I talked to Bob Layton once again at Comicpalooza this year about his upcoming scripted movie Mettle. For those who haven’t heard of it, Mettle is a superhero movie set to star Edward James Olmos (Battlestar Galactica) as a retired Latino superhero suffering from PTSD forced to come out of retirement to battle his old foe once again.
When announcing the movie two years ago, Olmos said he wanted to create a superhero in movies for the Latino community, filling a hole that remains vacant. Two years later and there has been little noise about Mettle, so I asked Layton about the project. He assured me it is still in development, but they are just now finally cracking the script.
Whether it ever sees the light of day is a question, but it did make me want to revive this old interview I did with Layton and Michael D. Olmos, the son of Edward James Olmos, who helps produce his dad’s work.
Let’s start with your early stuff. I read you when I was growing up. You took on Iron Man and Iron Man was on hard times.
Bob Layton – It was being cancelled actually and that was the only way I got my hands on it.
Did they give you free rein on a struggling title? Did you go in with the belief that you were the man to revive this character?
Bob Layton – What it was, was David Michelinie and I jumped ship from DC and went over to Marvel because we saw the writing on the wall that DC was about to cut back on stuff and we weren’t top tier guys. We went in and interviewed at Marvel as a team because we were a team at DC. They gave us the option. They had some books that were on the verge of being cancelled. I think Ghost Rider was one of them but when they got to Iron Man I was like, yeah, we’ll do Iron Man!
David and I went out for dinner afterwards and I told him everything about Iron Man. He had never read the comic so I told him everything I knew about the character and everything that was wrong with it. And Dave came in with a totally fresh approach. He wasn’t like a hardcore Iron Man fan but he looked at it logically. He said we definitely needed to do something with it so we overhauled the entire series. We kind of did a reboot.
You mentioned in the announcement today about Mettle that it was about a person and what they go through in stressful times. You did that with Iron Man in the “Demon in a Bottle” storyline by humanizing Tony Stark in more than just a superhero way. Did you ever believe that story would be as big as it did?
Bob Layton – It’s one of the Top 20 stories of all time according to various people. We just felt it was another story. We wanted to change the heart attack of the month club because we didn’t know anyone who had 17 heart attacks and lived – Dick Cheney maybe – so we wanted to give him personal weaknesses. Dave looked at it from the business and corporation world. We started with the spy and corporate intrigue and that was one of the directions we were going in and it seemed like things that plagued businessmen were excess in playboy businessmen. It was a clear extension. When we ran it by the powers that be, they just said ‘don’t do it badly.’ That was our villain of the month and we moved on. No one sets out to change or make history, you can’t. To us, it seemed like we had carte blanche to do whatever we wanted and that is what we wanted to do. It made sense to us.
When Rhodey put on the armor was that on your run?
Bob Layton – No. We created Rhodey but someone else put him in the armor. Which, I was always against by the way. Every time you have more than one Iron Man, it loses the uniqueness of Iron Man.
At the time they put him in the armor, it was because Tony was going through the alcohol problems…
Bob Layton – But the trouble is, you can’t put that Genie back in the bottle. We tried to do that because when we took over, we had Rhodey have a huge accident and swore he’d never put the armor on again, so we wouldn’t have two Iron Men running around.
But it happened anyway.
Bob Layton – Exactly. Look at the Iron Man 2 movie. It dilutes the uniqueness by having Rhodey running around as War Machine. Plus you have all those robots and everything. Every time you do that, it diminishes your lead character. I’m not a big fan of that.
They say Shane Black is taking the movie back into the espionage side of things. Maybe bring back some classic bad guys like The Ghost.
Bob Layton – The Ghost is the villain I want them to use.
I remember when you resurrected Jean Grey and started X-Factor. You took something from the start of the X-franchise and made it fresh again.
Bob Layton – I was a fan of the original X-Men and I’m not a big fan of the new X-Men because I like the old guys. They were all around and no one was doing anything with them, not even in the X-Men books. That’s why I pitched the idea of putting the original band back together. The trouble with that was it turned out to be a political nightmare. The people who are in charge of the X-Men books is a very closed clique and I was not in their circle. I was the only guy who was not part of that clique who was writing an X-Men book.
That was the time of Chris Claremont.
Bob Layton – Yeah, it was Claremont and Bob Harris was the editor, stuff like that. It was a nightmare. It was always like ‘Bob can’t do this and Bob can’t do that because we’re doing this’ and blah, blah, blah. I had come off my run of Iron Man having the time of my life and then there was this thing which was like pulling teeth. For me, it was a political nightmare so after five issues, I moved on.
I wanted to ask you about your Hollywood projects, including The Helix, but now we have Mettle.
Bob Layton – The thing with Helix is we are still working on it. It is a pet project, a passion project, but it is not the type of movie people will give us $20 million for. It’s very risky. We’ve got a really good script but Mettle kind of trumps it right now so we are putting it on the back burner and will concentrate on Mettle because we’ve got a firm date on that. Plus, if Mettle ends up being a huge success, for us it will be so much easier to make Helix. People will ask what else do you got and we’ll be ready to go.
It seems like these days a lot of the more interesting comic book adaptations are the ones that take place in real world situations. I don’t want to say Watchmen is real-world because it takes place in a dystopian society but it contains real problems. Even Kick-Ass, which…
Bob Layton – Have you seen Super?
I haven’t but I have wanted to catch it.
Bob Layton – I loved it. It’s like Kick-Ass, but more believable. I really loved Super and you have got to see it.
What does the budget look like for Mettle?
Bob Layton – We’re not too worried about the budget.
Michael Olmos – I didn’t get a chance to say this at the panel earlier but a girl asked about casting. The answer to that is if you have a great story and great script, great actors will gravitate towards it. We all gravitate towards great scripts. It’s really hard to find a great script.
Bob Layton – Believe it or not, there is not that many floating around out there.
Michael Olmos – I think if we do this story right, the way we are planning it, money and actors will come. In reference to what you said about Bob and comparing “Demon in a Bottle” to Mettle, that is really one of the things that attracted me to the story. It grounds it.
Bob Layton – It’s a different motivation, a different issue that he is dealing with than Tony Stark but it is still that same human element. The thing about film that I can’t do in comics is I can really explore a character in depth. In comics, I have 22 pages. You have to ‘bang-bang’ and get the hell out of Dodge. In this case, when you have an actor of Ed’s quality, it is like, as a writer, I can do all the things I can never do in a comic.
Did you think of Edward James Olmos specifically when writing the dialogue?
Bob Layton – Absolutely. We get to play it to his strengths. It we play it right, Ed will have like five lines of dialogue in the first half of the movie. But, he is going to emote so much. I want him to be one of those characters who is so withdrawn that the story has to draw who he is out so you find out who he is as he rediscovers himself. In the first 20 or 30 minutes, he will have three lines of dialogue.
How do you market a movie like this? Lots of movies come out like Super and no one knows how to market it.
Bob Layton – Those are parodies. The problem with Kick-Ass is it looked like a comedy and something for kids but it was excessively violent and foul. The studios didn’t know what to do. This one does not have any confused genre identity.
It’s more of a drama?
Bob Layton – Yes, it is a drama where the superpowers are part of the dressing of the drama. It is not about a super dude although, I’ve got to tell you, he does some pretty cool stuff. The ending, especially.
Michael Olmos – That is the thing. It is not a parody and it does deliver for the younger audience, especially in the flashbacks, some amazing action sequences. There are two really big ones with something you have never seen before.
Bob Layton – I want to do a superhero movie my mom will watch because she cares about the characters. My mom hates superhero stuff. She hates science fiction. But, she loved Iron Man, not because I had anything to do with it but because she related to Tony Stark and his crisis of conscious. So much of that movie was not about the armor but about that guy. She liked Spider-Man for the same reason because it was a love story. My mom actually watched that, I couldn’t believe it. Movie goers are not comic fans so they don’t care about the trappings like we do. If it’s going to be that type of movie, they want character.
I take my wife to see a movie – I grew up reading comics in the 70s and 80s – my wife doesn’t know anything about them. But there is a lot she likes, like Thor. What made Thor really good was Tom Hiddleson’s portrayal of Loki.
Bob Layton – What do you remember most about Die Hard?
Michael Olmos – Hans.
Bob Layton – Hans Gruber, exactly. You have to have a credible villain.
Michael Olmos – But also, with Thor, you have that personal story – the father and his two sons. It was a family, it was Shakespeare. We connect to that story because we all have siblings and we all have parents. My dad always talks about the story and positioning the audience into the story. They have to have something to lock onto in the story. Then they can go along for the ride and you can do whatever amazing things you feel like.
How hard was it to move from writing comic books to writing scripts?
Bob Layton – It was liberating because in comics I am limited to 150 words a page for 22 pages. That’s not a lot of words. When I sat down to write the first draft of The Helix, I was like ‘oh my God, I can go anywhere, I can talk about anything.’ I’ve got 110 pages to do whatever the hell I want! There is a diatribe in there between the pilot and the doctor about why Star Wars sucks and I went on for six pages. Michael was like ‘dude, you don’t have to review each movie.’
Michael Olmos – I was like, two-and-a-half pages.
Bob Layton – I went into this diatribe arguing why Jedi’s are pussies and found an interesting way to do it in two pages.
Michael Olmos – It is a sequence where they have to maneuver the ship and it is really dangerous. So, it releases the tension because they are having this bloody argument about Star Wars while they are manning their stations.
Bob Layton – You know, I wrote six pages of it and it was really funny but we had to cut it down. But it is still liberating to write for the screen because I can do all that stuff. The other side is, I can’t get into their heads like I can in comics. In comics, I just give them a thought balloon. I can’t have a guy in movies just start talking to himself. But it is liberating. I am used to writing quickly because of the monthly grind and I’m used to writing very, very compactly. Most of my scripts, I can draft them up in about three weeks for a whole movie. He’s like ‘what?’ It takes most guys six months. I’m used to working at a steady pace once I sit down to do it. I wrote another movie called Poseidon 2.0, I wrote it in like three weeks. I didn’t leave the house or do anything. I wrote it at a compact 90 pages. He says it’s the best thing I’ve ever wrote.
Michael Olmos – It’s almost like we’re building up to Mettle.
Bob Layton – I wan’t your dad to read it because I am proud of it.
Michael Olmos – Oh, he’s going to read it. He’s intrigued at the premise.
Bob Layton – Basically, a computer reaches self awareness like Skynet but instead of trying to kill us, it tries to save us and changes the world for the better. It starts curing cancer and starts taking care of all the nuclear power plants so within a year, everything is great. So, all the heads of the major corporations get together and want to find the guy who originally created this program because they want to kill it. The trouble with deities is they are all socialists. It is bad for business so they want to kill God.
Bob Layton – Yeah, but it’s funny too. It’s got an ecological theme and, at the same time, it is all character driven and how these characters redeem themselves as the story moves forward. Also, there is not a single fight scene in the whole movie. I think it is the first time I have ever written anything that didn’t have a fight scene.