Ryan and Kaz Firpo reflect on their Marvel journey, the big twist that was baked into the story early on, and look forward to their next project, 'The Motor City Girls.'
[This story contains spoilers for Eternals.]
For screenwriters Ryan and Kaz Firpo, the past few years have been a universe-shaking journey.
First, the writers penned a post-World War II spec script called Ruin that got them a manager and dozens of meetings around Hollywood, including at Marvel Studios. Six months later, Ruin had been voted into the top spot on the Black List, and Marvel’s Nate Moore called them back in to pitch Eternals. After winning the coveted job, the Firpos spent months locked away in a windowless room at Marvel headquarters in Burbank, working closely with Moore. Chloé Zhao eventually boarded as director with her own take, and they spent even more time working on drafts with her.
Along the way, the Firpos fleshed out some of the big swings for the film, including a heartbreaking twist involving Ikaris (Richard Madden) and Ajak (Salma Hayek). “It’s the foundation of the story, really. It’s the twist that’s the impetus of everything,” Ryan Firpo tells The Hollywood Reporter of a late-movie reveal.
As development went on, the Firpos had the rare good fortune to write for specific actors as they were cast. Among them was Kumail Nanjiani, whom the actors pictured for Kingo only to be told that was unlikely; Nanjiani might be taking a different role in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. They also wrote Marvel’s first same-gender relationship, between Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) and his husband, Ben (Haaz Sleiman), a significant milestone for the studio.
“It was never mandated from on high,” says Kaz Firpo, who was raised by two women. “It was very normal for me. That normalcy, that completely unremarkable nuance of everyday life was something I wanted to really reflect from the beginning.”
In addition to Eternals, the Firpos are passionate about penning spec scripts, with the duo working to become a directing-producing team. But they would love to stay in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as well. One dream project? An Eternals prequel show on Disney+, though they note at this stage it’s something they’ve only joked about.
“Go back and do a Kingo episode in 1890s Mumbai where he is juggling his life as a movie star, dealing with Gandhi’s peaceful dissolution of the British empire in India,” says Kaz Firpo. “There’s an episode with Thena where she’s in Greece. I would love to make that show.”
In a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, the Firpos, cousins who grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, also share an early idea to have an Eternal die in the opening scene and look forward to their next project, The Motor City Girls.
You wrote Ruin in a cabin. How does that compare to writing Eternals in a windowless room at Marvel HQ?
Kaz Firpo: If we could, we would write every movie somewhere in nature with no people. Writing the Eternals with Kevin [Feige] and Nate and Chloé and these incredible collaborators, was a gift, even if we had to show up every day for nine months in a windowless room. At least the walls were covered with art by the incredible Ryan Meinerding, the incredible visual development team at Marvel. We write pages, they read the pages, and then they would draw and illustrate all these visions in our heads. And there was a free cereal bar.
Ryan Firpo: Grapenuts for the win.
Many writers pitch Marvel multiple projects over the years before getting the nod. It sounds like for you, that wasn’t the case. Was it as simple as Nate calling you and saying, “We’ve got Eternals. Come talk to us”?
Ryan Firpo: When we took Ruin out, we did 80 general meetings in the course of five weeks. We made some really nice friendships and met some really good people. One of those happened to be Nate. It was us three in a room, and basically started jamming on all things Marvel, but really all things story. They hadn’t started filming Infinity War or Endgame yet, but they knew where it was going to be a clear conclusion. What was really exciting was hearing Nate say, “We have this formula. It’s been very successful for us, but what we really want to do with Phase 4 is evolve and branch out from that and explore different things. Not only different characters but different genres, different approaches to storytelling and increase the cinematic language of the MCU.” We didn’t see them for six months. In that time, we started selling another script to Netflix, we won the Black List and shortly after that we got called back into Marvel. He said, “We have this project. We’d love to hear your take on it.”
Marvel gives its potential writers a package with comics and all sorts of things to help inform the pitch. What comes next after you get that?
Kaz Firpo: We went back to Ryan’s office in Pasadena. It’s a one-room, very humble. We took every Eternal that existed. There are literally hundreds. Jack Kirby’s imagination is boundless. We said, “What’s the movie we always dreamed of making? What’s the movie we’ve always wanted to see?” We went in. Sat down with the whole team and we told them a story for 99 minutes.
Do you two trade parts with the pitch?
Ryan Firpo: We are not that scripted with our pitches. By the time we get into the room, we know them so well that it becomes conversational and natural. I’ll fill in some parts that are a little bit more personal for me and Kaz will go with other parts that are more personal to him.
Who were some of the early Eternals characters you settled on right away?
Kaz Firpo: A big part of that process was finding Eternals that reflected the world around us and their diversity and their powers. It was about not looking at them as action figures or cartoon characters, but to really look at them as human beings. They might be immortal space gods, but they love and want and suffer. [For Kingo, we thought], “This is Kumail Nanjiani. It has to be.” I remember at the time Nate was like, “We really love Kumail, but he might be in Guardians of the Galaxy 3. I don’t know if you guys can get him.” Life happened and he found his way back to us. Nobody could have played that role better than Kumail. That was true of almost everyone in this film. We would have a vision and then a couple of phone calls are made, and when Kevin calls you, I think you usually pick up the phone.
You introduced Marvel’s first gay hero. Did Marvel suggest that? Was that a pitch from you?
Kaz: It was never mandated from on high. I was raised by two women in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was the ’90s. It was a different time, but if you were going to do that, it was a good place to be. It was very normal for me. That normalcy, that completely unremarkable nuance of everyday life, was something I wanted to really reflect from the beginning. It was not this opportunity to say, “Look how special and diverse this movie is.” That’s not what the world is like. We are all people. We all laugh the same way, we cry the same way. That was something we really wanted, was to make that diversity unremarkable. To make it the normal. … That was something from the beginning we brought that to this movie. Marvel, to their great credit, every step of the way, was like, “Yes.”
One of my favorite characters was Harish Patel’s Karun, aka Kingo’s valet. Was he in your draft?
Kaz Firpo: We have to give huge credit to Patrick Burleigh [the screenwriter who came in after the Firpos] for that. We had a version of them, and Patrick went gangbusters with that. He’s another human surrogate you need on the journey. That [character] was someone we played with as the director of all his films. Once upon a time Gilgamesh [Don Lee] hung out with Kingo. They were working together. So there was a similar dynamic.
Ryan Firpo: When we had 12 characters, Gilgamash was not paired with Thena. He was Kingo’s valet, so he essentially was that character, but as Gilgamesh.
You don’t usually see Marvel heroes die, outside of an Infinity War or an Endgame. Usually they are around 10 years onscreen. How much did you debate who lived and who died?
Kaz Firpo: There was a big question mark over everyone. You watch a Marvel movie, and these people are unkillable, immortal superheroes, so how do you make the stakes matter? How do you make the audience fear for and love and be challenged by the adventure? When someone is fallible and can die — then anyone can die. That makes a movie feel very alive. That was something we strived to do. Yes, maybe a few more died along the way in the old version of the script.
Ryan Firpo: I remember early on, they were pretty bold and willing to be cavalier with who died. We really wanted to show how dangerous the Deviants were, so there were even versions where they were talking about having an Eternal die in the very first battle sequence. “Oh, that might be a little too extreme. We want to at least get to know them a little bit before they die.” It all speaks to the approach Marvel took with Eternals. It’s a very risky project and it’s a big swing and they were willing to put it all out there and try something different.
Angelina Jolie was attached early. What is that process of learning she’d be in the film?
Kaz Firpo: There’s this moment where Nate walked into the room and he’s like, “Who could she be?” And we’re like, “Who could who be?” And he’s like, “Oh, Angelina Jolie.” “Well!” It became this great process. We wrote three or four drafts before Chloé came on board. Then we wrote three or four drafts with Chloé. Along the way, we were casting and developing. “OK, this is that actor, this is that actor.” Being able to write for someone’s voice. Kumail, I think 50 percent of his lines he made up on set. But writing that character who has that journey, and who has that arc, who is that sort of vulnerable, tragic clown. He’s hilarious, but he’s coming from a place of insecurity. And all these things I think Kumail did perfectly. Knowing you have that person’s quality, as a writer, is a gift.
How much were you debating the tragic twist with Ajak and Ikarus? How early do you know that’s the direction you are going in?
Ryan Firpo: We had that idea early on. It’s really the foundation of the story, really. It’s the twist that’s the impetus of everything. That was an idea that came early on that was in tandem with the love relationship between Sersi and Ikaris and the other elements of that triangle. And then all leading up to the very end. All of those things were part of the early, early pitch stages.
Kaz Firpo: The big opportunity to have those twists and turns is something from the beginning we were interested in just as storytellers. Also, this is a challenging, different and exciting movie and the opportunity to do challenging, different and exciting things is one of the things that is most interesting to tackle in a story of this size and scope. We really did want to challenge these notions of good and evil and duty and responsibility and love and what makes a family.
You both have aspirations to direct and produce original films, Ruin among them. Would you do a Disney+ show or another Marvel movie, or are you more interested in developing some of your spec scripts as directorial vehicles?
Kaz Firpo: Both. This project has been the gift that keeps on giving. The pandemic was an incredibly challenging experience for the whole planet, but we took a little time to write my debut feature as a director, which is called The Motor City Girls, which is about five teenage girls in Detroit in the 1990s with strange and dangerous powers, trying to figure out and dismantle the cult that their father started 20 years ago. It’s a supernatural detective story. It’s a work of American magical realism. Ryan is writing and producing and I’m directing. We’ve even said jokingly that there should be an Eternals prequel show on Disney+. Go back and do a Kingo episode in 1890s Mumbai where he is juggling his life as a movie star, dealing with Gandhi’s peaceful dissolution of the British empire in India. And there’s an episode with Thena where she’s in Greece. I would love to make that show. There are a lot of opportunities. If the audiences allow us, there’s going to be a story to tell with Dane Whitman. There’s going to be a story to tell in the Cosmos with the Eternals confronting Arishem and all the Celestials who are these incredible metaphors for creation. I think there’s a lot of stories in the Eternals universe.
Ryan Firpo: It’s an exciting time to be a storyteller. With Disney+, with movies, there are so many opportunities to tell these stories and so many different formats. It’s a really exciting time to just explore new frontiers in narrative.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.