Interview: United Pictures and Vampire Hunter D Part II

by Zac Bertschy,
Kurt: That is a hypothesis. When you see Tangled, right, they try to make their 3D characters attractive. Frozen is the same thing. Where they have a larger eye, they have sort of an anime aesthetic in a way, translated into 3D, where there's a lot of emotion in the face, a lot of emotion in the eye. The eyes are scaled up; it's not a human proportion. And I wonder if a female finds that attractive. Or I wonder if many US males find a Tangled character attractive.

Zac: Well the reason I bring it up is you mention the audience you're going for is pay cable drama. That stuff is sold largely on sex appeal. I figured there must be a component of that in there and if you're going with those Amano designs it seems a little incongruous.

Kurt: I think the possible outlets are broader than pay cable. That only just happened in the last year and a half or two years? It could even be inclusive of something like The Wire or something like House of Cards. There are other outlets now, but I'm not saying that is our… We are going to be as focused on getting an HBO or getting somebody that has huge guts to put a lot behind it. Look, we can put this on HBO the way Spawn was in the 90s, where it was essential appointment TV animation. That was a big win. That spawned--Spawn? spawned?--a hundred-million-dollar feature film. The feature film killed the franchise, but the two years of broadcast--

Taliesin: Well, the lesson's there. <laughs>

Kurt: --that was the only reason that MacFarlane got a chance at bat. So HBO has enough of that vision. Could be great, but there could be other folks as well outside of the pay cable. The sex appeal? Absolutely. I think that there is something that needs to be brought back from the original Amano design that maybe got lost a little in animation.

Taliesin: For me, for the original design it's not about the face, it's about the grace. That's something that's been brought up a lot; we've been talking about how to translate Vampire Hunter D. There is a natural grace to what they want in the animation and what's going to try and be built is something that moves beautifully. I think the movement is where you're going to get that character. The face… I mean like, I dunno, Tom Hiddleston's not…

All: <laughs>

Kurt: Well, they did a little paintcept the other day and the paintcept was actually attractive. It was slightly 3D-ish and it was way more successful with D than it was for the secondary character they did--which was, the human stuff was, "bleeh." But D had an earthly glow about him, a softness, a slightly porcelain-ness, which I think is true of vampires in general. I thought that was interesting. But the point you make is a good one, which is: it is refining him to be in persona, in animation, to be unearthly and to have that inner confidence that, to be honest, with limited animation was probably quite difficult for them to achieve in the two movies.

Zac: That's a good point that Taliesin makes about translating not necessarily the exact aesthetic Amano had, but the flow of his lines and the way movement is portrayed in his art, that's arguably a more important element of his art to translate to the screen. But based on this conversation, it sounds like right now this is in a lot of different pieces and you're coming to the hardest part of this, which is: what's this show going to look like and who is it going to appeal to? And it sounds like that is a big challenge.

Kurt: Yeah. I think our audience is an audience that is probably in that more male demographic. It's a 15-45 year-old audience because of the number of iterations. I think we can get the younger viewers, we can get guys like me that've seen the original. I think the depth of the story and the depth of the universe may lead female viewers to be interested.

Taliesin: Oh, I have no doubt.

Kurt: So I think that kind of works. But it is, we are intentionally going into the world of the unknown. This isn't something that we're just retreading, that we can run a pro-forma on, something that's already been done. This is trying to break the mold both in its production style and manner as well as, in some regards, possibly the audience. So there will be… we will, by necessity, have to find somebody who has vision on the distribution front.

Zac: Creatively, Taliesin: in your head when they say, "we're doing Vampire Hunter D as an hour-long serial… I keep using the word "cable," but just because it's evocative of the audience you guys are going for. An hour-long serial cable drama: what pops into your head? Immediately, what comes to mind?

Taliesin: I'm always a little hesitant to do that just because I know the things that pop into my head are not necessarily going to make the same bouquet of imagery in someone else's head. But I'll say the first thing I thought when they pitched this to me is, "oh god I get to do an animated Hannibal."

Zac: Oh okay, interesting, all right.

Taliesin: It was my first thought. "Oh god, it's the opposite of Hellsing, I'm so happy." It's big, it's horror, it's romantic, it's post-apocalyptic, and it's getting to take this thing from all of these novels and build this companion piece for them in this fascinating way. There are things that we can't talk about, and it's driving me absolutely nuts, of the way this is coming together and it's so unique and interesting and I can't wait to do another one of these where we can talk more.

Kurt: It's Fallout meets H.P. Lovecraft.

All: <laughs>

Zac: Well that's interesting. You mention horror. I'm curious. Do you see it; for a modern audience, do you see this more as a horror thing or as a gothic, romantic fantasy?

Taliesin: I hate to pigeonhole it.

Scott: I think that we'll actually cross a lot of those lines for people that have multiple interests. As we talk about the wide range, because of the depth of this property and the number of novels, I think great storytelling kind of trumps everything. If we truly have that focus of bringing this universe in a new visual medium, a new look and feel with an amazing story, if we do our job right I think we'll cross those lines. People who are like "I'll give it a chance because I like this, it appeals to this part of me and I'll watch it." So it's not purely what their core thing is, but they're like, "this is pretty good, yeah." So for the horror people, it'll give them a little something. For the monster movie people, it'll give them a little something. I think we can meet that broad appeal.

Taliesin: Genre functions best when it's juggling. We can talk about great genre classics, but I think there's no denying that things like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Doctor Who are at their best and most memorable when they're more than one thing, those episodes that are funny and whimsical and frightening all at the same time. Those are the moments when those shows really really shine is when they're managing to be as much as they're capable of.

Zac: That's a good point. Genre entertainment currently has to kind of do everything in order to be successful.

Taliesin: In order to be magnificent.

Zac: There you go. That's the word.

Kurt: Things that we will need to find our way on. Scott and I had a great conversation with Kevin Leahy the other night and he was very open and encouraging to the endeavor. Also being interested in finding his way with us, which is very interesting in the workflow. But our next scheduled conversation will be around the universe, his understanding of it--because as far as I can tell, on a Western, English-speaking front, he's probably the most knowledgeable person--and by doing so, we will, by necessity, have to tailor it a little more for our broader audience. Which could mean taking some liberties. How do we have Kikuchi-san understand and embrace what we may ask of those facets of the story, to indulge that liberty? So it will be interesting to unearth that. Humor isn't really in the novels--in a Western sense. It has the potential for being--if you rewrote The Left Hand to be Lewis Black, you have the potential for this snide, put-upon, tethered character that has no choice but to be with D and he's exactly the opposite. If he were to take form, he would be the ugliest guy in the room and D is the most beautiful. Is it something we can take a liberty with to that degree, to make it work on television, to have that level of humor and have the one-liner that is something that most Western audiences like to find? We don't know yet. We have not proposed it.

Taliesin: I always heard the voice of Douglas Adams in The Hand. Just the wit, the never-ending, sardonic wit. Just painful.

Kurt: Is it a smart Bill Paxton? You could place all these characters in there because you know that it's been translated and what exactly is that voice? I think, of the show, we'll feature The Left Hand to a greater degree than is in the novels.

Zac: Really? Okay.

Kurt: We need that levity.

Zac: Well, they lean on it for levity in the original film in moments. But, to hear that it'll be a little bit more of a standout presence is interesting. So, it terms of distribution platform, you're talking cable, obviously this hasn't be picked up by anybody yet, right? You're going to produce a pilot and then pitch it?

Kurt: Correct. So we're going to put together our presentation of this, put the team together. We will then take and do the standard pitch set and go find an outlet for it. I think it is… there is a lack of this for broadcast. So I think that we will find a receptive audience. Whether or not they pick it up is a different matter, but I do believe we'll at least get through the front door.

Zac: Are you a little more optimistic about this getting a foot in the door at any one of the enormous streaming companies that's spending lots and lots and lots of money on original content right now? Netflix, Hulu, Yahoo, Amazon…

Kurt: You know what? I'm completely agnostic. I think that on one side of it you have a traditional broadcaster that needs to combat those guys. So you may find an audience someplace where you don't expect it and they say, "this is exactly what we need to not have another competitor in the stream." So I have no opinion and I will treat them all somewhat equally. There are plusses and minuses for each platform, right?

Zac: One other thing I definitely wanted to ask about, for Taliesin: from a writing perspective Vampire Hunter D presents a challenge because there's really only one memorable character, maybe two if you count The Hand. That character's monolithic in that world. Looking through the books and noticing what's popular about the films, are you concerned about being able to build a supporting cast around D? Because it's such a monolithic character in those books, how much of a challenge do you see that as?

Taliesin: Honestly… I know I haven't shared all of the things that I'm going to pitch at the boys at this point about people… Everyone has their list of people they want to drag into this and I know I have my list of people I want to drag into this. So with the idea of the talent that I want to throw at this in mind, my answer would be I'm not concerned at all. I think that the nice thing about such a charismatic character like D and such a fruitful world is going to be that populating it is not going to be a challenge. It's very fertile earth and very interesting things can grow out of it, especially if we give ourselves the freedom to be more than what's put down on paper.

Kurt: Well we've got twelve thousand years of…

Taliesin: A lot can happen.

Kurt: A lot can happen in twelve thousand years.

Zac: <laughs> So I've heard.

Kurt: There's an interesting facet of D's persona in the books, that is the timelessness. You don't ever really know whether he has met any one nemesis before. I think we will most likely exploit that.

Taliesin: I'll say Doctor Who is a good example of a show that basically focuses on two characters for almost its entire run. And only one stable character and one recurring, possibly a companion who sticks around for thirteen episodes, six episodes. So I think that the ensemble cast is not necessarily a device that needs to exist, but it's definitely one way or another to go.

Zac: Right, understood. Okay, so, for people who want to follow this project: where can they do that?

Kurt: We're putting our site together now, which is We are having some naming conversations currently, whether it's just simply Vampire Hunter D, whether we add some flavor to that, that will be coming up soon. We will have a definitive thing by the time we release. But right now, the destination is Vampire Hunter D: The Series, as generic and inspiring that is, right? Who doesn't like that?

Taliesin: It tells you want to know, right there.

Scott: It's simple; it's to the point…

Kurt: It's got "peanut butter" and "sandwich" right in the name. It's a peanut butter sandwich, what do you want?

Scott: If people over the course of development have questions, we'll put out development blogs, I'll be doing videos that will be loading up to the site so that we'll be answering questions for people. It'll be "here's information so that you know what's going on as we go forward, if you have questions send them in and we'll answer them as best we can." That way we can keep people in the loop about what we're doing. We don't want to do the arm's length distance thing, if you will - I think that's the problem with a lot of productions in Hollywood--we'll tell you when we're ready to tell you and it's a need-to-know basis. We don't think that's a great policy.

Kurt: It's a good point. Letting people into the sausage factory I think is a good idea. This truly is that. As I said, it can either be wonderfully successful or a train wreck of a crash and what is interesting to me, as a guy who does this… We're working on a $40 million version of the Aardvark and the Ark tale with John Stevenson. It is a big-budget CG movie. That's one production methodology. This is entirely different. We're working here where we're doing writing and story in the US, this is what we've early on with the guys at Digital Frontier have laid some track on, is that… analyzing how they tell stories in Japan and analyzing how we tell stories in the United States with a more three-act structure and a more regimented way on that front, saying to the guys at DF: we think the easiest way in is to have a writing team here in the US that is translated into Japanese, that their guys get to weigh in on, and we retranslate it so it is entirely circular. It adds a ton of work, but I think that's the only way to have this fusion function well. That in and of itself will be a fascinating journey for a fan to view. The artwork and the animation can be the same, because it will be collaborative and cooperative, we hope, and entirely novel. There will be some art generated here in the United States. It's not a purely "we're going to send it over and the Japanese will find a subcontractor and we'll find the cheapest, most expeditious way to a generic look." This is something we're only interested in doing because of the love of the property. The result, ideally, is the thing that lasts forever. If you do crappy work it stays on the screen forever, you're never going to be happy. The guys in Japan understand it, we understand it, and that's what we want to convey to the fans. It really is going to be what I feel is a labor of love.

Zac: So it sounds like the process is you're basically going to be getting notes from Kikuchi and Kawajiri on your scripts.

Kurt: So Kawajiri-san will be our supervising director. Now, whether or not some episodes are directed primarily US and some episodes are directed in Japan, that very well could be. I think we'll have animation on both sides of the pond. We may have layout in Japan, potentially key art generated here. It will be a sausage factory, that's the reason I used the term, is I think it's going to be messy--but fun. And yes, going to Mr. Kikuchi to have is input, to have that input by way of Kevin Leahy is incredibly valuable. For instance, right now I don't know why there's no map of the universe. That's the first thing I think a Western audience member that reads the novel asks is, "where is this place?" And one of the questions I'll have for Kevin is: is there a map? And if so, can we expand upon it? Or did Kikuchi-san not map out the universe intentionally? And if so, why? So we'll be respectful of either answer. I don't think it's for us to say to them, "hey, the Western audience likes a map, there's going to be a map." That's not the spirit of the relationship and that's not the way that I think this is a successful series is to have anything done by edict on either side.

Zac: Right. The dream, I guess, is total collaboration. It would be great if it worked out that way, that would be fantastic, but it's good to get a breakdown of exactly how your Japanese talent will be involved, because so far mostly this sounds like an American production but you have the blessing and supervision of the people who worked on the--

Kurt: That's not the case, no. I would say, if anything, in my mind, it's a majority Japanese production with US writing. So even right now, the description has led to that middling ground where the perception is one and the reality could be another. I hope that it is truly that. It's only that the writing will lead the story from a US standpoint. But it could be that animation and style is entirely derived from Japan. As long as it's something that's palatable, we're asking their guys to stretch. They may have a bizdev artist who is throwing the shackles off of something and saying, "here's an interesting take on it, what do you guys think?" And it meets with approval, because it's not purely for a Japanese audience, so they're able to take some risks.

Zac: Well it's good to get that clarification and that's important. But honestly, you know, I think at this stage, with this property, I think the only thing the fans are going to care about is whether or not it's any good.

Kurt: I don't think you'll ever see it if it's crappy, I don't think anyone picks it up.

Scott: Yeah.

Kurt: You know what I mean? So, it's simple enough.

Scott: Yeah, I don't want, I do not want some die-hard fan coming after me and screaming at me, "you had this golden opportunity, how did you screw it up?" That's one of the things I dearly wish to avoid.

Taliesin: I feel like I've had a really good batting average in my career. I haven't put out a lot, but what I have put out I'm pretty proud of, so I'm hoping to keep that one up.

Kurt: Let me ask you a question. Do you think that American fans are interested in a truly co-produced thing? Or do you think that a large majority of the fans are interested in the art form because it is generated in Japan?

Zac: I'll tell you, for this property you're going to be introducing Vampire Hunter D to fifteen years, twenty years of anime fans who have no idea what it is. Anime fans, modern fans right now who are teenagers, they have no idea. Vampire Hunter D hasn't been a thing since 2000. You're unearthing this coffin and opening it back up and you get to reintroduce it. So, those fans will go back to… they might go back and watch an old DVD of Bloodlust or something, but your thing is going to define it for them. It's not an established property anymore. You might as well be working with some thing from the 80s nobody's ever heard of before. I'm not saying the IP is completely unknown, but it's an old property that no one's done anything with in a really long time. So you have a great opportunity, I think, to make this cool to a completely new audience.

Kurt: What does it for them? Meaning, so I have my own perception…

Zac: I'm saying on this project, they're not going to care.

Kurt: I'm talking more broadly. In the fan base that is more interested in Japanese animation, anime specifically or manga, are they attracted to just good stories in a unique telling and that's why the majority of the fans are there? Are they interested in… I'm trying to get a bead, in some regards, on what does a younger fan look for? I'm not a young fan anymore. So seeing Funimation's presentation of things is unique, because it is kitschy and slightly foreign. There's an unexplained quality to certain things that the characters do. Do you feel that is part of the attraction?

Zac: Yeah, I mean, sure. A lot of anime fans… it's important to keep in mind that the average length of an anime fan's existence is two years, that's how long people stay anime fans. I'm an exception, Taliesin's an exception. Most of them only stay fans for about two years and they're teenagers. Yeah, the foreignness of it, the fact that it comes from another country--it's like the cartoons they seen on TV, but these are for quote-unquote adults. Yeah, that's part of it. The other part is anime is a medium, not a genre. It tells all kinds of stories that are written for people who are not ten to twelve years old, that is part of the appeal. American [fans]--if I'm parsing your question correctly--are they going to respond to something that is not immediately identifiable as anime? If it's cool and if it kind of seems like anime a little bit, yeah sure, those fans are still going to respond to it. They're not going to immediately reject your show just because it doesn't look like Dragon Ball or Naruto or whatever, that's not the case.

Kurt: Our talking style was Avatar.

Zac: Yeah, if you said, "we're going to try for Avatar," I would say you have a much, in my opinion, much more of an uphill climb. Because there have been a lot of pretenders to that throne and almost none of them have succeeded. But if you're aiming for a different style, hour-long drama aimed at adults, you're going for a completely different audience and your opportunities are wide open. You're entering new territory, so you get to blaze the path. I think, creatively, the doors are wide open for you. That's my opinion.

Kurt: Look, if there are a hundred thousand attendees to an expo and the average fan's duration is two or three years, then it should mean that there are a million hardened fans that have been created over the last fifteen years. So I think there is something that, maybe as they grow and mature or age, that there's still a bit of nostalgia that we can play upon, as long it's familiar, novel… So it's interesting. I'm always interested in people's opinions on what an audience does or doesn't want, because nobody really knows until you go do it. So it's always interesting to hear. Thank you.

Zac: Thanks a lot guys, good luck.

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