A Dark Circus

With a Western running through it.
With a Western running through it.

Western these days don’t often open in the heart of the summer tentpole season; Appaloosa and 3:10 to Yuma, the two biggest Westerns of recent years, were both held back until September, when the blockbuster heat had settled a bit.

Jonah Hex is the exception. On June 18, 2010, Hex will hit theaters on the same day as Toy Story 3, and it’s unlikely that anyone will confuse the two movies.

True West was invited to the set of Jonah Hex last May, which was filming at a soundstage in Jefferson Parish, a 20-minute drive from New Orleans’s French Quarter. Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables was also shooting at one of several hanger-sized buildings in the compound, and the driver was loaded with stories about the stars she had ferried to and from these sets.

Inside the huge warehouse, sections of several sets are scattered about. A large, lengthy cave features a horse trail running through it. A bed belonging to Leila, Megan Fox’s character (she is not shooting on this particular day), sits beneath a large church bell for some unknown reason. Across the way is a circular wooden arena used for a fight scene involving Hex, dogs and a hairless mutant-like human, something like the subterranean monsters in 2006 and 2010’s The Descent films.

Banks of monitors and chairs for the cast and crew are positioned near the arena for watching this and other scenes. Near Leila’s boudoir, the craft services area offers the usual drinks and snacks. Nearby hang odd props, including a fake half dog with a pulley mechanism inside its snout for snarling close-ups.

Like on all sets dozens of people are engaged in their duties. Some wrangle real dogs. Others rehearse fight maneuvers. Milling about are makeup and wardrobe workers, prop handlers, lighting, sound and camera technicians, and many extras in all varieties of late 19th-century dress, none of them looking too natty. Jonah Hex is not a well-groomed, dry-cleaned Western; this is not 1994’s Maverick.

Josh Brolin’s Jonah Hex

Later that afternoon, Josh Brolin is answering questions while sitting in a director’s chair, dressed head to toe in heavy woolen Confederate grays. He’s comfortable enough inside the building, thanks to the shade and the huge AC compressors, but a few minutes in the sun might be tough on the actor, especially considering that he’s in full Jonah Hex makeup, which probably weighs as much, and breathes as little, as what Boris Karloff wore as 1931’s Frankenstein monster nearly 80 years ago.

Hex’s single most recognizable feature, in the comics and in the film, is a mass of horrible scar tissue covering the right side of his face. A long skin tag runs from under his eye down to below his lip. On the page, his right eye bulges precariously in its socket, something like 1957’s teenage Frankenstein, and his lips are pulled back in a permanent snarl. The artists who have drawn him over the years have enjoyed going into ever-greater detail in depicting those scars. So too have the makeup artists who prepare Brolin each day, and who have been completely faithful to the original comic book look, with the exception of the bulgy eyeball, which was more than Brolin could bear.

Brolin is used to the face now, he says. He has been shooting the picture for a few weeks, but Hex’s face took more than a little trial and error to get right. “A lot of tries, a lot of cutting of my lip, a lot of bruising,” Brolin says. “What we have now is a piece of fabric glued onto my cheek. Another piece of fabric glued onto the back of my ear—we pull it and hook it in the back so it pulls back my face. Then we do this major prosthetic. Then after that we put the teeth in.” Brolin points here and there, but it’s impossible to tell where one piece finishes and another begins, since they’re all layered and glued together into a single gruesome image. He continues, “Then this holds back my mouth very solidly. And I have wires going up here to push on my cheek. Then we have another prosthetic, which is this one that goes over that. And then we paint my face. Altogether it takes about three hours.”

Brolin isn’t complaining. In fact, the makeup helps. “I don’t know how to do me,” he says. “I’m just not one of those guys who are great at it, who can go out and be handsome, do their thing, and you can just watch them forever. I do better when I get away from me.”

So it isn’t surprising when Brolin says that he’s considering a remake of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. If Brolin wants to become the Lon Chaney of his generation, Jonah Hex could be phase one. Yet he does have to bear in mind the drool factor.

“You should have seen me in the beginning,” says Brolin, laughing. “I just kept slobbering. There were these scenes I was doing with Megan [Fox] that we shot in the beginning, where we were in bed together, doing all this stuff. I was seeing the dailies, and it was so disgusting! [Laughs.] And Megan was great!”

Hideous Attraction

Drooling aside, it’s crucial that Hex looks as bad or even worse than he does on the page. That’s because Jonah Hex is the sacred monster of the DC comic book universe, and the film version has to display him in all of his hideous glory. Comic fans themselves are drooling over seeing this movie, even without the 3-D, ceiling-to-floor CGI or high-speed chases expected in much of this summer’s releases. This Western is still generating geek buzz.

The fact that Hex is a comic book character accounts for much of the heated anticipation, but not everything. No other movie based on a Western comic book character could inspire so much as a yawn in the same circles.

Megan Fox is not the reason for fan excitement either. Although her sex appeal doesn’t exactly discourage interest, Fox can’t carry a picture with her in it, as evidenced by the box office nose dive her movie Jennifer’s Body took last year.

The fans aren’t chasing Brolin either. Not because he isn’t a terrific actor who has yet to deliver a subpar performance, but because we no longer live in an era where people will automatically go to the movies to see a particular actor, regardless of the role. Robert Downey Jr. fully deserves his many loyal fans, but it’s the Iron Man suit that sells the tickets. Movie fans today only line up at the multiplex when the picture itself has buzz.

As for Hex, the verdict will not be in until the advance Internet reviews and tweets show up. At this stage, the buzz is about fifty-fifty, based entirely on the trailer. Yet a lot of people are genuinely excited to see the film; they are sitting at their keyboards and iPhones with their fingers crossed. They want this to be a good movie. If word-of-mouth is strong, Jonah Hex might actually turn out to be one of those rare Westerns that draws big crowds of fans outside the Westerns genre. If Hex does fall into that class, along with No Country for Old Men and the upcoming remake of True Grit, Josh Brolin, who is in all three, will be the official anti-Westerns/ Westerns star of the modern age.

That’s just one of a great many ironies surrounding the character of Jonah Hex. In a pulp paper world full of guys in tights leaping tall buildings, women warriors of impossible physical dimensions and mutant children who turn atomic when they hit puberty, one flea-bitten, grotesquely scarred geezer, with a foul temper and a couple of Navy Colts, has managed to survive. This solitary bounty hunter has somehow stayed in the saddle since his 1972 debut in DC’s All-Star Western comic, while the old mainstays, characters such as Kid Colt and the Two-Gun Kid, have long since hit the trail.

Western comics continue to pop up here and there. Occasionally, an older character will return to print for a short spell, or a comic company will launch a series, such as those based on Wyatt Earp, the Cisco Kid, the Lone Ranger and the Man With No Name. Yet it’s almost as though Hex himself has declared, “this town is not big enough for the two of us,” and he would be right. In fact, the town almost did not have room for Hex either, when the character was in danger of being sent to that great longjohn limbo.

But Hex always returned; something about the character keeps him alive and present on the printed page. His appeal is similar to Western movies themselves—somebody always wants to make one, even without proof that an audience, or an audience under 50 years old anyway, will appreciate it.

Surviving the Old West

Writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray have been navigating Hex in the comics in his most recent, and most successful, incarnation. The duo restarted the series in 2005, moving through a variety of artists, and the popularity of the series has never been greater, nor has it ever received more critical acclaim.

Palmiotti, who has just flown back from a Jonah Hex-themed costume party at WonderCon in San Francisco, is happy to describe Hex for us. “Jonah Hex is a comic book character created in the 1970s for DC Comics featuring the ongoing stories of a mean, miserable and downright scary, scarred bounty hunter set in the Old West, right after the Civil War. The book follows his adventures tracking down thieves and killers against the backdrop of the American West.”

That’s accurate, but his description really just hints at the qualities that put Hex over the top as a character. To begin with, Hex, as mentioned, is hideous. He’s a version of Clint Eastwood’s Josey Wales if Wales had been horribly disfigured, and if he had never mellowed out after the Civil War.

Various stories circulate about how Hex’s face got disfigured, but the one that stuck involves a heated tomahawk and the tribe of Apaches that Hex’s father sold him to as a kid. The movie takes a different approach that blows more air onto the fire between him and his arch foe Quentin Turnbull (played by John Malkovich).

Hex does not seem much bothered by his looks, and he’s not shy of female companionship in the books. Hex doesn’t explain himself to these women, but his face is a pretty effective calling card.

Hex’s greatest asset is his stoicism and resilience. Few characters have suffered the indignities Hex has, and I’m not just referring to gunfights or misadventures. The writers and artists have actually done him the most harm. For example, Hex got dragged into the future for a while, where he became a kind of Mad Max underground fighter. And we know that the stuffed body of the long-dead Jonah Hex is on permanent exhibit in a superhero theme restaurant, Planet Krypton, in the 25th century.

“Jonah Hex is a survivor,” Palmiotti says. “His father beat him and traded him to Indians, his face received a horrible scar and he has been shot more times than a back wall at a shooting range. In the comics…they even went so far as to send him into the future for some high tech abuse…and he still came out of it the miserable bastard you see here today.

“The character is fun…he does the things you could only dream about doing to people who piss you off. These qualities make him endearing, as well as lovable, in a sick and bloodthirsty way.

“Hex can be funny…but in a dark, often violent way. Even in the most horrible situation I can sometimes find the humor in it. In doing so, the character makes himself more endearing.”

Supernatural, or Not?

During the 1990s, Hex starred in three interesting miniseries written by Joe R. Lansdale that introduced supernatural elements into his Old West world, including monsters and creatures that were half-human, half-bear. Early in the production rumors were flying that the movie involved voodoo and zombies, which would seem natural considering the film is set in Louisiana, but the filmmakers, studio publicists and even Brolin danced around these rumors. “I think there’s some of that in the movie, something phantasmagorical, not just images, but within scenes,” Brolin says.

Jonah Hex of the movie has a unique ability that the comic Hex doesn’t share:  the power to make the dead talk for as long as Hex is touching them. “With Jonah Hex you can get away with anything ’cause of this idea that he doesn’t die. Hex has one foot in the afterlife, one foot in reality, so anything goes. We can justify anything,” Brolin says. “You take Sixth Sense and Natural Born Killers, and throw ’em together and see what happens.”

I ask Palmiotti about the supernatural aspects of Hex, because it seems to be stoking something of a controversy among the fans. “The film doesn’t have much of a supernatural element really,” says Palmiotti, “and neither does the comic, except in spots here and there. The original press for the content of the film was based on an old screenplay that was never shot but leaked out. Both the film and the book sit well in the real world.” He adds, “But there are, at times, some over-the-top elements… and things do happen in his world that can’t be explained.”

Following True West’s visit to the Jonah Hex set, and the conclusion of the initial shoot, word got out about re-shoots, which is an indication, often, that the film is in trouble. On the other hand, it can mean that the filmmakers felt that what was already good could be improved. Director Jimmy Hayward has a long history in animated film, including work on movies like 2001’s Monsters, Inc. and 2005’s Robots, and he worked for a time with the Mainframe company on the 1994 series ReBoot, which was weird and imaginative. Yet one can understand why a first time live-action director like Hayward might want to make adjustments. And sometimes a studio can show confidence in a picture by agreeing to changes or additions.

Brolin admits that he hated the script at first. “I didn’t like the script at all, but there was something about it that I couldn’t stop thinking about. Then we started workin.’ You see that little spark in there, and you say, ‘Let’s pull it out and see what it looks like.’ It has roots on it and growths and warts and all that. Well, what if we use that? It could be cool.

“In the beginning the makeup and everything, it was a pain in the ass. The first week I was thinking, ‘This was a horrible mistake. I don’t know what I’m doing here. I can’t understand the character.’ And I felt I sounded like somewhere between Sling Blade and Tommy Lee Jones. [Laughs.]

“But something jibed about a week and a half ago. Really. And I’m really cynical about this stuff. I don’t trust anything until I can see it. But suddenly we all became really obsessed about the work….

“My feeling was, let’s create something unique. Let’s not pander. The studio was freaking out, because they don’t have a model to base this on. But to me, if we come in on time, on budget or even under budget, and we create a movie that makes a profit, and it’s an original movie, it might be something that other splinter copycat movies draw on for inspiration. We might be making a genre that doesn’t really exist.

“What’s attractive to me about this movie is the absurdist nature of it. I’ve always wanted to do something like this, bring back the balls in the Western, and tangle with this kind of absurdity. Plus, it’s not a hugely successful comic book, but it’s a comic book that won’t go away—another wonderful thing. It’s not Batman, it’s not Watchmen, there’s no huge expectation. And we have really great actors. We’re going to blow people away.”

Palmiotti, and just about everybody else who shares any affection for the character, is extremely pleased with the casting of the film. Brolin has, in just a few short years, become the kind of rare star that everybody wants to use in every kind of part. He played George Bush in Stone’s 2008 movie W., and he is in Stone’s upcoming sequel to 1987’s Wall Street, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. He played a loony, needle-happy doctor in Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse section, Planet Terror, in 2007. He was the Nick Nolte straight man to Javier Bardem’s psycho killer in 2007’s No Country for Old Men. And he’s been cast in the upcoming Coen Brothers remake of True Grit.

“To have someone like Josh Brolin playing the lead is awesome on so many levels,” Palmiotti says. “He is more than a pretty face…the man can act his ass off. Looking at the bulk of his work for the past three years, you have a resume that is filled with challenging roles…parts with nothing in common and a performance in the Academy award-winning film No Country for Old Men.

“Added to that, when you have the amazing John Malkovich playing Hex’s enemy Quentin Turnbull in the film, you have an actor’s movie. Last, rounding out the main cast, is the beautiful Megan Fox…. Having seen the footage she is in, I can tell you…anyone who thought this girl was just a pretty face is going to be in for a surprise.”

On the set, the remarkable actor Michael Shannon plays ringmaster in the arena where the fight is about to take place, with Hex and a companion sitting with the audience. The feeling of strangeness, of something not typical of Westerns, is very strong, like elements of the 2003 HBO series Carnivále and, perhaps to a lesser extent, 2008’s True Blood. If those avenues are pursued, Hex might be something of a freak show; that could work in its favor or work against it, depending on the imagination of the director.

“My assistant came up with the perfect description,” Brolin says. “It’s a dark circus with a Western running through it.”

In the end, Jonah Hex will survive. No matter what they do to him, he survives. His ugliness, his orneriness, what they would have called his sheer cussedness, has seen him through it all. He’s never lost his singular Hex-ness. In that way, he’s a little like the Popeye of the original newspaper comic strips. He’s stoic, grotesque, nearly unkillable and tenacious beyond measure. He’s a force of nature.

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