At this weekend’s NBCUniversal Summer Press Day, Collider got a bit of time to speak with writer/creator Zak Penn, about his new SyFy series Alphas, both after the series presentation and 1-on-1. While we will include that portion of the interview close to the July 11th premiere, of course the conversation also turned to his work with Marvel, having most recently written the script for the highly anticipated superhero movie The Avengers, and even though he has signed a non-disclosure agreement keeping him from revealing any details of what will actually be in the film, he did give some hints about what fans can expect.
During the chat, he talked about writing a high-profile script under such heavy scrutiny, how exciting it is to do a real cross-over movie with characters from multiple films appearing at the same time, leaving it in the hands of someone as capable as Joss Whedon, how he really pushed to have Jeremy Renner cast as Hawkeye, how excited he is to see the end result, and why he identifies with the more naturalistic characters that inhabit the Marvel universe. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
Question: How do you feel about the way The Avengers has developed since you finished the script?
ZAK PENN: Do you believe in Joss Whedon? I believe in him. That’s my comment. If you believe in Joss, you should be excited.
Regardless of your own involvement, as a fan yourself, how excited are you?
PENN: Actually, Joss and I went to the same college, so we have a long history. I’m very excited. I can’t wait to see what happens with it. And, it’s weird because Alphas is almost the inverse. If you know the comic book world, this is the flipside of something like The Avengers. So, it will be weird, next year, to have The Avengers coming out while I’m working on this show.
Is the Alphas cast that you have now, the cast that you always had, even before the show went to SyFy?
PENN: The cast came together after we went to SyFy. We were just about to cast at ABC. We had hired writers, but we hadn’t yet cast the show when the writers’ strike hit, so we never really got around to casting it. This is the only cast we’ve ever had. But, years ago, I met with Jeremy Renner, who I was a big fan of before he got so well known, and he always name-checks me and says, “Zak was a big fan of mine,” because he’s a good guy. So, I had talked to him about playing Hicks (the villain in the pilot), at one point, but none of it ever came to fruition. But, I had immediately said to him, “You’ve got to be Hawkeye in The Avengers, if we ever make that movie!”
What’s it like to then see him end up as Hawkeye?
PENN: To be fair, I think he is in The Avengers because I pushed them. I said, “We’ve got to get Jeremy Renner for that part!” Him being a cool guy came full circle, in that he’s gotten what he deserves. So many people have loved his work. At first, everyone was like, “Who’s Jeremy Renner?” And, I was like, “Trust me, he’s awesome!” Now, he is Hawkeye and he’s in Mission: Impossible, and everything else. I had already written The Avengers, though, way before he was cast. I had already handed in the script. It’s off and it’s its own beast now. Joss is the man in charge of that.
Have the actors had a lot of input into their characters and dialogue for The Avengers?
Do you know how much of your script will remain and how much Joss has worked on it?
PENN: I just can’t answer that. I’m not allowed to. I have a big mouth and they made me sign a contract.
What were the beginnings of your interest in the superhero genre? Did you read a lot of comic books as a kid?
PENN: I grew up reading X-Men. When I first got to Hollywood and sold my first script, the first thing I said was, “Can I write the X-Men movie?” At the time, I can’t remember if Marvel was owned by foreign nationals, or what was going on. But, I’ve always been into comic books. And, I’ve always really been into science fiction. I grew up on Cameron and Spielberg, and a very naturalistic sense of science fiction, and even the comic books I liked were the ones that were the most real and that bled over into reality the most. That’s more where my heart lies. I always point out to people that The Avengers is the first superhero movie I’ve ever done. With X-Men, The Hulk and even Elektra, none of those are really superhero characters. They’re all from a science fiction premise. The Hulk is not a superhero at all, and Elektra is an assassin. The Avengers is the first legitimate superhero movie I ever wrote, ironically.
Did you hit Hollywood at just the right time, to be able to get all of these dream gigs?
PENN: Well, actually no. I got here before that, in ‘91, and it took until about ‘97 or ‘98 before they really started. It wasn’t until X-Men that people really started making comic book movies the way I wanted to see them – the more real, more naturalistic comic book movies, as opposed to the sillier ones.
So, you were going to be a screenwriter anyway, and then things worked out this way?
PENN: Yeah, I already was. The Last Action Hero was my first script.
PENN: Yeah. Actually, Spider-Man was one of the only ones I didn’t want to do because I thought it was a little too cheesy. I thought they did a great job with the movies, but I didn’t see how to do it without making it silly.
What’s it like for you, as a writer, to work on such a high-profile project like The Avengers, where you know it’s going to be under such scrutiny and that so many people want to know about it? Does that affect your writing process, or can you get to a place where you don’t think about that?
PENN: Well, you’ve got to try to not think about those things. You have to. A lot of times, the fans have pretty smart things to say about what they’d like to see. Quite often, their interpretation of why it wasn’t what they wanted it to be is a little skewed. A lot of times, people talk about why this movie or that movie is terrible, and I feel like, “That’s not why it was terrible. It was terrible for this reason.” But, I do think it’s valuable to know what it is that people want to see in the movie. Particularly on something like The Avengers, or the X-Men movies, it’s such a slippery slope. You’ve got to just try to put your head in the sand and write the best story you can. It is literally impossible to please everybody. You can’t please fans who don’t agree with each other anyway. You go read a message board and there’s 80 opinions about what should happen with every character. That’s a fool’s errand, so you try not to do it, but it is pretty hard.
When you were approaching The Avengers, being a comic book fan, was there a character you were most excited about writing for, or were there characters that you were most excited about finally meeting each other?
PENN: First of all, most of what was exciting about it, that I can tell you, was just the prospect that we would finally actually do a real cross-over movie, in which characters from multiple films were appearing at the same time, and it wasn’t just a cameo. To me, that was something very exciting. Even if it had ended up being The Vision, Giant-Man and two other characters, it still would have been cool. The idea that there’s these other movies being made, and they’re all working towards this one final goal is what excited me. That, we did spend many years working on. All the people at Marvel and me would sit there and say, “Okay, so this is what’s happening in Thor. This is what’s happening in Captain America. This is what’s happening here.” So, that was probably the most exciting part of it. I didn’t have the same pre-conceptions about what The Avengers movie should be that I did about X-Men. The Avengers can go a lot of different directions. There is no one line-up. If you did an X-Men movie and it didn’t have Professor Xavier in it, that would be a weird movie. There’s a lot that I’m excited for, but I can’t really talk about what’s in it, so I can’t tell you about what worked, what they listened to and what they didn’t. But, theoretically, it should be amazing.
You’ve had a long association with Marvel. Do you see that going forward, in the future?
PENN: I hope it will go forward, in the future. Obviously, they’re now owned by Disney. I’ve done a lot of movies for them, so I don’t know what’s left for me to do. The Avengers really was the last big job. But, I hope so. I love Marvel, and I love all those people over there. I can’t even count anymore, how many movies I’ve done with them.
Are you interested at all in any DC properties?
PENN: I am, but if you know the comics, DC tends to be more larger than life and more mythological with characters less based in humanity. Superman is something out of fantasy and not out of science fiction, in my mind. So, I’ve always been more drawn to Marvel, even when I was a kid. By the way, I did read both, but the movies were just harder for me to imagine.