'Fortune and Glory' Author Brian Michael Bendis on 'Spider-Man,' Superhero Movies, and His Hollywood-Skewering Classic

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Fifteen years ago, a cult comic book artist from Cleveland became a Hollywood superstar when he skewered the town (and himself) in a hilarious three-issue series that invited audiences to peek behind the film-industry curtain in the tradition of Robert Altman’s The Player and William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade. The comic was Fortune and Glory,and the artist was Brian Michael Bendis, who kept a visual diary of his experience trying to shepherd his graphic novel, Goldfish, to the big screen. Originally published in 1994, the comic attracted the attention of several Hollywood production companies (including Miramax) for its gritty storyline and colorful characters, including the titular small-time con man who returns to his Cleveland stomping ground to try and wrestle custody of his son away from a criminally inclined former flame. Despite years of hard work and terrible meet-and-greets, Goldfish didn’t happen, but Fortune and Glory vaulted Bendis into the big time anyway, and his star rose even higher after joining Marvel Comics to launch the wildly successful Ultimate Spider-Man series.

These days, the 47-year-old Bendis is firmly ensconced on Marvel’s A-list, writing multiple books and serving as a consultant on its blockbuster films. He’s also heavily involved in the first live-action incarnation of one of his comics, a TV version of his superhero-tinged cop drama Powers, which will premiere on the PlayStation Network in 2015. “People are like, ‘You should make a Fortune and Glory-style book about Powers,’” Bendis tells Yahoo Movies. “And maybe I will, but I’m still kind of in the middle of [living] that story. When the dust clears, I’ll know.” In the meantime, we chatted with Bendis about his early adventures in the screen trade, how he helped bring Spider-Man’s mechanical webshooters to the big screen, and Damon Lindelof’s surprise cameo in Fortune and Glory.

Reading Fortune and Glory today, it feels like a time capsule for a vanished era of the film industry, when mini-major studios like Miramax had to resources to fund interesting, offbeat movies like Goldfish. What are the major differences that you’ve noticed in the fifteen years since the book was published? 

The big thing I see that’s changed is that at the time I wrote the book, there was this feeling that people wanted comic creators’ ideas, but they didn’t necessarily want the comic creators anywhere near it. And there were quite a few of us who were like, “If you’re buying the project, you’re buying my involvement.” I understand that filmmaking is a collaboration, but I wanted to at least do the first couple drafts [of the script] and get some producing experience. I certainly knew I didn’t want to wash my hands of things and then grouse about it in Alan Moore fashion — and I love Alan Moore!

[But] there was a sense around the time that I wrote the book that Hollywood didn’t know what to do with [comic-book creators], and then they started hiring writers to literally imitate us. Now, it’s more or less up to the creator what level of involvement they want; a creator can be the producer, writer or even the director if they so choose to — if they meet with the right partners. So that change is seismic.

The other change I’ve noticed is that [Hollywood was noticed] that a lot of comic books would be better TV shows. Even though there are a lot of differences in the way stories are told, the episodic nature of comics and TV make them sisters in a very profound way. Like, I think Spider-Man would be a better TV show. I’m working on a couple of shows right now — we’re shooting Episode 9 of Powers — and all my friends are in the middle of some television production, so that just proves that I was right. Yay me! I was right about one thing in the past 25 years … as opposed to the [version of me] in the book, who is right about nothing. [Laughs]

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But would you agree that the disappearance of companies like Miramax has made it harder for a gritty, independent-minded project like Goldfish to find a home?

There are places out there, but it does seem that smart television has taken the place of smart indie films. There are a lot more networks looking to make original content for their platforms, and that’s where a lot of the interesting filmmakers and writers have gone. There’s always someone out there looking to hustle — there just aren’t theaters willing to show ‘em. That may change quickly over the next few years, and we may be in the next part of the slingshot movement that makes VOD as important as Netflix. You can certainly feel it in the air; some billionaire is just going to have the pull the trigger, and that’s it. There’s always an audience looking for something they haven’t seen before, and there’s always someone looking to show it to you. It doesn’t matter if it’s on your TV or iPad or in comic books, where it all begins.

Also, people still circle [my early books] and talk about them, so you never know. That’s the other crazy thing about Hollywood: Something is on the shelf for decades and then it’s biggest thing in the world. That’s what is both exciting and maddening about the whole thing, and that’s especially true for comic book people. It’s a very seductive mistress, this Hollywood thing: You spend a lot of years not making a damn dime and then someone comes along and offers you enough money to pay your student loan off. That’s a seismic life-change, and you have to ask yourself how much are you willing to sell. That’s kind of what the book is about: “When do I know when to say no?” And I always say, “You know! You damn well know. You may not like it, because it’s hard. But you say to yourself, ‘Would I watch this movie? Would I watch this TV show?’ And if the answer’s no, you get out of there.

The non-making of Goldfish was your entrée into the film industry. At what point did you realize the experience would be great fodder for a graphic novel?

When you spend a lot of your time going on a lot of meetings and those meetings don’t end up producing anything, you often find yourself very frustrated and irritated. So I wrote all those meetings down just to make myself feel better, and then I started drawing them. What I didn’t expect is that this would be one of my best-selling books. It was such a personal endeavor for me that I was blind and unaware to the fact that out of all the stories I was telling, this would be one many people could relate to. Even people who aren’t in Hollywood can relate to being in a meeting and being driven insane by it. So when the book came out, the reaction was very loud, and it was the first time I had experienced that loud a reaction. Letter after letter went, “I know who you’re talking about in that scene!”, or “I was the assistant to that person!” And the book is still in print. Marvel has it right now, and I still hear from people about it. My daughter saw it on the shelf and she pulled it out and said, “Am I old enough yet?” I said, “Not yet,” and she said, “When I’m old enough I think this is the one I’m reading first.”

The book is very cinematic in its layout and visual style. Did you use any specific filmmakers as reference points?

Quite a few. I leaned on Robert Altman and there’s stuff in there stolen from Soderbergh. The Limey was under my skin in the biggest way at the time. I was very into [playing with] positive and negative space, and using the big black areas to push the conversation to the right or left depending on who was controlling the conversation. I even lifted a shot from the Howard Stern movie, Private Parts, where Stern realizes that moving to New York was a bad idea and [director] Betty Thomas tilted the camera at an almost 90-degree angle. Things would crawl under my skin, and I’d try to find a comic book version of that, if there was one. A lot of the dialogue is how my friends talk to each other, which is very quickly and in a ping-pong way, which is why I gravitate to writers like Richard Price or David Mamet or Aaron Sorkin. A lot of those conversations are as close to verbatim as you can get while still being very entertaining to an audience.

Are most of your disastrous meetings verbatim as well?

Hilariously, the ones people remember the most are the least embellished. That’s the funniest stuff. A funny aside is there’s someone in that book who I didn’t know at the time that I later became professional friends with. It’s the meeting where that guy offers me $50,000 to write a new version of And Then There Were None from the killer’s perspective. [Years later], we were at another meeting, and he turned to me and said, “I’ve always wanted to tell you, I love that I’m in Fortune and Glory making such an ass of myself.” I said “What?” Turns out that was a young Damon Lindelof, and that meeting absolutely did happen as described in the book. I said, “Did you remember it like that?” And he was like, “Yeah.”

My favorite meeting is the one at Gale Anne Hurd’s office where the executive flips out about whether you’ve heard that Deep Impact is better than Armageddon.

That’s pretty on-the-nose. The stuff that’s the most massaged for entertainment in the book is the stuff at home with my wife. The meetings all happened. And I’ll tell you a funny aftermath: the book comes out, and that could have been it for me in Hollywood. But it wasn’t, because most people didn’t know about it — or if they did, they didn’t see themselves in it. Like the guy who didn’t think Elliot Ness was a real person. He called me in about a year later for another project and had no idea who I was. But there were other people I’d meet and they’d be hyper-aware that the comic had come out and done well, and they were literally say to me in the meeting, “Don’t put that in the book!” Then they’d say something crazy and I’d be like, “Okay … are you trying to get in the book?”

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Fortune and Glory author Brian Michael Bendis.

Fortune and Glory ends with Todd McFarlane purchasing the film rights to another one of your books, Torso, and your final words are, “I smell sequel!” Fifteen years on, though, and there’s no sequel. What gives?

I’ve certainly had enough experiences since to make a sequel, and I will. But what happened at the time with Torso is that we sold it and the movie didn’t happen, so it wasn’t all that interesting. Then I went on a lot of bad meetings, and I realized at a certain point that readers were just going to think, “Stop going to the fucking meeting! Just stay home!” So I’ve said that I’ll do another one when I have a legitimate experience that’s different from the first book. Some of it is that I’m locked into non-disclosure agreements with Marvel, so people don’t want to hear about the things I’m not allowed to say. And then other stuff worked out well, and I’m enough of a dramatist to know that the inherent drama of things working out okay isn’t that interesting.

We’ll see what next disaster awaits me so that I can ride the wave of it and come out the other side with something to write about. I could write about the two weeks that I was the writer of the Spider-Man Broadway musical, but someone did that!

Did you see Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark during its brief Broadway lifespan? You must have some great stories to add to its legacy.

There’s all kinds of good stuff I’m sitting on—I’m sitting on goodies. I was one of the earliest people to experience [Julie Taymor’s] vision and go, “Oh no, don’t do that.” And then get screamed at. It’s not enough for a whole book, but it’ll be a cute little chapter for sure. I saw the original Taymor extravaganza. A bunch of comic book guys went and got to experience the thrill of thinking, “Oh my God, is one of [the actors] going to die now?!” I was at that version.

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Stuntmen from Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark taking a curtain call at the show’s final performance last year.

With Turn off the Dark and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Spidey has had a rough time of late in other mediums outside of comics. Have you been solicited for advice about the character’s big-screen future?

Yeah, I’ve gone in before. They’ve asked me in to be the deciding vote on some stuff, which is an odd experience as well. [Before Amazing Spider-Man], they sat me down in Amy Pascal’s office with this big roomful of producers and writers and directors, and she looked at me and said “Organic webshooters or mechanical webshooters?” I said “mechanical,” and half the table said, “Goddamn it!” They were mad because I was clearly the deciding vote, even though I didn’t know that. So when I see the mechanical webshooters, I feel a little happiness. I feel like I did something good in the world.

One approach for a Fortune and Glory sequel could be chronicling the rise of comic book cinema over the past fifteen years. You’ve had a front-row seat for that experience.

Yeah, my perspective is very unique. I happened to be the right place at the right time; I got hired at Marvel because everyone else kind of left. The first time I went to Marvel’s offices, they were literally selling the furniture. I remember that experience of going, “Oh my God — am I writing the last Marvel comic?” Then the first X-Men movie happened, followed by the first Spider-Man movie, and all of a sudden, [it goes from] “We’re going to make our own movies” to “Disney buying Marvel” to “The Avengers made a billion dollars.” I’ve been a Forrest Gump-like witness to an arc from bankruptcy to billions that very few people have been able to watch. A lot of it I can’t talk about because I’ve been consulting on Marvel movies since the first Iron Man, and I’ve just re-signed with them, so I’ll continue to do so in Phase 3. It’s one of the joys of my life to have the experience of going to meetings with Kenneth Branagh or Shane Black and watch them work with grace under pressure. It’s a pretty great experience and it would make a hell of a comic book! But that’s why they made me sign something the size of a phone book promising that I wouldn’t. [Laughs]