View Full Version : Avengers (Marvel) movie update with screenwriter Zak Penn- Interview

Dr. Simon Hurt
07-09-2009, 04:30 PM
Avengers movie update with Zak Penn
Screenwriter Zak Penn talks about his work on Marvel films.
by Fred Topel
Jul 08, 2009

The Los Angeles Film Festival included a panel discussion about comic book movies this year. Among the participants was Hollywood screenwriter Zack Penn, who wrote the latter two X-men movies and The Incredible Hulk. Heís currently working on The Avengers. Here are some highlights from the talk, including some honest, self-critical takes on some of the lesser Marvel films, and some Avengers tidbits.
CraveOnline: Are you pigeonholed as a comic book writer?
Zak Penn: I might be Fíed it they become unpopular because you never know how people are going to judge you. I wrote a lot of films that were not comic book films before I wrote a couple of comic book films, but I think itís worth just for the sake of discussion making a distinction. Really when we talk about graphic novels and comic books, what gets really confusing is clearly nobody means History of Violence. Nobody means Road to Perdition when they complain about comic book movies.
CraveOnline: Or when they praise them.
Zak Penn: Right, either way. Nobodyís saying, ďOh, those were giant, really fun popcorn moviesĒ because theyíre not. The point is, why has sequential art become such a dominant force for making movies? To me, thatís the real question thatís worth getting at. Yes, thereís the obvious, for the big comic book franchises of course it has to do with these are characters that are built up, these are things people know and thatís incredibly important for marketing. But I also think that sequential art is the closest formally to cinema of any of the art forms. The storyboarding process, the animation process particularly, which I think a lot of the best movies that Hollywood has made in the last 25 years have been animated. The reason why that lends itself to good storytelling, which is in animation you can retell the story over and over again until you get it right. You can keep recutting your film. You donít have to be Stanley Kubrick to get 50 reshoots on your film. Thatís how the Pixar guys [do it]. Itís not a mystery, itís a bunch of really smart guys working on it over and over and over again until they get it right. Thatís why something like 300 is easier to translate, because youíre all talking about the same thing. If you say, ďWe want the frame to look like this,Ē the studio can look at it and say, ďOh, I get it. Thatís what itís going to look like.Ē Itís not the same as reading a novel and trying to interpret it. I hope my career doesnít get hurt by it.
CraveOnline: How do you start writing The Avengers before Captain America and Thor are done?
Zak Penn: My job is to kind of shuttle between the different movies and make sure that finally weíre mimicking that comic book structure where all of these movies are connected. It used to drive me crazy at Fox not being able to interweave. Why couldnít we have Fantastic Four in this movie? Why couldnít we do this? Now we will. Thor and Captain America will lead right into the Avengers movie, and Iron Man 2 as well.

CraveOnline: Do they give you a place to start or do you have to wait to find out where you pick up?
Zak Penn: We are learning it as we go and itís pretty complicated. I have a meeting at Marvel this week to catch up on continuity. Thereís just a board that tracks ďHereís where everything that happens in this movie overlaps with that movie.Ē Itís just what they do in the comic books. Think how complicated it is when youíve got all the titles those companies do. Someoneís got to keep track of all that. Whatís Wolverine wearing this week? Are his claws bone or [adamantium]? Yeah, itís going to be really difficult. The only thing I can say is Iím pushing them to do as many animatics as possible to animate the movie, to draw boards so that weíre all working off the same visual ideas. But the exigencies of production take first priority.

CraveOnline: How is working for autonomous Marvel different from working under the studio collaborations?
Zak Penn:Pretty much night and day. Marvel, everyone there has read every comic. Theyíre big fans of it. Weíve kind of moved past the normal fights that you have and just talk about what would make a cool movie. Hereís the thing though. Once you get into the process of making a movie, compromise is like your life. Everything is a compromise. Even if everyone has the best intentions setting out on a movie, you can make a total piece of sh*t. Iíve learned this the hard way. It is really damn hard to make a good movie. If you ever manage it, be proud of yourself. Itís so damn hard. Even though we all have the best intentions, it still might suck but it is at least a relief to not be fighting with people as much. Weíre all kind of on the same page.
CraveOnline: But youíve also done basically original stories based on comic book mythologies, not adaptations of standalone stories.
Zak Penn: Well, I actually think thereís two. Thereís superhero movies which are often quite different than what generally get referred to under the umbrella of comic book movies. Some of the comic book movies, and I do think Bryan Singer deserves some of the credit for pushing whatever phase weíre in now where comic book movies are not only dominant, but where movies like Dark Knight are getting nominated for awards and the top directors are drawn to comic book material. Part of that is that Bryan Singer brought a very science fiction film orientation towards material. Instead of treating it the way my parents think of comic books, which is comic strips and that campy sensibility, I think a lot of the comic book movies getting lumped together are actually science fiction movies that just happen to be based on comic books. I think thatís an important distinction because thatís what we do well in Hollywood. We do a lot of things badly, but nobody else makes The Matrix like we make The Matrix. Nobody else makes The Fly. Thatís what weíre actually good at. Dark Knight was 10 steps away from a snuff film. Sincerely, itís kind of a torturous movie to watch. Itís completely violating the conventions of family entertainment. One of my pet peeves, and Iím not saying X-Men 3 doesnít have its faults, but I remember reading this review saying, ďItís just another piece of mindless popcorn entertainment where thereís no stakes and itís just a bunch of guys in tights running around fighting crime.Ē Itís crazy. Itís a movie who gets too much power and tries to murder everybody and then commits suicide. This is mindless popcorn entertainment? A kid even tries to cut his wings off. Iím not trying to say that to make the movie better. The movie should be judged on whether it succeeds or fails but I really think thereís a notion in peopleís heads of what comic book means. Theyíre literally 25 years behind the discussion. That was settled 20 years ago when Frank Miller was having The Dark Knight kill people in the future. That conversation was done. That tome has expanded just in the way other media expanded.
CraveOnline: What about the fans who say youíre not getting close enough to the original comic books?
Zak Penn: To me one of the canards thatís kind of bullsh*t about the fanboy aspect of it and the faithfulness to the source material. That whole dialogue about how faithful you are to the source material is a con job. People who say theyíre completely faithful to the source material, and youíve seen them online talking about how faithful they are, including myself when I do it, thatís part of the marketing. We donít want to piss off these people here. Itís not that thereís some sort of thing written in stone near the Hollywood sign that says, ďIf you find good source material, be faithful to it.Ē You try to make the best movie you can no matter how it gets you there, whatever story translates. Some material clearly translates better than others. This whole thing that fans get into a lather about, and I understand it, about who was faithful and who wasnít, who went online and talked to us and who didnít? What they donít realize is if there werenít a lot of them, nobody would give two sh*ts about what they think. Itís all about what opens the movie.

CraveOnline: If itís so important though, why do the studios change anything?
Zak Penn: Let me give you an example. Dark Phoenix is an excellent example. One of the first things I read that really hit me was the Dark Phoenix saga. I was like eight or nine when I read it and it just blew me away. In the comic book, sheís possessed by an endless fiery bird of death that has lived in the universe forever. I don't know why it didnít bug me when I read it. It didnít. Thereís no way that that crazy fiery cosmic bird fits in the universe that Bryan Singer created in X-Men 1. What I keep trying to tell people when weíre working on it is forget about being faithful to the comic book. We just need to be faithful to the last movie. Itís enough of a struggle to fight the studio executives about not making stupid changes just from one movie to the next, much less from the comic book. I think thatís something people get all caught up in is how faithful is it, whoís doing what and why? I just think you know what? The movie doesnít change the comic book. The comic book is still sitting there. You can still read it. Itís never going to be truly faithful. The only thing you should judge it by is you did a sh*tty job of it. That is definitely true. We blew Elektra. That blew chunks. It shouldíve been an R-rated movie and it shouldíve been done like Sin City.

CraveOnline: Well, you went there. Who was in charge of those decisions? Whose fault was Elektra?
Zak Penn: Itís the people who hire me for all my jobs. No, you know what? I don't know who to blame honestly.

CraveOnline: Maybe start with Daredevil?
Zak Penn: Well, the only difference I think is Daredevil is about a guy who, once again, pulls on tights and fights crime. Elektra is about a woman who is an assassin. Elektra could have been La Femme Nikita. In fact, I wouldnít be surprised if La Femme Nikita was based on that character. Thatís kind of what I pitched them. The reason why it might be my fault is that I should have known that Fox was never going to make an R-rated movie. Thatís just not in their DNA and that this would turn into kinda of a denuded version of it which doesnít work. It doesnít work to have a PG-13 movie about an assassin.
CraveOnline: So they should go harder core.
Zak Penn: But letís be honest. If youíre making a $200 million movie that has to, in order to not bankrupt your company and put everybody who works there out of work, to make an R-rated movie for $200 million is borderline. Itís definitely tough. Youíre making everything a lot harder for yourself. Whereas, making a $70 million R-rated movieÖ Even the venal studio executives who I donít like, I understand their point of view. They shouldnít make an R-rated movie for $200 million because I donít want to see the people who work on that studio lot get fired because I had a vision that Wolverine needs to have blood spurt out. I would prefer to see that version but thereís nothing inherent about that having to be done that way. I do think though, about why take all this source material from this area, there is a lot of good source material in comics. I think actually itís not a big secret. Comic books make for much better movies than old sitcoms or novels that are written not appropriate for the screen.

CraveOnline: Should Wolverine have been R?
Zak Penn: That was our frustration. Heís got razor sharp claws and you canít show blood. So what does he do? In every scene, heís running around blocking, hitting you with the claws and not cutting you. Where do you go with that? Thereís no way to do it.
CraveOnline: Do you think you need to be deeply familiar with the comic book to write the script.
Zak Penn: I wish that that was the only requirement because I know a lot about comic books and video games. Thatís what I spend my time doing. I wish that were the rule but it is crazy when itís not like itís that hard to catch up on the mythology of some of these characters. Itís no harder than adapting anything else. By the way, you know who wasnít? Bryan Singer was not a fan of any of those comic books. He admits it I think. Sometimes the people who are the biggest fans of it are the people who screw it up the most and vice versa. I had somebody start screaming, ďYou killed CyclopsĒ at me. First of all, itís just an actor and heís wearing a costume and heís fine. Second of all, I didnít kill him. Itís crazy but you know what? I more often find myself on the other side of that which is sitting with some people who donít actually give a sh*t. For the most part, thereís a lot of people who are making these movies who are fairly cynical, who donít actually care about characters. My big argument is if thereís something thatís actually good, why are we arbitrarily changing it? Thereís a lot of that in Hollywood. That, to me, is the real argument, when youíre trying to say, ďOkay, look, thereís a reason why all these fans are apesh*t for certain elements of it. They like the core idea of X-men tremendously. Letís not mess with that.Ē When you get into the crazy ďCyclopsí visor has to be 4 inchesĒ or whatever, I kind of say thatís part for the course. Thatís what they pay you for. Itís not worth complaining. It is sad sometimes that people get so worked up about it but they are the people who are going to go to the movie so many times so you try to make them happy as best you can. What else can you do?
CraveOnline: Have you fought with directors of your other comic book movies?
Zak Penn: Yes, and almost everything. Honestly, I get very passionate about it, probably too much so. Iím trying to chill out in my old age. Iíve been doing this a long time. I started very young. I had to learn the hard way that if you fight with people about everything, youíre just not going to be around through to the end. I was very candid I think with Fox about my frustrations with the direction on X-Men 3. Just forget about all the problems with adapting the comic. I just felt we set up this Jean Grey story and then they just didnít let us finish telling it. The first half of the movie starts it and the second half of the movie doesnít really pay it off. That was a big fight, a lot of yelling. Usually if youíre fighting with the director, youíre usually fired pretty quickly after that. Thatís my experience. Iíve been on those kinds of movies. They donít keep you around if youíre telling them that theyíre ruining the movie.
CraveOnline: Was the X3 fight between you and the director vs. the studio?
Zak Penn: Very often. With Bryan that was quite often trying to help Bryan see his vision through.
CraveOnline: Have you ever been surprised how well something turned out?
Zak Penn: I actually thought X-Men 2 was better than I ever thought it would be. When we were working on it, I thought itís too many characters. Fox is never going to let him do this. Itís too meditative. How are we going to get these scenes of these guys talking in a movie where they want action. I saw the final product and I was like, ďBryan, sh*t, Iím sorry. You were right about all that stuff.Ē Look, Iíve had far worse experiences on the spec scripts. I wrote Last Action Hero and I was fired the day they bought it. I wrote a script called Suspect Zero which is the only movie Iíve worked on that Iíve never seen just because it was so butchered. It hurts like sh*t and itís really hard to deal with. Itís particularly hard when people criticize you for the exact thing. Youíll beg them to change some scene and they wonít do it and then all the reviewers will gang up on you saying, ďThis terrible scene written by Zak Penn.Ē If they didnít pay well, it wouldnít be worth it but thatís the thing. Itís a damn good career and who are we to complain. Itís the price of doing business. The only movies I feel 100% about are the ones Iíve directed myself. If youíve seen Incident at Loch Ness, thatís the movie I wanted to make. If you donít like it, thatís fine but I donít have any excuses.

07-09-2009, 04:51 PM
pretty cool interview but the title is misleqding lol theres like 6 lines talking about the Avengers movie and most of that was already known

Dr. Simon Hurt
07-09-2009, 05:17 PM
^^^lol probably, I just used their title...I'll change the thread title though