EXCLUSIVE: Producer Neal H. Moritz and actor Vin Diesel have logged a lot of miles together with The Fast and The Furious franchise, but the reunited tandem have been in South Africa working on a very different action epic for Sony: Bloodshot, which adapts the sci-fi superhero introduced in 1992 in the pages of Valiant Comics. The script by Oscar-nominated Arrival scribe Eric Heisserer introduces Diesel as the cyborg called Bloodshot, an unstoppable machine-man assassin whose human memories were wiped clean by the lab experiment that created him.

Bloodshot has a first-time director in Dave Wilson, the longtime Blur Studio collaborator of Deadpool director Tim Miller (who, as it happens, is helming his own mechanized-assassin movie with The Terminator reboot that has been shooting in Europe). Andrea Giannetti is overseeing for Sony, which has Cross Creek as a partner on the project. Sony high hopes that Bloodshot will be the keystone for a new cinematic universe based on Valiant superhero properties (X-O Manowar and Harbinger among them) in an interlocking mythology.

Last week, the Bloodshot set had a special visitor: Bob Layton, co-creator of the character and the former editor-in-chief of Valiant, made the long journey to see his brainchild make the leap to a new medium. Deadline caught up with Layton upon his return and learned more about the film, which is due in theaters in February 2020.

Bob Layton

DEADLINE: Neal Moritz has got amazing mileage out of The Fast and The Furious brand. But at the same time, the identity of the Fast franchise has veered across the board in almost every way a franchise could — its cast, tone, directors, continuity and characters have all been subject to change. Is there any aspect of that you find concerning?

LAYTON: Having dealt with movie franchises like Iron Man and Ant-Man, which were also based on my original co-creations, I know that you’re dealing with a different audience than comic books readers. A lot of times, it really depends on the type of material you’re working with and whether it’s going to resonate with the regular, moviegoing audience, who are not “dyed-in-the-wool” hard-core comic fans.

And, people have been trying to convince Valiant to adapt Bloodshot for years, since the 1990s. Our opinion then, and I know this held true for [producer and former Valiant principal] Dinesh Shamdasani and the team that brought Valiant back as well, was a Bloodshot film shouldn’t be made unless it would be a top-notch, high-quality adaptation of the material. So, to your question, it wasn’t until Vin Diesel and Neal Moritz came on board that we knew that we had a team capable of doing justice to the character. It’s the opposite of concerning – it’s a great thing and definitely a coup for Valiant’s first feature. Dinesh involved me, early on, in the development process as a co-founder of the Valiant Universe. And I’ve seen firsthand just how closely he and Valiant shepherded this film along the way. This is the film we’ve always wanted to make and there’s a great team involved in every facet. This film has director Dave Wilson; Eric Heisserer, who wrote the script; and a stellar cast alongside Vin Diesel. That’s making all of this happen.

And I really have to sing the praises of Dave Wilson. He is an amazingly humble man. With [Bloodshot co-creator] Kevin VanHook and I, Wilson was incredibly conscientious towards us, allowing more access to the shoot than any other director I’ve worked with. He was so excited to meet us, very concerned that we approved of what he was doing. That’s rare behavior from a director. To find that they actually give a damn about the original source material? That was incredibly refreshing.

DEADLINE: The Marvel Universe has gods and cosmic-powered aliens tussling on a routine basis. The Valiant Universe seems far more grounded in science-based fiction, realistic geo-political backdrops and gritty peril. Would you agree? And was that a direction chosen early on?

LAYTON: Yes, I would agree. Going into Valiant, we really wanted to set it apart from other comic book universes. We didn’t just want to create types – a “Wolverine type,” an “Aquaman type” or whatever. We wanted to base our universe in what looked and felt like the real world and not a fictional, comic book fantasy realm where anything could happen and the fantastic was commonplace. For me, particularly, I’ve always been a very science-based guy. If you consider my contributions to the Iron Man lexicon, my entire approach to the character was to convince the readers of the technology of the suit and how everything worked conceptually. I made a concerted effort to make the technology of Tony Stark’s armor sound believable. The same thinking goes for Bloodshot. Bloodshot’s origins came from an article I read in Scientific American in the early ’90s, back when nanotechnology was purely theoretical. It seemed like a more credible way to give someone superpowers, using nanites, than being bitten by a radioactive water buffalo. I’ve always had a personal mandate, as a creator, to focus the emphasis on the real world, on characters readers could relate to, and on science-based powers as much as possible.

Valiant Entertainment

When I read the article about nanotechnology, that gave me the idea of how to give a character superpowers that would be scientifically or next-gen credible. Bloodshot was the first of his kind. And, in his case, having an empathy with machines, it’s a melding of man and machine that invokes a new kind of cyborg technology in a way that’s not as terrifying as the Terminator. We didn’t want him to be too freakish. After all, he still has to walk down the street, right? Nanotechnology, especially at that time, was revolutionary, and that made Bloodshot unique in the pantheon of superheroes. 

DEADLINE: Still, Bloodshot does share some common ground with other characters that have already reached the screen. The healing ability is like Wolverine and Deadpool, for instance. He’s also a haunted, lab-created super-soldier whose memories can’t be trusted — which will remind some people of Jason Bourne or Winter Soldier. Over the years have you winced when you’ve seen these other films? Do they undermine Bloodshot in any way?

LAYTON: Kevin VanHook and I worked very, very hard to give Bloodshot a voice that was very different from those other characters. And, even though they might have had similarities in powers or background, I think the creation of Bloodshot stood out as entirely different from the others you mentioned.  What’s more – while I can’t say too much about the story – the filmmakers are embracing the current moviegoing audience’s knowledge of comic book storytelling and have produced something very fresh and subversive to the genre.

The team making the Bloodshot film has never set out to make a “superhero movie,” per se. This film is going to have much more in common with action/sci-fi films like Total Recall and Robocop than it does X-Men or Deadpool. That’s always been the point-of-view and I don’t believe anyone on our team had any interest in emulating Marvel Studios’ films. The Valiant Universe has always marched to a different beat. Bloodshot is the perfect character to exemplify those stylistic and substantive differences.

DEADLINE: Valiant has followed a unique path of its own as you say. And you’ve been a key part of it. Now you’re fresh back from South Africa movie set where you’ve seen the Valiant mythology leave the page for the first time. How would you describe your feelings about that odyssey?

Valiant Entertainment

LAYTON: This is the first Valiant film. It’s not a Marvel movie and it doesn’t feel like a Marvel movie. I’ve been on Marvel sets – this is a different universe and it had a different feel being there. Plus, the people of South Africa and Cape Town were incredibly gracious and hospitable. It’s not like shooting in Hollywood. I was in a different country and it had that feel to it. This being the first part of the new Valiant cinematic universe, it was important that it had its own voice and look, similar to how I wanted the Valiant Comics to differ from the look of a Marvel comic. The Valiant movies should have an ambiance that sets them apart from both the DC and Marvel cinematic universes and I think we’ve accomplished that.

I felt an enormous sense of satisfaction that something so near and dear to my heart was coming to life. To go to the set and know that moviegoers are going to know Valiant, going to know Bloodshot — this character that I had a hand in — is an incredible feeling. Just seeing Project: Rising Spirit come to life and to see how the production picked up on the technology from the comics and expanded upon it, was breathtaking. Every detail has been done meticulously, right down to the little Easter eggs they put into the film. The fans are going to have to look for them, but they’re all over the place. I could not help but be impressed by the spectacle of what they’re trying to create. They’ve really gone all out.

DEADLINE: You’ve visited Marvel sets as you mentioned and that’s because of Ant-Man, Iron Man and War Machine, Marvel Comics characters you co-created or shaped mightily. How does that previous experience with Hollywood adaptations inform the way you’re approaching the Bloodshot movie?

LAYTON: In the case of Iron Man, I re-invented the character into the version that most people know today. Even though it was Stan Lee’s original creation, I’m still the person most associated with the Iron Man lexicon. With Ant-Man (which I conceived with David Michelinie) or War Machine (which evolved from the original creation of James Rhodes) all of those were group efforts with many creators involved in their evolution. However, in the case of Bloodshot, there’s just Kevin VanHook, Don Perlin and me (with David Chlystek credited with naming Bloodshot during a staff meeting at Valiant). This is the first time that I feel a purity that it’s just us and nobody else. That’s a great feeling because this feels more like my baby than those other movies.

DEADLINE: Will we see a Valiant Cinematic Universe? Is there a character, scenario or interaction from the wider Valiant canon that you would find especially exciting to watch cone to life in a major-studio spectacle film like this one?

LAYTON: Of course…X-O Manowar! Let’s face it, it’s: “Conan in a Can”! If that won’t translate to film, I don’t know what will. It’s a story of alien abduction, barbarian warfare in ancient Rome, spaceships, and a guy walking the streets in modern times with a suit of amazing, living armor. You don’t think there is a story there? You don’t think there is visual excitement there? Oh man! I can only speak to the original but, to me, that’s the great thing about Valiant. It was couched to be in the real world and set to be believable. I think any Valiant comic would make a great movie. And, I do happen to know that Vin, Dave and Dinesh have been plotting a little cameo in Bloodshot that will start to open up the larger Valiant mythology for Sony to play with.

DEADLINE: We’ve seen the Marvel Universe and the DC Universe reach the screen as well as Fox’s X-Men films. What in them would you point to as a valuable lesson — positive or negative — that can help Valiant become the next great multi-film superhero success?

Valiant Entertainment

LAYTON: I’m going to put it very succinctly: character, character, character. It’s not about big fight scenes. It’s not about giant tentpole stuff. The thing that really makes superheroes resonate is character. Tony Stark in the first Iron Man film was so true to the spirit of that character and we care about him because we come to love Tony, warts and all. That’s so important for superhero movies. In the case of Bloodshot, they’re really focusing on Vin’s character and it really seems to be a more character-driven movie, rather than just a lot of big explosions and 9/11-style building demolitions. The most boring part of superhero films to me are the pornographic, giant fight scenes that take up the entire third act. That’s not entertainment, it’s just a giant amusement park ride on film. Look at the original Iron Man movie as a prime example of a well-executed superhero movie. There’s only a single one-on-one battle that takes about 20 minutes of the entire last act of the film. It’s not giant invading armies from another universe in an unrelatable miasma of color and a cacophony of sound. That’s the real secret of a good superhero film. Keep the focus on the character and don’t make everything into a giant roller coaster ride.

DEADLINE: How do you feel about the casting choices on Bloodshot after your visit to the set?

LAYTON:  I was incredibly excited to hear that Vin Diesel had been cast to play one of my characters. I am a huge fan of David Twohy’s Riddick series and I had a chance to talk to Vin in some detail about his portrayal of Richard Riddick. To sit there and discuss Kevin and my creation with him was a thrill. I had that same good fortune, years ago, to be on set and talk to Robert Downey Jr and Jon Favreau about the evolution of Tony Stark’s character in Iron Man. Having a chance to do that, one-on-one, with Vin was amazing. Unfortunately, I missed being able to talk to Guy Pearce, which made me pull my hair out because he is one of favorite actors. I absolutely love everything he’s been in since Memento, so it kind of broke my heart that he wrapped his part of the production on Thursday, just one day before I arrived. But the cast and crew were singing his praises and said they’d never worked with anyone as professional and gracious as Guy. Sam Heughan, of Outlander fame, was incredible and one of the hardest working actors I’ve ever seen. And on the last night I was there, I met with Eiza Gonzalez. We had a nice chance to chat about her character, which is new to the pantheon of Bloodshot. Her role was created specifically for this film.

DEADLINE: Is there any aspect of the Bloodshot character that will be markedly different on the screen?

LAYTON: Of course! We’re translating something that was an iconic comics creation into pure movie magic. Comics and film are two, separate art forms and they generally don’t directly translate from the comic-book reader to a filmgoing audience. So, yes, it will differ. But I’m a big believer that as long as a film adaptation is true to the spirit of the character, that’s all we should be concerned with. It seems that every character that goes from a comic book to a movie winds up with a black leather suit anyway, so what’s the difference? Does that change who he is? Does that change the interesting aspects of the character or the exciting action? No! We’re talking about trappings. So, as long as it’s true to the spirit, I think readers and moviegoers will be good with that too. Being on set for the last week, there were several occasions, Vin Diesel obsessed about getting the film “just right.” For me, going there and seeing the amount of effort being put in, and the amount of passion from the principal players, the cast and crew, it made me feel very hopeful that we are going to get the high-quality Bloodshot movie that we’ve all been waiting to see.