Thursday, July 23, 2015

James A. Bretney Interview: War Veteran, Filmmaker and Comic Book Writer

By: Nicole D'Andria

James A. Bretney has experienced three deployments in the last couple years over to Iraq.  He has been enlisted in the army for over eight years and is active in politics that volunteer in campaigns in California, Arizona, Washington, Georgia, South Carolina and Colorado. He also has a passion for writing and has finished his comic book western published by Lucha Comics, Up the Trail, which I will be discussing with him today.

Up the Trail is an adaptation of the over hundred year old novel Log of a Cowboy by Andy Adams. It is a coming of age story about a cowboy going up the Great Western Trail in the year 1882. Bretney found the story from Richard Kilmer of LibriVox in the public domain.   

I spoke with Bretney about his comic book creation as well as his experience as a writer and filmmaker.

James A. Bretney

Me: Why did you decide to create a comic book western?

James A. Bretney: I actually vlog about that here and here. I discuss my movie making plans for the story.  I also talk about my creative process.

I will say that Texas Rising and Hatfield and McCoys both from the History Channel are quite good.

Me: Why did you decide to have it in both mediums?

Bretney: I have to develop a fan base.  Movies and TV are such an expensive process.  They cannot exist without a fan base.  Usually as a producer when you are producing an original story you have to have a star attached and that means money.  If you have no money, make a comic book and find a fan base.  Rodolfo and I have been publishing for about a year.  We have not really found our fan base yet.

Me: Out of all the westerns you’ve read, what about Log of a Cowboy spoke to you that made you feel like it should be adapted versus another western story?

Bretney: I have not read Louis L'Amour or Max Brand.  I read Larry McMurty but his books, like Louis L'Amour's, are not in the public domain.  I watched a lot of John Wayne's movies growing up.  I watched Clint Eastwood too, but John Wayne served as an example of what a man is, was and should be.  A man has to live by a code.  If he doesn't he becomes an animal.  Then he becomes less than an animal.  I know.  I lived that.

I read a lot of Western folklore.  The most influential book was Benjamin A. Botkin's Western Tales: Treasury of Western Folklore Hardcover.  This book would serve as the blue print for the World building involved in Up the Trail.  I also tried to incorporate the distinct Western vernacular which is mostly lost in everyday speech.

Me: How would you describe your characters in Up the Trail? Do they fulfill classic western archetypes like the outlaw and the sheriff or are they offshoots of the typical types?

Bretney: No.  They are people.  Ordinary people.  Cowboys did occupy a high position in the 19th Century Class system.  Some of them were rough.  A few were illiterate.  Some like Fox Quarternight were very educated.  Ash Borrowstone is an orphan.  Paul Priest served in the Confederacy.  These men were young.  Many are in their teens like Billy Honeyman and Ash Borrowstone.  Paul Priest was the old man of the outfit - 37.  Jim Flood the Trail boss is in his mid to late 20s.

Me: Are there any other specific western stories that you think should be adapted into comic book form?

Bretney: Andy Adams wrote other books after Log of a Cowboy.  If the demand is strong, I might revisit or expand this work.  I also like Mark Twain's books and short stories.  There are some very funny stories in Roughing It that are worth exploring in the comic book format.

Me: Do you think your experience in the war had any influence on your writing style?

Bretney: A writer writes from his experience.  Marriage, childbirth, divorce, deaths, events like these shape you. 

But the truth is I don’t have very manuscripts from my period before the war.  I wrote an unpublished incomplete western and an unpublished black comedy.  On my last tour of duty, I started taking my writing more seriously.  It has been a long apprenticeship but I am at a point where I am creating art and people are responding to it.  So the short answer to your question is the war influenced my writing style by getting me more serious about writing and just doing it.  I stopped asking permission to be happy.  I stopped making excusing for who I am.  I stopped lying to myself about what I wanted to do.

Up the Trail Page 1

Me: Can you talk about your experience as a filmmaker?  When and why did you decide to pursue this career?

Bretney: I always wanted to work in movies.  But I made excuses for not doing what I love.  Until I was in Iraq and I was looking at some mortar tubes the enemy made that earlier maimed two female soldiers, I decided I would stop asking permission to make me happy.  I started doing creative stuff like impersonating Elvis, then I started writing and on the GI Bill, I went to film school to live the life of La Vie Bohème. 

When people go to film school, you find yourself in roles.  About 10% to 20% are shooters.  After about the first year, if they are good, they can start charging people $100 a day.  Everyone is a writer.  Some are good editors.  I was ok.  But I never loved it.  As a matter of fact, I hated it. To be a filmmaker you have to love editing.  Create a compelling story off of someone else's scraps.  I was good at casting and decent at producing or getting people, places and things together preferably for very cheap or free. 

Filmmaking is very expensive. 

I could go on about this for hours!!!
Me: What inspirational words do you have for aspiring comic book writers?

Bretney: Discipline.  Write every day.  You can take a break.  But writers write.  They publish.  To publish you have to hustle, promote, be your own showman.  Andy Weir self-published his book 4 years ago.  Now Matt Damon is going to be in his movie.  Robert Kirkman fifteen years was somebody else's hired man.  You got to be tough.  I know a lot of writers who are better than me at their craft, but they don't have the discipline, the hustle or the toughness.  I have had some success and would like to have more.  But if you are going to do something, I think a man should know what he's up against.

Me: What inspirational words do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Up the Trail Page 2

Bretney: Same rules apply except you have to use a camera.  The job is tougher because you are managing a lot more moving parts.  You have to have a plan for sound, vision, people and EDITING you have to pay some of them and if you are going to hold them over even the free workers, you have to feed them.  Don't be afraid to start small and use the tools that you have.  Some people don't have a Cannon T2i, but you have a camera on your phone.  You may not have Final Cut but you have Windows movie maker.  You don't have a distribution deal with Sony or Disney, but you have YouTube channel. 

Philip DeFranco has a full time staff and all he does is talk into his camera.  You have to be a rebel.  You have to think outside the box.  You have a lot more problems than a comic artist but your payoff is bigger.  At a minimum you are working with actors.  That's always cool.  Go to Hollywood.  And if you are in Hollywood and you don't want to live inside your car, don't be afraid to be someone's assistant.  I have an actress friend who started out as a writing assistant now she works on Grey's Anatomy.  It’s like anything else.  You have to stick with it.  Filmmakers make student films.  Student films turn into Commercial gigs from advertising agencies.  Then movies and TV.  You don't have to go to Film School.  I don't recommend it.  I recommend volunteering on sets until someone hires you because they like you.  Don't quit.  That's all.

Up the Trail Page3

Me: What is a big challenge you find yourself facing in the comic book business?

Bretney: The biggest challenge for us and our company is finding our audience.  Every story has an audience or genre.  We find that most stories in popular culture are not the best stories but the best marketed stories.  Some of these stories, marketed by multi-billion dollar corporations over decades, have established themselves into our culture.  For new creators, the challenge is how do you market your intellectual property on a shoe string in such an environment?  We have decided on word of mouth, reaching out to opinion makers (bloggers, vloggers and podcasters) such as yourself to make our case to the market.  

Word of mouth means delivering a consistent high quality product at a steady volume.  We wrapped up Kursk in the Spring.  We will wrap Blaze of Glory in the summer.  Up the Trail is ongoing and we will be introducing a new story line – Call Me Robby - in the fall with a highly stylized art design.  Call Me Robby is a psychologically thriller about an Iraq War veteran coming home and battling mental illness.  We have taken on a lot of debt to deliver Kursk and Blaze of Glory, thus I have had to scale back the delivery schedules for Up the Trail and Call Me Robby.  It also means I have to repay that debt.  

But the advantage of having completed a story with a complete arc is that people get to see what you are about and what you can do.  Rodolfo of Lucha Comics is turning to Kickstarter to drum up business for print run pre-sales.  But we have on-going discussions on how best to create relationships with new customers.  Is it giving away product in a web-comic or download format?  Is partnering with other creators at comic conventions?  And if there is one critique that I must change with my own company is that I have to have a bigger involvement in the local convention and comic book stores.  There are quite a few comic book conventions local to Houston.  There is a comic book shop local to me that I go to every week - Bedrock City in Houston.  I have to do something to introduce myself and my products.  Hard to do when again on a shoe string and hobbled by debt.

Me: Thank you for your time, the kind sentiment and your service James! Best of luck with Up the Trail and your future writing and film making endeavors. 

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  1. Awesome dude, keep up the good and hard work. If you ever need any hired, cost effective help when in town hit me up, you know I got your back. I'm happy for you my old friend.

    Ralph Temblador

  2. Awesome dude, keep up the good and hard work. If you ever need any hired, cost effective help when in town hit me up, you know I got your back. I'm happy for you my old friend.

    Ralph Temblador