Nicole Perlman is living the writer’s dream. A few years ago, the NYU Tisch School graduate and avowed sci-fi fan was tapped to write a script for Marvel that ended up being Guardians of the Galaxy, the wise-cracking, guns-blazing space opera that went from obscure comic property to the most anticipated summer blockbuster of 2014 almost overnight.
In addition to her splashy screenwriting debut, Perlman is a tireless advocate for getting more science on the screen, serving on the steering committee of the Science and Entertainment Exchange. We sat down with her during this year’s San Diego Comic-Con to talk more about shaping the world of the Guardians, her passion for scientific storytelling, and falling in love with a theoretical physicist.
Screen Invasion: Guardians of the Galaxy is your first official feature writing credit. How does it feel to kick off your IMDb page with such a huge blockbuster?
Nicole Perlman: It’s kind of amazing. It’s setting the bar pretty high! I can’t imagine what I’d do next that would be bigger than this. It’s a huge movie, and I don’t think I realized until I was walking the red carpet at the premiere that the fans were really excited about it, and I felt the waves of energy and excitement. It was wonderful.
SI: Did you ever feel intimidated?
NP: I wasn’t intimidated whatsoever, because nobody had ever heard of Guardians. I took it off of a list of a dozen long-shot projects that Marvel gave me the option to choose from. So I wasn’t intimidated in the slightest because on some level it was like, “It would be amazing if this got made, but I’m not counting on it any time soon.” There were a ton of projects being developed and I knew it would have to beat out various other properties for this kind of a slot. But I’m thrilled that it did. I was over the moon when I heard it was going into production.
SI: You were also part of the now-defunct Marvel screenwriting program. What was that like? Were there things they tried to encourage or discourage in their writers?
NP: I don’t know how the other writers felt, but I had complete freedom, really. I would check with them if there were things I wanted to do, and if it was a character that Marvel owned as opposed to having leased out to other studios – like with Fox and the Fantastic Four and the X-Men – they wouldn’t have allowed me to put those in my script. But I could use pretty much anybody else in the cosmic universe that I wanted to. I couldn’t have used Silver Surfer, for example, since he’s in Fantastic Four, but I use anybody that they owned.
It was extremely hands-off in terms of creative choice. They let me take a stab at it in lots of different ways and gave good feedback. There were lots of different permutations of the team and the storyline, and I’m really happy with the one we settled on.
SI: Story continuity in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is such a major consideration. The movies walk a fine line between being unique stand-alone pieces of entertainment and serving a larger over-arcing story. How do you balance those two agendas?
NP: I think the thing that was great about Guardians is that from the beginning [Marvel] told me it would be a stand-alone, so I should write it without having to worry about what was going on with Iron Man or the Avengers or any of these things. That was really wonderful in a way because I could do what I wanted and not have to worry about how it tied in. I’m sure the future films are going to tie in more, but partially because it was such a risk I think Marvel wanted to make sure it was its own story. In a way it nice’s because it’s not being propped up by anything that’s come before. It’s very much its own thing.
SI: How would you describe the collaborative experience with the other filmmakers?
NP: Well, I didn’t co-write with James Gunn simultaneously. I worked on it from 2009 to the beginning of 2012. Then James came on a couple months later and he took it from there, and they shot it in 2013. So I got to go to the set and spend time with James, watching the filming, and that was wonderful.
SI: Did you bounce any ideas off him then, or give any other input?
NP: I definitely gave my input, but by that point they were shooting, they were involved, so we couldn’t be like, “You should change this” or give any major edits.
SI: The Marvel films, to date, have been grounded at least a little in a world we can recognize, but Guardians is this big, crazy space opera with a talking raccoon. Did you have to split the difference tone-wise, so to speak, or just go off in a new direction?
NP: The whole idea of Peter Quill being Earth-based – being kidnapped as a child, and bringing toys and pop culture references with him from home and having those sort of infiltrate the movie – was in my early drafts. It’s not in the comics, where he was an adult astronaut; it’s actually a different version of Star-Lord’s upbringing.
But I wanted to find ways to bring a world that we knew and that was very relatable into this crazy science fiction world. I felt that having these nostalgic touchstones and mementos of childhood would be a great way to do that. It worked quite well, and then James bumped up the music element and made it a huge part of the story, which was really smart. I had the Walkman and I had some music in the script, but he made that a major theme. And that’s a great choice because music resonates so much, especially the tunes of our childhood. So in a way it feels extremely relatable despite the fact that there’s a talking raccoon.
SI: I also want to talk about your science background…
NP: Well, I come from a science fan background. [Laughs] And also a science fiction fan background. My dad ran a science fiction book club. I’m from Boulder, Colorado, and there’s a lot of aerospace out there. We had a bunch of rocket scientists and professors and astrophysicists who would come to our house and talk about science fiction. I absorbed that as a kid and became really interested in science for the stories, the concepts, the ideas, the characters. Of course, I tried my hand at the actual work, the equations, and I was like, “This is not as much fun as talking about black holes!” I realized that my skills were better used telling the stories and communicating the ideas that I found so interesting about science.
SI: So what appeals to you about communicating those scientific ideas through popular culture?
NP: There’s an idea that science is this lofty thing – physics, molecular biology, or anything – that “normal people” can’t understand. But I think the best scientists were great communicators. Richard Feynman was known for being able to break down very complex ideas about quantum physics for laypeople. He’s known for saying that if he couldn’t explain to the average person why he won the Nobel Prize, he shouldn’t be able to win it.
So what’s great about pop culture exploring scientific ideas is that it makes it accessible to everyone and gets people excited. Because these things belong to everybody. The questions and the discoveries belong to everyone who’s living on this planet. There’s no reason for anyone to think it’s inaccessible.
SI: Guardians of the Galaxy is more action-adventure that speculative sci-fi, but did your love of science inform the script in any way?
NP: I’d say that there were more elements in my early drafts that were grounded in real physics and real science. But I think the concepts of what could be possible and what is possible – the scope of where civilizations could end up if you had a millennium of peace to develop – they’re all standard science fiction tropes, but they’re done in a fresh and interesting way.
SI: You’ve also written a screenplay about the Challenger space shuttle tragedy…
NP: Yes! It just got re-optioned.
SI: Oh, that’s great because I’ve heard others who’ve read the script compare it to political-thriller films like All the President’s Men, and that’s very intriguing to me. It sounds so different from the emotional docudrama treatment we’d expect from that subject matter. How did you kind of break that story, and decide to tell it in the way that you did?
NP: That story has had a lot of near misses, coming very close to production several times. It’s kind of an interesting tale of woe that would take forever to explain. But Richard Feynman is a childhood hero of mine who I learned about in the science fiction book club. Someone had taken a class with him and my father bought me Feynman’s autobiography for my sixteenth birthday. I actually developed a bit of a crush on a dead physicist, and had pictures of him on my bedroom wall while my friends had Keanu Reeves on their walls!
My first screenplay about Challenger was sort of written as a love letter to Richard Feynman. I was trying to figure out which portion of this amazing man’s life to focus on, and came up with this story of a person who was doing something that was really hard, being away from his family, using his genius to figure out what went wrong with the Challenger shuttle, all while dying of stomach cancer. And throughout his life he had sort of flouted the idea of personal responsibility, so then we had the whole concept of what is America’s responsibility to its astronauts or in any risky project. There’s shadows of things like Hurricane Katrina in the story – these big disasters affecting many people that we probably could have prevented. It’s got a lightness to it, but it’s also got a lot of serious points that are being made. It ended up being the project that’s closest to my heart and hopefully this new option gets it to the screen. We’ll see.
SI: What are the other great scientific stories that need to be told onscreen?
NP: Oh, I have about 40 bookmarked stories that I’d like to tell. I think some of them are getting told, like Alan Turing and the Enigma machine. That’ll be great once it comes out. You know, Hedy Lamarr is an interesting story too. I don’t know that it’s going to get made anytime soon, but just the idea of a film starlet who was also a scientist and getting patents is really fascinating. I also think a lot of things happening right now, like with Elon Musk and SpaceX, those are going to be biopics in twenty years. I can’t wait to see those movies.
SI: I know you’re also part of the Science and Entertainment Exchange…
NP: It’s amazing! Everybody needs to know about it.
SI: Well, let’s hear a bit about it. How has the experience been for you?
NP: It’s honestly been life-changing. I’m on the committee for it, so I get to partake in these fantastic experiences and meet amazing people. Basically the concept for the Science and Entertainment Exchange is that it’s Dial-A-Scientist for filmmakers and writers who are established and working in Hollywood. Any time they want free consultation on any slightly scientific topic, they call up the Exchange and get in touch with someone in our database who wants to contribute to seeing more science in film and television.
It’s a mutual-beneficial situation: you get ideas you wouldn’t have thought of, you’re corrected if something is a misconception, and scientists get to see the things they care about portrayed in a more accurate or interesting way and have people get excited about it. They also do salon events where filmmakers are invited to mingle with scientists, going to rocket launches or tours with a SWAT team in Los Angeles, or listen to interesting speakers like the guy who “hacked” into OkCupid and found his fiancé by making himself the number one choice for all the women in his demographic.
Then the other people on the committee are filmmakers, writers, and producers, but there’s also astrobiologists and physicists and rocket scientists, so I have this amazing network of people I can talk to about all the things I feel should be brought to screen. It’s very inspiring.
SI: So one final question: what’s the biggest thing the entertainment industry needs to consider when approaching scientific topics?
NP: That people are ready for portrayals of scientists to be other than a nerd, an uptight person, or a mad scientist, and embrace the idea of scientists as human beings. It’s something we’re all hungry for. It’s been a trope for so many years that we’re starving for better, fleshed-out characters. You know, not every spy is James Bond, so why should every scientist be crazy or uptight and nerdy? We’re starting to get better portrayals of scientists, but there are still so many different variations to explore.
Guardians of the Galaxy opens nationwide this Friday. Check out our previous coverage of the movie, and stay tuned for our official review!