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When Eric Pearson landed the job as screenwriter for Thor: Ragnarok, he was given two imperatives: Chris Hemsworth’s god of thunder should be the movie’s coolest character, and the project shouldn’t be restrained by the franchise’s past.
The film succeeded on both counts. Ragnarok has become Marvel Studios’ best-reviewed film yet and is poised for a huge opening weekend. It’s is a big win, considering the franchise has never been as beloved as other Marvel Cinematic Universe mainstays like the Captain America, Iron Man or Guardians of the Galaxy films. The previous installment, 2013’s Thor: The Dark World is Marvel’s worst-reviewed film, yet Pearson and director Taika Waititi have helped make this new Thor feel fresh and relevant in a way that’s all but unheard of for the third installment of a franchise.
Pearson came up through the Marvel Studios’ Writers Program, which also helped launch the career of Guardians of the Galaxy screenwriter Nicole Perlman. During his time with the program, which no longer exists, he submitted three screenplays based on Marvel characters, and then graduated to working for Marvel on the company’s popular one-shot short films featured on Blu-ray releases. He parlayed that experience into writing for ABC’s beloved Agent Carter as well as helping out with some uncredited work on Ant-Man after Edgar Wright exited, a shake-up that put a lot of pressure on the 2015 film that Peyton Reed took over.
“That’s probably what brought me into Thor. They were like, ‘We have a pressure-filled situation and we know Eric can turn it around fast and work within our system and knows the world and knows the characters,'” says Pearson, who shares screenwriting credits on Ragnarok with Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost.
In a conversation with Heat Vision, Pearson also speaks about the long hours that go into getting a Marvel script in shape and the intimidation factor that comes with writing lines for one of the best actors in the world.
There are few people credited on the Ragnarok screenplay. When did you come into the process?
I remember getting in the call. It was Dec. 23, 2015. And Brad Winderbaum [Marvel Studios vp production and development] called me and asked me to find my agent and be ready to come in and work as soon as the break was over, and basically there had been some work done but we were kind of starting over. I found my agent wherever he was at Christmas. I thought it was going to be Jan. 2, but on Sunday, Jan. 1, “Nope, we’re going in now.” You don’t complain about going into work when [Marvel Studios head] Kevin Feige, Taika and everyone are there. … They were shooting in July. Then it was just off and running. It was intense.
What challenges did you face as you approached writing a third Thor movie?
There were tons of challenges. I came in when there were so many puzzle pieces already there. When I got there, they were kind of finalizing Cate Blanchett for Hela. They wanted to use Skurge, they wanted to use Valkyrie. They knew the Hulk was going to be in there. They dumped all the puzzle pieces out in front of me and said, “Build a puzzle,” basically. Things that stuck out from the very beginning, the meeting with Kevin and Taika and Brad was, Taika was very much like, “I want this to be fun. I want Thor to be the coolest character. It’s a Thor movie. He should be the coolest character.” And, “Do not be restrained by anything from the previous two movies.” We talked out the logic of it, too. Even Thor’s voice. He’s been hanging around Earth a lot, he’s been around Tony Stark a lot. He’s going to be picking up other stuff and have a different way of talking. Where they left off in The Dark World, he was kind of going off to do his own thing, and we were picking him up an indefinite amount of time after that. He’s been out there on his own, finding himself, and we find what he found basically. This was the new, Thor 2.0, I guess.
Who is the toughest character to write?
The toughest character to write had to be Hela. I think there is a built-in intimidation factor of it being Cate Blanchett, who I would say at the very least is tied with a couple of others for the best in the world. Because we were moving so fast and I had to turn the script around so fast, those first two months, January and February, my weekend meant I got to work from home on Sunday. I was in the office, sometimes until two, three in the morning. I would think, as we were moving forward, “You know what I really want? I want Hela to give a speech. I want to see Cate Blanchett as the Goddess of Death stating her intentions to a bunch of people.” That was one approach.
It never occurred to me how intimidating it could be to write a character when you already know one of the best actors in the world will play her.
Hela was the one that took the most work and probably that I felt most insecure about until we got it into the shape we got it in. I really wanted Cate Blanchett to be happy with her role. As intimidated as I couldn’t help but be, she was an unbelievably sweet, fun, great person to be around. All of the set experiences were fantastic. All of the actors were fantastic. She did kind of a vocal warmup thing and she had a lot of scenes in crowds. She would also say in the morning, “Whoever wants to come along and do this thing with me.” And of course Taika would get up there. People were doing these wacky sound vocal warmup things. It felt very family. I don’t want to give up the impression that she’s aloof or intimidating. I was just intimidated on my own.
There will be much more from Pearson Sunday morning at Heat Vision, when we will post the spoiler-filled portion of our conversation. Thor: Ragnarok opens Friday.
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Santa Barbara International Film Festival