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Remembering Disney's "The Rocketeer" : How a beloved series of comic books made the jump to the big screen

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Remembering Disney's "The Rocketeer" : How a beloved series of comic books made the jump to the big screen

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For screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, it was pretty much love at first sight when it came to "The Rocketeer."

"This was the early 1980s and Paul & I were were just getting started in the business," Danny recalled. "We were working for this company called Empire Entertainment and - in order to get out of the office during lunchtime - we always walked down to the Golden Apple."

For those of you who don't know: The Golden Apple is THE comic book store in Los Angeles. Renown for its wide selection of titles, not to mention the colorful assortment of characters who work behind the counter / regularly prowl the aisles. Anyway ...

Golden Apple Comics on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood

"So Paul and I go into the Golden Apple. And there in the rack is a copy of 'The Rocketeer,' " Bilson continued. "And that beautiful Dave Stevens cover just drew me in. I knew that I just had to buy a copy. And I did."

And much to Danny's surprise, the promise of the cover of that issue of "The Rocketeer" was delivered 10 fold by the contents of that comic book. Dave's beautifully drawn pages, not to mention his cleverly plotted story.

"So I read this issue of 'The Rocketeer.' And then Paul read the same issue. And we both had the same sort of visceral reaction. That this was a movie. That the characters & the storyline that Dave Stevens had come up with had all the makings of an absolutely amazing motion picture. One that Paul and I would love to write," Danny said.

Copyright Pacific Comics. All rights reserved

The only problem was ... This was back in 1984. And while Bilson & DeMeo may now be kings of transmedia, the very guys that the major studios turn to when they're looking for a killer video game based on a big time film franchise like James Bond ... Back then, Danny & Paul were two entertainment industry wannabes. They were still a year away from the point where they had their first script, "Trancers," produced.

"So we had no money to option the movie rights to 'The Rocketeer.' And we had no idea how to get ahold of Dave. To see if maybe - if we asked nice - he might just give us the film rights to 'The Rocketeer,' " Bilson remembered. "We were in a tough spot."

So how did Danny & Paul actually wind up as the screenwriters of "The Rocketeer" ? Well, I'm guessing that Bilson & DeMeo will answer that question in person next Tuesday night. When Danny & Paul - along with actor Bill Campbell & director Joe Johnston - will paneling at Hollywood's El Capitan Theatre. As D23 - The Official Disney Fan Club - celebrates the 20th anniversary of this fan favorite.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

For Danny, it's particularly poignant that this event is being held at the El Capitan. Given that the world premiere of "The Rocketeer" was held at this same theater back in June of 1991.

"Disney had just taken over the lease on the place. And 'The Rocketeer' was the first movie to be shown there after Disney had restored the theatre, turning it back into a real Hollywood movie palace," Bilson said. "So have our movie - which really celebrates Los Angeles of the late 1930s - premiere in a Hollywood movie palace that's just be restored to look like one from the period of the film - it just doesn't get any better than that."

Speaking of LA of the late 1930s ... That's really how Danny, Paul and Dave bonded. They were all kids who grew up in Los Angeles in the late 1950s / early 1960s. Who - thanks to all the old black-and-white serials of the 1930s that used to air on television back then - developed a real fondness for an era in that city's history that none of them had ever really experienced.

Copyright Universal City Studios, Inc.
All rights reserved

"We all loved aviator movies of the 1930s. How the B-movies of this period were paced & produced. How they'd mix comedy, adventure and thrills without ever being campy," Bilson smiled. "There was a genuine sincerity to these movies. And that's what we wanted to do with 'The Rocketeer.' Replicate that B-movie feeling for today's audiences."

And thanks to the success of 1981's  "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and 1984's "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," studios back then were amenable to the idea of producing  B-movie-type stories. But even so, it took dozens of drafts of Danny & Paul's screenplay (not to mention meetings with virtually every studio in town) before "The Rocketeer" finally landed at Disney.

"The film was originally supposed to be released through Disney's Hollywood Pictures arm. But - after the success of Joe Johnston's first film for the studio, 'Honey, I Shrunk the Kids' - execs decided to shift Joe's next picture, which was going to be 'The Rocketeer,' over to Walt Disney Pictures," Bilson stated. "Which - in the end - may have actually hurt 'The Rocketeer' 's chances at the box office. Given that Walt Disney Pictures - back then, anyway - wasn't exactly known for releasing big, exciting action-adventures.

Copyright 1991 Warners Bros. All rights reserved

What also didn't help 'The Rocketeer' 's chances at the box office was that this Joe Johnston film was sent out into theaters on the exact same day as "Robin Hood - Prince of Thieves."

"That Kevin Costner film was a huge hit during the Summer of 1991. Which may have made it harder for audiences to discover 'The Rocketeer' back then," Bilson surmised. "What's kind of ironic about this whole situation now is - 20 years later - you rarely ever see 'Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves' anymore. Whereas 'The Rocketeer' is celebrated with special 20th anniversary screenings. Sometimes it just take a while for an audience to find a movie, really take it into their hearts. And that's just what happened over the past 20 years with 'The Rocketeer.' "

Now what's really great about Danny & Paul is that they're not credit hogs. When we talked on the phone earlier this week, these two were quick to talk up all of the contributions that their collaborators had made on the "Rocketeer" screenplay. Even those folks who ultimately didn't wind up working on the final version of this film.

Copyright Universal / Amblin Entertainment
All rights reserved

Take - for example - William Dear. The director of "Harry and the Hendersons" was originally supposed to helm "The Rocketeer." And as Dear was working with Bilson and DeMeo, he helped them solve of the thornier problems that Danny & Paul had been wrestling with as they tried to adapt this comic book to the big screen. And that was what to do with the Doc Savage-like character that Dave had originally included as part of the "Rocketeer" 's storyline.

"Obviously we didn't have the movie rights to Doc Savage. So there was just no way that he could include a character like that in the film version of 'The Rocketeer,' " Bilson explained. "It was William who came up with the idea of replacing Doc Savage with Howard Hughes. Which then brought this project right back to its starting point. Those heroic aviator movies of the 1930s that Paul, Dave and I all loved."

So what moment in  Disney's "The Rocketeer" makes Bilson proudest? The answer to that question was immediate. It's that sequence in the movie where Cliff Secord first puts on the jetpack and his rocketeer helmet at Bigelow's Air Circus and then flies off to rescue Malcolm.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"That sequence in the movie is pure Dave Stevens. It's the closest that we came on this project to replicating the exact look & film of the 'Rocketeer' comic book as Dave originally conceived it," Danny explained. "The music, the actors' performances, the visual effects, the set design, they all come together to make this perfect little moment in the movie. Whenever I watch that scene in 'The Rocketeer,' it always gives me chills."

What doesn't make Bilson smile is the thought that Stevens - who sadly passed away last year after a long battle with cancer - won't be on hand next Tuesday night at the El Capitan. That he'll miss out on seeing "The Rocketeer" celebrated in this fashion. With a 20th anniversary panel hosted by filmmaker Kevin Smith and with this screening then being followed by a special display of "Rocketeer" props over at the Hollywood Museum. Not to mention all of the cool, limited-edition Rocketeer 20th anniversary swag that'll be available for purchase.

"I know that Dave would have enjoyed the hell out of this event. And I'm just hoping that D23 members don't buy up all of that 20th anniversary 'Rocketeer' stuff before I can get over to the Hollywood Museum. I mean, I am one of the filmmakers. I should be able to call dibs on some of this stuff," Danny laughed.

Speaking of being a filmmaker ... Bilson is making a point of bringing his 9-year-old daughter along with him to the El Capitan next Tuesday night. Why For?

"You have to understand that I've been out of the movie business for quite a while now. My daughter only knows me as this guy who produces video games. So to be able to take her to the El Capitan - which is where we always used to go whenever I was taking my kids to see the latest Disney animated movie - so that she can then see her Dad's name up on the big screen ... That's going to be really cool," Danny concluded.

And if you'd like to join Danny Bilson and his daughter at this special 20th anniversary presentation of "The Rocketeer," there are still some tickets available for this D23 event. But not a whole lot of them. So if you really don't want to miss out on the fun (not to mention the opportunity to purchase some of that limited-edition "Rocketeer" swag that the Official Disney Fan Club had created just for this one-night-only event), NOW would be a very good time to go reserve some seats at the El Capitan for next Tuesday night.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

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  • One of my favorite movies growing up. It came out when I was only 11 years old and I saw it in the theatre, such a great film. I long for the days more films set in the 1930's LA, such an interesting chapter in time. And I must have that movie poster!

  • Just poster, great costumes, great fun, great movie.  I'd love to see it digitally projected in the El Capitan, but man, $50 a ticket is outrageous!

  • Jim - Raiders was released in 1981, NOT 1982. This year is its 30th anniversary.

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