While not exactly a household name, Christopher Chance, aka the Human Target, has led a busy life outside of comics. Various film adaptations have been developed over the years, though nothing ever came to pass. Then there was the short-lived ABC TV series
from the early '90s, starring rocker/actor Rick Springfield of "Jessie's Girl" fame. And this Sunday, a new "Human Target"
comes to Fox with "Fringe"'s Mark Valley in the lead, and Chi McBride ("Pushing Daisies") and Jackie Earle Haley among the cast.
We spoke to Jon Steinberg, showrunner of the new "Human Target" TV series, about the character's high concept appeal, the differences between the comic book and TV version and Christopher Chance's connection to one Professor Henry "Indiana" Jones.
Were you familiar with "Human Target" before coming to the show? Either the Len Wein/Carmine Infantino comics or the recent Peter Milligan scripted Vertigo series?
I had heard about it. I was into comics growing up, but I heard about [the character] kicking around feature development. But I didn't know that much about it. I read the Peter Milligan books when we were trying to get it up off the ground. The conceit itself is brilliant. And as soon as you start to think of it as a franchise that allows you to make a different action movie every week, it starts to be very exciting.
The point at which ["Human Target"] became something that I fell in love with was when we started to think who this version of Chance is going to be. Because there has been a number of versions; Len [Wein]'s version is different than Peter Milligan's version is different than Mark Verheiden's version. So when we were trying to figure out what our version was going to be, we started thinking about the kind of action heroes we would want to see on TV, the kind we hadn't seen in some time. That's when it really got to be exciting. Let's make our Indiana Jones, and let's put him on TV.
: "Human Target" is a great high concept. It isn't surprising that Hollywood has tried to adapt the character so often.
: It's an enticing idea. The idea that a guy would be so willing to put his neck out, be so attracted to that danger that he would literally become somebody who was in for it. The problem is, when you try to do it in live-action, you're kind of playing with fire a little bit. As a conceit, the idea that you could become somebody else by wearing a mask or through prosthetics is something that always trips me up. I've seen it done really well in features. But even then, when untold hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on a handful of shots, I still know that it's not real. I don't believe that somebody could walk into my office looking like a friend of mine and turn out [to be someone else].
So that was the hardest part up front, and probably what held [the project] up for so long. How do you transition it from the page, where the purest version of it works really well, to the screen? You kind of have to come up with something else. And as soon as we started going down the road of, let's make the action hero we want to see, it became clear to us that the mask was kind of getting in the way.
In the comics, Chance has always taken over the lives of his clients through impersonation. Based on the previews, it seems like your version of Chance is more of a straightforward bodyguard. Will we see Chance adopting disguises at all, or utilizing masks ala "Mission Impossible"?
: We're definitely not doing the mask work. But we are playing with identity, and with the idea of him having to become a different person for every job. And what kind of a person it must take to do that. And also a big part is, where does he learn to do it? It's a skill that is clearly acquired. I think the underlying mythology to this version of the story is very heavily rooted in how [Chance] came to be--how and why he learned these skills.
Can you tell us a little bit about the new characters in the series?
: Chi [McBride] plays Winston, Chance's business partner/only true friend/conscience. He shares an origin story [with Chance] that has something to do with a darker past that Chance has, which Winston played some role in putting behind him. Jackie Earle Haley plays Guerrero, who we're not quite sure what to make of. We suggest that Chance has a darker past, but with Guerrero you are never quite sure whether or not you can trust him. But he has a soft spot for Chance. He's one of us, but he's a guy you always have to keep an eye on.
: You also have Tricia Helfer, someone whom "Battlestar Galactica" fans will be happy to see, in the first episode.
: Yeah, [Tricia's] great. What we're trying to do is something where anyone you see on the show as a protectee or a villain or resource along the way is somebody that we could consider bringing back. We are at the mercy of the story, where it makes sense [for a character to return]. We would love to have Tricia back at some point.
: It's a great engine for guest stars.
: Yeah, "Magnum, P.I." and "Rockford Files" did that really well. There were always people coming back from old cases, coming back in different capacities. That's the model we're hoping to adhere to.
: "Human Target" definitely seems in the vein of throwback adventure shows like"Scarecrow and Mrs. King"
and "Remington Steele"--something which makes it stand out amidst today's grim action dramas. And, bringing it back to comics, there is a similar situation going on where superhero comics have gone so far into the dark stuff that it's hard to come back to what was fun about them in the first place. Were the breezy adventure shows of the '80s an inspiration for you?
: Yes, definitely. There are definitely pieces of "Rockford" and "Magnum." And even the shows that were around for ten episodes that we grew up with like "Automan."
The kind of stuff they used to have on TV all the time and no one does anymore.
I think the biggest inspiration for us though was, strangely, "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Because that movie is also about a guy who is two people. It's able to treat that idea seriously, and have a real gravitas about the character's story while still having the most fun I've ever had sitting in a movie theater. Allowing things to be fun and silly where they need to be, but still being serious at times. So I think that's true north for us. And from there, "Die Hard" and "Lethal Weapon"...those movies that we grew up with. But "Raiders" was the truest touchstone for what we wanted ["Human Target"] to be.
: Sort of how Indiana had that double life as an archeology professor and a part-time adventurer?
: Right. He's a guy playing a role, and you're not really sure which one is the role and which one is him. And there's a number of disguises he needs to adopt in order to get from point A to point B. Once we started thinking about it, we realized ["Raiders"] has a lot more in common with the story we're trying to tell than we thought.
: You cocreated "Jericho,"
a show which relied heavily on ongoing mythology, ala "Lost" or "24." Are you going for that sort of open-ended storytelling with "Human Target"? Or will it be a series that viewers can pop in and out of?
: The hope up front is that every week is its own movie; it's own story with a beginning, middle and end. And the world changes dramatically: one week we could be in the Andes, and the next week you're in Vienna and the next week you're on an airplane. So there's no need to know the mythology to watch them all and enjoy [the show].
That said, I personally find it hard to invest in a series unless I know there could be something I'm going to get that will pay off based on what I've already seen. So there's an element of mythology and a spine to the whole season, and series, that is about Chance. Where he came from and the people in his past, some good and some not so good. That's how we wanted to look at it-- the mythology is largely based around this character. I think it's working. You could pick up episode 8 and watch it and not care that there's a huge reveal based on something that has been building for a number of episodes. Or if you've seen them all, you get a big moment for the series.
: Peter Milligan got into the aspect of Chance losing his identity through all these different lives he's taking on. So it's interesting that the mythology is focused around Chance and not, say, some vast global conspiracy or some sort of evil corporation that's controlling him .
: Right. [laughs]
: Unless there is an evil corporation controlling him. Spoiler alert?
: No. Most of the staff came from "Jericho" with me, and we've done vast corporate conspiracies, so we were looking for something new. We didn't want to do [the "Bourne" movies] again. "Bourne" did a really good job of doing Bourne. We didn't want to do, say, that he was programmed by the CIA. So we started thinking about it differently to try to tell a story with some real myth and some real "bigness." We're excited to start letting those reveals out and tell the story.
: Going back to the comics, will we see any characters from Peter Milligan's series or previous "Human Target" comics?
: We haven't brought any in yet. That's not to say that there won't be characters from the comics. It's not an easy task to build an action hero that no one has tried for as long as I can remember. So I think the goal for us is, let's get this guy up on his own two feet. Then we can start worrying about when he gets to protect Bruce Wayne. [laughs]
"Human Target" premieres Sunday, January 17th at 8/7c on Fox