Co-writer and original champion of Guardians of the Galaxy, Nicole Perlman joined us to talk about her work, how she came to adapt Guardians and the challenges involved.
As one of a number of house writers on salary at Marvel (something few studios invest in) Nicole was given a list of some 500 comic book properties that Marvel currently had no plans for and invited to select any characters she may want to develop a story around. Occurring around the time The Dark Knight was huge and studios were looking for that kind of grittiness for their comics films to be taken seriously she felt drawn towards doing something a little different than the superhero franchises on the market then. Guardians had something fun and colourful about it that drew her.
At first spending 8 weeks just reading the volume of comic books the franchise had produced Nicole found her way through a ton of story and backstory to hone some workable strand from the wealth of options. Over two and a half years, she wrote some 44 treatments and outlines including at least eight full screenplay drafts alongside the other Marvel work she was doing. Every writer at Marvel works on each other’s stuff and lots of great things come out of that. The more money a studio has riding on a project the more they hedge their bets. The movies really do belong to everybody. Getting good at separating yourself and your self worth from your work is really important in writing, 90% of the job is taking notes. You write so much and so many things end up in weird development hell circles. Being personable is as important as being a good writer and people need to want to work with you. Having the ability to create a community for herself was important during the writing.
Things for Guardians changed along the way, decisions had to be made like whether they were going to include Nova. Nicole breaks down the stuff she reads and makes notes about what resonates to find the right combination of characters and what they bring to a story.The writing is always about trying to cut it down and make it lean and mean. It’s a narrowing down process so that the characters get their due of screen time and ensuring that they add to the story and emotion of the film.
They also reviewed Star-Lord’s origin story to decide how he was superpowered. The redemption storyline for him in the comics was a bit boring and they wanted to make him more like Han Solo. He means well as a character but can also be kind of a jerk and opening with the childhood backstory with his mother’s death and his abduction earned the emotional capital to make even his less admirable behaviour very relatable. Drax also had his backstory adjusted. Human in the comics, in the film script that humanity would dilute Peter Quill’s own similar human traits so Drax was instead made an entirely other race. The producers at Marvel really know their stuff Nicole says, and gave great notes on how to move forward through the drafts.
The way Guardians was done, she finished her drafts and then it went to James Gunn who is a writer/director and he made all the changes he wanted before directing. That was sequential and so they share writing credit, but didn’t write together. and then James took the film on into production. As she moves to developing Captain Marvel plus a comic book series among other projects, Guardians 2 is in James’ arena as he takes the established franchise forward. She smiles as she tells us she has no gossip to dish on what may happen next.
On set Nicole explains it’s terrifying but also wonderful to see great actors & crew breathing life into the work and the differences between a movies’ early cuts and the finished film can be amazing. Asked about familiar tropes in genre films Nicole says they are a kind of necessity, the films cost so much and need big attractive set pieces and the McGuffins can be a structural shorthand of sorts to deliver complex things in a way that’s easy to grasp
One of the few women working in comic book movies Nicole Perlman went to Marvel was that she wanted to work on those big movies and not be pigeonholed into movies considered as more women’s territory. Not many rom-coms that aren’t gross-out comedy are being made today and she wanted the opportunity to work on big budget films. Women and minority screenwriters are, she thinks, making headway at being included more though and over time she thinks imbalances will even out. Guardians of the Galaxy had more female audience than any superhero franchise to date. A lot more women today are reading comics and there are a lot of strong women characters. While it’s true $250M movies don’t like to take a lot of risks things change faster on the comic book page and on TV and it’s those that will lead the way.
After the main talk, Nicole joined some few of us after the session to chat about her work in one of the festivals’ scriptchat sessions, a unique opportunity at this festival to converse more casually to the speakers in an informal setting.