It’s 9 a.m. on a cinema-perfect L.A. morning, and in the past three hours, Adam Forman has already checked his e-mail, sent his two kids to school and illustrated an epic zombie battle set in a hardware-giant franchise store.
An Ann Arbor native and Eastern Michigan alum, Forman’s darkly detailed style has found its way into several Hollywood projects since he moved west four years ago. He most recently did concept and pre-production work on “300,” the much-hyped film adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel about Thermopylae.
Directed by Zach Snyder (the 2004 remake of “Dawn of the Dead”), the film reaches theaters tomorrow. Forman’s concept drawings for “300” pull from the stylistic traits he’s known for – heavy ink, meticulous shading long, sinister lines. His fine-arts background pours forth from his work; his drawings for Disney’s upcoming “Enchanted” recall classic art nouveau.
“Unless I’m specifically looking at (a certain style) for a job, my intellectual artistic interest ends in the earlier 20th century, then (skips to) abstract expressionism,” Forman said. “It peaks in the ’50s and ’60s in the States . 19th-century art I look at a lot.”
Right now, Forman’s main focus is a graphic novel about zombies, or to be more specific, “a group of vegetarian zombies with a moral dilemma.”
“It’s a dark comedy,” Forman explained. In the novel, written by Brian Falk, a sausage factory takes over a small, one-industry town. (Forman described it as “Frankenmuth-style,” in reference to the quasi-Bavarian village in Michigan known for its multi-course chicken dinners and Bronner’s, which sells only Christmas-themed merchandise.) An accident occurs that turns a group of villagers into zombies: half are vegetarian activists protesting meat at the factory, and the other half are meat-company heirs.
“Making a comic book, I had no idea at the time, (is) a very laborious process,” said Forman, who hopes the book will make it to shelves within the next 18 months.
Most kids only dream of making comic books for a living, and not every Ypsi-Arbor artist ends up illustrating the bones of a Frank Miller fanboy’s dream. While Forman confessed he felt his ambitions were being wasted in the Midwest, Michigan connections – especially one longtime friendship first established as a teenager in Ann Arbor – helped him get to where he is today.
Wesley Coller, a fellow Eastern alum and childhood friend of Forman’s wife, moved out to Los Angeles immediately after college graduation at the encouragement of a cousin in the film industry.
Coller and his wife moved to Los Angeles and he began working as a personal assistant to Snyder shortly after – keeping in touch with Forman the whole time.
“I met Adam when I was probably 13, (when) I was old enough to snag rides to Ann Arbor,” the Pinckney native said. “Sunday night used to be teen night – punk and industrial – at the Nectarine Ballroom (now shortened to the Necto).”
Coller formed a production company called Cruel and Unusual with wife Debbie and Snyder; the outfit recently signed a two-year deal with Warner Brothers.
While Forman credits Coller as someone who seriously encouraged him to pursue his dreams out west, Coller speaks in kind about his friend.
“He’s a creative spirit that through my entire life has been an inspiration,” he said. “When I was out here (in Los Angeles) – and the first couple of years in transition, you spend a lot of time questioning whether you’re doing the right thing – he (was) the kind of guy saying ‘Dude, keep doing it! I’ll be there soon,’ ” Coller said.
Forman and his family made the decision to move to California when he visited Coller after filming in Canada wrapped for “Dawn of the Dead.” He went to Los Angeles knowing that he had a few connections like Coller, but still with some uncertainty, although he knew that he could find steady work as a tattoo artist. When he first became involved with tattooing 13 years ago, he saw it as a job where he could get paid to draw, yet still maintain a degree of credibility.
“The kids that I hung out with in high school (were) more Bohemian,” Forman said. “I definitely wasn’t going to end up at Chrysler designing ash trays.”
Tattooing changed the way Forman approached drawing and primed him for the work he does now. He regards it as one of the best ventures he’s ever pursued, as it forced him to sit down and create work the client demanded of him.
“I wasn’t exposed to anything that held me to that degree of accountability at the time,” Forman said. Ultimately, tattooing would help Forman pay his way through college and bring him out west – and in a way, to “300.” Not only is he Coller’s close friend, Forman is also his tattoo artist. Coller helped get him onboard for “300,” to which Forman contributed concept artwork and also ended up working directly with the makeup effects artists, applying tattoo makeup to actors based on actual Scythian tattoo designs he’d researched.
Originally, he had read “300” and Coller and Snyder had talked to him about the new project, and Forman began sending his friends his interpretations of Miller’s novel.
“It was so early on in the project that in that stage of the game we were really looking for inspiration everywhere – just nourish that monster that starts to grow,” Coller said. “It was fun because Adam was drawing a lot from historical elements but putting an Adam Forman twist on it, which was parallel to Frank Miller’s (approach) to Thermopylae.”
Novelists and filmmakers can research and they can try to replicate history, but imagination is sometimes necessary to fill in the gaps. After all, to quote Bukowski, fiction is an improvement on life.
“Our focus wasn’t ‘Let’s jump in a time machine and make Thermopylae come to life’ but ‘Let’s get Frank Miller’s graphic novel come to life,’ ” Coller said. He added that several of the historians that have already seen the film have embraced the core of the story as it aligns itself with the basis of mythology – a grand exaggeration of life.
“If I have an opportunity to research something and not make it up, I do that,” Forman said. “The film itself is not a historical film, but it gives you a really great platform to start from . (History) makes a good platform, but (you’re) not shackled by it at the same time.”
As “300” was finishing up pre-production, Forman had also taken on the seven-month-long Disney job. And then through Snyder he hooked up with the zombie novel writer Falk, himself a director and producer for PBS and The Food Network.
Most artists in Forman’s field take on multiple jobs at once, so they are more or less working consistently. But there is time off, which he fills with other endeavors: Forman’s band Gygax recently signed a record contract, and he just returned from working in New York with fashion company Par Balle. While he catches up the band and his tattoo clients, he’s also fielding calls about potential film gigs. In the past he’s also done a Russian commercial for Orbit Gum – “a pain in the ass with the time difference” – and produced short films.
“The amount of ventures one can find themselves in L.A. seems to be bottomless,” he said. “There’s a degree of acceptance (for having multiple interests) in L.A. that isn’t in the Midwest.”
If you think you’ve yet to see Forman’s work, you might be surprised to find his imprint on two of your favorite vices. Although he described working for R.J. Reynolds as “cashing the check from the grim reaper at the bank,” Forman designed vintage tattoo-inspired boxes for Camel Lights and Camel Menthols this past year. More noble – and tasty -is his long-term involvement with Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales, based in nearby Dexter. Jolly Pumpkin’s award-winning microbrews have won raves locally (Ashley’s bartenders like the La Roja amber ale) and nationally (Men’s Journal magazine rates the spicy golden Bam Bi