This (Recently Canceled) Amazon Show Turns The Valley Into A Surreal Nightmare Dreamscape
Crime drama Too Old To Die Young takes place in the San Fernando Valley, telling the moody story of a corrupt cop. It's the kind of hard-bitten tale that co-creator Ed Brubaker made his name writing in the comic book world — with a twist. The show was transformed into something stranger by co-creator Nicolas Winding Refn, known for the technicolor vibe he created in films like Drive and Neon Demon.
The show was among five canceled by Amazon over the weekend just over a month after its debut, but it was a big step up for Brubaker to create a show. He just signed an overall deal with Legendary TV, where he'll be adapting some of his creator-owned comics and developing original material.
Too Old To Die Young also tells a complete story in that one season, with Refn looking at it as a film told serially — so perhaps we should just say it won't be getting a sequel. Episodes 4 and 5 of the series were even screened at Cannes under the name North of Hollywood, West of Hell. The show also lives on with Refn and Brubaker appearing together at live events in L.A. later this week.
"It started out as just a thing about the idea of L.A. as this place where everybody's just in cars driving around to these different [areas] — every part of L.A. feels like a different suburb in its own city," Brubaker said. "Refn was very into never leaving the Valley. He'd shot downtown for Drive, he'd shot Pasadena and the Westside in Neon Demon, and he wanted to just only shoot the Valley and make it feel like a Western — because the Valley feels so different than Beverly Hills, or downtown L.A., or Hollywood."
Refn tried capturing that seedy L.A. feel in the show. The show ended up becoming a more heightened, surreal version of the actual Valley, according to Brubaker, with Refn dropping the grounded aspects to make it more interesting to him. Brubaker compared it to the recent Twin Peaks revival, a show that refuses to hold your hand.
WRITING FOR TV VS. COMIC BOOKS
While Brubaker's had opportunities in television, with several of his creations being adapted into other mediums, he keeps making comics because it's his first artistic love. He also loves the purity of it, rather than the large number of voices that go into making TV and film projects.
"If you're working close with a director, you're really helping the director write their story," Brubaker said. "It will start out as you writing your thing, and then by the end of it, it's you writing their thing, and kind of wondering where your thing went."
Refn took a minimalist approach to dialogue, often throwing out around 80 percent of what Brubaker wrote.
"It's a lot of writing, and rewriting, and chasing an idea until he feels like it's where he wants it to be," Brubaker said.
Brubaker said he had a similar experience working as a writer on Westworld as he tried to service the vision of the showrunners and of the network.
He's also had to learn to be around people, rather than writing comic books, where he's used to spending 90 percent of his time alone in a room writing.
"I love television, and I love working in that medium," Brubaker said, "but nothing beats, when you've had a hard day of listening to everyone else tell you what a story should be, coming home and just being able to sit down for a couple hours and write some pages of your story the way you want it to be — without anyone else telling you what you can write or not."
HOW LOS ANGELES AFFECTS HIS WRITING
Brubaker first ended up in L.A. because he got tired of flying back and forth for meetings about shows and movies that never ended up happening. After growing up in San Diego, before spending time in San Francisco and Seattle, Brubaker feels like everything he writes has a Southern California flavor to it.
He's even started blending in real California cities into his Criminal comic book, making clear that the book is set here. He was inspired to create his semi-real, semi-fictionalized California by the great crime writers he's admired, like Raymond Chandler, and their own use of faux cities.
Now Brubaker splits his time between L.A. and Carmel in Northern California. As a bi-city writer, Brubaker said he feels L.A. helps him get more done thanks to the omnipresence of meetings and other opportunities.
"Carmel is so relaxing that I come up here, and if I'm not in the middle of something and have to immediately sit down and start writing the next morning, I'll take a couple days off — and the next thing I know, I've taken five days off," Brubaker said.
He finds himself impressed with writers who manage to do TV projects while continuing to crank comics out — he feels like it's hard enough writing one comic a month while also doing television work on the side.
"Brian [K. Vaughan], when he was showrunning Under the Dome, was putting out like four comics a month too. That's impossible," Brubaker said. "Four comics alone is crazy. That's like Aaron Sorkin writing two TV shows at the same time and not letting anybody else actually write episodes kind of thing. It turns out, [Sorkin] was on coke the whole time."
Despite all the Hollywood work, don't expect Brubaker to leave comics behind anytime soon. He described comics as an internalized language that he grew up knowing, loving the unique way it combines words and pictures.
"As an artform, you can do any story you want," Brubaker said. "When you tell people who don't know anything about comics that you work in comics, they automatically assume you mean superheroes — if you were in another country, they might automatically assume it was like sci-fi, or romance, or whatever the most popular thing in manga is right now."
Brubaker said he takes pride in how often he hears from readers who buy his books as gifts for their parents or spouses, people who don't normally read comics. In whatever medium he's working in, you can always expect something nonstandard from Ed Brubaker.
Brubaker's doing a signing at Skylight Books in Los Feliz on Thursday, Aug. 1 at 7 p.m. He'll be doing a Q&A about his recent graphic novel Bad Weekend with comedian Paul Scheer (of the podcast How Did This Get Made?), with Refn also appearing as a special guest.
He'll also be at the launch of the Too Old To Die Young soundtrack at Amoeba Records with both Refn and composer Cliff Martinez on Friday, Aug. 2 at 5 p.m.