How, exactly, do you manage to keep a lid on the fact that Academy Award winner/god-tier SNL host/legend-at-large Regina King has signed on to direct an adaptation of your comic book? "I don't talk about my emotions that much, so it's easy to keep secrets," says David F. Walker. "My therapist says I need to work on that."
For a frankly unthinkable five months, Walker has sat on the knowledge that King will direct the film adaptation of Bitter Root, a series he co-created with illustrator Sanford Greene and writer Chuck Brown that's published by Portland giant Image Comics. Instantly acclaimed when it premiered in 2019, Bitter Root is set in a mid-Renaissance 1920s Harlem, where a family of monster hunters has to heal intergenerational wounds or else watch the world succumb to demonic forces. King attached herself late last year, and her involvement was announced publicly on May 11.
"In the very earliest days of development, her name was on the list, and [her directorial debut] One Night In Miami hadn't even come out yet, but there were a bunch of rumors floating around that she’d been directing and wanted to do a feature,” Walker says. “I kept pushing. I was like, ‘Regina! Regina!’ … and we just kind of lucked out.”
In addition to writing comics, Walker is a film scholar—he’s an adjunct professor at Portland State University, and he’s taught at the NW Film Center and the Pacific Northwest College of Art. Like any serious film scholar, he's a fan of Regina King's work, and he has a favorite Regina King performance. “Jerry Maguire was that moment where I was like, ‘Oh wow, she’s got some gravitas that she’s not getting to use as often as I would like to see,’” he says. “I think she stole that movie, quite honestly.”
But he wasn't certain she'd be able to hack it as a director until he saw One Night in Miami and breathed a sigh of relief. "There were some moments [in that movie] that were so moving and so powerful, and that's the thing—I don't care if it's a big action film or a little drama, if you can't get good performances out of your actors, if you can't craft a good story, what's the director doing? That's their job. So there was such a great sense of comfort and relief."
King’s not the only heavy-hitter attached to Bitter Root. She’ll produce alongside Black Panther director Ryan Coogler and his wife, Zinzi Evans, who also produced last year’s awards favorite Judas & the Black Messiah. The film will be released by Legendary Pictures, which helmed the Dark Knight trilogy and currently handles the Godzilla-centric American MonsterVerse. “[It's] all surreal to me, 'cause I'm still the guy who's trying to figure out what I'm going to have for lunch," Walker says. "You know, I'm not eating Thanksgiving dinner at their house, but these are people I know, that I've been working with. And that's awesome."
As for his own involvement with the film, Walker has opted to set up shop on the sidelines. "Legendary has been very open about the fact that they want this to be a franchise, and I was just like, yep, I'll buckle under the pressure. That or I'll become a total insufferable idiot on cocaine. So I decided to let someone else handle the writing." (Bryan Edward Hill, a writer on HBO Max's DC show Titans, has signed on as a screenwriter.) “[The movie] has got to be its own thing. A comic is a comic, a movie is a movie. I'm not expecting it to be 100 percent faithful—do what you think is best. So I try to keep that in perspective. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter if I like the movie or don't like the movie. What matters is do I like the comic that I've been a part of? That's what's got my fingerprints all over it," Walker says.
With his hands free while the cogs of the moviemaking machine turn, Walker has been dabbling in the more long-form world of graphic novels—he has two books on the way, one scheduled for release in 2023 and another in 2024. He's also been experimenting with more autobiographical comics work, and like all of us, is wrestling with the unkept promises he made himself during COVID: "I keep saying I need to be more creative, but hey, I also didn't lose all the weight I wanted to lose either, so. You know. The best laid plans of mice and men."
One thing he misses most? The movies. And he still can't quite get his head around the fact that pretty soon, he'll be part of them. "Out of the whole team, I tend to be somewhere between pragmatic and cynical. I'm excited, but it's also like, 'Just because it's been optioned, just because there's a screenplay, just because there are producers and a director attached, that doesn't mean it's gonna happen.' It's still an if right now. Everybody yells at me when I go 'if it happens,' so I'm trying really hard to be more optimistic," he says. "I don't want to say people will be talking about [Bitter Root] like I was talking about Tim Burton's Batman in ’89, but I remember going to see that in the theater in ’89 and seeing it come to life, and I never thought I would have the opportunity to experience that in my own way."