Russ Sheath here. Screen writing and production partners Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick defined the term 'hot property' when their 'intended for TV' pilot, ZOMBIELAND jumped to the big screen and became a cinematic success. Making stars of the likes of Emma Stone and Jessie Eisenberg ZOMBIELAND elevated the scribes to Hollywood 'hot property' status and according to Internet scuttlebutt the pair became attached to any project demanding of 'geek credentials'.
When the duo became attached to the sequel to the Stephen Summer's 2009 flick GI JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA, it was viewed as an astute move on the part of Paramount. In Reese and Wernick Paramount had managed to bring onboard writer with proven genre related credibility and who would appeal to the fan base and the mainstream alike. With significant buzz forming around the duo's on again / off again screenplay for X-MEN spin off and Ryan Reynolds vehicle DEADPOOL, a potential sequel to ZOMBIELAND and a solo outing for Spidey bad guy VENOM, the pair began work on GI JOE 2 in 2009.
Almost four years after the first outing, including a postponed release to accommodate 3D conversion, a year of rumors around rewrites and reshooting and an expanded role for the suddenly 'hot' Channing Tatum, I spoke to Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick about the long and rocky road to GI JOE: RETALIATION. As it says in the headline, there are spoilers in this interview, so if you want to head into the film fresh, read no further.
RUSS SHEATH (RS): Guy's, many thanks for taking part in this interview and congratulations on the movie. How are you both doing?
RHETT REESE (RR) and PAUL WERNICK (PW) : Hey Russ, we're great, thank you.
RS: We had the UK premiere of GI Joe: RETALIATION last Monday and it just rained and rained the whole day. You had the lovely girls from the movie in their spectacular dresses getting very, very wet.
RR: I saw a very funny picture of The Rock standing under an umbrella and some guy dressed as Storm Shadow who was not under an umbrella. The caption was 'Ninjas don't need umbrellas because they can dodge rain' (laughs).
RS: The Rock under an umbrella isn't the manliest pose.
RR: He needs an umbrella where the handle is shaped like a rifle butt or something (laughs).
RS: So, guys many congratulations on the movie.
PW: What did you think? How was it?
RS: I enjoyed it very much. I think it’s a movie that fans will embrace and I had a good chat with Jon who is really optimistic about the direction that the franchise can go in, following this second installment. I think it's going to be great when audiences can get out there and see it and I think that's testament to you guys.
PW: Thanks you so much, it was a lot of fun.
RS: Lets begin by going all the way back to the beginning and you guys becoming involved in writing GI JOE: RETALIATION. Are you both fans of GI Joe from the comic or animated series?
PW: We are absolutely both GI Joe fans, although Rhett is probably a bigger GI Joe fan that I am.
RR: I was pretty obsessed by GI Joe in the 80's, especially the Larry Hama GI Joe. I read the comics and between me and my brother we bought every single toy from that line except the aircraft carrier, the USS Flagg, but we had everything else and we used them to make movies.
We must have been 11 or 12 and we had our little video camera and that was probably my entree into Hollywood and when Paramount came looking for someone to write the sequel it was a match made in heaven for me. I wanted to be able to go back in time and talk to my 11 year old self because I knew he'd be doing handsprings down the street (laughs).
RS: When the call came from Paramount, did you have to pitch your take on what the future of GI JOE would be?
PW: We absolutely pitched on it. They didn't give us too many restrictions and were very open. They wanted some fresh blood and they left us to our creative devices to write the movie which was very, very exciting. We felt that the best way was to tie in the first movie but without it being a traditional sequel, if that makes sense.
RR: We used one element from the first movie that being Zartan in disguise as the United States President. We felt that it was a cool idea to imagine what a bad guy would do in the White House, like giving the teenager the keys to the car except the car is the country of the United States. Almost everything we did flowed out of that decision.
RS: Was it a challenge going into the second chapter of a series and having to pay homage to the first chapter?
RR: It was not too much of a challenge for us because Paramount gave us a blank enough slate that we were able to use whatever combination of the characters we wanted. There were certain restrictions but those restrictions resulted from GI Joe lore, like there was no way we were going to write a GI Joe movie without Snake-Eyes and Storm Shadow, for instance.
They were very open when we said that we didn't want to use The Baroness and that we didn't want to make Destro a big character, although obviously he's in the movie for a very short time, they were very open to that, so we didn't feel restricted. We got to pick and choose who we wanted to keep and who we wanted to reduce and thankfully the lore has tons and tons of characters to draw from so it allowed us to pick the more minor characters, like Firefly, and to give them a larger role.
PW: Its not a sequel in the traditional sense of a sequel because we are only launching off that first movie and are only using one element of that. Really, the only character that carries through from the first movie is Duke, so we had the benefit of it being a sequel without having our hands tied.
RS: How did you go about writing the movie? Was it a case of 'here are some set pieces and let’s work those into a story'. What was your process?
RR: We developed a parallel narrative as we wanted to do one story about Snake-Eyes and Storm Shadow and another story about the rest of the Joes and have them interweave. Our second choice was to make the movie a revenge movie. Cobra gain the upper hand and we have them decimate a lot of the Joes early in the movie and then have a few rag-tag Joes fight back in the second half.
We had a nice spine set up for us with this idea Zartan posing as the United States President, a lot of our set pieces and action scenes revolved around what a United States President would do if he were looking to take over the entire world.
There were set pieces, for instance the monastery scene which came from the comics and Larry Hama's 'Silent Interlude' which was a comic that I adored as a kid. There wasn't a line of dialogue in the whole thing.
In our initial pitch to Paramount we said we'd like Snake-Eyes and Storm Shadow to square off in a monastery high up in the Himalayas' and have roughly ten minutes of the movie pass without a single line of dialogue. Thankfully they got really jazzed about that idea.
We began that sequence with the idea of Snake-Eyes and Jinx diving off the mountainside in wing-suits, before they used it in Transformers. When we pitched it our Producer Lorenzo got this really bummed look on his face and said, 'we can't use this guys because they are already using that in Transformers,' so we had to be creative there.
There was this rock climber in the United States called Dan Osman who used to do this thing called 'rope jumping'. He would climb up mountains and as he was climbing he would fix ropes into the side of mountains, jump off and use the rope to arrest his fall. He ended up dying doing this exact thing but he put these amazing videos on the Internet of him jumping off mountains using ropes. That led us to the concept of Snake-Eyes and Jinx escaping, not by the means of a wingsuit, but by these ropes attached to the rock faces with various ninjas chasing them. Those kind of things you brainstorm and end up piecing together a story.
PW: We thought that there would be no way that we'd see that sequence in the movie. It’s really a testament to Jon, to our actors and the studio for allowing us to do it. I can't think of one movie that has ten minutes of silence without dialogue...
RR:...buried in a larger movie where there is a lot of dialogue. It was a lot of fun that they allowed us to do it.
RS: You've mentioned “Silent Interlude” from issue 21 of GI JOE, are there any other aspects of the Larry Hama GI JOE mythos that you wanted to include or that you'd like to include later on?
RR: Just the vast number of characters makes it difficult but I think the Baroness would have to be in GI JOE 3. We set her aside for this particular movie and we were sad not to use her but we had Firefly, Storm Shadow and Cobra Commander and we had this Prison Warden who is kind of a semi-villain. We had so many villains that were afraid we were going to get villain fatigue, but the biggest bummer is that you can't include everything. You also had to include certain vehicles and certain weapons systems and characters and use them in certain ways.
PW: I think we kept things pretty evenly in check. We felt good about who was in the movie and we never wished that we could throw one more Joe in there, especially considering that the plot was 'few Joes up against the world'.
RS: Do you guys have any favorite stories from the comics that you'd like to see translated in future installments?
RR: The comics set up all the characters and everything came out of Larry Hama's head so we owe everything to the comic. In terms of the specific plot, and it’s been a long time since we read all those comics. We went back and read 'Silent Interlude' again and a couple of others, but much of everything the GI Joe's use, fly around in and drive around in all came from that comic. So it all comes from that in a way.
RS: There are a lot of dead Joes in this movie which might surprise people. Do you have a plan to bring some of those characters back?
RR: That would probably require some kind of reboot...
PW:....we didn't really see those guys die! That's the beauty of it. The way it was done would allow us to go back to some of those characters, if we saw the creative need to do so.
RR: The Baroness is a great example, no one really asked where she is. We could bring her back and I don't think anyone would really blink.
PW: Duke, I'm not sure we could bring back (laughs) although as popular as Channing Tatum is if someone were to suggest it, we'll try. Storm Shadow dies in the first movie and he's back without a spot of blood on his white suit. We did have a fair amount of conversations where we did see Storm Shadow all bit die in that first movie and asked 'do we need to address that'?
RR: We did a draft where we did address it. He was in the Arctic and climbed up onto this piece of ice, but in the end we decided that we didn't need to answer everything for it to be a fun movie. You should be willing and ready to have fun and to go on the ride, so we tried to focus on that.
RS: GI JOE was an extra year coming than originally planned. Were you guys involved in any re-writes or anything like that?
PW: There weren't any re-writes from the point that the decision was made to push it for 3D reasons. When they made the decision to get it out of the crowded summer market place and to push it to 3D to reach some of those international benefits that some of these big tent pole movies are seeing from 3D, it came as a little bit of a surprise to all of us. In terms of the creative though, the movie that was ready to go in 2D is really the movie you are seeing on March 28th in 3D.
RR: The only really frustrating thing for us was having to endure the rumor mill. The movie being vastly rewritten to keep Channing Tatum alive was one big rumor and it just wasn't true. There was reshooting done on the movie, but only four days worth, and it was done before the decision was made to hold it for 9 months.
By reshooting standards in Hollywood the reshoots were tiny and were shot to help some logic questions, so to hear that we were vastly rewriting the movie was very frustrating and people were sounding alarm bells when there was no need to hear them. But that's life and that's the Internet.
RS: How does putting a project, like GI JOE compare to writing a movie like ZOMBIELAND?
PW: It's a vastly, vastly different experience just in terms of the scope, scale and the creative forces that are pulling you in different directions. ZOMBIELAND was a 22 million dollar movie that we made and was an original idea that didn't have a toy company, a big studio and massive stars associated with it.
RR: Woody was a pretty big star, but ZOMBIELAND didn't have the quantity of the big stars that we have in GI JOE. GI JOE was 150 million dollars so everything about it was six times the size of ZOMBIELAND.
PW: it was times six the creative voices and times six almost everything from ZOMBIELAND to GI JOE.
RS: From the time you first got the 'thumbs up' from the studio to the shooting draft of the script, how long was that?
RR: At least two years. We first pitched on it in summer of 2009...from then until now it was a three and a half year process. It takes a while to find a Director, then when a Director comes on there are more rewrites and then we had extra stars coming on. Bruce Willis was a late addition to the process so we had to create a character for him.
The shooting itself takes time and the visual effects take time and then there was that nine month push on top of it. It has been a long time coming and we've had to delay gratification, but I think it's been worth the wait.
PW: It's a pretty fully time job of sitting down and writing and turning in drafts, getting notes and creating new roles.
RS: What's next for you guys?
RR: The most exciting thing is that we are currently working on a ZOMBIELAND television pilot for amazon.com and we will be able to talk more about that soon. We aren't supposed to talk too much about it right now but the idea is to get a ZOMBIELAND television series going. That's the focus of our efforts here which couldn't be more thrilling to us. ZOMBIELAND is something we envisioned originally as a TV show so to return after so many years and to turn it into a TV pilot is a dream come true.
PW: We've got a couple of features in development. We've got Epsilon which is a big tent pole that we wrote on spec over the summer and sold it to Sony Pictures who are currently in search for a Director.
We've a project called COWBOY NINJA VIKING with Marc Forster attached. We've got DEADPOOL swimming over at Fox, the Marvel character with Ryan Reynolds, and we are doing our damnedest to push through.
RR: We can wait to see DEADPOOL made, it would be a dream come true for us.
RS: It would be great for Rob Liefeld too, then he can stop tweeting about how great it would be.
RR: It would be great for him. He's been hanging in there for so long and it's been frustrating that it’s taken as long as it has, but we hope that there's a happy end to the story.
RS: Final question for you guys. Which are your favorite Joes or Cobra characters that you would like to see in future chapters of the cinematic adventures of GI Joe?
PW: I can say without hesitation that my favorite character from childhood was Snake-Eyes. He wore that black mask and I could vicariously imagine that it was my face behind the mask.
I think he became my least favorite character to write because it’s extraordinarily hard to write Snake-Eyes into scenes with other characters where everyone is talking and Snake-Eyes isn't. It's really hard to figure out things for him to do, how he reacts to other people and how to figure out that it doesn't seem silly to have him with other characters but not saying anything. In terms of other characters you've got The Baroness. She's really fun and it was sad to lose her and it will be great to see her in the next movie.
RS: You guys had me when you have Storm Shadow disguised as Snake-Eyes and he spoke.
PW: It was funny. That was the moment, before we pitched it to Paramount that we felt, 'oh my god we may be onto something great here'! It was the moment that probably got us the job, I would say.
RR: We had an intricate scene that didn't make the movie where you actually see Snake-Eyes assassinate the Pakistani President and you think it's Snake-Eyes the whole time, it's the spark that starts the fire. That scene didn't make the movie but we loved building out a certain portion of the movie where you wonder, 'what the hell is Snake-Eyes doing'?
PW: Did Snake-Eyes talking make the final cut? Where you think it's Snake-Eyes that speaks, but it's actually Storm Shadow?
RS: Yeah, it did.
PW: We thought we'd get some people for half a second where they are 'wait a minute, Snake-Eyes talked? This movie is bullshit'! (laughs). But then we are like, 'Ah-ha'!
RS: You certainly had me going. I loved that Storm Shadow in this film was almost a tragic character and even at the end he wasn't a good guy and wasn't a bad guy. Listening to Byung-Hun Lee, he seemed to really enjoy that in the character too.
PW: We want to continue to track that going into the third movie.
RS: Rhett, Paul, a huge thank you for your time and best of luck for the future. GI JOE: RETALIATION hits cinema screens this week.
You can follow Russ Sheath's blog Russwords here and @russellsheath on Twitter here.
Proofs, co-edits & common sense provided by Sleazy G