When David C. Hayes’ indie black-and-white graphic novel Rottentail was first unleashed on an unsuspecting public back in 2005, no one expected it to attain the immense and lasting popularity it has since enjoyed. But here we are fourteen years later, and it continues to be read and reprinted, and now there’s a new film adaptation available on DVD and streaming platforms.
The story of how Rottentail became an unlikely hit comic and was eventually adapted into a feature film is an unusual one to say the least. It’s also the story of how Hayes, a screenwriter and novelist, became a comic book writer.
“Films like these made Mystery Science Theater famous because you can yell at the screen, ‘God, this is stupid,’ while laughing your ass off because it’s so funny. I mean, how could you take a bunny-man seriously?”
“Rottentail was something that came to me around 2001 or 2002,” Hayes recalls. “I had always been fascinated with the idea of horror and holidays and tearing apart tradition. Flipping the apple cart, so to speak. The screenplay was written first and we shopped it around, but no one was biting. It was briefly considered by the now-defunct Spectrum Films but nothing happened. At that point, I decided to go the graphic novel route. This was around 2005. In our spare time, Kurt Belcher and I worked on creating this with an assist from Kevin Moyers, who scripted the middle third from the screenplay, and Henrik Horvath who inked over Kurt’s pencils. Then we released the book to a limited run of, really, like ten units.”
In 2015, the newly-formed Source Point Press acquired the then-unknown comic, releasing it to a wider audience. And suddenly, the ten-year-old comic became a cult hit—an overnight sensation that had actually been a decade in the making.
Hayes says the project finally being made as a film was surrreal, especially given its strange route to screen (screenplay to comic and then finally to film). “I actually tried to stop it,” says Hayes. “Travis McIntire, Source Point’s EIC, wanted it to be the first film from the company. I’m repped as a screenwriter by Shoreline Entertainment, and they got in on the development and pre-production. I had already spent fifteen years with the story, and I wanted to go do something new.”
Once Hayes wrapped his head around it and agreed to assist, he suggested that his friend Brian Skiba be hired to direct. “David knew me from my first feature film, Blood Moon Rising, and thought I would be a great fit for the material,” says Skiba. “It’s then that I met Travis and we teamed up. Travis and I have a great creative vibe and I really enjoy working with the Source Point Press team.”
Of the graphic novel, Skiba says, “I’ve known David for almost twelve years, and this novel is a personification of David to a tee. It’s very fun and over-the-top. Being a fan of pulp-type fiction, grindhouse, and gritty graphic novels, I immediately fell in love with it.”
Once Skiba came onboard as co-writer and helmer, the search for the leading rabbit began. Skiba and company ultimately settled on Corin Nemec, an actor who was best known for playing the titular character on the 80s sitcom Parker Lewis Can’t Lose. He also played a memorable character on the series Stargate SG-1.
“I got involved after Brian Skiba called me up and sent me the awesome source material,” says Nemec. “I was very happy to be involved with such a wild and cutting-edge graphic novel with a great cult following. The graphic novel cracked me up. I love the manga style of the artwork as well, but the crazy storyline about a mutated half-man/half-bunny is fantastic.”
Skiba liked the source material, but wanted to change things and explore some different aspects of the story. “When I was brought in and was officially part of the project, I toyed with the idea of making this more of an origins story,” he says. “Then when Corin read the first draft, he agreed. We wanted to give Rottentail a birth… Literally, there is a birth scene. So we took a few passes at the script and our final pass is now what lives on the screen. Adaptations are fun. The groundwork is laid, and then I get to play in that world.”
Skiba says the most important part of getting the film right was getting the lead character—a mutant human/bunny hybrid—correct. “I told Travis and Dave if I was going to do this that Rottentail had to look amazing. No low-budget Amazon Halloween costumes. We were going to do this right or not at all.”
“Seriously. You have never seen anything like this before. We eliminated all the good taste filters.”
This goal was eventually accomplished when Todd Tucker, a special effects makeup artist who had worked on such films as Mrs. Doubtfire and Face/Off, was added to the team. “That was the birth of Rottentail,” explains Skiba. “I was able to get close ups and the emotion from him that I wanted to capture. He looks amazing. Rottentail is a natural on screen.”
The collaborative process went smoothly and both Skiba and Nemec respected one another.
“Brian allows his actors the freedom to explore the character in different ways,” says Nemec. “When I asked for another take, I was always given that freedom. He displayed leadership and gave everyone on set an example of conduct and professionalism. He really showed everyone how a movie should be directed. His ability to adapt and move at any given moment is what I admired most about him.”
“Corin is an amazing actor who’s recently been severely underrated and under-utilized,” says Skiba. “This guy deserves a big movie or a TV show. He’s so talented. He is focused and really puts his heart and soul into the craft. He loves the process. We’ve become lifelong friends and I’m grateful for him. It’s a lot for an actor to sit in a chair for two hours as they apply the makeup and then go act for another twelve hours and then sit in a chair again for two hours as they take it off. It was grueling, but Corin managed the process and gave us a very memorable performance.”
The resulting film was one everyone involved was happy with. “The budget was very limiting, but I think we did a hell of a job considering those limitations,” says Skiba. “I brought some great people to the mix, producers Josh Tessier and Omid Zader. Together the three of us really pulled some favors and tricks out of our hats to bring up the production value without swelling our budget.”
“I love the final film,” gushes Hayes. “It’s irreverent, funny, gory, and does exactly what I wanted it to do—turn our dearly-held beliefs and traditions right on their head.”
So what can viewers expect when they watch Rottentail? “Expect the unexpected,” says Hayes. “Seriously. You have never seen anything like this before. We eliminated all the good taste filters.”
On the decidedly non-PC aspects of the film, Nemec adds, “Millennials, stay at home. You may not be prepared for this rollercoaster ride of a flick.”
“I expect audiences to laugh and maybe be offended (only those few people who take themselves and religion too seriously),” says Skiba. “This is a comedy, like Mel Brooks or Monty Python. Rottentail is a parody and I gave it a look with regards to the art direction; grit, loads of smoke, a 16mm filmic look. A viewer might assume that it was filmed in the 1980s and has been locked in a vault. Rottentail is offensive. It’s gross. It has wild sexual situations, over-the-top characters, and a mutated homicidal rabbit! This film is grindhouse cinema at its finest. Films like these made Mystery Science Theater famous because you can yell at the screen, “God, this is stupid,” while laughing your ass off because it’s so funny. I mean, how could you take a bunny-man seriously? For the best viewing experience, you should throw a party, get everyone loaded with booze, or toke on a very big joint, and then watch it on the biggest screen possible.”