Quick on the draw

By Alan Perrott

Richard Fairgray's very big secret is coming out. Now. He's part excited, part unsure and a whole lot relieved. A Hollywood big-gun has confirmed he's giving him a job.

Only a week ago I'd been testing his patience, trying to prise a few details through his mental lock-down. He would say only that exciting times were a-coming but insisted he couldn't reveal more. At one point he got so close to spilling the beans but pulled himself up mid-syllable. I waited, but "Umm, you want a Coke?" was all that came out. Fairgray might be only 23, but he was clearly born well before yesterday.

Well, his personal torture is over. It's official: Jeff Katz, until a few weeks ago a vice-president of production for 20th Century Fox, is signing him up. Katz is the subject of some intense Hollywood gossip at the moment. After all, it's not every day someone leaves a fancy-pants job and walks off into the sunset. Immediately afterwards he told the Hollywood Reporter: "I'm being offered an incredible creative opportunity involving my own intellectual property. At 29 years old with no mortgage or family to support, now is the time to bet on myself."

And on Fairgray. Among other things, Fairgray makes comics. In his bedroom. It's his self-indulgent place where he can be alone, surrounded by books, toys, over-muscled figurines, DVDs, 80s American hardcore albums, posters, collectibles, comics, his computer, his stereo, and his imaginings.

When he's not there, he divides himself between stand-up comedy, making films, writing, developing art projects, collecting nerdware, inventing words (pretrospect is a goodie) and occasionally teaching media studies - he's a qualified teacher as well as a graduate of the Ilam art school's class of 06.

But it's the comics that attracted Katz; in particular a three-part exploration into the nature of superpowers called Falling Leaves and his latest, wrapped around the adventures of a ray gun-packing dinosaur, subtly dubbed Blastosaurus.

The significant thing here is that Blastosaurus is New Zealand's first-ever monthly comic since our first comic-maker, Eric Resetar, began selling his homemade tales to the US serviceman who disembarked at downtown Auckland during the 40s. The dinosaur cop is also a long way from the stories an even younger Fairgray doodled during boring maths classes about a bloke whose power stemmed from his baldness. Fairgray has buckets of hair, but if he has a super power of his own, it's probably following through. What he starts he finishes, just as he's doing with the opportunity born of a chance encounter.

He'd got to know Jess Platt, a guy he'd met when he'd been working on Geoffrey Rush's new film Laundry Warrior. Platt then got a job as dialogue and accent coach for Hugh Jackman on the new Marvel movie Wolverine and it was while Fairgray was visiting the set in Sydney that Platt introduced him to Katz. The American had a sideline writing the Booster Gold comics for DC - the home of Batman and Superman - so Platt thought they'd get along.

"We just sat down and really hit it off," says Katz. "Then I read his stuff and was amazed by the variety of genres he crosses over. That's a unique skill and he's got the talent to back it up."

The two discussed a few plans, but everything was kept very secret-squirrel as Katz had yet to leave Fox. "The business I'm in is changing and morphing very rapidly, it's turning into something very different and I've been wanting to create something that will work to empower creatives. Once I left [Fox] there was a lot of speculation over what I was going to do, people usually get carried out of companies like that in body bags. Leaving on your own terms is not the most typical thing."

But then Katz is far from typical. After becoming a 15-year-old radio talkback host in Detroit he became a promoter for Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling before joining New Line Cinema - the Lord of the Rings guys - as a vice-president of development and production. Then he joined Fox, where he specialised in ... well, let's just say they're not your usual Oscar fodder, movies like Freddy vs Jason, Snakes on a Plane, Shoot 'Em Up, Wolverine and the upcoming big-screen revival of The A Team.

So, exciting times are ahead and if all goes to plan, Fairgray and his partner, Tara Black, may be living stateside in the not-too-distant-future. "Maybe in six months, I should have my comics on the shelves," says Fairgray. "Meeting [Katz] also gave me the chance to pitch Blastosaurus. That's always been something I've wanted to do - I mean what is cooler than a dinosaur with a gun, two of the greatest things ever, done in a 90s Ninja Turtles style? [He was] interested in Falling Leaves, but I took the chance and pushed for both."

First though he has the small matter of his feature film to complete. It's no stretch to call Fairgray a pop culture geek, it's an obsession sprinkled through everything he says. His movie, Silver Age, takes that love a step further and asks what would happen if the lives of a superhero and its creator become intertwined.

Taking his cue from the herocide perpetrated by old-school comic house DC a few years back when they stripped Superman of his powers, laid waste to a whole bunch of others, and then did the same to the writers behind them, Fairgray's central character abandons his job and sets off to meet up with his favourite writer only to find he died at the same time as his creation, "Captain Awesome".

You'll have to wait for the editing to be completed to find out the rest. There's no denying he thinks big.

Given his track record is fundamentally visual, it's interesting to note that Fairgray is legally blind. His left eye is essentially dead while his right offers five per cent normal vision at best. It isn't the contradiction it seems, because DVDs, comics and television are his window into the everyday.

When you can't see all that far, and even then only in two dimensions, a comic offers an otherwise unknowable depth of perspective. "While I can't form a focal point," he says, "if I sit and watch a really well-animated cartoon from about about two or three feet, it looks like a movie. I can't tell the difference. It's like I can see things the same way as other people, it's just that I have to get a lot closer to what I'm looking at." Unfortunately, it's a condition that can engender a sense of vulnerability, so Fairgray doesn't want too much to be said about where he lives other than it's north of the harbour bridge. He says an old story in a local paper led to an unwelcome case of stalking.. Even so it's hard to detect any lack of confidence through the steady flow of bravura.

His Blastosaurus co-writer, media studies teacher Terry Jones, puts it another way: "Richard's not short of being a little bit confident. But he's not arrogant, although some might get the impression that he is. Then again, in many ways, he has a lot to be arrogant about, he's one of the most talented kids I've ever taught."

Jones is a true believer in Fairgray's potential and has been ever since auditioning him for a school drama. Over the past three years he's become a quasi-mentor on several projects and is one of his few confidantes on the ongoing negotiations with Katz. "I think he's the next big thing, I really do. I've known him for a long time now and I can tell you, he'll never let go of this. He's always got several projects on the go at a time and he carries them all through. Not that you can look at what he does with any logic, it's all over the place. He's just always seemed one step ahead of others. Of course, it could all go pear-shaped, but I think he has real potential."

The view of comic industry at large, such as it is, could be summed up as: "Show me the money."

"Yes, [Fairgray's] very focused on what he does," says Jeremy Bishop, manager of Onehunga-based Gotham Comics and publisher of the New Ground anthology. "But then like most creatives, if the wind changed, he'd change. I remember two years ago he told me he'd never do comics again: "I'm giving up. I'm going teaching." Then the gods smiled with an American liking his stuff and his material ... I'd say his art is still very basic, but it tells the story very well. As for his writing, it's really good ... so if what he's saying is true, it's bloody excellent for him and great for New Zealand comics."

Doubts are to be expected - Hollywood has a well-deserved reputation for bluster - but Katz isn't shy about laying it on thick.

"Once people get to know Richard, his talent and his back-story - and that's an incredible human interest story - they'll find out just how unique he is. I'm just thrilled to hear he's getting some recognition. I've got plans for him, I'm going to take his work and grow them across a wide spectrum of media. You know, I told him a month ago that my goal was to make him into a local New Zealand hero, that'll really be fun to watch."

For his part, Fairgray is taking things in his stride. Dreams aside, he says he'd be happy to go back to his back-up plan - seeing out his days as a penniless artist - unruffled even when confronted with that comparison.

"Peter Jackson? Oh, that's fine with me, he has loads of money right? But the thing is, and what I take for that, is that Peter Jackson has always been right in his approach: you can't be half-arsed about anything. He set goals, like making money or going overseas, whatever, and then he went for it. He did everything he had to do and worked his way around or through every problem that came up. His success is no accident and it's not like he got where he is quickly. He had a plan and I have a plan too."

- NZ Herald

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