Toon Zone Interviews Evan Baily on Digging Into "Turok Son of Stone"
In 1954, Dell Comics introduced Turok, Son of Stone. Who created him exactly is in dispute, with different sources giving Matthew H. Manning or Gaylord Du Bois the honor. What isn’t in dispute is the popularity of the pre-Colombian Indian and his companion, the young Andar, in their battles with dinosaurs and monstrous beasts in a mysterious, lost valley. With a run into the 1980′s, Turok became Dell’s longest-running original comic book title.
Turok was revived about 10 years later, with a new comic book from Valiant Comics appearing in 1993 and a top video game for the Nintendo 64 following about four years later. Since the Valiant (and eventually Acclaim) comic folded in 1998, Turok had largely vanished from the pop culture consciousness until this year with the release of the direct-to-video Turok Son of Stone animated movie. Toon Zone News got to speak with story writer and producer Evan Baily about the Son of Stone and what he has to offer modern animation audiences.
This interview contains small spoilers for the plot of the movie, with the major spoiler section separated out.
TOON ZONE NEWS: How did you pick Turok to make a direct-to-DVD movie?
EVAN BAILY: We have the rights to a treasure trove of Gold Key/Dell properties, most notably Turok, M.A.R.S. Patrol Total War, Magnus Robot Fighter, and Dr. Solar: Man of the Atom. I grew up on sci-fi and fantasy — the John Carter of Mars books, the Tarzan books…I think I read every sci-fi and fantasy author. I just always loved the genre. I think the genesis of the project was a conversation with Michael Uslan, who is also a tremendous fan and who we’ve worked with on lots of stuff with over the years, and it was one of those things where we realized we’d be idiots not to make a Turok film. He’s such a fantastic character and he inspires such an intense reaction from the fans.
TZN: There’s been the original comic book series, the Valiant comic book series, and the video games. How did you pick and choose what to pull in from all those different series?
BAILY: We wanted to go back to the roots. There’s a generation of people who grew up on the original Turok Son of Stone comics, and then there’s another generation that knows Turok best from the Valiant comics era and from the Acclaim video games in the 90′s. By going back to the roots and telling an origin story about the character, we felt that there was an opportunity to serve that fan who knows and loves the character from way back, but also to introduce someone who grew up on the Valiant/Acclaim incarnation of Turok to the origins of the character. Maybe also introduce them to some layers and aspects of the character and the story that they may not be familiar with.
TZN: If you’re familiar with Marvel Comics, it sounds a lot like it’s “Ultimate” Turok, then.
BAILY: Yeah. Certainly, Tony Bedard co-wrote the story and wrote the screenplay and was just integrally involved in shaping the film, and he wrote and edited Turok for Valiant comics and grew up reading the Gold Key/Dell Turok, so we certainly benefited from his familiarity with the Valiant version of Turok. We were all really drawn to the Gold Key/Dell Turok, though, just because there’s something so awesome about just the primal nature of those stories. The man vs. nature struggle, the struggle to survive. I feel like on the blogs and on the forums, people think of this character as, “Hey, he’s the Dinosaur Hunter.” That’s NOT who he originally was. He wasn’t getting his kicks killing dinosaurs. He was fighting to survive in an alien, harsh, hostile landscape. And that’s the story that we wanted to tell. We didn’t want it to be a guy on safari. We wanted him to be a more dimensional character. A guy wrestling with himself, and we wanted to use the backdrop of the Lost Land and everything he faces there as a crucible to put pressure on him as he worked through character stuff. When I say character stuff, I mean issues and conflicts that are core to him figuring out who he is.
BAILY: We referenced so many things. Early on, the story seemed like it was heading in a different direction. I’m fascinated by the kind of character who, for lack of a better term, you could call “The Quiet Man.” It’s Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo and Sanjuro, or Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven. It’s Jack Bauer in 24. It’s a good guy who isn’t chatty, with a lot of aggression and rage and a dark side. He keeps his own counsel and there’s a lot happening beneath the surface. I’m proud of the quietness of the final movie. That there’s so little dialog and the storytelling is so visual. To me, dialogue is the enemy in a project like this, and I think we rooted out as much of it as we could.
Early on, the template for the story was quite different, but structurally, it had a lot of commonalities with Payback and Unforgiven. Actually, I can’t really lump those two things together. More than anything else, it was like Unforgiven. What we were originally thinking was that he would be someone who had put his violent past behind him. The story would be a series of provocations that would constantly escalate until eventually, he would need to just unleash the full force of his fury and what he’s capable of, just because he’d been pushed too far.
TZN: Why did you change directions from this earlier version?
BAILY: What we realized early on as we started talking to Tad Stones — who had phenomenal insights that really made the story so much better — was that what we had might work in live-action, but it would potentially make for a real problematically passive protagonist in animation. It just didn’t feel like it would have the moment-to-moment visual dynamism that you need in animation, so we moved away from that model and came more to the story we have now. He’s that same sort of character, but he’s not someone who has forsaken violence. He’s someone who has this idea that he’s incapable of NOT being violent, and therefore he needs to be apart. So there’s still a transformation that happens, but rather than a transformation of him hiding his violence, he’s ultimately getting comfortable letting it loose. He’s violent, but he’s a man out of time and out of place. It’s only when he gets to the Lost Land that he realizes that it isn’t that there’s something wrong with him. It’s just that his destiny has always been to be in this place. At least, that was our conception of it. Ultimately, it’s up to the viewers to make their own decision as to whether we delivered on that idea.
TZN: One of the things that everybody picks up on is that Turok is a very violent cartoon. Did you come up with the idea of Turok trying to unleash that more primal side of himself and say, “Let’s go all the way with that visually”? Or did you always want to make a more mature, more violent cartoon from the start and then come up with a story that used that?
BAILY: Sort of a combination of the two. I don’t think we set out to tell a violent story. We set out to tell a story that was emotionally true, and powerful and really about something. For me, storytelling should never be didactic. It should never be about teaching a lesson, but it should be a distillation of some kind of human truth, so that the audience is satisfied along the way because it’s a great ride, but they’re also left with something. I don’t mean that we’ve imparted something to them or taught them something, but that they’re left with questions.
Along the way, the audience is kind of injecting themselves into the story, relating to some of the choices that the protagonists and other characters make and not relating with others. As they kind of go on that ride, they are sorting through emotional stuff for themselves, and they emerge with some of those things clarified. And they emerge with questions. That’s what we wanted to do, was tell a story that had some heft to it. Totally bad-ass and totally fun and a rocking ride, but that had some heft to it, because I believe that comics and animation and sci-fi and fantasy are not a lesser art form than literary fiction or so-called serious independent film. I think the best genre stuff stacks up against the best “serious” stuff. To me, Neal Stephenson was at his best when he was writing Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, and when he got more into literary fiction mode with Cryptonomicon and Quicksilver, I liked him a lot less. We wanted to find that fusion of bad-ass but something more, too.
TZN: Having that emotional core so you can identify with the hero, maybe.
BAILY: Yeah, and for me, what I kind of latched on to was so much of what pop culture tells us about violence. How many times have we seen at the end of an action movie…you know, I’ll set the scene for you, I’ll tell it to you beat-for-beat. The good guy has been duking it out with the bad guy — who’s just awful, just pure evil — and they have the final confrontation on the roof or the balcony or the cliff or whatever it is. Somewhere along the way, the rule got written that the good guy is not allowed to take out the bad guy. And, you know, there’s always that sort of “you’re not worth it” moment, but then the bad guy launches himself at the good guy one last time, and the good guy has to kill him in self-defense. And it’s a kind of pat conception of morality and of aggression. I wanted to tell a story about a character who wasn’t putting away his anger, but was mastering it and ultimately harnessing it and channeling it as a source of energy and a source of strength, because I do think that’s a huge part of the journey into adulthood into everyone. I think if you’re just sort of squashing that stuff down, you’re really not coming to grips with some basic stuff. And everyone has it in their emotional makeup.
So that’s the journey for Turok. He’s a guy who, at a young age, is told that he’s not fit to be around other people. And he believes it. And he goes off and he lives as an outcast and when he’s ultimately called back, he has totally internalized this idea that he isn’t able to be around other people, but circumstances are such that he has no choice. And in the course of keeping his vow to his brother Neshoba, he has to stay close to Neshoba’s wife Catori and son Andar, and little by little Turok starts coming alive again. There’s that scene when they’re floating down the river on the log after they’ve gone over the waterfall. For me, one of the really important things in that scene is that it’s been non-stop. Up until then, what Turok has been through has just been relentless. There’s probably been three lines of dialog in 15 minutes, and that river scene is the first kind of down beat.So we asked ourselves, “What are they thinking? What are they feeling?” and one of the obvious things was to take a moment to acknowledge that Catori’s lost her husband, Turok’s lost his brother, and Andar’s lost his father, because we haven’t really addressed that. But then another was that this is the first time Turok has had a quiet moment with other people in 16 years. And you can see how uncomfortable he is. There’s actually a shot that we cut out just because the animation just wasn’t working quite right, where Catori reaches out and touches Turok on the shoulder, and he says, “I’m only keeping my promise to Nashoba, nothing more.” The idea was that she was making kind of an overture of friendship and he kind of rebuffed it because he just has his walls up. He’s just not comfortable feeling connected to other people.
When they get to the Cliff People, their leader Sapinta is initially sort of very stand-offish and mistrustful, but ultimately she makes that overture, too, and offers him a permanent place among them. What we felt about that scene was that he wants this, but he can’t. He’s just not there yet. He’s just not ready, and part of it is the unfulfilled promise of revenge, but the other part of that is he just doesn’t feel comfortable. It’s almost too good to be true for him. He doesn’t believe he can have this. There’s the difference between taking someone to a place in the plot where something can happen, and taking a character to a place where they’re emotionally ready. He’s just not emotionally ready until he goes off on his own and sort of confronts some of his demons. Where he has that showdown with Chichak, and has that moment of communion with the Carnotaurus, which has been resurfacing throughout the film.
What we didn’t want was the story to be a celebration of rage. I think for this character, he finds his place. He finds his destiny. We were almost working backwards from what we knew that destiny was. How this character has been established for so many people is, “He’s the guy in the Lost Land, fighting to survive,” at least in that Dell/Gold Key incarnation of the character. We wanted to almost create a backstory to take him there that would be worthy of all the storytelling that’s already been done, and that would bring some new layers and new dimensions to the character and to his myth.
TZN: Speaking of places, the movie has such a such a strong sense of place in the first part of the movie in the “real” world and then in the Lost Land. Did you have a specific time period and geographic region that you were thinking of for that first part when you were making the movie?
BAILY: We did, and this came from Tony. In addition to knowing so much about Turok, he’s also just a fantastic writer and understands that it’s just all about details and it’s all about specificity. We saw this as Colorado in the 1880′s. I’m pretty sure it was the 1880′s.
BAILY: You are an inspiration to me, because you know more about the history of guns than I do (laughter). I know that they’re flintlocks, and I know that our sound designer Bob Pomann recorded the actual sound of a flintlock firing for the movie. Anyway, the notion was that Turok’s people had not had contact with the outside world, and so when they encounter guns for the first time, it’s like, “Whoa, what are those things?” Chichak obviously has adopted guns in the service of his quest for revenge.
We didn’t want to peg anyone in the film to a particular tribe or nation, though. There’s been speculation over the years as to what tribe or nation Turok might have belonged to, but we didn’t want to do that for him or for Chichak’s people, because it would create a different expectation for the audience, where they would be asking questions about historical accuracy. Fundamentally, this is pulp. This is fantasy. This is action-adventure. It’s not meant to be a piece of history. However, to the extent that these are Native American characters and there’s Native American imagery and details about Native American life in the film, we wanted to make sure that as much as we could, we got it right. So we worked with a brillaint writer/producer/director named Valerie Red-Horse, who reviewed the script and reviewed designs, not just of characters but of artifacts and weapons. She also spoke to tribal scholars and gave us feedback just to make sure that… again, it’s fiction, it’s fantasy, it’s pulp, but to the extent that we were delving into this territory, we didn’t want to mis-step.
Also, by the way, I should say that every single symbol…because when artists and designers are doing research, they go on-line and they do Google Image search, and then they find stuff and say, “Hey that thing looks really cool.” We were very careful not to put actual symbols on shields or on teepees into the film because that symbol might have sacred significance for somebody, and we didn’t want to just casually deploy it and just get it really wrong.
TZN: How soon in the process did you involve Ms. Red-Horse?
BAILY: At the script stage and onwards from there.
TZN: Was there ever a point where she looked at something and said, “No, you can’t do this,” or “Maybe it would be more interesting if you did this instead?”
BAILY: There weren’t a whole lot of changes that she suggested, but we made as many of her changes as we could. One thing where we didn’t is an interesting window into the kinds of things that you grapple with when you’re doing animation. I think the costume on the young version of Catori had sort of a ragged edge, and Valerie said, “You know, that’s not consistent with how almost all the other characters are garbed.” Most of their attire is really sort of carefully made and immaculate. I went to Tad Stones with that, and he said, “I take your point,” but one of the challenges in animation is to actually depict the particularities and the feel of materials, and it’s very hard to show something that’s intended to be buckskin. It’s not computer graphics where we’re using photographic textures or actually modeling texture into the models, so there were some instances where we had to weigh an animation consideration against a note from Valerie. In that instance, just because we were consistent across the vast majority of other characters, I think we kept her clothing as it originally was.
TZN: Did you actually try to cast Native Americans in as many of the speaking roles as you could?
BAILY: For sure. Absolutely. We’re so thrilled with the cast. We wanted great actors, and we wanted Native American actors, and we got both. Well, Robert Knepper is great, but he’s not Native American, and some of the actors in the loop group aren’t, but the vast majority of the actors are Native Americans.
TZN: Did any of them ever contribute anything during recording from a cultural perspective?
BAILY: Every actor I’ve ever worked with has brought layers and ideas and things to the script that we didn’t see, and that was definitely the case on Turok. I can’t think of a particular moment where we sort of did a wholesale rethink because of a note from the actor, but I can tell you that we certainly changed lines and tweaked lines and took ideas from actors. You always ask the actor to do it his or her way first, even if you have a preconception of how the line should sound, and many times, an actor gave us something that made us say, “Wow. That’s not what we were hearing, but we love that. That’s better.”
TZN: Is anything going on for another Turok movie?
BAILY: We don’t have any news at the moment. We have lots of conversations just because this is such a phenomenal property and there’s so much interest in it, but we’ll definitely let you know when we have something to announce.
TZN: What did you learn working on Turok?
BAILY: Boy, I learned a lot. It was a very, very intense schedule, and everyone rose to the occasion. I don’t know if I can distill it down to just one thing. Every production is different, and in this one we had 3 directors and a supervising director, so one of the things that we needed to make sure of was that it was sort of coherent and felt like one film, so that was kind of a new process for me. This isn’t like a “Here’s the one big lightning bolt that hit me in the head,” but I guess for me, the biggest learning on almost any production comes from the engagement with the characters and the story, and working through those questions and shaping it and getting it to a place where you get those goosebumps. You get that feeling in the pit of your stomach. There’s sort of all the intellectual stuff about story and craft, but ultimately all that stuff is trumped by, “Do we feel it?” or “Do we not feel it?”
I guess the biggest lessons for me came from working with Tony, working with the rest of the producing and directing team: Michael Uslan, F.J. Desanto, Mike Weiss, Tad Stones, Curt Geda, Dan Riba, Frank Squillace, the whole creative team, everybody. It’s tricky for me, because once I start mentioning people, I want to mention everybody, because everyone just rocked. Jim Venable’s amazing score. Bob Pomann’s amazing sound design. Lotto animation in Korea just hit it out of the park, and really exceeded our expectations. You refine your ability to work through the combination of creative stuff and production stuff and financial stuff and legal stuff because it all ties together. We had to solve a million different kinds of problems, and I feel sharper and psyched for the next one.
BAILY: Go back and redo one thing…(laughs) There is a FRAME of animation that I’d like to take out. It’s the scene when Turok and Chichak first meet (laughs), and every time I watch it, I think, “Man, I wish we pulled that out.” Right before Turok starts running towards Chichak’s guys, it’s sort of held for about two or three frames, and I wish we’d cut into that shot with Turok already in motion. There are probably bigger things, but that’s the one that springs to mind just because I just looked at it recently, and I was like, “Man, I wish we’d cut that.”
Toon Zone News would like to thank Evan Baily for taking the time to speak with us, and Amanda Cortese and Kate Hurwitz for their work in setting it up. For more on the history of Turok, check out Don Markstein’s Toonpedia entry, or visit ValiantComics.com for cover galleries of classic and modern Turok comics. Turok Son of Stone is available in stores now.