Need a crash course in why Rob Schrab and Dan Harmon’s Scud the Disposable Assassin didn’t work as a feature film? Take a look at the following exchange between Schrab and a Dreamworks animation employee, as recounted by the cartoonist.
“Would you mind if it wasn’t called Scud the Disposable Assassin, but Scud the Disposable Superhero? Would you mind if he didn’t have guns
“Well, he’s not a superhero. He’s killing for money to stay alive.”
“Yeah, we would want to get rid of that, too.”
“Well, if he’s not killing to stay alive, and he’s not a freelance assassin to keep the monster on life support, and he doesn’t have guns, what’s left? What do you like?”
All things considered, perhaps it was for the best that a Scud movie didn’t materialize from Schrab and Harmon’s move to Los Angeles in the mid-90s. Suffice it to say, the duo managed to land on their feet fairly gracefully when the smoke cleared.
Was there some concern about centering a movie around a “disposable” character?
Well, he doesn’t die. He’s on the run, that’s the whole thing. It was set like an hour into the future where disposable assassins can be bought as easily as a candy bar or a pack of cigarettes out of a vending machine. You can program it to kill anybody you want, and then, after the murder, it will self-destruct. Our Scud, the main character, is bought to kill this monster that is living in the basement of a factor. And while he’s fighting her, he discovers that there’s a sign on his back that says, “this unit will self-destruct upon termination of target.” And he doesn’t want to die.
But now this monster wants to destroy him. He doesn’t want to defend himself, but if he doesn’t this monster is going to tear him to pieces. He’s caught in this ultimate catch-22, and what happens is he mortally wounds the creature, puts it on life support, and then has to become a freelance assassin to pay for the life support bills.
That little tease or pitch—whenever I say it, people go, “that will make a great movie.” But we learned by watching somebody else write the script—that was another thing. We moved [to LA] to be close to the project. They basically said, “well, you’re not going to write it. you’re comic book people, and comic book people don’t write scripts. Screenwriters do.”
So they got some guy who’s been very successful at writing stuff. He’s been way, way, way more successful that I have, just in terms of making a living here. but, again, this is something where they’re going to invest a bunch of money in it, and they want to get someone who’s experienced. They don’t want to get someone who—nobody wants to take any chances, because there’s so much money involved. So they get somebody who’s a seasoned writer. This is what he does—he takes comic books and makes them into screenplays.
There were a lot of attempts in the Oliver Stone version of the screenplay of trying to make it logical. That’s something Scud never was. You open the book and take everything with a grain of salt. It’s not about the logic, it’s not about the reality. It’s about the fun and the what-if nature of it. That was something where they were too scared to take a chance with.
They said things like, “well, if there’s one of these vending machines on every corner, why aren’t people just getting killed all over the place?” And I was like, well, if you answer that question, you’re going to have to answer a lot more, like, “why does this robot feel more like a living creature than a robot,” and, “why are there monsters in this world?” There were just so many things that they wanted to make sense that it made it very confusing and convoluted.
It just kind of stripped away a lot of the freedom that the comic book had. That whole process really kind of bummed me out. It was really a sad thing, because you’re kind of trapped. At the time, I was like 26 an had no idea how things were done.
You went into it thinking that you would have full control over the process—that you would be writing and directing it?
Oh god, yes. Of course. I wanted to be all over it.
It was your Big Picture moment.
Oh yeah, yeah. Now some of my best friends are younger than 26 and they work in the business and now how it is. But I grew up in this small little farm town and went to the big city of Milwaukee to go to this art school, and then, out of the blue, I said, “fuck it, I’m going to go to Los Angeles.” So it was a huge culture shock. I had no idea what was going to go on. I didn’t know who to trust. I’m sure I sounded incredibly stupid or naïve in many a meeting—or worse.
I was like, “oh, the reason George Lucas got complete control over Star Wars was because he asked for it.” Or, “the reason he had so many ideas was because he came up with such good ideas and everybody was like, ‘whoa, listen to George, he’s a genius,’ before he made the movie.” That’s how I thought it was, that I just had to come up with really creative, original ideas and people will just say, “listen to this guy. He’s special.” That’s how I thought it happened.
But, no, it has everything to do with, “well, what was the last thing you did? Did it make a lot of money?” And it if did, you’re right. And if it didn’t, it doesn’t matter how brilliant the few people who saw it were. And Scud was this comic book that, I think, at its high point we were selling, maybe 20,000? I don’t even know. Probably not—I know we printing that much, and they were probably just sitting, collecting dust in a warehouse in Canada.
I did not know the politics and all.
So you and Dan [Harmon] have optioned a movie to Oliver Stone and a video game, and the movie ends up not coming out—
Yeah, the movie was—they wrote this script and I was not a fan of it at all. Even looking at it now, I don’t think I would like it. I think there’s a way to do Scud, but it’s not a property that—maybe you can’t do Scud. The biggest thing is that it’s a robot that you’re supposed to sympathize with, and you’re supposed to care about. But his main want and need is incredibly selfish and evil, “the thing is a monster, but I’m going to take away its life and put it on life support, and kill other people for money to save my own ass.”
That’s a hard, hard sell. I remember at one point, I was talking to Dreamworks
Animation. They were a fan of the book. They said that they could see how Scud and all of the characters could be great toys. And I was like, “oh, great. Maybe if this Oliver Stone thing falls apart, I can jump on this and get an animated series.” That’s what I wanted. I wanted Scud to be an animated thing. I never wanted it to be live action, just because I couldn’t see it. I was a big fan of what was coming from Japan at the time—it was at its peak in the mid-90s.
But they were looking at the book and saying, “would you mind if it wasn’t called Scud the Disposable Assassin, but Scud the Disposable Superhero?” and, “would you mind if he didn’t have guns?” And I was like, “well, he’s not a superhero. He’s killing for money to stay alive.” And they were like, “yeah, we would want to get rid of that, too.” And I was like, “well, if he’s not killing to stay alive, and he’s not a freelance assassin to keep the monster on life support, and he doesn’t have guns, what’s left? What do you like?”
That was the thing. “Instead of my cutting the balls of a property that I like as-is, why don’t I create something for you that works within those parameters?” And they were like, “no, we just really like Scud.” That’s par for the course out here, but at the time, I couldn’t understand it. You love this, but you want to change everything about it…
Once the Oliver Stone thing fell through, did you ever come close to packing it up and leaving Los Angeles and the whole Hollywood thing?
Moving back home and saying, “fuck it?” We never considered moving back home, because while I was still working on Scud, Harmon and I were working on something else. When we were told, “comic book writers don’t write screenplays, screenwriters do,” we were like, “oh, how do you become a screenwriter?” And somebody—I believe it was Teddy Tenenbaum, who actually wrote one of the issues of Tales of the Vending Machine.
This is going to get really convoluted, but I hope you can follow it. Teddy who, at the time was a screenwriter, here in Los Angeles, who was one of the writers that Oliver Stone’s people were looking at to write the Scud movie. During his research of the book, he became a fan, tracked us down, and said, “hey, I didn’t get the job writing Scud, but I love the book and heard that you moved into town. You obviously have some interest in film and features, and I want to get into comic books. Want to get together and talk?”
So we got together with Teddy, and we had written a spec script, because Oliver Stone’s people said, “you’re not a screenwriter.” We wanted to prove that we were, so we wrote a spec script—not a Scud script, but another feature, which was called Big Ant Movie, BAM for short. It was about giant ants taking over the world. it was like a funny version of Them.
It turned out pretty good. We had it with us and gave it to Teddy, and said, “well, if you could read our script and give us notes or help us out, I’ll publish you.” We had a new series called Tales From the Vending Machine coming out. So I gave him an issue and got an artist to work with him. And he read our script and really liked it, and gave it to an agent.
And this is how fucking lucky I’ve gotten—the agent that Teddy handed it to, that day met with Robert Zemeckis’s people, and they said something literally like, “do you have anybody who can do anything with giant insects?” And she said, “well, I’ve got this new script by these brand new writers. It’s called Big Ant Movie.” And they were like, “well, let’s take a look at it.”
A few weeks like, we were signed to a two picture deal. That’s what got us Monster House. That’s how lucky I’ve gotten. I wouldn’t even write it up to talent. It was just being at the right place at the right time, and having something to show. That’s what got me a deal with Zemeckis’s company. And once I signed with them, people were asking, “what else have you got?” That got us a meeting with Ben Stiller, and that got us Heat Vision and Jack.
At the time, I thought, ‘this is how it’s gonna be.’ There are a lot of my friends who have moved out here, and it isn’t that easy. You never know.
[Concluded in Part 4.]