Exclusive: Screenwriter Justin Theroux Talks IRON MAN 2, ZOOLANDER 2, YOUR HIGHNESS, Easter Eggs, IRON MAN 3, and More

     May 4, 2010

While Justin Theroux has been acting in movie and TV shows for the last fifteen years, he’s recently started a new career in Hollywood: screenwriting.  Due to being one of the screenwriters on Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder, Theroux met Robert Downey Jr., and since they got along so well, Downey pitched Theroux to Marvel for Iron Man 2.  Cut to a few meetings later and he’s writing one of the most anticipated sequels of the last decade.

With Iron Man 2 set to debut in North America this Friday (it’s debuted overseas last weekend and raked in over $100 million), I recently spoke with Theroux about not only the highly-anticipated superhero film, but his other projects, which include Zoolander 2, Space Invaders, Chief Ron, and Your Highness (although he’s only acting in this one).  I also asked if he or anyone else was working on Iron Man 3.

Trust me, if you want to know how Iron Man 2 was made and what’s up with the other films I just mentioned, you want to hit the jump:

Like I always do, you can either read the transcript below or click here to listen to the audio.  If you have the time, I always recommend listening over reading.

Finally, if you’re looking for specific projects in the interview.  We start talking about how he got the job.  Lots of Iron Man 2 talk.  Easter eggs.  Zoolander 2. Iron Man 3Your Highness. Other projects.  Done.

Finally, minor spoilers are discussed in this interview. You might want to avoid reading till you’ve seen the movie.  Especially the first half.

Collider: Tropic Thunder obviously changed your career path.  Can you talk a little bit about the transition of going from like Tropic, meeting Robert, coming to this project, could you talk a little bit like the behind the scenes if you will?

Justin Theroux:  It’s pretty simple. Robert and I had a blast on “Tropic Thunder”. Really enjoyed working with each other and had some sort of rapport and then it just seemed to time out perfectly like “Iron Man” came out, “Tropic Thunder” came out. When they started first having talks about what they were going to do he basically said I just want you to meet Kevin Feige and Jeremy Latchum so I went in there and talked to them. We talked about if you could write the next one what would it look like? And I sort of pitched really not any solid ideas. I was like look here’s the themes that I think are interesting. Here’s what I think is interesting about this character and here’s the world in which I would want to explore moving forward with the character. And they sort of took a leap of faith and hired me.

When he even says that to you what’s going through your head? You’re like fuck, how much do you like sit down and think about….

Theroux:  I didn’t really because I know myself well enough to know that if I actually sit down and think about sort of I can spook myself out like anyone, you know?  It’s sort of like you’ve got to sort of jump out of the airplane when you’re skydiving. If you spend 20 minutes sitting on the lip you probably won’t do it. So when he said it I was like sure and the truth is l love the movie and it would be a different story all together if I didn’t like the character, didn’t like the movie, wasn’t a fan, you know? And I was so if anything any fear mechanism was completely overridden just by excitement being like oh my God that would be an amazing opportunity to write for that character. It’s such a rich world that they created. Especially in the superhero genre it’s not as obviously there’s great other superhero movies but you rarely get a character that’s that flesh and bone. So I was just excited to be able to sort of whack that out with him.

How was Marvel with…obviously there’s a balance between the movie, selling toys, introducing characters, there’s like a whole bunch that goes into one of these kind of films. How much were you responsible for say the introduction of Whiplash or certain characters that were in this film? Was this a balancing act that Marvel and Jon said these are the characters we want to play with?

Theroux:  No. It literally…we went in….we just did what anyone should do which is you go in and you just begin at the beginning. So everything gets unpacked and is put on the table. That means the entire Iron Man bible, all the storylines, comics, everything. I mean we were flipping through….we sort of just poured over all source material and we all sort of dog eared different stuff that we liked or there were other characters that we were interested in that we thought we’d take a run at, and then we just sort of started talking about…simultaneously talking about the themes of the movie that we thought are going be the most interesting to explore. The fact that he’s now a public figure. The fact that he’s now probably a celebrity. The fact that the world knows about this technology, that it exists. All things that we were interested in. So then we sort of backtracked and sort of thought what do we want? What characters in the Marvel universe best service or in the Iron Man best service those themes and those storylines, having already dog eared a bunch of those that we liked?  And then it was just sort of a process of alchemy and boiling down and getting down to the root characters and Whiplash was just the one that sort of was the one that was the metal that rose to the surface.  As did Scarlett. We knew we obviously had to get Nick Fury in there. We wanted him in there. He was in the last movie. And we didn’t want him to just show up just sort of unannounced, so we tried to think of a way to get him in there, so we brought in Scarlett and Black Widow to sort of thread that story, thread that needle. And Justin Hammer as well. Justin Hammer is like a 65-year old man in the comic books, so we younged him down and sort of made him sort of a shadow version of Tony Stark.  And that’s basically the process. But there’s no mandates. The toys and Dr. Pepper and all that stuff is whole different thing. It’s a different division. No one’s taking their marching orders from that. They’re actually….it’s the opposite. They’re sort of seeing what we come up with, waiting to see what toys they’re going to make and then once we sort of show them the film then they go, great! We’ll move with that and then they go.

The thing that fans seem to be really into, especially the die-hard fans, are the little Easter eggs for fans. You know, the stuff that’s leading toward Avengers. There’s a Captain America reference. There’s a reference to New Mexico.  My question is when you’re dealing with stuff that’s pertaining to the other films and the bigger Marvel picture, is that still you guys being able to do what you want or is there…

Theroux:  Absolutely. I jokingly say because there’s an Easter egg of a Captain America shield in one and I used to joke with Kevin that you know it’s a history or…it must be a tradition at Marvel to sort of fuck the next writer by just throwing something in there. But it actually is….and Kevin when I first started writing when I was doing other interviews and things like that people would sort of ask me, “well so how are you going to deal with the Captain America thing and how are you going to…” and the truth is it would be nice to think that, you know, all the writers got together from “Thor” and “Captain America” and “Avengers” and we all sat around and plotted out 10 movies in a row.  But you just can’t do that in these movies. You have to…there has to be a certain amount of tossing thread out in front of you for someone else to catch so that they can then run with it. And it’s not as random as an exquisite corpse but it’s more in that world of sort of taking something that’s a marble that someone else threw you, rolling it around in your hand and going all right, now how do we make this? And then pushing….it’s getting the ball down the field essentially, you know? And it’s Kevin Feige’s job, and he’s great at it, to sort of be the bee to carry the pollen from flower to flower and make sure that it all makes sense and exists in the same thing.

Something in the press conference, I think Kevin said or Jon said that the movie runs the same time as “The Incredible Hulk” or takes place at the same time as “The Incredible Hulk” but I’m going to say that isn’t right.  I’m going to say this takes place at the same as “Thor” and am I wrong about this?

Theroux:  The same time as “Thor”?

Well like when Agent Colson talks about New Mexico, Thor’s hammer…New Mexico. Am I wrong about this or…?

Theroux:  You might be onto something.  I mean I don’t want to ruin everything but did you see the movie last night?  Did you watch through?

That’s the other thing. They did not…we stayed until the end of the credits and there’s nothing at the end.  Which means they’re pulling what they did on the last film which is there must be an Easter egg and they’re not going to release it ‘til opening day.

Theroux:  You might want to get another ticket out of them.

Yeah, exactly.

Theroux:  That’s all I’m saying.

Well for things like that for that Easter egg, is that something that you guys…is that a lot of improv or is that very scripted?

Theroux:  No, that’s got to be very specific because you can’t…if it was all of a sudden Tony opens a tool box and there’s a friggin’ hammer in there, you can’t bone the next guy. You know it’s not like…you want to create possibilities.  So that’s a very thought out piece. If the shield all of a sudden just falls out of the sky, you know, whatever it is, whatever that thing is you want to be very specific about it. So…

I understand.

Theroux:  I’ll be apparent in a week and a half.

Yeah, totally. Jumping into….I definitely want to address some other stuff. I spoke to Ben Stiller recently and he said that you guys are making really good progress on a certain sequel.

Theroux:  That’s right.

Which I am beyond looking forward to. It’s like my…I’m so fucking happy for this thing.

Theroux:  Good.

So can you give me a status as to how that’s going?

Theroux:  We’re still breaking story and trying to figure out what’s going to be the funniest version of that movie.  The only thing we know for sure, we’re obviously going to make it bigger, better, blah, blah, blah, hopefully larger. The only real difference is that they’re going to be completely irrelevant, you know what I mean? They’re just going to….we want to wash them up at the beginning of the movie and hopefully will have to earn some sort of relevance coming back, but yeah we know the beginning and then I can bore you with trying to take you through where we think it’s going but then again I might be wrong. We might make too many…

So the script is still being going? There’s no like…

Theroux:  There’s no like…we’re not in proper pre-production or anything like that. We’re just sifting through trying to get the best version of the script possible.

Ben told me that Mogatu might be Silence of the Lambs locked up. Something like that.

Theroux:  Might be. He might be. I mean I would guess he’s locked up since he tried to kill the Malaysian Prime Minister, so it would be pretty likely that he’s in a prison somewhere.  A fashion prison. Fashion jail somewhere.


Theroux:  Might be Europe. Yeah.

Obviously there’s going to be an “Iron Man 3”. that’s a no-brainer. The movie’s going to be huge. Is that something that you guys behind the scenes have you even like talked about like trying to think about that or is it sort of like let’s just take a break and…

Theroux:  I think everyone’s breaking on this and we’ll see…I mean the good thing about Marvel is that they’re really good about reading what they call the shareholders—the fans. Because they really are the keepers of what keeps these movies going, you know? So I think they’ll probably see what the reaction is to 2, see what people gravitate towards, what people love.  I think any sequel—any smart sequel—does that. They sort of….we learn from the first one that the Pepper/Tony relationship is very, very important to the fans.  So that’s obviously something we paid extra special attention to in this one. So you wait and you sort of read the tea leaves after this movie comes out and then you move forward from there.

In the trailer, there is a short or a still they released of Scarlett and Tony holding a missile kind of thing getting ready to fire it, and when they release photos like that and then it’s not in the movie, that means it was cut pretty close to the end.

Theroux:  Yes, I think that will definitely be on the DVD and Jon’s explanation. You know there’s things that work great in these movies that are great individual scenes and fans get bummed out when they get taken out of the movie. It’s like, it was in trailer and now it’s not in the movie. But Jon’s very good at knowing what’s best for the movie.  And that’s one of the reasons he makes such good films.  He probably made a decision that says you know look, it’s a great moment but it didn’t pay off or maybe we were trying to finesse a character one way and that scene might have made something get knocked off-kilter and unbalance the character dynamics in ways. So there’s always a good reason for it. It’s not like oh, we’re just throwing something out just for…believe me every frame of this movie has been gone over with the overall movie in mind and trying to make sure that it’s just the best movie that it can be.

Marvel’s apparently taking meetings with people to try to develop the lesser known characters for lower budgets. That’s what the rumor is. Are there other superheroes in the Marvel universe that you have an affinity towards that perhaps you’ve gone in and said I wouldn’t mind tackling….

Theroux:  No, I don’t know. There’s many times …when we were developing the story there were definitely like villains and other characters just in general that I just thought would be so great and so right, but there’s so many. I mean like it’s an extensive catalog. I can’t think of anyone right off the bat that I would want to. I’d have to go in and sort of figure out, you know, what their back-stories and the cord of figuring out most of these characters, figuring out what their personality is. We know what Mickey Rourke’s personality…we discovered what Mickey Rourke’s personality was, you know, that he was just this sort of battered guy who was basically a poor version of Tony Stark and that’s what made him interesting. So in going into other characters in the Marvel universe you’d have to really get your fingers dirty trying to figure that out. I can’t think of any right off the bat.

Sure. I looked on the always accurate IMDB, and you’re linked to a few other projects.

Theroux:  Um-hum.

What exactly is accurate?  What are you also working on?

Theroux:  I’m working on this HBO show that I just finished a pilot for. It’s a half hour comedy with me and Steve Coogan, which I’m very involved with which doesn’t have a title yet. I am…there’s this movie called “Chief Ron” which is a script that I adore which is over at Imagine. There’s this movie called “Space Invaders” which I totally love. Like a great script and needs another pass or two. And then but that’s a movie that makes me laugh really hard. Yeah, there’s a bunch of stuff out there. It’s just a question of having the time to sort of go through and….when “Zoolander” came up it’s was like oh it’s a great…it’s sort of like the crown jewel film so I was super-stoked to…so I decided to focus most of my energy on that right now. And Ben’s schedule might change and then I would go then and do “Space Invaders” or something like that.

How do you divvy up being involved in all these different things?  Is it like Monday I’m on this, Tuesday I’m on this? Or are you like devoting weeks at a time to certain things?

Theroux:  You try to break it down to weeks at a time otherwise you sort of make yourself crazy spinning out going from one….you just can’t get your head around one of them fully. So I’m more task oriented. I like to sort of like focus on one thing for a couple of weeks…and also they’re all in different stages of development. Like we have the script for the HBO thing. That’s sort of now it’s in their court to sort of give us notes and things like that. There’s a script already for “Space Invaders”. “Zoolander” we just need to break the story….so they’re all in different states, you know, of development. And a lot of it is just people’s schedule, like getting the actors you want and making sure that you know and Ben’s got 2 movies he’s working on and Owen’s doing his thing and so you’re just also waiting for windows where everyone’s schedule coalesces.

If I’m not mistaken, you are also acting in “Your Highness”?

Theroux:  That’s correct.

And so what exactly is your part in supposedly this crazy film?

Theroux:  It’s super crazy. I saw a cut of it. It is fucking funny. Like  it’s a really funny movie.

That’s what I heard.

Theroux:  It’s really great. I think it’s…when I read that script it was one of the scripts I read and I was like, it’s so great. Like of course, of course it’s a great idea. And it’s just really funny. I play a bad guy. I play the baddie in the movie. This guy, who’s like this evil wizard who has to kidnap and have sex with Zoe’s character and there’s 2 moons that are going to collide and I’m going to impregnate her with a dragon. It’s like all very kind of wizardry and hysterical and lots of bad finger electricity special effects and stuff like that but it’s really super funny.  And Danny McBride and James Franco are just like…you just split yourself laughing at those guys because it’s just funny to see Danny in kind of like a Lord of the Rings Hobbity kind of world, you know, with this like sort of southern accent that’s kind of English. He’s kind of doing an English accent and it’s just stupid.

I know that they improv a lot. So what is that like when you guys…when it’s the 3 of you say in a scene…

Theroux:  It was fun! It’s just fun. Literally that’s what’s so great. Because normally these sort of period wizard pieces you have to take them kind of super seriously and live within the world and you know you can’t throw out…but like Danny was throwing out shit like…there’s all sorts of pot and dick references and things like that, so you…although you can’t reference a TV show or something but you have so much free reign to do whatever you want. So it’s sort of fun. You’re in like period clothing and talking about masturbation.  You know like…it’s just funny. Just trying to make each other laugh.

My last thing…Danny said that Natalie Portman has some pretty outrageous lines.

Theroux:  Insane.

What’s an example of one of your “outrageous” lines?

Theroux:  Oh God, I don’t know. I have a couple outrageous lines. They wouldn’t sound outrageous out of context. It’s more kind of like making bong jokes and weed jokes and dick jokes and you know tit jokes. I mean it’s just like it’s just outrageous. It’s just outrageous.

My kind of movie.

Theroux:  It’s super funny. You’re going to really like it.

I’m very confident.

Theroux:  I can guarantee you.

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