Saturday's Spike TV panel centering on the new "Blade" live action series featured comics creator and show writer Geoff Johns, Roger Mansfield from Spike TV and John Kroll from New Line, all on hand to hype up the show for its June 28th premiere. The two-hour season opener will be the first of thirteen total hours of programming the network has signed on for (although Variety has quoted network executive Doug Herzog as saying he has high hopes for season two).
"Everyone knows that sustaining a series of movies is difficult to do," Kroll said to the small crowd. "As a television series, you can continue to explore the characters and the world in a lot more depth. We felt that this was the time to have the franchise make the transition, and fortunately Spike TV was ready."
Mansfield said, "We decided the last year that we're really gonna wrap up original programming. We couldn't think of anything else that better fit the Spike audience. We thought it had all the elements that would make an exciting action drama series. Over half the series is already written," he continued, for a network trying to position itself as, "Not as female as USA, Not as intentionally dysfunctional as FX."
A trailer was shown (which was handed out on DVD to the audience as they left) which had high-octane action from the show's star, Kirk Jones, and even fit in a nod to Marvel continuity when one character asked if werewolves were real, and got a response, "That's Marc Spector's specialty."
"[The show] comes out sometimes after 'Trinity,'" said Johns, who played most of his cards close to the vest. "It's really more grounded in the first film. Exploring the mythology, how he got the tattoos, what he did before he was Blade, as well as fleshing out what the Vampire Nation is. Blade is a great character in the comics, but he's never sparked as much as he did in the films. I love the character because he's a tortured character that kicks ass. I like morally gray characters."
The idea of different vampire houses is central to the series, such as Marvel-related notes like the House of Fallsworth, but the House of Cthon playing the largest role led by actor Neil Jackson as Marcus Van Sciver. "They're not just vampires out to feed off of people," Johns said. "We're trying very hard to differentiate those vampires, so they're not the same as you'd see on 'Buffy.'"
"Neil Jackson is the great British villain that Blade needs," Kroll said. "Blade is so street that we wanted to have a really proper villain. He's really kind of a bruiser, and he hates that we make him use hair products and get manicures."
"Everybody wants to fight," Johns said. "Even Nelson [Lee, who plays tech supplier Shen] was like, 'I've got a black belt, I wanna fight!'" Actress Jill Wagner, playing perspective character Krista Starr, will be a soldier freshly back from a tour of duty in Iraq, who got her "third gun" when home in North Carolina for Christmas. "You'll totally believe her, shooting guns and riding Harleys," Mansfield said.
"Chuck 'Iceman' Lidell of UFC makes an appearance in the pilot," Kroll noted.
All three had high praise for former rapper Kirk Jones in the title role. "We were looking towards the longevity of the character," Kroll said. "We wanted somebody who brought the depth and resonance to the role. Stephen Bochco targeted him as someone who would be a star. He really allows the character to play on a lot of levels."
Jones got to Vancouver and asked Johns where the nearest comic book store was, an avid fan. "I'd already done the geek thing and scoped it out," Johns said, "and said 'oh, it's like two blocks that way and around the corner,' and he was like 'cool!' He had to get his pull list." One fan asked if Jones had any problem with Johns writing for an African American character. "I don't think so," Johns said. "My wife is Black."
"He's really serious," Kroll added. "We're at dinner one evening, it's about eleven o clock at night, and he's just gets up and says 'I gotta go now, I gotta go lift weights.'"
"We knew that to make Blade work, we had to make it a drama," Mansfield said of the show's approach. "We have to sustain it in a different way. We will have all the action adventure, and certainly plenty of blood, but it's a drama and that's what's going to drive it."
The panel talked about describing the organization of the vampire nation, which writer David Goyer envisions as the ultimate crime family. "There is a master plan in place," Kroll said, looking at the show as one long story, and noted, "David Goyer and [writer] David Simkin are fans of 'The Wire' and 'The Sopranos.'"
"Look for House of Cthon on the web," Kroll noted. "There will be information, there will be blogs that you can start exploring." He then joked, "It's not something we're doing, it's something the House of Cthon is doing on their own."
Mansfield said, "We learn that once vampires are ash, they have not outlived their usefulness."
Johns followed up, saying, "We added a new wrinkle that vampire ash, humans can snort it like a drug and get vampire powers for an hour. The come down is that you get the thirst, and probably chew your fingers off." We'll also see new weapons like a "UV glaive," which they wouldn't give more details about, following the traditions of the silver-stringed knife from "Blade: Trinity."
The show has a number of high caliber professionals on staff, from director Peter O'Fallon (who's worked on projects as diverse as "Cupid," "House" and the film "Suicide Kings"), show runner David Simkins ("Angel," "Briscoe County," "Charmed"), Adam Targum ("The Dead Zone," "Mr. Gibb") and Barbara Nance (script coordinator for "The X-Files," "Crossing Jordan" and "Sliders"). Veteran Ernie Jackson ("X-Men 2," "Fantastic Four," "Romeo Must Die") is on board as stunt coordinator and fight choreographer, bringing cinema-quality action to the cable series.
"It's an important component of the show," Mansfield said of the $2 million per episode budget, "but we want to give lots of wonderful sets and locations, so we've had to have a delicate balancing act to come up with the right way to do it. These action sequences take a very long time to shoot. We'd rather do fewer and have them be better."
As for surprises, the season's fifth episode is the one to watch for true Marvel zombies, where not only will we see vampire houses with "different perspectives" but physical differences as well, and an obscure Marvel villain making an appearance.
In an interesting note, Johns said he'd personally love to work on a "Green Lantern" feature film, and was unaware of writer Simon Kinberg's online quotes about Warner Brothers developing the property.