Last weekend I had the chance to sit down with Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, the writing team behind GI Joe: Retaliation and Zombieland. The most exciting news for me was the progress on the Zombieland TV show with Amazon. The pilot should be online as early as mid-April, along with Amazon’s handful of other pilots. Then, the pilots that perform the best online will get a full series starting in November. This democratization of serialized television is unprecedented. Even with the new advances in web television from Netflix, they didn’t put their pilots up for the people to decide, that was still very much an in-house effort.
You can read the full interview with Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick below:
One of my favorite things from the film are the funny/lame jokes, especially from the President. How much of that was scripted vs. adlibbed?
Rhett: It was pretty much all scripted and there’s even stuff on the cutting room floor that we wish ended up on screen. Johnathon [Pryce] is so brilliant an actor and he’s so funny and his timing is brillant.
Paul: His was the most fun character to write because it felt like a teenager who’s been given keys to the Lamboghini. It’s the young kind of bad guy who’s disguised as an older man sitting in the white house able to do whatever the hell he wants and there’s probably 10 – 15 minutes of material of his that is not in the movie that we love and hope makes it in to the DVD because he’s so funny. We tapped into this idea of wish fulfillment. Imagine being this guy, becoming the president and being able to do whatever you want. We have in the cut something about swinging from the chandaliers in the Lincoln bedroom, he’s brought the interns back, etc. And we also had a few scenes where he’s doing the drudgery of being president like he’s got to pardon the turkey at thanksgiving and do all those annoying things so not everything is thrilling for him. But anyway, we had a lot of fun.
How much of the action was on the page that you guys scripted and how does that compare to the final product when you see the movie?
Rhett: John brought everything to life so he’s being modest when he says that it’s on the page. That said, it is on the page! We take pride in writing our action scenes and designing them and blow-by-blowing our way through them. The monastery was based on an old comic called Silent Interlude. The GI Joe comic from the 80s was written by a guy named Larry Hamma and one of the issues they didn’t have time to write the dialogue so at the moment they just said “screw it, we’ll just have no dialogue!” They had this sequence where Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow come in to conflict at this monastery up in the mountains for this whole thing. So when we pitched the movie for the first time to Lorenzo, our producer, and Hasbro and Paramount, we pitched this idea – hey, right in the middle of the movie, there’s going to be 10 minutes with zero dialogue and it’s just going to be ninjas fighting the whole time. They were really receptive to it! I don’t think it’s an entire 10 minutes, probably more like 8 minutes but it’s probably our favorite part of the movie. The visual effects guys add something to it. The director adds something to it. It definitely gets embellished into this even cooler thing. And then the 3D makes it just that much cooler. We were thrilled to see all that happen.
How big of fans were you of the cartoon, comics, toys, etc. before starting this project?
Rhett: As a kid, I adored both the comics and the toys. Did not watch the cartoon for some reason, I just don’t think it was on in my city. Love the comics and have every toy except for the aircraft carrier because that was the one my parents wouldn’t spoil me with. The very first movie I made as a kid was a stop-actiony thing with the GI Joe toys, my brother and I did the voices, and we just had a blast. I just think that if I could get in a time machine now and tell my 10 year old self what was coming he would just literally running through the streets naked like “AAHHH THIS IS THE GREATEST MOMENT.” Just would have been thrilling. We kind of get to play with toys in a bigger sandbox now later in life and it’s fun.
Paul: I was a fan as well and what most appealed to me was that I have a 9-year old son and writing a movie that he can get excited about and go see and read the comics and play with the toys – you know, that is more thrilling to me. He wasn’t able to see Zombieland and he’s got about 4 more years before he can see that one, though I have a feeling he’ll try to sneak it in which will piss me off because I want to actually be there when he sees it. But this idea of being able to write for your children is phenomenal and he’s more proud of me than I could ever imagine.
Speaking of Zombieland, how’s that going?
Paul: The sequel is on hold now because we’re doing the TV show actually on Amazon. It was originally conceived as a TV show before it became a movie, in 2005 we had sold it to CBS and they didn’t make the pilot. We ultimately expanded it to the movie, we always wanted to do it as a TV show, we had a thousand stories to tell with this idea of a traveling dysfunctional family trying to avoid zombies and death and also getting along and not getting along. So Amazon got in to the content business this year and Zombieland was the show that fit their brand and we went off and shot a pilot in Atlanta about 3 weeks ago. We’re off cutting it now and it’ll air in mid-April on Amazon. Based on audience clicks and response and all these other things they’re going to hopefully pick it up to series and we’ll be launching in November ideally, you know all things going well.
Rhett: Yeah, it’s an unprecedent thing. Amazon’s taking all their pilots and streaming them live and free to the US, Britain, and Germany. Depending on response they’re going to move forward on various shows. That’s a really interesting and democratic idea in Hollywood. Usually pilots go in front of executives or research groups and they make decisions based off that. This is the ultimate focus group – the people will make the decision.
You’ve worked in TV before with The Joe Schmo Show – how does that process compare to film?
Paul: TV is the writers medium and film is the director’s medium. And so it’s fun to be the boss and have the creative say to take the show in whatever direction we see fit. That being said, we also love the feature world as well. The big action tentpoles that we get to go off and write and sit here at The Four Seasons and talk about, that’s pretty awesome too. So we get the best of both worlds.
You also have upcoming the Micronauts movie with JJ Abrahms. He’s notoriously hush-hush about things, but is there anything you guys can say about it?
Rhett: We can’t really say anything. It’s in process, we hope it becomes a movie that’s the most important thing. It’s really fun working with JJ and we’ve written a couple drafts so we’ll see where it goes. Hopefully it ends up in a theater, so we just have to wait and see.
Paul: And that’s a Hasbro property as well. Hasbro bought the rights from a Japanese toy company, recently I think, and they hired us to go off and crack the movie.
Rhett: And I had all those toys as a kid too!
Paul: Somebody’s spoiled!
Rhett: Yes, I was haha. I had a ton of Micronauts so that was another moment where I was like “Really? Micronauts? Sign me up!”
When you were writing G.I. Joe: Retaliation, did you dream that it would be The Rock and Bruce Willis?
Rhett: Well we wrote it for Channing Tatum because the original draft was based on Duke. Then it became clear that he wouldn’t have enough time to shoot the whole movie so we reduced his role to one act’s worth. Channing goes up in flames about 20 minutes into the movie, so then it became a function of who was going to replace him. For a while it was Flint and then it became Dwayne Johnson and Roadblock. When that happens you’re just thrilled. And then we added Bruce Willis after that and you’re even more thrilled. Just the chance to put words in the mouths of these guys who are icons and have real distinctive voices, it’s a real thrill.
Is it different writing for a sequel as compared to your own project/ideal like Zombieland?
Paul: Absolutely. Zombieland being an original versus this which has it’s own lore, toys, and history it’s absolutely different in a great way. It allows you bring characters that kids played with to life in a way that is true to how they played with them and true to the lore. I would say it’s a different experience as compared to an original idea but it’s just as great.
Is there a dream team that you would want to work with in the future?
Rhett: I think the guy we want to work with most is Todd Field, it’s very strange because our body of work doesn’t seem to apply to his. He’s made largely independent, high quality work – we’ve worked with him on something in the past but we’d love to do something with him. There’s a long list of directors we’d love to work with, I mean Steven Spielberg’s a name that always comes up that at some point it’d be great to be in the same room with him just because we revere him so much. We’re in business with some wonderful directors already – Jay Roach and Tim Miller and Jon Chu. It’s so fun to work with creative, energizing people who take what you have and elevate it to make it really cool. There’s a long list of people we’d love to work with and not enough hours in the day.
Do you have any advice for aspiring screenwriters – people who are in film school or not, trying to get in to the biz.
Paul: Get out now, it’s a bitch!
Rhett: But seriously, one thing I’d say is try to determine which path you want to take whether it’s features or TV and understand the differences between those because they lead to very different lifestyles. You can bounce back and forth, there’s more crossover now so it’s not as set in stone as it used to be. The other thing is you have to have thick skin, you have to have stamina above anything else other than talent, of course. But beyond that it’s just stamina and really really writing a lot because there are a lot of movies that don’t get made. Oftentimes it’ll go 2, 3, 4 projects in a row before something gets through. You have to be able to weather that storm and get to the place where you’re rewarded with the one that does.You have to love it, you need the passion to get through.