TAMPA — Josh Noftz grew up reading mainstream comic books like Spider-Man.
But he was most intrigued by Marvel Comics’ fringe Sleepwalker about a green alien trapped inside a human’s mind. When the human sleeps, the Sleepwalker can escape into the real world to fight crime.
Noftz hoped to see a live-action Sleepwalker movie as Marvel Studios expanded its comic books into a cinematic universe over the past dozen years.
“I finally realized that was probably not going to happen,” the 37-year-old Land O’ Lakes filmmaker said. “So, I decided to do a live-action Sleepwalker myself.”
He had allies.
One was friend and fellow comic book fan Joe Bariso, who co-wrote, co-directed and co-produced the movie with Noftz.
The other was Bob Budiansky, the former Marvel Comics writer and editor whose comic creations include Sleepwalker. Budiansky provided creative advice and has a cameo in the 28-minute movie that explores the character’s origin story.
A tweet from the filmmakers to Budiansky got things started.
“He actually replied,” Noftz said. A friendship was born. Creative advice was shared.
The short film started streaming for free on YouTube on Dec. 12.
“If I traveled back in time and told my 10-year-old self reading Sleepwalker that one day I’d make the Sleepwalker movie and be chatting with Bob,” Noftz said, “I would not have believed my 37-year-old self.”
Budiansky rejects the “legend” identity, but comic fans refer to him as one.
Among the 66-year-old New Jersey resident’s writing credits are The Avengers and Ghost Rider, but he is best known as the creative mind behind The Transformers.
In the 1980s, he was editor and then writer of The Transformers’ first Marvel Comics series, conceived the names of most of the original characters, and penned the biographies on the initial toy packages.
The first Sleepwalker comic was released in 1991 but Budiansky said the story was birthed a few years earlier when Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter wondered if someone with Superman’s powers would be accepted or feared in the real world.
“Superman was created to look like the all-American stereotypical hero,” Budiansky said. “So, naturally, in the comic books, we accept him as a good guy. We trust him.”
Budiansky was intrigued by the question of how the world would react to a monstrous-looking hero with superpowers. Would they assume he was evil? Or would his heroics win them over?
“A couple of years later, I took a class in dream analysis,” Budiansky said. “I merged the two ideas and came up with this.”
Sleepwalker exists in a dimension from where he protects humans from evildoers trying to invade dreams. He then gets stuck inside the mind of college student Rick Sheridan. The world initially thinks the creature is a bad guy and Sheridan feels so guilty for unleashing him as he sleeps that he always tries to stay awake.
“Superman is too perfect,” Noftz said. “Sleepwalker stood out as this flawed character.”
Still, Noftz admitted, Sleepwalker never went mainstream, so he doubted a movie would be made about the character.
Then, in 2014, Marvel released the Guardians of the Galaxy movie. They too were lesser-known heroes, yet the film was a hit and turned Star-Lord, Groot and the other Guardians into pop-culture sensations.
It was around that time that Noftz and Bariso bonded over comics while working as crew on someone else’s short film. Inspired by the success of the Guardians movie, Noftz pitched Bariso on making a Sleepwalker film.
“I was familiar with the character but not an expert,” said Bariso, a 27-year-old New Port Richey resident. “I read as many of the books as I could, and I was in. I loved it.”
Noftz and Bariso toyed with writing a full feature film but scrapped that idea when they realized Marvel would never sell them the rights to the character.
So, they decided to make what the industry calls a fan film — a movie inspired by a comic, television program, movie or video game that is made purely out of fandom and not for money. Because the filmmakers do not earn a profit, the intellectual property owners typically do not sue.
“It’s a grey area,” Noftz said.
A visual effects artist whose credits include Kevin Smith’s Killroy Was Here, Noftz designed an animated model of Sleepwalker — who has green skin, red eyes and no nose.
He then tweeted it at Budiansky.
“He said the eyes should be bigger,” Noftz said. “We just kind of started going back and forth from there.”
Budiansky said he tries to be fan-friendly. “I will reply to those with a reasonable request — reasonable is the operative word. If someone sends me a picture and asks for an opinion, that is an easy response. It turned out the guys are special.”
The filmmakers first met Budiansky in 2015 at a Baltimore comic convention where he was a featured guest. Budiansky later invited them to Orlando when he took his daughter to Disney World and agreed to read their script.
“The one comment I had was to make (the character) Rick more likable,” Budiansky said, “Initially, he came across a little bit arrogant and snarling.”
Besides the singular script note, critiquing Sleepwalker’s eyes and appearing briefly in the movie that was filmed in the Tampa area on weekends from 2016-2018, “I didn’t do anything,” Budiansky said. “This movie is 99.9 percent them.”
“Having his support was motivational,” said Noftz, especially when he was tasked during the arduous editing process of digitally altering the appearance of actor Christopher Cutillo who portrayed the Sleepwalker. Noftz erased Cutillo’s nose and colored his eyes red.
Noftz also digitally created Sleepwalker’s superpowers that include floating and the ability to alter the shape of objects with what the comics call “warp gaze.”
The filmmakers hope Marvel eventually produces a Sleepwalker movie.
“We’d be happy to get on set as coffee boys,” Bariso laughed.
Budiansky thinks they deserve more.
“They can do more than fetch coffee for the director,” he said. “They did a wonderful job. I’m flattered that they took such an interest in my character.”