Through a deconstruction of mecha anime and the threading of horrifying adult themes, Neon Genesis Evangelion changed the way global audiences thought about Japanese animation. Piloting giant mech was seen as a spectacular thrill, given the successful mecha shows from the late ’80s to early ’90s, but creator Hideaki Anno and Studio Gainax had a much more sinister idea. Children would still use mechs to battle mythical beasts, but the experience would break them mentally and physically. The way Evangelion explored weighty topics such as religion, philosophy, and psychological trauma during the course of its 26-episode run would stand the test of time.
In the ’90s, Evangelion revived the slumping anime market that was thought to have plateaued in Japan. ADV Films, led by John Ledford and Matt Greenfield, licensed the series for home video release in America and earned one of their biggest successes ever. Evangelion ushered in a new era and that came with a legion of devoted fans.
A live-action adaptation of Evangelion was a no-brainer.
The idea of adapting the series into a Hollywood blockbuster cropped up after the anime’s initial success, but the film went through years of false starts and stops, and eventually stalled in “Development Hell.” Why did this attempt to make a film fail and will we ever see a live-action Evangelion film?
Gainax, the studio behind Evangelion, and ADV Films, which licensed and distributed the series in North America, first approached Weta Workshop about Evangelion in 2002. It was a perfect confluence of two companies at the peak of their influence. ADV saw massive profits in its sector because of the monumental success of Pokemon and the boom of the Cartoon Network television block Toonami, which featured shows Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, Cowboy Bebop, and Mobile Suit Gundam Wing. The Japanese anime marketplace in the United States was peaking, and a bubble ready to pop, making it an urgent moment for the feature film.
Weta CEO Richard Taylor had just launched their biggest success with the first entry in the Lord of the Rings franchise. After years of development, Fellowship of the Ring received multiple Academy Award nominations and its success would lead the visual effects studio to acclaim over the next two decades. At the 2003 Cannes Film Festival buyer’s market, Gainax, ADV Films and Weta Workshop made it official to the world: an Evangelion live-action film was happening.
“The three main players here represent something of a dream team for a project like this. Between the quality and significance of Gainax, Weta’s industry-leading skill in visual effects and our expertise in the marketing and promotion of anime and anime-related content, this project is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Ledford at the time.
Even in those early stages excitement for a live-action Evangelion was immense. At the time, Taylor said he received more messages regarding the production of [Evangelion] than he did about Lord of the Rings. According to an article from CNN Money, Taylor took a proposed producer out for lunch, looking for extra help to jump-start production. During that meeting a fan noticed him and didn’t ask him about anything he’d already done, but wanted to talk about Evangelion. This meeting convinced Taylor that the movie had to be made.
Rumors swirled over which director would helm the project, but according to Tiffany Grant, who voiced Asuka in the original English dub of the series, and who was married to Greenfield at the time, “no one was ever approved or anything. The whole process went on for years and years.” Though rumors swirled over who’d take over, Grant tells Polygon, “All of that was bullshit. They … didn’t have a shooting script. How are you going to have a cast? That was in somebody’s fever dreams.”
The source of those rumors likely began at Tekkoshocon when Greenfield gave some insight into who Anno would like to see in the movie. Names such as Daniel Radcliffe for Shinji. Grant provided some additional background and said, “around 2002, 2003 somebody reported that Anno liked Emma Watson for Asuka. [She’s] almost thirty now. If [you try to cast] one of the children, within a couple of years, they’re already too old.”
An Evangelion movie coming together with any haste was made more difficult thanks to Japanese production companies who remained adamant on the age of the children. According to Grant, her colleague Carl Horn (editor of the Evangelion manga series for Viz Media) was asked about the ages of anime characters at a convention. “Carl looked to the sky and just as earnestly said, ‘it’s very important that the pilots are 14 years old, because 14 is the target age demographic for anime in Japan.’”
Over the years, the hurdles of making the live-action Evangelion have trickled out online. Richard Taylor did a lengthy interview about the project and Weta’s excitement.
“For us to be given that opportunity and to have the chance to reflect on where those design motifs are coming from and the culture that inspires them was a really wonderful gift from the ADV team to our group here at the workshop,” said Taylor. There was also some early concept designs that Weta contributed to the project. Artists who did designs for the project included Weta artists like Senior Designer Christian Pearce and Greg Broadmore.
“There was a group of four or five of us that did a few months of concept work, a real scatter-gun initial spread of ideas,” Pearce said. “We’d have calls with the guys at Gainax every week, it was pretty exciting but we never saw a script or heard of a director being attached [...] To be honest I don’t think we were really ready for a project like that then.”
Pearce said they worked on the project until it “just gradually disappeared and we moved on to other projects, like Halo... which also never happened.” In a separate interview, Broadmore insists the team came away with tons of work to show for the illustrative exercise. “The conceptual work that ADV released was the tip of the iceberg.”
Weta wound up creating drawings that detailed character designs, concepts for the Evangelion, the control room for the military organization Nerv, and even some idea of what the antagonist, the giant mythical beasts known as Angels, would look like in the movie.
“My one contribution was when somebody at Weta asked [Greenfield] what the neural interface things are they wear on their heads,” Grant recalls. “Asuka wears hers all the time. The other pilots only wear them when they’re piloting the Eva. But I said, ‘Those are the hu hus.’ That’s in the actual Weta sketches.”
The sketches also provided a look into the decidedly Western approach to the source material. The children were given western names and designs. Whitewashing was a concern long before the movie ever began its casting, and would have added to a gluttony of similar business decisions. In a way, the live-action Evangelion may have been a crisis averted. Behind the scenes there was about to be turmoil that would turn the entire project on its head.
Anno had decided that he would make a new project for Evangelion that would come to be known as the Rebuild of Evangelion. The idea was to create four new, feature-length animated movies that would recount the Evangelion TV series, while bringing the story to a new conclusion. Anno decided that he needed to create a new studio, Studio Khara, so he could operate with complete artistic freedom. That meant taking Evangelion with him, leaving ADV and Gainax without the tools they needed to make their film. More so than anything else, Grant believes that was when the project was over. “Anno, when he got a divorce from Gainax, he took the children — the children being Asuka, Shinji, and Rei,” she says. Without Evangelion there was no movie.
Development of the live-action feature went from bad to worse. In 2011, ADV sued Gainax over whether they had gained specific rights, including those to the live-action Evangelion film. ADV claimed they had lost the opportunity to produce the film with a major studio. Alternatively, Gainax claimed that they had a right to veto the deal and returned any money that ADV had sent regarding the film rights.
Ownership of the motion picture rights for Evangelion have been muddled since as there has never been a resolution to the lawsuit. Following the battle between ADV and Gainax, Anno sued Gainax in 2016 for a repayment of a $100 million yen loan. According to the lawsuit, Gainax and Studio Khara signed a contract stating that Gainax would pay a set royalty to Studio Khara for the proceeds earned by Gainax in the productions that Anno had been involved in, meaning Anno was owed royalties for Evangelion and other projects. Anno ended up winning his lawsuit against his former company and due to the legal trouble, it’s unlikely that the creator, Gainax, and ADV would be excited about making an Evangelion movie together.
On November 26th 2018, Netflix announced that it had got the rights to Neon Genesis Evangelion and would launch the series on its service. The rights included the original TV series, and two feature films The End of Evangelion & Evangelion: Death (True) 2. The landmark series was a big get for Netflix.
While Evangelion on Netflix could ignite interest in a new live-action adaptation, the Evangelion live-action movie as envisioned in the early ’00s is dead. Infighting eventually undid years of pre-production and now the rights for a feature film are entangled in lawsuits. Grant added some extra context into why an Evangelion movie was a tough sell.
“We know Evangelion, but if you would poll people walking through a Walmart, if you found one out of a hundred who knew what Evangelion was, I would be impressed. It just didn’t have that mainstream public notoriety.”
Making a live-action Evangelion was never going to be easy and compared to another anime adaptation like Detective Pikachu, it would’ve been a tough sell to the masses. Fortunes could change for Evangelion as will be streaming into over 148 million holmes, and awareness is about to get a big bump.
There’s one person who may still cling to the notion: Richard Taylor. Even though the opportunity for this live-action Evangelion adaptation had seemingly passed, Taylor continued to be hopeful about Evangelion during conventions. In a 2008 video, Taylor said, “nothing would please me more than getting to make [Evangelion] into a film. It’s a sad thing that it hasn’t happened yet. Fingers crossed because wouldn’t it be fantastic to make a live-action film…” Whatever form that adaptation takes will be far different from the one from ADV, Gainax, and Weta.