Horberg’s ‘Agency’ on drawing board

Dormant scripts get graphic novel treatment

As movies based on graphic novels such as “300,” “Sin City,” “Road to Perdition,” “A History of Violence” and “Stardust” become more common, frustrated Hollywood filmmakers are taking dormant screenplays and commissioning graphic novels in hopes of boosting their onscreen potential. Director Darren Aronofsky published a popular graphic novel of “The Fountain” before the movie finally made it to the screen.

Similarly, William Horberg, production topper at Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, took “The Black Diamond Detective Agency,” a shelved Western whodunit script by studio rewriter C. Gaby Mitchell (“Blood Diamond”), to First Second Books.

It took famed graphic novelist-illustrator Eddie Campbell (“From Hell”) more than a year to produce the lavishly illustrated “The Black Diamond Detective Agency” picture novel, which hit bookstores and Comic-Con this month. In it, a violent guy who has renounced violence becomes a wanted man and infiltrates a detective agency.

At this point, launching a costly Western epic is daunting at best, even with CGI technology. “The book world is a second hope for these projects,” Horberg said. “As a book exists in pop culture, it can take on new momentum and come to life in the studio world.”

Horberg has long dreamed of shooting a Chicago movie in his hometown. Years ago, he pitched a film about the turn-of-the-century-era Pinkerton Detective Agency to Paramount Pictures, which developed a screenplay with Mitchell. “It languished in development hell,” said Horberg. “It was a big movie that would only get made with big elements.”

Sydney Pollack flirted with it; so did Michael Mann, Peter Weir, Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt (who recently made his own Western, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”). “It was a lot of almosts, but we never lined up all the tumblers,” Horberg said.

Paramount let it go, but Mitchell and Horberg did another rewrite, turning it into the strictly fictional and mythological agency that invented the science of detection. Horberg envisioned the movie, now dubbed “The Black Diamond Detective Agency,” as akin to “The Untouchables,” but with “the mythic pitch of a Western.”

Horberg set out to learn about graphic-novel publishing and wound up taking a 10-page treatment by artist James Sturm to First Second Books, an imprint of the German publisher Holtzbrinck. But when Sturm launched his College of Cartoon Studies in Vermont, he became unavailable. First Second editorial director Mark Siegel turned to Eddie Campbell, whose graphic novel with Alan Moore, “From Hell,” was turned into a 2003 movie by the Hughes brothers.

Horberg and Mitchell control film rights to “Black Diamond” and own the copyright. “If the movie never gets made,” Horberg said, “the characters have found a life and connected with the public. I hope to do more of these books.” To that end, Horberg met with Siegel at Comic-Con.

Campbell worked with wet washes of color, which goes faster than black and white, he said at his booth on the exhibition floor of the confab. He also painted over old photos and postcards of period Chicago, he said: “They gave me a lot of space and let me contribute my own ideas to the script.”

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