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Mark Long and Christian Johnston on Bringing RUBICON to Machinima

Last summer, I spoke with Mark Long about his thrilling graphic novel Rubicon, a gritty modern adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai set against the backdrop of the War in Afghanistan. While adapting Seven Samurai isn’t a new concept by any means, Long, along with co-writers Dan Capel (founding member of SEAL Team 6) and Chris McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, Jack Reacher), managed to craft a compelling narrative of loss, honor and brotherhood, grounded in the horrors of modern warfare. Now, the graphic novel is getting a live-action adaptation in the form of a webisode pilot on Machinima. The 12-minute episode, released today, is a prequel to the events of the book, focusing on the characters Big Mike and Smash, and will give readers a sense of what happened leading up to that fateful day in Afghanistan.

You can watch the first episode right here:

Recently, I caught up with writer Mark Long and director Christian Johnston over the phone to talk about how the new series informs the graphic novel, the challenges of adapting it to live action, what viewers can expect, and much more.

Nerdist: This is a prequel series; how does it inform the graphic novel version of Rubicon, and is this also based on a Kurosawa film?

Christian Johnston: The graphic novel that Mark Long and Dan Capel, our Navy SEAL Team Six founder put together, was really like this Samurai in Afghanistan, based on Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. What we did was take two characters from the graphic novel and kind of build their back-stories out, and that’s Mike and Smash. And a lot of this is informed by Dan Capel, the co-writer on it, and his actual experiences working with SEAL Team Six, and having to feather into CIA operations.

Mark Long: That’s a great question, and very observant of you. I’m reluctant to tell you what the other Kurosawa film is, maybe (I’ll) let you guess. When I began the series, I thought it would be really cool to base it on the three Kurosawa classics. And so yeah, it is. And the connection is the character Mike — Big Mike — you’ll notice if you look at that novel, is a character that’s killed in the first three pages. And his death was the inciting incident for the entire graphic novel. One of the things that you’ll see by consuming both of the media is that why the characters almost seem compelled to get back at them for the character’s death, and why they do the things they do.

N: Will we see other characters from the graphic novel pop up?

ML: Yeah, you will. So Smash is a character that’s in the graphic novel as well, and some of the other team members. The character Mike is actually based on a real person that Dan knew, killed by a car bomb, and he saved the lives of many others by sacrificing himself. He was the first guy to recognize something was wrong with this guy they were meeting, and he instinctively put his hands on the bomber, which was — that made both sides know — meaning the bomber — the bomber is trying to kill as many people as he can, but he’s unarmed and trying to hide their weapons in that terrorist act that can — once somebody gets near him and hands on, he knows he can be disarmed. But the guy, like, he basically voluntarily did that, and certainly knew that he made the ultimate sacrifice.

N: Wow, yeah. That’s definitely some powerful stuff there.

ML: It was, but there was a moment when shooting, and my creative partner Dan and I were with our actor, Matt, and Matt was asking us to tell him more about this character, and I’m telling you that 15 minutes later we were all crying at this table. I have never seen Dan Capel cry, and it was extreme.  He was very — the guy really deserves to have his story told, even if it’s fiction.

N: Yeah, well, I mean — you sort of — it’s cool knowing that back story, but you sort of get a sense that the character Mike in the show — he is willing to put himself out on the line. He’s willing to go that extra mile that other people might not be willing to do so. You really get a sense that he’s willing to put himself out there for his friends.

ML: Yeah, for good reasons and bad reasons — destructive, self-destructive reasons, and a few right reasons.

CJ: I think it’s that character that everybody likes to follow. You know, maybe we saw it from Mel Gibson’s portrayal in some of the cop dramas, where you’ve got a guy who’s kind of riding that thin line of sanity. A lot of the actual servicemen, and people that I got to know — I shot my first movie in Afghanistan in 2002 during the war with actors, and we met a lot of hardcore operators, and I think that’s what Mark also liked about Mike. He’s a character that rides that edge, because there’s a lot of adrenaline, there’s a lot of — for these guys, there’s really kind of a death wish — it’s kind of hidden by their opportunities to be able to operate and hold their own. Mike’s that kind of character that’s built as somebody who does what he knows to be able to succeed in the mission, and is a lot less concerned about the formalities of it, and I think that’s what makes it interesting for me, is a character that can basically pull the whole thing together in a very dramatic fashion.

The scenes that we have with him calling in close fire support to basically blow up the ordnance evidence that they have in a way to destroy the threat is his sort of cowboy ways of succeeding over the formal ways that they were going to have their support team handle the situation. And a lot of that comes from Dan Capel’s actual operating for these quote/unquote “meets,” where they have formal support from the Army/Navy, and then they have to end up pulling it together with a small team, and that’s the only way to get these things done, you know?

N: Yeah. So what’s the relationship like between Smash and Mike? I know that they’re agent and handler, but it seems like Mike kind of steamrolls his way through and Smash kind of has to pick up the pieces.

ML: Yeah, but there’s more to Smash than meets the eye, and you’ll see that in the series.

CJ: Yeah, we wanted to cut the story up also, with Smash being the straight man, getting Mike out of trouble, has some potential dark skeletons in the closet that will foretell a dramatic moving forward story for these guys. We wanted to build that in as well.

N: Nice. So what’s been the biggest challenge in adapting the graphic novel’s sensibilities to live action?

CJ: I mean, part of it’s in giving the back story, that the characters will maintain that same attitude by the time you finish shooting, and that you’ll see coming into the graphic novel. But I wanted to be able to create a gritty, kind of realistic atmosphere with this production, and not really go with something that’s too cartoonish, like a Sin City. So for me, it was really keeping the gritty aesthetic, and maintaining that. And characters (for whom) there’s just enough logic for what they’re doing that it’s possible for them to be operators working in the Special Forces division, but having them be just loose-cannon enough to make them intriguing on camera.

ML: Another great question. You know, each media is really good at some things, and not so good at others. The thing about graphic novels is you can kind of dilate time up and down. You can let moments breathe and have silent panels. It’s halfway to a prose novel, so you’re partially capable of relating the internal dialog of characters, although I don’t do that in the graphic novel directly. But you’re able to convey a lot more meaning out of it. In this smaller medium, and by smaller, I mean smaller screen, things have to be more A to B to C and subject to a lot of action, locations changing rapidly, initially full of content. You have to be very obvious about story points, to allow the viewer to follow you, and to get the emotional punch that you’re looking for.

N: Yeah, and I imagine that’s also part and parcel of when you’re releasing a webisode series, it has to be shorter than a normal TV show, because, unfortunately, the viewer retention rate on the Internet is a different beast compared to television. Do you find that kind of webisode model restrictive, or freeing?

ML: Both, I’d say. I find that in this medium, patience is a lot shorter. I want to get to the point because it’s short-form content. Directors and writers don’t understand the medium. That’s where I technically click off — things aren’t progressing quickly enough.

On the other hand, you can count on the viewer to keep up with the action now. You can really rapidly traverse through a lot of change, and the editing is more quick and direct, and so it’s more visually exciting to work in. I don’t know, it’s kind of a ship-in-a-bottle technique, right? You only have so much room to work, and to make something editable, I think has to work very well, it’s deceptively difficult.

N: Yeah, I can definitely imagine, sort of once you have those parameters, it’s like, now how do we do the best job possible with these confines?

ML: Yeah.

N: So do you recommend that viewers read the graphic novel first, or is this the kind of thing where you’re hoping they watch this then get inspired to go find out more about what happens?

ML: I’m a real fan of transmedia. The reward is discovering it on your own. If the writers and creators did things properly, each media stands on its own, and can actually be consumed out of order, but you’ll be rewarded by consuming both.

N: How many episodes do you guys have planned? I know that this is sort of like the pilot model, but if all goes well, how many episodes do you have planned?

ML: It’s up in the air, but somewhere between 9 and 13. Kind of a normal first season order.

N: Cool. And what are you hoping that viewers take away from this series and this pilot?

ML: I’m just hoping that they’re as excited as we are about the idea of the characters and where we’re taking them.  If you’ve seen the pilot, you see that it concludes with Smash and Mike going to Japan. So without giving anything away, just think, Navy SEALs versus Yakuza. It should be good. It’s going to be a really fun production to shoot, and something that melds two sub-genres that I really love — Japanese gangsters, and there are these special operations stories.

CJ: We’re kind of teeing up where these two characters go. What it is hopefully going to be through the rest of the episodes in the series has to do with Mike being this kind of Machiavellian, shoot-first-ask-questions-later. Usually gets there at the end, but creates casualties on the way. And Smash being the straight man, his buddy who keeps him out of the brink when they’re always getting into hot water with Joint Command. The story — hopefully the other episodes will be shooting in Japan with actual interesting people out there. So yeah — it’s kind of a combination of actual prequel stories and stuff we heard from Dan Capel, and the world that after this series of episodes would take us into meeting the other characters along the way.

N: And last question for you, Mark: what other Kurosawa movie do you think is ripe for adaptation?

ML: [chuckles] I would say look at Yojimbo and Sanjuro, along with Seven Samurai.

What do you think of Rubicon? Let us know in the comments below.

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