SDCC ’14: Vivek J. Tiwary uncovers the fact and fiction behind ‘The Fifth Beatle’

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Vivek Tiwary TEDxFultonStreet 600px 300x300 SDCC 14: Vivek J. Tiwary uncovers the fact and fiction behind The Fifth BeatleBy: Kyle Pinion

Vivek J. Tiwary is a multiple award winning Broadway Producer whose productions have netted 25 Tony Awards and 44 Tony nominations. The culmination of decades of research, The Fifth Beatle, his graphic novel telling the tale of Brian Epstein, the man who discovered and managed The Beatles was released in November of last year. As of this past Friday, Tiwary is also an Eisner Award Winner as The Fifth Beatle won the award for “Best Reality Based Work”.

Just prior to this win, I had a chance to sit down with Tiwary and discuss this stunning graphic novel and some of the background behind it.

When did you first hear the name Brian Epstein?

I’m a life-long Beatles fan. My parents introduced me to the Beatles. My parents always say that I was listening to the Beatles before I was born, because my mom was listening to them when she was pregnant. I’ve always been a bit of a nerdy guy, a bit of an academic…following history, and in terms of comics, I’d get into creators. Who were the artists? The inkers? And similarly with bands, I’d get very involved in who signed them and who their managers were. I probably heard his name 30 years ago, but it was 20 years ago when I was in business school in Philadelphia that I decided to learn something about the guy. I realized that The Beatles and Brian were the team that wrote and re-wrote the rules of the pop music business, but I didn’t know anything about him. So it was about 20 years ago that I really said “Who is this Brian Epstein character that I heard who managed and discovered the band?”

I understand you spent 20 years in research for the project. What did that research entail?

Starting this project 20 years ago, if you put that in perspective; during that time, there’s no Wikipedia, no YouTube, no Google. There are none of these online resources that we take for granted today, and there are no books about Brian Epstein. The Fifth Beatle is the only book in print, graphic novel or otherwise, about Brian. So 21 years ago, I didn’t have any choice but to do interviews. I had basically read all of the respected Beatles books and slowly I put together a portrait of the people that knew Brian best. And then I just cold-called these people, and they were not the celebrity names. Certainly there are people like (Paul) McCartney and Ringo Starr who obviously knew Brian, but Brian’s management style was to shield the band from his struggles. There’s a line in the book: “You focus on your music, and I will play the business like my instrument, and you will never have to hear it.” The people who knew Brian best, like Nat Weiss, who is in the book, was his best friend and the Beatles’ US attorney. Sid Bernstein, who is not in the book by character, but his spirit is in the book, was the Jewish concert promoter who brought the Beatles over to the United States for the first time. And he and Brian shared some of the same struggles of being Jewish men hustling in the music industry in the 1960’s. It’s a bit strange to think of this now, but in that time, there wasn’t an extensive number of Jewish people in that industry, especially not in the United Kingdom where the industry was run by Lew Grade and Sir Joseph Lockwood – these older, white Christian Knights of the British Empire. It wasn’t run by individuals with names like Epstein. So literally I just figured out who were the people who knew Brian best, and I cold-called them. I focused on the people who were within driving distance, like Nat and Sid who were both New Yorkers, and I just said “Hey, I’m a young person, looking for more inspiration and I got inspired by the little bit I know about Brian, would you talk to me?” And I will be honest, I was so excited about reaching out to these people that I forgot to be intimidated, and not one of them turned me down. That’s how I began my research. Obviously it expanded from just the people who were nearby. I wound up talking to Joanne Newfield, who is now Joanne Peterson. She was Brian Epstein’s personal assistant, and she was literally there with him the day he died. So, she was a great reference to me, while living in Australia now. That’s how I did my research, with people living all over the globe.

Did sources ever conflict in their accounts of Brian at all?

All the time. This is one of the challenges that any biographer faces, but certainly one for anyone that is working on a Beatles-related project and for someone who is as little known as Brian. There were people who said “Brian would never do that” and someone else would say “Brian totally did that.” Even little things, like when I presented the book to some people, they would say “Brian would never call his mother ‘Mommy,’” with others knowing him very well saying that he was very close with his mom and would absolutely do that. So who do you believe? As a biographer, you have to do all the research that you can, and you either go with the person that you think is the most reliable on that issue, or you interview five people and if three of them say it’s one way, you have to go with the majority. Those are the two decisions you make. But at the end of the day, that’s the role of the biographer. You have to go with what you think is the truth.

When did Andrew Robinson come into the picture?

Like I said, it was about 20 years ago that I started researching the subject. It was about ten years ago that I decided that I wanted to write a graphic novel, and that started with scripting and figuring out how I wanted to tell the book. It was about five or six years ago that I was looking for an artist. I was making the book independently at first, before Dark Horse was involved, and I hired a gentleman named Mark Irwin, who was the book’s first editor and a very accomplished inker in his own right. But in his role for me he was working as an independent editor, helping me with my script and helping me to find an artist. He was working with Andrew at the time, and Andrew was one of the very first people that Mark recommended. I knew Andrew as a comic geek. I knew he was an amazing artist, and I knew he could certainly do the job and do it beautifully. But it was really when I sat down with Andrew and started talking to him that I realized that he was perfect. It was important for me, because it was my first graphic novel, and partially because I come from theater, which is a collaborative field. So working very closely with the artist was something that I wanted. It was clear that Andrew and I were going to have that kind of relationship. He also was a huge Beatles fan but understood that this was Brian’s story, and it was the human element of Brian’s story that really appealed to Andrew. To me, that was critical in the storytelling of The Fifth Beatle.

In relation to your theater background, how would you liken your role and Andrew’s role to the traditional ones seen in film and on stage?

If you’re looking at as a film, then I suppose I am both the writer and the director, and Andrew is the cinematographer, and the art department, and a bit of the music director as well. Much like a film, we really collaborated on everything. There were pages of my script where I was very specific. I knew in my head that I want four panels here, and I want one panel to look like this and a camera angle to be this. There were entire sequences where I said here is what the characters are going through and here is how they feel, here is what is emotionally happening and here is the dialogue, but I have no idea how to do this. Andrew would then come back to me with it all laid out. We really did both. There are some comic writers who are very particular and want things exactly this way, and there are some that have no idea and just provide dialogue, and I guess I’m a bit of both. There were some scenes where I was very meticulous, down to photo references, and then there were others where I wanted Andrew to have mastery over it.

I can’t imagine the feeling you must have had when you saw the finished product.

Oh my gosh, I remember the experience I had when I saw Andrew’s first page, which was page one, the Liverpool panorama, and it was like my heart literally skipped a beat. It was watching my dreams visually come to life. It was amazing.

How would you define the relationship that Brian had with John vs. the one he had with Paul?

Obviously, Brian’s relationship with John is deep and complex. John was the leader of the group when Brian started working with The Beatles, and by the end of their career as a band, John and Paul were both taking leadership roles. But in the beginning, there was no question that it was John’s band. So, Brian really did start working closely with John, because he was making a lot of the big decisions. A lot has been made about Brian and John and whether they had a romantic relationship, and there’s no question in my mind that Brian was attracted to all of The Beatles, in particular to John. But as you’ll see, the way I handled that in the book – I think that John teased him somewhat mercilessly as John I think was wont to do. John was one of these guys that had a very acerbic wit, and he put his friends through the ringer. To hang with John Lennon, you had to earn your stripes. So I really think there was a lot of love between the two of them, a lot of genuine love, but I don’t think it was a romantic love. If anything for Brian, it bordered on the love a father has for a child, in a lot of ways. I think Brian viewed the Beatles as the children, as a gay man, he would never have. A gay man in the 1960’s where it was illegal to be gay, forget about getting married and adopting. Brian was very paternal with The Beatles. There was a friendship there that was emotional and familial. I think Brian’s relationship with Paul was a little more business-oriented. Paul was more about the numbers, the image and the marketing than John was, and certainly at the end of the book there’s a scene where a number of people visit Brian on his death bed and he had these hallucinatory moments, Paul is one of the people that shows up. Obviously that’s a fantasy, that’s my creative license as an author, but you’ll see in that sequence they talk a lot about the business. Brian says “you’re the one that’s going to be in charge of the legacy,” because he knew that Paul was going to be the person that was going to take charge of the legacy most seriously from a business perspective. Not that John wasn’t proud of the legacy as the founder of The Beatles, and as a key member, but Paul is really the one that understood it from a business stand-point: The books, the greatest hits records, the preserving of the band historically, that’s a Paul thing and was also a Brian thing as well. Brian’s relationship with Paul had a more archival aspect if that makes sense, the caring about and the creation of history.
John also had other interests brewing at that time as well, with Yoko coming into the picture or about to do so.
Lennon once said “there were only two people in his entire life that he would listen to and do whatever they told him and that was Brian and Yoko.” And Yoko really comes into the picture where Brian left off, and John even says this, she filled an almost paternal void that he felt when Brian left. John sometimes needed somebody to tell him what the fuck to do. That’s not to say Yoko and Brian were similar. There was just a part of their relationship with John that was.

For those who have read the book, this has been a question that’s bantered back and forth a bit, how open to interpretation is the existence of Moxie?

Very! I will go on and let you decide how much to print because I do like the fact that you walk out of the book with the ability to debate that subject. That was the point. I want readers to not be sure about this. That being said, there was no real person named Moxie, however everything Moxie does was done by four assistants. She is most closely based on Joanne Peterson, who I mentioned earlier, who was Brian’s personal assistant, she was there when Brian died. She will readily say she had an innocent crush on Brian. She didn’t romantically chase him, but he was older, intelligent, well-dressed and debonair. He was everything that a man should be in her teenage eyes. She loved Brian in that sense in the way that Moxie does. Moxie is also one-part Wendy Hanson, who was another female assistant Brian had. She’s also one part Alistair Taylor, who was the assistant that first took Brian to The Cavern Club in 1961, which Moxie does in the book. She’s also one part Peter Brown, who worked very closely with Brian and very closely with The Beatles afterwards. So if I had to answer the question very specifically, she’s a conflation of four real-life people. I also wanted Moxie to be a little bit of Brian’s head. She’s Brian’s “moxie”, his ambition, his drive. She’s a lot of different things, so I hope her existence does cause some debate amongst fans of The Fifth Beatle and Beatles fans. While it doesn’t take more than a Google search to know that there was no real-life Moxie, everything she did is based on history. Brian took Joanne Peterson to a ball and ballroom danced with her. She said it was one of the best nights of her life. But JoAnne is not Moxie…at the end of the day, she’s my creation and I think she represents Brian’s ambition in life.

But Dizz is real though?

Dizz is very real unfortunately. There was a gentleman in real life named John Gillespie, people nicknamed him “Dizz”. He blackmailed Brian; he was a hustler. He flew to the UK and blackmailed Brian in public. Since we’re getting specific, I will say I made up the television interview. He did blackmail Brian in public, but it was at a party, not on television. Dizz was unfortunately a very real person.

Any future projects that we can get excited about?

There’s a few things that I have cooking that I can’t quite talk about, but I’m working with Alanis Morrisette, and we’re adapting her album Jagged Little Pill for the stage. We’re turning it into that into a Broadway Musical. I’m incredibly excited about that. I expect we’ll be able to announce our writer within the next few months. Tom Kitt is already attached to compose orchestrations and arrangements, which Tom did for me on American Idiot, of which I was a producer, and he’s a genius. He’s a Pulitzer and Tony winner for Next to Normal, so he’s amazing. That’s probably the key thing that people can get excited about. Right here at San Diego Comic Con, I wrote a short story for Harbinger Issue 25, their anniversary issue. It’s out and here at the convention. Gilbert Hernandez, the wonderful Gilbert Hernandez drew an exclusive cover for Harbinger and it’s a benefit for the CBLDF (Comic Book Legal Defense Fund), and we’ll be doing a signing here at the show. This is a dream come true, the man is a genius, to say that Julio’s Day was one of my inspirations for The Fifth Beatle would be an understatement, and I’m thrilled to be working with him. Harbinger 25 is out now, it’s in stores, and I’m very proud of the story I wrote for that. There’s certainly The Fifth Beatle film as well, which we’re in active development on. We’re in the casting process, and we’re on track to shoot next year.

Is Peyton Reed still attached to direct?

Now that Peyton is attached to Ant-Man, scheduling has become a bit of a tricky thing. Peyton loves The Fifth Beatle, we love Peyton, but we’ll have to see how the schedule plays itself out.

Comments

  1. Beat Staff says:

    Great interview. After reading the story for the first time, I had some questions as well. I thought Moxie was completely made up, when in truth, she is firmly based on reality. Interesting stuff.

  2. as a life long beatles fan, i look foward to reading this book. brian epstein played an extremely important role in the history of the beatles, but IMHO the fifth beatle is and will always be george martin, the guy who worked with the beatles on the vast majority of their music.

  3. Mark Mayerson says:

    I think Lou Gray should be Lew Grade.

  4. Beat Staff says:

    Many thanks Mark!
    That the was the one name I was unsure of in my audio recording. Shall fix!

    -Kyle

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