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WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 24, 2010

THE SPECTRE: STEVE NILES

The Continuum continues a series of reports on Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths with a studio-provided interview with Steve Niles, who wrote The Spectre short that accompanies the film.

Following is an edited transcription:

Question: How familiar with The Spectre were you entering this project?

Niles: My knowledge of The Spectre was fairly minimal. I had done a series called Batman Gotham County Line, where I had used a few of the supernatural characters. For that writing, I looked at Dr. Fate and Spectre, but in that case, I went with Phantom Stranger.

Within six months, I got a call from Todd Casey at Warner Bros. Animation asking if I'd be interested in writing this short, and that's when I got really interested in him -- and he does fascinate me now. I dove headfirst into all of the 1970s Spectre stuff, and the more I read, and the more I talked to Bruce Timm about the him, the more I fell in love with the character. Judge, jury, executioner. He kills. I wish I had been more into the character before because he's perfect for me.

Question: So The Spectre really hits home for you?

Niles: I have a big affection for crime and noir, and a big affection for horror, and The Spectre is the one character that I can literally combine them. He can be a detective when I need him and, then, when he gets the confession out of you, I can have him kill you. He's very Ditko-esque, or even a kind of Rorschach. But I like The Spectre better in that, because he's a dead guy and he's haunted, you trust his judgment a little more. You figure he's justified. That's why Batman doesn't kill -- he can't judge a living peson. But this is a guy who is dead, he knows how the system works, he understands the ramifications, so he figures he can save us all a dime ... and kill them with a muscle car.

I remember as a kid reading The Spectre comic and the true fun of it was that this guy had a flair for the ironic in his retribution. There was this issue where a hairdresser gets killed by giant scissors. I loved that so much. It makes it such fun to write a character who gets to look into each bad guy, see what makes them work, and then turn that on them. It's like he gets to give them a little taste of hell before he sends them to hell.

Question: You've worked in a number of mediums, but this is the first time in animation. How did that experience compare to comics, film, etc.?

Niles: I loved it. I find it really liberating working in other people's sandboxes. Tell me what your rules are, and I can stay there and have fun, instead of just staring at a blank piece of paper. It was fun working with Alan (Burnett) and Bruce (Timm) and bouncing ideas off them. They say, "Too much dialogue," I say "Okay, cut it out." There can be no ego in this writing. And it was probably the easiest time I've ever had writing something. I've had lots of fun writing movies and comics, but this was just plain fun. The worst part of the whole experience was that we had to lose one of the killings, but that was no big deal. And that's as bad as it got.

Question: "No ego"? But you must still feel a certain amount of pride to finally earn your first "written by" credit for The Spectre?

Niles: Even 30 Days of Night was a "story by" credit and I had the "script" credit divided with three other people. This is the first time, love it or hate it, that I can watch the film and say, "That's my freaking dialogue." The Spectre is the most complete thing I've ever had go from script to screen, and that in itself is really exciting for me. Being able to see what you write actually get onto the screen is phenomenal and so hard in movies.

Question: Did you work closely with Bruce Timm on this project?

Niles: I've been a fan of Bruce Timm for years, and we had never had an opportunity to meet. Ironically, I was doing last minute edits on the script on the way to Seattle for a Con and he was sitting right next to me – and that was the first time we met. He's as big a nerd as me. We like the same comics, we both love the 70s ... we're both fans of guys like Herb Trimpe, Frank Robbins, Sal Buscema, Jack Kirby. We do the classic geek stuff, sitting around and talk about this stuff, and buying comics we've already bought before. Right now I'm on a major Spectre binge, buying every damn Spectre I can get my hands on. The Golden Age art looks insane, but fortunately the prices on those will keep me in check.

Question: Will viewers find Steve Niles' fingerprints all over this script?

Niles: There's a lot of me in this script, and people that know me will see that quickly and throughout. If I could do a comics series called "Monsters and Muscle Cars," I'd be a happy guy. I have a 1973 Nova that I keep running. When I'm not writing, I'm out driving in that. I love that damn car.

I also have a big love for noir, so there's an homage to, say, speech patterns that sound like Fred MacMurray from Double Indemnity. This script offered some great opportunities to throw a lot of this stuff I love into it. As well as to take a nice swipe at Hollywood greed, which is such an easy target, but still fun. The people who know me who have seen it say "Geez, why didn't you just put yourself into it." I guess I should've just had the Spectre kill me.

Question: Did Warner Bros. ever curtail your freedom in creation?

Niles: The funny thing is that I was going to be more restrained. I thought, "Well, I can't rip heads off." And they were saying, "No, come on. Let's see what you've got." I think people will be surprised at how actually scary this thing is. It's a good little horror story.




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