The press junkets for new Marvel Studios movies have turned into pre-release victory laps over the years. Ever since the triumph of THE AVENGERS, there has been an expectation that each film is destined for box office glory as they individually prime the pump for the much-anticipated second go-round for Earth's Mightiest Heroes. So it was a nice change of pace to drop in on the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY junket and find the Marvel gang hustling a little. Sure, they've got that Marvel logo affixed to the trailers and posters, but this is the first new series they've introduced since CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER. They've got some selling to do this time out.
Not that it's a hard sell. The cosmic adventures of Star-Lord, Gamora, Rocket Raccoon, Groot and Drax the Destroyer will prove every bit as appealing to Marvel's four-quadrant audience as all that's come before - if not more so. In several significant ways, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is the most entertaining movie the studio has turned out to date. It's a lightning-in-a-bottle mix of comedy and sci-fi action that recalls the likes of GHOSTBUSTERS and GALAXY QUEST; it may not be as tightly constructed as those films, but it has more than enough laughs and heart to get in the conversation. It's just a ridiculous amount of fun.
And it's an especially satisfying achievement for Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige, who is about to prove he can launch a franchise based on comic book characters most of the general public has never heard of before. It's certainly a much happier subject to discuss than ANT-MAN, another risky production that recently went through a very public director search after its initial filmmaker, Edgar Wright, bowed out due to creative differences. When I interviewed Feige a few days before the start of Comic Con, I was eager to talk about the highs and lows of the last few months since their last runaway smash (CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER), and how these experiences might impact their process going forward. He also explained how the company determines what to bring to Comic Con, and why they couldn't announce the star of their forthcoming DOCTOR STRANGE.
Jeremy: You chose a bit of a wildcard director in James Gunn. I spoke with him at length recently, and he said the idea that got him excited about directing the film was a treatment by Brian Lynch. And he was crushed when he got the next draft of the script because a) it wasn't by Brian Lynch, and b) he liked it even less than the previous draft he'd read. I guess Brian had a prior commitment to another studio. So James went off to write his own draft, which basically wound up being what I saw the other night. Obviously, you guys were pleased with James's draft, but he said you confessed to him later that you were worried when he went off to write it on his own. What would've happened had he brought back something that didn't work for you?
Feige: We would've brought in another writer to keep working. I'll say a few things: one, the reason we're here is because of the draft Nicole Perlman, who has credit on this film, wrote when she was part of our writers program. That's what moved us along, but there were things that we wanted to change. That's why Brian Lynch and I believe another writer came on board and did a version. I forget what James read before coming on, but this movie is 100% James Gunn. The bones are what Nicole put together, but the soul and everything else is James.
We hired him to direct, and he said, "Hey, let me do an outline." I know he did an outline first because the cover of the outline was a Walkman. It was so fucking awesome. Just seeing that I thought, "This is going to be good" - even before I read a word. Just a guy with the balls to be working on his first big Marvel movie, a space opera epic, and to have the cover of that thing be just a 1980s Walkman, it was so great. I started going, "That should be the teaser poster!" And, yes, that outline and the script itself was great, and we all went "Whew!" There were some changes that were made after that, as there always are, but he rolled with all of it and got it to what you saw.
Jeremy: As a filmmaker, James has a distinct sensibility. This is the man who gave us HUMANZEE! and SUPER. That stuff's all over the place tonally, and get pretty damn disgusting at times. Basically, he is not the guy you'd typically associate with Marvel Studios. But it worked. And yet now, after all you went through on ANT-MAN, I'm wondering if you've changed your mind about what constitutes a "Marvel director". Would you ever give a director final cut?
Feige: No. We'd never give a director final cut, just as a matter of policy. It's not about me having final cut, it's about Marvel having final cut. We're the company that was in bankruptcy in the late-'90s and into the early-2000s that had success with the X-MEN movies and FANTASTIC FOUR movies - financially, if not critically. And, of course, the SPIDER-MAN movies. And then Marvel said, "Wait a minute, we're not making any money off these movies. Let's become our own studio." The whole purpose of becoming our own studio was to be able to make the decisions; this studio was founded on having creative say. Now, if it was just about us having the creative say and hiring people to do what we say, I wouldn't have hired any of the filmmakers we've hired. None of the people we've hired are just shooters who roll over and do what we say. We hire people with their own visions and ideas to collaborate, which has has worked on all of our movies - most recently and perhaps most notably with GUARDIANS. I would say the same thing about all of the movies, but especially THE AVENGERS. You look at that, and people forget that this was Joss Whedon inheriting kind of a structure - because we gave him a beginning, middle and end, and a little of what we wanted the movie to be. And yet it is clearly a Joss Whedon movie, which is similar to this - except the cast wasn't in place. James cast them. But I think we will continue to hire directors the way we have.
As it relates to ANT-MAN, that was just a particular thing that happens sometimes to a lot of studios. ANT-MAN is our twelfth movie, and it's the first time anything happened like that with us in twelve movies. It's nothing different than what has happened to other movies at other studios, and it could happen again. But I don't see it changing the way we do things.
Jeremy: The ANT-MAN thing was a real flashpoint in the geek community, and there were a lot of questions that came out of it. The one I've been asked the most is why, after eight years of development with Edgar, did the project run aground mere months before production?
Feige: Edgar and I sat down and said, "Clearly, this isn't working. We'll put out a joint statement saying it's 'creative differences', because it is. Nobody will believe us because that's what everyone says when there's a problem, but that really is the truth." And I said, "Edgar, don't worry one way or the other. Everyone will think it's just the evil studio." Which is now the case. He was rightfully concerned with "What will this mean?" And I said, "All everyone will believe is that it's the evil studio squashing a vision." so we were totally prepared for it.
I saw a comment, and please don't make more of it if it's not a thing, that said, "Oh, maybe this is about GUARDIANS. Maybe they don't want to take chances anymore." What was so frustrating about that is that I literally went from that meeting with Edgar to go talk to James about some fun, crazy stuff - which you haven't even seen yet. I'm thinking, "I'm getting shit online for not taking chances, and we're sitting here doing this!" People were saying, "Oh, it's not tracking well." Tracking hadn't even come out yet - and it's tracking well now, by the way. That annoyed me: that it was going to have some sort of negative impact in the geek community about James, and that was clearly not the case. It was just honest-to-goodness creative differences about the collaboration. And although it had been eight years that we had been talking about it, Edgar did three movies in that time, and we did a bunch a movies in that time. Edgar wasn't working on ANT-MAN nonstop, and we weren't working on ANT-MAN nonstop. It had probably been less than a year that we'd been actively working together for the first time, and we just realized there was a different level of partnership or collaboration than he was used to.
Jeremy: We've heard a lot about Marvel's "Creative Committee" over the years. Who comprises it?
Feige: It's not a secret. It's Alan Fine, who's a President of Marvel and has been a part of the company for a long time; Joe Quesada, who I'm sure you know; Dan Buckley, who was involved in publishing and is now in television; and Brian Michael Bendis. That's it. And it came about as saying, "Hey, these are smart guys who think about these characters all the time. Let's put something together to have a sounding board."
Jeremy: Filmmakers often have a producer who's looking out for them on these big productions, who sticks up for their vision. Is there a producer on these movies serving that role?
Feige: With the Creative Committee… Marvel, internally, gets their input, and then myself, Louis D'Esposito and the executive producers - in this case, Jeremy Latcham and Jonathan Schwartz - go and work with the filmmakers and the screenwriters on the script, and getting [the committee's] input into it. I do think that we protect the filmmaker by protecting the movie. I just did an interview with James, and he said something that was really nice. He said, "It was a great collaboration. It was the best partnership I've ever had." We're both completely different people, but we both love movies and, in particular, these kinds of movies. Even when we had disagreements - which, of course, we had - it was always in service of the final movie. Sometimes he was right, sometimes I was right, but it was always about servicing the film. To me, that is ultimately protecting the filmmaker. But you're right: there are some producers whose job is to get the director's say through no matter what. It's a different thing here.
Jeremy: How much do you feel you can disclose ahead of time at Comic Con? Obviously, you want to whet the appetite, but not overfeed them. How do you determine what you can announce at Comic Con? For instance, there's obviously an expectation that you'll reveal who's playing Doctor Strange.
Feige: We reveal what's ready to reveal. It's that mundane. "Do we have footage ready?" Last year, I didn't know we were going to show that GUARDIANS clip until a week or so before, because we just happened to cut together something that we liked. I didn't know that Mark Ruffalo was going to come out and announce himself as Bruce Banner in front of all The Avengers until a day before - because that's when his contract was signed. So it just comes down to what's ready by that time. We schedule some things around Comic Con, sometimes getting some effects shots in the works. You remember the IRON MAN THREE Comic Con footage showcase with his house coming down? That was a year before the movie came out, and it was only ready because six or seven months before we went, "Let's get these shots going so we have something to show at Comic Con." But not everything is dictated in terms of timing with Comic Con, not even announcing release dates the week before. That's just about planting flags before other people plant flags.
Jeremy: How fluid are things creatively at Marvel? For instance, if GUARDIANS wasn't quite the hit you wanted it to be, would you then consider, say, finding a place for Hulk in the sequel to give it a boost? Because you're up to 2019 with release dates.
Feige: They are as fluid as they are firm. If you're completely rigid with anything, it's going to break. There are ideas that have come about, that are my favorite parts of the movies, that have come about late in the game. We are fluid, and we do want to have the leeway to embrace new things as they happen. It's a guide map when we project out that far.
The determination of when we announce something, by the way, is not about "Are we creatively sure about them?" There are other pieces and factors that come into play. For instance: the Doctor Strange actor. We can know who we want, but until something is signed and agreed to, we can't go, "It's this guy!" Then they say, "Hey, I'm not doing it!" And we have to go "It's not this guy!" So who knows?
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY hits theaters Friday, August 1st.