Marvel is serious about Atlanta's brand-new Pinewood Studios, and “Ant-Man” was the way they broke in what may well be their home for the next decade or more.
Late last year, I was part of a group of journalists who were flown to Atlanta to tour the new facility, which is surprisingly huge, and to see a few days worth of shooting on what was at that point perhaps the most publicly troubled movie since Marvel kicked off this universe with “Iron Man.” After all, Edgar Wright had dropped out of the film just before it began production, and the process of wrangling a new script and a new director was written about with widespread panic and scorn and skepticism. You will find few more stalwart fans of what Edgar Wright does than me, but in the end, I feel like he's a filmmaker who will always be at his happiest when he is working on either his own original material or an adaptation that he is given free reign to make his own.
By the time we got to set, they had a pretty good idea what film they were actually making, and that was the entire point of us being there. We didn't go to grumble about the film they decided not to make, because what's the point? I am sure I will hear from angry fanboys today who expected people to go in there and kick tables over and spray paint Edgar's name on the wall, but I happen to like director Peyton Reed and star Paul Rudd, and I was willing to hear them out and see what they felt like they were doing with the movie.
And by the time the trip was done? I was impressed. I still have no idea what to expect when I see the film this week, but I was impressed by what they were trying to do, and it felt like there was a whole lot of the DNA of the Edgar Wright/Joe Cornish script still in there.
Our first day was on the Pinewood stages, and my first takeaway is that Marvel has finally found the long-term home they've been looking for, provided Georgia steps up and actually commits to the tax incentives they've promised. The facility is gorgeous, and they had several stages at once up and running on the film. The first thing we saw was from the start of act three in the film, as Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) tries to escape from the Pym Institute Labs where he has just stolen something that Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) is not happy about. They had a helicopter interior on the stage, and we watched them shoot a scene where Cross opens fire with a gun, trying to hit Lang, eventually killing his own guys before revealing his Yellowjacket armor for the first time. You've seem moments from this scene in the trailers, and it's interesting to me to note how both of the things we saw them shoot ended up in the trailers specifically.
What was most interesting was that Rudd's Ant-Man suit was completely practical, while Stoll's Yellowjacket suit was almost entire mo-cap, meaning we met Stoll wearing a pair of comfy mo-cap pajamas, something which is almost always awkward for an actor, even if we assure them we've seen it before. There's that feeling of being ridiculous that can be part of playing certain things, and when you add a live audience, that can be amplified a bit.
The thing is, the Yellowjacket suit is too advanced to have been done practically. There are too many high-tech functions, and going completely CG gave Marvel options in how they were going to make the thing work. The Ant-Man suit, on the other hand, is meant to be the one that Hank Pym originally built and used, and there's something charmingly old-school about it. We saw some of the hero suits and some of the costumes designed for specific functions, and we saw Rudd wearing it as well. In some ways, it's one of the most ludicrous designs from the entire Marvel universe, and that's appropriate.
My favorite thing we saw on the first day was the Macro Unit. Most of the time, when we've seen films about miniaturization, they've leaned heavily on oversize sets and oversize props, and that's fine. But Reed really pushed to try something different, and they ended up with an entire unit that was all about shooting real things with lenses and cameras that made them look totally alien and new. They showed us the insides of some pipes, for example, and captured the way they did with these macro cameras, they are alien landscapes, strange new planets made of textures we never see in our daily lives. There's an action sequence staged inside a vacuum cleaner bag, for example, and they wanted to shoot it inside a real vacuum cleaner bag. If the macro unit's work pays off, it's going to be something really special and unusual, something we haven't seen before no matter how many films have involved shrinking men in the past.
The second day we were in Atlanta, we were on a practical location, the old Atlanta archives building, which had been repurposed as the Pym Industries building. In the film, it's located on Treasure Island in San Francisco, but the real building was actually abandoned by Atlanta's city government because it is sinking. Seriously. It's a big concrete block of a building, and we watched them shoot a scene where Hank Pym (MIchael Douglas) returns to the building for the first time in years, encountering his former friend Cross in the lobby as well as his daughter, Hope Van Dyne, who still works for Cross.
It was clear that Hank and Hope have a strained relationship in the film, and when we sat down with Kevin Feige, he explained that the strain is due in large part to the fate of Janet Van Dyne, aka The Wasp, who we will see in one sequence in the film, a flashback that will demonstrate exactly why Pym retired from active field work and why, when we meet him in the movie, he hates superheroes and doesn't trust SHIELD at all. I like the idea that we're going to learn about a previously-secret chapter in the Marvel history in this film, and that it's not one that necessarily casts the “good guys” in a positive light.
We spoke to several of the key players on the film over the course of our two days, and we ended up having a long slightly boozy dinner with Peyton Reed as well. Boozy on our parts, anyway. I met Reed for the first time at Comic-Con in San Diego over a decade ago, and he's exactly the same guy now, just as comic-crazy as he was then. What surprised me was hearing how Paul Rudd and Adam McKay had thrown themselves into the rewrite on the film wholeheartedly. It made sense once Rudd talked to us about what they tried to do with it, but it was the first I'd heard that they had collaborated directly and that they had contributed enough to potentially end up with a co-screenplay credit. Rudd made it clear that they weren't trying to turn the film into an overt comedy, and that many of the jokes that are in the film were there in the Wright/Cornish drafts. It was also clear that all of the action set pieces in the film were set in stone when Edgar left, and that any script work had to be built around those already boarded sequences that were in various stages of rendering and production.
I've known Rudd for a while now, and I've never seen him in the shape he was to play Scott Lang. He was positively gaunt by comparison to the way he normally looks, and he was upfront about how much he missed craft services on the film because of how strict his caloric intake was. Talking to him about the process of perfecting the suit, both onscreen as a character and onscreen as an actor, he brought his typically wry perspective to it. I'm looking forward to watching Scott Lang struggle to figure out the suit for a good chunk of the film, and I think it's great they're addressing the inherent absurdity of being Ant-Man without ever ridiculing themselves. That's a fine line to walk, and it seems like they're all well aware of it.
I'm also curious to see what the scenes with a Michael Douglas aged backwards by 30 years look like. CGI “de-aging” isn't easy, and done wrong, it feels weird, completely ruining scenes because the character doesn't even look real, regardless of age. Douglas plays the younger Ant-Man for those flashbacks involving The Wasp, and he seemed practically giddy to be working for Marvel. He talked to us about how much he looked forward to having the experience with them because he's seen how much fun people have been having with the films, both audiences and actors alike. It's interesting seeing a character who has open contempt for the entire idea of superheroes, and I like what it does in terms of establishing Hank Pym as a very different character than we've seen in these films so far.
Evangeline Lily talked to us about how her character may have been the most direct beneficiary of the Rudd/McKay rewrite, and although she talked around certain plot points, it seems pretty thumpingly obvious that Hope is being set up to play The Wasp in the films moving forward. Will she suit up in this movie? I'm not sure, and I'd hate to get anyone's hopes up, but I feel pretty safe saying that Lily isn't going anywhere any time soon, and that she seems excited to play a larger role in the Marvel universe.
I've been around many self-described nerds or geeks who feel less than genuine to me, but Lily strikes me as the real deal. Listening to her talk about “The Hobbit” or Marvel, she has a very real relationship with the source material and pop culture, and she seems to get excited about all sorts of things, whether it's the simple pleasure of watching Michael Douglas work (“you look at him and go 'Oh, that's how it's done'”) or the CG ants that she calls the best part of the movie or how much she appreciates playing a role like this that doesn't just automatically make her a romantic interest to the lead.
Kevin Feige obviously has a vested interest in playing cheerleader for the movies the studio makes, but when you talk to him, it's not just empty “rah rah rah” coming out of him. He talks about what makes each new film different, where it fits into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and why they like the characters. In this case, they saw a chance to expand the story of the early days of the Marvel universe a bit more, including references to Howard Stark and Peggy Carter, and we'll see the way SHIELD continued to develop through the '70s, the '80s, and beyond. He pointed out that both Lang and Pym have kids, which makes them unique among any of the Avengers introduced so far, and family connections are a huge thematic point of this movie. He talked about how strange the stuff with the ants is, and how much they've enjoyed creating this whole set of relationships that is unlike anything else they've done in the movies. When talking about the replacement of Edgar Wright, Feige was incredibly diplomatic, making sure to say that it was a mutual decision because they all felt like they weren't going to be happy with the movie they were gearing up to make. Peyton Reed wasn't just randomly picked, either. He was almost the studio's choice for “Guardians Of The Galaxy,” and Feige worked with him originally when he was hired to make “Fantastic Four” for Fox.
Reed was also enormously diplomatic talking about Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish and the work they did on the film. He called their script “the spine” of his film, and he talked about how it was strong enough that it let him really focus on fine details he wanted to try instead of having to build something from scratch. Talking about how they shot the ant footage and the miniature stuff, it sounded like he was describing math homework, a testament to just how technical a process it was. He also talked about how he inherited a cast that was positively delightful, which isn't always the case when you join a film that's already down the road in terms of development. He seems excited to see just how weird Phase Three is going to get for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and proud to be helping lead the way.
I feel the same way, and I can't wait to see “Ant-Man” for myself in the next few days.
“Ant-Man” arrives in theaters on July 17, 2015.