Welcome to the CBR SUNDAY CONVERSATION, a new weekly feature where we speak in-depth with some of the most interesting members of the comic book community. These conversations will range from analyses of their current projects to a look at the lives they lead outside of comics.
Having worked in Hollywood for more than two decades, Boaz Yakin may not be the most recognizable name to comic book fans. Though many people are fans of the films he wrote and directed including "Fresh" and "Death in Love," he’s probably best known for directing 2000’s "Remember the Titans." He also worked on many films solely as a writer on projects ranging from 1987’s "The Punisher" starring Dolph Lundgren to the Clint Eastwood-directed "The Rookie" to "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time." Yakin previously wrote a comic series for DC Comics illustrated by his brother Erez titled "The Remarkable Worlds of Professor Phineas B. Fuddle" and has produced films ranging from "Hostel" to the acclaimed documentary "Bombay Beach."
Yakin has two new projects out now. The first is new graphic novel titled "Marathon" illustrated by Joe Infurnari and published by First Second Books, which depicts the legendary feat of running by an Athenian soldier during the Persian wars. The publisher will also release a second book written by Yakin and drawn by Nick Bertozzi, "Jerusalem," at some point next year. "Safe," the first film Yakin has written and directed in four years, was released in late April and stars Jason Statham. Yakin took time out from his busy schedule to talk with us here at the Sunday Conversation.
CBR News: I had the chance to read your upcoming book "Marathon" and I really loved it for a lot of reasons.
Boaz Yakin: Thank you.
It also reminded me how annoyed I was at the movie "300" which portrayed the Spartans as winning the Persian wars when the Athenians did, on top of all its other factual errors. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Yeah, that’s a whole other story. I’m not going to get into that. [Laughs] Although as a work of graphic art, "300" was pretty astonishing. The almost chiaroscuro style. No one can create a dynamic page like Frank Miller can. It was pretty great on that front.
No question there. But you seem really fascinated by history and telling historical stories.
Well, I bounce around a lot. I wish I knew what my actual interests were. I’ve written a lot of different kinds of things in my life. It’s funny the inspiration for this came from running in New York in the fall. I was doing my three miles and dying by the end of it. I thought about the fact that a few weeks later was the marathon and hundreds of thousands of people run marathons, so what was the big deal about that guy running twenty-six miles and then dropping dead. [Laughs] Were they in so much worse shape then compared to now? That’s not possible.
I just started reading about it. The actual marathon was from Athens to Sparta and then to Marathon which was close to three hundred miles and done in about three or four days. That’s what started knocking me out. There’s competing mythologies. In some of them it’s the same guy that ran that and then the twenty-six miles back to Athens and in others in a different person. Of course for our purposes, it’s nice to believe it’s the same guy. For me, often when these types of stories are portrayed, the emphasis is on the violence of it. The battle. The killing. I thought that there was something really beautiful about approaching this story from the point of view of somebody who was enduring something that he believed in rather than focusing on the aggression and on the violence of it. That’s what really appealed to me.
I’ve seen most of your movies, which tend to be contemporary, but all your comics -- "Marathon," your previous comic, and your next book "Jerusalem" -- are all historical adventures.
The only other graphic novel that I ever had published was something that my brother Erez beautifully illustrated called "The Remarkable Worlds of Professor Phineas Fuddle" that Paradox Press, which was then part of DC, published. That whole thing was a Jules Verne-ish playful exploration into history. It was four issues and each issue of that was what if a moment had been interfered with, how would the world have turned out. That was playing around with history. "Jerusalem" is more personal. It’s a fictionalization of my own family’s real experiences in Jerusalem in the '40s. Yeah, I guess when I’m doing a graphic novel I dip into history. You get to draw parallels with the world that we’re living in now, but at the same time explore the seeds of the way things developed at the same time. I find that quite interesting.
Looking at it from that perspective, definitely. You were one of the writers of the film "Prince of Persia."
Which is about as historical as -- [Laughs] I mean, I didn’t do any research except watch the video game a few times. One of the things that’s really gratifying about working on these graphic novels and the films that I’ve written and directed -- "Fresh" or "Price Above Rubies" or "Death in Love" or even this action film that I have coming out in a few months -- those films really do reflect the writer in me and my work. It is a strange experience to write kind of for studios to pay the rent. You’re basically one of eight or however many writers. Perhaps you put in enough work that the Writers’ Guild decides you get a credit on something, but there’s no resemblance to anything that you did. [Laughs] They pull a few things out of it and yet you have this big credit up there. It’s definitely an odd experience. On "Prince of Persia" I was part of a large group of people that contributed to that script.
"Prince of Persia" is fantasy, so I'd imagine you're not researching it in the same way, but how did you think about it and approach the script?
My friend Jordan [Mechner], who created the video game, wrote the first draft of that screenplay, which is actually how we met. Jordan is the guy who actually introduced me to Mark Siegel at First Second and I’m always grateful to Jordan for that. Jordan wrote the first draft and they had hired another writer who had written a further draft. When you’re doing a job like that you’re basically coming in trying to figure out what it is the producers and the studio want that they’re not getting from the material. Trying your best to find elements in telling that story that will work in a product that they feel comfortable spending tons of money on. It’s not like when you’re writing something for yourself. You may have an eye for, are people going to enjoy this or not, but you’re starting it from the ground up. You’re telling a story the way you would tell it hoping that someone out there is going to find it attractive and invest in it. In those situations you’re going the other way. Basically right off the bat trying to figure out what other people are looking for, what they’re not getting, and how to give them those elements. Does that make any sense? It’s a different way of approaching the job.
That being said, a lot of people avoid the writers that wrote before them. They don’t want to know them. They’re kind of embarrassed they’re writing over someone else. When I did my draft of "Prince of Persia" I actually called Jordan up and said, "Look, they want to hire me to do this and I’d love to pick your brain about what inspired you and where you drew your inspiration from." I went over to Jordan’s house and he showed me all these books about ancient Iran that he had gotten his inspiration from when he was writing and creating the video game. He lent them to me and I read them and read Iranian mythology. That was a really nice way of working. Again it’s different when you’re doing something as a job and trying to tailor it rather than writing for yourself.
So you were trying to do research and, say, incorporate the background of this myth or fold this story into the plot in some way?
Yeah, I looked for things I could add. Basically I read the script and read the mythology of the video game and also read the stories that had influenced Jordan and tried to find a way to weave them in. The final product I can’t really vouch for, because there are other writers who wrote after me, but that was my process.
Did you have to do much research for "Marathon?"
It was just research. There’s not that much information about that battle and that period. It’s not like you’re writing about the Civil War and there’s eighty thousand trillion pages of stuff about it. [Laughs] It’s very clear what there is and what there isn’t, so for "Marathon" I basically read a few very solid historical conjectures and explorations that people had made about what would have happened, but then, I tried to fill in the rest. What was life like in Greece back then? How did people eat? Where did they sleep? What did apartments look like? I read about ten books and then went and spun the story very quickly. Unlike a marathon, I wrote it very fast.
It’s interesting because researching this period there’s so little information, and what you may find is often questionable.
That’s the charm of it, though. You know you’re not fucking something up because nobody really knows. [Laughs] In the "Jerusalem" script, I wrote about the events between 1944 and 1948 in Jerusalem, and there are tons of people still alive from back then. There’s 80,000 points of view about everything that happened and everyone’s pissed off if someone takes a contrary one. That’s a whole minefield you’re getting into. But you write something that takes place in Greece a million years ago and hey, what can I tell you, man. Come up with something better. [Laughs] It’s very freeing. You want to find enough detail that you feel anchors your story, but then you’re really free to imagine.
It was interesting to see that democracy was strange and tenuous at that time.
Yeah and very chaotic. That was one thing that I found -- I don’t want to say useful, but a very pertinent parable to our times. Here in the States, especially just accepting the fact that we have a democracy and other countries, "Oh, they’re idiots, why don’t they have democracy just like us." It really is a tenuous thing. Even back then they’d have a democracy but then they’d have a king come and take over for a little bit and they’d kick him out, someone else would try to take over. It wasn’t easy. I do think that the kind of technology we have today makes democracy easier than it was back then when essentially you needed to gather everyone in a town square and hear everybody shout about things in order to get a sense of how people felt. You didn’t have newspapers or representatives. It was just a bunch of people shouting at each other in this big amphitheater. At the same time, the Athenians had slaves. Today we’ve turned slavery into third world exploitation, paying very low wages. You can’t quite call it slavery but up until now we haven’t figured out how to make an economy work where somebody isn’t being basically grinding at a millstone so that the richer group can enjoy themselves. There’s some interesting parallels there.
And then they’d go to war and someone would run the city state until it was over.
We do it, too. "Okay, General, go get them and if you fuck it up, we’re all going to say it was your fault." [Laughs]
It’s interesting. The "Jerusalem" script I wrote started out as a screenplay and we adapted it to a graphic novel. I wrote this graphic novel version of the script for "Marathon" and a screenplay version at the same time. These days in order to get a bigger film or a historical film made, it’s almost impossible. Hollywood has broken into these two structures. You can make big, stupid tentpole movies or very, very tiny independent films. That middle ground movie like a historical movie or a drama with some great actors, doesn’t exist anymore. It’s either or. Maybe in the middle there’s stuff on TV. For me, it was so gratifying to realize that I could take these things and have the work be produced in a form that was unadulterated.
I got lucky, by the way. Joe Infurnari was really the right guy for "Marathon." He did such a humane job with it. And Nick Bertozzi, who is illustrating "Jerusalem," is just an unbelievable cartoonist and brought the story to life beyond my expectations. I really lucked out with these two guys.
I can imagine first comment about the "Marathon" script would be something like, "We hate the ending." [Laughs]
[Laughs] I don’t know. I think with "Marathon" hopefully maybe some day someone will want to do it. It’s a very human and beautiful story, but they do win. The guy dies, but they win. I think that it has a storytelling flow that’s a little unusual in the way that information is doled out. It doesn’t really get too heavily into character set ups or anything like that. It just gives you an impression of who these people are, you see some quick touches and then he’s sent on his way. You get these little impressionistic touches throughout the story. It’s not like a big built up. The structure is a little unusual in that particular way.
The story doesn’t unfold in a three act structure. There’s no character arc.
Yeah, you get a sense of where he’s coming from and what his emotions might be and then [the story] just sends him through it. I do think that Joe Infurnari really managed to create a figure that has a lot of pathos to him and a lot of vulnerability. That was something that we really discussed. Even though it is a heroic story and he’s an incredibly heroic character and does this incredible physical feat, we really didn’t want to present him as an action figure and a kick-ass warrior. It’s about someone whose spirit keeps him going and I think that Joe managed to capture that. He really drew and created a visual character that I think is very relatable and very human as opposed to superheroic.
Tell me a little about "Jerusalem," which comes out next year.
"Jersusalem" is actually based on a screenplay I wrote fifteen-eighteen years ago. I have a very large Sephardic Jewish family in Jerusalem. My grandfather moved there in the 1890s from Syria and he had five sons and a daughter. The brothers, these sons, they all participated -- including my dad who was very young at the time -- in the internecine conflicts with the British and the Arabs in Palestine in the '40s around the time the State of Israel was created. I always found it so interesting because I grew up with this family that was incredibly close. My oldest uncle was a communist pacifist who believed in everybody sharing the same country -- Arabs, Jews, everybody. His younger brother was in the Irgun which was the Menachim Begin terrorists [fighting] against the British in the '40s. The two younger brothers were in the Stern Gang, which was like the Jewish version of Hamas at the time. Although maybe there would be people who would take offense at that.
I’m pretty sure we’ll get complaints about that. [Laughs]
[Laughs] And then my father was ten. There were all these different points of view and these extreme conflicts, but they were a family and never really fought with each other. I just found that fascinating and I always wanted to capture that. I spent time in Israel and researched the period thoroughly. That was the most research I did for anything. My father had written a short screenplay about his childhood in Jerusalem and I incorporated that into the piece. Basically I put together this epic 215-page screenplay about Jerusalem. It came close to getting made once or twice, but it was just too big. When I showed the script to Mark Siegel at First Second he loved it and wanted to make it into a graphic novel. I’m really thrilled that even though I never got to put it on screen that people will be able to see it and Nick Bertozzi, I think he really surpassed himself on this one. It’s a 400-page graphic novel. It’s epic. An intimate epic. Nick really knocked it out of the park.
I’ve never researched anything as much as I did for that. I just read literally for six months. It’s so fascinating. I was finding all these self-published books from England. You’d get some British soldier who was attached to the Jordanian legion in 1942 who wrote about his experiences and published like 300 copies. I fell upon all these accounts and manuscripts. You could almost never stop. I was interviewing tons of people from my family and from all around Jerusalem who had lived there at that time. It was amazing. By the time I was through, I almost felt like I was living then and not living now.
Tell me a little about this new movie that you wrote and directed, "Safe."
It’s a real shoot ‘em up action movie with Jason Statham. I did a few interesting things to set it apart.
I’ve been in independent movie land for a while now. I financed my own film "Death in Love" a few years back. I found myself in a position where I needed to show folks that I could make more commercial, wider-reaching films again and I wanted to see if I could write one. I started out in the business like twenty-six years ago. I wrote "The Punisher" when I was a kid and I wanted to see if I could find that place in myself again and telling a story that’s a throwback to the '70s/'80s stuff I really enjoyed. So I wrote this script and we got Jason involved and I saw it as an opportunity to direct in a style that had influenced me while I was younger while adding more contemporary action stuff to it. I think the result turned out pretty well.