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Fri, 28 Oct ’11

Action Digger

Digger Mesch talks going from the Art Asylum to the madness of the movies.

In the late ’90s and early 2000’s, Digger T. Mesch (his chosen moniker was inherited from his dad, who operated heavy digging equipment) was one of the rock stars of the collectible toy market, along with the likes of Todd McFarlane and Clayburn Moore. His company Art Asylum was known initially for super-detailed sculpts of characters from licenses as eclectic as Eminem and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but he remains most famous in the field for creating Minimates, the ubiquitous little blocky figures that have stylized superheroes and celebrities.

But all this time, what he’s really wanted to do is direct, and at the Long Beach Comic Con, he’s going to unveil his movie plans (all of which also have comic-book tie-ins). He gave us some sneak preview imagery of what he’ll be showing, as we talked about his toymaking past and filmmaking future.

Nerdist News: What’s your own toy collection like?

Digger T. Mesch: It’s funny, I owned Art Asylum but now I own virtually nothing – I’ve given everything away. I used to collect everything. I had 30,000 comics, boxes and boxes of collectible statues – we had a 6,000 square-foot studio in New York, and when I left for China, to go live for ten years, I pretty much told my partner, who was my ex, “Just keep everything. Give it all away.” And then when I went to Asia, I started amassing [stuff] again! I was like, what am I doing? I like to play with things, but I like to play with other people’s toys now. Because every time I leave the country, I have to give everything away again.

NN: What were your favorite toys to make at Art Asylum?

DTM: Probably the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon action figures.

NN: You probably couldn’t do something like that today. Now everybody’s doing small, Star Wars-sized figures, charging around $20 for them, and there’s no more niche licenses. Do you think the toy landscape is ever gonna get back to anything like it was?

DTM: I’d be being pretentious and lying if I said I don’t pay attention, because I do. I don’t want to, but I still have a lot of friends in the toy industry. The commercial toy industry doesn’t interest me any more. It really didn’t then, to tell you the truth. I mean, I love Star Trek; that’s why we did it. And I love Crouching Tiger, that’s why we did that. I love everything we did up until Speed Racer, I think.

But it’s a different landscape now for a lot of reasons. I can you tell you firsthand, because I lived in China. The global economy crunch has affected everyone. The cost of materials right now is ridiculous; a lot of that’s to do with petroleum costs. We sold Art Asylum in 2006, 2007, so that was the last time I was really crunching numbers at all the factories. That money has to go somewhere, because all the mass-market stores are paying less for what they buy, and there’s only so much retail space. So the reason that you have eight aisles of Star Wars and Marvel and Real Steel and whatever else is the flavor of the day is because the big corporations are shoving it down your throat. There’s only so much shelf space and honestly, my heart wasn’t in it for a long time. Most of the time I was in Asia I was working on films. When a production would come to town I’d walk into my office and work for a few hours just to approve some things, do some email back and forth with my development staff in New York, then jump on my motorcycle as quickly as I could and fly to a film set. I’ve just wanted to make movies for as long as I can remember.

NN: What prompted the move to China? Was it to be closer to the toy factories?

DTM: It was a lot of things, I guess you could say an early mid-life crisis. I’d dedicated almost ten years of my life to Art Asylum and nothing else. And we were never supposed to be a toy company – not solely. We were supposed to be an idea factory and an entertainment company. When we first started out, we were working on development for films, animated series, features…and products kinda kept us moving. It became a big part of what we did, and I was always a bit of a press whore so I pursued the press angle on it. We were doing so much work for Marvel, and I love Marvel, and then we got more and more work and I kind of looked at it as a means to an end. I thought in five years we’d get to the point where I could step back and start making films and the toy division could run itself. That never happened.

Every year it got tougher and tougher. We got Star Trek and I thought that was gonna be great for us. It was good, but it wasn’t f’ing awesome, you know? I got tired of trying to hit the bottom line every year. I would rather go back to zero and do something that I love. I’m not good at doing something that I don’t love. In Asia I got to work with Jackie Chan (on The Medallion and Vampire Effect), I got to act and be behind the scenes quite a bit on Ultraviolet, I started doing some acting. I did Largo Winch, which was a big $25 million French film where I got to be a relatively significant character. Any chance I could get to do stunt training, production design, acting – I was on a film set and did as much as I could. Then when I came back to L.A. I was on the set of Star Trek a lot, any of the entertainment properties we were working on I was on the set a lot. I just couldn’t get the bug out of my system. I’d rather be shooting these films than running around trying to get rights to these films.

NN: And that leads us into your big announcements for the Long Beach Comic Con, right?

DTM: Yeah. I kinda hit the ground running when I got back to the States a year ago. I had another property in development that I was supposed to shoot in China but for a few reasons I stepped away from that and created a new property with Kevin Eastman: Sundown Seven. It’s a horror-action-western. I’ve got Kevin Grevioux (Underworld) writing the script and the graphic novel – we’ve all created it together. And I brought on Sam Shearon as a cocreator, who’s an amazing artist – he did Rob Zombie’s last album cover.

NN: Is this a movie, a comic, or both?

DTM: Everything I’m doing is aimed at me co-creating the property and directing it as a film. We’re in bed with a big company right now that wants to put up half the budget – we’re still trying to figure out exactly how the deal’s gonna work. The graphic novel’s gonna be published under the Heavy Metal banner.

NN: So what’s the plot?

DTM: It’s like The Magnificent Seven meets X-Men, in a way. They’re not supernaturally gifted protagonists – League of Extraordinary Gentlemen‘s a better thing to compare it to, but it didn’t make money, so usually when I’m at meetings I don’t say that. The graphic novel’s one of my favorites. So yeah, for the most part they’re exceptionally gifted humans in the Old West who are dealing with supernatural threats. It’s an elite groups of heroes that gets forced together in this town, a la Deadwood, and they get trapped in the town. It’s a showdown at sundown, with demons. We’ll have poster art to sign at the show.

NN: Aside from Sundown Seven, what else will you be showing off?

DTM: There’s also Agent 88. It’s a property about the world’s most deadly assassin, who just happens to be an 88 year-old woman with Alzheimer’s. I guess the best way to describe that is Mary Poppins meets Kill Bill. I’m doing that in association with Hurricane Entertainment. I have an unknown actress for my lead, and I just shot a four-day “proof of concept” short for that. We’re talking to publishers about the book, but some of these properties that I have, I’m actually just going ahead and shooting, just doing shorts so I can show the tone of the feature.

NN: Are you going to be screening any of these proof-of-concept shorts at the convention?

DTM: They said in the release that we were going to be playing the trailer, but the trailer’s not gonna be ready yet. I’m probably gonna run a one-minute, 30-second credit animation for Agent 88 at the panel. And I’ll have Carlos Gallardo (star of El Mariachi), who’s in it, signing. I’ve got Kevin Grevioux, Kevin Eastman, me obviously, William O’Neill, Sam Shearon and Joshua Ortega, who wrote Gears of War 2 and 3. We’ll all be signing Saturday. I’ll have Minimates to give away, and we’ll have shirts and limited-edition prints and stuff. Axel Ortiz did a limited Agent 88 print with Petra Gallerie that we’ll be selling for $88.

NN: Any other properties to reveal?

DTM: One more thing. We’re gonna show some art on The Other Dead. That’s me, Kevin Eastman, Yuri Timg and Joshua Ortega. It’s about a ten year-old boy with cancer, who has to team up with a redneck duck-hunter, a Latin stripper and the president of the United States to save the world from legions of the dead. Originally it was called Evil Dead Ducks, because the supernatural virus is spread by ducks. But then I thought we’d have problems with the name Evil Dead, and the fact that Howard the Duck, even years later, has left a bad taste in everybody’s mouth. It’s funny, I look back on that and I sorta wanna like it, though I hated it when I was young.

Somebody asked me if I think I’m gonna have a style. I hate that word, “style,” because everything I do is different. But looking back on the way I work, I think the “Digger style” is going to be in my tone. I’m a huge Coen brothers/Tarantino/Rodriguez fan, so I’m trying to do stuff that’s smart and funny and that I find entertaining. But we’re really trying to turn up the factor on the kick-ass, to get people to open their eyes. Everybody loves action and everybody loves horror, so I’m trying to fuse some of the darker comedy stuff that comes naturally to me with those, so that people will see it.

NN: It sounds like two out of the three properties feature lead characters with terminal diseases. Is that a tough line, finding the humor in that?

DTM: Well, Agent 88 can’t really die – the Alzheimer’s just affects her ability to think. And there’s kind of a wink in there about whether or not she actually has it. Nobody knows for sure. But I like broken people, you know? I’ve had a lot of life experience: I’ve been a broken person, I’ve been exposed to a lot of broken people and they’re the characters I find most interesting. I look at the markets right now – films, video games, whatever – and everybody’s trying to out-cool each other. That doesn’t interest me. My personal taste always leans towards films like After Hours or The Big Lebowski, with anti-heroes who by no means are expected to even be cool, much less win some kind of global cosmic battle. It’s the thing that always attracted me to Peter Parker, y’know, Spider-Man, and I think a lot of people forget that he’s a skinny, socially inept geek.

NN: So if these properties catch on, will you make toys of them?

DTM: With the exception of Sundown Seven, which is bigger budget, any of the product that I see happening is apparel and more limited-edition, design-oriented stuff. None of it’s really being aimed at mainstream plastic that’s being ordered in quantities of hundreds of thousands. Although Minimates, I’m gonna do for everything, because my relationship with Diamond is exceptional. I still look at Minimates as more of a fine-art platform, because that’s what I intended it to be. I wanted to do a lot of designer-oriented stuff and we never really got a chance to do much of that. Diamond says they’re only doing stuff that’s more commercial now, but I don’t see that – I see them doing more eclectic properties: Rocky, A Fistful of Dollars – anything in a quantity of less than 5,000 pieces is eclectic, at the end of the day.

Minimates was something that I had to fight to make happen for a long time, because nobody believed in it. We just needed the right property and the right scale. We were too big in the beginning. When we went down to about 2 inches, and we got the Marvel property, it stuck. Now Minimates is its own brand and it can do anything. Lego kinda took from my page a bit: we were doing animations, all kinds of funky stuff with Minimates way before they were. The characters, to Lego, were secondary for the longest time.

NN: And you tried construction sets, too, with the Batman line, before Lego got those rights.

DTM: We tried to do a system that was Lego compatible, which I did NOT ever want to do. We had designs for our own buildable system, but I couldn’t convince my investors to do it. They said, “Why do you want to re-invent the wheel all the time?” That was usually the general argument that we heard when I wanted to do something that was fresh. Mediocrity as long as it makes money is okay, that was the argument. The vehicles did really well – the Batmobile, the Batwing – the Batcave we had some technical issues with. We made millions of dollars…but we also spent millions of dollars. My hat’s off to Lego with their engineering. If you took the complexity of every single action figure that I ever did with Art Asylum and put it together – doing a building system on a level with Lego is far, far more difficult. Simple-looking things are even more difficult to create when you have to do millions of pieces that can all fit together. It was a great experience working with the engineers to develop it, but I’d rather make a movie. I think it’s easier than trying to create a system to compete with Lego.

Be sure to check out our exclusive image gallery for Digger’s upcoming projects, and meet the man himself at booth #110 at the Long Beach Comic Con this Saturday and Sunday.