Breathing life into Never Heroes was quite an endeavor. It is filled with a wide array of influences that are actually very far removed from what most would think of when the Fantasy genre comes to mind.
The current milestone for fantasy/adventure epics is easily the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, who revolutionized the fantasy adventure genre with his classic Middle Earth epic, and set the tone for the genre for many years to come. This staple can still be found in works such as the Harry Potter and Song of Ice and Fire sagas. These methods are tried and true, perfected by Tolkien, Rowling and Martin. It is a voice many try to emulate, a few try to steal, and only a select few are able to perfect. It is, sad to say, a voice I don’t have.
The story began as the pipe dream of a new Dungeons and Dragons player. Initially, the only thing that really factored into the story and mythos was the D&D universe, specifically the Forgotten Realms campaign setting. During this stage, the story fit many of the fantasy clichés to a tee, an unlikely hero whisked away to a far off land, fish out of water type story. These early drafts were not very good, and far too focused on a D&D like story with no notice given to tone or character development. Though the story did develop over the course of various D&D sessions, it was still sputtering and dying before it ever achieved any sense of life or purpose. Then an idea came.
In 1978, a young director named John Carpenter did a little film called Halloween. This simple story of an escaped mental patient stalking a babysitter proved to be one of the most influential films of all time, forever leaving its staple on the horror genre. But that is not the only place where its influence could be found.
Michael Myers would later become a fierce monster, and that babysitter would become a flight officer on a space ship in Alien. In the 80s, Michael would change yet again to a killer robot from the future, and that babysitter would become humanity’s last hope in The Terminator. Both Alien and The Terminator bear the obvious influence of Halloween. The science fiction genre is about the last place anyone would expect a simple little story of suburban horror to leave its mark, but it did. So maybe what Never Heroes needed was not a helping of fantasy.
The Indiana Jones series is easily my favorite film series of all time. The original three movies feature wonderful action set pieces, rich and diverse characters, it is light hearted when it needs to be, harsh when it is least expected, and features enough scope to make this tale of an archeologist something that is larger than life. The idea came to try and recapture that serial like tone that Indiana Jones paid tribute to, and put a greater emphasis on excitement and suspense. Spells and potions were switched out with fist fights and foot chases.
Several elements signature to the Indiana Jones series inspired elements in Never Heroes. The big henchman that Indiana Jones tends to run into on air fields and rock crushers was the inspiration for the character of Heavy, a mini boss for the heroes to conquer. The obstacle course like chase scene on the circus train served as the blue print for River’s fight on the pier. Various henchman and villains found ways to get creatively dispatched and the classic highjacking of the horse drawn carriage managed to work its way in. It was through elements like this that the project became re-energized.
But still, Indiana Jones was not quite enough. It was the ground on which everything else could be built, but now it was time to start laying bricks.
In the 60s and 70s, the Western genre was transformed from a clear cut and fun genre to a violent and unsafe journey with films like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. These films didn’t shy away from violence or vulgarity, and were able to instill themselves with humor to keep the mood from getting too bleak. This new tone for the Western was one I found an interesting choice to apply to fantasy. Seriously, when was the last time you ever heard a dragon say ‘Shit?’
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly had previously been an inspiration to another series. The scene where Tuco shoots a man who is threatening him in the bathtub would later inspire the classic cantina scene in Star Wars. Likewise, the witty banter between Paul Newman and Robert Redford has become another staple of popular culture, the archetype for every serious guy and jokester duo. Violent, but clever. Just what Never Heroes needed.
The next bricks were simple to find. The protagonist of the story is a large dragon. As the story is primarily told from his point of view, he would obviously need to go up against villains and other obstacles that would be challenging for him to defeat. In other words, they would also have to be quite large.
At their best, Godzilla and King Kong did a great job conveying a sense of scope. It was necessary given the rather large size of their titular characters. One of the signatures of both is their epic fight scenes between creatures of enormous size, from King Kong’s iconic battle with a T Rex, to the monster mash of Godzilla, Mothra and Rodan against the three headed Ghidorah. These battles were quite the spectacle, and were, especially in the case of Godzilla, the centerpieces of their films.
The idea of a dragon reluctantly embarking on a quest to destroy a creature more deadly, more cruel, more dangerous than any dragon could ever hope to be, was something intriguing. The dragon would have to learn to become the slayer, taking out creature far too big and monstrous for any human to deal with., which brings us to the villain.
Originally, the villain was a demon, but that quickly became too dull for the new vision that was taking shape. The villain was not going to be a head throwing back and laughing tyrant. He was going to be ruthless, but also subtle. Something frightening. Something unknown. And who was the best at that?
H. P. Lovecraft crafted some of the greatest villains of all time with Call of Cthulhu, The Colour out of Space, The Dunwich Horror, and The Shadow out of Time. His villains were not in the entire story, but what Lovecraft lacked in action, he made up for with the build up. Lovecraft’s stories have some of the best build up ever put to the page. By the time the villain appeared, you knew everything you had to know, and were thoroughly afraid whenever they would rear their ugly head.
A few other sources were tapped for ideas on visuals and tone. The Neverending Story served as a good atmosphere to work from, the original Assault on Precinct 13 showed a few examples of how Western conventions could be applied to other genres, Stand By Me helped breath life into River through a look at the loner Chris Chambers. A few pinches of Star Wars and Die Hard, and it was looking set to go. The final brick was in many ways the most unexpected, but it came out of a very simple realization. The dragon was the hero. He can fly, he has super strength, can breath fire, and can use magic. Does that not make him a super hero?
The 1978 adaptation of Superman was a fun, but epic film. It opens with the spectacular destruction of a planet and ends with an earthquake that nearly drops California into the sea. Though it maintained a light hearted feel for the most part, these two sequences were, quite literally, world shattering.
The destruction of Krypton is one of my favorite scenes ever put to film. It is the one sequence I have seen in a movie that really looks like the end of the world, and its spectacular and horrific visuals haunted me for many years. It was this scene that largely inspired the conclusion of the story, where Zhyx must battle Assylyl within a massive crystalline spire. Likewise, Superman had to push an entire fault line back into place, and even then had to fly from one end of the state to the other to rescue as many people as he could. These were the actions of a hero, and something that a dragon might look good doing.
As it stands now, there are only a few echoes of D&D to be found in Never Heroes, mostly a few tidbits to be found in character design. It was probably the best decision in the creative process to venture beyond what fantasy had become known for. The way of thinking was to put a new spin on the genre. A professor of mine once said audiences expect not just convention but innovation. Never Heroes does adhere to genre conventions. There are dragons, swords and magic, but it is also fast paced, brutal and vulgar. It is a n age old genre, but done in a way that, at least to my knowledge, has not been done before. Never Heroes has become a collage of all the things I love, and hopefully you will all love it too.