Peyton Reed on the set of ‘Ant-Man’
You’d never know Peyton Reed was a fanboy based on a résumé that includes Bring It On, The Break-Up, and Yes Man all the way back to TV shows like The Weird Al Show, Mr. Show, and Upright Citizen’s Brigade. But the 50-year-old writer-director has always had superhero envy. And he was waiting for his shot to helm a major comic-book movie for more than a decade, nearly missing with his pitches for Fantastic Four and Guardians of the Galaxy.
Reed’s chance finally arrived in June 2014, when he replaced Edgar Wright as the director of Marvel’s Ant-Man. (Wright, who had been developing the film for six years and had co-written the script with Joe Cornish, exited in a highly publicized shakeup blamed on creative differences.) In September 2014, we hit the film’s rural Georgia set — it was the first production filmed on the blossoming Pinewood Atlanta Studios — where Reed presided over a good-vibed operation that showed no signs of reeling from an 11th hour change at the top.
The film stars Paul Rudd as Scott Lang, a master thief recruited by inventor Hank Pym (the original Ant-Man in the comics, played by Michael Douglas) to take control of a suit that can shrink humans to microscopic size.
In our first report from the set, the candid and cordial Reed talks about the race to prepare, what remnants of Wright and Cornish’s original framework carried over to the new script, and how the success of last summer’s Guardians gave him all kinds of confidence.
What is the biggest adjustment as a director you’ve had to make moving from smaller comedies to such a large-scale production like Ant-Man? Does it feel larger-scale?
There are days when it does, but there are days when it doesn’t feel that way. Obviously, I had pretty accelerated prep process on the movie, but the people that surround you on a Marvel production are all top-of-the-line people, the best of the best in their particular fields. So I’ve never felt this supported on a movie, ever. From the producers to every department head, everyone is so keyed in.
I assume it’s this way with all the Marvel movies, but there’s just this creative hunger to not repeat yourself, and to try and do something different. Because when you write about these type of movies you guys talk about, “Oh superhero fatigue, what’s the breaking point of how many superhero movies there can be?” And I think no one is more aware of that than Marvel, than Kevin Feige and those guys. Of just taking nothing at face value.
Beyond the change in directors, there has also been lots of press on the various scripts and how this project keeps changing on the fly. But I get the impression that’s how most Marvel movies work, they’re always constantly progressing.
Yeah, I think if I was a fanboy reading about this from afar, I would think, “This is a troubled project. It’s got to be chaos on the set.” But the fact of the matter is all that sort of drama on the movie that preceded me, I came in at a certain point, as you would do on any movie — obviously this is more accelerated — but it’s like, “Here’s where the script is, and here’s where prep is, and here’s where casting is.” It’s just like, “This aspect of it might not work as well as we want to, let’s make it better.” It’s just attacking it. From the writing to the design to everything, just attacking the material.
I have a history with Marvel comics, reading them as a kid. And if you’re a comic nerd you have your own kind of relationships with the different characters and with the different stories and everything. I definitely had my own feelings about Hank Pym and Scott Lang, and a lot of them were in Edgar and Joe’s original drafts. And some of the other ones were maybe emphasized less, and it’s like, “Let’s bring out that aspect, I’ve always loved that.” So to me it was that kind of thing. There’s 40 or 50 years of Marvel lore to sort of cherrypick about. And also, if they’re not precious about that, let’s invent some new stuff. So I really found the process to be open and collaborative in the best way.
I would think it’d still be difficult to come in so late in the game.
Well, it is.
What were the biggest challenges?
I think the biggest challenges were, schedule-wise, this was a train that had left the station. There was a release date, and things happening. And it was really getting the script in position to be the most fully realized version of the Hank Pym-Scott Lang story. 'Cause you know there’s only going to be one Ant-Man origin story movie — unless they reboot in five years like Spider-Man [laughs]. But you want to leave no stone unturned in terms of [backstory]. I found myself going through Marvel Unlimited and going through every back issue of Tales to Astonish and all those Ant-Man appearances in the comic books, from storylines or character things that I wanted to incorporate to all the ways he can use his powers because you’re always looking for unique and interesting ways. Like, “Oh, this is a great gag, let’s use that.” So to me it was in a fairly short amount of time trying to wrangle all those creative elements. You’re competing with your own hopes and desires, or I am, anyway, in my hopes and desires, in what I want to see in an Ant-Man movie. That for me is the litmus test.
Watch the trailer for ‘Ant-Man’:
Given the fact that you had to replace Edgar Wright, who was developing this project off and on for about six years, were there ever moments in the early going when you felt like the stepdad joining a new family?
When Marvel first came to me and said, “You want to meet on this thing?” Just as a fan of the Marvel movies, and I’m a big fan of Edgar’s — I mean, I was very aware of the situation, having nothing to do with me in the first place. And I’m a huge fan, I’ve always wanted to do one of these movies. I developed Fantastic Four for a year-and-a-half a decade ago. … I wanted to do this type of movie for a while. I came in and pitched on Guardians before that. It was something that made sense for me.
And I really felt like, had I come in and seen the materials and read the script and felt like, “I don’t know what to do with that,” that would’ve been one thing. But I came in and really had definite feelings about what I loved and what I was less fond of in terms of the development of the movie. And had ideas of like, “If I was going to do it, here’s what I would do with it.” And they liked those ideas. And tonally it was very much something that I wanted to do. I liked the idea, too, that the superpowers Ant-Man has — it’s essentially two powers, it’s shrinking and being able to control ants. And the shrinking thing was like, “OK, in the context of superhero movies, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this is different.” And the way that we were going to approach it technically, that stuff blew me away. Even the early materials that Marvel showed me in that meeting, it’s like, “This is amazing. This is different than any other shrinking movie. It’s really immersive, it’s tactile, it’s going to feel photo-realistic.” And that was something that I really pushed in there. It can’t feel realistic in the real world and then when you go in that small environment suddenly feel like an animated movie. It’s got to all be of a piece. So that was exciting to me.
But even more exciting to me was, “What a weird power.” I always thought about if you’re just a normal person in a movie theater lobby and you see a poster for Ant-Man, your first Malcolm Gladwell Blink response is like, “That looks ridiculous. How is that a cool power?” I love the idea that the movie answers that question about how it’s cool in such a bold way. It’s like, “OK, it does seem silly. But we’re going to show you a version that is compelling and weird and different and cool.” And that I loved about it.
So it’s not taking any cues from Honey, I Shrunk the Kids?
I think all the shrinking movies probably take cues from each other to a certain extent, but then blow it out in a whole other way.
And obviously you have so much more advanced technology at your disposal these days.
Yeah. I also think maybe I was emboldened a little bit by having gone in and done a really elaborate pitch on Guardians. Even from where Guardians of the Galaxy was when they had a treatment and a draft of a script. I remember talking to Kevin about that and saying, “This is a bold swing.” Guardians of the Galaxy is a way lesser known property in the comics realm. At the time it came out it felt like a Marvel stab at, “Let’s do a Star Wars rip-off, in the comics realm.” So for Marvel to be doing that as this giant Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, and tonally, it was as a wild swing. I mean, now that the movie’s out and has done amazing business and all that sort of stuff, it probably seems like a fait accompli. But then it felt like, if Marvel is willing to do something weird and cool on such a grand scale, then on Ant-Man they’re probably up for anything.
And also the fact that Edgar developed it from the beginning. Edgar’s a very distinctive filmmaker. And that was important for me. I really wanted to honor what Edgar and Joe built into the script but I want to make it my own movie as well, make it different.
Are there specific examples of things that Wright and Cornish had that you maintained?
Well, there’s a lot. I feel like it’s probably really safe to say that there might not be an Ant-Man movie at all if it weren’t for Edgar and Joe originally coming in, and I think Edgar originally pitched it. Because even in the context of Marvel, if they had made The Avengers without Ant-Man being in development, would they have included Ant-Man in Avengers? Who knows, you just don’t know. So you have to give Edgar credit for that. They’re making an Ant-Man movie! But also I think the whole concept he had of Hank Pym not being Ant-Man but Hank Pym passing the torch to Scott Lang; the fact that the general backbone of the movie is a heist movie structure. That — and Edgar and I emailed early on about this — there’s so much stuff here. “I want to honor what you did but also make it my own movie.” He did great work on the movie.
You mentioned the tone of i>>Guardians of the Galaxy. Would you say Ant-Man has a similar tone?
It has a different tone than Guardians, a very different tone. They both have a strong comedic element, but it’s a different style of comedy. Because Guardians takes place in whatever part of the galaxy, it has a certain license — it’s a whole different sort of ungrounded thing, I mean emotionally it’s a grounded movie — but in terms of where it takes place there’s a lot of liberty to go different places. And Ant-Man is essentially grounded in the real world. What I like about it is it’s very much the real world. But we get to view that world from a radically different perspective. And that’s the fun of the movie. And the tone of it is different. I would say it’s more grounded, but there’s some wild swings in this movie, too.
As you said earlier, it does share the “lesser-known Marvel” tag with Guardians.
And that’s what I think is one of the more liberating things about it. I guarantee you, outside a handful of comic nerds, no one knew who Peter Quill, Star Lord was before the movie. It’s a really finite number of Marvel comic book fanatical people. And Hank Pym and Scott Lang and Ant-Man are better known than Peter Quill, but still the public at large doesn’t know that much about Ant-Man, beyond maybe that he shrinks down and flies around on an ant. But there’s something really liberating about that. You’re not doing Spider-Man, where the general public has a real strong knowledge and you’re having to reinvent it. You can just create it essentially from wholecloth and go any direction at all you want with it.
All things considered — that this is a quote-unquote minor Marvel character, that you came on board so late, and that you had to replace someone who a lot of fans are loyal to — do you feel like an underdog?
In terms of being an underdog, if that exists, I love being an underdog. I remember when I was doing Bring It On and we were doing a $10 million cheerleader movie and people were saying, “A cheerleader movie?” And it turned out to be a hit, it was No. 1 for three weeks in a row. I love the underdog status of everybody saying, “Why would I want to see a cheerleader movie?” But then seeing it and enjoying it. But it’s hard to get an underdog status back. But if that does exist on this movie, than I love it. I think it’s where you want to be.
Ant-Man opens July 17.