On Edgar Wright And ‘Ant Man’: When A Studio Wants Your Name, Not Your Vision

By now you’ve probably heard all about Edgar Wright and Marvel parting ways over Ant Man, a movie Wright had been attached to since 2006, and officially onboard since 2012. If the rumors are to be believed, Wright and his writing partner Joe Cornish had come to believe they’d been hired because Marvel believed in their vision for the project, only for Marvel to later give them notes and rewrites that were such a substantial departure from what they’d been planning that they chose to leave the project.

“Edgar & Joe were upset by the sudden, out of nowhere lack of faith in them as filmmakers,” as Latino Review, who broke the story, put it.

While the truth of what happened is still unverified (and will likely remain so), when you cover the movie business for long enough, you eventually hear enough similar stories that patterns begin to emerge, and you start to understand how things work. Just a few days before the Edgar Wright news broke, I, as one of the world’s only Freddy Got Fingered superfans, was reading a Vice interview with Tom Green about trying to get that film made. As Green said about Fingered:

The movie didn’t instantly get made. The movie got bought by a major movie studio. They make all the major movies with all the major comedians. We went in for our first meeting and said I wanted to direct the movie. And they said, “What? You wanna what? You wanna direct the movie? Have you ever directed a movie?” Well, I’d directed my TV show, but that’s not a movie. I said I want to direct the movie, and I don’t want to change a thing in the script. Nothing. And they sort of looked at me, and I think they were kind of confused by that. They’d already bought the script.

Needless to say, the next day we got a call. They said, “We don’t think we can make the movie the way Tom wants to make the movie. We have to change a lot of stuff in this. We can’t do this the exact way it’s in the script.” They said they were going to put it in turnaround. That’s a film term for basically giving you a certain amount of time to sell the script to another studio. If nobody buys it after that, we own the script and it never gets made. They gave us a 30-day turnaround. That was them saying, “Screw you. You don’t want to do it the way we want to do it, so we’re basically going to throw it on a shelf.”

It seems strange to me that they bought it in the first place if they read it and saw this was the movie you wanted to make. They bought it and then wanted to change it. That’s counterintuitive.
You’d think it would be the opposite, but that’s not the way Hollywood works. They buy things and then they change it. The corporations and executives take young talent that’s interesting, bring them in, and then make their movie with them. Not make some kid from Canada’s movie. It’s some kid from Canada in their movie. They were going to make it a cookie-cutter studio movie, and I said no. I had an opportunity to make a movie. We’re gonna make our f*cking movie and we don’t give a f*ck.

In hindsight, would I have done everything the same? I probably wouldn’t have, because I would have known the effect it would have on me and my ability to make another movie. I certainly wouldn’t have been as cutthroat in my firmness when it came to creative decisions—like walking away from a studio because they wanted to take a couple of scenes out of it.

He also mentions that William Shatner was his landlord at the time, which is neither here nor there, but is nonetheless awesome.

Basically, there’s a long history of people like Tom Green (and probably Edgar Wright) selling a studio on a pitch or a script, only to have that studio turn around and want to change some of the most basic things about it. It seems to be a symptom of the way the film business treats the screenwriter. While theater contracts often give the playwright the authority “to approve almost every aspect of a show,” in the movie business, the studio and the director can do almost anything they want with a script once they’ve bought it, contributing to a mentality where a script or a pitch is just a jumping off point, or even just a job interview.

Hiring Edgar Wright, a critically-acclaimed, fanboy-beloved director whose films haven’t always been especially successful at the box office, certainly fit into the narrative Marvel has been trying to create, where their success is supposedly built on their “special understanding of comics, fans, superheroes, and narrative,” regardless of how true that is.

There often seems to be a basic conflict, where creators think they’ve been hired to execute their vision of a project, when really they’ve been hired to lend their name and talent and creativity to help execute the studio’s vision of a project.

You can find many examples of this, but Rope of Silicon astutely cites this passage from a Hollywood Reporter piece from 2011 about the departure of director Patty Jenkins, who was to direct Thor 2:

…an insider in Jenkins’ camp says the lack of clarity might be on Marvel’s part. This person says Jenkins was so explicit about her vision for the film that she didn’t expect to be hired in the first place. The source speculates that Marvel executives might have been won over initially by Portman’s enthusiasm for Jenkins but then, “when they started to interview writers for the rewrite . . . may have decided they really weren’t comfortable.”

Marvel had certain things they needed to achieve, says another source. There were constraints on what she could do creatively.

Another contributing factor in these kinds of creative splits could have something to do with our old friend Allan Weisbecker’s adage that “no one in Hollywood reads anything” — ie, filmmakers believing studios really like their script when there’s a decent chance the people involved haven’t even read it.

Meanwhile, the studios use those filmmakers’ names and visions to attract talent, like Jenkins helping to sell Thor star Natalie Portman on the project, or Edgar Wright helping to attract Paul Rudd to Ant Man. And oftentimes, the star remains contractually tied to the film even after the director or writer has dropped out – giving a studio still more incentive to hire a name director, regardless of what they actually want to do with the project. The cast of Ant Man was to include Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Peña, Patrick Wilson and Corey Stoll, many of whom probably signed on for an Edgar Wright Ant Man movie, not realizing that they’d eventually end up in a Some Random Dude Ant Man movie, which has to sound far less enticing (unless you’re on Superhero Director Grindr).

These conflicts have probably existed as long as the movie business has existed, and you can’t generalize to say that one side or the other is always right. But if you’re a fan of seeing different types of stories and hearing a variety of storytelling voices represented in mainstream film, you have to cheer people like Edgar Wright or Patty Jenkins, who’ll put their careers and pocketbooks on the line to make that happen. It’s probably a lot easier, and certainly more lucrative, to just make whatever movie the studio wants to make. It takes a special type of person to turn down the money and whatever else to walk away when they no longer believe in the product.