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CATCHING UP WITH ROB SCHRAB
by Zack Smith
Rob Schrab has co-written the hit animated film Monster House, done a video for Death Cab for Cutie, and has two new television series coming out in 2007.
And it all started by drawing comics on a kitchen table in Milwaukee.
Schrab (pronounced “shrob”) is one of the up-and-coming comic talents in Hollywood, collaborating with the likes of Robert Zemeckis, Ben Stiller and Tenacious D.
But for many comic fans, he’s still best-known as the creator of the 1990s indy hit Scud the Disposable Assassin.
The bizarre, violent and very funny saga of a self-destructing vending-machine robot assassin trying to keep itself “alive” by keeping its target on life support, Scud earned a loyal following over the course of its 20 issues and assorted spin-offs.
But for Schrab, comics were a way toward a larger goal – making movies.
“I’ve always had a love of movies,” said Schrab. “I’ve always wanted to work in the industry. Even as a child, I had aspirations to make movies. I started making stop-motion-animated films out of clay and drew a lot of comic books.
“Whenever I did comic books, I tried to do them more like storyboards rather than traditional splash-page comic books. I wanted them to be more cinematic.”
Growing up in the small farming community of Mayville, Wis., Schrab saw drawing as “a way to get ideas out of my head.” While attending art school in Milwaukee, he did stand-up and improv at night, joining the comedy group the Dead Alewives. That led to a Dungeons & Dragons skit that later turned into the popular CGI short “Summoner Geeks.”
After college, Schrab went into a successful illustration and cartooning career. He poured the money he earned from this into self-publishing Scud, which became a critical and popular hit.
“I did that off of my kitchen table for about three or four years, and went to all the comic book conventions,” Schrab said. “I met a bunch of Hollywood people who said, ‘wow, this has a lot of cinematic potential!’”
Not only did Oliver Stone’s production company option the comic for a feature film, Scud wound up becoming a video game for Sega’s Saturn system. Despite unique gameplay that combined side-scrolling adventure with first-person-shooter action, the game, like the Saturn, never caught on.
Schrab and writing partner Dan Harmon had moved out to California in what Schrab calls the “naïve” hope that they could write the screenplay for the Scud film. Unfortunately, it was not to be. The project went nowhere, and Schrab soon found himself burnt out on the comic.
Schrab and Harmon rebounded by writing a spec script called Big Ant Movie, about giant ants taking over the world. The script got them representation with the United Talent Agency.
As it happened, their agent happened to meet with the right person at the right time.
“She was meeting with Robert Zemeckis’ company, ImageMovers, and one of the first things they said was, ‘do you have anybody who can do anything with giant insects?’” Schrab recalled.
This led to a two-picture deal with ImageMovers, and the screenplay to Monster House. While the script waited for Hollywood effects to catch up with it, Harmon and Schrab found themselves meeting with a variety of Hollywood talents and pitching new ideas.
One of these meetings was with Ben Stiller, who asked Harmon and Schrab if they had any ideas that could work for an up-and-coming actor named Jack Black.
“At the time, we didn’t know Jack Black at all, so we went to see Tenacious D,” Schrab said. “We just loved him, we went, ‘my God, he’s great, he’s so committed.’ I’d always wanted to do a low-budget sci-fi show, that was low-budget on purpose, and we thought he could (carry this kind of) comedy.”
Basing a character on Black’s persona, Harmon and Schrab wrote the script for Heat Vision and Jack, a pilot directed by Stiller. Parodying low-budget series such as The Incredible Hulk and The Six Million Dollar Man, the “tribute to all that is pop culture” starred Black as Jack Austin, a former astronaut who gains superhuman intelligence when exposed to sunlight.
On the run from NASA on a talking motorcycle with the mind of his roommate (Owen Wilson), Jack battles such evils as an alien-possessed fry cook with disintegrator eyes while dodging NASA assassin/character actor Ron Silver.
Working with Black was a positive experience for Schrab. “We based it all around Jack, because we went, ‘oh, he has this Shatner-esque quality where he commits so much that he’s almost ridiculous,’” Schrab said.
“The thing about Shatner is that he’s an awesome actor, but the stereotype is that he’s a actor because he plays a spaceman and he’s just too into it. That’s what I love about Jack’s performance in Heat Vision and Jack, because he’s just so into it.
“We talked to him, and he was saying, ‘I’m a big fan of The Six Million Dollar Man, and I love all that stuff,’ He’s probably the easiest person I’ve ever worked with to direct. He’s like, super, super fun and really committed and not Hollywood at all. Dan and I were just high-fiving each other and going, ‘this is so fun!’”
The 1999 pilot generated an incredible amount of buzz within the industry. Unfortunately, the show wound up getting rejected by Fox, an experience Schrab calls “heartbreaking” and “psychologically traumatizing.”
“It wasn’t until about two or three years ago that Dan and I kind of recovered from that,” Schrab said. “I think what really helped us was going out to comic book conventions and seeing bootlegs of it and seeing people were enjoying it. Now that it’s out there, we can actually get fan response, and it’s overwhelming.” The pilot may be viewed in its entirety on YouTube, where it has received more than 400,000 views.
Heat Vision and Jack generated an enormous online following, and was a major influence on the hit independent book Street Angel. “It was so ridiculous, and yet worked perfectly due to the enthusiasm and energy of the actors, writers, and director,” said Angel artist and co-creator Jim Rugg.
“It seems ironic, but I got the impression that Rob loved the concept. Beneath the surface, there was a real sincerity. I wanted that in Street Angel. Just because a character or story is a comic book and fantasy adventure doesn’t mean the person making it can’t give it 100 percent.”
This following helped lead to Harmon and Schrab inking a deal with Fox to possibly bring Heat Vision and Jack back as a feature film starring Black.
“With the movie, we are not going to do an origin episode,” Schrab said. “We’re going the Indiana Jones route. Instead of, ‘this is how Heat Vision and Jack came to be,’ it’s going to be, ‘this is Heat Vision and Jack on their greatest adventure.’
“We want to start the movie with the title sequence as you see it in the pilot, and then they drive into town, get caught up in a mystery, and it just gets bigger and bigger and bigger and goes feature-level, and it’ll take care of everything you need to know with flashbacks and stuff like in the pilot.”
Harmon and Schrab have continued to work with Stiller and Black, including overseeing the brainwashing sequence in Stiller’s Zoolander and, more recently, doing a series of mock “behind-the-scenes” Internet shorts for the “Satan’s VCR” portion of the web site for Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny ).
They’ve also worked with Black and a number of other talents as part of Channel 101 , a monthly screening of five-minute “pilots.” Not only have established talents like Black and Drew Carey participated, but it’s also helped give starts to such up-and-coming talents as Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim from Adult Swim’s Tom Goes to the Mayor and Andy Samberg of Saturday Night Live’s “Lazy Sunday.”
The show has now spawned an original VH1 series, The Department of Acceptable Media, which Harmon and Schrab will produce with Black. According to Schrab, the show will premiere in April 2007.
“It’s a great group of people working just for the love of it,” Schrab said of the Channel 101 crew. “I think that’s the biggest thing that helped Dan and I recover from the pain of Heat Vision and Jack. I think we might have even quit the business if it hadn’t been for this.”
Schrab also recently finished work on a new Comedy Central series with Sarah Silverman, which will also premiere in Febuary 2007. Schrab helped write all six episodes, and directed four of them.
“The show looks amazing,” Schrab raved. “I was lucky enough to work with Rhet Bear, who’s like a brilliant director of photography, who did Jesus is Magic and also shot the Tenacious D ‘Tribute’ video that Liam Lynch directed.”
“(Silverman is) crazy and fun, and we have an amazing cast. Jay Johnston’s in the cast, he’s absolutely brilliant, and so is Brian Posehn (Image’s The Last Christmas). He’s really, really funny, and we teamed him up with this newcomer, Steve Agee, who could be his brother. They look very similar, and they’re extremely deadpan and they’re Sarah’s gay neighbors who live across the hall from her. They’re always the B-story, and they get involved with these very, very over-the-top stories that dovetail with Sarah’s at the end.”
This past year has also seen Monster House finally make it to the big screen. Though originally written as a live-action feature, the film was ultimately brought to life using motion-capture animation a la The Polar Express.
Produced by Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg, Monster House earned rave reviews, $73.7 million at the box office, and has been a top seller since its recent release on DVD. Schrab is proud of the final film, though he admits to being disappointed by some of the changes that were made to his and Harmon’s original script.
The final film has a trio of young children battling a ghost-possessed living house across the street. Harmon and Schrab’s original version was darker, featuring a house that was literally alive. “That was a big thing that I actually wish would have stuck with our original draft to the final product,” Schrab said.
“When you would go into the house, the house was not wood and everything – it was like you were inside a living being. It wasn’t a haunted house, it was a monster house. The walls were skin, and the furnace was like a giant beating heart, and the dining room was the stomach, and there were actual living eyeballs behind the windows.”
The story took on a Fantastic Voyage tone as the kids tried to take down the house from the inside. “At the beginning, (main character) D.J. was like, ‘oh, I’m too old for trick-or-treating dressing up like an idiot, and going door-to-door,’ and this would be like the story of him having to go back and capture that youth,” Schrab explained.
“So they build these outfits so they don’t get digested by just walking through the house, made out of trash bags and milk jugs, and I think the girl was wearing a scuba-diving outfit. I just think that was a lot more fun, when they were walking around, and they had walkie-talkies taped to their helmets so they would have this kind of fantastic voyage through the workings of the house.”
Schrab was also disappointed that he didn’t have a chance to direct the film. “(Director Gil Kenan is) a good guy, and everybody seems to love it,” Schrab said. “The audience is laughing and it’s a successful film, in theaters and on DVD, so how can you blame him too much?
“This is like my first big thing, and to grow up in a little town like Mayville, Wisconsin, and be eight years old and telling people, ‘I’m going to make movies like Spielberg,’ and to have a movie that’s produced by Spielberg, and then Roger Ebert says, ‘oh, this is like my favorite animated movie of the year,’ that’s great! People wanted to see three kids fight a monster house across the street, and they loved it.”
Schrab also tried music videos out when he received the opportunity to do a video of Death Cab for Cutie’s song “Crooked Teeth” for their Directions DVD. The DVD, which also featured a video by cartoonist Jeffrey Brown, featured 13 videos of songs from Death Cab’s Plans album made for less than $5,000 and not featuring the band in-person.
Heidi Herzon, a producer on the Silverman series, offered Schrab the chance to work on the video, which Schrab called “one of my favorite things I’ve ever done.”
“I fell in love with ‘Crooked Teeth’ from the first listen,” Schrab said. “I just immediately had those images in my head, and I knew, I could do this, this’ll really push me to see how quickly I can get something done.”
With help from his Channel 101 friends and some of the Silverman crew, Schrab put the video together. “The last two days, we didn’t sleep for 40 hours straight cutting everything together,” Schrab said. “It was a lot of work, but it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
Schrab also received unique praise for his work on “Crooked Teeth.” “One of the biggest honors was the lead singer’s father e-mailed me and said, ‘Just so you know, I loved your video, and would it be possible if I could I get stills from it?’” Schrab said.
“So I e-mailed him two stills, and he e-mailed me back an hour later saying, ‘They’re hanging up on my wall, I just framed them and hung them up.’ Every time that guy goes home to his folks, they’re going to be hanging up on the wall, you know?”
Schrab is currently between projects, but he doesn’t foresee a return to comics in the immediate future, citing the time and money needed to pull off such a project properly.
“I do miss it, though,” Schrab said. “I keep on threatening to do another comic book, I really want to.
“To take three months off and do a 90-page book – and I think that’s the only thing worth doing – when you’re working from paycheck to paycheck in this business, you never know if you’ll be working six months from now.
“Right now, I just finished Sarah’s show, and I have no idea if that show’s going to get picked up and I won’t know until the end of April of next year. That’s a long time! I’m sitting on some good money right now from that, but I have to be thinking a year ahead.
“So, rather than take three months off and draw a comic book, which would be fun and great, I kind of want to hit the bricks and take these four episodes out and meet with like New Line and Sony and Fox.”
Schrab said that he understands why many Hollywood writers such as Joss Whedon, Allan Heinberg and Damon Lindelof do comics in addition to movies and television. “There’s something about comics,” Schrab said. “Comics don’t cost $500,000 to print, or millions of dollars like a feature. You have a little bit more creative control, if you’re a writer, you’re kind of the director, I think.
“The draw for me for comic books is if you’re doing something like Monster House and you want the inside of the house to be organic with skin walls and Robert Zemeckis goes, ‘I don’t think that’s realistic,’ it’s out.
“Whereas, if I did Monster House as a comic book, it would be realized, it would be in there. There’s nobody above you if you’re self-published, so you can do anything you want, and I get that out of my short films.”
Still, Scud will make a comeback…in plastic form. The character was recently announced as part of Series One of the “Indie Spotlight”: http://www.shockertoys.com/news_aug14.htm action figure series from Shocker Toys, appearing alongside such classic independent comic characters as Madman, and Katchoo from Strangers in Paradise.
“That’s pretty fun,” Schrab said. “The guys called up and said, ‘hey, we want to do a Scud as an action figure.’ I said, ‘hey, that’d be great, I’ve been wanting to do that for a long time,’ and I kind of pulled the trigger with those guys because they were so enthusiastic. They’re going to launch it in the first line of these new action figures.”
For now, Schrab is concentrating on making his career, “bigger and better in ’07!” But he still looks back at his time in comics with fondness.
“I wouldn’t have traded my five years with Scud for anything,” Schrab said, “because I definitely believe that work ethic has helped me. You know, just drawing 14 hours a day and not having a weekend, and just visualizing shots and timing and putting it together.
“It was, to me, like the best film school ever, because it really, really helped me with structure and planning out shots and being creative and it just really was important for me to go through that.”
And as the saying goes, what he really wants to do is direct. “It’s what I want to do – I really love directing,” Schrab said. I just can’t stop doing it. I’d rather do everything. My biggest joy is when I do everything from beginning to end.
“Directing is great, because it’s not a passive activity. Even though writing is very strenuous and you’re working very, very hard, you’re just sitting at a computer most of the time. It’s the actual building of stuff that gets my brain going. I love thinking, ‘how are we going to do this?’ and ‘how can we do this with what we have?’
“I just love breaking the code, and figuring that out. That’s very, very cool.”