‘Boilerplate’ Creator Paul Guinan on His Robot’s Journey to a J.J. Abrams Film
Long before J.J. Abrams announced that he was going to be adapting the story of Boilerplate into a feature film, the adventures of the Victorian Era combat robot were catalogued in a coffee table book by Portland creators Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett. Originally intended to be a character in one of Guinan’s comics, Boilerplate migrated to the web in a series of historical photoshops featuring Boilerplate meeting latter day luminaries like Mark Twain and Teddy Roosevelt, appearing on the battlefields of famous wars, and even starring in silent films.
The images were so convincing that they fooled many people into thinking the robot was real, including literary agents and one book author who incorporated the supposedly historical character into a novel. Now, the plucky robot is headed to the big screen with one of the biggest producers in the business. In his first major interview since the announcement, Guinan talked to ComicsAlliance about the ten year journey that brought his robot to Bad Robot.
ComicsAlliance: How did “Boilerplate” originally get started?
Paul Guinan: I call “Boilerplate” a 10-year overnight success. It started out as a concept for a graphic novel, and was going to do an 8-page backup story, a little photo feature of what I wound up doing on the website, which is building a 12-inch robot figurine, photographing it, and inserting it into these vintage images. And then in the backup it would have this cute little thing about how it was based on this real robot from the turn of the century, and if you want to learn more, go to my website!
It was 2000, and the project just came out of my frustration at that time of publishers reluctant to do straight historical adventure stories. So, I realized I needed a fictional character to put into these historical stories. I began working on a Boilerplate graphic novel but the financing fell through. I think I only did about three dozen pages before it fell apart. But I had this figurine and a few photos, so I put it up on the website and just let it percolate…And over time people started to find it and started to think it was real. There was just this snowball effect, and the media started writing articles about it.ComicsAlliance: I don’t know if you’ve condensed this down to a soundbite down yet, but what is “Boilerplate”?
Paul: That’s a good question, because the difficult thing about the book is how to classify it, because most of it is real history, but you can’t put it in the history section because there’s this fictional robot in it. And it’s not an art book, although it winds up getting racked in there. Bookstores don’t know where to put it. They usually put it in the science fiction oversized section, whatever that is. Since round of news about J.J. Abrams, there is a new term; people are calling it a graphic novel/picture book hybrid, or a graphic novel picture book. So that’s as close a term I guess. I like to jokingly refer to it as a graphic novel without panel borders and word balloons… Even I can’t come up with a sound bite-y, simple summary. I guess the best way to describe it is that it’s a coffee-table history book — with a robot.
“publishers reluctant to do straight historical adventure stories. So, I realized I needed a fictional character to put into these historical stories. I began working on a Boilerplate graphic novel but the financing fell through.”
ComicsAlliance: And yet it hasn’t held it back.
Paul: No, because part of that is the appeal of something that’s different.
ComicsAlliance: Something you’ve never seen before.
Paul: Right, right, yeah that was the number one sound bite we got at the show: “I haven’t seen anything like this” That means a lot to me. There’s an adage, “familiarity breeds contempt.” As you move into your 40s, you start to really get what that means, you start seeing the same movies and hearing the same music.” For young people who are experiencing some of these movies or music for the first time oh it’s brand new to them and exciting and different and it’s like wow, this is a great sound and I wanna hear more of this.
ComicsAlliance: Yeah, but you don’t understand the roots or the influences. It’s like the first comics that I read. In retrospect, they were terrible. But to me it was all new, and I hadn’t seen anything like it at the time. It might as well have been the first comic book in existence. I didn’t have any sense of the history of it.
Paul: One of my favorite sort of pastimes is to play follow the influence, where I see some guy’s work and go, “That’s really interesting, where did he get it from?” And then I find out who he’s been looking at and I go, ok where does HE get it form? I sort of trace it back and try to find either a seminal influence that’s really groundbreaking, or a few cases what I call a “ground zero” where someone came out with a whole cloth, and just had that much of an imagination to begin a new form. And that’s very, very rare.
ComicsAlliance: So when you say there was this snowball effect where Boilerplate was slowly discovered, how long a period of time are we talking about?
Paul: Years. All the local press picked up on it. Usually the hook was how people had fallen for it and how cute is that people believe a robot ran around in 19th century. I was somewhat encouraged by the articles so I added maybe a dozen pages with images on it. I wasn’t sure exactly how to go about the next step… I didn’t have any funding. I wasn’t prepared to just do it on my own. I didn’t have the resources. And at that time I had zero connection with anybody in the publishing industry. So I just sort of let it go.
One day my wife [Anina Bennett] calls me up on the phone and says there’s another a little article about Boilerplate. This time it’s a reference to the fact that Boilerplate shows up in this book by Chris Elliott, this thing called “The Shroud of the Thwacker.” There was this spate of Victorian murder mystery novels that were coming out at that time — “The Alienist” by Caleb Carr, and “The Devil in the White City” by Erik Larsen – and he was writing a spoof of that. And I thought wow, this is flattering. I’m gonna go over to the bookstore and check this out.
There was an acknowledgment of Chris thanking the people that helped him with the book, and it said, “You can’t make up something like Boilerplate — well you can, but it’s a lot easier when your brother just shows you a picture of it.” I got the implication from the line that his brother was trying to find unusual, weird things from that period to include in the book and printed out a hard copy of my site and handed it to him. Chris got very excited, but to his credit, he realized okay, there’s something fishy here. But he thought it was fake, but a 19th century fake. Chris didn’t include Boilerplate as just a cameo appearance — the robot is the third lead. I thought, oh no, this is gonna embarrass him, it’s gonna be a media thing. I’m gonna have to take him to court; I’m gonna have to deal with lawyers.
Then the paper said he was coming to town and I kept getting all this advice: don’t go to the reading, don’t talk to him, let your lawyers deal with it. But I at least wanted a signed copy of the book. So I went there anonymously and just got my book signed. And then the next day he called me on the phone; he’d gotten my contact information because the New York Times reporter had called him. Chris went into this big mea culpa, and it was a totally honest mistake. We decided that we hate lawyers and just worked it out ourselves over the phone. It was essentially a retroactive license, but that generated another round of press. So “The Oregonian” interviewed me and asked, what’s my endgame? I described my plan to do a coffee table book, and then a local publisher, Collector’s Press, called me up and says “I’m interested in this.” And the best part was I didn’t put together a pitch or a proposal.
At this point Anina came on board to help write the book. But then about a year into it, when we were more than halfway finished, a big distributor on the west coast folded and took down a bunch of boutique publishers like Collector’s Press. So all of a sudden I’ve got no publisher, and I’m back to square one. I got bummed out about that and sort of put Boilerplate on a back burner. Then one day I was talking to my friend Shannon Stewart about my predicament, and he mentioned his friends at the literary agency Bakers’ Mark.
The next week we met and sat down. I had printouts of material from websites, and actually at one point Bernadette goes, so where did you find this, how did you find out about this? In the middle of our first meeting, what should I say? I admitted I made it up but that I found that a lot of people enjoy being tricked as long as they are not made the fool of — that’s why magic has been so popular all these centuries, people don’t mind that kind of deception as long as it’s not embarrassing to them. Their enthusiasm just jumped a notch because they all said, I love this premise.
And they decided they were going to go to New York and pitch it to book publishers and try and get that kind of surprise and excitement out of the editors. They got a little bidding war going on with some of the publishers and the book landed at Abrams, which I’m hugely happy with because about a third of my reference library is Abrams coffee table art books. And it fits in with the conceit that this is supposed to be real. There’s no giveaway in the book, no disclaimer, nothing… They were totally willing to go along with that gag…
As the book neared it’s publication date, galleys were sent to a production company in LA that’s run by a woman named Deb Newmyer, head of Outlaw Pictures. She’s totally connected, and could put the finished book front of anybody. She asked me, well, who should I put this in front of? They asked for a list of directors.
ComicsAlliance: They asked you for that?
Paul: Yeah. It was basically more about them getting a handle on the property and making me happy for the time being until I put my name on a piece of paper.
ComicsAlliance: What do you say when someone asks you what director you want for the film of your book?
Paul: I’m a crazy huge movie buff… Having recently seen the new Star Trek film I immediately thought of J.J. Abrams. I was very impressed with how he handled a piece of material that had a huge amount of built-in history, providing plenty of inside references, Easter eggs to the Trek fans. But for people that don’t know about the show’s history, the story didn’t depend on that. I thought that balance was very appropriate for “Boilerplate” because if you substitute Federation history for US history and you got the same kind of problem. How do you tell a story that doesn’t rely on all this background?
ComicsAlliance: It’s a similar thing with comic book movies where they throw in little Kitty Pryde cameos for fans but still need to make it accessible to everyone.
Paul: Right. If you don’t know who Kitty Pryde is, it’s not going to interfere with anything. So Deb says, “J.J. Abrams, I’ve known him since he was a teenager.” She put the book in front of him and he fell in love with it. We had e-mail exchanges, and a couple months ago I went down to LA to the Bad Robot offices. Their offices are very modest – a brick building that used to be a factory making typewriters. It’s been refurbished, but from the outside you’d swear it’s still making typewriters, and they even left the sign Olympia Typewriter Factory on the front of the building. It looks like a working creative space, not a film studio’s production office. It had this real funky functional quality to it.
Everyone I met was great, down to Earth. Going through the place I saw that J.J. is really into sci-fi, obviously, but low tech, old school kind of stuff. Being there I saw Boilerplate’s appeal in relationship to the kinds of things that JJ is interested in, science fiction with a old fashioned aesthetic. I thought this is just terrific, a terrific fit. During the meetings they told us that since they became interested in the book, half a dozen different people of serious ilk pitched them robot stuff, and they kept passing on it, saying, nope, we have our robot project. At the San Diego Comic-Con I had two brief meetings with J.J., and he was really enthusiastic about “Boilerplate.” And he’s great, he’s got this kid-at-heart kind of thing, you know? In emails he’ll occasionally type in all caps for emphasis, and then at the end of our meeting, as we’re all getting ready to go, he goes like this. [demonstrates a fist bump]
ComicsAlliance: Now, the question is, did the fist bump explode?
Paul: No, it didn’t, I wasn’t going to do that. [laughs] I’m still in my forties, I think I should behave at least somewhere close to that…
ComicsAlliance: It seems like you think “Boilerplate” found the perfect home.
Paul: In a way, it did. You know, it’s bizarre how every once in a while you get your first pick, you get your first choice on something. I’ve never gotten it for hotels in San Diego, but uh, one day… [laughter]
ComicsAlliance: [laughter] If you had to choose between the two, I would take J.J. Abrams over the Marriott.
Paul: …They wanted to announce [the movie] at one of their own trade shows, but the story about Abrams’ interest just got out during Comic-Con at some point. I remember us having a couple of Hollywood people come up to us at our booth, and making oblique reference to it. Oh, I hear Paramount’s interested in this. Do you know who the director is? And I said well, we can’t really tell you. Reporters. They’re impressive sometimes. They can put things together, and investigate stuff, and figure it out. [laughs] So something like that happened [and it leaked]. Because we were very good… very obedient about not mentioning it at the show, even if that was frustrating for us, you know? It’s like, oh jeez, you know, we have this great news, and we want to tell everybody, and we can’t…
ComicsAlliance: When is the movie supposed to come out?
Paul: IMDB states the film will be released in 2013, but the next “Star Trek” film is due the same year. As of now Abrams has yet to announce if he will helm the second installment. But even as a fan of the new “Star Trek” picture, I would forgive him passing on directing “Trek” so he can direct “Boilerplate.”
ComicsAlliance: Abrams Books must be very excited.
Paul: Yes, yes. Even before this announcement, though, we had let our editor know in confidence that Bad Robot was interested in producing this book. But regardless, they were happy enough with the initial sales of Boilerplate [that] they had already commissioned a follow-up or sequel; we couldn’t exactly do a sequel because it’s a finite story, but we’re taking a minor character from the book and spinning it off into his own series. So it will be the same format, premise: fictional character in a real world…
ComicsAlliance: Can you say which character yet, or is it a surprise?
Paul: Oh no, not at all. The character is Frank Reade, which was an actual dime-novel character from the late 19th century. The exciting thing for me about this is that this is a lost legacy of American science fiction. Nobody knows about this character, even hardcore robot fans, science fiction fans, have never heard of this.
ComicsAlliance: But it’s real though, right?
Paul: Not a “real” real guy, but a real fictional character from a dime novel. It’s a little more complicated than the Boilerplate thing in terms of how do you sell it and how do you explain it? It’s gonna be a lot of fun to do because it’s a truly lost legacy of American science fiction that I find very very important. Nobody knows about it so I’m very excited to bring this back to life. In the original “Frank Reade” dime novels, he’s an imperialist adventurer. And actually that’s one of the reasons that nobody’s ever heard of these stories is that they’re not only badly written, but they’re pretty racist and right-wing. So it’s probably for the best that the stories themselves have been lost, but the 300-odd illustrations that went along with them are just jaw-dropping, gorgeous, beautiful. In fact, actually one of the Frank Reade dime novels, I’ve used several of them in the “Boilerplate” book itself, as fake “Boilerplate dime novel covers. So these are actually Frank Reade, and then it would say Frank Reade Jr. instead of Campion Jr…
ComicsAlliance: That’s pretty fantastic.
Paul: So these submarines and helicopter airships and weird all-terrain vehicle things, and then whatever that is, it’s a snow-ship and an airplane and a submarine. So, but the only drawback is those 6 covers I can’t use in the Frank Reade because they’re boiler-plate covers now. So instead I riff off, as here you can see, riffing off the color scheme, the red with the green triangle and brass ports you can see on this model ship here.
ComicsAlliance: Is there a publishing date yet?
Paul: Yes. As with Boilerplate, Anina is going to co-write the book with me, and then we turn it in at the end of this year and it’s released for fall 2011.
ComicsAlliance: So, the interesting thing now is that people heard about the movie option, they’re not going to have that experience of picking up the book for the first time, and potentially thinking it’s real.
Paul: Well, it could still happen, because you could of optioned a docudrama-ish piece, I suppose.
ComicsAlliance: I’m assuming that’s not what it is?
Paul: No, although people have asked me how I would like the movie to be, and I’ve yet to actually sat down with J.J. and discuss in detail the storytelling and the approach of it. I did the production company did commission a treatment that was much more just a straightforward narrative adventure story, that had a few cameo appearances from history. But it was really about the adventure of the inventor, his robot, and then because they’re Hollywood they felt they needed to include a villain and a love interest.
ComicsAlliance: A love interest for Boilerplate?
Paul: No, no, for the inventor. That would be too bizarre. Actually one of the things I want to make sure is maintained in the – in the movie version and was staring to get – starting to get away from itself in the treatment was Boilerplate the question of his sentience and his abilities and stuff like that, because initially on the website I first started I didn’t even give his height, his vocabulary or anything like that because I didn’t want to lock myself in. I didn’t want to commit myself before I figured out where the story was going, what the story requirements were. But then over the years, because of the feedback I got, I recognized that that kind of cipher quality was actually a benefit… He has no character, so all the characters around him [use him as] a sounding board, or a mirror. It was in a way creating a deeper connection with the audience than anything I could have done if I had explained all the stuff. Nowhere in the book does it talk about his height, his weight – nothing. Nothing. There’s a couple lines of dialogue so you get the idea that he talks, but his sentience, his abilities? No. And it’s got a selection of reaction that could be very fascinating. One person actually thought he was creepy. Other people think he’s adorable and cute. Some people think of him as sad. And just, it depends on where you’re coming from …
ComicsAlliance: Possibly some projection.
Paul: Right. Exactly. That’s exactly what it is. So I want to make sure that’s part of it when we go into production with the movie. For instance, if the inventor is asking Boilerplate for advice about his love interest in the movie, the inventor will work it through himself, out loud, he’ll say, “What I think of, well if I take her to the movies then – okay, I’ll take her to the …” so that he sort of works it through it and then says, “Thanks for the advice.” I’ve seen that kind of thing before on comedies, where the friend just doesn’t say anything. And then the guy say, “Oh you’ve been a great help.”
So that’s the only thing that I want to try and keep in tact. And the rest of it, I’m actually looking forward to what changes they come up with as long as they benefit the piece. I remember when I was a kid, watching reruns of the Adam West “Batman” show and digging it. And then at the same time I was reading Neil Adams’s “Batman” comics, highly realistic dark stuff, and I was like, “These are both valid. I like them both.”
ComicsAlliance: Do you want to do more comics?
Paul: You know, that has always been my first love. I remember that was the very first thing, the very first art stuff I did as a little kid – after building blocks of cities and making little towns out of wooden blocks – was folding paper and making my first little comic drawings. That was a very, very early memory. So it’s literally my first love. I haven’t done any comics in five years now, or six years. that I haven’t done a comic book. “Heartbreakers” was actually the last one I did. And funnily enough, that was our most successful “Heartbreakers” book, the one that Boilerplate was in. [laughs] And then I got this little plaque here for it, this Eisner Award.
ComicsAlliance: “Boilerplate” wasn’t eligible to be nominated for the Eisner Award, right?
Paul: Yeah, It was bit disappointing. Boilerplate was produced by 20-year veterans of the comics industry. It starred a character that begin its life in a comic book. And in “Boilerplate” there’s a whole section about comics, showing how the robot appeared in Winsor McCay strips, Alex Toth drawings, in 1970s Star*Reach comics, and graphic novels. I even give a shout-out to Phil Seuling, the unsung father of the comic convention and the direct sales market! I was trying to push the boundaries of the visual narrative, creating a novel with graphics, but the way things are defined at present, it’s technically not a graphic novel.
I grew up in Chicago and there was this thing about the Second City, about how Chicago has this inferiority complex to New York. But the fact of the matter is you can’t make it in Chicago as an performer, whatever, as a person working in popular arts. You have to move to L.A. or New York and then you’ll go big time. So, whenever you hear about some famous actor or especially comedians, they come from Chicago. And it can be a frustrating thing that in order to find success as a graphic storyteller I had to go outside my home of the comic book industry.