At Wonder Northwest, Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett, co-authors of the Victorian robot history book Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel, held a panel to talk about their famous robot and future projects. The pair have been in the news recently because J.J. Abrams’ production company Bad Robot purchased the movie rights to the book. Aided by presentation materials that included the original Boilerplate model, the couple gave a behind-the-scenes look at their various machinations.
The couple began with a series of readings from Boilerplate. Since the panel was scheduled for 45 minutes and would include other topics, they presented an edited version of their usual one-hour reading.
The various letters in the book provide first-person accounts of the robot’s activities and the opinions of witnesses, including one from Boilerplate’s putative creator Archibald Campion to real-life inventor Nikolai Tesla. Guinan read the part of Campion while Bennett chimed when Campion’s sister was quoted.
“I needed to write the letters in period style,” Bennett said about her writing process, “but without making them too ‘old-timey.’ I kept writing and rewriting them until they were right, like Paul did with his Photoshop work.”
The two seemed to have fun adopting voices to match the writers, especially Bennett. She read a letter from a working-class Irish girl who met Boilerplate during his first public appearance at the Chicago World’s Fair, and gave it all she had. Her performance was only matched by her subsequent reading of a letter by Mark Twain.
Guinan had several reasons for choosing the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago for the robot’s unveiling.
“The Fair was the foremost cultural event of this country,” he explained. “It caused ripples that we can still feel today.”
The conceit of the book is that Boilerplate actually existed, but got lost in history. As a result, the Fair also provided perhaps the only place that an intelligent automaton could be revealed without much notice. The Fairgrounds were packed end to end with new ideas and inventions.
“It was like the internet,” Guinan said, “only physical and temporary.”
With so many new technical marvels crowded into one location, including Tesla’s alternating current presentation, phosphorescent light, and the Ferris Wheel, it is easy for the reader to believe that a robot could be overlooked.
“In a place where everything is a wonderment,” said the robot’s creator, “nothing is a wonderment.”
Though nearly all of the art was created by Guinan, there were some cameos by guest artists from Portland. The pair pointed out the work of Steve Lieber, David Hahn, and Jonathan Case, all Periscope Studio members. In addition, Oz graphic novel artist Eric Shanower provided an illustration of the robot as the inspiration for L. Frank Baum’s Tin Woodsman.
After showing a “book trailer” for Boilerplate, Guinan and Bennett talked about the rocky origins of the tome.
Their original publisher went out of business, leaving the duo with a half-completed book. However, as Guinan pointed out, the setbacks turned out to be fortuitous.
“Having half of a completed book makes a great pitch,” he said. “That got us a deal with Abrams Books, which is known for its coffee-table art and non-fiction books.”
Abrams’ reputation for factual subject matter fit in nicely with the “real fiction” setting of Boilerplate.
“Two steps forward, one step back,” said Guinan, “but it turned out OK.”
If a movie deal with one of Hollywood’s biggest names is “OK,” that is.
The story behind the deal took some interesting twists, according to Guinan and Bennett, with its origin in a Portland comic book shop. Jason Leivian, owner of Floating World Comics, happened to give a copy of Heartbreakers Meet Boilerplate to a member of the production company Outlaw Productions, who passed the book on to its head, Deb Newmyer. Newmyer took an interest in the robot’s story and asked the authors who they would prefer as a director.
“We had just seen Star Trek,” Guinan remembered, “and I was struck by the way that J.J. Abrams was able to take a story with so much history and make a movie that doesn’t rely on knowledge of that history, but includes touches for those that are familiar with it.”
With a backdrop of American history, it seemed natural that Boilerplate should be tackled by Abrams, and the producer was eager to work with the material.
Bad Robot is currently reviewing story treatments from “big-name screenwriters,” according to Guinan. He estimated that the earliest possible date for the movie itself would be 2013.
Although Guinan and Bennett did not know how much involvement they would have in the movie, they did confirm that they would be executive producers, and did not rule out the possibility of a walk-on part. Bennett shared her husband’s fervent hope for the film.
“They will most likely need to build full-size Boilerplate props for the movie,” she said, “and all Paul really wants is one of those!”
From the pages of Boilerplate sprang the couple’s next project, Frank Reade: Adventures in the Age of Invention. Reade was a fictional inventor from the turn of the century, and appears briefly in the robot’s tale. As the protagonists of a tremendously popular series of dime novels, Reade and his family traveled the globe, exploring and spreading “civilization” as they went. Guinan took the concept and ran with it.
“My thought was, ‘What if these dime novel characters were real?’”
Reframed as a series of biographical accounts of the family’s adventures, Frank Reade includes excerpts from the original pulp stories, which Guinan helped to archive. Traveling to the New York home of a collector, he scanned the magazines for his book as well as for posterity.
“None of this material had been seen since its publication,” Guinan said. “This was science fiction in America before Jules Verne, who is always seen as the originator.”
Guinan and Bennett are taking Reade further into American history, a step that Guinan compared to the iTunes Store’s dissection of an artist’s back catalog.
“You start with The Basics, then Next Steps, and finally Deep Cuts,” he explained. “Well, the History Channel is The Basics, Boilerplate is Next Steps, and Frank Reade will the Deep Cuts of history.”
Though the robot makes cameos in the spin-off book, Reade will focus on several members of the Reade family. Perhaps in honor of the upcoming Boilerplate film, Guinan compared the two books in cinematic terms.
“It’s like the Godfather movies,” he pointed out. “Godfather 2 is the richer, more complex, but The Godfather has Brando.”
Frank Reade: Adventures in the Age of Invention is due out in February of 2012.