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Even before working on Eternals, Patrick Burleigh had experienced a Marvel Studios baptism by fire. The screenwriter landed a spot in the Marvel Writer’s Program in 2016, where he and three others spent a year going through the company’s back catalog of comic books to pitch fresh ways to adapt the studio’s characters. Burleigh then moved to production writing on Ant-Man and the Wasp, a pressure-cooker situation that had him penning roughly 25 pages a day.
All that prepared him for his biggest job yet, Chloé Zhao’s Eternals. Burleigh met Zhao after Marvel executive and producer Nate Moore suggested they talk, and the duo instantly clicked.
“I read her draft and I was amazed by it,” Burleigh tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Essentially, she was trying to make the Terrence Malick version of a Marvel film.”
Zhao hired him, and that led to a whirlwind six weeks of writing. Burleigh sent pages back and forth to Zhao, who was in London writing and prepping the film. Burleigh then did about three months of work in London leading up to principal photography.
Though Burleigh put in long days, he considers himself just a piece of the puzzle in service of Zhao’s vision. In addition to directing, Zhao is credited twice on the screenplay, once solo and once as a writing team with Burleigh. (The credits read: Chloé Zhao and Chloé Zhao & Patrick Burleigh and Ryan Firpo & Kaz Firpo.)
Burleigh, who worked as an actor in television commercials while he got his screenwriting career off the ground, also penned Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway and Sony Pictures Animation’s upcoming Black Knight. He has a number of projects in development, including a reboot of the Power Rangers at Paramount and a reboot of The Borrowers at Universal, where he is also writing a monster movie. He is also mining his formative years for a new project. In 2019, Burleigh published a New York Magazine piece in which he discussed growing up with familial male-limited precocious puberty, a rare disease that caused him to exhibit signs of puberty at age 2. He is now adapting that as a series, called Precocious, for Hulu with Schitt’s Creek Emmy winner Dan Levy.
In a conversation with THR, Burleigh reflects on how his childhood informed his writing, the pressure of penning big-budget studio films and the spec script that got him on Marvel’s radar.
The internet claims you did a Marvel fellowship and went on to uncredited writing on Ant-Man and the Wasp. Is that your Marvel origin story?
That is all accurate. I started out in the Marvel Writer’s Program in 2016. Nate Moore, the producer of Eternals, oversaw that. It was me and three other writers. That was a crash course in Marvel. We each had an office at Marvel for a year. All we did was go through the back catalog of everything that had been published, looking for interesting characters and teams that hadn’t been adapted yet and also pitching ways to adapt them and fresh takes on the IP. I ended up pitching a bunch of stuff and writing a script that Nate liked. And then I went and did some production writing on Ant-Man and the Wasp. They did, as they always do with Marvel films, quite a bit of reshoots, and it was from the frying pan into the fire. We had like six weeks before we were going to do all of the reshoots. Stephen Broussard, the producer of that movie, and [Marvel Studios boss] Kevin Feige, had ideas of what they wanted to do, but they were still figuring it out. And they essentially needed somebody to sit in a room and just write like 20, 30 pages a day.
Wow, that’s quite an output.
I went from being this newbie in an office by myself for a year just typing away, to all of a sudden writing 25 pages in a day. Writing 25 pages in a day, it’s not necessarily going to be your A-level work. And so I was doing that, and at like 7 p.m. I would go into a conference room with Stephen Broussard, [director] Peyton Reed, Kevin Feige and [Marvel exec] Louis D’Esposito. They would cold read all of the material I had written. This was like the first time I had ever met Kevin. It was so nerve-racking. It was amazing, honestly. It was really, really fun. And it was a great introduction to the way that they work.
Was Marvel your big screenwriting break?
I had done some acting in college, and my parents had been actors. “Well, maybe I could do this as well.” My primary goal was always to be a writer, and for a couple of years it worked out well because I did a ton of commercials. That was kind of my day job as I supported my writing. I worked on a film for DreamWorks Animation. I was knocking around, doing a WGA minimum rewrite here, a polish there. Just hustling. And then I wrote a script called Ping-Pong Diplomacy, about the famous meeting of an American ping-pong player and a Chinese ping-pong player in 1971. It led to the China summit between Mao and Nixon. That was well-received. That was what Nate Moore read. Then I went in and met with him.
That seems like a common story with Marvel. There’s one script that gets you that introduction.
It’s kind of the combination of a script that feels fresh, that has a unique drive, a unique voice, but it also has to land on the right desk. All four of us in the writer’s program, we weren’t your stereotypical Marvel fanboys and girls. We were coming at it from a different angle, which is what Marvel likes. I think he saw in my writing that I could probably write these bigger movies but still bring some heart and humor and groundedness.
It seems Marvel had been keeping you in mind after your work together. Did this felt like the natural next step, when you were put forward to Chloé as an Eternals possibility?
After Ant-Man and the Wasp, I wrote Peter Rabbit 2, with Will Gluck, which was a ton of fun. That movie got made. I went to Australia, was on set with it. And I was now writing studio films. The Firpos had written a few drafts on their own, not with Chloé, while Chloé had been making Nomadland. And then she came on and she’s extremely hands-on. She’s a real filmmaker. She is involved in every aspect. I think she felt like she needed to process the script, process the film through her own filter, as a writer. So she did. And then she wrote a draft, on her own, after the Firpos. At that point, it was the spring. They were four and a half months out from production. Things in the script were still changing. It was a classic Marvel, “We need to get on this.” Nate thought of me and brought me in to meet Chloé. I read her draft and I was amazed by it. What I saw was, essentially, she was trying to make the Terrence Malick version of a Marvel film. It was super ambitious and it was really exciting in that way. When Chloé and I sat down, I said that and she was like, “Yeah. Tree of Life. These films are what’s inspiring me.” So we connected in that way. She gave me the nod and she went off to London and I was here for about six weeks sending pages. I flew to London and I was there for about three months leading up into the first week or so of principal photography.
When you were writing in L.A., were you at Marvel headquarters?
I was already writing two [non-Marvel] things. I was supposed to write another one and then Nate Moore calls. “Can you write Eternals?” (Laughs.) What am I going to say? I’m not going to say no. I was hurriedly finishing up these other scripts that I was supposed to be working on. Just in my office here at home. And it was still at that point, I was kind of on probation a little bit. “We’ll see if this works out.”
Did you and Chloé debate the body count, in terms of which Eternals die?
It’s ironic, because in many ways the Eternals are more super than any superhero who has heretofore appeared in a Marvel film. At the same time, they are kind of the most human. We hadn’t really seen many characters die in the MCU. That was definitely an important part of conveying the humanity of these characters. In terms of the body count, I’m trying to remember. We may have had one more die at the beginning and then pulled back from that. A lot of what Chloé and I did was structural. I think it was more a matter of what worked for the flow of the film. Essentially it was a road trip movie. What is going to motivate these characters from one place to the next? How can we vary their reaction to the death of Ajak [Salma Hayek]?
Any movie can tweak the story in the writing, in the filming, and in the editing. Is that a freeing feeling, knowing that even though a Marvel movie is huge, it can be nimble, to a point?
Freeing, and panic-inducing. If you can’t function in a pressure cooker, you are not going to be working at Marvel. Things were constantly changing, up until just a couple of weeks before principal photography. To Kevin and Nate’s credit, story is always first. Story and character. If those things aren’t working, they are going to keep pushing. You are going to work on it on set, you are going to work on it in postproduction. It’s never quite finished. It is freeing, but paradoxically, there is a pressure that comes with knowing you could always change it. You could always make it better. It’s never done. I started out writing plays. As a playwright, you are watching rehearsals, you are going up to an actor right before he goes onstage. “Actually, could you drop this line?” It’s a lot like that. It’s a living organism.
You wrote a widely-read piece about your childhood several years ago titled, “A 4-Year-Old Trapped in a Teenager’s Body.” Did your experiences growing up influence the way you write, perhaps the empathy you put into a film like Eternals?
Very much. I loved comic books growing up. I always connected with those characters, who are outsiders. Superheroes are outsiders. Part of what is so heroic about that is they overcome their outsider status to do something for the greater good. I definitely connect to that. I would say that of all the characters in the Eternals, although it’s the inverse of what I went through as a child — which, I was a child trapped in a much older body — but Sprite (Lia McHugh) is a 7,000-year-old trapped in the body of a child. That in particular was a dilemma that I connected with as we were writing. That sense of otherness and the kind of angst that emerges from that.
Were you involved in the Eternals post-credits scenes?
No, I was not. Those were all Chloé.
When you realized Richard Madden and Kit Harington would be in this movie, did you want to make sure they had a scene together to complete the Game of Thrones reunion?
We always knew Sersi [Gemma Chan] would have a human love interest and there would be a bit of a triangle and a bit of a conflict between her human love and Ikaris [Madden], and she would be pulled in two directions. Richard Madden was cast first and then when Kit came along, it couldn’t have been more perfect. We were all fans, especially Chloé, of Game of Thrones and very excited for that scene between the two of them in London. It was almost like a synergy there.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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