Don was kind enough to sit down and have a lengthy chat with yours truly (and on his birthday, no less!) to share some info on how The Simpsons gets made, how he penned the world's first superheroine rom-com, and how he hopes to be part of a reinvigorated Fantastic Four franchise. And here's how the conversation went down.
(Note: Part 1 of this interview, which focuses on Mr. Payne's early sitcom work and (especially) his role as a writer/producer on The Simpsons, has been published at TV Squad -- while we kept the movie-centric chit-chat right here at Cinematical.)
Cine: 'Nuff said! So you're living the life of a happy Simpsons writer and life is good. Where'd Super Ex come from?
DP: I've always wanted to write features. That's why I moved to Los Angeles in the first place. I started writing with John Frink when I was in college at UCLA. He wanted to do TV, and that's where we got our first break. But my goal was always to write movies. And I've been a comic book geek from way back. So this romantic comedy with a superhero twist was a fitting first feature for me.
Cine: Are you a big fan of old-school comic books / modern-day superhero flicks?
DP: Yes and yes. I grew up on Marvel Comics. Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Captain America, The Avengers, The Invaders, The Inhumans, The Hulk, X-Men. I could go on... I know it sounds goofy, but those characters helped form the person I grew up to be. I think any real fan knows what I'm talking about. One of the reasons I wanted to do Fantastic Four 2 was because I wanted to take my son to the premiere.
Cine: Give our readers a quick plot synopsis for My Super Ex-Girlfriend.
DP: Well, I like to say that it's not really a superhero movie or even a superhero parody. It's a romantic comedy which happens to have a superhero in it. Basically, it's about a regular guy who starts dating a woman and finds out she's a superhero. It's great at first, but when she becomes too needy and jealous and manipulative, he realizes he has to break it off with her -- but she doesn't take it too well. She becomes the ultimate crazy ex-girlfriend and uses her powers to destroy his life.
Cine: Last year's Sky High proved that one could mix good-natured comedy and super-heroism quite well. It's obviously a much different concept from Super Ex, but what did you think of that flick?
DP: Truthfully, I haven't seen it yet. It came out about the time I was writing my movie as a spec, so I didn't want to be influenced by it. I've heard it's great, and it seems like it's right up my alley. I've been meaning to rent it. Can I borrow your copy?
Cine: Probably a wise move on your part, and I'll gladly loan you the DVD. I want it back though.
Cine: Super Ex had a really speedy production process, from script sale to (nearly) finished product. How's it been watching your baby come to life?
DP: It's been an emotional rollercoaster, but I hear from others who have been through the process that I'm having the best experience possible. The studio, the producer, and the director have all been extremely supportive and they're very receptive to my input. Ivan Reitman has been very welcoming throughout the process, and he's been great to work with.
Cine: What was it like seeing names like Reitman, Thurman, and Luke Wilson signing on? Were you able to spend a lot of time on the set?
DP: I spent about four weeks on location in New York, and that was an amazing experience. I was thrilled when Ivan came on board, because Ghostbusters and Stripes were such a big part of my youth. Every member of the cast is great. I couldn't be happier about that. I know this all sounds fake, but it's all true.
Cine: Rainn Wilson, Anna Faris, Wanda Sykes, Eddie Izzard are some reallllly funny people. Could you have asked for a better supporting cast? Did these actors "fit" into how you saw these characters as you wrote them?
DP: Yes. They're all great, talented, and truly nice people. In the spec, Rainn's character was originally written as a real player -- a studly ladies' man. It was Ivan's idea to change the character to someone a little quirkier -- someone who fancies himself a player, but really isn't. Rainn plays that really well -- he adds a hip intelligence to the character, which might have been too broad or irritating in the hands of a lesser actor.
Cine: Your screenplay deals with a super-heroine. With the relatively unimpressive showings by Elektra, Aeon Flux, Catwoman, Ultraviolet, etc., was there a concern that this "Supa Uma" might seem similar to those gals? (Also keeping in mind that Underworld, Resident Evil, and Kill Bill deal in dangerous women, and those flicks turned solid profits -- as well as sequels.)
DP: Well, certainly I think people had a concern about that. But the difference here is we're not doing a superheroine action movie. It was never intended to be that. It's a romantic comedy with a superhero twist. I think people are smart enough to get the difference. And our story is really told from the point of view of the Luke Wilson character. I've read somewhere online that the movie is trying to be a parody of the superheroine action movie subgenre, and that's just wrong. It's also not a studio trying to jump on the superhero genre bandwagon.
Cine: You're opening a superhero rom-com in the middle of a pretty sweaty summer season. As of now you're opening opposite Shyamalan's newest and a Spielberg/Zemeckis CG family flick. Excited for the challenge?
DP: Sure. Every weekend in the summer is crowded. I think we've staked out the best weekend we could. I like M. Night's work and animated family films. I just hope people go see our movie first, then go see those films a few weeks later.
Cine: Every summer has a few sleeper hits, and this one looks like it could possibly fit that mold.
DP: I hope so. We don't have a lot of publicity out there yet, so I'm hoping we'll still be fresh by the time we come out. It's hard to compete with the massive campaigns of Pirates 2 or Superman Returns, so I hope we'll be a delightful surprise to people. It's a romantic comedy, but it's not a "chick flick". As I've said, it's really told from the Luke Wilson's character's perspective and there's a lot of fun stuff in it for guys, as well as for women. I'm hoping it's the perfect date movie. I'm thinking people will "get it" when the trailer comes out.
Cine: Any idea when that'll be?
DP: Soon. I think it's locked already.
Cine: Very recent reports indicate that Fox likes your Fantastic Four 2 screenplay, and also that it includes the presence of fan-favorite Silver Surfer. What juicy little scoop can you give us that Variety didn't mention?
DP: I can't confirm or deny anything or I'll be in serious trouble. Except for the fact that I'm working on it, and I'm having a blast. I'm a huge fan, and everyone wants this to be a great movie.
Cine: Critical and fan response to the first Fantastic Four was ... mild, yet the flick was one of last summer's biggest hits. How tough is it to write an adaptation of a really beloved super-team? What steps do you take to ensure that a sequel's an improvement?
DP: I think you take a look at what worked and what didn't work, and you go from there. Certainly it's impossible to take something that's so beloved by millions of hardcore fans and make something which is going to please everyone. The nation of geeks (of which I'm a proud citizen) can be a little negative out of the gate, to say the least. But I'm trying to write the Fantastic Four movie I would like to see. I'm hoping my brethren will feel the same way when all is said and done.
Cine: Between the Simpsons nuts and the Marvel maniacs, you probably come across a whole lot of fan reaction, from passionately enthusiastic to derisively nasty. Do you think the internet has had an impact on the way in which entertainment gets made? Overall, is it a positive or negative component?
DP: I think it's great that people are passionate about the things they love (or hate) and get their voices heard in a way that was never possible before. I do think that people can jump the gun and form strong opinions about things -- based on very little information. Also, I don't begrudge people spoilers, but I just think it's wrong for people to say they hate something based on a review of an early draft of a stolen script. It's like looking at a sonogram of a fetus and saying, "Look at this hideous baby -- with its huge eyes and shrimp-like fingers! This will be the ugliest baby EVER!" It's not finished yet! Also, people can form strong opinions based solely on a premise they've read about. Certainly, some ideas sound more intriguing than others, but any premise can be great or terrible depending on how it's executed. You could take the premise of Batman, for example, and wind up with the 1960's TV show, the Batman & Robin movie, or Batman Begins. They're all really different animals.
Cine: So with Super Ex on the way, FF2 on the horizon, and Simpsons from 9 to 5, what do you have on your back burner right now?
DP: Ha! Seeing my wife and children. They're the ones who are paying the price for my busy work schedule. I'm going to need to take a breather. But I have a couple spec scripts I want to finish.
Cine: Will you be buying a ticket to The Simpsons Movie next summer?
DP: I'm hoping I get to see it for free! But I'm willing to shell out $11.00 bucks to see it. I'm looking forward to seeing a Simpsons story I've had nothing to do with again.
Cine: Don, thanks so much for sitting down with us. Anything you'd like to share with our readers before wrapping up?
DP: Just that Uma Thurman is an incredibly talented comedienne. People will be surprised. And, if you're at Comic-Con this year, stop and say hello. I'm a regular attendee. We've done a few Simpsons panels, and I think we're doing another one this year as well.