Vivek Tiwary – Writer of The Fifth Beatle
Last Friday at New York Comic Con I had the pleasure of talking to Vivek Tiwary, the author of the excellent “The Fifth Beatle” graphic novel, about the book itself and its upcoming movie adaptation.
Be warned that this interview is quite SPOILER HEAVY when it comes to the content of the book
Never Not a Nerd : Hi, how are you?
Vivek Tiwary : I’m doing well, thank you.
NNAN : Is today your first day here?
VT : No, I was here yesterday as well.
NNAN : Ahh, are you tired?
VT : A little. I love this stuff, so it’s tiring, but fun. And I’ve been working on this for six years, so it’s just so exciting to be able to talk about it and show it to people. I’m running pretty high.
NNAN : I read the book earlier and it made me tear up.
VT : Oh, thank you so much. I really appreciate you saying that.
NNAN : It’s a very touching story. I love The Beatles and I have all their albums. But, I’ve never heard of Brian Epstein.
VT : Yeah, that’s why I wanted to tell this story. Even the most hardcore Beatles fan, if they know anything about Brian they know “well, he was gay, he might have messed up their merchandise deal, and he might have committed suicide.” That’s all people know. And as you know from reading the book, those are all half-truths. That’s not really the whole story by any stretch of the imagination.
NNAN : There are parts in the story that left me with questions, but more questions in a good way.
VT : Thanks
NNAN : Like, at the end of the book I wasn’t really sure how he died, but I was OK with not knowing. Did you want to leave it up to interpretation?
VT : Yeah, because that’s the truth. It’s not clear how Brian died. A lot of people say that he committed suicide, that he took too many pills and did it on purpose. The technical coroner’s report says that he died of an accidental overdose to prescription pills. And what ‘accidental overdose’ technically means is it was a gradual build up. Meaning: for months he was taking too many prescription pills as opposed to just popping 200 aspirin the night before.
NNAN : The part where he gets pills from different doctors, is that true?
VT : Yeah, that’s accurate. There’s no question that he was depressed at the end of his life. He was under a lot of stress, so I wanted to leave the ending a little ambiguous.
NNAN : He wasn’t very old when he died, right?
VT : He was 32.
NNAN : That’s crazy young.
VT : I’ve been working on the graphic novel for about six years, but I had been researching Brian’s life for 21 years. I turned 40 this year, so I have literally been working on it for more than half my life. And I remember when I turned 32 I thought “oh my gosh, this is the age when Brian Epstein died”. And at that age he was the most successful executive in the entire world.
NNAN : I’m not too far from that age. Should that make me feel bad?
VT : No! It shouldn’t, because here’s the thing, when I was getting there I started to feel bad. Because, I put a lot of pressure on myself. I’m that kind of guy. And I was like “God, he did so much by the age of 32″. But, it also kind of crushed him. The way I look at it, you should strive to achieve these things. You should strive to follow your dreams. That’s the inspiring part of the story. The cautionary part of the story is: take your time. You know, I hope I’ll do all the things Brian did, or some of them, over a long life. If I did all that by the time I was 32 I would crack too. Pace yourself. Knock on wood, we have a long life ahead of us.
NNAN : Do you think Beatles fans should feel bad for not knowing who Brian Epstein was? Because when I read the title “The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story” my first thought was “wouldn’t George Martin have been more of the Fifth Beatle?”
VT : That’s why we said “The Brian Epstein Story”, to make it clear who this is about. And the truth is there’s a lot of debate over that. People say it’s George Martin. It’s also one of those things where it depends on who died this month. When Neil Aspinall died he was the fifth Beatle. When Billy Preston, the keyboard player that played on some of their records, when he passed away he was the fifth Beatle. People say Pete Best was the fifth Beatle, Stuart Sutcliffe was the fifth Beatle. I’m going with Brian Epstein. I think he genuinely was like a fifth member of the band. The Beatles would have been The Beatles. They would have written most of those songs, because he didn’t get involved in the songwriting, but the world probably wouldn’t have heard of them. That’s as important to who they were as their songs.
NNAN : You could also make the argument that his desire to change their image could have also affected where they were going musically. That was surprising. I knew they were playing in dark clubs wearing leather jackets, but I had no idea it was some guy that came into the fold and said “you’re going to dress like this and act this way”. It’s really interesting.
VT : Yeah, so I think he was a real fifth member of the band. And, for what it’s worth, Paul McCartney said “If anyone was the fifth Beatle it was Brian.” So, I’m going to go with that too. To be historical the first person to use that term was Murray the K, a New York City radio DJ, who when the band came over said “I’m Murray the K – The fifth Beatle”. But, I’m going with Brian.
NNAN : Do you think now is the perfect time for this story be put out into the world? With homosexuality being more accepted and the UK passing marriage equality.
VT : I do. As somebody who’s been so inspired by the story and so passionate about this story there’s a part of me that wants to just flippantly say “It’s a story that should have been told many years ago!” And in some ways it should have been. But, really it’s a story whose time has come. The people who were there are ready to tell it. Most of the research I did for this book was through interviews. I interviewed many of his close colleagues and collaborators extensively, and a lot of these people didn’t want to talk about Brian’s homosexuality, because in his lifetime it was against the law. And when it was no longer illegal it was not socially acceptable. So, it has really only been within the last 5-10 years that these people are even willing to open up about it. We still have a long way to go. Many states have passed marriage equality. The UK has passed marriage equality. So, I feel like the world is more willing to hear this story now than it ever has been. I might not have been able to get this published 30 years ago.
NNAN : You’re making a movie out of it as well?
VT : We are.
NNAN : How far along is that?
VT : Movie’s going great. I wrote the screenplay myself, so I’m very excited about that. We recently announced that Bruce Cohen is going to be producing the film. I’m going to be producing as well, but he will be leading the producing charge. Bruce is a three time Academy Award nominee and a one time winner. He won the Academy Award for American Beauty. He also produced Silver Linings Playbook and Milk, which were the other two movies he was nominated for. He also produced Tim Burton’s Big Fish. All of these movies kind of have the DNA of “The Fifth Beatle” in there. The fantasy of Big Fish, he gay activist issues of Milk, the focus on family of American Beauty. It’s kind of all in there. So, Bruce is perfect for the movie. And I’m not telling you anything Bruce wouldn’t tell you himself, he is gay and Jewish. So, there’s also a very personal side of the story for him. I’m very lucky and honored to have Bruce on board. And the other big piece of news on the film is we have secured the approval of The Beatles, which allowed us to make a deal with Sony/ATV who control the Lennon/McCartney music publishing. Which is a very long-winded and technical way of saying that I have access to Beatles music for the film. We are literally the first film about the band in history to have gotten their approval and access to Beatles music. I’ve very honored to have our movie be the first.
NNAN : Was it easy to ‘flip’ the story from comic to film screenplay?
VT : I wouldn’t say ‘easy’. It was a lot of fun. It was hard, but it was a lot of fun. I am a longtime comic book fan. I grew up reading comics. I often say I probably learned to read by reading comics, and I love film. I love and respect both mediums, and I think they are different mediums. The film is adapted from the graphic novel. We haven’t even announced our director for the film yet, so obviously the film is going to be far more inspired by the book. But, the two projects are very different. It’s not as though I took the graphic novel script and just reformatted it for screenplay. Since we have music rights, there’s a lot of music sequences in the film. We’re to use those rights. A book obviously can’t sing. There are music sequences in the book, but only a few. We’re not going to have a long music sequence with just reprinted lyrics, because that’s not so interesting. In the film we’ll have a long music sequence with music and that’ll be very exciting. And similarly I think there are sequences in the book that don’t really work in film.
NNAN : Had you written a film before?
VT : No, it’s actually my first graphic novel and my first film. I have long background in production. I’ve produced extensively on Broadway and less extensively, but in film and television as well. So, I’m familiar with the mediums and the field, and I’ve been writing ever since high school. You know I went to business school, but I also went to the University of Pennsylvania School of Arts and Sciences. I did an English major. I have a creative writing background. But, there’s no question this is my first time at both. So I was blessed to work with two artists who are very collaborative, and Bruce, who’s a genius. Bruce is giving me amazing notes for the script, and he’s helped me craft the script into a form that we think is really strong.
NNAN : Is this your first published work?
VT : It is.
NNAN : That’s very cool. Congratulations.
VT : Thank you
NNAN : Do you have a specific creative routine that you follow?
VT : I don’t have a daily routine. I probably should. I try to tell myself “I am a writer I have to write a little bit everyday. Even if it’s in my journal, or a card. I have to do some sort of writing.” I don’t keep that rule. I try, but it’s difficult. I do keep a daily calendar book where I keep notes about inspiring thoughts, what I did that day, what I ate, something my kids said that was funny. For me I have to get away from it all. I have to find, not necessarily a quiet spot, like I can go to a coffee shop. So, I’m out of my office, I can turn off my phone. I need to be in a cave, in a little seclusion. It doesn’t need to be a quiet cave, but it does need to be a cave. So, I would say those are my two practices.
NNAN : And the book comes out November…
VT : November 19th. It’s already available for pre-order at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Indie Bound. It comes out in three editions. All of them are hardcover. The special edition has bonus material such as an art gallery section and a memorabilia section. There’s also a standard edition that doesn’t have the bonus material. And there’s another version that comes in a slipcase that has no title on the spine, so you can open it to see the entire cover. It has all the bonus material. That last edition is also signed and numbered. There will only be 1,500 of those available.
NNAN : That’s all I have. Again, loved the book. Thanks for your time.
VT : Thank you. Any time.