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. He’s 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 F’ed 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 it’s 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. Nobody’s saying, “Oh, those were giant, really fun popcorn movies” because they’re not. The point is, why has sequential art become such a dominant force for making movies? To me, that’s the real question that’s worth getting at. Yes, there’s 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 that’s 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 don’t have to be Stanley Kubrick to get 50 reshoots on your film. That’s how the Pixar guys [do it]. It’s not a mystery, it’s a bunch of really smart guys working on it over and over and over again until they get it right. That’s why something like 300 is easier to translate, because you’re all talking about the same thing. If you say, “We want the frame to look like this,” the studio can look at it and say, “Oh, I get it. That’s what it’s going to look like.” It’s not the same as reading a novel and trying to interpret it. I hope my career doesn’t 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 we’re 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 couldn’t we have Fantastic Four in this movie? Why couldn’t 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 it’s pretty complicated. I have a meeting at Marvel this week to catch up on continuity. There’s just a board that tracks “Here’s where everything that happens in this movie overlaps with that movie.” It’s just what they do in the comic books. Think how complicated it is when you’ve got all the titles those companies do. Someone’s got to keep track of all that. What’s Wolverine wearing this week? Are his claws bone or [adamantium]? Yeah, it’s going to be really difficult. The only thing I can say is I’m pushing them to do as many animatics as possible to animate the movie, to draw boards so that we’re 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. They’re big fans of it. We’ve kind of moved past the normal fights that you have and just talk about what would make a cool movie. Here’s 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. I’ve learned this the hard way. It is really damn hard to make a good movie. If you ever manage it, be proud of yourself. It’s 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. We’re all kind of on the same page.
CraveOnline: But you’ve also done basically original stories based on comic book mythologies, not adaptations of standalone stories.
Zak Penn: Well, I actually think there’s two. There’s 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 we’re 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 that’s an important distinction because that’s 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. That’s what we’re actually good at. Dark Knight was 10 steps away from a snuff film. Sincerely, it’s kind of a torturous movie to watch. It’s completely violating the conventions of family entertainment. One of my pet peeves, and I’m not saying X-Men 3 doesn’t have its faults, but I remember reading this review saying, “It’s just another piece of mindless popcorn entertainment where there’s no stakes and it’s just a bunch of guys in tights running around fighting crime.” It’s crazy. It’s 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. I’m 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 there’s a notion in people’s heads of what comic book means. They’re 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 you’re not getting close enough to the original comic books?
Zak Penn: To me one of the canards that’s 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 they’re completely faithful to the source material, and you’ve seen them online talking about how faithful they are, including myself when I do it, that’s part of the marketing. We don’t want to piss off these people here. It’s not that there’s some sort of thing written in stone near the Hollywood sign that says, “If you find good source material, be faithful to it.” 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 wasn’t, who went online and talked to us and who didn’t? What they don’t realize is if there weren’t a lot of them, nobody would give two sh*ts about what they think. It’s all about what opens the movie.
CraveOnline: If it’s 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, she’s possessed by an endless fiery bird of death that has lived in the universe forever. I don’t know why it didn’t bug me when I read it. It didn’t. There’s 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 we’re working on it is forget about being faithful to the comic book. We just need to be faithful to the last movie. It’s 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 that’s something people get all caught up in is how faithful is it, who’s doing what and why? I just think you know what? The movie doesn’t change the comic book. The comic book is still sitting there. You can still read it. It’s 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 should’ve been an R-rated movie and it should’ve been done like Sin City.
CraveOnline: Well, you went there. Who was in charge of those decisions? Whose fault was Elektra?
Zak Penn: It’s 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 wouldn’t be surprised if La Femme Nikita was based on that character. That’s 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. That’s just not in their DNA and that this would turn into kinda of a denuded version of it which doesn’t work. It doesn’t work to have a PG-13 movie about an assassin.
CraveOnline: So they should go harder core.
Zak Penn: But let’s be honest. If you’re 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. It’s definitely tough. You’re making everything a lot harder for yourself. Whereas, making a $70 million R-rated movie… Even the venal studio executives who I don’t like, I understand their point of view. They shouldn’t make an R-rated movie for $200 million because I don’t 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 there’s 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 it’s 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. He’s got razor sharp claws and you can’t show blood. So what does he do? In every scene, he’s running around blocking, hitting you with the claws and not cutting you. Where do you go with that? There’s 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. That’s what I spend my time doing. I wish that were the rule but it is crazy when it’s not like it’s that hard to catch up on the mythology of some of these characters. It’s no harder than adapting anything else. By the way, you know who wasn’t? 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, “You killed Cyclops” at me. First of all, it’s just an actor and he’s wearing a costume and he’s fine. Second of all, I didn’t kill him. It’s crazy but you know what? I more often find myself on the other side of that which is sitting with some people who don’t actually give a sh*t. For the most part, there’s a lot of people who are making these movies who are fairly cynical, who don’t actually care about characters. My big argument is if there’s something that’s actually good, why are we arbitrarily changing it? There’s a lot of that in Hollywood. That, to me, is the real argument, when you’re trying to say, “Okay, look, there’s a reason why all these fans are apesh*t for certain elements of it. They like the core idea of X-men tremendously. Let’s not mess with that.” When you get into the crazy “Cyclops’ visor has to be 4 inches” or whatever, I kind of say that’s part for the course. That’s what they pay you for. It’s 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. I’m trying to chill out in my old age. I’ve 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, you’re 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 didn’t let us finish telling it. The first half of the movie starts it and the second half of the movie doesn’t really pay it off. That was a big fight, a lot of yelling. Usually if you’re fighting with the director, you’re usually fired pretty quickly after that. That’s my experience. I’ve been on those kinds of movies. They don’t keep you around if you’re telling them that they’re 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 it’s too many characters. Fox is never going to let him do this. It’s 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, “Bryan, sh*t, I’m sorry. You were right about all that stuff.” Look, I’ve 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 I’ve worked on that I’ve never seen just because it was so butchered. It hurts like sh*t and it’s really hard to deal with. It’s particularly hard when people criticize you for the exact thing. You’ll beg them to change some scene and they won’t do it and then all the reviewers will gang up on you saying, “This terrible scene written by Zak Penn.” If they didn’t pay well, it wouldn’t be worth it but that’s the thing. It’s a damn good career and who are we to complain. It’s the price of doing business. The only movies I feel 100% about are the ones I’ve directed myself. If you’ve seen Incident at Loch Ness, that’s the movie I wanted to make. If you don’t like it, that’s fine but I don’t have any excuses.