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DigitalNoob Interviews: 39 Minutes’ William Harms

Posted on July 31, 2013 AT 09:05pm

In celebration of the release of the Pilot Season winner 39 Minutes, DigitalNoob and contributing writer Hilary Stewart of GeekQuality.com were able to get an interview with writer/creator of the series, William Harms. Most of these questions were developed and crafted by Hilary, so please welcome her as she contributes to our fine website in this interview.

1. In Volume One of “39 Minutes,” we’ve got military cover-ups, bank robberies, betrayal, blackmail and the disintegration of a brotherhood of marines turned to crime after being stabbed in the back by their own government and branded as murderers. That’s a lot to take in.

I know it began as a simple premise of bank robbers looting not only banks, but towns—how did it all escalate and come together the way it did?

WH: The original catalyst for 39 MINUTES was the North Hollywood bank robbery in 1997. Several years ago I was watching a documentary about it, and I thought “What if there had been five or six of those guys? And what if they had professional training?” Those questions kind of sat in the back of my head for a while, so when I got serious about breaking the story down, I knew that the highly-trained robbers in my story had to be either cops or military.

This was back in 2005 or so, when the Iraq War was spiraling out of control, and I was reading a lot of articles about the growing rift between members of the military and independent military contractors, who are not bound by the same rules as the real military. I thought there was something interesting there, specifically the idea of a squad of Marines catching some contractors carrying out an illegal operation and then getting the shaft for doing the right thing.

One thing I was always pretty clear on was the motivation of the Marines. I didn’t want them to just be common thugs and murderers. The things they do are clearly pretty god-awful, but it’s in response to what was done to them. In their minds, their actions are completely justified.

2.  How did you figure out which levels of  “nothing left to lose” attitude you were going to give each member of the core “bank robber” group? Paul has a lot of it, but how hard is it to evenly space out that desperation, determination and rage amongst a lineup of six robbers?

WH: With stories like this, it’s always tempting to have all of the characters be blood-thirsty animals, but dramatically, you need to hedge against that. People aren’t monolithic in their thinking, there’s usually some nuance in there.

Paul’s rage is fueled by the loss of his daughter and wife, so he really does want to run around and kill as many people as possible. Some of the other guys view the robberies through the lens of a military operation — sure some folks are going to get killed, but it’s all very mechanical and emotionless. It’s a means to an end. The drama comes from putting those guys together and seeing what happens.

3. Speaking of Paul, he is not only dealing with never saying goodbye to his terminally ill daughter, but having his wife think of him as a monster. He is one of the few men who wanted to sign the D.O.D.’s false report, presumably to get home to his family. How much did that play into the climactic scene where Paul finally sees Clayton face-to-face again in Oklahoma?

WH: One of the core values of the United States Marine Corps is to “exemplify the ultimate in moral and ethical behavior”, and Clayton not only believes that, he lives by it. It guides everything that he does.

At the moment when the Department of Defense makes the “offer”, Paul is less concerned with the values of the Marines and more concerned with simply getting home and being with his family. And I can’t really blame him — his daughter is dying, and he’s stuck in a warzone on the other side of the planet. No one in that situation is really thinking straight. I like to think that under different circumstances, Paul would actually side with Clayton.

But because of Paul’s unstable emotional state, and the way he reacts to the situation, he is going to collide with Clayton at some point. It’s inevitable.

4. The dynamic between former C.O. John Clayton and Special Agent Poole is one that begins with no trust between them whatsoever, but by the end of the volume, their (shaky) relationship appears to be the only one really left standing. What values do you think Clayton and Poole share, and do you think it aided in their trust building?

WH: I think they trust each other because they’ve both gotten the shaft by the “system”. In Agent Poole’s case, it’s being forced to blackmail Clayton and get him to help the FBI. In Clayton’s case, he’s someone who dedicated his life to serving a set of ideals, but when those ideals were no longer convenient to the men above him, he took the fall. In their own way, both are honorable men forced to obey a dishonorable system.

5. “39 Minutes” also brings up currently relevant topics of military cover-ups and soldiers with post-traumatic stress returning from war. Did you do research into the trauma of real-life soldiers home from Iraq or Afghanistan, as well as the conditions over there for both civilians and military?

WH: I’m kind of a history buff, so I was already reading books about the history of the Middle East and our involvement there. I especially recommend GHOST WARS by Steve Coll.

In terms of the specifics of 39 MINUTES, one of the things I did want to bring up to the surface is the treatment of soldiers, sailors, and Marines when they return home. We’ve all heard the stories about how long it takes to get in to see the VA and the high rates of suicides and violence. I think it’s pretty despicable the way a lot of veterans are treated and the way they’re kind of invisible to the general public.

We’ve been at war for over ten years and the average American is barely even aware of it. I think that’s pretty shameful.

6. How did you come up with that time frame of 39 minutes, described as “enough time to execute the plan, but not enough time for anyone on the outside to interfere”?

WH: The first robbery the reader sees is in McCook, Nebraska, which is a small farm town in southwest Nebraska. The nearest decent-sized city is North Platte, which is about an hour and fifteen minutes away. I figured that even if someone is really hauling ass from North Platte to McCook, 39 minutes gives Paul and his men enough time to carry out the robberies and still have a cushion so that they can escape.

7. People have already mentioned the cinematic feel of “39 Minutes,” and I was vaguely reminded of the Spike miniseries, “The Killing Point,” where ex-special forces members hold up a bank. Did you draw influences from heist and war/combat movies? How do you think “39 Minutes” would translate to the screen?

WH: It’s hard to say, but I think the premise of 39 MINUTES is pretty original and would make the jump pretty successfully. But I hope people enjoy it because it’s a good graphic novel.

8. Can you talk a little about the moral center of “39 Minutes?” On one hand, we have ex-Marines wrongfully imprisoned, but then they are out there not only robbing banks but also shooting many, many people to get money and prove a point. How do you balance death with meaning so that all the casualties in the book carry weight?

WH: I think that the way the characters treat death within the story informs how the reader views the same deaths. There is a lot of anger in 39 MINUTES — like the scene where Cleveland gets killed and Paul just opens up in the department store — but it’s all handled in a serious manner.

In terms of the moral center of the story, I think it’s that the rules don’t apply to everyone equally. Like I said earlier, soldiers are meant to conduct themselves within a certain way, but that same code of conduct doesn’t mean anything to the people who call the shots. When it’s convenient, they follow the code, and when it’s not, they ignore it. And ultimately, I think that’s what Paul and the other Marines are “rebelling” against — if other people can choose to follow or ignore the rules when they want, why can’t Paul and his men? Why are there different standards for some bigshot in Washington, D.C. and the Marine serving in Iraq?

9. What has been your best experience in working on “39 Minutes?”

WH: The best part, to be honest, was winning Pilot Season. There were some great books that year, so it was a real honor for Jerry and I.

10. What is the most stressful part of working on something that has already won a contest, something that might add to the pressure of production?

WH: Just making sure that the final story actually delivered. Writing the initial one-shot was kind of easy, actually — just come up with some crazy stuff and see if people are into it. But once you’re asked to develop that craziness into a full, complete story, that’s when the real challenge begins.

11. What is next for you and your work? Is there anything coming next for the survivors of the first volume of “39 Minutes?”

WH: My next big project is also through Top Cow. It’s called SHOTGUN WEDDING and is about an assassin named Mike Stone. When his ex-finance, who is also an assassin, finds out that Mike is marrying someone else, she goes ballistic. The art is by Edward Pun (we worked on the video game inFamous together), and there’s a huge preview of it in the back of 39 MINUTES.

I’m also developing a few other things, including a horror book with artist Ale Aragon. I’m really excited to get started on that.

Thanks to Hilary and to William Harms for all of their work on this interview, and be sure to check out both Hilary’s work on Geekquality.com and on her Twitter @Hilary_GQ, as well as William’s work all over both the video games and comics mediums at his own web site.

Russ Pirozek, known as "Noobcrawler" to some, is a gamer and comic book fan who sometimes gets around to writing for DigitalNoob.com. He's also awesome. If someone looked up "awesome" in the dictionary, his picture wouldn't be there, but that's because he's too busy being awesome to pose for a photo.

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