Tad Stones: Directing the Demon in "Hellboy: Blood and Iron"
With producer or creator credits on shows like Darkwing Duck, Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers, and Buzz Lightyear of Star Command, Tad Stones could very easily have stopped and rested on his laurels. However, after leaving the Walt Disney Company in 2003, Stones took on a radically different project: direct-to-video animated movies based on Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comics and the live-action movie adaptation directed by Guillermo Del Toro. The first movie, Hellboy: Sword of Storms, was first broadcast in October of 2006 and released on DVD the following February. The second, Hellboy: Blood and Iron, followed shortly afterwards in March, and followed the paranormal investigators of the B.P.R.D. into combat against vampires, werewolves, witches, and the evil goddess of magic Hecate. Toon Zone News had the chance to catch up with Stones via telephone about the production of Blood and Iron.
TOON ZONE NEWS: How did the story for Blood and Iron come about, and how overlapped was it with the production process of Sword of Storms?
TAD STONES: Well, Sword of Storms was mid-production, just entering the storyboard phase, and we had to come up with the idea for the second DVD. Our first shot was actually going to focus on Hellboy’s origin. We came up with a story where the origin was slightly changed, but still pretty close to the comics, and then [into] a story that had a new character, and something that pretty much played up the “mad scientist” aspect of Hellboy. Lloyd Levin, one of the producers of the Hellboy live-action films, pointed out that, “We should give the fans something new in animation”, in that they’d seen the origin in the comic and in Guillermo’s movie, so we shouldn’t repeat the story again. My first thought was, “Well, we’re not telling the same story. We created these new characters, there’s a new scheme to face and all that,” but Mike [Mignola] took it to heart and said, “You’re right. Let’s come up with something brand new.” So we started talking about various things and very quickly came to vampires, which is one of Mike’s favorite creatures of the unknown, and we said, “Okay, let’s go out and do a totally original story.”
We talked about Hammer films, and scenes of Christopher Lee, and at a certain point as we were working out the story, Mike said, “You know, in Hellboy’s life, this would be the perfect place for Hecate to show up and use that bit out of Wake the Devil.” Once we had her in it, it seemed like, well, wait – here’s these other characters that are also in Wake the Devil that plays right into this new vampire that we wanted to play with. Ultimately, we took more from the comics than we expected to, but we started off with the notion of vampires and specifically Elizabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess. In fact, the name of our vampire is Erzsebet, which is basically Hungarian for Elizabeth. So that’s how it started, seeing that it would be fun to do, taking things from the comics and giving them a fresh story.
TZN: On that note, as there is indeed more in Blood and Iron that came straight from the comics, what’s it like to adapt material from the comics when you have the original creator of the material right beside you?
TS: Easy; he knows all the answers! In Sword of Storms, we had done an entire segment that was closer to the comic than anything in Blood and Iron, and that was the short story “Heads”, which were incidentally Japanese vampires, these floating heads based on a Japanese legend.
TZN: Very creepy sequence, by the way.
TS: It was a great sequence, and it pretty closely followed Mike’s comic. Frame set-ups were almost the same as his panels. We had to change things, of course, because he was using vertical panels and square panels, and we just had the rectangular TV screen. We’d already done that, so it wasn’t a shock to me, and it was still taking all that stuff that you love and treating them as characters and putting them into a situation. It really wasn’t that direct an adaptation; the closest would be of the Hecate dialogue. We tried to take [that] right out of the comics, and some I held onto while some just reads better than it speaks as dialogue.
TZN: Some creators have difficulty revisiting ground they’ve already tread. Between you and Mike, who’s the one who pushes for something new, and who’s the one who wants to take things from the comics?
TS: I’d say it’s a toss-up. I’m always the first, because I’m such a fan, to say something like, “Maybe we could use this bit from here,” and Mike would say, “Oh, that would be a good fit,” or he’ll say, “OR…I once had this idea…” and go to a new place. Or he’ll take that idea I suggested from the comics and realize within the scene that there’s a clever thing to do with it. There’s no shortage of ideas when you’re dealing with Mike Mignola. It doesn’t matter if the seed of inspiration is from the comics or from a bit of research or from something I say off the top of my head. It really sets him going, and when he explains an idea, it’s like it comes to him fully-formed, because he’ll describe the concept, then the action, and then suggest things you could do with color. He’s an amazing guy to work with.
TZN: That must be the benefit of working with a writer-artist.
TS: Exactly. He’s just, as a concept guy…he could probably make a very good living, even in Southern California, if he just worked out some of his concepts and sold them to the movies. There are people who do that, who come up with movie concepts and then they’re given to another writer. Mike could easily make his living that way.
TZN: Shifting to another gear – on Blood and Iron, your role is “Supervising Producer and Director”. What is it about your job, and your title, that is different from the job of Victor Cook, the director?
TS: Basically, Phil Weinstein on the first film and Vic Cook on the second report to me. I have input in the script – in both scripts, I actually wrote portions of it. I’ll explain [to the directors/storyboarders], “This is what we hope to do in this sequence, and here are my ideas for whatever actions or moments or gags. Here’s something from the comic that will give you ideas. Here’s something from Mike’s sketchbook.” I really load them up. They’ll have lots of questions; it’s not like I just explain things one time and then they go away. They’ll ask questions about how I want to do this and that, but then I’ll let my directors work with the storyboard guys on their own and hand [the work] out whatever way. I’ll give notes on the roughs, and I give notes on the clean-ups, and every decision after that. Color, generally, in both movies was just me working with the color stylists and the backgrounds. Vic actually had some interesting ideas [for the color], and so I said, “Go ahead.” My directing credit comes from the notes, but also because I do all the post-production and a lot of color stuff.
TZN: Blood and Iron is a more personal story for both Broom and Hellboy, rather than Sword of Storms which is more of a madcap adventure. Was that a conscious decision?
TS: I think that’s one thing that’s so strong about the BPRD comic that John Arcudi brings. Mike tends to tell stories of epic proportions and giant concepts and plots. He doesn’t play out personal moments as much. Some of my favorite moments in Sword of Storms was stuff we added in between Abe and Liz, seeing how they work together as a team and how they would kid each other. That’s when you’re doing a movie; you have to flesh it out. If you just talk about plot, then you don’t care. You just have bodies moving through space doing certain actions. You want to add more to it to give [the audience] someone to identify with.
TZN: You have to root for somebody in a fight.
TS: Right. One thing about the character of Broom is that, in the comics, they talk about how close Hellboy was to his father, but you didn’t see that in the stories. Even Guillermo, in his movie, it was obvious that Hellboy was devoted to his father, but the scenes that Ron Perlman had with John Hurt were kind of cool, or disciplinary in nature. My feeling is that I want to show that this guy took in this demon and raised him as his son. He’s a gentle soul, not a military man. It’s important to have Hellboy/Prof. Broom moments, so the idea of Broom going on an adventure at his age and Hellboy being worried about it, even though it’s a minor thing in the story, it still gave us a way to play Hellboy in his father’s presence. And then going back into the past and seeing Broom’s first meeting in physical form with evil was, to me, a neat framing device. Seeing that adventure makes us understand the present adventure in a different way.
TZN: I loved Broom in Blood and Iron.
TS: Actually, Mike and Dark Horse Comics are going to be putting out a comic art book of the early days of the BPRD, and you’ll see a little more of Broom in the field, which of course we never really saw in Hellboy comics. There’s no stopping Mike Mignola; he’s got all sorts of things planned for the Hellboy universe. Now that he’s finally letting other people share in his universe, it allows him to tell all the stories that have been backlogged in his brain. You’ll see Lobster Johnson and Abe Sapien miniseries. He told me just the other day that he’s decided to be “semi-retired”, and then he explained what “semi-retired” was, and it sounded like it was more work than he’s doing right now. He works seven days a week.
TZN: Reaching back to Broom, you got to work with John Hurt this time. How was that?
TS: Fantastic. I didn’t get to work with him face-to-face, because he did a digital patch with him in London, but he was amazing. The thing that threw me was that I didn’t realize he was already in character when he answered the phone, and the Broom he does in the movie is very much a created voice. I didn’t realize that until I told him, “Oh, Ron and some of the others say hi,” and he came out of character and I heard him for real. I had written Broom [different] than he is in the feature film, and he picked up on that. He said, “Oh, this is a different character.” And for a moment, I thought I’d messed up. But then he made a mental adjustment and just nailed the lines right after that. I was just so impressed with the level of fearlessness that all of the actors from the film brought to our film.
TZN: This film was also surprisingly bloody. Was there any executive concern about the maturity level of the story?
TS: No, not really. All we’re doing is what’s been done in the comics, and Mike has blood in the comics. Not a lot of splatter, but there is a bathtub full of blood.
TZN: Plenty of blood sitting on the ground.
TS: Exactly. When Mike does blood in the comics, there’s generally a pool, a symmetrical shape, or a drip coming off of a hand or an eye.
TS: Yeah, I was proud of that. In fact, that’s one thing I really enjoyed in the movie – instead of racing through the “haunted house” idea, we actually show how they run an investigation. They split up and they check things out, and just to be able to sell the audience the idea that it’s a haunted house instead of saying it. Each one has a different type of experience, and Hellboy obviously sees things in our world that nobody else sees.
TZN: Apart from the Brer Rabbit video you did, this is arguably your first stuff you’ve done outside of the Disney studio. What’s it like to be working for someone besides the House of Mouse?
TS: Well, Hellboy was a unique experience, period. In Hollywood, and in animation especially, there’s always the hazard of dealing with studio development people, and then the toy company, and then the network. I pity for my friends who are working on these comic book projects that just have layers and layers. I never had any problems from the live-action people, because they said, “We trust Mike to deal with these characters, so he’s going to be our voice.” And Mike trusted me to take his character into animation. And then the studio was smart enough to say, “Why would we arbitrarily give notes on this stuff?” So they stayed out of the way. So we were just left alone.
TZN: No corporate synergy issues?
TS: Yeah, they were fantastic, and there’s less synergy at these corporations than you’d assume. Warner Bros. owns DC Comics, so you’d think, “Oh, they must talk all the time,” or Disney has the Disney Channel. For all the conspiracy theorists out there, I wish the studios had as much synergy as everybody assumes they do for evil intent. Then we could actually get cooperation, instead of, “Hey, why didn’t you put out a toy about my show?” On Hellboy, it was doing the comics. That’s the tone I’m going for, so nobody was surprised.
TZN: So what is it about Hellboy that is so appealing and compelling?
TS: For the same reasons people like stories of the supernatural. But on top of that, you have this blue-collar worker at the heart of things, who happens to be a demon. To investigate this thing, he’s a guy who punches the clock, and then he has to punch the monster. We find out in the comics that he’s just a guy who wants to be “one of the guys”, and he tries to ignore everyday that he’s seven feet tall and red, has a tail, and a big stone right hand. And then it gets shoved right in his face, and somebody tells him, “Hey, you’re a beast of the Apocalypse. I brought you here to destroy mankind.” There’s a fascinating element to him; he just wants to do the right thing. That’s what drew me to the character in the comics.
TZN: That’s very nature vs. nurture.
TS: That’s right in the center of the Hellboy stories. As for doing it in animation, very early on I pitched it at Disney. They were looking for a primetime show, and it was a possibility to do it as an animated X-Files. That was cool, because I love The X-Files, and I love the idea of an ongoing group of agents dealing with the supernatural. And then, as we finally got to do it, doing it as true to the comics as possible really pushed the boundaries of American animation. Japan has, for decades, anime on every kind of subject imaginable. From schoolgirls to boxers to enchanted lands to post-apocalyptic visions. American animation? Not so much. This was a chance to really write for myself, for my peers, as opposed to working for a lower age – to the best of my abilities, but to a limited age range. That was just exciting to do, to really play with our suspense. The other frustration of the project was that we had to do both movies very quickly, but there was hardly any learning curve. They paid me to do a third Hellboy script, which is now completed. Finally, it was like, “YES!! Now we know what works and what doesn’t work!” That was really great; I hope to get that script on film.
TZN: Since you’ve jumped to that and anticipated my question, what can you tell us about The Phantom Claw?
TS: Basically, we went back to that story we skipped over about Hellboy’s origins, and reworked it to match the mad scientist adventure. The first film was folklore; the second film was central European classicism with vampires and werewolves and witches; the third film is cybernetic apes and heads in jars and Rasputin and mad scientists and a brand new demon character, and a lot of it revolves around the mechanical hand that Rasputin wore to send Hellboy to Earth. If that wasn’t enough, we introduce Mike’s 1930s pulp adventurer Lobster Johnson. You get to see him when he was alive, how he was portrayed in the movie serials, and…something else. I won’t spoil it.
Many thanks to Tad Stones and Starz Entertainment for the interview. Hellboy: Sword of Storms and Hellboy: Blood and Iron are both in stores now.