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Jonah Hex – On-set with Producer Akiva Goldsman and the perils of combining genres

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Jonah Hex - Michael Fassbende and John Malkovich
Burke (Michael Fassbender) and Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich) © Warner Bros

If you sit down for a chat with Akiva Goldsman, it quickly becomes apparent that the Oscar-winning writer-turned-producer not only understands genre fare very well, but he also enjoys it. A conversation with Goldsman can run the gamut from which comic book characters he would like to tackle, to rumors about a micro-budget zombie film making the rounds on cyberspace.

On this particular spring morning, the producer is on the New Orleans set of Jonah Hex, where star Josh Brolin, virtually unrecognizable in scarred prosthetic makeup, is about to shoot the next section of a major action sequence. Between camera set-ups, Goldsman sat down to talk about the challenges of producing a moderately-budgeted action-adventure film, the perils of combining genres, and his feelings about westerns in general…

Were you involved with Jonah Hex from the outset of the project?

Jonah Hex - Michael Fassbender
Burke (Michael Fassbender), lower right, watches as a train begins to explode © Warner Bros

‘The outset’ is a complicated question. I wrote a version of Jonah Hex as a TV pilot for Warner Bros TV eight to ten years ago and it couldn’t have gone less well. Andrew [Lazar] was simultaneously developing a feature script, so we all combined to do this TV thing but nobody was interested. So we took it to TNT and then started developing it on parallel tracks, recombining again three years ago on the Neveldine & Taylor draft.

That’s a very convoluted path.

I like that. My partner always says, ‘Stop calling my company your broken toy store!’ but I love these things that are broken or have been around for a long time. They’re durable for a reason. I Am Legend had been around for 10-15 years, and we’re now trying to get The Incredible Mr Limpet going; I think that’s been around more than 20 years. These things stay in the imagination, so for better or worse, I’m attracted to the broken toys.

How would you describe this film?

Jonah Hex - John Gallagher Jr, Will Arnett, Seth Gabel and Aidan Quinn
Lt Evan (John Gallagher Jr), Lt Grass (Will Arnett), Presidential Adviser (Seth Gabel) and President Grant (Aidan Quinn) © Warner Bros

I say it’s a supernatural western. It’s an action western too, but that’s more about the way the camera moves than anything else. All westerns are fundamentally action westerns but it’s modern action in terms of the way it’s shot.

I think we also wear supernatural on our sleeve than something like High Plains Drifter, although that’s obviously in our iconography, both in the character and the movie. But I think part of what appealed to me about the character was when it moved into something a little more naturalistic.

There was something about Jonah Hex, not when he traveled to the seventies to fight the Justice League, but there was something about him that was trying to be a little more forceful.

Westerns are kind of laconic, but we are not. This leans into you a little bit more, so I think I will come out and say ‘supernatural western.’

Having written for Jonah Hex yourself before producing this version, what appealed to you most about the character?

Jonah Hex - Josh Brolin
Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin) © Warner Bros

It’s funny; I wrote a Jonah Hex vampire story, so I was very compelled by the most supernatural iterations of the comic. In fairness, I’m not a western guy. I get attached to westerns when they’re Stephen King. I’ll go The Gunslinger route [which Goldsman is currently working on] and then I suddenly love it, but everybody says sci-fi is like a western that’s been moved, and I never find that. I find science fiction to be very clearly science fiction and westerns to be something I don’t process as easily.

I think Andrew is very much the western guy and what I kept doing was agitating to put a little more supernatural in. Neveldine & Taylor wrote this scene we’re doing today, and the creature that Jonah will fight can be imagined as entirely supernatural or entirely real and as you’ll see, he gets right on to the edge of not human, so we’ve been pushing it in that direction a little bit

What were some of the major challenges, creatively and financially on this film?

Jonah Hex - John Malkovich and Michael Fassbende
Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich) and Burke (Michael Fassbender) © Warner Bros

We’re all at the same horrible moment in the business where you literally have to make a movie for 72 cents, so it’s really all about accommodating expectations. Jimmy is spectacular and it’s really quality work and really fast, but it’s also very strenuous.

But don’t you save a lot of money by doing a lot of it physically, as opposed to post-production visual effects?

Oh sure, but in fairness, nobody quite understands what this movie is because it’s trans-genre. There are a lot of practical effects in it and traditionally you do that to save money in post, but you also have to give yourself enough time, so that’s the trade-off. We’re shooting this movie in 45 days two and a half second-unit days. Even as I say it, it seems impossible.

I think part of what happened is that Josh Brolin became the anchor for a lot of really good actors to say, ‘Oh, this is cool to do!’ and I think that really served this film, because he’s almost the Jonah archetype; he’s square and handsome and a great actor, so once you have that, you get people like Michael Shannon.

By the way, this kid Michael Fassbender who plays Burke; holy s**t, he’s like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. He pops off the screen and there’s also the implication that he’s an old rival of Jonah’s, because they seem to know each other so there’s an unexplained history, which is kind of useful.

Part of the way we made this movie is that actors are in and out, in and out. Michael is only here for three days. Megan Fox was only here for a week, but it looks like they were here for the whole thing, so Fassbender plays Burke who dies and all I can think about is that he comes back as one of the undead if we ever get to make the next movie.

So we’re talking about a zombie western?

I would love that!