HOLLYWOOD — You might not have heard the name Nicole Perlman much as it pertains to Marvel properties, but she's a big reason why "Guardians of the Galaxy" will be making its way to theaters next weekend. She toiled away as a screenwriter for a few years after her days at NYU, cooking up projects with a science bent because that's where her passions lie — projects like "Challenger," a fascinating account of the investigation of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster written as a love letter to Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. Then, she made her way to the comic book giant under the company's now-defunct screenwriting program and plucked the intergalactic heroes from obscurity, setting them on a crash course for the silver screen.
It may be largely James Gunn's colorful vision on that screen, but it's definitely Perlman's passion that helped bring the property to the table in the first place.
I sat down with Perlman recently to discuss, among other things, her experiences in the Marvel system, her self-professed geeky interest in cosmic settings and what we might expect from this rag-tag crew of space pirates going forward. Read through the back and forth below.
"Guardians of the Galaxy" opens everywhere Aug. 1.
HitFix: So you first came to Marvel through their screenwriting program. What was that experience like?
It was really interesting because I had all these science-related projects or space-related projects that I was working on, and I was finding that I wasn't getting a lot of opportunities to pitch projects that were more science-fiction, which is what I really love. Marvel said, "We're starting this program. I's kind of an experiment. We're taking writers who are semi-established." — Like, Ed Ricourt was part of it. He did "Now You See Me." — "You get an office and we'll give you a list of properties — we have, like, a dozen properties that we think we might maybe one day want to make into a movie, but they're much lesser-known properties. Choose one you like."
So it wasn't like they assigned you a property.
No, not at all. I chose "Guardians," which was funny because people thought I was a little bit crazy for choosing that one, since there were much better-known properties on the list, things that most people would say, "Oh, yeah, I've heard of that." Nobody had heard of "Guardians," but it was the only cosmic Marvel property on the list and I like space, I like science-fiction, and it's not superhero-y in that way.
It was the subject matter, then, the cosmic elements that drew you to the property? You hadn't read the comic book?
No, I hadn't read the comic books. I don't think many people knew about them. They've been around since 1969, so there was some knowledge of them, but they were very much an obscure team that had been rebooted in 2008 by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. Their reboot was more fun and funny and sarcastic and that tone was really great. But for me it was about the subject matter and that I could make it more of a science-fiction project rather than a superhero project and that made me more excited.
I read about that screenwriting program when it started and the terms were a little staggering, I thought.
The terms were inaccurate, how it was reported. It was accurate in the sense that they did exclusively have us, but the salary terms were not accurate, actually.
It was less that element that surprised me than the first look/last refusal stipulation that locked you in for two years after you left the program.
You signed on for one year and if they wanted to have you back they would have you come back for another year. So I did two years because I was jazzed about "Guardians." It was harder than I was expecting it to be psychologically because I was off the market. I wasn't even allowed to have meetings. I mean, you could, but you were sort of discouraged from taking meetings anywhere. You weren't supposed to be spec writing anything on your own and for a year after you wrote anything, after you left the program, you had to see if Marvel wanted to buy anything from you before you took it anywhere else, which, in a way, is kind of silly because unless you were writing an original superhero movie, you're not going to be doing anything that Marvel necessarily wants to buy. So I think people got a little overblown with their outrage about the terms. But while you were there you were working on your project and you could work on anything else they wanted to put you on, so I did uncredited work on "Thor" and I did some "Black Widow" development, but 80% of the time it was just "Guardians" for two years. And then after the program ended they brought me back as a freelancer to do another draft for them.
Can you tell me where you mind was at as a writer at that time? You said you were interested in these cosmic stories but were you wary at all of being locked into this giant cinematic universe, like it would hurt the potential to push your personal stuff forward?
No, I think it was the opposite, actually. I think the fact that I was already sort of being pigeonholed in the projects I was being offered — it was, like, the Marie Curie biopic, and I had pitched on some larger projects that were more action-oriented, and people loved my takes, like one company said, "We like your take but this is a very masculine movie and we just don't know if your pedigree is the right fit." I felt a little bit of a push-back of, "Can you handle a big action movie?" So I wanted to do Marvel to show that I could do character development and things that were serious and handling issues that were kind of relevant and also tell a fun story with lots of great set pieces and still have good characters. I think it was very helpful for me to be at Marvel, honestly, for my career. Now it's been nice, in a sense, to be pigeonholed. I've gotten fantasy projects, I've got science-fiction projects, but I still get the opportunity to do more serious biopic kind of things.
The process there, was it a workshop situation at all?
No, not at all.
So it wasn't like the Pixar environment.
No. I think I had sort of expected it to be that way, but it was, like, Chris Yost in one office, me in another office, Ed Ricourt in another office. Sometimes we were in the same building, sometimes we weren't. We kind of occupied whatever space wasn't being used for production offices. We were just writing. We would write and we would hand in our drafts. Each one of us was working on our own specific projects and my script was the only one that got chosen for production, which I'm really happy about, but they did really wonderful screenplays. It was just a question of how much time and space Marvel has on their slate. At no point were we really encouraged by Marvel to cross-pollinate, but there were times I would, like, knock on Chris Yost's door and be like, "I need to brainstorm with you about something," and talk to him. It was very much like the process of writing on your own, handing it in, getting notes, addressing notes. There was no real workshop element to it.
I think what was different was that there was a luxury of time, because you weren't working on six other projects. Usually you would staff writers for development, but we were all just working on one thing. Sometimes I would do something on a side project, like "Black Widow," but it was primarily the project that you chose to work on. And you could try different things, because you know that if this particular version doesn't work out, you can try it with a different protagonist, or a different antagonist, or a different permutation of characters, until you got what really worked. I feel like what we've got on screen now is a result of doing a lot of experimenting.