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The Girl Geek Behind 'Guardians of the Galaxy' (Q&A)

Nicole Perlman is something rare: a woman inside Marvel's testosterone-filled boys club. Now, the science-nut screenwriter who saw potential in the obscure comic book discusses her ascension into the Hollywood spotlight.

Nicole Perlman Headshot - P 2014
Courtesy of PMK BNC
Nicole Perlman

If the lackluster summer of 2014 has been a walk on the dark side for Hollywood, then consider Guardians of the Galaxy its New Hope. Reviews have been glowing and audience tracking over the moon for the James Gunn space opera, a madcap and visually astonishing romp with traces of everyone from George Lucas to Chuck Jones coursing through its DNA.

But if the material is unfamiliar to you, you're hardly alone. Not even the film's co-writer Nicole Perlman had heard of the comic book series when it was presented to her on a short list of potential Marvel titles to develop during a two-year stint in the studio's writers program.

PHOTOS: 'Guardians of the Galaxy' Premiere: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Vin Diesel Make Their Marvel Debuts 

But Perlman's interest in space and science-fiction — her first noticed screenplay, Challenger, was about the Space Shuttle disaster — gravitated her to the material. Now 33, Perlman took a breather from her various Comic-Con commitments to speak to The Hollywood Reporter about what it feels like when your first produced movie is one of the most hotly buzzed blockbusters in years.

The Hollywood Reporter: Describe your Comic-Con adventures so far. What's that crazy experience been like for you?

Nicole Perlman: It's been an incredible experience so far. Everybody has been so excited about the movie and thrilled about having a different kind of summer blockbuster. I've had a lot of women come up to me and be excited about a woman writing science fiction and that has been really inspiring and wonderful.

Most of these people have not yet seen it, I presume.

Some have seen the 17-minute clip. I've had a lot of journalists talk to me who have seen the premiere, and they really enjoyed it as well. So far there's been a lot of really positive buzz.

The reviews have been across-the-board glowing. That has to be gratifying for you.

Absolutely. It's been quite a ride.

I'd love to talk to you about that ride. Let's back up to your background in science and the writing of the Challenger script. Was that your first big break in Hollywood?

That's right. That was my love letter to [theoretical physicist and Rogers Commission whistleblower] Richard Feynman when I was in college. It was really the first screenplay I wrote that launched me on this career path. I had a lot of pictures of Richard Feynman on my wall when I was a kid because he was just my hero as a physicist, human being and rock star in his field. So I wrote Challenger about Richard Feynman, and I started getting more and more involved in space and science stories because I figured if there's one rock star character like him doing amazing things out there, there's probably a lot more. Then a Neil Armstrong biopic for Universal came along and various other aviation and technology projects. But I was wanting to branch out into the realm of fun popcorn movies, so when I had the chance to join the Marvel writers program, I really leaped at the opportunity.

When did you enter the program?

That was in 2009, and I did two years in it, which was kind of a trade-off. Because you had access to any property which was on their list as potential movies to make, and you had that incredible access, but you also couldn't go out and pitch on anything else throughout the entirety of the time you were with them. I spent those years working on Guardians, and they brought me back to work on another draft after that.

How did the program work exactly?

They had a list of about half a dozen lesser-known properties and they basically said, "Any of these that appeal to you, you can develop. And there's no guarantees that any of them will get made, but this is what your options are." I chose Guardians. There were other properties that were better known, but I was drawn to the science-fiction tone of that one.

So when people wonder why Guardians of the Galaxy of all Marvel properties is suddenly this summer's blockbuster, it's because you gravitated to it.

Right. I mean, it was on the list, but there were a lot of others on there too. I chose the one most in line with what I was interested in exploring. I wanted to explore the realm of Cosmic Marvel, and Guardians definitely was the most in line with those hopes.

Were you familiar with the Guardian comics?

I was not, actually. I had never heard of them, and I think a lot of people are coming to it from that background, of just not having heard anything about them. It was nice that you had a lot of freedom to play with characters because you didn’t have to adhere to the canon. We were really reinventing them for the screen in some ways.

Once you did start working on the project, what struck you about Guardians fanatics? Were they different from regular Marvel fanboys and fangirls?

Most of the friends that I've made who were Guardians fans to begin with are fans of lots of Marvel comics, so they didn't strike me as particularly different, but definitely just as loyal. Honestly, they were just so excited about the idea of the movie being brought to the screen that it didn't seem like they were too concerned about the specifics. They just wanted to see the team brought to life.

And what was your approach to tackling this strange universe, with its walking trees and wisecracking racoons? How do you even begin to tackle a story like that?

Well, it's funny. There are a lot of Guardians. A lot of people don't even realize how many there are. The comics have been around since 1969. So the first thing I had to do was take all the comics that had been written and read them and research, which was a lot of fun but a lot of work in terms of sifting through these stacks of comic books. I read all the way up to the 2008 reboot of the title, which were the ones from which we took the tone and character groupings and things like that. I wanted to know who all the characters were and how they interacted. That required a lot of research. 

The final product evoked so many classics of my youth. Were you knowingly nodding to certain sci-fi classics, whatever they may be, from Star Wars to Goonies to E.T., while you were writing it?

I wanted to put some Easter eggs paying homage to Star Wars into the film, like having a toy Millennium Falcon, and that was in some earlier drafts, but definitely, yes, the concept is that [Chris Pratt character] Peter Quill's '80s childhood is absolutely influenced by the movies of that time. So yeah, [director] James Gunn did a really spectacular job of bringing that more to light.

Who were your mentors throughout the program?

At first it was [Captain America: The Winter Soldier producer] Nate Moore, and as it got closer to production it was [Marvel Studios svp production and development] Jeremy Latcham, and [co-president] Kevin Feige was overseeing the whole project from above. He would read the drafts and give his thoughts, but working with me every day was Nate Moore and Jeremy Latcham.

At what point did everyone start to think, "My God, we have a new franchise here?"

I'm not sure at what point they started to think it, but the point in which I realized that they were starting to think it was when they included Thanos as the villain in the tag at the end of The Avengers. I was like, "OK, this seems like they're committed to the Cosmic model. It really looks like this is happening."

Then James Gunn came on.

Yes, and he did his rewrite and brought all his James Gunn magic to the table.

What was that magic?

He definitely bumped the humor up and added some characters and deepened the scenes. He did a really great job, and brought his incredible visual style and raunchy humor. He absolutely added some wonderful elements to it. [Editor's note: The film's already-announced sequel, due in theaters in 2017, will be written by Gunn alone.]

I imagine things are going to be very different from here on out.

Working with Marvel has opened people up to the idea that women are capable of doing projects in this realm. More are doing it and it's just a matter of time. [As far as my own career,] I've begun to be offered projects of a larger scale that I wouldn't have ordinarily been on the list for.

Would you ever want to direct?

I would love to direct. I think it's a little further down the line, but not off the table.