Vivek J. Tiwary is the author of the award-winning and New York Times best-selling graphic novel, The Fifth Beatle, which is currently being adapted into (or, rather, expanded upon in the form of) a film. The Fifth Beatle tells the story of Brian Epstein, manager of the Beatles who steered them to fame in a multitude of ways. In REBEAT’s exclusive interview, Tiwary discusses his “obsession” with Epstein, the concept of the “Fifth Beatle,” and his ideas for the film.
REBEAT: Okay, let’s set the scene for our REBEAT readers: You were a student at Wharton studying business. From there, what led you to become obsessed with Brian Epstein?
VIVEK J. TIWARY: I was studying business at the Wharton School in 1991, so it was some years ago! Now, Wharton today has quite a few resources for young people who are interested in working in the arts and entertainment industry, but back then… not so much, you know? And that was my dream; growing up in New York City, I was exposed to the arts from a very young age, and I was passionate about all the forms of arts and entertainment, with a particular focus on music. I think since I wasn’t getting a lot of that artistic education through my regular Wharton course load, I figured that I should study it on my own. I knew that essentially I wanted to start my own company; I always wanted to be an entrepreneur. So I thought, If I’m going to be an entrepreneur in the arts and entertainment industry, why not study the lives of some of the great entertainment entrepreneurs? And believing that Brian and the Beatles were the team that wrote — and rewrote — the guide to the pop music business, I thought that I should study the life of Brian Epstein.
I basically took it on as a sort of extracurricular pursuit to complement the education I was getting, which was a more traditional business education. And again, this is 1991, so when you put it in that perspective, there’s no Wikipedia, there’s no YouTube, no Google. Really, what I had to do were interviews; I had to track down people who knew Brian and interview them about him. I’d say then that my obsession with Brian was fueled largely by general interest, by my wanting to study the arts and entertainment industries, and, partially, because it was a mystery. I found it hard to believe. I literally walked into a Barnes & Noble and found a book about John Lennon’s astrologist and yet I couldn’t find a book about Brian Epstein! I was like, that’s absurd!
The last element is that as I got deeper and deeper into the story, I found that a large part of Brian Epstein’s life wasn’t just what he accomplished for the Beatles from a business perspective, but it was also the personal obstacles that he overcame. I initially was interested in learning solely the business story — how he got the Beatles the record deal when nobody wanted to sign them, how he convinced Ed Sullivan to book them when a British band had never made an impact in the United States — those are the stories I was after.
But what really struck a deep chord for me was learning the human side of his story: the fact, in brief, that he was gay and Jewish and from Liverpool really made him the ultimate outsider. I would never claim to have obstacles like that in my life, but growing up a first-generation American in a family of Indian origin, many people of my background were and are steered towards becoming doctors or engineers or towards going into technology, so wanting to write graphic novels and produce Broadway musicals and make movies made me a bit of an outsider as well. That was the element of Brian’s life that cemented my connection to him and really sort of turned what was, at first, an academic study into something that became a genuine passion and has certainly become a lifelong passion. You used the word “obsession,” and, you know, being honest, it is an obsession, and it’s one that I’m proud of.
“Obsession” definitely doesn’t have a negative connotation here at all. That’s awesome.
Thank you, and it’s been a rewarding obsession; if I had to boil down the message of the Brian Epstein story to one succinct message, it’s that no dream is too impossible and no person too unlikely to realize that dream — and what a great message that is! I mean, I have two kids, and that’s a message I want my kids to live their lives by, so it’s an obsession that’s paid back in spades.
Although we’ve kind of touched on this already in terms of the title and the overarching theme of the novel, you call Brian “the Fifth Beatle.” In the past, so many people have been considered the Fifth Beatle (e.g., George Martin, Billy Preston, Stuart Sutcliffe). Why, specifically, do you think it was Brian?
Well you know, it’s funny. I mean, the term “Fifth Beatle” is obviously a colloquial term. It’s something that’s been created by the pop-culture medium; it’s not an official title the way Executive Producer on a television show is an actual title. For starters, I like the title The Fifth Beatle because it’s a cool title, it’s a catchy title, and, you know, Paul McCartney very famously said, “If anyone was the Fifth Beatle, it was Brian.” So you almost sort of think, Well, if Paul thinks so, and he’s probably the best living authority on the matter, so maybe we can go with that!
The real question is, what does it mean to be a “Fifth Beatle”? Some people might argue that it’s George Martin; he’s a popular choice for Fifth Beatle because of what he did for their sound, and there’s no question about the fact that George Martin did do an incredible amount for their sound. But then I would say that if you’re only looking at the music of it all, then yes, George Martin probably is the one who deserves the title.
After Paul McCartney said “if anyone was the Fifth Beatle, it was Brian,” he went on to say that George Martin had an incredible influence on their sound, but by the time they got to George Martin, they were already a well-oiled machine so to speak: they had practiced a ton, they had done a great deal of shows in Hamburg, they had studied their craft, they knew their material, Brian had polished them up — they were ready.
But Brian was the guy that was there at the beginning; Brian was there when they were rough-and-tumble, when nobody wanted them, when no manager wanted them, even when they got kicked out of Germany because they were underage! Brian was there from the very, very beginning, and that’s kind of how Paul explained why he thinks Brian deserves the title “Fifth Beatle.” There’s actually a line in the book where he says to the Beatles something along the lines of, “You play your instruments, you focus on your music, and I will play the business aspect of things as if it’s my instrument, only you’ll never have to hear it.” And that to me is why he’s the Fifth Beatle — he was the fifth member of the band and his instrument was the business.
I believe that for any great piece of art, if it is to be exposed and released to the world, it needs somebody looking after the business side of things. Would the Beatles have written those great songs without Brian? Some of them, certainly, but I think it’s very likely that the world would never have heard them. I think it’s very likely that they never would have gotten out of Liverpool. I mean, when Brian Epstein discovered the Beatles, they weren’t even the most popular band in Liverpool! They were unprofessional: they were smoking, eating, drinking onstage, goofing around with the audience, they had no discernible image or look, they were totally nondescript. They had exhausted what little opportunities Liverpool had to offer developing acts, did their stint in Hamburg and returned to Liverpool, having gotten kicked out of the country — and having lost their bass player, Stu Sutcliffe, to a girl — very typical band stuff, you know?
My point is, though, that Brian was the guy that kept the band together from a business perspective. Brian got them that record deal that allowed them to be heard outside of Liverpool. Brian convinced Ed Sullivan to book the band, which got them exposure in America. So if that’s how you define “Fifth Beatle,” then in my mind there’s no question it’s Brian Epstein. In terms of this bigger argument as to who deserves the title… really, the argument is more so about how you define “Fifth Beatle.”
That’s so interesting. I think sometimes people assume “Oh, the Beatles would have been famous no matter what,” since we can’t imagine the world without them at this point, but most of the legwork — if not all of the legwork — to get them to that level of fame was done by Brian.
Exactly. There are quite a few Beatles historians who would agree with the fact that if it hadn’t been for Brian Epstein, the Beatles would have remained in relative obscurity. It doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t have been brilliant artists, but they would have remained in relative obscurity. And that to me is why he’s the Fifth Beatle. In the past, Brian Epstein has been misunderstood and there’re a lot of people who’ve maligned Brian, not knowing all the facts. In large part, my mission here is to sing the unsung song of Brian Epstein; I think his is a story that’s in large part been untold.
What was so appealing about the graphic novel and film formats for telling Brian’s story?
Well, there’re a few reasons I chose the graphic novel, the most basic one being that I just love comics! I’ve been reading comics ever since I was a kid, and I’ve always wanted to make one. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting with my mom and reading Tintin comics. So when people ask, “Why the graphic novel format?” the first reason is basically just that I love graphic novels so damn much!
But as I started to think about how I wanted to structure it, there were a couple of reasons that really stood out, the first of which is the creative aspect. I decided that I wanted to focus mainly on the years Brian spent with the Beatles. So it starts off in 1961 in Liverpool, which is very dark, grey, drab, industrial, I’d even go so far as to say a little depressed. And so in my mind, poetically, 1961 Liverpool is very black and white. The story ends in London in 1967, which is the psychedelic era, the Summer of Love. In my mind, then, the arc of the Brian Epstein story mirrors the arc of the movement from black and white to color, and the two narrative media that most powerfully use color are the graphic novel and film. From the very beginning, I knew that those were the two media I wanted to use for The Fifth Beatle.
The book has been incredibly successful, and we’re now in the process of making the film — which is very exciting — but a lot of people assume that it’s because of the success of the book that we’re making a movie, since movie adaptations follow popular graphic novels so often these days. However, I’ve envisioned making both since the very inception of this project, so the film isn’t something that simply got tacked on at the end due to the book’s success. But graphic novels especially allow the reader to really get into the poetry of the story more than they might otherwise.
For instance, when Brian goes to the Cavern to see the Beatles for the first time, Andrew Robinson’s art, I’d say, captures Brian’s emotion in that moment better than any Beatles book that’s even been written. As important as the facts and the business details are for me, the part that really struck me at my core was the emotional part of the story: what it must have been like to be a gay man in the 1960s when it was considered illegal, what it was like to be Jewish in a period of intense antisemitism, what it was like to say, “I have this rock ‘n’ roll band that’s going to be bigger than Elvis” and to have people laugh at you like you’re crazy, only to chase that dream and to realize it spectacularly. That’s the story I’m really interested in, and I think being able to use art to convey the poetry of that is much more effective than only using words.
The final reason is that I simply want everyone to know this story, and I believe that graphic novels are accessible to a larger audience than plain, text books are. I could have written a 200- to 300-page prose biography about Brian, but beyond hardcore Beatles fans, who would have read it? Sure, it may have still been successful in its sphere, but it’d be almost like preaching to the choir, informing people who already know about Brian’s life. If I want to spread the story around, I need to get it to people who may not want to spend hours pouring over a long biography about the guy who managed the Beatles. I feel with the graphic novel medium, I’m going to get the greatest amount of people exposed to this story, and that was a big part of the mission.
Now like you said, the novel is being adapted into a film, which is being co-produced by Simon Cowell. Can you talk a little bit about how the film version will be different from the print version?
Yes! First off, Simon Cowell is indeed co-producing, as well as IM Global. Now, if I only have a few seconds to explain this to someone, I usually say that we’re adapting the graphic novel into a film. But a better and more in-depth explanation is that it isn’t really an adaptation so much as it’s an expansion. Ideally, what I’d like to do is use the best of both media to tell the story as well as possible. So you’ll see in the film that there are a number of sequences that don’t exist in the graphic novel, and, similarly, the graphic novel has a number of sequences that don’t exist in the screenplay. That’s partially because there are certain things that work on the page that don’t work on the screen and vice versa.
For instance, as you may have heard, we’ve secured the rights to the Beatles’ music — which we’re very proud of — so we’re going to have a number of music sequences in the film that just wouldn’t have translated as well on paper. The other thing is that I wanted the book to be a fairly quick read, and as a result of that it was very challenging to decide what to leave in and what to take out. For example, the Pete Best story isn’t explored in The Fifth Beatle, but it will be explored in the film. Brian’s relationship with his family will also be highlighted more in the film. Perhaps some of the things we took out of the graphic novel should have been left in. Thankfully, we have the film that will give us the opportunity to add those things back in, so to speak. I hope at the end of the day, if you read the graphic novel and see the film, you’ll have a very well-rounded portrait of Brian Epstein.
You mentioned that Apple Corps. licensed their music to you, which doesn’t happen very often! What does your ideal film soundtrack sound like? Do you think you’ll include music from other artists Brian managed, or will it be completely Beatles centered?
Ultimately, the director will weigh in heavily on what the film sounds like — and we should be announcing a director shortly, so I can’t totally answer that yet; however, if it were only up to me, there’d be a good mix [of all of Brian’s artists] in the film. Obviously, there’d be an emphasis on the Beatles’ music, but I’d like to think there should be a healthy dose of other music of the era, to represent the sort of sonic “sea change” that was brought on by the Beatles.
For instance, there’s a whole sequence in the film right after Brian discovers the Beatles in which the Epstein family is listening to the BBC program “Two-Way Family Favourites” on the radio, which is playing show tunes and musicians like Frank Sinatra and Doris Day. And so to then cut to John Lennon’s scorching rendition of Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music” or any of the Beatles’ early originals really gives you a sense of how different the Beatles were at that time. I think by using other songs of the era, even just for contrast purposes, really puts into perspective what the Beatles did for music. I think we ought to have a mix of the Beatles, other bands Brian managed, bands who were popular but who sounded nothing like the Beatles. I think the movie should really be full of music. And I’d also love to see some interesting covers, some funky takes on Beatles songs in the backgrounds of scenes. But like I said, our director will ultimately have a lot of say in these creative decisions.
Going back to the print version for a moment, the graphic novel, by nature, relies heavily on illustration to tell Brian’s story. How and why did you decide to go with a live-action film instead of animated?
That’s a good question. The answer isn’t terribly different from why I chose the graphic novel format over print. I think that from a creative standpoint, like I said, I want to expand rather than adapt, and the best way I feel we can do that is to do something different. When we sit down with directors, the first thing that I say is, you know, I hope you like the graphic novel — I’m incredibly proud of it — but I’m not looking to shoot the graphic novel. I don’t want to use the graphic novel to storyboard the film; it’d just be more of the same. I want to expand the creative boundaries of what we’re doing, so with this radical shift into a new media, I figured, let’s take it all the way. And another reason — a business reason — is that I feel that more moviegoers would be willing to give a biopic a shot than an animated biopic. Although I love animated movies, you can look at reviews and see that serious animated films don’t always draw the same audiences that live-action dramas do. I’m trying to sing the unsung story of Brian Epstein so I want to get as many people to see the film as possible, and live-action movies bring in the numbers better than animated movies for adults.
Do you have any ideas on where you might like to shoot?
Once we get into budgeting and casting and that sort of thing, we’ll decide where we’re actually going to shoot. But the story, as you know, is a very British story, so I’d very much like to shoot in the UK in a lot of the actual locations where the scenes are set, especially since so many of the buildings are still there as they were back in the day. Liverpool is a particularly interesting city; like most everywhere in England, Liverpool was bombed during the war, but its major buildings and a lot of its architecture that it’s famous for are actually still standing. They’re more modernized now, of course, but those streets and famous buildings are still there, so why should we go somewhere else and rebuild them as a set when we could actually just shoot in the authentic places? Plus, if you can recreate these scenes on the streets where they actually happened… well, there’s gotta be some magic to that! Another location you see occasionally in the novel is New York; there are sequences in the Plaza Hotel and in Central Park, and as a New Yorker, I’d love to actually do some of those scenes there.
Now, I know you said that the director is going to have a great deal of creative input, but do have any ideas on who you’d like to play Brian? Even just personal preference?
I do have a lot of ideas about that! Unfortunately though, I’m going to keep those a little close to the chest for now. But our Brian needs to be someone who is in or around his mid-20s, since Brian was 26 to 32 for a large chunk of this movie, and there’s a large number of young actors in that range. I’ll even go so far as to say that there are a number of family-friendly young actors in that range. With those two descriptors, you can probably envision about seven or eight guys who are on my short list to play Brian.
And you know, this is such a labor of love for me, and it’s a story I’m so passionate about, that at the end of the day it’s less about who looks the part or who’s the most talented, and more so about which one of these actors is the most passionate — that’s the guy who should play the role. Everyone who’s been involved — Simon Cowell, Stuart Ford [of IM Global], Dark Horse Comics, Andrew Robinson — has done this as a labor of love or an act of passion. So at the end of the day, yes, there’s a number of talented people who could play Brian, but the real question is which one of them is the most passionate about doing it. I hope to tell you who that is in the upcoming months!
All right, last question: If you could describe Brian in three words, what would they be?
I’ve never gotten that question before! I’d say something along the lines of someone who “realizes impossible dreams” — I think that just about sums it up!