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As the guy who directed a little-seen (but terrific) romantic comedy, starred or co-starred in not one but two David Lynch projects, and enjoyed a recurring stint on shows like Six Feet Under and The District, Justin Theroux might not be the first person fans might think of to write a sequel to Iron Man, one of 2008's most successful movies. But Theroux is the guy who with Etan Cohen co-wrote Tropic Thunder, and collaborated closely with one of its stars, Robert Downey Jr., to cement the actor's meteoric comeback. That he only further confirms Downey's command of the screen in Iron Man 2 speaks both to the effectiveness of their partnership and Theroux's ability to juggle character details in a movie that could otherwise be, well, a comic book.
Cinematical recently sat down with Theroux at the Los Angeles press junket for Iron Man 2 for a chat about the film. In addition to delving into his ongoing collaboration with Downey, Theroux dished a few secrets about the film's story, and suggested a few directions future installments might go if he was given the green light to write Iron Man 3.
Cinematical: Jon Favreau said you were able to tap pretty easily into Robert Downey Jr.'s creative process. How would you characterize that process and what is it you feel like made it possible for you two to collaborate so easily?
Justin Theroux: Robert is an extremely unique performer, and he's so creative; his mind works in this strange and wonderful way that you can't really write to it, necessarily, because he reflects in such strange ways that you can't anticipate. So if anything, it's sort of like turning on a fire hose and sort of if you're lucky, you can get a wedge in there and divert some of that fire hose onto the screen. That's what makes him so special: for him it's a lot about capturing lightning in a bottle. He's got so much charge flowing off of him that Jon [Favreau] and I and other actors in the scenes, their whole job is just to sort of dance around that and focus the light a little bit. It's like throwing clay to a guy – he would take it and create these incredible shapes and then throw it over his shoulder and get another one. It's a very kind of organic and strange process that I've never experienced with anyone else, and the best you can do is sort of hang onto his shoulders and go with it.
Cinematical: Did the fact that the first Iron Man was such a hit embolden you or did that put more pressure on you to deliver a suitable follow-up?
Theroux: I don't think either. I'm a big believer that if you approach everything as a writer from a character point of view, and as long as you don't sort of deviate and try to stay true to the voice of the characters and also the themes of the movie, you're going to stay on track. Sequels oftentimes suffer from, well, just not being the first one, but because we didn't have the origin story to play with really any more, we were handed a different gift at the end of Iron Man which was that he was in the public eye. That was a fantastic point of departure and Jon and Robert and Kevin [Feige] and all of those guys were so smart and were obviously involved from right off the bat in the process. I felt very held by their intelligence and the things that they knew worked and didn't work; obviously on [Iron Man] they had done a lot of hard work just as far as figuring out the characters, and obviously Robert brought so much to that. So I never felt that sense of extreme pressure, and maybe it's because I have trouble thinking into the future, but if I had put myself into today maybe I would have started to feel that pressure. But it rolled on at just the right pace for us, even though it seemed like there was sort of a tight deadline; we at least created the illusion for ourselves that we had all of the time in the world to figure out the best movie for the audience.
Cinematical: Because there's so much machinery in a production like this, did you feel like you had to figure out the plot first and then graft on the personality of the characters, or was it sort of the other way around?
Theroux: I think the characters are themselves. I just made myself as familiar as I could with the characters and then we really began at the beginning – Page One, we kind of know it has to begin in some respects with "I am Iron Man." That's the beginning of the story, and a lot of movies don't give you that great opening; this one, we had a point of departure and a new world that he was living in. He was now a public figure, not just a captain of industry – he was a known superhero, so he had celebrity in a weird way. So we got to tweak the world in a way that they didn't have [the opportunity to do] in the first movie.
Cinematical: What if anything did Jon think was underdeveloped or maybe didn't work that he wanted to address in this film?
Favreau: We all loved the idea of learning more about Tony's interior life as it relates to his legacy and his father. So we really liked the idea of bringing Howard Stark into the movie, which you could do a whole movie on just that – what is the history behind the arc reactor and all of that stuff. So I really wanted to give that its due place in the movie, because it explains so much of his conflict and stuff that goes on inside the movie.
Cinematical: There's sort of an overarching latticework connecting the mythologies of all of the Marvel movies beyond their individual stories. What challenge did you face integrating S.H.I.E.L.D. into this movie in way that didn't better serve other films than Iron Man 2?
Theroux: We just didn't think about the other films. I'm sure that people would like to think there's this massive cross-pollination between the films happening, and I'm sitting in with the Thor writers and the Thor writers are sitting in with the Captain America writers. That's sort of Kevin's job as the sort of studio bumblebee to go and take the pollen from one movie to the other and the other and sort of close that circle. We knew we wanted Nick Fury in the movie, and once we decided on Scarlett, we said that's a great idea to have her in the movie. But I would joke that there's a history of Marvel writers sort of f*cking the next writer over because then they would have to figure it out, and we would have to figure out what happened to Captain America's shield and we were trying to figure out what to do with Samuel L. Jackson and justify exactly what he said in the thing at the end of the first one. That being said, we're not trying to throw the touchdown for the other movies; we're just trying to move that ball further down the field and keep the fans interested enough that they know it will tie in later on, so we're going to move the ball, and then the other writers from the other films are going to pick it up and advance it even further.
Cinematical: What did you definitely have to include in the movie?
Theroux: The shield, Nick Fury, and I think that's it. We had to make it jibe in a way that worked.
Cinematical: The fact that they introduced the possibility of Iron Man being a part of the Avengers with or without Tony Stark, was that a situation where you needed to give yourselves an out?
Theroux: No, but you don't want to box yourself in. We had to go back and look at the footage even for just that teeny little scene with Sam Jackson, because it's hard when sort of a breadcrumb has been left to make sense of it, so you want to leave as many options as possible open so that you can create the best story for the next one. I think you have to be sort of purposely vague unless you're going to write six scripts in a row and be committed and prepared to shoot every single one as written – which I don't think any studio can do, unless you're Lord of the Rings. So basically you just want to create options for yourself; you want to throw threads out there, maybe throw five threads out there, three of which you can then hotly pursue in the next one.
Cinematical: Does the existence of a mythology make something like this easier to write, or is it tougher to work all of that material into the film?
Theroux: That was one of the things that I was the most nervous about, and I almost overprepared when I first came in. I looked at the complete Iron Man biography and Tony Stark and I followed all of the threads backwards because I really wanted to be as accurate as possible. But one day Kevin said take all of that into account for sure, but don't let it hamstring the larger idea of where you want to push the movie or where you think this story can go. He said, "look. Comics have a history of breaking their own rules. Someone will die, and then they'll come back, so in that tradition we sort of took that stuff, like Whiplash had a big purple feather coming out of his head, and we knew that we could kind of do away with that kind of stuff in the interest of advancing the genre. But obviously there's certain handholds that are great, like Howard Stark and the company, Tony Stark and their relationship, Anton [Vanko's] relationship with Howard Stark; I mean, to me that would be a fascinating movie in and of itself – Howard Stark and Anton. It would have been great, but we had very little room for that in this movie because we had so many other balls up in the air.
Cinematical: To you what is the story that's being told in this film, particularly because you were racing to meet a release date and you had all of these things to explore? What was the story you were trying to keep in the film no mater what you had to do logistically?
Theroux: I can sort of back into that question by saying one of the shots that I feel like has the most impact to me is when those two guys, Tony and Rhodey, are sort of back to back and sort at the O.K. Corral at the end of the movie. I really liked that idea, that a guy at the beginning of the movie who says, "I've got this – we're all good," and then realizes that's impossible. Because I'm a big believer that no one's self made. So that's a theme I really like in the movie – that although there's a legacy and a certain destiny to Tony Stark, what's so great about the character is that he's sort of infinitely human. He's the same guy no matter what situation he's in, and he's got flaws and he's super human, and weirdly, even though he's this bajillionaire, he someone who we can kind of relate to - the fact that he does fall down and fail and that he has to rely on this close circle of friends to sort of catapult him to the end of the movie.
Theroux: I would love to go back in time to see Howard Stark and that relationship, and Tony even younger, as a teenager or a kid. I don't know anything about Captain America, but I would love it if he was somehow featured in that as a scientist or something. I mean, that's just speaking extemporaneously about completely another thing. And Justin Hammer, I think he's a great character; I mean, I think we could exploit him even more in something else, or in another [Iron Man]. And obviously, Avengers.
Cinematical: What's coming up after this?
Theroux: Zoolander 2. I'm breaking story on that right now, Zoolander 2, and I'm going to direct that.
Cinematical: How far are you into that process? Have you figured out what the story will be?
Theroux: Yeah, we have sort of a loose framework of what the story's going to be about, but nothing talk-about-able (laughs).