‘Curiosity Drives Me Through The Process’ – From Indie Comic To Indie Film With George O’Connor

by Staff

Writer and filmmaker George O’Connor teamed up with artist Griffin to create an indie comic through their imprint, Homeless Comics. They created a first issue, Kickstarted a second issue, and continued through the series until they produced the resultant trade of HEALED, which you can now find on ComiXology. This indie project was O’Connor’s first foray into the comics medium from film making, and now that the collection is complete, things have come full circle for him as the first chapter of HEALED has now been made into an indie film, which is premiering at The Philip K. Dick Film Festival in New York this month.

HEALED is a high-concept book that focuses on character-driven chapters portraying the human drama of living in a world where illness has suddenly, and without warning, ceased. O’Connor and Griffin take us down some hopeful and pleasant paths as people recover their loved ones and lives that they thought might be ending, but they also take us down quite a few dark paths where human beings fail to adapt and where a world built on the assumption of death starts to face serious crises. O’Connor and Griffin’s unique vision caught my attention a few years ago when HEALED first appeared on ComiXology, and I was very interested to recently catch up with O’Connor about the comic and the development of the project as an indie film.
George O’Connor joins us on Comicon.com today to talk about the road that led him to create an indie comic, and what further steps brought HEALED to become an indie film.
Hannah Means-Shannon: I never had a chance to ask you what influences led you to make the step to actually create an indie comic with Griffin. It takes so many circumstances to set that wheel in motion—what brought you to that point? And how did you plan to proceed?
George O’Connor: I’d been making short films for years, which led to me creating a digital series called 664-The Neighbor of the Beast (which you can find on YouTube as Season 1 and Season 2). After the second season, I was kind of burnt out on film, so that was one part of the equation. The other was attending the 2009 New York Comic Con and specifically Oni’s “How Not To Break Into Comics” panel. Griffin, whom I’d been friends with for years, was there, too. By the end of the panel, the seed was planted for trying to make a comic.

With comics, I saw a way to continue to collaborate with other creative people (which is my favorite part of making anything) in a slightly more manageable scenario. Instead of trying to coordinate a dozen cast and crew members, you’re working with an illustrator and colorist, maybe a letterer and an editor. So that was VERY appealing. And also, the sky’s the limit with the stories you can tell. With indie film, the rule of thumb is, “If you can’t film it, don’t write it.” So if you don’t have access to a pirate ship, you shouldn’t write your epic pirate movie, which is also why 80% of 664 was filmed at my house. So the freedom that comics presented was exciting and invigorating.
So after thinking, “Hey, comics!”, it was a question of, “What do I want to write?” This was right at peak-zombie craze so we just flipped the script a bit, going from the zombie story of “Everyone’s dying!” to “No one’s dying!” We thought about that for a second and went, “Well that would be pure chaos.” Griffin and I had other ideas we batted around but this “no one dies” idea is the one we kept circling back to.
And luckily Griffin was there, not only to help shape the idea but he was willing to take this risk and draw the book. I am VERY lucky in that way, to be surrounded by talented people willing to join me on these creative endeavors. There is no HEALED without Griffin and I think a lot of what I’ve done over the past few years can be directly traced to Griffin’s willingness to give comics, and me, a shot.
As far as going forward, it’s just the unending task of trying to level up: as a writer, a collaborator, a letterer, coordinator and (when I have to be) a publisher. Right now, I’m focused on putting pitches together and navigating those waters. And again, I’ve found some fantastic artists to join me and make these things real, like DaFu Yu, Lesley Atlansky, Meredith Moriarty and Jules Rivera. And with some luck and hard work, I’ll be launching a new creator-owned series this Thanksgiving with DaFu (co-creator and illustrator), Lesley (colors) and editor Beth Scorzato.

HMS: I see you Kickstarted the second issue of Healed. Was that your first experience crowd-funding? How was your experience? How did you plan and manage the creation of the rest of the series and the collection?
GO’C: Yeah, after we made the first issue, we tabled at a bunch of shows and saw that other people seemed to dig the idea, so Griffin and I decided we wanted to dive back in and make more. But between the 1st and 2nd issue, my son was born and Griffin went back to school, so all those disposable income reservoirs dried up. This was right when Kickstarter was gaining some awareness, but it hadn’t exploded yet, so we were able to get in when it still had some novelty to it. It turned out great. We were able to over-fund the project by a bit with most of the funds coming from people who weren’t friends or family. Both of those things gave us a boost of confidence that maybe we had something with HEALED. And thanks to that one Kickstarter, we were able to keep the financial ball rolling for the rest of the series.

HMS: It’s a simple but radical idea to think about “What if?” diseases really did vanish. And it’s been touched on in sci-fi and dramas a little bit. Were you at all worried that it was something too basic to catch the attention of readers? How did you approach making the story meaningful to you, as a writer?
GO’C: I think maybe I was a little too naive and excited about the idea to think beyond myself. The idea got my brain thinking and firing and pretty soon I hit a point of, “I have to see this come to life. I have to hold this book in my hands.” Also, even before comics, I’d been making things long enough to know I have NO CLUE if something I dig is going to be something an audience will enjoy, too. I’ve had plenty of movies, songs, scripts and gigs land with a thud when I thought they were great. I’ve also had people love a thing I made that I thought was an after-thought. So, I’ve just accepted that I don’t know what other people will like, so I’m going to chase the things that excite me, make ‘em, and then see what happens.
When we brought issue #1 to our first convention, enough people were interested that we felt confident we had something worth pursuing. Talking to people about the book is a constant highlight at conventions, because you can see their brains start to spin once you tell them the premise.  And I think it’s the simplicity of the idea that helps engage people. We’ve all been touched by disease and illness and seen it wreak havoc on friends and family. We’ve all wished an illness would be taken away from someone we cared about.
Plus, it’s the execution that matters and differentiates one idea from another. The stories Griffin and I got excited about telling were unique to HEALED, Griffin’s art style makes it unique, and the same for my writing. Plus, I’m like 95% gut-instinct when it comes to making things, so if a story idea Griffin and I come up with makes the hairs on my arm stand up, I take that as a sign it’s an idea worth digging into and exploring. Then I just try to write it as honestly as possible. Basically, my curiosity drives me through the process.

HMS: The big takeaway I have as a reader, when I look through the collected version of HEALED, is that this is a book about a tragedy. Is that too strong to say? We follow many stories in this book, with great human drama and focus on real life impact, and so many of the stories are about the shock, difficulty, and struggle to react and cope with this change. It seems like humans have been taken out of their evolutionary cycle and just don’t know how to “be” anymore. Is that fair?
GO’C: Oh, that’s a cool take. I like it. And I also agree that most of these stories are tragedies. It wasn’t the plan from the outset but the stories Griffin and I were drawn to were definitely of the “life flipped upside down” variety and usually that’s not viewed as a positive. But that’s also what we were interested in as storytellers. We didn’t want to write a book about “The event,” we wanted to get into the people and real-life consequences and changes this would cause. There are a few stories where someone is looking at the big picture, but mostly it’s people trying to navigate “today.”
We also believe that people don’t handle change very well, even on a small level. So maybe 20 years after “The Healing”, everyone’s settled into their new life and routine and everything is great, but navigating those early days would be hell.

HMS: So, reader reactions seemed quite good to this very indie and self-created and promoted comic. What did people respond most to?
GO’C: I think it’s the simplicity of the concept coupled with the wide-ranging effects something like The Healing would have. There’s also a visceral, tangible quality to it. Everyone’s either dealt directly with a terrible illness or known someone who’s had to deal with it. And we’ve all had the same wish, to make that disease go away. Sadly, we all know that will never happen but HEALED lets people think about what if that wish really did come true. Not just on a personal level, but with global impact. And visually, I think Griffin is fantastic at facial expressions, so when we put characters through the ringer, it’s all on the page for the reader to see.

HMS: How did it come about that you started thinking of Healed as potential for short film work? What were the pros and cons of pursuing that?
GO’C: It’s always been in the back of my head. As much as I said I was burnt out with film, I can never stop “what if-ing.” So I would talk about it for a bit and then put it away, but it would always come back up. And as HEALED was marching along, our friend and HEALED’s co-producer, Diana Porter, was working her ass off in the Boston and New York film industry. She’s also been a huge supporter of the book since Day 1 and we came to a point where we could essentially merge our story with the amazing contacts and friends she’d been making in the industry. We had a simple discussion one day, “Okay, we either need to make this or stop talking about it.” So we made it!
The biggest pro was being able to revisit the comic script. It had been 6 years since I wrote the story we shot for the film, so that’s 6 years of (hopefully) getting better as a writer and story teller. And I honestly can’t think of any cons.

HMS: What was your experience like working on the film? If someone were to follow your path from comics into independent film, what would they be likely to encounter?
GO’C: It was easily, and by far, the best experience I’ve ever had on set. And it’s because I was surrounded with pros and I got the hell out of their way. Diana brought in Mikel J. Wisler as our cinematographer and he and his crew were tremendous. Mikel’s also a fantastic writer and director so we would talk, come up with a game plan, and then I’d let him execute it. Diana also put together an amazing cast which included 25 extras and they nailed it. Absolute, total pros.
And I got to check off a dream I’d had for years, which was to put my words in our lead’s mouth. Arthur Laurie, who plays “Father,” and I have been friends for years and we’ve done a ton of stuff together. He’s someone I will work with until either I die or he tells me to stop bugging him. Since the first issue, I said, “If we make a HEALED film, Arthur is going to be ‘Father.’” And 6 years later, I got to watch him say those words, knock it out of the park and put goosebumps up and down my arms all day.
For anyone else that wants to go down this path, my biggest recommendation is to surround yourself with talented people and trust them. “Directing” was the thing I did least on the set. I spent more time coordinating with Mikel and Diana, cheerleading to keep our actors’ and crews’ energy up, and running up to Arthur to hug him and tell him, “You’re so damn good!” You also need to take your time and prepare. The reason the set was smooth and relaxed was because of the prep time Diana, Mikel, Arthur and I spent in the weeks and months leading up to the shoot. We were able to keep the shoot moving, which everyone appreciated. And when the cast and crew know everything’s under control, they’re happier to be there and work.

[Arthur Laurie as “Father”]

HMS: Tell us about the final product, airing at the Philip K. Dick festival? How is it similar or different to the comic? How do you feel about seeing the different products in differing media?
GO’C: If it isn’t clear yet, I’m still so damn proud and excited about the film. What we shot was the first story from HEALED, the first 8 pages of the comic, and runs about 5 minutes. It focuses on Arthur’s “Father” character and how he and his congregation are dealing with The Healing and reconciling their beliefs with this new reality.
I think it’s a pretty faithful adaptation. You can definitely see Griffin’s panels come to life. And the heart and urgency of the story is still there, even if the words have changed to fit the media. A wonderful addition is the soundtrack created by Erin Murray Quinlan that adds an extra layer of emotion and power.
It’s still a blast watching the movie with an audience and listening to their reactions. And watching Arthur’s performance still gives me goosebumps. Plus, it’s a gorgeous film to look at thanks to Mikel’s vision and his crew.
In a weird way, I also look the HEALED short film as my graduate thesis as a comics creator. Everything I’ve learned about writing, being a good collaborator, trusting your creative team, and knowing how and when to step in and offer guidance is up on that screen.
And I mean, to be in The Phillip K. Dick Film Festival is beyond cool. He’s influenced so much in the sci-fi world that I don’t know how you’d be able to untangle it all at this point.
The festival runs from May 25th – 30th and HEALED will be shown on Monday, May 29th, leading off Block 3 which is from 2-3:30pm at The Producers Club at The Courthouse Theater (358 West 44th Street, New York, NY 10036).
I hope people check it out. I’m proud of the film and proud and amazed at the cast and crew that helped bring it to life.
And if anyone wants to see where it all came from, they can grab a copy of the graphic novel on Amazon or ComiXology.
You can follow George O’Connor on Twitter: lazyhorde.  
You can follow Homeless Comics on their website and on Twitter: @homelesscomics.
You can follow Griffin on Twitter: @shadedareas.
Big thanks to George O’Connor for taking part in this interview with Comicon.com.

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