Joe Robert Cole on Going from the Marvel Writers Program to Co-Writing ‘Black Panther’

     February 14, 2018

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When it came time to make a Black Panther film, Marvel Studios paired up screenwriter Joe Robert Cole and writer/director Ryan Coogler to bring a direction and vision to the story that is relevant and relatable. Thankfully, the two got along great and what came out of it was a finished product that is entertaining and thought-provoking, with a hero King that you can root for, bad-ass warrior women who stand alongside the men and not behind them, and a villain whose motivations you can understand and sympathize with, even if his methods aren’t necessarily the best approach.

At the film’s press junket, Collider got the opportunity to sit down with co-writer Joe Robert Cole to chat 1-on-1 about how he came to write Black Panther with Ryan Coogler, their getting to know you period, how they honed in on the story they ended up telling, what changes were made during the script phase, how the cast collaborated on their characters, what makes Erik Killmonger a good villain, his next project All Day and a Night, which he’ll direct, and whether he’s ready to direct a Marvel movie.

Collider: How did you come to write Black Panther with Ryan Coogler? Did you guys know each other?

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Image via Alberto E. Rodriguez/Disney

JOE ROBERT COLE: We did not know each other. Marvel reached out to my reps about potentially writing it. I pitched, and while I was pitching, they said, “You know, we’re starting to have conversations with Ryan and there is a chance that he might want to co-write it,” and they wanted to know if I was cool with that. I was a big fan of his, so I was like, “Yeah!” I was pretty excited about that. So, they hired me, and they were talking to him and hired him, and they put us together. (Executive Producer) Nate Moore knew me because I was previously in the Marvel writers’ program, and he had been spending time with Ryan, and he said that we’d get along. It was the first time I had written with someone and it was such a smooth transition, and it was because of Ryan. He’s a gracious, collaborative person, and he’s so smart.

Did you have a getting to know you period to see if this partnership would work?

COLE: Well, we both were hired. There was a natural feeling out period, but it was really a fast transition. Our hearts were in the right place, for what we were trying to do. I felt like my job, as just the writer, was to be supportive and to be an asset to the vision of the movie that he wanted. It was this process of collaborating and figuring things out, but my job, as a writer, is to be a supporter of that and a good teammate, and he makes that so easy.

We got to see a glimpse of Black Panther before, in Captain America: Civil War, but we haven’t gotten to see his world before now. When you sit down to write something like this, do you just try throwing everything at it to see how it works, or do you try to narrow the vision before you start writing?

COLE: One of the really important things for us was trying to root Wakanda in real world Africa and extrapolate from that out, with technology, with mysticism and with our characters. That was the really important thing. We wanted to do the world building and create this entire world, so that was one pillar. The other thing was that you learn about a place through the characters and through the interaction of the characters, so we wanted to populate it and learn about T’Challa’s family, learn about how the council works, learn about how the country works, and really try to personalize the story and our plot through the characters, in that way. I think that was our approach, really. We tried to focus on character and humanity, and really personalize it. The inspired work of our production designer and costume designer just did fantastic with it.

Was there any big story stuff that got cut, either in the script process or during the production, itself?

COLE: Yeah, we had some. In the script, there was a point where we were out of Wakanda and were in other places, at different times. Ultimately, we kept getting back into the more personal thing of staying within the nation. There was a sequence where we were going to be in Chicago that was pretty big, and that was in the script phase, in an early, early draft.

What did you want to include that you guys just couldn’t figure out?

COLE: Ultron. No, I’m kidding! No. I feel like we found the right story. I do. It was really a process of investigation and discovery, and I feel like the story we found is a place that we should be. I don’t have any feelings like that.

How did the script change, at all, as a result of casting? Is there any one cast member that most affected their character?

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Image via Marvel Studios

COLE: Obviously, we knew that Chad [Boseman] was T’Challa. Also, very early on, we knew that Michael [B. Jordan] was gonna play Erik. Ryan is very collaborative, so once we had a draft, we began to really cast up the scenes. Those were reworked and finessed through rehearsals and with a lot of actor input, so that they could take ownership. In that sense, because we had such a fantastic cast and because everyone is so talented, being able to collaborate, in that way, was a big part of the end result.

There are so many great and memorable moments in this film. I absolutely love the women of this story – who are warriors, goddesses and queens, in their own right – and Erik Killmonger is one of the best and most interesting villains that’s been in the MCU. What do you think it is that makes him such a good villain?

COLE: I think the best villains are ones that have a point of view that’s relatable and that you can empathize with. Sometimes it’s how far you take things that makes you a villain, and not necessarily the perspective. He’s effective because he really affects our hero. T’Challa ends up the same place that he does, philosophically, through his interactions with him. T’Challa is there out of empathy for the world, and Killmonger is there out of pain. He affects T’Challa in a way that I think is really meaningful, and meaningful to the story structure. A lot of conversation that we were having, early on, was how to approach the dynamic between African Americans and Africans, and what that means and what that dialogue is. He, in a very personal way, addresses that, in terms of the family dynamic and his perspective on that, with isolationism and separation. All of that comes through in his character, but in an emotional way because it’s so personal to him, and you feel for him. You understand why he’s so angry versus just wanting to control the world. And Michael is irresistible and so likeable. He’s such a fantastic emotionally available actor and he’s so likeable that for him to play a villain, it’s easy to root for him, no matter what he’s doing.

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Image via Marvel Studios

How do you step out of the world of Black Panther and do the next thing? What’s next for you?

COLE: This is a singular thing. I’m still processing what it is. But, my next thing is that I’m going to direct a movie this summer. I’m going to be shooting in July and August, so I’m focusing on that. That is a script that I’m really proud of, so that’s my next thing.

And you’re doing that with Lakeith Stanfield and Jeffrey Wright, both of whom are just terrific actors, correct?

COLE: Yeah! Lakeith and Jeffrey are fantastic.

What is that film about?

COLE: It’s called All Day and a Night. It puts a face on the people that our society casts aside as criminals. The best way to describe it is that it’s a human story steeped in a crime genre aesthetic. It’s like watching Scarface, but if it was at Sundance. It’s a crime movie, but it’s really a human story. And Lakeith and Jeffrey are my father and son.

After that, are you ready to direct a big Marvel movie?

COLE: It might take me a couple more movies before I’m ready to do that. I’d love to write another one. I’d love to be a part of it, anywhere I can.

Black Panther opens in theaters on February 16th.

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