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[This story contains spoilers for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.]
Much of a screenwriter’s time is spent working on projects in secret, wondering if they will ever get made. While Dave Callaham has experience with that, the past year has seen a dizzying number of films bearing his name released, like Wonder Woman 1984, Mortal Kombat, Netflix’s animated comedy America: The Motion Picture and now Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Marvel Studios’ first film centering on an Asian lead.
The screenwriter, 43, who grew up in the Bay Area and is married with one daughter, worked closely with director and co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton to craft a personal tale that is as much about family dynamics as it is about action. Their work has paid off, with the Simu Liu-starring film breaking records for Labor Day weekend at a time when box office revenues remain hampered by the delta variant.
The in-demand screenwriter is working on a sequel to the Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse with Phil Lord and Chris Miller, and is also penning Disney’s live-action Hercules for the Russo brothers. In a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, Callaham dives into securing Ben Kingsley for his first Marvel big-screen role since 2013’s Iron Man 3, the thinking behind that pulse-pounding bus scene, and crafting Shaun (Liu) and Katy’s (Awkwafina) onscreen relationship.
How are you feeling as you are unveiling Shang-Chi?
It’s a dream come true. As an Asian screenwriter, but also as an Asian man in America, I have not seen a lot of Asian faces in large-scale Western media. I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to see it. Crazy Rich Asians felt very big. But Marvel is a whole other scale.
There’s an internet myth that says that you worked on Ant-Man. What was your relationship with Marvel before Shang-Chi?
I did not know that was an internet myth. That’s interesting. I had met at Marvel a number of times on a number of projects. Some of which were things needing tweaks and some of which were, “We’re about to do x project and we’re about to bring in a bunch of writers to pitch.” It allowed me to get to know most every executive there. But I hadn’t landed the assignment of getting to crack a thing from the jump. I was still eager to do that, and they called about Shang-Chi and it was amazing. I had been, as all writers tend to be, frustrated at different times in my career. To know you are getting meetings at all at Marvel in the 2010s was very meaningful, and it felt great to know they know who I am, but I really wanted to do it. When Shang-Chi happened it suddenly all kind of made sense in the larger-picture way. “This is how it always needed to be.” This was my story to tell in a way that none of the other movies ever could have been.
Before you boarded, producer Jonathan Schwartz did a lot of research in a room alone with the comics. When you are going in to pitch, is he giving you comics and other things he’s looking for?
At the beginning they send out a discussion document. If you are not familiar with the comics, there is always a section, “This is who Shang-Chi is in the publishing. This is what we see him as. These are the things we’d like to avoid. These are possible storylines.” But they are not at all prescriptive. I used to think when I got these things, “OK, they want me to just say this back to them.” But it’s really just meant to inform you what is available to you, and they invite you to come in and give your perspective.
I read the document. I was not familiar with Shang-Chi as a character. They gave me a bunch of comics as well. A number of the older ones, the origin story ones, are pretty problematic in terms of Asian stereotypes. It became a process of figuring out, “What speaks to me the most about this character and story and putting an Asian face on-screen?” I would come in, I would talk about that and where that might fit in an MCU-type of movie. Jonathan would send me notes back. Every now and then you’d get too close to something. He can’t tell you what it is. “Ehh, stay away from that genre. That’s in another room right now” — without ever exposing too much. Other than that, they’d let me do my thing and let me know when they thought it was cool and when it was ready for Kevin, and then I pitched Kevin and the crew and away we went.
Sir Ben Kingsley’s Trevor Slattery returns to the big screen for the first time since 2013’s Iron Man 3. How does that happen? Do you write the project and then just hope you can get him? Are you asking sign-off from Kevin Feige to include him?
In our case, Sir Ben’s character, Trevor Slattery, was really the only connective tissue we had available to us to connect to any previous iteration of the Ten Rings or the Mandarin, because Tony Stark is dead. We knew we wanted to use Sir Ben if it was possible, and that was a question we asked very early. “Would Marvel be open to that? Was that a good experience? Did he enjoy playing Trevor Slattery?” It’s been some time since he was in Iron Man 3 so I din’t know what his appetite is for coming back to a role like that. We asked and Kevin said, “Sounds great. We all love Trevor here. We’d love to see him again. But you guys need to craft the story and then lure him in. And that will be on you guys creatively, to give him something juicy.” I don’t know if we did outlines or had an actual script at the point we first approached him. That’s the moment I believe some version of Destin having to do a Zoom meeting or something like that happened, and he described what we were thinking, and it turns out Sir Ben very much likes to play Trevor Slattery. It worked out.
Shang-Chi has small moments that speak specifically to Asian and Asian American audiences unlike any movie of this scale before. What do you recall about putting those moments in with Destin?
That was just us writing our experiences. We didn’t attempt to write in stuff we heard other Asian American people tell us to put in because that didn’t feel true to us. When we started the casting process, and when we started having more crewmembers, we did ask Simu [Liu] and Nora [Lum, aka Awkwafina], “What is your experience as an Asian American? Have you experienced racism?” We’d incorporate those types of ideas into those characters.
I loved the relationship with Shang and Katy as a deep friendship, but not necessarily a romantic one. How much did you and the team flirt with the idea of, is there more to this than a friendship? Was there talk of a kiss at the end or something unambiguous like that?
We flirted with a lot of variations of that relationship. That relationship was the core emotional relationship for Shang-Chi when he is in America. His name is Shaun, he’s trying to code switch, trying to hide from his ancestry. Katy became this incredibly valuable character for being the audience’s eyes. We knew it was going to be an emotional relationship. We knew as you get deeper into this story and these two are having to share these truths with each other, that was going to have a much deeper than surface-level effect on the both of them. We just didn’t know what the endgame might be at the end of this movie or what the endgame might be going forward.
When did you begin to home in on the importance of the father-son relationship?
I would actually say that was more of a Destin element. I’m very attracted to it. It’s just a universal story. Darth Vader, right? We aren’t reinventing the wheel, but there is a certain element — a lot of Asian cultures, there is the idea of filial piety and pleasing your parents and living up to their expectations and the way that might be different for a male child versus a female child. Destin tells these very character-driven, empathetic stories. That is his background. He is so incredibly talented at it. That was the idea he homed in on immediately, the father-son relationship. But I was very much eager to join him for that ride.
When you get an actor as iconic as Tony Leung on board as Wenwu, does that make you want to tailor the script, as I imagine he brings so much to the role?
That was a character that was really hard to massage into the final form. Not because of Tony, certainly. It’s just because of the things that he believes and because of the motivations he’s utilizing to get to these more villainous ideas. One step too far in either direction and he’s not scary enough or he’s totally unrelatable and kind of a nonsense villain. We wanted this character to be three-dimensional. He’s motivated, ultimately, by love. He is this broken man who has made a bit of a mess of his very long life and just wants desperately to believe he can put things back together, and that’s all very human and very relatable. But we did still need him to be the figurehead of a giant terrorist organization who is looking for magical villages and presumably torturing people in his dungeon and all this other stuff. Finding that balance was tricky.
You’ve said when you write a spec script, your philosophy is to put your best scene very early in the film. What was the calculus of having the bus scene so early? It might be the best fight scene Marvel has ever done, and it came so early, likely before audiences would realize something like that would arrive.
It wasn’t always that early. You play around a lot in the writing, in the shooting and especially the editing. That scene was always designed to be early, but there are flashbacks and backstory all throughout the movie. Those sequences, it was always, “Would it work better here? Can we move it over there? When do we reveal this?” In terms of why that sequence is where it is, that sequence serves as an introduction to this hidden character. We meet Shaun. He’s having a good time. He’s a valet. He’s got this cool best friend. They just kind of dick around a lot. They drive cars. They drink with their friends, they get drunk, they do karaoke. This all feels very real-world. Then suddenly — we knew there had to be an incredible impact for the moment of reveal when suddenly Katy thinks she knows this person; it can’t just be a reference; it has to be, the whole costume comes flying off at once — he is capable of this physical thing that is borderline superhuman. You just need to be there with her watching as this guy she has always thought of as a guy who would never lift a finger is suddenly a kung-fu master. Then it would just escalate from there. That was also an idea Destin had, was doing a scene on a bus. I do remember the day we started looking at pictures of San Francisco buses and realizing they had the accordions in them and we were like, “Oh yeah!” Now there is a whole second half to the fight, because now we can cut the thing off.
You’ve worked with Marvel Studios and with Warner Bros. on a DC movie. How do you compare the two in terms of navigating studio politics and notes?
I had what I think is a pretty typical, wonderful Marvel experience in that they were hands-on at all times, gave me every possible resource I needed, but I knew going in that I was not doing it by myself. I knew I’d be working a lot with [Marvel’s] Kevin [Feige] and Jonathan [Schwartz] and Destin. On Wonder Woman 1984, Patty [Jenkins] brought me into that movie because we had an existing relationship. Any back-and-forth was between me and Patty. I only even met at the studio twice. I got hired without meeting at the studio, which is incredibly rare and was an absolute delight. (Laughs.)
You worked with Phil Lord and Chris Miller on America: The Motion Picture, where you got their attention years ago anonymously writing that script and your joint agent slipping it to them. How did you come to write their Spider-Verse sequel with them?
They said, “We have this animated Spider-Man movie we are doing.” They were still working on the first movie. They couldn’t tell me what it was going to look like. Because it’s them, I said, “I’ll come in and see what you have. I don’t get it.” They showed me an animatic, which at the time looked like napkin drawings with temp vocals and no animation styling behind it. I could feel the heart behind it, but I couldn’t imagine how spectacular this thing could be yet. They showed me some still images of some of the art they had been working on. With them, I trust them implicitly and I believed they were going to do something special. I said, “OK,” and they said, “Great. Pitch us a sequel.” So I began the very strange process of working on the sequel for a year before the original came out.
That is wild that you know you are writing a sequel to an Oscar-winning movie that would become a cultural touchstone.
It wasn’t until that movie came out that it made any sense to anybody in the outside world what it was that I was up to. Then suddenly the interest went from zero to 100 overnight. Suddenly people loved the movie and a couple of months later it wins an Oscar and then the trajectory changes a little bit.
On a Marvel movie, a screenwriter might be on set to tweak things. It’s somewhat loose, whereas on animation things need to be set in stone much earlier, at least the script. Is that what you’ve found?
(Laughs.) That has not been my experience. I believe Phil and Chris will cop to this so I don’t think I’m speaking out of school. They will tinker as long as they can get away with it. Because they come from the school of, “You can always make it better.” I’ve only worked on two animated projects and they are on both of them. So maybe this is not normal. But both America and Spider-Verse have been very long development processes where you are writing scripts and then things are coming in and out and you are seeing art at the same time and they are trying things. But it feels more like an ever-evolving script. Marvel, you are also doing that, but it’s actually more set in stone in live-action because at some point, people have to prep that stuff. There is a point where sets have been built, so this is where this is happening now. Animation, you can futz around with stuff for a very long time.
Is your work on Spider-Verse 2 done? Have you handed off the script to Phil and Chris and moved on to other stuff?
No, I am still (laughs) — the process continues. I am now writing it with Phil and Chris. The three of us. Sometimes it’s one of us. Sometimes it’s two of us. Sometimes it’s three of us, depending on our availabilities, which I am actually very glad for, because they were too busy finishing the first movie when I was writing the initial draft of the second. But I can’t emulate their writing style. I do my best, but now I’ve been able to see how they do their thing and it’s been great. I’m sure we will be writing stuff for that movie until it releases.
Did working with Jean-Claude Van Damme on Amazon’s Jean-Claude Van Johnson make you want to do more television work?
I loved the TV experience. It wasn’t something I was jonesing to do. I am not a writer who is desperate to be the sole voice of a project. So I hadn’t gone into the idea of TV before until Scott Free called me and said, “Jean-Claude Van Damme wants to do TV.” And I was like, “Yeah!” I loved, loved, loved Jean-Claude Van Damme as a kid. I grew up in the ’80s on action movies. I do not look like Jean-Claude Van Damme now or at any stage of his or my life. But he was more relatable to me because he was “smaller” [compared to others ’80s action stars] and he was the guy who relied more on speed and agility and training rather than guns and muscles. So I thought that was cool. I loved him. Got the opportunity to work with him. I got the opportunity to create a writers room, to work with other great minds. I loved every second of it. It’s the best creative experience I’ve ever had, to make that show. And I don’t want to try it again because I’m really scared that it was too perfect.
How did you team with the Russo brothers for Disney’s live-action Hercules?
I had a relationship with them that dated back to somewhere in between Civil War and Infinity War. I had met with them on a different project. I worked on a thing with them that didn’t go anywhere and we just had a good relationship. I think we appreciated one another and the way we all approached storytelling. And then they vanished for two or three years to go shoot those two movies back-to-back. Then they called me two years ago now and said, “We have this thing and we think you’d be great for it. It’s Hercules.” I was hesitant at first. I was eager to work with them, but nervous about how many times Hercules has been attempted in ways that some people might say have not been as successful. I know this is different. I know this is a Disney Hercules and that there’s an existing movie and a thing that people love, but I did struggle for quite some time with, “How would I make a live-action version of Hercules stand out from all the other Herculeses?” When I ultimately told them how I thought I could do that, they were receptive and they championed me and they’ve been great. We are still working on it.
Do you think back fondly on your time starting out as a CAA assistant?
I loved it. It’s famously a hard thing to do. I was not getting paid particularly well, and I was working deep overtime and had no time to myself. I did not go to film school, so for me, it was such a formative moment. And I stole scripts from desks and read them, and that is how I learned to write.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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