A Mighty Interview - Part II
Mark F. Berry
We now continue our conversation with the artist-author behind the glorious new book, Kong: King of Skull Island, Joe DeVito ...
MB: So, you were telling me that you considered a couple of different options when deciding whether to go “old-school” or “modern” with your Skull Island dinosaurs?
JD: That’s right. I came up with an idea that over 65 million years, the air quality changed, oxygen became depleted, and the dinosaurs had a physiognomy that was evolved based on the richer oxygen content. So, in the beginning they would have their tails held above the ground and be highly mobile, then over time they became more and more sluggish and eventually had to drop their tails down to the ground, to get balance! And I almost did my book that way, just for the pure fun of having tail-draggers in it. I eventually decided no, that’s a little too far fetched ... I didn’t know what people would think about that.
MB: I would’ve liked it!
JD: Yeah, I would’ve liked it too. I thought it would have been fun, you know? Now in order to tell my story, I ended up having to outline, literally, from the beginning of the world all the way until the present, in order to have the dots connect on which to hang the story that I would tell. So there were a lot of questions that I wanted to answer, for myself. What was King Kong? Was he born on the island, or was he brought there? If he was born on the island, how could that be possible? You know, if you study paleontology, you know that dinosaurs and mammals essentially evolved at the same time, that dinosaurs won the battle, and therefore the mammals were relegated to obscurity while the dinosaurs ruled the earth. So if that was the case, how could a giant mammal evolve on an island filled with dinosaurs? You could deal with it just as myth, that’s true - in other words, just accept it - but obviously if I did all of that I’d have no book to write at all. So I had to come up with interesting reasons for how all this happened.
MB: And a particularly deadly new dinosaur you’ve envisioned is the one that the Skull Island natives call the “Deathrunner.”
JD: Yes. I put in a lot of the dinosaurs we all know and love, but I also had a race of dinosaurs that continued to evolve, and became sentient. In my back history the natives originally came to Skull Island after their own lands got destroyed, but they had scoped it out over a period of 10, 20, 30 years. They knew it was there, they knew the creatures were on it, and they developed these herbal mixtures to repel the dinosaurs and gain control of that island. What they never counted on was that there could be a creature that was so intelligent it could prevent itself from being found. So that when they got there, they almost got overrun by the Deathrunners. Now, the Deathrunners are not Velociraptors. A couple of people I’ve heard - most people absolutely love the book - but a couple have lamented the fact that there’s a ton of Velociraptors in it, and that’s not the case. The Deathrunners would be to Velociraptors what we are to chimps.
MB: I did get the impression that they were from that lineage - a dromaeosaur lineage that had evolved into a sentient creature ...
JD: You’re absolutely right.
MB: ... and the dinosaurs called “Slashers” are basically your standard Velociraptors.
JD: You got it. That’s exactly right. And there’s a lot of clues and things hidden in the artwork that will reward you if you look at it two and three and four times.
MB: Talking about the whole backstory of the Wall, I’ve always loved that one line in the movie when Denham says that the Wall was “built so long ago that the people who live there have slipped back - forgotten the higher civilization that built it.” I’ve often thought that there could be another whole story right there in that one line, and now ... you’ve written it!
JD: Yeah! That’s exactly it.
MB: That one little line is just loaded with all sorts of possibilities ...
JD: You bet! You bet. That movie had so many things, you know, and in the novel it’s all there as well. In fact, I had a problem limiting what was in the book. We literally ran out of room, the book was so jam packed.
MB: Back on the subject of the “forward-evolved” dinosaurs ... and again, I don’t want to give too much away, but I love the major sequence in the book where you sort of re-imagine the Kong-T. rex battle, while amplifying it in a way that I wouldn’t dream of giving away ... but it’s a terrific scene.
JD: I’m glad that you liked it. Because the whole point of the book is that each of the protagonists in the book have a wall that they have to overcome, a challenge that they have to break through. And of course, my book is not really about King Kong, as much as it’s about how Kong became king. When he was on that island as a young ape - Mighty Joe Young size, essentially - there’s something else that rules that island, and it’s as big and bad as he is. It’s a creature that’s every bit as intelligent as King Kong, not just a Tyrannosaurus walking around.
MB: And you designed this dinosaurian king, who the natives call “Gaw” and who ruled Skull Island before Kong, as a bit of a tribute to Ray Harryhausen?
JD: Yes, Gaw was designed as an homage, in many ways, to Ray Harryhausen. And the whole book is basically a love letter to all of the things that I grew up with, that I always loved as a kid. Even the styles of the art vary throughout the book. For those who have the eyes to see it, there are things that very much echo the Golden Book of Dinosaurs - in the printing techniques that they had when we were kids. The way I did a few of the paintings, they actually look kind of like that. Hopefully you get that feeling like there’s something really familiar about this, and it feels good looking at it.
MB: Definitely. Of course we’ve talked a lot about the story but the magnificent art is what complements the story and completes the book. What media do you like to work in?
JD: I work almost exclusively in oil paints, oil paint and brush, hand and brush. The old fashioned way ... it’s the way I do virtually everything. I may underpaint in acrylic, but my final paintings are always done in oils. Whenever I do a painting, I always do many thumbnail sketches to figure out a basic composition. Then I’ll do a color sketch to figure out all the problems, because I want to figure out my value relationships, my color relationships, things of that nature that go into what makes a picture. And the difference between copying and being an artist is picture making. When you design a painting, you design it in such a way to move the eye of the viewer around the painting, the way that you want them to see the painting. So that where you want them to look first, you put the greatest amount of contrast. You’ll put the lightest light against the darkest dark, a hard edge against a soft edge, that kind of thing, and you design your picture accordingly.
MB: How many paintings did you create for the book?
JD: I think what appeared in the book was ... oh boy, somewhere between 40 and 50 images, whether they be paintings, black and white, vignettes, whatever. Virtually all of the paintings that I did, appeared in the book. There might have been one or two that didn’t. And there was a bunch of drawings that could have gone in it, but didn’t. The softcover version of the book by the way, which is coming out in August or September, contains an additional six pages in the sketchbook section at the back of the book.
MB: That’s the section of pages from “Carl Denham’s sketchbook” ...
JD: Yes, the Denham sketchbook. Plus, a new cover, and if you look, you’ve got to be astute and walk your way through ... some of it is obvious, and other times you’ve got to look close, but if you pore over it you’ll be able to figure out the ancient alphabet, and be able to decipher all kinds of things that are written in the paintings, and on the map, and everything else.
MB: One thing I noticed on the huge master painting that is the book’s cover ... down in one corner, there’s a rocky ravine and what looks like a very large arachnid. Your reference to the famous “spider-pit” sequence?
JD: Yeah. And if you look in the Denham sketchbook in the back, you can find out exactly what those “spiders” were. I came up with a creature that I think is pretty cool, different than just a giant spider. But, yeah, that’s exactly it!
MB: I loved all of the sketches in the Denham sketchbook of the island’s various flora and fauna. All of them, including the “spider,” seem completely natural and plausible even though they “exist” only on Skull Island.
JD: I’m glad you think so.
MB: And I understand you actually made your own armatured Kong model?
JD: That’s another thing that I did for this book that was interesting. Very early on, about ten years ago, I contacted a guy by the name of Jeff Taylor. I had seen in one of the magazines that he made stop-motion armatures. I knew I wanted to do a book on King Kong and obviously I was going to be doing a lot of King Kong paintings, so I figured this would be worth making my own little stop-motion gorilla. So I bartered with Jeff, who’s a wonderful guy - I gave him a painting, and I got a beautifully articulated, 18-inch tall, stop-motion gorilla armature, that I sculpted my own gorilla over. Then I had that cast in latex and foam rubber, to put back over the armature. It was relatively crude - it was nothing like any of the really good things that you would see - but it was all I needed, I just needed a prop. And I used that for several of the paintings throughout the book, to pose for lighting patterns and shadow patterns and that kind of thing. So I actually made my own little King Kong.
MB: That is so perfect. I suspect it’s an understatement to say you had a lot of fun creating this book?
JD: Ah! Yeah, but, I’ll tell you ... it was the most enjoyable thing, and the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Two or three times I came within inches of walking away from the whole project. After years of work, certain aspects got so over the top that it wasn’t worth the trouble dealing with it. But, all of that was before I actually signed the contract. Once the contracts were signed and I worked on the book, I had an enormous amount of fun.
MB: I know what you mean, at least in some ways ...
JD: I’m sure you can relate, I have no doubt. But, you know, the thing that keeps us going is we’re doing what we love, you know? And one of the things that I really enjoyed about this book - because I was doing my own thing, the way I wanted to do it - is that virtually everything in this book, I just sat down and drew it. It’s all drawn freehand, nothing was projected. And I really, really enjoyed that because I did exactly what I wanted to do, just sitting down and drawing it, having fun. But people don’t realize when they pick up a book just how much of a person is invested in that book. You know, there’s blood and guts in every one.
MB: Well, reading your book, it’s very apparent how much effort went into it. In addition to the overall, epic sweep of the story, there’s also all the little treats you put in for all the people like me who just love this stuff. Like the whole backstory behind the Kong ceremony, that we just see bits of in the film, and also your wonderful answer to that age-old question posed by smart-alecks everywhere: “If the Wall is supposed to keep Kong out, why’d they put the two giant doors in it?” And I love the way that is solved in the book ... it makes absolutely perfect sense.
JD: I’m glad that you thought so. It was one of those things ... There were a million questions and a million possibilities of how to answer them, but after a long time contemplating all of this stuff, somehow or other, everything began to fall in place of its own accord. Until, about a third of the way through, the thing began writing itself because everything began to be lined up.
MB: And you had, apparently, the ideal collaborator in Brad Strickland.
JD: Well, anybody who’s ever done a book like this, you realize it’s very tough to do it completely on your own. Ideally, it would have been great to completely write the whole book on my own, and illustrate it. But what took precedence in my mind was that the writing and the art be on the same level. I didn’t want there to be a disparity between the two. So having been a professional artist for many years, but just starting out writing, it was obvious that the one was not going to be as polished as the other. So I’m very, very thankful that I came into contact with Brad, through an agent that I had a while back, and we worked together on it. I had collaborated for a while with John Michlig, but he had his own Kong book that he was working on - he has a book coming out called Eighth Wonder - so he actually left to work on that before any real writing began on my book. I already had the story, I already had the characters, and when it came time to novelize it, build the house, thank God for Brad. Because he brought the experience with him to make sure everything developed in a tight, coherent way. And I loved, absolutely loved, working with him. We would send pages back and forth, and write and rewrite and everything until it was done, and of course I was organizing the pictures and painting them at the same time. I never worked so hard in my life, and at the same time I never had so much fun. In fact, Brad and I enjoyed working together so much that we co-rewrote the original together. It’s coming out late summer, early fall. It’s a rewrite of the original Lovelace novelization, but expanded. Four chapters are added, and it’s tied even closer into my book, so that actually ... you don’t get her name, but you see the Storyteller in the background of what’s going on. You hear the name Bar-Atu. You know, little hints and things like that are in there.
MB: That sounds fantastic. And on your current book, I understand that the family and estate of Merian C. Cooper were involved to a great degree?
JD: What a joy it was. At heart I’m a fan, and one of the great joys was actually meeting Merian C. Cooper’s family, particularly his son Richard. We talked a great deal, and I became a good friend of the family, and it was one of the highlights of working on the book. And another wonderful thing about working with the Cooper estate was getting their full authorization for my book. That meant a lot to me, because of everything that implies. I had the benefit of a lot of good help from people all along the way, who really watched out for me. Alan Franklin and Randy Merritt were two different kinds of lawyers that were absolutely wonderful in everything they did. Jennifer Getz and Sharon Vale-Chapman were two people, Joe Viego was another guy, that really really helped, to be able to talk to and run things by, bounce stuff off of, all that kind of stuff. And the friendships that I made along the way, or solidified through the making of the book, were wonderful. Arnold Kunert, I want to mention Arnold, who introduced me to Ray Harryhausen, and I’m very appreciative and thankful to Ray for writing the introduction. It meant the world, especially as a fan, my God ...
MB: That’s so perfect, having Ray do the intro ...
JD: Oh, man, I never would have dreamed, you know? And I definitely want to mention Dark Horse for doing the book! After all the years, you know, the great thing was that Dark Horse took the book on, way before any of the ... you know, I was pitching the book, trying to get it off the ground way before King Kong mania was about to hit.
MB: Yes, that’s one thing I wanted to give you the chance to clarify, because I’m sure it’s a great temptation for people, at this point in time, to jump to the conclusion that your book is somehow tied in with the upcoming film ...
JD: And, it’s not. This is not tied in or connected either to the original movie, or the upcoming movie. This is strictly based on the novel. This book was in the works long before the movie that’s about to come out was in the works. And I credit Mike Richardson for taking it on when a lot of other people said, “Who cares about King Kong? King Kong is dead and buried!”
MB: No, no ... not even Dino DeLaurentiis could kill him permanently.
MB: If there should ever be another Kong film, after the big remake this December, your book would make an absolutely phenomenal basis for a movie.
JD: From your mouth to God’s ears [laughs]. From the very beginning, I had always envisioned doing this book with a movie in mind. It was made to be made into a movie.
MB: With me being a total nut on these kinds of movies, all through reading I was constantly picturing the scenes in your book, like the luminescent cave murals, and of course the dinosaurs, as movie scenes.
JD: You know, I always had that in the back of my mind, what these things would look like up there on the screen. But as fate would have it, I was born on the east coast of the United States rather than the west coast, you know? If I was born on the west coast, maybe it’d be out now! [laughs] But, hopefully things will line up, in one way or another, and it will become a movie sometime.
MB: And lastly, a frivolous question ... taking the original King Kong off the board and out of the running, what’s your favorite dinosaur movie?
JD: That’s a good question. Now, are you talking real dinosaurs, or ...?
MB: “Movie dinosaurs” of any kind.
JD: Any kind. All right, I’ve got a couple of them. Harryhausen’s Beast from 20,000 Fathoms has always been one of my favorites.
MB: Right. That’s one of the main movies that really got me hooked on fifties monster pictures, and dinosaurs, and stop-motion, and all that fun stuff.
JD: You bet. And the movie, The Giant Behemoth, that Willis O’Brien did, I love that one. In fact, I think you and I talked about it! Yes, in fact the chapter on that one in your book was echoing in my mind ...
MB: Yes ... I love that movie!
JD: That is a great movie. And there’s that weird music, you know, when the radiation comes ...
MB: And the sort of Holmes-and-Watson feel that Gene Evans and Andre Morell develop, and the script is intelligently written and quite film noir-ish, and very “British.” I just love that movie - as you can tell!
JD: Me too! From the time I was a kid, I loved that movie. So, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was a favorite, The Giant Behemoth was one, and then, all of the dinosaurs that were in all of the Ray Harryhausen movies, I always loved. Like, in One Million Years B.C. the Ceratosaurus was always one of my favorites. And the original Godzilla, I always loved, rubber suit and all.
MB: Joe, the best of luck with your book and all your upcoming projects, and thanks so much for talking with me.
JD: Enjoyed it tremendously, thanks for thinking of it. You know, PT is just such a perfect forum in which to discuss the book, so thanks again.