‘Elephantmen’ Creator Talks Visual Effects And Plot Treatment For Live-Action Film

Earlier this month, word hit the wire that Richard Starkings’ creator-owned comic book series “Elephantmen” had been optioned for big-screen adaptation by Janet and Jerry Zucker’s production studio.

Set in a dystopian future populated by humans and human/animal hybrids that were originally bred to be brainwashed soldiers, but now struggle to integrate into society, “Elephantmen” is published by Image Comics. The series began as a standalone story featuring Heironymous “Hip” Flask, a hippopotamus/human detective, and later spun off into a series of stories exploring the characters and adventures introduced in the original “Hip Flask” comics.

I managed to snag some time with Starkings while attending the recent C2E2 convention in Chicago, and got some details on how the film’s massive creatures could look, as well as which parts of the wide-reaching “Elephantmen” storyline are likely to be the film’s focus.

MTV NEWS: So, let’s start at the beginning — how did the “Elephantmen” movie deal come about? Given the Zuckers’ previous projects, like “Ghost” and “First Knight,” this is an interesting story for them to take on…

RICHARD STARKINGS: I really didn’t think they’d be interested, to be honest. But [Janet Zucker] quite surprised me with her knowledge of science-fiction novels and movies, and most importantly, we saw eye-to-eye because she was involved in protecting stem-cell research from the Bush administration. She’d put Proposition 71 on the ballot in 2004, so when we met she immediately began talking to me about stem-cell research. Of course, I had done my research on stem cell research, and so had she.

MTV: So she was already interested in the “Elephantmen” story on that level — based on the science involved?

STARKINGS: She understood the story from the level at which I was writing it. She wasn’t just looking at a shoot-’em-up movie — and I’ve been very cautious that “Elephantmen” doesn’t become that. She really wanted to tell the story of the interaction between the Elephantmen and the girls in the story.

This was back in July, and I was surprised how very persistent they were. I haven’t really pursued a movie option, and had offers before that I turned down, but I’m really comfortable with her — she’s a friend. It’s not the Hollywood experience that’s often suggested.

MTV: How involved are you in the adaptation process for “Elephantmen”?

STARKINGS: I’m involved at the level of writing the treatment. They’ve already approached directors and stars.

MTV: I’d imagine it’s difficult to encapsulate such a wide-reaching story as “Elephantmen,” given all the spin-offs and extra characters introduced over time…

STARKINGS: No, “Elephantmen” is not written like “Watchmen,” with a beginning, middle, and end, but the “Hip Flask” story is a whodunit, so there may be aspects of that storyline that appear in the “Elephantmen” treatment.

MTV: Would Hip Flask be the focus of the film, then?

STARKINGS: Yes and no. Even though Hip Flask is the hero of the story, a lot of people are interested in Obadiah Horn and Sahara. I’ve often said Horn is the villain, but no villain thinks of himself as a villain — and the broken characters like Horn and Ebony and Sahara tend to be the more interesting ones. Hip will always overcome his challenges, but Ebony is more interesting because you don’t know. Horn is more interesting because his relationship with Sahara is very complex, and as a celebrated Elephantmen it’s even more complex and hides a lot of skeletons in his closet.

A lot of people wonder why Sahara is with him, and that’s the story that I think the movie would center around. I think of Hip as the every-elephantman, but obviously for movie viewers there will need to be interesting human characters that the audience can relate to.

MTV: What about how the Elephantmen will look? Do you know if heavy CGI animation is the way to go, or more conventional animation or makeup?

STARKINGS: I’ve always favored CGI for the Elephantmen themselves. I wouldn’t have thought actual physical acting for the Elephantmen was possible until I saw “Where The Wild Things Are.” They did a really great job on “Where The Wild Things Are,” because the creatures had the weight and mass, and I can really imagine the Elephantmen looking like that. They also used CGI, so I could see something like that — we’ve talked about the possibility of combining the two.

The girls would be live-action, and I think Janet is interested in approaching some pretty major female stars. That’s a pretty limited field, because the lead character is a black woman, so that narrows the field down as well. There’s been some names thrown around.

MTV: What about writers and directors? Anyone in mind, either stylistically or officially?

STARKINGS: Directors that have experience with CGI, obviously. There is a writer who Janet works with who writes great characterization pieces, so she’s talked about him possibly writing the screenplay. Right now, we’re just trying to figure out the story for the movie.

MTV: With “Elephantmen” covering such a massive history, it’s natural for studios to look at this as a potential franchise. Is that what’s happening?

STARKINGS: Yes, it’s natural, and certainly depends on how well the first one does. But yes, they are looking at it in that light, and I’m glad they’re doing so.

MTV: What about the “Elephantmen” comic — will the deal have any implications for the story you’re writing for print?

STARKINGS: Well, I don’t really have many young male characters in the series, and in order to access the story of the Elephantmen for a movie, we might need to go in that direction. So I’m already considering introducing such a character into the storyline from the comic book. So there is a lot of cross-pollination, because “Elephantmen” is still an ongoing comic book.

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