The last time we spoke with Don Payne, it was just before his screenwriting debut (My Super Ex-Girlfriend) hit the multiplexes. Since that time he's been hard at work as a writer/producer on The Simpsons, finishing up his screenplay for Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, and bracing himself for a powerful barrage of fanboy nitpickery. So when I spoke with Mr. Payne about spilling some Fantastic beans for the Cinematical readers, he said "Hey, why not open the floor to some questions from everyone?" And so we did. Several readers followed the instructions carefully and sent in some very solid questions. So here they are!
Q: Will Victor Von Doom / Doctor Doom be more like the comic book version this time? Two major shortcomings of the movie version was the tepid romantic triangle with Sue (which never occurs in the comics) and the business mogul backstory that was almost exactly like Norman Osborn's from the first Spider-Man movie. Will Latveria at least be mentioned?
A: Doom is going to be less like the Norman Osborn-esque billionaire and more like the Dr. Doom we all know and love -- with a scientific mind that rivals Reed's. While you can't just ignore how the character was set up in the first film, I think we're getting much closer here to the Doom in the comics. Personally, I would love to see him stride into the U.N. in full armor as ruler of Latveria in a future film.
I don't want to spoil anything Latverian, but we DID see his body being shipped there at the end of the first film. As far as the romantic triangle from the first film goes, that storyline is over. There is no reference to it in this movie.
Q: The trailer seems to indicate Galactus' energies were responsible for the storm that gave the Four their powers. Is this the case? Was this inspired by the Heroes Reborn run, or just something that seemed natural?
A: In my mind, there is mysterious, matter-altering, cosmic "stuff" in the universe which was present in both the storm which hit the FF in the first film and the energy that Galactus wields. However, that's not explicitly stated in the movie -- other than a line where Reed says the cosmic radiation causing anomalies around the world is "not unlike" that which gave the FF their powers. But the cosmic event in the first film and Galactus are otherwise completely unrelated. It was not inspired by the Heroes Reborn run. (But that was a fun run.)
Q: Did you read comic books when you were a kid? What were your favorites back then? And now, if you still read them.
A: It's no secret that I was a Marvel geek from way back. I read Fantastic Four, The Avengers, The Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man, The Invaders, Captain America & The Falcon, The Inhumans, Marvel Team-Up, Marvel Two-in-One, What If?, The X-Men, The Defenders, Nova, The Champions, Omega the Unknown, and lots of other Marvel titles. In fact, all the comics from my childhood are sitting in plastic containers in my office five feet away from me as I write this.
I was never into DC much, although I would occasionally pick up a copy of World's Finest. Like the rest of the world, I would love to see a Batman / Superman crossover movie. I hear Andrew Kevin Walker's Batman and Superman script was great.
Nowadays, I try to sample a little bit of everything, but I regularly read New Avengers, The Ultimates, Fantastic Four, Ultimate Fantastic Four, Astonishing X-Men, and some non-Marvel titles -- anything by Alan Moore, Brian Michael Bendis' Powers, and Brian K. Vaughan's Ex Machina.
I followed the Civil War event, the Annihilation series, and I'm looking forward to World War Hulk. I just hope Tony Stark and Reed Richards get what's coming to them.
Q: I wanted to ask if The Silver Surfer will be speaking in the philosophical way as in the books.
A: The Silver Surfer is a man of few words in this film, but when he DOES speak, I tried to make it true to the way he speaks in the comics. If there is a future Silver Surfer film, I'm sure you'll be hearing more of his philosophical take on the universe and humanity.
Q: Working on a Fox movie, did they try and push their own ideas into your script or were you given complete freedom?
A: No one is ever given complete freedom on a big franchise sequel film like this. It's a collaboration on every level. One of the hardest things you have to do as a writer is to reconcile a bunch of different visions and mandates -- from the studio, the director, the producers, even the actors -- with each other and with your own.
Only when you write a script on spec do you have complete freedom -- and, even then, you have to give that up when it sells.
I have to say, though, one of the things the studio wanted was to include the Silver Surfer in this movie. I think that was a pretty smart idea.
Q: If this movie does Fantastic at the box office, would you be up to write a Silver Surfer spin off?
A: That's putting the cart before the horse, but, sure, why not? I love Mr. Radd. He's my favorite Zenn-Lavian.
Q: What did you think of the original Fantastic Four when you first saw it?
A: I thought that they really nailed the dysfunctional family aspect of the team. The movie looked great, and it was a lot of fun.
But it's always hard to get a franchise up and running. I think everyone was struggling to find the right tone, and they learned a lot from that film. Because of that, I think this will be the rare sequel that's better than the original.
Tim Story is a really talented director who cares passionately about this film and the FF. I think people are going to be very impressed by what he's done here.
Q: Doom and Richards have an intense rivalry in the comics, one of the most legendary rivalries in all comic books, do we get to see that in Rise of the Silver Surfer?
A: Yes. As I stated earlier, we're going to see Doom as Reed's intellectual rival. They're forced to find ways to out-think and outmaneuver one another when the stakes are just about as high as stakes can get.
Q: As a huge Simpsons fan, I'd love to know what the writing process really works like? Do the writers just kind of get into a room and come up with a bunch of ideas to pitch to the show-runners? Is there any "solo" writing at all? Last one: Does it bug you when people say the show isn't as good as it used to be?
A: The Simpsons has a writing staff of about 23 people, including consultants. We have two writers' rooms going at the same time, each working on different episodes on any given day at various stages of the writing process. From the time a writer pitches a story to the time it airs, it takes about nine months, sometimes longer. The process goes something like this...
A writer will pitch a few ideas to Al Jean, our showrunner (also known as the head writer or executive producer). Once Al picks one of the ideas he likes (or assigns an idea to the writer), the writer will sit around a room with about five other writers and "pitch out" or "break" the story over the course of a few days -- that is, we'll come up with the main story beats, map out an overall structure scene-by-scene, and pitch out tons and tons of jokes. The writer will then go off for a week and write a very detailed outline of about 20 pages or so.
Next, the writer will get notes on his outline from the showrunner and other executive producers, then go off and write a first draft of the script. You get two weeks to do this, and at the end of that time you've got a 45 to 50 page first draft of a script.
At that point, you hand it over to the room. The story is no longer yours, really -- not that it ever entirely was. It belongs to the whole staff. It gets rewritten literally fifteen times or so before it airs.
As far as people complaining about the show, fans were saying the show "isn't as good as it used to be" as early as Season Four, so you have to take everything with a grain of salt. The biggest fans can be the harshest critics, but it comes from a place of being very passionate about the series and what it means to their lives.
One thing that bothers me a little is when fans online say they love or hate an individual writer because that writer happens to have a "written by" credit on episodes the fans like or dislike. The truth is, regardless of who has the official "written by" credit, the entire writing staff is involved in every episode. Sometimes the script is completely overhauled, and virtually every line is changed from the writer's first draft. As I've said, even the writer's outline and first draft are based on three or four days of breaking out the story with a room full of other writers -- so from its inception, every script is a collaboration, regardless of whose name is on it. Honestly, you can't really say you like or hate a particular writer's work unless you're in the writers' room and know the writer personally -- because what you're seeing on the screen is not the work of that one individual, it's the work of the entire staff.
Ultimately, it's the showrunner who's responsible for what you see on the air. It's the showrunner who decides every story that gets written, every joke that gets in, every guest star that gets cast, every music cue that gets used, etc. I think our current showrunner Al Jean does a tremendous job keeping the show going as well as it does at 400 episodes and counting. (Yes, I'm aware that I'm kissing my boss's ass. Please send him a link.)
Q: Finally, it is so small but as a Doom fanatic, means so much to me, will we get to hear Doom say "Richards" not "Mr. Fantastic" or "Dr. Richards" or even "Reed" but in the comics, Doom has always said "Richards" as if it was a curse, "Bah, curse that Richards"... even once would make all the difference in the world...
A: I feel for you, man. As I've stated above, you have to work within the context of how the characters were set up in the first film. Victor and Reed had known each other for years, and they were on a first name basis. It's hard to change that in a way that feels real. I mean, if you're friends with someone, and you call them by their first name, that's what you tend to do for the rest of your life -- you don't really change it up, even if you become mortal enemies. So it would just seem odd for Doom to start calling Reed "Richards." Unless Doom has a complete psychotic break. Which might not be such a bad idea, come to think of it...
Q: What is writer Mark Frost's (worked on the first film) contribution to Rise of the Silver Surfer? And what was it like collaborating with him?
A: As was the case here, most credited writers on films don't actually collaborate unless they're a writing team. Officially, if you see the word "and" between writers' names in the credits, that means they worked separately. If you see an ampersand ("&"), then they worked together.
Mark was hired before me and came up with some basic story elements and an overall story structure. I was given a 1 1/4-page story beat sheet based on what he had worked out with Marvel, the studio, and director Tim Story. (I was not given any other outlines, treatments, or screenplays written by Mark or anyone else, although I know that Mark had done a lot of additional work.) I made changes to the story and added my own stuff to it, then wrote my first draft of the screenplay. From that point on, I was the only writer working on the movie, writing numerous drafts through the course of production.
I never actually met Mark until after the final credits for the movie had officially been determined. I had always been a fan of his work, as co-creator and showrunner of Twin Peaks and as the author of a couple great Victorian fantasy-adventure novels which I loved, called The List of Seven and The Six Messiahs.
We got together for lunch recently, and I thought he was a very decent guy. I spent most of the time geeking out like a fanboy and asking him what would have happened on Twin Peaks had it gone another season. He politely indulged me. I know he's also got a new book out which is supposed to be great called The Second Objective, set during World War II. (So there's a plug for Mark. It's in stores now!)
For the record, the official writing credits on Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer are "Story by John Turman and Mark Frost, Screenplay by Don Payne and Mark Frost".
Q: Did the relatively sparse box office numbers on My Super Ex-Girlfriend put any roadblocks in your way of getting this screenwriting job? Are you happy with the way that movie turned out?
A: First of all, thank you for the diplomatic phrasing of "the relatively sparse box office numbers on Super Ex." I appreciate that. Actually, my original spec script of Super Ex got me a lot of attention around town, including that of Marvel and Fox. I had already been hired and was working on FF: Rise of the Silver Surfer well before Super Ex opened. In fact, I spent about 36 hours straight in a hotel room in New York finishing one of the many drafts of Rise right before the Super Ex premiere.
Regardless of its ultimate performance at the box office, I still think Super Ex was a fun little movie. (It also did pretty well on DVD!) However, as is almost always the case, my original spec script was significantly different from the finished film. There were things I would have done differently, of course, but I had a great experience working with the director, Ivan Reitman, who I'd always admired and still do. I really believe that if I walked into the theater not having had anything to do with the movie, I would have enjoyed it.
Q: Aside from The Simpsons, do you have any new projects on the horizon? Would you like to stick in the comic book genre? FF3, perhaps??
A: I have a project which I wrote as a spec that I'm working on right now -- it's a supernatural action/comedy. And I'm talking to various producers and studios about possible assignments after that. I'm just looking for the right thing -- something I'm really going to love doing. I'm lucky to have that luxury, thanks to the steady Simpsons gig.
I think comic books (with or without superhero characters) actually span many different genres -- sci-fi, action, comedy, horror, historical drama, etc. -- so you have the opportunity to write many different kinds of films while staying within the "comic book genre." I'd love to do more of them. But, of course, I'd also like to move on to original projects that aren't based on comic book properties.
It's a little early to start talking about the next FF sequel. It all depends on how Rise of the Silver Surfer does. I haven't officially spoken with anyone about it, but, sure, I'd be interested. I love the Fan Four. And there are still so many great stories to tell from the FF comics, so many great villains I'd love to see on the screen -- Annihilus, The Inhumans, The Skrulls, The Puppet Master. Any of those would make for a great sequel, don't you think?