Interview: Vivek J. Tiwary on The Fifth Beatle

The Fifth Beatle Cover

When you see Vivek J. Tiwary and Andrew C. Robinson’s graphic novel The Fifth Beatle in your local comic shop tomorrow, it’s natural to focus on the Beatle part. After all, the legendary quadruple sensation put Brit-pop on the map, and while John, Paul, George, and Ringo do make appearances in the comic, it’s not their story. The fifth Beatle is Brian Epstein, the man who discovered the band and brought their music to the entire world, but who has been all but forgotten along the way. Often no more than a footnote in Beatles lore, Tiwary and Robinson bring Epstein’s story to life after decades of meticulous research and interviews with his friends and family. The man behind The Boys is fascinating, charismatic, and will ultimately break your heart when you see what he had to endure as a gay, Jewish man from Liverpool in the 1960s.

The Fifth Beatle is a gorgeous book filled with highs and lows that will transport you back in time to an era most readers have only seen on TV. We had a chance to chat with Tiwary about what a labour of love bringing Epstein’s story to the world was, and what’s next for The Fifth Beatle.

Vivek J. Tiwary
Vivek J. Tiwary

Dork Shelf: You mention in your introduction of the book that Epstein has been a decades old fascination. How did you find him and what was it about him that interested you?

Vivek J. Tiwary: I discovered the Brian Epstein story when I was in business school, which was 21 years ago. I guess I should start one step before that. I’ve been a lifelong Beatles fan; my parents loved the Beatles and they loved comics so it certainly all goes back there. But while I was in business school I was studying and dreaming about doing a lot of the things I do now working in the entertainment space. I tend to be a little nerdy to be honest. I thought if I’m going to be working in this space I should study the lives of the great entertainment visionaries. I thought the Beatles and Brian were the team that wrote and then rewrote the rules of the pop music business. So that’s what made me want to study a little bit about Brian’s life.

This was, as I said, 21 years ago. I like dropping that number, partially because I turn 40 this year and I can literally say I’ve been working on this more than half my life. It really is a labour of love, but also when you put it in context, 21 years ago there is no Wikipedia, there’s no YouTube, there are none of these online resources that you have today so it was really difficult to learn anything about Brian. When the book comes out, it will literally be the only book on the market (graphic novel or otherwise) about Brian, which is kind of crazy. So 21 years ago I’m dumbfounded as to why I can’t find any information about the guy that discovered and managed the band. So that fuelled my interest in uncovering this mystery about this guy.

As I started to dig deep into my research, I discovered the whole business story I was initially looking for. Finding out how he got them a record deal when no one wanted to sign them, comparing and contrasting the differences between Brian and Colonel Tom Parker — two very, very different managers — to seeing how he came up with the suits, and the haircuts, and all that good stuff. It’s all in the book and it’s a great Beatles story, and as a Beatles fan it was wonderful to uncover that. That was all very interesting to me but it was the human side of his story that really struck a chord with me. That’s what really connected me to the Brian Epstein story.

Brian Epstein
Brian Epstein

He was gay, Jewish and from Liverpool: those were three significant obstacles in the 1960s. It was a felony to be gay, there was a lot of anti-Semitism in the UK, and Liverpool was a city that didn’t have any cultural influence to speak of. So for this gay, Jewish man to be running around Liverpool saying “I’ve found a local band and they’re going to be bigger than Elvis. They’re going to elevate pop music to an art form!” I feel that he was crazy. It was laughable. But he had this dream that the Beatles would be embraced by the whole world, and as cheesy as it is to say this, they would spread a message of love to the entire world, and that was a worthy dream to chase.

As a guy, who I think was the ultimate outsider, chasing a very worthy dream and realizing it so spectacularly, [Brian] was incredibly inspiring to me. I am of Indian origin. I was born here in New York but my parents were born in Guyana, South America, and their parents were born in India. You just don’t see a lot of people of my background working in the fields that I’m interested in. I’m not saying I’m the only one, but there just aren’t many. I could really relate to that concept of feeling like an outsider in your chosen field.

I do want to make it clear that I don’t in any way, shape or form, mean to suggest I’ve had the degree of obstacles in my life that Brian had. I think to draw a comparison would be ungrateful. Compared to the obstacles he had to face, I think I’ve lived a very blessed life. Nevertheless, I could still relate to that emotional human side of his story. That’s what really made me care about the Brian Epstein story so much and driven me to want to share this great unknown story with the world.

Brian and John have a chat.
Brian and John have a chat.

Dork Shelf: With your background as a Broadway Producer, why did you choose comics as the medium to tell this story after working in another field for so long?

VJT: It really boiled down to the graphic novel and the film medium felt like the right place for the story. When I started to think about how I wanted to tell the story, for whatever reason it popped into my head in terms of colour palette. It starts in 1961 Liverpool and ends in 1967 London. As I was thinking about this, 1961 Liverpool felt very dark, rainy, slightly depressed, industrial: it felt very black and white. Then 1967 London is the dawn of the psychedelic era. We’re about to enter the summer of love: it felt very Technicolor. This might sound awfully esoteric but in my mind, the arc of the Brian Epstein story was the arc of the movement from black and white to Technicolor. When you think about it in terms like that, that screamed Graphic Novel and Film, two of the arts mediums that are to me the most visual. And I’ve long wanted to do a graphic novel. I grew up reading comics and loving comics, so I’ve wanted to find something to do in the space. When I thought about it that way, it just felt right.

If you look at the book, we can see that we didn’t do that quite as dramatically as black and white to colour, but the first few pages are dark: gray, blues, they’re very muted. When the band first appears you get your first burst of oranges, yellows and reds. By the time you get to Kyle Baker’s Philippines sequence, we’re in full on Technicolor.

The Cavern Club
The Cavern Club

DS: Having such a clear vision in mind of how you wanted the book to look, how difficult was it to find the right artist?

VJT: Andrew wasn’t who I had in mind in the sense that when I was writing the script and thinking about the story, I didn’t have an artist in mind. I didn’t write it for Andrew. It’s my first book but being a huge comic fan, I’m familiar with a number of wonderful comic artists. I was certainly familiar with Andrew’s work.

On a business note, I’m on the Board of Directors of Valiant Entertainment, and I’m very proud of the work we do there. It was through Valiant that the then CEO Jason Kothari suggested that I speak to Mark Irwin, who is a gentleman very well connected amongst artists circles and at the time was actually representing Andrew as an agent. Jason thought that Mark would be a great person to help me find the artist. Mark immediately suggested Andrew and I was familiar with Andrew’s work, which speaks for itself. He’s an amazing artist. His work is so gorgeous.

When I sat down with him, it was clear that he loved the Beatles and loved my script. He really did get that it wasn’t the Beatles story. Like many people when you first hear about it, he was intrigued because it was Beatles related, but it was clear that what he was really most passionate about and what he really loved about the script was that it was Brian’s story. So that spoke volumes to me.

Also it was clear that Andrew and I were going to have a great collaborative relationship. I enjoy collaboration anyway. In theatre collaboration is everything. There are a great number of people that go into making a show happen so it’s something that I enjoy. It being my first book, it was particularly important for me to find an artist that had immense talent but that would also be willing to collaborate. There were pages in my script where I knew exactly what I wanted. I said, “I want this number of panels, this camera angle, this colour palette, and this is exactly how I want it to look. Here’s a photo reference.” Andrew was able to be ok with that and give me exactly what I wanted, and because he’s such a great artist, he literally would give me exactly what I wanted. Obviously, if he had a great idea, he would say, “That sounds great but how about this?” So that was wonderful.

The Beatles get new suits
The Beatles get new suits

But there were also moments in my script that were the exact opposite, where I said here’s the dialogue, here’s what the characters are feeling, and what the emotion is behind the scene, but quite frankly I don’t know how to tell it in art and I need your guidance here. Andrew was totally willing to take the ball and run with it on those sequences. So finding someone that was willing to be ok working under both scenarios was particularly important to me, and Andrew was that guy. Again, I should go back to my first comment, which is his work is just so damn good. Despite anything else, if you can get a guy like Andrew to commit to doing a book, you get a guy like Andrew to commit to doing your book! It was a blessing to have him on board.

Kyle Baker on the Philippines sequence— I always wanted that to be radically different from the rest of the book. I wanted it to be paying homage to the old Beatles cartoons of the 1960s. I wanted it to be a radical enough shift that I knew that I wanted another artist. Andrew can do anything but I really wanted it to be someone whose background is in cartooning. Kyle is a New Yorker, and I’m a New Yorker, and we’ve known each other for years moving in similar circles. We’ve long wanted to do something together and he’s another incredibly talented artist so I just reached out to him. I had a feeling, knowing him a little bit as a friend, that he was probably somebody who grew up watching those Beatles cartoons. Sure enough he was, and he loved the Beatles, loved those cartoons, read the script and loved the script, so he also fell into the book quite easily.

So both of those guys were actually the first people that I spoke to regarding the job, but it wasn’t as though I wrote it with them in mind.

DS: Were there any unexpected challenges or surprises working in comics as opposed to working in theatre?

VJT: The mediums were very different but I wouldn’t say there were any surprises. It’s funny, surprises and challenges sort of have a bit of a negative connotation. Was it stressful? Was it unexpected? I guess I don’t believe in that. This whole thing is such a labour of love to me, every step of the way is something new, and something that might be considered a “challenge” to me just felt like a joy. It felt like a game that we were playing. It was so much fun. Putting this book together was so much fun.

The one thing I was going to say was that it just took a long time. Andrew fully painted every single page, which is very unusual for a comic artist and it shows. Andrew was probably painting this book for four years. For me, it takes four or five years to develop a theatrical project so to work on something for four years doesn’t feel weird to me. The nature of the story feels timeless. It wasn’t as though we had (other than my enthusiasm) any reason to hurry up and get it out to market. It’s not like we thought, this is going to be old and we have to release it in 2010 or we’re going to be in trouble.

When [Andrew] sent in his pages, they were always so beautiful, it was like “You know what? Let’s just keep going and when it’s done, it’ll be done.”

New suits
New suits

DS: It sounds like you always intended The Fifth Beatle to be a two-part project: the graphic novel and the film. Can you tell us anything about the film?

VJT: Thank you for asking that because I feel like a lot of people these days make graphic novels in the hopes of making a film. What they really want to do is make a film, so let’s make a graphic novel because graphic novels are hot! I feel like if that’s your strategy, your book is probably doomed from the beginning, and it was never our strategy. We always saw both from the very beginning, and being really complementary. The graphic novel took on a life of its own and so it’s done. We are out to directors, so the film is obviously following quite a ways behind the graphic novel.

As a result of that, I’ve written the screenplay for the film, and it is heavily influenced by the graphic novel. For marketing purposes it’s easy to say that the film will be adapted from the graphic novel, and I guess technically that’s true because the book will have come out first. However, and this might sound as semantics, but we’re really thinking of it as more of a complement to the book than an adaptation of it. There are a number of sequences in the film and the screenplay that don’t appear in the book, and there’s a number of sequences in the book that don’t appear in the film. That’s because I respect and love both mediums, and there are some things that work on the page that don’t work on the screen, and vice versa.

Wanting them to be a little bit different allows us to tell different elements of the story. I wanted the book to be 130 pages so it would be a fun read, it wouldn’t be too overwhelming. As a result of that, it was really tough to figure out what goes in and what stays out. Pete Best, who was the band’s first drummer, and who Brian Epstein had to fire— that story is not in there and Beatles fans will probably notice that. Ultimately I felt it’s an important Beatles story but maybe not necessary for this book. However, it’s in the film! That’s a place where I can put it in, so we can say we didn’t ignore that story altogether, it’s going to be in the film.

Some very exciting news about the film is that we have access to Beatles music. It literally took me two and half years to secure it but we got the sign-off of the Beatles. Apple Corp (their company) signed off on the project on behalf of Paul, Ringo, Yoko Ono, and Olivia Harrison. We did a deal with Sony ATV who controls the music publishing, so we have access to Beatles music! We are literally the first and only film in history to have gotten those approvals and that access, so we are very proud of that.

As a result of getting it, we’re going to use it! So there are a number of musical sequences in the movie that wouldn’t appear in the book. I think Andrew has done a wonderful job with the performance sequences, and we really did our best to poetically make the book sing. I hope that in some of those sequences you can almost hear the music in the background, but you obviously can’t hear the music in the background. A book doesn’t actually break out into song. Maybe one day, digitally, those books will but right now they don’t. The film will have a number of musical sequences that wouldn’t work in the book. So we’re very, very excited about that.

Brian Epstein
Brian Epstein

Another piece of news about the film is that we’ve attached a co-producer, a gentleman named Bruce Cohen, who is amazing. He’s Hollywood royalty. He won the Academy Award for producing American Beauty, and he was nominated two other times, most recently for producing Silver Linings Playbook and for producing Milk. He also produced Big Fish for Tim Burton. The DNA for The Fifth Beatle is in those films. It has the whimsy and fantasy sequences of Big Fish, the gay rights issues of Milk and it’s got the deep importance of family that you’ll see in something like Silver Linings Playbook and American Beauty.

For all those films, [The Fifth Beatle] has the makings of something that I believe can play very mainstream, but we also want to have an art-house integrity to it. That’s what Bruce does, he makes these movies that play very mainstream but still feel like small independent films. That to me is the balance that I want to tread with The Fifth Beatle film and I feel like Bruce is the perfect guy for it. He was on a panel with me at New York Comic Con and he literally said, “I’m not from Liverpool but I am gay and I am Jewish, so this story is very personal for me.”  Bruce also has that very personal connection to the story, so he’s just the right guy for it.

We’re out to directors and I’m hoping that we’ll have some exciting director news to announce pretty soon too!

DS: Thanks for chatting with us, and for being a nerd! It’s nice to see more creators coming to comics who are already fans.

VJT: It’s a total dream come true for me. I’m going to be doing a signing at Forbidden Planet, which is my local comic shop down the street. Literally, I’ve been going to that store since I was an infant. My dad used to take me to that store. My parents unfortunately passed away but to be going to that store as a 40 year old, signing a comic that I’ve written, and it’s about the Beatles… I’m not ashamed to admit that I will very likely shed a tear that night. It’s going to be really emotional.

At heart, I’m a fan.

The Fifth Beatle is available at your local comic book store on November 20th. Let us know what you think in the comments below or on Twitter (@DorkShelf and @fred42).

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