Interview: Zak Penn on The Grand, X-Men Fans and Co-Writing Hulk
[UPDATE: After posting this interview, a representative of Zak Penn contacted ComicMix to state that Penn is not attached to a Captain America film at this time, despite the timing of his response during this interview (and our accurate transcription of the interview as it occurred). -RM]
In Hollywood, where "overnight success" can often take many years, writer/director Zak Penn is one of those exceptions that proves the rule. Rocketing to A-list screenwriter status right out of college with his first script, Last Action Hero, Penn has had a varied and successful career during the intervening years.
Since his first sale, Penn has written or contributed to screenplays for films such as Inspector Gadget, X-Men 2, X-Men: Last Stand, The Mask of Zorro, Men In Black, Fantastic Four and the soon-to-be-released Incredible Hulk. In addition to writing, Penn has also taken turns behind the camera and directed two films. His latest directing effort, the improv comedy The Grand, opened last month in Los Angeles and New York — with a wider release to come later this month.
Recently, ComicMix caught up with the talented Mr. Penn to get all the latest news on The Grand, Incredible Hulk, X-Men, as well as his thoughts on dealing with fan reaction to his work and the comic book movie he really wants to make someday.
COMICMIX: Zak, thanks for taking the time to talk. How are you doing?
ZAK PENN: Good, man. Hectic as usual.
CMix: You’ve got a movie you directed that’s just come out in L.A. and New York and opening wider this month. Tell us a little about it.
ZP: The Grand is an improvisational ensemble comedy, set against the backdrop of a World Series Of Poker-type tournament. It’s basically Woody Harrelson, David Cross, Richard Kind, Chris Parnell, Cheryl Hines, Dennis Farina, Ray Romano, Werner Herzog, Gabe Kaplan . . .
CMix: So, a bunch of unknowns, then…
ZP: Yeah, a bunch of nobodies. [Laughs] And Gabe Kaplan and Werner together… So good. I did it like I did my last movie, using an outline and just [improvising] off of it. We shot it and it premiered at Tribeca last year and now its out and expanding to 20 cities this month.
CMix: That’s great. So as a screenwriter, obviously you’ve written a lot of movies, so why improv? Why not write a script?
ZP: I think it kind of forces me to get away from the stuff that I do, you know? I’ve kind of gotten used to writing in a certain style and falling back on certain types of scenes and this forces me out of it. I can’t do those things. So I think part of it is to kind of create a new discipline for myself to get something different done.
One of the things I liked about this movie is, I never would have written this script. If I sat down, I wouldn’t have thought of going in the same directions this movie does, so it’s new to me and fresh to me. It’s almost like having an entire cast of co-writers.
CMix: Because you’re creating it as you go along, basically, with all of your actors?
CMix: Did you get into screenwriting with a plan to direct someday?
ZP: I hoped that someday I would direct. I didn’t expect that someday I would do improvisational films, but yeah, that was the idea.
CMix: As you’re watching directors on set work with your material, which ones did you admire or even model your directing style after in some ways?
ZP: Well, I don’t know that I do that. It’s hard to model a directing style because when you think about directing style you think about, like, how did they operate on the set and that’s… it’s really more of a personal thing.
I’ve learned stuff from directors. I’ve certainly learned a lot from working with someone like Barry Sonnenfeld. I learned a lot listening to him. I actually learned a lot from Rob Bowman too, not so much on set as in having conversations with him afterwards.
I once got to sit down with Martin Scorsese and talked to him, which was amazing. I spent a couple of hours just grilling him about directing, and that was pretty awesome.
CMix: Was he forthcoming with information, advice, that kind of thing?
ZP: He was incredible. He’s an incredible speaker. He’s a great teacher and really made a lot of great points for me.
Normally, you don’t have time to sit around and get advice, but once the movie’s over, you go try to follow up on it and see what you can learn from it. I had certainly learned a lot from Bryan Singer, but it was more just talking to him separately than it was on set watching him.
But you try to pick up… Well, as a director, it’s more about behaving. You try to bring your personality to the set and not let the pressure of the situation push it away, rather than you try to run your set the way somebody else does.
I do try to be accessible. One of my philosophies is that I take all my department heads aside and I say, "Look, here’s the script, here’s what I’m trying to do. I want to hear from you."
I don’t care. You can give me a note on the story, you can give me a note on the characters… the whole reason I’m hiring all you people is to get all your input. I mean, look, I learned a shitload about how to run a set from Werner, but it’s not always applicable, because his sets are so much more extreme than anything I would ever run.
CMix: Is that because you’re trying to encourage people’s best work? You don’t strike me as a person who’s very insecure, as some directors are. They don’t want any input to collide with what they’re doing.
ZP: If I’m ever gonna be insecure, it’s going to be about my writing. When I’m directing, I feel like I’m in charge. Let’s take the X-Men movies as an example…
As a writer on the X-Men movies or on Hulk, I know that if I want my ideas to make it into the movies, I’m going to have to fight like hell and that there’s going to people disagreeing with me every step of the way. Some for legitimate reasons, some for their own reasons, and that I have reason to be nervous about my position in the food chain — because it is tenuous.
And even in a movie like X-Men 3, where I stayed on it all the way through, it’s still tenuous. There are points where you’re like, "They’re not going to listen to the writers right now." When you’re directing, that’s never the case. They’re always going to listen to you. Everyone’s going to listen to you. You’re the boss. So, there’s no reason to be insecure.
Plus, as the director, whenever you’re frustrated you can just say, "You know what, we’re doing it my way." You can always do that.
So, because of that, I think when I’m directing I tell everyone that I will listen to any idea. I’m going to get credit for all this, so give me anything you’ve got. I’ll take all of it.
CMix: That’s funny, because other directors I’ve talked with have said the same thing — that it still says "directed by me" at the end, so I’ll still take all the good ideas I can find and use them…
ZP: Right, because I’m going to take the blame for it, so why not the credit? My actors were making fun of me on the junket for The Grand. They were like, "Yeah, Zak makes us write the script and we don’t get any credit." [Laughs] I was like, "Yeah, I’m getting back at you for the times I don’t get credit."
CMix: Like when they change your dialogue on set?
ZP: Well I don’t really care about that very much. It’s more about the times where my name goes on something that’s been changed into what somebody else wanted it to be, but it’s still blamed on me. You know, particularly on the comic book movies where, you know, Phoenix doesn’t say a word for the first 45 minutes of the movie and I have to listen to people complain about it
I actually had that argument over and over again and risked my career to try to fix that, whereas fans are just sitting in the audience watching it. So when they tell me they’re angry at me, [I know] they’re not as angry as I was…
There are some screenwriters who are content to say nothing. They’ll just do what they’re told to do. For better or worse, I’m not one of those people. I definitely have a reputation for speaking up about it.
So I’ve tried to be an advocate, particularly for the Marvel Comics movies. I have really tried to be an advocate for what I thought was not only right for the movies, but true to the source material and everything else, but that doesn’t mean I win.
Sometimes I lose those fights. In fact, most of the time I lost those fights. And sometimes I lose them for good reasons, because maybe even if that’s what’s true to the comic, it’s not what the studio is interested in doing. But fundamentally, I’m still out there fighting, and I am still a fan of them and I don’t roll over.
But that doesn’t mean that I don’t go to the theater and say, "Yeah, that’s not what I wanted it to look like."
CMix: Well, you mentioned that you come at it from a fan’s perspective. Does thinking that way make you wonder, "What’s going to happen on the Internet if I do this?"
ZP: Sure. Absolutely. Particularly after the last X-Men movie, Simon Kimberg and I did this whole interview online, and it was like a running thing where we tried to answer questions from fans about what we were going to do. I was really blunt. People asked, "Is Cyclops going to have a bigger role in this movie? Is it going to be more his story than Wolverine’s?" And I said, "No, It is not."
I said, "If you want me to go into it, I will, but I’m not going to bullshit you. … If what you want is to see a literal translation of the comics that you love, you’re not going to get it. And maybe that’s fair and maybe it isn’t."
CMix: Well, the first three movies were essentially Wolverine’s story…
ZP: Absolutely. That was done for a lot of reasons. One, because with the first movie, Wolverine’s the most popular character even before Hugh Jackman played him. Second, Hugh Jackman became a big star playing him, so now they really wanted it to be about him. Third, it works better on screen.
With Cyclops, you can’t see his eyes. It’s a harder character to relate to for the audience. … On top of all that, some of the reason might be people who don’t give a shit about what the fans want and are going to do whatever they want, add whatever they want to read into it, even if it’s not true to the comics.
What frustrated me was, I thought that fans would appreciate that I could be straight with them — unlike the way people normally just tell them what they want to hear.
CMix: And they didn’t appreciate it, in your opinion?
ZP: Not really. I could say to them, "Look this isn’t going to be treated the way you want. Is Phoenix going to be a cosmic force that’s a giant bird of fire? No, because it doesn’t fit into the world. If you’re going to get angry, go ahead and be angry at me about that, because I’m just telling you that straight up."
And I thought they would at least appreciate someone being honest with them and saying, "Look this is what you can expect and what you can’t expect."
The irony is, I found that it didn’t work that way. [I found that] whoever the messenger was, because I was telling them things they didn’t want to hear, they couldn’t separate between me telling them "I’m not saying I want it this way, I’m saying that’s the way it’s going to be" and blaming me for all of it.
It’s very irrational, and they create these fake canonical things… You know, if the Hulk isn’t this height, it’s wrong — and it’s just ridiculous. There’s no way to deal with it.
But what’s bad is that there are times when they’re right about that type of stuff. When I say, "’No, exactly what you’re complaining about is what’s making the movie worse, you’re totally right." Like if the Phoenix is going to be set up as being part of the story, you can’t drop her from the story to favor something else. You’ve got to finish it off.
CMix: Does it ever make you want to just say, "Enough of this shit. I don’t want to do it anymore?"
ZP: Well, here’s the thing: If that was enough to make me say that I don’t want to do it anymore…
CMix: … You would have given up a long time ago, right?
ZP: Right. And also, that’s letting a few bad apples win. I mean, one of the things people have to remember is that it’s always harder with the Internet. You hear the negative voices much more than you hear the positive ones.
So I can’t let a group of people who just have a bug up their asses determine what I do with my life. But I will tell you that the experience made me realize that this is a losing proposition. Fundamentally, trying to engage the fans this way online isn’t helping them and it isn’t helping me.
I’m better off saying nothing before the movie comes out than I am trying to tell the truth about it. But it’s hard, because they can be very persuasive and you want to say, "Hey, I’m a fan, too. I’m not just a screenwriter who wandered in and is just doing this for a paycheck."
You want them to realize that you know exactly how they feel. But you start to ask yourself, "Why am I trying to do that? Who cares?" Bottom line, its not my job.
CMix: So, shifting over from X-Men to Hulk for a minute, how did you get involved with Hulk?
ZP: I wrote a draft of the first movie, in 1994.
CMix: Of Ang Lee’s Hulk?
ZP: Well, before it was even Ang Lee’s Hulk. I wrote the second draft in 1995. I was hired to write a draft and my pitch was, "Let’s do something that uses the structure of the TV show more."
I thought that the whole fugitive angle was a good one and that the way some of the elements and the show treated Banner and his issues is what we should do in the movie. I wrote a draft of that and they didn’t go for it. It got shot down.
The people making the movie, they said, "’No, we want a bigger, broader version of this," and then 10 other people re-wrote it. And then, ultimately, Ang Lee made his own version of it.
And after that movie came out, Kevin Feige went back and read my original draft and said, "You know what? This is the movie we really wanted to make, and we should make, will you come back and write it?"
And I said, "Okay." I was supposed to go write The Avengers, but he asked me to do Hulk first, so I did it. And that’s how I got involved.
Ed Norton is the other credited writer.
CMix: So, there’s some controversy about the final cut of the movie now?
ZP: I only know what you know. I truly have not heard much. I’ve been too busy with other things. I’ve had nothing to do with it since I finished my last draft, which was, I guess, eight weeks before production began.
CMix: So you didn’t go to the set?
ZP: I didn’t go to the set. I almost never do. I haven’t really talked to any of the people involved other than Kevin once or twice, or maybe an email with Louie [Letterier]. I really have had nothing to do with it.
They have kind of gone their direction with it and I’ve tried to be respectful of that and just let them do what they want. I mean, what can I do? I didn’t have much choice, but I also don’t want to get in the middle. You can have too many cooks.
CMix: Between the time you finished that draft and now, you did your own movie?
ZP: Well, I had actually already finished my movie, but I did post-production and I’ve written five others. I was working on my Dirty Dozen television show. That’s what I’ve really been working on the most.
But it’s unusual to be replaced by an actor as a writer. Well, actually, Ben Affleck re-wrote one of my scripts, but he never ended up doing it and he ended up wanting to use the draft I had written. But he was hired to re-write me.
CMix: Does it bother you when actors re-write you?
ZP: With Ed, the truth is, whatever changes he makes, he’s really gonna have to live with them more than I will. And so, I respect that he’s going to have to stand behind every word he writes — and he seems like a very smart guy. I’m sure he’ll do a good job.
But I don’t know what choices they’re going to make and I don’t know what choices they’ve made, so I don’t really know. I don’t even know if any of this stuff is true about him feuding with the studio.
Weirdly, have no more information than anyone else.
CMix: You’ll just be be pleasantly surprised at the premiere, then?
ZP: I hope so. I hope so. I could also be disappointed, but I’m hoping I’ll be surprised — in a good way.
CMix: Do you find that you’re more often disappointed or surprised about things you’ve been involved with that you just handed off to someone else?
ZP: I’m almost always disappointed. In fact, I’m trying to think of any time that I wasn’t disappointed. Usually, when I left something, I have been very disappointed to see how it turned out, especially if I didn’t stay on it all the way through.
Wait, I can think of a couple. Charlie’s Angels was one. That was a movie I did three weeks on and thought, "This is going to suck." I went to the premiere and was like, "Wow, this is really good. They did a great job." The Mask of Zorro was another one where I was a writer on set and I had to leave, and they brought someone else on and I was very nervous about the work I had done on it. But when I saw the final movie I was like, "Wow, they pulled this one off."
But for the most part, with Zorro I was a writer on set. But Men In Black was one where I worked on it, I was on set and I stayed on it pretty much up to the release and I was pretty happy with the way it came out. Then, Reign of Fire is one where I did a couple of weeks on it and then I left, and it was really not good.
You know what I realized I’m forgetting? X-Men 2. Actually, I have to take this a little bit back, because on X-Men 2, I left. I wrote the first draft and I had to leave, and there were a couple of writers after me, and when I went to see the movie, I was like, "Wow, they did an amazing job."
So I guess it’s fair to say sometimes you come in and are like, "Wow, they did great work." And sometimes you’re like, "Holy shit, I wish they had listened to me." There’s also a lot of "I told them this would be a problem. Why didn’t they listen to me?"
CMix: Well, sometimes it is a bit of a "too many cooks" scenario, and with so many opinions, there’s never a consensus or a clear vision of what the project’s going to turn out to be. Which is one of the reasons you want to write and direct your own stuff, I’m assuming?
CMix: You were telling me about your new favorite comic book, which was written by a friend of ours, Mark Verheiden?
ZP: Yeah, it’s called The American. Its about this hero who is basically manufactured by the US Government and they give him some sort of syrum. He gets killed every six weeks or so and they just have a new guy they bring out, and it’s all for publicity.
This reporter starts to realize that it’s not exactly the same person each time, and goes to uncover the conspiracy. It’s like a a good conspiracy superhero movie, you know?
That was the first thing of Mark’s I ever read, before I ever knew he was writing Battlestar Galactica. I had actually been following him when he was doing Smallville and now Battlestar because I’m a huge Battlestar fan, so it’s pretty cool.
I’d heard his name before but I had read that comic and never really noticed who wrote it. I just found out today that he was the same guy.
I kept telling this guy that works for me, Mike, that we gotta option this.
CMix: You also mentioned to me recently you were working with Brian Bendis on something. Is it the Avengers movie?
ZP: Well, I’m not writing it right now, but I will be. The idea is that after these other movies come out I assume I’ll sit down with Marvel and we’ll figure it out. They asked me to do it and I had a whole take on it. But we agreed that we wouldn’t do it until it was time to do it and I don’t think it makes sense right now.
The idea for the Avengers movie is that we would use the characters from the existing movies and put something together where it felt like the Marvel Universe — like it does in the comic books. So we can’t do that until the movies actually come out and we see how they do.
CMix: … like Iron Man.
ZP: Right. Like Iron Man. Hulk. Theoretically, Thor. They might even want to wait for Captain America.
CMix: Well, yeah, it’s all in Marvel’s court now. They’re financing these films so they have to see how they perform.
ZP: Right, but there’s no point in me trying to do anything on it now. I’m too busy anyway, so I just figure at a certain point when we’re all available again, we’ll sit down and say, "Okay, are we going to do the Avengers movie now? What’s it going to be like?"
CMix: Do you have anything to do with the other movies? Captain America for example?
ZP: I’m attached to it. I’m also supposed to write and direct one of the X-Men spin-off movies for Fox, but that’s not a Marvel film. It’s not a pure Marvel movie. It’s a Fox thing.
CMix: One of the X-Men spin-off movies? Any one in particular?
ZP: Yeah, it’s like a young X-Men. It’s a pretty cool idea, actually. I can’t sell you the whole idea, but it involves a younger group of X-Men at the beginning.
CMix: You mean, like an X-Men: First Class kind of thing?
ZP: It is a little bit like that. I don’t want to give away the concept of it, but it is a good idea. It is a little bit more of getting back to the classic X-Men. Some of the complaints we’ve talked about, it would address those directly.
CMix: Will it be all Wolverine’s story?
ZP: Right, well that’s the thing. It wouldn’t involve Wolverine.
CMix: You talk about X-Men quite a bit and seem to like them. What’s your favorite X-Men character?
ZP: Maybe Cyclops? I don’t know. I guess I like Phoenix, really. That’s my favorite because I think that’s the most interesting story. Although, my son’s named Logan, so, you’d say Wolverine, but it really is more Phoenix. That cosmic-powered stuff always gets me.
CMix: So if the project with Bendis isn’t The Avengers, what is it?
ZP: Bendis is writing something for me at New Regency that I’m producing. As soon as I was given this producing deal they said, "Will you take over this project for us?" And I said, you know who we have to get for this? Brian Bendis. So we’re working on it together and it’s a big summer blockbuster movie that will hopefully get made.
CMix: And it’s called?
ZP: It’s called Bermuda Triangle right now, but it’s…
CMix: … Is it one of those titles that doesn’t have anything to do with the story?
ZP: No. It does. It’s not like Cloverfield. It is about the Bermuda Triangle and about all those kinds of mysteries, but he has a really cool take on it and it’s like a big summer event movie.
ZP: Yes. Definitely. Very much. I love that kind of stuff.
CMix: Okay, Zak. Thanks very much for your time.
ZP: No problem, man. Take it easy.
Zak Penn’s improvisational comedy The Grand is currently in limited release, but should receive a wider release at the end of the month. The Incredible Hulk opens June 13, 2008.