HOLLYWOOD – You might not have heard the name Nicole Perlman much as it pertains to Marvel properties, but she's a big reason why “Guardians of the Galaxy” will be making its way to theaters next weekend. She toiled away as a screenwriter for a few years after her days at NYU, cooking up projects with a science bent because that's where her passions lie – projects like “Challenger,” a fascinating account of the investigation of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster written as a love letter to Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. Then, she made her way to the comic book giant under the company's now-defunct screenwriting program and plucked the intergalactic heroes from obscurity, setting them on a crash course for the silver screen.
It may be largely James Gunn's colorful vision on that screen, but it's definitely Perlman's passion that helped bring the property to the table in the first place.
I sat down with Perlman recently to discuss, among other things, her experiences in the Marvel system, her self-professed geeky interest in cosmic settings and what we might expect from this rag-tag crew of space pirates going forward. Read through the back and forth below.
“Guardians of the Galaxy” opens everywhere Aug. 1.
HitFix: So you first came to Marvel through their screenwriting program. What was that experience like?
It was really interesting because I had all these science-related projects or space-related projects that I was working on, and I was finding that I wasn't getting a lot of opportunities to pitch projects that were more science-fiction, which is what I really love. Marvel said, “We're starting this program. I's kind of an experiment. We're taking writers who are semi-established.” – Like, Ed Ricourt was part of it. He did “Now You See Me.” – “You get an office and we'll give you a list of properties – we have, like, a dozen properties that we think we might maybe one day want to make into a movie, but they're much lesser-known properties. Choose one you like.”
So it wasn't like they assigned you a property.
No, not at all. I chose “Guardians,” which was funny because people thought I was a little bit crazy for choosing that one, since there were much better-known properties on the list, things that most people would say, “Oh, yeah, I've heard of that.” Nobody had heard of “Guardians,” but it was the only cosmic Marvel property on the list and I like space, I like science-fiction, and it's not superhero-y in that way.
It was the subject matter, then, the cosmic elements that drew you to the property? You hadn't read the comic book?
No, I hadn't read the comic books. I don't think many people knew about them. They've been around since 1969, so there was some knowledge of them, but they were very much an obscure team that had been rebooted in 2008 by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. Their reboot was more fun and funny and sarcastic and that tone was really great. But for me it was about the subject matter and that I could make it more of a science-fiction project rather than a superhero project and that made me more excited.
I read about that screenwriting program when it started and the terms were a little staggering, I thought.
The terms were inaccurate, how it was reported. It was accurate in the sense that they did exclusively have us, but the salary terms were not accurate, actually.
It was less that element that surprised me than the first look/last refusal stipulation that locked you in for two years after you left the program.
You signed on for one year and if they wanted to have you back they would have you come back for another year. So I did two years because I was jazzed about “Guardians.” It was harder than I was expecting it to be psychologically because I was off the market. I wasn't even allowed to have meetings. I mean, you could, but you were sort of discouraged from taking meetings anywhere. You weren't supposed to be spec writing anything on your own and for a year after you wrote anything, after you left the program, you had to see if Marvel wanted to buy anything from you before you took it anywhere else, which, in a way, is kind of silly because unless you were writing an original superhero movie, you're not going to be doing anything that Marvel necessarily wants to buy. So I think people got a little overblown with their outrage about the terms. But while you were there you were working on your project and you could work on anything else they wanted to put you on, so I did uncredited work on “Thor” and I did some “Black Widow” development, but 80% of the time it was just “Guardians” for two years. And then after the program ended they brought me back as a freelancer to do another draft for them.
Can you tell me where you mind was at as a writer at that time? You said you were interested in these cosmic stories but were you wary at all of being locked into this giant cinematic universe, like it would hurt the potential to push your personal stuff forward?
No, I think it was the opposite, actually. I think the fact that I was already sort of being pigeonholed in the projects I was being offered – it was, like, the Marie Curie biopic, and I had pitched on some larger projects that were more action-oriented, and people loved my takes, like one company said, “We like your take but this is a very masculine movie and we just don't know if your pedigree is the right fit.” I felt a little bit of a push-back of, “Can you handle a big action movie?” So I wanted to do Marvel to show that I could do character development and things that were serious and handling issues that were kind of relevant and also tell a fun story with lots of great set pieces and still have good characters. I think it was very helpful for me to be at Marvel, honestly, for my career. Now it's been nice, in a sense, to be pigeonholed. I've gotten fantasy projects, I've got science-fiction projects, but I still get the opportunity to do more serious biopic kind of things.
The process there, was it a workshop situation at all?
No, not at all.
So it wasn't like the Pixar environment.
No. I think I had sort of expected it to be that way, but it was, like, Chris Yost in one office, me in another office, Ed Ricourt in another office. Sometimes we were in the same building, sometimes we weren't. We kind of occupied whatever space wasn't being used for production offices. We were just writing. We would write and we would hand in our drafts. Each one of us was working on our own specific projects and my script was the only one that got chosen for production, which I'm really happy about, but they did really wonderful screenplays. It was just a question of how much time and space Marvel has on their slate. At no point were we really encouraged by Marvel to cross-pollinate, but there were times I would, like, knock on Chris Yost's door and be like, “I need to brainstorm with you about something,” and talk to him. It was very much like the process of writing on your own, handing it in, getting notes, addressing notes. There was no real workshop element to it.
I think what was different was that there was a luxury of time, because you weren't working on six other projects. Usually you would staff writers for development, but we were all just working on one thing. Sometimes I would do something on a side project, like “Black Widow,” but it was primarily the project that you chose to work on. And you could try different things, because you know that if this particular version doesn't work out, you can try it with a different protagonist, or a different antagonist, or a different permutation of characters, until you got what really worked. I feel like what we've got on screen now is a result of doing a lot of experimenting.
Tell me more about the other side projects you were working on while you were there.
On “Thor,” it was great to work with Ken Branagh. I was a big fan of his. He was like, “We need a geeky girl to come in and write this geeky girl and punch up her dialogue and make her sound like an actual person.” Which is not to say that it wasn't already great, but it was nice to bring my own voice to that. So I worked on all of Jane's scenes, which was really fun. And then I also did an outline on “Black Widow.” I don't think that project is going to get made any time soon.
When you worked on that, did it involve Hawkeye quite a bit?
Hawkeye was involved.
Because that's the movie I'm most interested in seeing, something getting into the story of Natasha Romanoff and Clint Barton. When I saw “The Avengers,” I was like, “I'm really intrigued by this.”
Yeah. Their relationship is really interesting. We'll see what happens. I did a little bit of story work on “Runaways” before it was sort of pushed to the side when Disney bought Marvel and that whole thing went down. I did some brainstorming on other things, but it was mostly “Guardians.”
I don't mean to sound insulting with this question, but what was left of your “Guardians” script after James Gunn got ahold of it? It's obviously a very singular, kind of artist-driven film, which differs from the feel of the other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Did he rewrite you completely?
He definitely put his stamp on it, but, I mean, my story is in there significantly. My scenes are in there. My relationships are in there. My settings are in there. Some of my jokes are in there. A lot of really key moments for the movie are mine. I wouldn't have gotten credited if I hadn't done a significant amount of work. I think 33% is the minimum for WGA, but I was never worried about that. He definitely did a director's rewrite, but he wrote off my script. He didn't start a new script.
I've heard that he had a lot of writers thrown at him at the end there and I'm just curious, in your view, does the overall Marvel writing system seem to be of value to filmmakers to you? Whedon, I believe, is the only one besides Gunn whose name has even been on the script he's directing, officially, so is it sort of getting in the way of personal vision?
I think the thing about Marvel – I actually felt really lucky with how few writers we had thrown at this project compared to “Thor” and some of the stories I heard about the other projects, in terms of a lot, like double digit writers thrown on a project, so I was really happy the way it worked out. My draft is the draft that got greenlit. They brought in Chris McCoy to do some comedy work and punch up. He did three weeks and did some good things, but James went back to my draft and didn't use his draft. I know they had to bring in a couple of their standard people, like Joss always checks everything out and (Christopher) Markus and (Stephen) McFeely checked it out. But from what James told me, it wasn't a very significant amount of changes that they made.
This one certainly feels personal. I'm just curious about that process, I guess, and how it affects each filmmaker.
Yeah. In terms of whether it's helpful for filmmakers or not, I think it depends on the end product. I think Marvel is pretty smart about the fact that everything goes through Kevin Feige at the end. It creates a bit of a bottleneck, which is why we don't have a lot of projects coming out of there, but I think that bottleneck is important because it gives real quality control. People have to sort of vote on everything, and fortunately they've got a lot of really good guys. But sometimes I feel like the more writers you get, it starts to feel like a pastiche of different styles, and that may have been evident on other Marvel projects. But I feel on “Guardians” that we really avoided that.
So earlier you said your story was in there. What was your story? What was your way into the material? Because I imagine it was a tough nut to crack.
I had two years to try various permutations of who the characters are. I mean, there are dozens of Guardians, so choosing which Guardians to put in the movie was a big part. Having Quill and Gamora have a romance, none of that is in the comic books. Rebooting Quill's backstory, the original backstory I created – the whole concept of having Quill be kidnapped as a kid and brought to space and have a backpack with his toys and music, all of that is from my drafts. Other relationships between the characters, the MacGuffin, the story arc, all of this was in my draft, the Nova Corps, all this stuff.
Was any of it a directive at all? Like did Marvel ever say, “Hey, write about the Infinity Gems. Write about the Nova Corps and plant these seeds for us,” anything like that?
No, that was all me and they approved it. Earlier versions I had other things that we tried and I think as they got more comfortable with cosmic Marvel, they allowed me to put some other things that I wanted to do. Like Rocket Raccoon wasn't in the very first drafts and I was like, “Wouldn't it be awesome? We should do him.” There was some concern that he would be too cartoonish but Kevin Feige always believed in Rocket and let me do a Rocket about half-way through my time at Marvel, and so all of my drafts had Rocket after that because they saw that he worked as a character. But yeah, having the Infinity Stones was my call, all the major set pieces – actually, the little fight scene with the mining crafts was totally James. I didn't have that. What James really brought, I think, was a lot of color, a lot of humor – there were jokes in mine but he's much funnier. He comes from a comedic background.
(SPOILER QUESTION) There's a moment in the movie where they reference Peter Quill's father briefly. Is that a hint toward things to come? Obviously his father, Jason of Sparta, is a significant element in the comic books.
That was a hint. That was a bigger element of my earlier drafts, the relationship with his father. In earlier drafts, Yondu wasn't a character but there was a character similar to Yondu, but it was a bigger element, why he was taken off-planet, so I think that's sort of setting up for the sequel, going into Peter Quill's backstory. I'm sure they'll do it.
For a while I had heard this was going to be a one-off and they weren't even going to franchise it out.
I think they were not sure how it was going to turn out. I mean, it was a big risk to do. I think they wanted it to be as standalone as possible.
Well they lay it down in the credits. “The Guardians of the Galaxy will return.” Does that mean they will return in “The Avengers 3” or will they get their own sequel?
I would be surprised if they don't get their own sequel. I think it's just a question of which slot they're going to get that's open. There are a lot of different movies vying for those slots.
If you're going to Comic-Con this weekend, Perlman will be on a couple of panels that may be of interest…
The first is on Thursday: “Behind the Scenes of Science Fiction in Movies and on TV.” Perlman will be part of an all-female panel featuring Jane Espenson (“Husbands”), Amy Berg (“Eureka”) and Gale Anne Hurd (“The Walking Dead”).
The second is on Friday: “The Science of Science Fiction.” Perlman will be joined by Kevin Grazier (SyFy's “Defiance”), Andrewa Letamendi, Ph. D. (UnderTheMaskOnline.com), Jessica Cail, Ph. D. (Web series “The Hunted”), Astronomer Phil Plait (“The Bad Astronomer” at Slate.com) and the team of Zack Stenz and Ashley E. Miller (Fox's “Fringe”).