It’s no secret to anyone who’s talked to me in the past few months that my favorite graphic novel of 2013 was The Fifth Beatle, written by Vivek J. Tiwary with art by Andrew C. Robinson and Kyle Baker. It wasn’t just that I learned things about Brian Epstein and the Fab Four that I’d never known before. It was that it was a book that used the artform to exaggerate, snap and bend reality and still come up telling the truth.
Every time I open that book up, I see another detail. I get caught up in admiration. So just before Wondercon, when an invite to talk with Vivek J. Tiwary came up, well, it was a no-brainer. I had to meet this man face to face.
Thus when you ask my high point of Wondercon, it was this: walking by the Dark Horse booth and meeting Vivek to have a conversation that wasn’t just about “congratulations, you’ve just been nominated for an Eisner!” (though just days earlier, he had been.) It was a conversation about a work of art I admired, and a conversation that illuminated a few corners for me.
But also, Vivek J. Tiwary is open, kind, enthusiastic and dedicated 100% to whatever he is throwing himself into, whether it be Broadway producer — he is one of the powers behind the brilliant show American Idiot — or neophyte film producer. But I’ll let him tell it…
Derek McCaw: This is an incredible week for you, coming off an incredible year. You’ve just been nominated for an Eisner…
Vivek J. Tiwary: TWO Eisners! Very proud of that.
Derek McCaw: Two, that’s right. Best Reality-Based Work and Best Painter/Multimedia Artist for Andrew C. Robinson. But I’d just put it up as Best Graphic Novel of 2013, but I guess we can’t say that…
Vivek J. Tiwary: That’s kind of you.
Derek McCaw: How do you feel?
Vivek J. Tiwary: It’s a dream come true. There’s no other way of putting it. I grew up reading comics; I love the medium. To think that a book I wrote is Eisner-nominated is an incredible honor. And Andrew Robinson’s nomination, I didn’t do the art, so I’m not patting myself on the back, but it’s breathtaking.
Derek McCaw: Did you do thumbnails, anything… stick figures?
Vivek J. Tiwary: I didn’t do anything.
Derek McCaw: Hold up a picture and say “this is what Ringo looks like?”
Vivek J. Tiwary: We had a pretty collaborative relationship. There were some parts of the script where I was very specific about what I wanted it to look like, this is the camera angle or this is the tone, and there were other parts of the script where I had no idea what I wanted. So I’d say, “Andrew, help. Tell me how you think it should be.”
It was a real collaborative effort, but I didn’t draw, or paint, or pencil a stitch. So Andrew did a breathtaking work and he really deserves that nomination.
Derek McCaw: You also brought in Kyle Baker for a sequence in the book. What was the thought process behind that?
Vivek J. Tiwary: It’s a very particular sequence in the book. It covers the time the band were in the Phillippines. And if you know your Beatles history or if you read the book, you know that things go crazy during their time there. They inadvertently snubbed Imelda Marcos, she pulls their security, the band gets chased out of the country…
It’s like the last scene in Argo, if you’ve seen Argo. The plane’s taking off, the jeep’s chasing it down the tarmac…. they actually made that up for a Hollywood moment, that didn’t happen. But for the Beatles, that actually happened to them in the Phillippines.
And while that was happening, America was getting wind of the “Beatles are bigger, more important, than Jesus” comment. So as soon as they came back, things went crazy.
In my mind, this was a period in the Beatles’ life when things went cartoony. Life became a cartoon. So I thought, let’s do it like a cartoon. Let’s pay tribute to the old Beatles cartoons from the 1960s. The ones that aired on TV, not Yellow Submarine.
And Kyle Baker is an amazing cartoonist, and a dear old friend of mine. He’s a New Yorker; I’m a New Yorker. We’d long wanted to do something together. And I had a feeling that he was a Beatles fan and probably grew up with those cartoons.
Sure enough, when I asked him about it, he said “I’d love to do it. Let me read the script!” And he loved the script.
I wanted that sequence to feel abrupt. I wanted it to feel like a radical departure from the style of the rest of the book. And Andrew can do anything; he’s an amazing artist. But I really wanted it to feel like a new artist was doing that sequence. So Kyle’s art made a lot of sense. I was really blessed to work with two incredible artists on this book.
Derek McCaw: It’s about the Beatles, but it’s really about Brian (Epstein). So what drew you to it from that angle?
Vivek J. Tiwary: I discovered the Brian Epstein story when I was in business school twenty-one years ago. I wanted to work in entertainment; I was dreaming about doing a lot of what I’m doing now.
And being a little geeky — I’m happy to let that flag fly at Wondercon —
Derek McCaw: You’re safe here; you’re among friends…
Vivek J. Tiwary: But I’m a geek! I’m a nerd! And there’s a chainsaw on Snow White! (a cosplayer has just walked by and Vivek stopped to compliment her.) I love it! I love it!
So I was a little academic about it. I thought that if I was going to work in entertainment, I should study the lives of the entertainment visionaries. That’s what led me to a study of Brian, thinking that the Beatles and Brian Epstein wrote and rewrote the rulebook of the pop music business.
That’s what I was initially after, the business stories. You know, how did he get them a record deal when no one wanted to sign them? How did he think of the suits and the haircuts? How did he convince Ed Sullivan to book them when a British band had never made an impact in the United States?
As a young business student, I wanted to know those business stories. And they’re fascinating stories; they’re inspiring stories, and I got the case study I was after.
But something I wasn’t prepared for, and at the time wasn’t really interested in, was learning about the human side of his life. He was gay at a period when that was against the law. He was Jewish in a time of pervasive anti-semitism. And he was from Liverpool. Prior to the Beatles, Liverpool was a town that had had no cultural influence.
So in a lot of ways he was the ultimate outsider. He was this gay Jewish man running around Liverpool saying “I’ve found this local band! They’re going to be bigger than Elvis!” People thought he was crazy. It was a crazy dream to begin with and “…people like YOU don’t do things like THAT!”
And I found that story incredibly inspiring,
As a first generation American, family of Indian origin, I, too, have occasionally felt like an outsider in my chosen fields. I never claim that I have the obstacles in my life that Brian had, but I can still emotionally relate to some of the struggles that he faced.
That’s really why the story struck a deep chord with me. I can say that the story has inspired me not just in my professional career, but in my personal life, you know? It’s an inspiring human story. It changed my life.
I feel that if others learn the story, it will inspire them. And that’s why I wanted to tell it. I know that’s a long answer.
Derek McCaw: No, that’s great, and that’s why I asked, because reading it, well, I thought I knew the stories. And Brian is always there, he’s in the background of every biography and every story. And there are things that you do artistically that are so crazy, that what I felt was their lives are so legendary, it’s almost like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It’s so crazy that the legend IS true. The Ed Sullivan Show moment with the ventriloquism dummy — I got to a point of “that might have happened! I don’t know!” But if felt true to their lives. Were there any particular moments where the reality was just too crazy? Or surprised you at how crazy it was?
Vivek J. Tiwary: I think the Phillippines is a good example. The reality of that was just crazy, and I was like, “how do I make it even crazier?” I couldn’t think of another way of doing it other than having Kyle Baker come in and do a crazy cartoon.
It is an amazing story, and in large part, that’s why I wanted to use the graphic novel medium. I wanted to be able to convey the poetry of the story. I wanted to be able to dramatize it in ways that would really convey the struggles that he faced and the joys that he face when he was celebrating, which wasn’t often.
Derek McCaw: That really rings through.
Vivek J. Tiwary: I wanted to do that in a way that a prose biography couldn’t have.
Derek McCaw: The page where Brian first sees the Beatles…that’s Andrew’s painting, but it’s your description. And you really can see everything washing over him…
Vivek J. Tiwary: I’m glad you pointed that page out. Andrew and I talked about that sequence at great length. What that meant for Brian, how it physically affected him, how it emotionally affected him, the dreams that he saw… why does he have the bullfighting vision then? What does that mean? What did he think the Beatles could do for him?
As you know from reading those pages, it’s very low on words. It’s mostly Andrew’s art. It’s Andrew’s art and it’s a bullfighting quote. I believe you will learn more about what the Beatles meant to Brian Epstein from those three pages than you will from any prose biography.
That’s why we chose the graphic novel. It’s a perfect example.
Derek McCaw: And you are developing it as an independent film?
Vivek J. Tiwary: Yes. We’re planning to make it independently for now, but I did bring on a producing partner who is incredible — I’m new to film and he is not — Bruce Cohen. Broadway’s my background, but I have not done film before. (Bruce) won the Academy Award for American Beauty. He produced Silver Linings Playbook and Milk, so he was nominated two other times…
Derek McCaw: So he’s not shabby.
Vivek J. Tiwary: He’s amazing. And it’s funny, when we did a panel at New York Comic-Con last year, he was on the panel with me — and these are his words, not mine — when they asked him about what was it about Brian for him, he said, “Well, I’m not from Liverpool but I am gay and I am Jewish.” So the story is very personal for him, as well. It’s a labor of love for everyone involved.
Peyton Reed is attached to direct. Peyton directed Yes Man, The Break-up, Bring It On…
Derek McCaw: Down With Love…
Vivek J. Tiwary: So you know Down With Love — it’s a sixties period piece with a fantasy element.
Derek McCaw: I saw that choice and thought “right on.”
Vivek J. Tiwary: It’s got the DNA of The Fifth Beatle right there. And Peyton’s amazing, and a wonderful guy who similarly loves the Beatles but gets that this is the Brian Epstein story.
AND we have access to Beatles music! The band signed off on it!
Derek McCaw: They did?
Vivek J. Tiwary: Yes! Apple Corps, on behalf of Paul, Ringo, Yoko, and Olivia Harrison, gave us their approval. We did a deal with Sony/ATV. That whole process, I will tell you, took three and a half years. But we have access to Beatles music!
We are the first film in history, the only film about the band, biographical film, to have secured those rights. It’s a huge honor.
Paul McCartney actually even wrote us a letter telling us how much he liked the book, and that he was moved by Andrew’s artwork.
Derek McCaw: Wow. That’s something to frame!
Vivek J. Tiwary: (laughs) It’s actually an email coming through his reps, but I did print it out! It doesn’t have quite the same frameability now that we are in 2014, but yeah, I have an email from Paul McCartney! It’s pretty freaking cool!
Derek McCaw: So we are here at Wondercon, surrounded by comics, and you said you grew up as a comics reader. Which books influenced you?
Vivek J. Tiwary: So many. I learned to read by reading comics. My favorites are probably a lot of people’s favorites. Chris Claremont — the run he did on X-Men was defining for me, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman was defining for me. I’m a huge fan of the Mirage run of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, so the work that Kevin Eastman and Peter J. Laird’s did on those books, big for me. Frank Miller’s Ronin and The Dark Knight Returns…
Derek McCaw: You came of age in a classic time.
Vivek J. Tiwary: Just about everything that Warren Ellis did, and is doing. Alan Moore’s work… I was blessed. I was born in 1973. When I was reading comics as a young man and as a teenager, it was really an age of incredible writers doing some of their seminal work.
Derek McCaw: Do you want to work in the form again?
Vivek J. Tiwary: Absolutely. I have a bunch of other ideas. Many of them are music related. None of them are biographical.
I will say that Brian Epstein’s story was a labor of love for me, but it did take twenty years to research and ten years to make, so I’d like the next project to happen before I turn sixty.
What I’m really very focused on right now is turning The Fifth Beatle into a film, and I’m also working with Alannis Morrisette to adapt her album Jagged Little Pill to the stage. We’re turning that into a stage musical.
Those are the two things that I’m spending most of my time on, but I do have a number of comic ideas that I hope I’ll be able to talk about before too long. Can’t quite talk about it yet.
Derek McCaw: Well thank you for what you could talk about…
Vivek J. Tiwary: Thank you. It’s really a treat to talk with someone who cares about this project. It’s been such a labor of love, so to meet people who get it, who are also being inspired by this story… I’m a fan, too. I really am. I know that I created it, but I’m a fan. I take a step back sometimes, and it’s so much bigger than me.
It’s great to see the comics community respond, with the Eisners, and the LGBT community who nominated us for the Lambda award, and the Jewish community… to see people who don’t even care about the Beatles loving this book. It’s just humbling.
Derek McCaw: Who ARE those people?
Vivek J. Tiwary: (laughs) They’re out there.
Jokes aside, one of the important things with the film, as I think of it as an inspiring human story. Yes, it’s a musical biopic, but it’s less like Walk The Line and more along the lines of Billy Elliott or Rocky. It’s the guy least likely to succeed, going the distance in his chosen field, and leaving the audience inspired to do the same thing.
In much the same way you don’t need to be a boxing fan to like Rocky, and you certainly don’t need to be a ballet fan to like Billy Elliott, being a Beatles fan will enhance your experience of the story.
But you don’t need to be a Beatles fan to love The Fifth Beatle. You don’t. It’s meant for anyone who’s ever had a dream, or wanted to have a dream. I know that sounds awfully cheesy, but that’s what it’s for.