ROUNDTABLE: The Writers Behind Summer's Biggest Blockbusters (Exclusive Video)
Tentpole scribes open up to the new issue of THR about dealing with difficult directors, competing against each other, “insane” product placement and selling out.
Writing a tentpole summer movie can mean huge rewards, but it’s also rife with extra pressures. An exercise in politics as much as creativity, these colossal productions often require a screenwriter to collaborate not only with directors and producers, but also with the toy industry, comic-book companies, merchandising entities, rabid fans, marketing execs, storyboard artists, the laws of physics, previous movies and source material and, often, a host of other unseen writers. In a roundtable discussion equal parts wry realism and clever insight, Jonathan Aibel (Kung Fu Panda 2, which opens May 26); Greg Berlanti (Green Lantern, June 17); Ehren Kruger (Transformers: Dark of the Moon, July 1); Christopher Markus (Captain America: The First Avenger, July 22); Ashley Edward Miller (Thor, May 6; X-Men: First Class, June 3) and Roberto Orci (Cowboys & Aliens, July 29) lay bare just how the blockbuster sausage is made -- and why it can be the coolest job imaginable.
**Most of these screenwriters have writing partners. In order to keep the discussion manageable, THR asked each team to send just one person. But Aibel writes with Glenn Berger (Kung Fu Panda, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, Monsters vs. Aliens); Berlanti writes with Michael Green and Marc Guggenheim; Markus writes with Stephen McFeely (the three Chronicles of Narnia films); Miller writes with Zack Stentz; and Orci writes with Alex Kurtzman (Transformers, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Star Trek). Kruger (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, The Ring, Scream 3) writes alone.
[The official WGA credits for these movies are: Cowboys & Aliens, screenplay by Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby, story by Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and Steve Oedekerk; Green Lantern, screenplay by Greg Berlanti & Michael Green & Marc Guggenheim and Michael Goldenberg, story by Greg Berlanti & Michael Green & Marc Guggenheim; and Thor, screenplay by Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz and Don Payne, story by J. Michael Straczynski and Mark Protosevich.]
The Hollywood Reporter: How would you define the elements of a perfect summer movie? And has it changed from your childhood?
Ehren Kruger: There are three things: It needs to make you cheer, it needs to make you gasp, and it needs to make you laugh.
Roberto Orci: And has role play. It has to make you want to be in that world.
Ashley Edward Miller: I think that a great summer movie has gotta have an emotional experience at the core of it. When you are 7 years old, you go to see Star Wars for the first time, and there’s that moment when Luke’s on Tatooine, he’s looking out, it grabs you. If you look at the great summer films of the ‘70s and ‘80s, they had that emotional experience. And I think that as an adult you crave that, too.
THR: Jon, is it different in animation? Obviously, there’s a slightly different set of rules there.
Jonathan Aibel: Well, they take so long that, first of all, you don’t really know it’s a summer movie because you’ve had four years of spring-summer-fall-winter. [laughter] And with DreamWorks, when we make two movies a year, maybe three, they all have to do all these things whether it comes out in November or March. So it’s true of any great movie that it’s going to have all those elements, it’s just that summer is the time when as a culture we come to expect that and want that. For me, it feels like it’s in the last 10 years that this has really become a thing, an event. Where when I was a kid and I went to these movies, I have no recollection of when I went to see them.
Greg Berlanti: In the case of Green Lantern, from the very beginning we always tried to discuss, What kind of genre is this if it’s not a comic book movie? I can remember being a kid and seeing the ad for Star Wars and saying, “I want to see that.” I can remember going to Superman and coming home and making anything I could into a cape as quickly as I could and dashing around the house. In a way, it’s very rewarding to suddenly be a part of something where you go, “Oh, OK, we’re melding those two worlds together, and we’re trying to do something that, we hope, some kid out there can have the same kind of experience that we had.”
THR: When you guys are working in an environment where you know you’re up against so much other spectacle -- including each others' films -- how do you make sure that yours stands out?
Christopher Markus: The only way to stand out is to not compete. Because if you’re sitting there going, “I’m doing Captain America, but I know they’re making Transformers, so we ought to put some robots in here…,” you’ll go nuts. So this is a movie, about this guy Steve Rogers, and treat him as humanly as possible, and make essentially a biopic about your main character. Then hopefully it’ll stand on its own as a solid movie and compete on its own merits. Because you can’t roll it out and say, “It’s gonna have 90% more Matrix, and 35% Hangover…” There are executives who would kill to be able to program that, but…
THR: Are there a lot of Hangover elements in Captain America?
Markus: Oh, yeah. He is actually drunk for about 90% of the movie. [laughter]
Kruger: I would say that you definitely have to be true to your mythology and your source material. I do think if you had a group of directors here, they might have a different opinion on the idea of standing out and competing, because many of these movies are greenlit now based on pre-visualized animated sequences that are the action sequences or moments that are really designed to wow the audience or stand out in a trailer. When we are trying to design sequences that fit our narrative, there is a piece of our brains -- and if there isn’t, as soon as we’re working with the filmmaker, they’re going to be hammering at that piece of our brains -- about, What are we doing that hasn’t been seen before? What are we doing that someone is going to see onscreen and say, “I have never seen that image.” Whatever the scale of the movie, I think we’re all aware that we need that in our picture.
Orci: And the last thing is our choices. You have to get back in touch with your inner fan. We have the luck of having grown up on a lot of this stuff, and by merely saying Yes to doing Green Lantern or something, you are saying, “That stands out to me.” Hopefully. If you have integrity. [laughter] If you’re really doing it because you’re passionate about it. You gotta for a minute be a kid looking at the concept that’s presented to you and go, “I want to see that.” And if you don’t want to see it -- bad. If you want to see it, that’s the first clue that it might stand out.
Miller: And the unique purview of the writer is connecting those big visuals to the emotional content. And if you’re emotionally involved, if you’re passionate about what you’re writing, if you care about the characters, that’s going to come through on the page. The actors are going to pick that up, the director is going to put that into his movie and the audience is going to experience it.