A team of A-list writers worked on the Thor movie, including J. Michael Straczynski an Mark Protosevich. Stentz and Miller worked with Marvel after Straczynski and Protosevich, with Don Payne joining the fold and staying on through production. We speak to Payne later this week and we got to sit down with Stentz and Miller at the Thor press junket and talk a bit about X-Men: First Class too.
CraveOnline: What had J. Michael Straczynski and Mark Protosevich laid out in their first pass at the story?
Ashley Miller: Mark obviously did a lot of work when Matthew Vaughn was attached to the project. That film was very much about Thor in Viking times as opposed to modern times. So it was very Asgard focused. It was really more about the Norse mythology of it all but obviously a lot of what he did in terms of that Asgard story I think informed the places that Marvel, Kevin [Feige] and Ken [Branagh] arrived with what they wanted to do.
Zack Stentz: It’s kind of tough for us to speak to it because while what they did informed what we did, it was indirectly through Marvel. We were working directly with Marvel and with Ken on ideas that they had. A lot of those, as we found out later, were from earlier iterations of the script but it’s kind of tough to pick out which came from who when you didn’t actually see it yourself.
CraveOnline: Including Straczynski’s drafts?
Zack Stentz: J. Michael Straczynski, my understanding is, did a couple of drafts that were very, very different. Then later on, he was brought back to do an outline and it’s much more the outline that he did. You can see a couple of things that made it into the final movie that was what Marvel was drawing on when they were talking to us.
CraveOnline: Is Thor a tough one to explain to audiences because it’s not just a guy with powers?
Ashley Miller: I don't think so because you have to look at it this way. The audience at this point is educated on comic book movies, on superhero movies. The bar for the willing suspension of disbelief has been moved somewhat by the number of those films that have appeared over the last decade, 20 years depending on whether or not you count Batman ’89 as the demarcation point for the onslaught of superhero comic book films. So I don't know that it’s necessarily more difficult to explain Thor than it is to explain a rich guy who puts a pointy had on and goes and beats the crap out of people. All you have to explain to an audience to get them in the seat, number one, is to show them a trailer or show them an image that they find exiting. Then when you sit them down in the theater, you have to tell them a story they can understand. If that story tracks, if the character tracks, if they’re involved, everything else falls into place. You never have to tell them about it. You just have to dramatize it.
Zack Stentz: The thing is the mythology for Thor, both from Norse mythology and from the Marvel universe is incredibly rich and dense and wonderful, the nine realms and all of that but my seven-year-old is excited to see Thor and he doesn’t know any of that. He just knows he’s a big cool guy with a hammer. The movie works if you just want to see a cool guy with a hammer kicking ass.
CraveOnline: It’s interesting Thor and Green Lantern are making it out in the same year, because that’s also in space with more complex mythology.
Zack Stentz: Well, I think this is the year the comic book movie is practicing genre blending. This is really the year, in the case of Thor it’s with this kind of cosmic angle and the Shakespearean family drama. With X-Men it’s a Cold War political thriller or a Connery Bond movie on some level. Then Captain America is a World War II movie.
CraveOnline: Is X-Men: First Class a different sort of Marvel movie because it’s with Fox and separate from the Avengers universe?
Ashley Miller: Where to start on that one? I think X-Men: First class is not only different from what we’re seeing with the other Marvel movies. I think it’s very different even from the other X-Men movies because the place that Bryan [Singer] really wanted to go with that movie I think was to consciously go to a different place. Normally the structure of these things is you meet a hero, the hero gets a power, the hero learns to use the power, the hero meets the villain who’s also got a power. They fight. Bad things happen. In the end, the hero actually becomes the hero and he sails off into the sunset. What I think was in Bryan’s head and what really very much informed the process was: how do you tell a story where the super powers aren’t about putting on a costume? Where the powers are the problem? That’s very true I think in X-Men and X2 and the other X-Men films.
CraveOnline: Were you ever privy to the David Goyer script for Magneto?
Ashley Miller: Actually I think that David rewrote Sheldon Turner and they were developing Magneto because I think David was going to direct it.
Zack Stentz: We only saw the script when the film went to arbitration but again, it was something as with Thor, elements from it were being pulled into what we were doing.
Ashley Miller: That’s the development process.
CraveOnline: What are the difference between balancing the ensemble of X-Men and the ensemble of Thor with the Asgardians?
Ashley Miller: It’s night and day because in Thor, you’ve got a very clear protagonist. His name is right here on the title card. You know that you’re telling his story and you could strip out all of those other elements. You could strip out SHIELD, you could strip out the Warriors Three, you could just give them cameos. You could do all of that, you can still tell a Thor story. The ensemble isn’t inherent to the title or the character. It’s important flavor. It adds depth to it but it’s not the essence of what it is. When you’re talking about an X-Men film, the ensemble is the film. X-Men plural. You can’t just tell a story about Charles Xavier. I mean, you can, but then you’re not really telling an X-MEN story.
Zack Stentz: Even the Sheldon Turner and David Goyer Magneto script which had the name of the character in it, still ended up bringing in Xavier and bringing in the X-Men school and bringing in other characters as well because one of those characters doesn’t really make any sense outside of the context of that universe of humans and mutants.
Ashley Miller: The other thing about it is in terms of the actual practical challenge of accomplishing it: with a film like Thor, everybody revolves around Thor and his story and that’s kind of easy. With an ensemble cast, with an ensemble story that’s that complicated dramatically, you have to look at it as what’s your central relationship? And how do the characters who surround that central relationship but are also important have real things to do, but their stories don’t feel like they’re off in a different movie? You have to kind of build the layers into it so it’s a different process. It’s a different process of finding the characters and finding the story inherent to it.
Zack Stentz: Action scene are easier to write too.
Ashley Miller: Damn right they are.
CraveOnline: How detailed do you write the battle scenes in either movie?
Ashley Miller: Very.
Zack Stentz: Different writers have different approaches to that but we always approach a unit of action as a unit of drama. It has to have a beginning, middle and end. The hero has to want something and there have to be obstacles in the way of getting that.
Ashley Miller: And those specific things that happen reveal character. So there should be no such thing as an action scene that you can just drop out of a film, because the best action scenes reveal character.
Zack Stentz: I think where films go wrong is you have drama, drama, drama and then an action scene breaks out instead of as Ash said, treating the action as part of the drama. Again, as complicated as it is to write those in terms of what the beats are, you just go back to first principals of what do the good guys want, what do the bad guys want and how are they interfering with each other?
CraveOnline: Are you allowed to make references to any other Marvel universes in X-Men?
Ashley Miller: Obviously there are legal considerations. You have to stick within the realm of what Fox has the rights to number one. Then number two, you also have to be true to the universe that’s been created. In Bryan Singer’s X-Men universe, there are only the X-Men. So you have to remember that. When you’re working on Thor, you can go crazy and let me tell you, we did. I think our first draft was practically one gigantic Easter egg but when you’re dealing with the X-Men, you’ve got four films behind you, four films that have established a certain reality and you can’t break that reality.
CraveOnline: What were some of the good Easter eggs you had to lose from Thor?
Zack Stentz: We actually got to keep most of them, like Barton and one of the other SHIELD agents is Sitwell who’s also from the comic books. Oh, once upon a time they were going to an abandoned airfield and we called it Chester Phillips Airfield. That was the general who was in charge of the super soldier program back in World War II.
Ashley Miller: Actually, there was even a very explicit Captain America reference. We had a whole exchange about a conspiracy theory about the whole super soldier program and Captain America, but all that’s gone. It’s been broomed out. It was awesome but it’s gone.
CraveOnline: I’ve got to tell you guys, I adored The Sarah Connor Chronicles.
Ashley Miller: Thank you.
CraveOnline: I did everything I could to write about it and promote it. I think even Josh Friedman got sick of me.
Zack Stentz: It’s still very close to our heart.
Ashley Miller: It broke our heart to lose it and by the way, don’t take it personally from Josh. He’s sick of everyone, including himself.
Zack Stentz: Perhaps most of all himself.
CraveOnline: The story I still want to hear, do you have it in your heads?
Ashley Miller: What happened next? You know what, we do but Josh would kill us if we told you.
CraveOnline: But you have to write it as if there’s going to be more and expect the best. As soon as you write it as a finale, you doom it.
Ashley Miller: Josh said something very, very wise when we were breaking that story. We knew that it was possible we wouldn’t be coming back. He said, “Look, we have two choices. Either we can do some half assed attempt at wrapping everything up and having this little finale where we’re done telling everything and it’s not satisfying and the audience doesn’t like it very much and they feel cheated and they hate us. Or, we could write a finale where we just tell our story. We get our characters to where we feel we need them to be, where they would get organically. Then we end it. If the audience is going to be frustrated with us, they’ll be frustrated with us because they want more. That’s what we want.”
Zack Stentz: You always leave them wanting more.