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Swamp Thing Creators Gary Dauberman And Mark Verheiden - Exclusive Interview

Even now, decades after his first appearance in the pages of DC Comics, there are few characters in popular fiction quite like Swamp Thing. The character is rooted (pun definitely intended) in so many different genre traditions and pathways, from his rather pulpy beginnings to the "sophisticated suspense" era of his stories in the 1980s overseen by the likes of writer Alan Moore to the more dark fantasy-laden tales added later by creators like Scott Snyder. Through it all, the legendary swamp creature has proven enduringly popular, landing countless comics appearances, a feature film adaptation and, in 2019, a DC Universe original series created by Gary Dauberman and Mark Verheiden. 

Though Swamp Thing's run as a streaming series was short, lasting just one 10-episode season, Dauberman, Verheiden and their team managed to infuse their series with many of the things that make Swamp Thing great. It's spooky, romantic, a little gruesome, and rich with an expansive sense of mythology that might have allowed it to grow into an even bigger story if it had been given a longer lifespan. Though it didn't get a renewal, in 2020 the series did get something like a second life thanks to a broadcast run on The CW, where a new audience got to dig into its dark delights. Looper chatted with Dauberman and Verheiden about that second life, crafting the look of the show, its potential future, and more in this exclusive interview.

Spoilers for Swamp Thing below!

A second life for Swamp Thing

Do you have a piece of Swamp Thing memorabilia, either from the show or just as fans of Swamp Thing, that's your number one thing?

Gary Dauberman: Oh, memorabilia. No, I don't have it here, but I love Sideshow toys, Mark, you have one too. Yeah. The huge Swamp Thing, a statue that Sideshow toys puts out, [they] were kind enough to send us that. It's amazing. I remember going to San Diego and seeing it, Sideshow always has those great booths. And seeing it even before we were doing the show and just, really sort of jonesing for it, so that's super cool. Not from the show, but just Swamp Thing.

Mark Verheiden: I don't have mine to show either, but I became sort of friends with Steve Bissette, the artist, and he did me a Swamp Thing contemporary, and then I have, I don't know, four or five pages of art from the Alan Moore run, which are probably my favorite Swamp Thing things from that. From the show, the toys are great, awesome. They're awesome too. In fact, I just put away a Swamp Thing poster from last year, which was a great poster.

How do you feel about the show kind of getting a second life on a network?

Mark Verheiden: It's awesome. I mean, I think it's good. More people will be able to see it and it's hard to know how many people saw it on DC Universe, but I know the cast is really happy to have more people see it and so am I, so that part's great.

Gary Dauberman: And I think that's the key thing, because I think everybody involved is so proud of the show and what it accomplished. We're all for getting as many eyes on it as possible because I think whoever does watch it... and it's been really cool as it hit iTunes and all that stuff, people just text or message, "Hey, just checked it out." It's nice knowing it has its own life out there.

I'm curious as to what you hope people get out of watching Swamp Thing in 2020.

Gary Dauberman: Oh, man. I mean, I hope they get a chance to escape for an hour. I think first and foremost, to get there, it takes them somewhere else other than currently what's going on in the world, I think. I don't know. It's interesting, Mark. Do you think about the context in terms of...

Mark Verheiden: Well, it's funny. It is about an epidemic, but it's about a much easier to solve epidemic than [what we're dealing with now], so it's strange how the world's sort of caught up to that part of the show. But look, it's also a romance and a very strange romance in a way. And it's got intrigue and Southern Gothic overtones that if you haven't seen it yet, hopefully you'll enjoy seeing it now. And I mean the same things that I think drew us to wanting to make it, I hope people will enjoy when they see it now.

So there were 10 episodes, there were supposed to be 13. What was some of the stuff that we didn't see that you wish you'd gotten out there? Is it stuff involving the Rot? Was there other stuff that was going on?

Mark Verheiden: Well, I'll start by saying that I'm sort of in this mode where I'm happy for what we were able to do and so there's that. And so I don't spend a lot of time [thinking] about what we didn't get to do necessarily. That said, episode 11 was going to be the Parliament of Trees and we had already designed the trees and actually had it half built. So we were going to go into that and there was just a lot more intrigue between the characters as it wrapped up and leading to a different finale than you saw in the 10th episode. There would have been more of the Floronic Man and of the Blue Devil, but also a lot more of Swamp Thing and Abby's romance too. And even Alec Holland, there were more stories involving that side of Swamp Thing's persona. So there were many plans, but we have what we have.

Gary Dauberman: Yeah, I mean, we always consider season one to sort of be the primer for those who aren't familiar with the source material or Swamp Thing, [to] kind of get the lay of the land. And then of course, which would allow us to get a little bit more stranger and weirder and more f***ed up as the show progressed. It felt like we were well on our way, for sure.

Setting a visual and emotional tone

As you were sort of figuring out the look of the show early on, what was the original vision for the visual tone of the show and what was the process of getting there? What were the challenges?

Gary Dauberman: I think the first hurdle for us was really Swamp Thing himself and how we were going to pull that off, and the suit, the costume, that took up most of our conversations, I think very, very early on, because it was going to take a while to, once we did settle on a design, to get that made. Fortunately, we've all been fans of Derek's [Mears, who played Swamp Thing] for many years. So, when he came in and talked to us about Swamp, and clearly, he was just, this was the guy, so we got him on board and then James [Wan, executive producer] early on. Wan is very hands-on with design as well. So it's great to get his eye.

Mark Verheiden: I was going to say also, I think when Len Wiseman came on to direct the pilot and the second episode, look, we wanted dark Southern Gothic. We wanted very much what the Alan Moore run had. We wanted that "You never know what's behind the next tree," that drippy creepy feeling. And so the show is intentionally quite dark. Just literally in a light sense, a lot of it's shot at night. And we wanted those houses covered in creepers sort of feel. The town of Marais turned out to be smaller than I think, it was a small town. And so we wanted to have that small town Southern feel as well. But also just the creepy stuff in the swamp, the look of the show is partly dictated by this enormous set we built to be an indoor swamp, a 40,000 square foot indoor pool with trees, and you can put boats on it and drive around. And so I would say, I don't know what percentage, but a lot of the swamp material is shot on that stage. So that needed to be especially great. And our set designers and art directors, a guy named [William G. Davis], did an awesome job on making that thing really come together.

Mark, you've worked on things like The Mask and Hemlock Grove, which like Swamp Thing have themes of transformation throughout them. And I'm kind of curious about what attracts you to those kinds of stories, because it seems like you come to them again and again.

Mark Verheiden: Well, I can say with Swamp Thing, I'll start there. Swamp Thing was one of my favorite comics, I bought them all when they came out, including the Bernie Wrightson and Len Wein stories. So it was just one of my favorite stories. The Alan Moore run with Steve Bissette, and John Totleben was just... I had left comics, stopped reading them basically and then when that came out, it pulled me right back in. And so when I got a call about Atomic and Warner Bros. wanting to do Swamp Thing, I mean, that's kind of a no-brainer. It's one of the greatest comics ever and the chance to try to adapt it and work with Gary and James Wan and ultimately with Len Wiseman and our incredible cast, that's great stuff.

With The Mask, that's going way back. That's way, way back. I wish I could say I had a career path back then, but it was sort of, "Well, they hired me, great." But I did a lot of comics before I got into film and television and The Mask was one again, it was a comic done by Dark Horse. I'm good friends with all the Dark Horse guys. And so it was fun to work on that with them and with New Line. Hemlock was, I read the book and... I'm not sure if it was out yet and I thought "This is different. This is unusual and strange." I jumped on that one for that reason. So I don't know if it's about transformation or just about "That's cool. I love that. That's amazing. Great. Let's do it."

So Swamp Thing, it's this blending of horror and romance. How do you strike the balance when you set out to put those scripts together, to put these stories together and make them make sense and make them appeal to people who are coming to Swamp Thing fresh and people who know it, how do you balance those two things that are really equally important in any Swamp Thing story?

Mark Verheiden: I think, well, Gary and I talked a lot about this when we started out and I think we, I don't want to speak for you, Gary, but I think we kind of landed on this idea that the stories had to work as an emotional story, even without Swamp Thing involved. And so, if Swamp Thing had just been a misshapen person in the swamp, we wanted to make sure that the stories of the other characters, of the Deputy and of Will Patton's character and Virginia Madsen, all those characters all worked as honest drama, as well as the supernatural. So I think we approached it or we worked on it, the idea of making sure those stories work emotionally and then on top of that, around that, involved in that we have the incredible supernatural story of a man who is turned into this swamp creature who is bonding with plants and bonding with nature in a way that is sort of impossible.

Gary Dauberman: I think grounding it with [a certain] point of view of coming into the story. I think helped quite a bit with that as well. And Crystal certainly added to that once we cast her.

The show's going to air on the CW. Is it just going to go out and the new people get to see the one season and that's it, or is there a genuine possibility that people are going to watch this, there's going to be a huge thing and CW is going to come in and say, let's figure out how to keep it going. Is that a possibility, would you even want to keep doing that or you feel like we did it?

Mark Verheiden: Look, it's not up to us. So I mean —

Gary Dauberman: The desire's there, I think, right? I mean the desire's, whether it's a possibility or not certainly not within our, what would you say, power? The desire [is there] certainly from everybody involved, the cast all still talks to each other. Everybody had a great experience creatively working on this show. So yeah, I think the desire is there to certainly want to do more, but whether that's a possibility, we have no idea, but we're just excited people are going to be able to see it.

Mark Verheiden: We do. And there's no end of stories.

Is there another DC Comics character that you'd give anything to pitch a show for?

Gary Dauberman: Oh man. I mean, you can't [see] all my Batman s*** from here. I mean, anything within that universe. I mean, Matt Reeves is crushing it, so that's not happening, but I've been reading comics since I was... Someone asked me this the other day, just a friend, when did I start reading? I started reading Archie comics in '85, '86 and then I went to DC, Batman specifically, a year or two later. And then I've been reading it all the way up since. So there's not too many where I would say "No, I wouldn't want to tackle that." You know what I mean? But I love... Adam Strange is one that I think you can have a lot of fun with. Deadman has always been a favorite. There's a lot of Vertigo titles that'd be really, really cool. Mark got to work on Constantine, who was one of my favorite characters. There's no one I'd probably say no to just because I have such a love for DC and the universe.

Mark Verheiden: I've kind of scratched my itch a bit because I have worked on Smallville, Constantine... So I've done several of the characters and I've written the comics, Superman vs. Batman, Superman. But I will say, of all the characters within the universe, this is going to be a little offbeat. My all time favorite is Bizarro. And if there will be a way to do a Bizarro something, in the crazy Bizarro world, not in the dark Bizarro world, that's the one that comes to mind. In fact, one of my greatest memories was I got to do a Bizarro issue of Superman, which was the funny Bizarro and not the dark one. And that again was kind of the real reason I wanted to do Superman. So there you go. That's it, very niche.

Derek Mears told us there was a real improvisational feel on set. How do you balance that need to let the actors play with wanting to keep telling the story you designed?

Mark Verheiden: Well, I think the great thing about Swamp Thing was that everybody came into it loving the project and got along incredibly well, as we've mentioned. The actors still get together on Zoom and I join sometimes, it's really fun to see everybody again. But they also really cared about their stories. I mean, no one was talking down to this series. This was serious and they loved their characters and very much enjoyed playing them. And so if somebody moves a little bit afield with dialogue, my attitude is always hear it, and most of the time it's better, but if occasionally it's going way off or something, you can go "Maybe we could try it another way." But I gotta say on this show that the cast was just uniformly excellent and any discussions we had, most of the discussions were before we got to stage, but it was just a few words here or there but [it added] so much to what we'd written. You write something, you see it one way, then see it come to life with these actors. And it's just like I had no idea it could be that powerful or that intense. I can't say enough about our cast, and Derek and Crystal were awesome.

Gary Dauberman: And that's what you want, right? You want people to come in and actually clearly have given thought to the character, as opposed to someone who's just showing up, "Give me the sides I'll add in my little line," you know what I mean? I think you had that on this show, which is exactly what you want.

Finding the magic

Is there a thing that you remember where it was like, "We wrote this thing in the script and then when we saw on the day or saw the final result, we didn't realize how good it was until it was just the right actor in the right set and with the right lighting and the right color grading afterwards — and now all of a sudden it was this magic thing and we knew we'd made Swamp Thing for real?"

Gary Dauberman: I have two. First, it was very early on, it was a lot of, for me, sort of biting my fingernails when it came again to the look of Swamp Thing because you just go... it was hard for me. I love Wes Craven and the movie, but it's hard to get that out of my head, the movie and going like, "OK, is that what this is going to be?" You're just going "F***, it's how many years later? I hope we've improved." And [special makeup effects artist] Justin Raleigh and his crew over there just were incredible in what they achieved, and seeing Derek for the first time just put that suit on and walk around. And it was sent to me on an iPhone. I was like holy f***. I was showing people on the street because I was like "Look how amazing this is."

And then the second moment that I remember is really sitting down and watching the first cut of the pilot, knowing how strong that was. Even in the early days of the cut, because Len did such a fantastic job and the cast did such a fantastic job, you get to sort of exhale a little bit and go, "OK, we've got something here and to have such a strong opener, it's such an advantage for the show." So seeing that and being able to go "Oh, man, this is awesome." Those were two big moments for me.

Mark Verheiden: Yeah, those were big moments for me too. Internally in the show, I will say, I remember a scene in the Sunderland house between Will Patton, Virginia Madsen and Jennifer Beals' characters. And I just thought it was very nuanced and it was really fun to see these somewhat larger than life characters. It was funny to see these larger than life characters, but being played so real and so emotional. It was a very deeply emotional scene about an affair, sorry, no spoilers, but someone was having one. And so I was very happy with that scene. And then I do think episode nine, which was "The Anatomy Lesson." That turned out better than I think anyone hoped and dreamed. And again, I give a lot of credit to the incredible cast and Ian Ziering was great in that one, but also to our production designer who came up with the fantastic set design for where all that happened. And I think the moment when Derek wakes up on the table and realizes he's not human, he's a plant. For me, that's what I, in my head, always wanted to build toward. That incredible moment, that realization. Which, if you're not familiar with the comics, comes as quite a surprise. So I thought that turned out better than I'd hoped.

Derek Mears told us that a lot of people have come up to him and told him how much they identify with Swamp Thing, including trans and non-binary people who've identified with the character. And I wonder how does it feel to hear something like that and what kind of responses have you seen to people connecting with this character?

Gary Dauberman: That's incredibly touching.

Mark Verheiden: It is.

Gary Dauberman: To hear that it's had that impact on people, incredibly touching. I connected with Swamp Thing early on with reading the comics and stuff and finding the humanity. For me again, I haven't had anybody come up to me, generally when people up to me, they talk about the horror and stuff, right? But yeah, just hearing that sort of does the soul good.

Mark Verheiden: Going way back, one of my favorite movies is Frankenstein, so there are elements of that in Swamp Thing, the misunderstood monster. But I think what makes Swamp Thing a little more transcendent than that is that he's also, especially now in this world we live in, he's connected to nature in a way that enables him to see a world that we're slowly destroying, or maybe not so slowly. So he connects on a number of different levels and romantically, the love lost sort of idea with Abby, it's sort of a classic love story where they can't be together, but can they? And as Gary said, it's very touching to hear that people were moved in that way by it. And sometimes you never know, but that's really nice.

It's interesting that you brought up Frankenstein. Did you find yourself looking at stuff like Frankenstein or anything else as you're sitting down and thinking about "How are we going to make this thing, what we want it to be and how are we going to make it what it needs to be in the time period that we're making it? What makes it fresh for us and what's the stuff that we pull from that's classic that we know will make it so it's timeless?"

Gary Dauberman: We had the, again, the advantage of having such incredible source material, so everything starts from there, right? And of course that's been influenced, but it's been so influential as well. So I think we kind of treated that, especially that, as we said, that Alan Moore run kind of as our North Star for sort of building out the show. I think we all have our influences that we carry with us no matter what project it is, but I think we just found ourselves going back to those books sort of over and over again and using that as sort of that starting point.

Mark Verheiden: I agree. I mean, we really just looked at the books a lot. I mean, as Gary said, everybody has their own influences going back, but we really investigated the stories, took actually some bits and pieces and retrofitted them a little bit to what we were trying to accomplish. The third episode with the guy with the bugs, for instance, was inspired by a later Alan Moore, Steve Bissette story of someone that was very much bugs, but that wasn't the story we told, we just used that conceit. We're inspired by —

Gary Dauberman: The DC comics. But the advantage of Swamp Thing, he feels fresh even today. There's not a lot of stuff out there that's like Swamp Thing, the comic or the show or the character. So even though it was '73 or '74 [when he was created], it still feels fresh because there's not a lot out there like it right now.

Mark Verheiden: There still isn't. It's still this magical world. The people that are coming on it now are continuing that incredible world that the original creators started 50 years ago, which is kind of amazing.

Gary Dauberman: It's amazing.

Swamp Thing is now streaming on the CW and DC Universe.