At New York Comic-Con, we had the opportunity to sit down with director Jay Oliva to talk about the next DC Animated project, Justice League: War.
Having helmed such projects as Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, parts 1 & 2, and Green Lantern: Emerald Knights, Oliva is no stranger to the DCU.
We talked about Justice League: War, which is based upon the first arc of the Justice League comic book after the New 52 relaunch. We discussed the adaptation from page to screen, Jay’s unique approach to animated action, and much more.
Tell us a little about Justice League: War. Where does this take place in the DC Universe?
Justice League: Waris a loose adaptation of the Geoff Johns and Jim Lee comic book run from issues 1-6 of the New 52. We kind of loosely based upon the events in that book. We didn’t adhere to it as I usually did with The Dark Knight Returns, but that is what we ended up doing with translating that first graphic novel. This is our first true New 52 DCU story that we’ve done; Flashpoint was still the old, but at the end of Flashpoint, we hinted that we’re in the New 52 Universe.
So Flashpoint was the setup?
Kind of. I’m hoping that somewhere down the line we can do some other films that will hopefully connect the events from Flashpoint into Justice League: War and any other films we do in the New 52 universe, which would be pretty cool. I’m hoping that we do that eventually. I’m trying to put in little Easter eggs throughout all the films. If you watch carefully, you’ll see it there.
You said you took this as a looser adaptation. In that case, did it make it easier to compress the first Justice League arc of the New 52 into a 2-hour movie?
When you do an adaptation, it’s never easy. Sometimes, if you’re doing it too close to the source material, then you feel like you’re kind of stifled, but sometimes, in this case, the material that was there wasn’t as deep as say The Dark Knight Returns, where it was four graphic novels trying to fit into two 70-minute pieces. With this one, because it’s only six issues, and it’s really one long fight versus Darkseid, it gave us a little bit more flexibility in how to interpret that. On the other hand, one of the challenges was to try to create set pieces. Whenever I try to do my films, I try to think of it like Raiders of the Lost Ark – there’s the rolling ball sequence, the fight with the Nazis, the ending with the Ark – so whenever I do my films, I always try to figure out what would be a good set piece because you want to keep the momentum going. In the comic books, there were certain set pieces, but how does that translate into the pace of a film? So I had to figure out, “Ok, this is a pretty good set piece, let’s elaborate” or “This sequence went on for too long in the comic and maybe we should scale back” or maybe elaborate on some things that the comic might have glossed over.
Seeing more of Darkseid in this film should be interesting. You mentioned that this is going to give a more in-depth look at the battle between the League and Darkseid.
I’m a huge fan of the DC property, so whenever Darkseid shows up, you have to bring it when it comes to the fight choreography and the action. I rewatched all of the Superman adventures where Darkseid showed up, the episodes of Justice League, and all the past materials. I worked on the Superman/Batman: Apocalypse movie, so I looked at that sequence and then I looked at everything that’s been done in the past and asked myself, “how do I push it forward?” because I don’t want to do the same thing. It’s always Omega Beams and explosions, so I tried to keep true to what Darkseid was; he’s this larger than life character and I wanted to make it seem like the Justice League had to band together to defeat him, because by themselves, they couldn’t do it, but as a team they can. So, I wanted to push the fight choreography and the action so that Darkseid felt like a huge threat that needed all these heroes to defeat him.
In the New 52 run in the comics, these characters are just meeting each other and not really getting along, yet in the animated series, they’re very close and familiar. Are you following the comics more where they’re still having difficulties as a team?
One of the things you’ll notice with this as opposed to what Bruce Timm had done with Justice League Unlimited is that this is their first meeting. All of these characters had never met before; they’re all brand new, so a lot of times their personalities will clash, which can be good and bad. You’ll see characters that get along right away and others who have conflict. Whenever Superman and Batman meet, there’s always conflict. Our take on the New 52 characters is going to be very different. Superman is very different from what we’ve done in the past and it took me a while to figure out how this Superman is different. Batman is pretty much the same, though. [laughs] There’s no change in his character; he’s pretty much the straight man, but everybody else is very unique. Wonder Woman is very different too.
If someone hasn’t necessarily engaged with the comics, but knows the universe through moves and television, will they still find Justice League: War accessible?
Totally. We introduce the characters in such a way that even if you don’t know them, you’ll understand what the archetype is. When Wonder Woman shows up, you know that she’s the warrior; Superman shows up and he’s the protector of Metropolis. There are certain things that new fans will be able to get right away, even if they know nothing about the characters. Cyborg is very new. If you read the comic, you know that it’s an origin story for Cyborg, so in the movie, you’ll see that and understand how he became the hero that ends up joining the Justice League.
Can you talk about upcoming projects and what characters you’ll use in the future?
The next film after this one will be Son of Batman. The art direction will carry over because Son of Batman takes place in the New 52, loosely. What we try to do is connect a lot of these films artistically, and if we can, we bring back the same voice actors. It depends on their schedules, of course. We are trying to tie them all together, so if you actually watch it, there is some continuity running through them all. Not so much as say the live action Marvel films, but there is something there. At the end of these films, there might be a tag that hints at the next film, or what might happen in the future. It’s always exciting.
Of all the heroes in Justice League: War, is there one with whom you identify?
Maybe Cyborg, just because when he gets the armor on him, he doesn’t know what the hell’s going on and as time goes by, he finds his place on the team. I think that’s who I would relate to because for a lot of these films, I’ll get a big story and ask, “How do I translate this?” I’m a huge fan of Jim Lee, and the fact that I had to translate his stuff, to me, was a little nerve-wracking. I can’t look Jim in the eye if he hates my film. The same thing with Frank Miller. If Frank hates my stuff, there’s not much I can do. So that’s why I think I’ll go with Cyborg since he’s in this pantheon of iconic heroes, and has to find a place and stand out among them.
Did you have any interaction with Geoff Johns and Jim Lee while adapting the story?
I was able to meet Jim and Geoff, but the nice thing about those guys is they never tell me, “This is exactly what we want.” They know that we will take artistic license and make it our own. They’ve seen it and they dug it. It’s actually funny because Jim had mentioned that there were a few scenes in the film about which he said, “I wish I’d done that in the comic!” I’m sure when he was working on the comic, he does his best to translate it to the art, but then you look at it in hindsight and see how else something could’ve been done, especially after we had done it our way.
After having worked on multiple projects for the DC Animated Universe, including Justice League: War, what would you say was a new challenge that presented itself in adapting this one?
Because it’s the New 52, which is a very different universe, as you all know, it was something that I wasn’t too familiar with. I had followed a few of the books, but with my schedule, I’m pretty busy. I tend to sit down and read something when someone recommends it, like The Court of Owls. I read it and it was fantastic, but I’d only get a few chances during the week to read the comics, so when we started this film, I really had to wrap my mind around these versions of Green Lantern or Wonder Woman. We can’t just do the Justice League Unlimited version because that’s the Bruce Timm universe. How do we set ourselves apart from that? That, to me, was hard because I’m used to doing Bruce’s stuff; whenever I work with Bruce, I just dive into it like it’s a JLU episode. For this, James Tucker really wanted to set these movies apart from what Bruce had done, so when you buy it, it’ll have a different feel. We always try to push it.
With regard to past projects, you’ve mentioned the old saying, “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.” Can you talk about the scenes in this movie that you took over to get it done?
In this film, you’ll notice that I changed Cyborg’s origin. I can’t go into detail, but I changed it because I needed it to work within the context of the movie a little bit better. That was one of the sequences that I felt I just needed to do myself. One of the things you will notice in terms of how I did the action is that I favored a more over-the-top, anime action style. I go to Tokyo every year and I had just seen a couple movies there, and one of them, the One Piece movie, just blew my mind. The camera was moving crazy and there were crazy fight sequences, and when I was on the plane coming back, I was thinking, “Why don’t we just try doing it this way?” It’s the New 52. If people don’t like it, it’s cool, but it’s different. I would have never tried this with Bruce Timm’s stuff, because Bruce doesn’t really like this sometimes. So, I pitched it to James [Tucker] and he said to go for it, so you’ll see that in those sequences. The characters animate into camera, away from camera, and the camera pulls back for long shots; there’s a lot of really fast action and I tried to make it kind of brutal in its own way, but not as dark as say Flashpoint was. Flashpoint is a dark story, so I had to keep that tone. This one is more fun, but I wanted to keep that realism and action at a particular level. It’s like Die Hard action.
Can you explain the process of directing that action?
The writer writes it, of course, then when I get it, before I hand it out to get storyboarded, I have to have a vision. For one of my movies, I might want to direct it like a Die Hard film, or like a Guy Ritchie film; I’ll have an idea of how I want to direct it. Then I’ll have an idea of how I want the action to be laid out. Then I sit down with my storyboard artist and we work out the choreography. Sometimes the board artist will take a pass, I’ll get it back, and I’ll do it myself. We might need to have a little bit more of a certain kind of action because it’s all about pacing and flow, and I like my fight sequences to be a ballet of action. I want to have that flow to my fight sequences. We’ll work through that, we’ll ship it overseas to be animated, we get it back, and then I cut it together and hopefully it’s working at that point. My storyboards are usually pretty tight, in the sense that what you see in my animatics is pretty much what you see on screen. Very rarely does it change because I’m always very meticulous about how I want these films to be because the fans expect some high quality stuff and I have to deliver.
Is there any particular series or story in the DC Universe that you’d like to see made into an animated movie?
I’d love to do Gotham By Gaslight. I think that would be really cool if we used the Mignola designs. That would be one of the ones I’d love to do. People always ask me about Kingdom Come, and it would be cool, but I don’t know how we’d be able to do it. It might have to be some kind of painted, CG hybrid so it would look like watercolors. I don’t think we have the technology nowadays to do it, or at least the budget, because we turn these things out really fast. We have about a year turnaround. But Kingdom Come would be really cool, or The Long Halloween. The Killing Joke keeps getting thrown around, but that’s a hard one to do because if you read The Killing Joke and ask yourself how to turn it into a movie, it’s really hard. It’s a Joker story from beginning to end and I don’t know if that will carry the whole movie. One thing that I pitch at every meeting, but it always gets shot down is an Arkham Asylum story, but it’s Batman: Game of Death. He goes in there, it’s run by all his villains, it just plays out like Bruce Lee’s Game of Death, and at the end he fights the Joker. How cool would that be? And then Kareem Abdul Jabbar just shows up out of nowhere! [laughs] I keep bringing it up. They ask me what I want to and I say, “I want to do Batman: Game of Death!”, and they’re like, “…no.” Someday, though. Why is Deathstroke here? Who cares! [laughs] It’ll just be a cool fight!
Can you talk about anything that was particularly difficult to translate or something you were very proud of translating to screen?
Number one is the Cyborg origin. I really like the way we structured it. And second, I really like the way we did Darkseid. I made Darkseid the biggest badass ever; he just comes in and kicks ass all the way through. That’s one of the things I always try to do in my films. I ask myself, “If this was a live action film, how would they do it?” and I always try to approach it in that sensibility. The same thing with Flashpoint. If this was a live action Flash movie, how would it look? If Darkseid showed up in the Man of Steel series, how would he look? That’s what I try to do.
With such a quick turnaround for production, do you ever have moments where you wish you had more time?
All the time. For something like Kung-Fu Panda, the fight choreography is awesome. They have like five years to do it. Do you know how much time I have to do my fight choreography? 2 weeks. We have to work it out and I have to make the decisions right away and stick by it. But for the most part, I’m very proud of most of my films. I approach all of them like they’re my children. I send them off to college and I hope they don’t come back as an asshole. [laughs] If they come back as an asshole, I’ll just have another kid, and that’s how every film is. Some of them I’m proud of, some not so much. With War, I’m very proud of how it turned out. Hopefully, when you guys see the next couple films I have on my plate, you’ll see where I’m going. And again, for you guys, look at all the Easter eggs. Flashpoint has all these little Back to the Future homages in it. There’s a film coming up where there are a bunch of Die Hard homages, so every film has something. I won’t say what War has, but there are little things everywhere.
Thank you, Jay, for taking the time to sit down and answer all of our questions!
Justice League: War is slated for Blu-Ray and DVD in early 2014.