Steven E de Souza talks Phantom

Introduction and Interview by Ed Rhoades

Ever since Hyde Park & Crusader announced they had acquired the rights to the next Phantom movie, the Internet and, in particular, the Phantom Phorum has been buzzing with excited discussion and the dissemination of information ... most of it vague or conjecture and rumor.

Numerous Phantom fans have expressed opinions, and everyone seems to feel confident about his or her take on what will be done or what should be done or what is best. Interest in the Phantom spans such a wide demographic range including Scandinavian fans who love their historical Phantom stories, Australians who favor classic Lee Falk adventures, young US fans who love the strips but favour a harder edge approach to film making, and older fans who loved the Paramount film which was fun but disappointing at the box office.

In September 2002, rumours first began to circulate about a new big screen Phantom adventure and I indicated on the Phorum that it was more than a rumour. I had been in touch with Hyde Park who told me they had nearly wrapped up the acquisition rights to make the movie. I called Joe D'Angelo, the man who "made the deal" for King Features with Paramount and was told they didn't have anything on it yet, because the negotiations would be between Hyde Park and Paramount who still owned the options. Suddenly, I received an email from Hyde Park saying it had gone through and King Features followed with an official announcement. At that point all heck broke loose!

Phantom phans were of course hungry for news about the Producers' intentions for the film. Early reports from Variety provided tantalisingly vague snippets, which set racing the imaginations of Phans and provoked much heated discussion on the Phantom Phorum. Those who loved James Bond wanted the directors and scriptwriters from the Bond movies to make it a Bond-like production, others wanted a sequel with Billy Zane, a few fans wanted a futuristic sci-fi film and others, strangely enough, were totally negative ... some even expressed their wish that the Phantom should be confined to the comic pages. There is an old saying "Never discuss politics or religion at the dinner table." The movie discussion around the table of the Phantom Phorum became as volatile an issue as I have seen in awhile.

In newsgroups, forums and email lists it's common for participants to use nom de plumes and even impersonate famous people. So it was no wonder when someone calling himself Steven E. de Souza, the man chosen to write the new Phantom script, contributed some information to the Phorum, there were skeptics who assailed him as a fake. Although he received undue criticism and harsh words, the poster kept his sense of humour ... and eventually most were convinced that he was the "real McCoy". I think perhaps the thing that made it most difficult for the fans to accept that it was Steve, was the fact that he was so generous with his time and information, and sincere about his love of the Phantom. It was just too good to be true.

One member challenged him to prove he was the real Steven de Souza by contacting me for an interview. Steven playfully asked "How will I know he's the real Ed Rhoades when I call him." Then as a response to the fans who really wanted to know more, Steven did contact me and we had a delightful conversation. He is an energetic, enthusiastic, intelligent and sincere conversationalist.

I had a list of questions I wanted to ask for our next issue of Friends of the Phantom, and the Phorum's believers had questions they passionately wanted answers for. Some of the pertinent information Steven gave in his discussion posts are also included here for posterity. IMHO Phantom fans are fortunate that he was chosen to write the script and I suspect after reading this most will agree with my assessment.

The Interview

What was it about the 1996 Phantom film that was so disappointing?
I think everyone was disappointed with the leotard-ish costume, which along with the general tone made the entire film unnecessarily retro, bordering on camp. Compare it to the Indiana Jones movies which take place in the same decade. Yet from wardrobe to stunts, they feel tougher, grittier, "realer". When I had the opportunity, I asked people associated with the Paramount picture why they had done the film as a period picture. The reply was, "Well, of course, the comic first came out in the late 30's, so naturally, we had to start there." Like Homer Simpson, I just wanted to go "Du-OH!" Because, following that logic, Spiderman should have been set in 1959, and X-Men in 1962!

Why do you think Paramount's Phantom movie was such a flop at the box office?
There seems to be a lot of evidence that the studio put all its eggs in the basket of another big picture released around that time (Mission Impossible). But certainly, in hindsight, the whole campaign was quite clearly juvenile and even, camp, with the awful poster and "slam evil" - a slogan utterly generic and utterly lame. No self-respecting twelve year old would set foot in the theatre for that, and no adult would even linger on the ad.

What do you feel has to happen to avoid the same box office failure the Paramount film suffered?
I'm not in charge of advertising, of course, but we feel our picture is tougher, grittier, and certainly, contemporary, not retro. The real challange will be promoting it without duplicating the look of that campaign ... so Hero will be sent to pasture for the coming attractions, and it would not surprise me if the Phantom is only shown obliquely, or not at all. IMHO, a title change would help ... you'll notice that in the remake of Manhunter they reverted to the book's title of Red Dragon. (And the reason they didn't call it Red Dragon the first time around was to avoid confusion with another film, Year of the Dragon!)

Why do you feel you were chosen for the job?
Obviously, I've done some well-known, successful action pictures. But I've also done a number of adaptations from comics and cartoons. I did an ABC movie-of-the-week based on Will Eisner's classic The Spirit (1987); Tales From the Crypt (1989, HBO), from the (in)famous E.C. comic; an animated series for CBS called Cadillacs and Dinosaurs (1993-94), based on the award winning comic Xenozoic Tales. And of course two highly publicized feature films, The Flintstones (1994) and Judge Dredd (1995). To people who know comics, these adaptations showed that I respected the original sources even as I moved them to new platforms, so to speak. I've also written comic-based screenplays for two movies that have been famously in development for a decade: Sergeant Rock and Flash Gordon. The Rock film was canceled only weeks before it was supposed to start - director John McTiernan was on location in Europe, and Arnold was getting his costumes fitted! So that was a famous "almost." And the story of Flash Gordon would take another interview to cover ... and, of course, the King Features people saw that script and liked it a great deal. So, along with Rock, that was a factor in my coming onto The Phantom.

You seem to be a master of writing scripts for films that turn out to be box office monsters, despite less than enthusiastic reviews from the critics: The Flintstones, Die Hard 2, Beverly Hills Cop III, The Running Man, the list goes on. How do you do it? What are the key ingredients of a box office smash?
Actually, Die Hard 2 and The Running Man got good reviews, but I get your point. There's often been this dichotomy between "popcorn" and "art". Once in a while something comes along that gets both B.O. and respect, but more typically it's one or the other. So critics fall all over, say Adaptation, but nobody actually went to the movie outside of the Upper East Side of NYC and the West Side of LA. I'm unabashedly in the genre movie business, and - like genre fiction - it isn't considered "serious." In short, I don't make "films", I make "movies". I try to write the kind of film I enjoy myself, I always try to have the hero be the underdog (hard when it's Arnold!) - someone the audience can identify with and root for. And I always try to have enough twists and turns in the yarn to shake up the audience periodically. (i.e., when Bruce gave Alan a gun in Die Hard, or John Amos cold-bloodedly murdered the nice recruit in the army truck.) Keep 'em nervous, keep 'em scared, and keep 'em guessing.

How extensive is your knowledge of Phantom adventures?
I don't know if I could go to the mat with Guran's gang, but I followed the daily and Sunday strip continually from the mid-1950's in the Philadelphia Bulletin until the year the Phantom married and I moved to LA. Unfortunately not long after I moved the strip disappeared from the LA papers. In any event, in all those years I absorbed more than you'd think ... in fact, more than I remembered: After I finished the script, I re-read the story about the Jungle Olympics - and realized that particular story was the source of an innocent butterfly collector who shows up briefly in my script! Among the stories I remember vividly from my own childhood reading were how Kit met Diana at school, then returned to Bengalla to take up the mantle of The Phantom; the first "Eden" story; the founding of the Jungle Patrol; and the 7th's mysterious encounter with the "LP". All of these affected my story and screenplay.

Are you finished with the script now?
Yes, my story was turned in at the end of last year and the script was finished in May 2003.

Who has seen the script and what were their reactions? Have you been asked to adapt or rewrite anything yet?
The script has only been read by the Producers so far. I have finished my contract with them. At this moment I'm doing my final polish on The Return of Dr. Jekyll, which I wrote for IMAX previously, but which is now being fast-tracked as their first original feature in their unique 3-D format. [BTW Ed this is a scoop] I have also been in talks with Marvel about a character who may be even less well-known than Daredevil - (but we hope to fix that.) If I have an opportunity to return to the Phantom, you can bet I'll take it - if only to ensure that the costume stays purple, and that you can't see his eyes!

Do you intend to approach and consult with the Phantom Phan community in assessing the script and the proposed updating of certain elements?
I've been reading what the fans have been saying in the Phorum for a lot longer than my recent posts. It has helped clarify my thinking and also helped me to focus in on the elements that are really at the core of the whole Phantom world. I want the fans to know I respect the character and the canon around him, and I haven't tried to arbitrarily "improve" it. But it would be misleading (and ultimately frustrating for everyone) if I tried to poll the fans on what they want, or even promise any particulars: I was hired to do a story and a script, and I've done both. Now, starting with the director, eventually a hundred other people will be hired, and the project will become a film, not 115 typed pages. So, for example, even though I can tell you here and now that I have, indeed written that the costume is a "deep, dark purple", and that no, you can't see the Phantom's eyes, that doesn't mean that the costume designer won't have a different idea. I am fairly certain that my main alteration in the costume will remain: It's the same cut, so to speak... it's just made out of different material.

Has there been any speculation about who would be good for the roles?
It's really premature to speculate this early. However the general and sensible opinion is that we need to hire someone to play #21 who isn't much older than twenty-one, so that he can be signed up for sequels from the get-go. So it's quite possible that a rising young actor could be signed, and then a very big, established star could be hired to play #20. And, of course, among the villains there's always roles that can attract a big name. One name that was mentioned as a perfect example was Heath Ledger. (If we got Mel Gibson to play #20 and Nicole Kidman to play Diana, it could be an all-Oz trifecta!)

What locations do you think might be considered for making the film?
The fictional film takes place in New York, and in Bengalla, in both Mawitaan and the jungle. While the movie crew could in theory fly all over the world, it would waste a lot of time and money. So there's been discussion about places like Australia or South Africa where cities, jungle and seacoasts all lie short distances from each other.

Do you expect to be on the set for adjusting or rewriting as needed?
That happens about half the time for me - it depends on where or when. Sometimes by the time a film shoots I'm unavailable (and sometimes they're glad I'm unavailable!) For example, I recently returned from South Africa where my film Blast was shot. I had finished the script a month earlier but the producers wanted me to do some pre-production work there. The day I left was the day Eddie Griffin, Brecken Myer and Vinnie Jones arrived to start filming!

The producers have stated that they want to put The Phantom "in a contemporary setting with the weapons and gizmos and 'Matrix'-style stuff." What elements of "The Matrix" do you intend to bring to The Phantom?
The Matrix introduced to a wider audience the style of fighting seen for thirty years now in Hong Kong cinema. The Matrix even used the greatest fight coordinator in Hong Kong, Master Po. So I certainly hope Ashok and Howard have him down on their speed dials.

What weapons and devices might the Phantom use?
My approach is that the hero should always be the underdog. So while there will be gadgets and weaponry galore, most of this should be in the hands of the villains. On the other hand, certainly in an exotic, mysterious land like Bengalla, there could be all sorts of unique, unusual and very deadly local weaponry of which the famous Bandar poison dart is only the tip of the iceberg ... there's much more to be seen in this arena.

In one of your first messages to the Phorum, you wrote that the film will show the death of the old Phantom. Is this (and all the other things you wrote) true?
I posted no such thing: If you go back and look [see excerpts below], you'll see that what I actually wrote was that, while several Phantoms are depicted in the movie, the 20th and the 21st have the most screen time ... but not which (if any) Phantoms die on camera. (After all, who knows? Maybe there's a nice retirement home on the island of Eden...)

Will the Phantom be tougher than he is in the newspaper strip?
The Phantom will be as tough as PG-13 allows - so that covers a lot of territory. The Indiana Jones movies and the recent Daredevil is a good example of what can be done with a non-super hero.

Avoiding spoilers, what would you like to say about the villain?
I've tried to write a modern, smart and arrogant villain in the spirit of Hans Gruber. Circumstances force him to work with the Sengh, who he views as a particularly superstitious lot ... but when skull marks start showing up, he soon learns they have a lot to be superstitious about.

How open ended is the story for building a sequel?
If the Phantom is still standing at the end there may be a sequel ... but if the audience is standing in line, there definitely will be a sequel!

Do you expect different costumes for different Phantoms?
That's a very good question, and we have been back and forth on it.

How will the Sengh pirates be modernized?
Piracy is going on right now in many places of the world, particularly the "no man's land" in the South China Sea. And you can bet they don't wear buckles on their shoes or have parrots on their shoulders, either. Having said that, the Sengh in my script are more than pirates - they are a globe-spanning, ancient order making a comeback in the 21st century via an uneasy alliance with an American industrialist who is seemingly above reproach.

Can we expect the skull oath and handing of the mantle from father to son in the traditional ceremony?
That - and more.

Which fixtures of the Phantom world might we see? Guran? Hero? Devil?
Although I've written all of them into the film, casting and wrangling them isn't my department.

How do you handle the "great white overlord" misinterpretation of The Phantom that is rife with the reactionary types?
As far as the colonial overtones go, we make it clear that the Phantom is not a Kurtz-like king lording over the bush, but a man revered for his leadership ... Not only have I kept the skull throne, when Kit comes back from America he even has a bit of a P.C. attitude he's acquired in college and he has an argument about this very subject with his father! (When he later complains to Guran about his father's heated reaction, Guran replies, "Old Jungle saying: Never discuss 'democracy' with a man sitting on a throne.")

Finally the most important question of all ... will we see Bandar pygmies in your Phantom movie?
Obviously, casting pygmies is, frankly, impossible. Casting midgets gets you The Wizard of Oz. We even briefly discussing "shrinking" actors to pygmy size a/la the Hobbits in Lord of the Rings, but that is so expensive that it would be insane for us to commit to it at this point. So for now, the Bandar are one of the indigenous tribes in Bengalla .... and exactly where "Bengalla" is located on the globe is also in flux, and may in the end be determined by where the film is (in reality) shot. So, if it were shot in South Africa, then the locals would look African ... if it were shot in New Zealand, the locals would look Maori - you get the idea. Right now on paper, Bengalla has its own unique culture, and "The Legend of the Phantom" is very much part of that culture.

Many thanks to Steven for taking time and patience to be so responsive. We understand that any film or TV production is a team project and everyone from the set designer to the producer to the actors can have influence upon the end product, but one can't help but think the less it strays from your vision, the better it will be.

Excerpts from the Phantom Phorum:

Let's start with the post that set off all the fireworks!

Subject: It's a Steven E. de Souza script (30 May 2003)

Who would have believed it. I'm a thread.

Before there was a Steven E. de Souza PHANTOM script (whatever that means), there was Lee Falk. And during those great canon years circa 1960, Mr. Falk had three dedicated readers in different corners of the globe: Ashok Amritraj, Howard Baldwin, and me.

The story we agreed we decided to tell was about the handover from the 20th to the 21st.

So, there can't be any settled, married Phantom & Diana, there can't be any twins or adopted nephew etc., because he ain't even the Phantom… yet.

Though the 20th and the 21st dominate my script, other Phantoms have cameos and an artifact from the 7th's greatest adventure figures mightily as do the Sengh (and that spelling is as p.c. as my draft gets, thank you.)

To learn any more, you'll have to buy a ticket. However, I will translate some producer-ese that has been wildly misunderstood:

"It's going to be a science fiction PHANTOM" [translation:] This does not mean that the PHANTOM will be a Strange Visitor from Another Planet, or the PHANTOM of the 31st Century. It means that there are going to be science-fiction elements in the script, in the same manner the contemporary action-adventure film DIE ANOTHER DAY had a Satellite of Doom, a Face-Change-O-Matic, and an Invisio-Car. But the hero was resolutely human as ours will be.

"There's going to be Matrix-like effects." [Translation:] This does not mean that Kit will discover to his horror that the Skull Cave is an illusion created by a computer. It does, however, mean that there will be kick-ass hand-to-hand combat, choreographed by the best Hong Kong Master Ashok and Howard can find.

I notice you have a poster who fears mightily for Mr. Falk's creation because "de Souza hasn't written a quality script for thirteen years."

I'm confused: If "quality" is meant to mean "critically acclaimed", then POSSESSED (2000), remains my best-reviewed film ... on the other hand, if by "quality" your poster means "box-office", then, certainly, THE FLINTSTONES (1994) is my highest grossing film, followed by DIE HARD 2 (1990).

On the other hand, your poster may have meant to say that I haven't had a film released since DIE HARD 2 that he liked, personally. In that case, that's what forums are for (and that's what "IMHO"s are for, too.)

More relevant than box office or reviews to this discussion is the topic of "adapting pen and ink originals to the screen." In this arena certainly THE FLINTSTONES is worth a look - especially when you compare it to its sequel. I would also point PHANTOM fans to my television series CADILLACS & DINOSAURS, on which I worked closely with comic creator Mark Shultz. Mark paid me the highest complement by retro-fitting some of the concepts from the television show into subsequent issues of his Eisner award-winning comic "Xenozoic Tales".

Speaking of Eisner ... I did a TV movie of THE SPIRIT utterly faithful to the classic original, right down to actual "swipes" from panels ... And the just-published COMIC BOOK MOVIES (Virgin Books) singles out 1995's JUDGE DREDD as one of the best comic-inspired movies ever made ... (of course, the author is English and may be prejudiced towards a U.K. title.)

The point is - I've read, collected, and enjoyed comic books and strips my whole life, and that affection is evident in my script. It's a long way from the page to the soundstage, but I want to assure all fans of the PHANTOM that the first steps have been made in a direction set not by some Hollywood whim, but by sixty-seven years of storytelling that's as true as a compass heading.

Steven E. de Souza

Subject: Billy Zane played #19

Wouldn't that be the way the math worked out? If current Phantom is #21 and (in current strips) seems to be in his early to mid-40's, then working the family tree backwards, Zane played #19 and Patrick McGooghan played #18 (albeit a dead #18.)

Both a PHANTOM film set in the future and a Phantom set in the past were discussed at length with Crusader, Hyde Park, and King Features. The consensus was that the film should take place today (or, as we like to say with films like this, "the day after tomorrow" to allow for gadgets and gizmos a/la Bond.) However all agreed that the clock of "today's" Phantom should be backed up in his personal history, so as not to depict on screen the daily and Sunday's married, settled 45 year old Phantom with a wife and 3 kids to feed. But that introduces another problem: A strict adherence to Phantom chronology would make the changeover from #20 to #21 circa 1975 [since #21 married Diana in 1977]! But setting the film then would confuse just about everybody in the theatres. (The only advantage would be that the civilian clothes would be so hideous, the purple costume would fit right in!) We decided that, just as the current Superman comics have Clark and Lois married in 2003 (and Lex Luthor as President!), the TV show Smallville simultaneously shows Clark and Lex in high school - and yet it's still 2003, not 1980... if the "Superman" fans can handle a slight chronological speed bump between TV and the comics, we figured PHANTOM fans could handle it, too.

Subject: Falk timeline trumps Paramount time line

I don't think most Phantom fans are willing to say that the Paramount film supercedes the strip's creator's vision. If we are to accept the timeline of Paramount's 1936 film as written in granite, and a permanent alteration of the Phantom canon, then we are forced to admit that Lee Falk was wrong, and the "current" Phantom is the 23rd (or even the 24th).

As I said, if you embrace this sort of logic, then Smallville is "wrong" because it must take place around 1983, or else how could Clark Kent still be in high school, when he's an adult "today"?

And what about James Bond? If you do the math, then he's "really" 78 years old. (In that regard maybe they should bring back Roger Moore.)

Just as the Tim Burton Batman ignored the 1960's TV show and didn't try to link up to its continuity, this is also a whole new ball game, and somebody's chronology has to bend. Better Paramount's than Lee Falk's.

Subject: Background and character

I do know the Frews; I followed with interest the panel-by-panel reconstruction of a long, early Falk daily story elsewhere on this site. The over-the-shoulder "shot" where the Phantom looks out the window at the fighter planes approaching (instead of the villainess escaping in her plane) made me laugh ... it's exactly how we'd cover a dropped scene in a film: Changing the dialog over the actor's back so we can't see that his lips are out of sync! It really proves Eisner's analogy of "sequential storytelling" in comics vs. movies.

I've known about the Fantomen books for years but have never had an actual hard, Swedish copy in my hand. I've bought Frew books in comic stores here in LA (Golden Apple and Hi-Di-Ho to name two.) I actually still have a few Gold Keys that my mother didn't manage to throw out (along with my Silver Age first editions - a very sad story - don't get me started!)

I read Lee Falk's strips in the Philadelphia Bulletin from earliest childhood right up until the Phantom got married and I moved to LA - so that's almost 20 years of reading Falk in his prime. (I was a very precocious reader.) Falk storylines which I read in their first appearance in the daily and Sunday strips and which I remember vividly (and which influenced my script) include: The 21st's becoming the Phantom [1959/60 Sundays]; the first Eden story [1960 Sundays]; the origin of the Jungle Patrol [1964/65 Sundays]; and the 7th's mysterious encounter with the "LP" [1956/57 Sundays].

When I moved to LA (circa the Walker/Palmer nuptials) I followed the strip for a few more years until it disappeared from this market - I think around 1985-87 (? Whenever the LA Times killed the competition off - call research.)

What made me enjoy the Phantom was that he was a real human being, not a "superhero". And he always struck me as more real than any other comic character - even more so than that fellow who ripped off the Phantom's cave, cowl, and villain-scaring persona. And yes, I'm talking about *you*, Mr. Wayne. or is it Mr. "whine"? Oooh, poor baby, boo-hoo-hoo, your daddy was killed by a criminal? How about if your daddy, granddaddy, great-great-granddaddy and so on all the way back to the 16th century were killed by criminals? And the odds were, you'd die that way, too? Try growing up with *that* hanging over your head, Mr. millionaire-playboy-split-personality with your little "ward"!

(Sorry, that city-boy copy cat always gets my goat. Where were we?)

Oh, yes. as to what the Phantom's character is like - if someone read my very first post looking for hints of my approach rather than proof I'm not me, my reply can only be, "*which* Phantom's character?" Without getting into spoilers, let me just say that sometimes the apple doesn't fall far from the tree; sometimes it does; and sometimes it falls quite a distance away ... but rolls back to the trunk. A look at the Phantom lineage (even the one you link to that's in Norwegian) shows that all the members of the family are intelligent, resourceful, and - an important point I dwell on - highly educated. And, of course, all my heroes have a sense of humour.

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Bryan Shedden /
Last updated 14 June 2003