(Photo by Image Comics)
Debuting in the first issue of Spawn as nominal antagonists to the title character, detectives Sam Burke and Maximilian “Twitch” Williams are a pair of good cops despite their odd looks — Sam is slovenly and overweight while Twitch resembles a classic nerd. Thanks to their true hearts and eventual understanding with Spawn, they became fan favorites in their own right, spinning off into their own title, Sam and Twitch, and finding their way into film and television development.
The latest attempt to bring them to television unites production companies wiip and McFarlane Films, and sees executive producers Paul Lee and Mark Roybal (Mare of Easttown) and Jason Smilovic and Todd Katzberg (Condor) envisioning it as a premium television drama. And as Todd McFarlane — the creator of Sam, Twitch, and Spawn who will also serve as an EP alongside the rest and Sean Canino — told Rotten Tomatoes, there may also be a hint of the supernatural within its drama; a notion absolutely fitting Spawn’s best known spinoff. He also offered some other preliminary thoughts on the new Sam and Twitch project, the perils of interconnected film universes, and an update on the Spawn feature film.
(Photo by Arturo Holmes/Getty Images)
Erik Amaya for Rotten Tomatoes: Back when we had comic-cons and you were behind a booth, how did you pitch Sam and Twitch to prospective readers?
Todd McFarlane: Sam and Twitch to me is a bit of an eclectic book, there’s no people with capes and costumes running around. So if you’ve sort of gotten to a certain age and you go, “Hey, I’ve read 10,000 superhero books,” [the comic was something different to read] — not that I don’t dislike [superheroes] now, but I need other stuff in my reading habits of comic books. I started diversifying. I just wanted to put out a book that said, “Hey if you don’t like Spawn, then here’s this other corner of it, and it’s not the same thing. So if you want something that’s a little more sophisticated, older, mature,” — whatever word you want to put on it — “then here’s an option.”
When I [first] used to walk into Hollywood, my simple pitch was — now I’m going to age myself — it was “The X-Files meets Hill Street Blues,” right? So it’s the reality of good detectives and then every now and then something goes bump in the night. So that’s the combo. And done with a serious face while you’re doing it the whole time and you’re not goofing it.
(Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Were Todd Katzberg and Jason Smilovic sympathetic to that original premise or did they come to you with a different framing for this particular version of Sam and Twitch?
McFarlane: The characters have been around for, literally, since day one of the first Spawn book and then they’ve had sort of iterations of their own book. My job when trying to find talent isn’t to show them the path, it’s to listen to what they have, but you listen after you give them some of the material, right? So I go, “Hey here’s a bunch of stuff, read it, use it as much or as little for inspiration as you need and then come back and give us your take.” So as long as some of the core colors are there, then the details of how the stories are developing are less important, because I think people come back to good drama for the characters, more than the specifics of any sort of scene or episode.
And so [they] take this and build out a world with characters that people care about and — oh, by the way — make it so that if nobody’s ever read a comic book of Sam and Twitch, never heard those words and don’t know nothing about Spawn, will be able to enjoy this TV show and not feel like they’re missing one piece of the puzzle. Then, as geeks we’ll probably put a couple of Easter eggs in there and wink wink, that will go “Oh I know what that meant,” “I know what he said,” “Oh and that guy’s name was so-and-so,” “I know what that meant.”
But none of that’s going to be any kind of driver. It’s about two detectives up against some heavy odds and no backup, because what they’re dealing with from time to time are not going to be things they’re going to be able to explain to anybody. So you just have to solve their case and when people ask, even their chief, they got to just shrug their shoulders and just say, “I guess we got lucky.”
What makes Sam and Twitch make perennial fan favorite characters?
McFarlane: I think [those around them] find it easy to discount them because of their physicality. And I think there’s plenty of us out in the world who are judged solely by our physical looks instead of our actual abilities. I’ve always [wanted it] so that when these guys get down to being detectives, they’re really good, arguably the best at their precincts, even though they don’t have the perfect bod to go with it.
Then there’s an unbreakable bond between the two partners that, hopefully, people understand goes deeper than the work. For people who have maybe siblings or close friends, there’s that sort of a vernacular that people use. You can say and do and act a certain way around some people in your life that you would never show to anybody else, you would never show to the outside world, but you would never let the outside world encroach on whatever that relationship is.
It’s one of the things I’ve talked to writers in the comic book [about preserving]. These guys enjoy each other and sometimes they even goof and there’s a lot of dark humor, but it’s never in front of anybody else. As soon as the door is open and the third person comes in or they go out to the public, they’re complete professionals. They don’t let anybody get in on that game of that relationship.
(Photo by Everett Collection - Al Pacino in 'Serpico')
Cop shows kind of became a tougher sell in the last year, but do you think that Sam and Twitch’s dedication to fighting history of standing against corruption in the comics makes them more appealing characters in the modern landscape?
McFarlane: I think it’s about having these dedicated people. I mean, if you look at it sort of almost a little bit like Serpico, if you will, that he was sort of a guy out of place right? And even in American Gangster, the beginning of that movie when they find the money and they go, “We can’t hand this in, nobody would trust us again,” right? So not to say that there’s corrupt cops around them — I don’t want to do that — but you got these dedicated cops that are a little bit out of step with the norm and they know that every now and then something moves in the shadows that shouldn’t be moving, but there’s nobody else that’s seeing it. And so there’s no other help; they have nobody else to lean on other than each other, they’re not going to be able to sort of get back up.
So the vast majority of it will look and feel like crime drama, but then every now and then there’s going to be an odd piece that doesn’t make any sense. They’re going to have to sort through it and when they get to the origin of some of it — which may be inexplicable — they’re not going to be able to tell anybody. So they’re going to have to keep those secrets to themselves. [They know] the worst place to be in the world, as history will tell us, is you never want to be the person who sees something for the first time, because you will always be written up as the kook.
So thinking back on kind of the Brian Michael Bendis run on Sam and Twitch, and a little bit after that, there were those amazing Ashley Wood covers. Do you think the show will kind of capture a little bit of that energy?
McFarlane: That grit, I’m hoping. Obviously, whoever comes to direct is going to set the tempo, but just on the writing side, we’ve been talking about it and we want a world that’s just slightly odd. We’ve even talked about movies like The French Connection and stuff that are just sort of “cool New York” — not that we’re going to set it in the past — and, more recently, a movie like Uncut Gems that shows you a little bit of the gritty side of the otherwise flamboyant city. So we’re hoping that sort of the environment is also alluring to the audience.
Is there any thought to planting seeds for an interconnected Spawn universe in the series?
McFarlane: We don’t have any specific plans right now. Like I said, my best guess is that we do a couple of winks and Easter Eggs — somebody sees something on a billboard or something like that. But given that I haven’t sold those characters, you can’t even do it creatively, which is sort of a much bigger question that I’m sort of asking in Hollywood right now. There is a way to actually play with all of this, but somebody has to have their hands on a big piece of it then. That’s another topic, another headline, for another day, hopefully.
Does it feel like the mood has changed toward the notion of having a universe to sell versus an individual character or title?
McFarlane: I think there’s a lot of places in town that are curious and asking about if it possible, seeing the giant success of what’s happening with the Marvel universe and the DC universe for Warner Brothers and Disney. So the other big companies are going to want to keep pace. [It leads to] two questions: How do you do it? And how long does it take?
I mean, both of those worlds had 50, 60, 70 years to get to the launch point that we now talk about. It seems like, Oh it’s been here forever, but it took a lot of decades for them to incubate it. And so that’s part of the conversations I’m having now, do you want to have a shared universe and get a meaningful one? Those are two different things and I think, once you even put your toe in that water, you have to commit to arguably decades to get to the high watermark. Nobody’s going to hand anybody a fully-formed universe like that, at least on the superhero front, because it doesn’t exist … maybe through some novels, perhaps.
(Photo by Paul Butterfield/Getty Images)
This isn’t the first time Sam and Twitch has entered development. There were previous projects with Kevin Smith and Dick Wolf attached. What led to them dissolving?
McFarlane: I think the same thing that brings most development to an end, you get an expiration date on contracts and nothing got made. So the hard step isn’t selling and developing in Hollywood, it’s making something. We just weren’t able to get to that last step. Now we’re at a different point in time, back then there weren’t all the streamers. But now you have a different world where there’s different possibilities to tell different types of stories.
I’m not saying that we’ll end up at a streamer, but we’re hoping that if we can put a couple more pieces together, get all the stories lined up and bring a little bit more talent on, when we walk into a pitch and say, “Hey, here’s all the talent. Here’s all the pedigree. Here’s what everybody’s track record is, it’s not a bad combo right? And if you put us all together and we get married and we have a baby called Sam and Twitch, it could be an interesting, oddly entertaining show that hopefully is accessible to a lot of people.”
Before the pandemic hit, it seemed like the Spawn movie was so close. Is it still in development?
McFarlane: Yeah. I’ve added some other talent to it. We’re all working towards it. We’re hoping to get a script here pretty soon, get that in good order. It’s been done by some heavy hitters in [the industry] and then, hopefully, we’ll get some interest in one of the big players. Everybody has full confidence that we’ll get there eventually.