “man on a mission” story, which we’ve seen a million times.
But the SEALS don’t have any good reason to defend this village; it’s not their job, they’re not good at this kind of thing. They’re bad asses, but defending a village is a ridiculous idea. And it’s discovered early on that the villagers have killed soldiers in the past, so not only is it not a good idea, they’re actually – it’s morally questionable whether they even should be doing this at all. And that gives you your way into the story. It so turns things on its head in so many ways that you’re constant curious about, how things are going to turn out.
And then I want to add, if you haven’t seen Seven Samurai in a long time, as a graphic novel author, in a little bit of a way you’re like a film director. You’re setting up a scene; you’re saying “Page 4, seven panels. Panel 1…” We use film grammar, it’s a medium shot, or angle down, or angle in, this guy’s in the foreground, that guy’s in the background, so you’re visually setting up scenes, then you’re adding dialogue. Well, if you go look at Seven Samurai, one of the really compelling parts of the film is how strongly Kurosawa matched framings to the scene element that he’s trying to reveal. So, for example, in both the graphic novel and the movie, there’s a scene where the villagers that live on the other side of the river, they’re forced to abandon their houses, because they can’t defend all of the houses.
And while they’re practicing or training, getting ready to defend the village, there’s a rebellion, and one of the farmers throws down his rifle and says “I’m not going to do it,” and in the film, it’s shot from the top down. There’s a circle of farmers, he reverses and turns away, then the camera cuts and he’s facing into the camera, and the group is behind him in a circle. Then they reverse again, Kurosawa reverses again, and his back is to the group, he’s still talking. It’s a perfect visual representation of what’s going on in that scene emotionally, and when you understand that that’s how Kurosawa was directing, you being to marvel at how this film has absolutely zero fat in it. Every single scene is a masterfully framed directive.
N: Yeah, people see it and go, “Oh my god, this is three hours!”, but it’s definitely efficient in how it deploys its mechanisms. One thing with Seven Samurai, it came out at the beginning of that post-war era, and spoke to a certain sense of powerlessness and frustration in Japanese society. With this, the relative muddiness of war, especially the situation in Afghanistan, people have different feelings about it morally, politically, emotionally. Was there any trepidation about using this setting? Were there any messages or particular themes you were trying to get across?
ML: If there was, when I suggested it to Chris, the thing that he leapt to immediately was that moral problem of poppies. These farmers – their country is war-ravaged, right? They don’t have any options but to grow food for themselves, and a cash crop. And we’re supposed to be eradicating poppies, but the forces there look the other way for a variety of reasons. Mostly to win hearts and minds, right?
ML: But on the other hand, the Taliban will wait – and this is exactly how the story is constructed – the Taliban will wait until harvest time, and then they’ll descend on a village and steal the harvest and sell it. Ostensibly, they’re supposed to be anti-poppy, but they actually finance a lot of their operations this way. So in almost every direction, what the farmers are doing is wrong, and Chris instantly jumped on that, like “That’s perfect – when you get that much contradiction and moral ambiguity, it’s going to be a really important part of the story.”
But I think for Americans in general who are old enough to remember the Vietnam war real well, here we find ourselves once again defending a village in a remote country, where there is kind of this mentality that to save the village we had to destroy it. And in Seven Samurai and in Rubicon, you have kind of the opposite idea, they’re defending the village, and actually they’re going to gain nothing from it. They’re totally going to lose by doing it. And certainly that’s the conclusion at the end of the film, if you remember it. In the book, the warriors contemplate the graves of the other Samurai, there are just three left, and one of them says, he looks at the villagers and says “They won and we lost,” and the elder says “What do you mean? That’s idiotic, we killed them.” And this guy is like, “No, their life goes back to normal, and we are left to kill and die so long as we’re soldiers.” It’s a brilliant, timeless commentary on the true nature of war.
N: Exactly. It is a really poignant scene, and I think that if anything, it will be – I really think it’s a smart choice to set it in Afghanistan, because it’s already fraught with so many moral conflicts, and things like the poppies which you mentioned. I think it all plays into that central moral question which is at the center of Seven Samurai.
ML: Yeah, and I think as the war winds down, you’re going to see more and more of these tales told. The country is absolutely forbidding. You’re talking about a lot of territory that’s above the height of Mt. Rainier, I’m looking at it out my window here, Mt. Rainier’s like 14,000 feet. A lot of these operations are guys in such remote regions that helicopters can’t even fly up there, so you’re pretty much on your own. So this story rings true when you say you’re completely isolated, there’s no cavalry coming.
N: On a bit of a lighter note, one of the other things that I was really intrigued by about this project was that it was a real transmedia project. There’s a free-to-play game coming, there’s a feature film and the graphic novel. You guys obviously put out Hawken, which is a boatload of fun. Tell me a bit about what prompted this multi-pronged approach? Was it part of the plan from the beginning?
ML: I’ll just be honest and say straight up, I’m a creative overachiever. [laughs] Once I got a taste of transmedia design, I’ve never wanted to go back, because it is so complicated and hard to think about how different parts of a larger story can fit together but be best for that medium. So with Hawken, yes, there’s one-shot comics, there’s the graphic novel, a web series, a prose novel, and a feature film. And when we first discussed our ambitions for doing that, as we announced each project, sometimes the reaction has been, “That’s a little bit of hubris. Your game’s just launching, and you’re talking about something that normally only the biggest franchises achieve.” But the truth is, a lot of this media is very inexpensive, except for the film, to produce, and we use it, or we think of it, as a way of expanding the universe that we want fans to come in and enjoy the same way we enjoy it, but in a super-rich way, not in a douchebaggy, pay-per-install or advertising way, but instead it’s like, “Here’s this cool comic, and we did our very best to make sure that it was awesome, and not just a licensed thing that we gave off to some teen, but the core creative were all deeply and fundamentally involved in its creation and production, so we’re pretty happy with it, and we think it’s good.”
We just think of it as the right way to market new intellectual property. The thing about transmedia is that if you think about it properly, each piece should stand alone and make its own contribution to the overall story, and so it’s well-suited for, “Well, the comic didn’t work out, but the film did!” Or, it doesn’t need to come out in a certain order. So again, it’s perfect for what we’re trying to do with it, but when you talk to fans, we sometimes look like we’re getting way out of ourselves, but the truth is these things — even a graphic novel is short to market as it is — it’s at least a year, Rubicon took two and a half years.
N: Wow! That’s a long gestation period.
ML: And by the way, I should mention Mario Stilla. This is his first book, but Mario — this is hilarious — Mario was brought to my attention by family friends who said, “Hey, we were on vacation and we met this artist in Italy. Would you take a look at his stuff?” And I was like, “Oh, my God, I get hit with this stuff all the time.”
N: Of course.
ML: “I should just tell them no. It would be easier on all of us.” But then I looked at him, and I was like “Oh, my God, this guy’s formally trained!” Then I looked into it, and his degree was in sequential art!
N: Oh, awesome!
ML: So he lives in Naples, doesn’t speak a word of English, and to work together, I had the manuscript professionally translated, but after that, we talked through Google Translate. So if you look at our communication, it’s like two 4-year-olds talking.
N: Yeah! [laughs]
ML: “Mario, panels make very pretty — happy am I!”
N: That’s really funny! You should put that in the back as a bonus feature.
ML: Some of his stuff is just beautiful and classically rendered. Sometimes the frame, the eye point in the frame is a surprising choice, but more than anything else, I really enjoyed looking at how he was able to communicate individual emotion on any character’s face so well.
N: Awesome. Yeah, the art was definitely really cool. It’s so funny that it really is transmedia all the way through, all the way to using Google Translate to get in touch with the artist!
ML: Mm-hmm. I was just going to say that it took Mario a year and a half, almost two years, to draw and ink the book.
N: How long — refresh my memory, how long is the graphic novel in totality? About 120 pages?
ML: I think it is 140… no, I think you’re right. The novel proper is 125 pages, and then Archaia, who has been brilliant to deal with, by the way, published the Hawken graphic novel, and after that experience, I was just like “I’m going to do another project with them.” We were just 4 weeks, or 30 days from going to final print, and they suggested that we do — what do they call them? — archival materials, like we did on the Hawken book. So the slipcover edition has a moleskin folder in the back, and then they added—they proposed all these things, like “You have this character dying in the beginning, how about we do the flyer to his memorial service, a brochure?” And, “How about a map, hand-drawn by Dan?” I was like, all this is great, but I was thinking to myself, it’s an awesome idea, but if it isn’t well executed, it’ll just be horrible. But they asked me to trust them, and the quality of those materials are unbelievable — they’re really well done, and in the short amount of time that they did them in — I was so impressed.
N: That’s awesome. That’s really cool. I’ve been really impressed, especially with Archaia’s special edition stuff, like the stuff they did with Mouse Guard, for example — their hardcover is really nice quality.
ML: Yeah, and this is a book I brought to them. I mean, we produced the book completely independently, and were kind of unsure about how we would publish it. We were just more interested in doing it, and were kind of knuckleheads about the business side. But when I joined Meteor—here’s kind of the Meteor connection, by the way — I’m so fortunate to be working in a publishing company whose standard is “We want to be an art house publisher.” Straight up. And so everything has to be kind of a Hawken-worthy book. Like, if you look at Hawken, that’s some pretty slick art! It stands out so much.
And so I assigned this book to Meteor. We gave the book to Meteor, because I wanted to say I made a creative contribution too, I’m not just the CEO knucklehead. I’ve made my contribution to the art house, and I’m excited to see what people think of it, because I’m really happy with it.
N: Awesome! Well, good, I’m glad. I just have one more question for you, and it’s a bit of a hard ball, so bear with me: What would be inside your ideal burrito?
ML: [laughs] That’s a great question! I’m going to take it seriously, and I’m going to say, you know, I love green chicken enchiladas, so it’s going to be chicken cooked in green verde sauce, it’s going to have some fresh pico de gallo, a little extra cilantro, and… what the fuck is the name of that Mexican cheese that I love so much? Asadero! Shaved asadero.
N: Nice! That is a solid burrito.