Screenwriter Justin Theroux discusses writing the continued adventures of Tony Stark in the most anticipated film of the summer
Justin Theroux first gained fame as an actor for his roles in films like Mullholand Drive, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle and Miami Vice but he is now enjoying a very successful career as a screenwriter thanks to the film Tropic Thunder. In fact, actor Robert Downey Jr. was so impressed with Theroux's work on that film that he lobbied director Jon Favreau to hire him to write the screenplay for Iron Man 2, which hits theaters on May 7th. However, Theroux's challenge in writing the script would be threading the storylines left over from the end of the first film into a coherent and exciting story for the second movie that could also introduce ideas used to set up the forthcoming film, The Avengers, while creating new characters and still balancing the right blend of action and fun that made the original movie a success. We recently had an opportunity to sit down with actor/writer Justin Theroux while he was out doing promotions for the new film and we talked candidly about the task of writing this movie, working with Marvel Studios, introducing new characters, creating Mickey Rourke's villain, Walt Disney, Iron Man 3 and which Marvel character he would like to play in a movie. Here is what Theroux had to say:
To begin with, can you talk about coming aboard the film and how you first began hashing out ideas for the story with Jon Favreau, Robert Downey Jr., Kevin Fiege and Marvel Studios?
Justin Theroux: It was pretty cool they didn't ... it wasn't like anyone came in with an agenda. Marvel didn't come in going, "Here is what we want to do and here are the villains you have to use. You have to make sure there is Captain America's Shield," you know, nothing like that. Jon definitely didn't come in that way, he came in very even and basically everyone got to sort of unpack their trunk of ideas. Really the question that was put forth was, what is the most dynamic, interesting, great movie that we can make for the fans that's going to impress them as much as possible and also obviously stay on story for the world that Marvel is created. So it really was like a very organic, agenda-less, beginning. Everyone got to sort of put their two sense in about, you know, here is what I loved about the first one and here is where I see it going. We sort of then pooled all those ideas and basically just started talking about things that we loved, the ideas that we loved that hit the table. We sort of just picked them up and examined each one. Eventually we busted out the catalog and the library of villains, baddies and goodies as well, and tried to figure out what jived with the storyline that was starting to form. It really was remarkably low pressure but also exciting to really just from the ground up sort of build a story around what happens when someone says, "I am Iron Man."
Did you have to enroll yourself in Marvel Comics boot-camp or are you a comic book fan who was already pretty well versed in the vernacular?
Justin Theroux: No, I was a fan and I'm a comic book guy. I'm a fan so I was verse in the vernacular of it but I definitely went back and looked into the history. I really tried to learn as much as I could and look at all the different villains that have presented themselves by just reading backwards through the history of Tony Stark, Howard Stark and Stark Enterprises and Industries. But even that, I mean I almost over did that. I remember at one point I said, well this doesn't jive with that because his parents died then and that wouldn't make sense, and Kevin said, "Look again at all the comics, there are no hard and fast rules in comics." It's like soap operas where someone can die, they can come back to life, have a metal arm or whatever it is? So Kevin is like, "Look, we are making the best story possible so if there is a character that you like, you can manipulate that character." And we did that with Mickey Rourke's character who in the comics has a big cape and a big feather coming out of his head or a pony tale or whatever? The same thing with Justin Hammer who in the comics is like a seventy year old guy with a cane and we thought, lets young this guy down and make him sort of the shadow character to Tony, sort of the cheap suit Tony Stark, you know? So we played around with stuff like that, we played around slight timelines just a little bit but not much and it all still works within the universe.
You mentioned that Marvel didn't tell you what characters you had to include in the script however they are continuing to set up "The Avengers" film with references and characters in this movie, so did you feel pressure to include characters like Nick Fury, for example?
Justin Theroux: They didn't say that but we knew we had to get Nick Fury in there just because he's in the first movie, even though he's there for just a second, you can't ignore that. The same thing goes for Captain America's Shield, it's front and center in one shot of that movie, actually it's not, it's to the side and blurry, but it's something we knew that we wanted to at least pay some sort of lip service to. Then it's Kevin Fiege's job to sort of take the pollen, move that to the other worlds, cross pollinate those story lines and make sure that they all sink up in a way that works.
Was the idea of introducing Black Widow in this film yours or something that Marvel suggested?
Justin Theroux: Well we didn't want Nick Fury to just show up and nock on the door. So we thought what would Nick Fury do? Nick Fury is such a badass that he would probably get someone in there that worked for him. So we had her show up as an employee of Stark as a notary and through her sort of sexy ways, infiltrates the inner circle, then becomes someone he hires and its all part of Nick's master plan. So she ended up being a character that we wanted to use anyway because she was such a badass. Then we thought it would be cool if we had her working for Nick and this, that and the other thing. So then we threaded her in away that we thought was organic to Nick's storyline. We wanted Nick Fury to have his own thing going on.
Can you talk about how you were able to successfully integrate the famous "Demon in a Bottle" storyline from the comics into the film without completely adapting it or having it take over the film's other plotlines?
Justin Theroux: Well that was one of those ideas early on that we all loved. We all loved that storyline in the comics, like all of us to a man almost. We were like, wouldn't it be great to do "Demon In A Bottle" because he says, "I am Iron Man," and he's got all this pressure? As we developed that idea, we were kind of like, it starts to become Leaving Las Vegas meets Iron Man. You can do it in a comic because you have twenty-five pages to do it in and then the next week you can just forget about it because he's coming out of it or whatever. In a movie that is two hours long you really want to use your time wisely and we thought it would just be a disappointment for fans if it was just, hey, here's Iron Man 2 and he just drinks for a whole movie. We didn't want to have to have that be our burden but it did lead us to the idea of what if this thing in his chest was somehow sickening him. In that respect we thought, we'll always have a drink in the shot for the adults so they sort of get what's happening but we just didn't want like thirteen year-old kids to be like, "Why is he drinking? What's that bottle?" We didn't want to make it like that. It would have been such a downer. It's organic now. It works because it's just a color in the story as apposed to a central plot, where as you can do that in the comics but its much more difficult in the movie without making the whole movie about that.
The character of Howard Stark is seen in the movie through old film footage of him promoting his Stark Expo, which was a "World's Fair" type event. The character seemed reminiscent of Walt Disney, who often spoke about "The World Of Tomorrow." The film was clearly written and shot well before Disney's take over of Marvel Comics but is there any connection between Walt Disney and the way actor John Slattery played the role of Howard Stark?
Justin Theroux: I know what you mean. There is, I know what you mean. It literally came out of the fact that I'm a huge fan of the World's Fairs. I just think they're great. So I thought that this would be exactly the kind of thing that Tony would do. Jon is also a fan of World's Fairs and in fact, lived and grew up across from the site of the '1964s World's Fair in a building called the Fairview. Kevin Fiege, independently, also is just a gigantic fair buff. The first movie I directed I shot at the Unisphere and we just all had a deep infinity for it. There is something so energetic and optimistic about that thing so we thought, here is a guy who says "I'm Iron Man," he's not going to make weapons anymore so what does he do? He's going to channel his resources and his energy into changing the world with a positive idea, which is really what the world's fairs were all about. We were already all buffs of Expos and World's Fairs so we thought yeah. Most of those things have some sort of a cheesy Walt Disney type, "Welcome to the World of Tomorrow" vibe and it just made us laugh. We thought it was funny, wonderful and optimistic. So we thought that would be great and something that Howard would have done, you know? So to pay homage to his legacy, Tony is like, "I'm going to pick up where Dad left off." So we have all that great Howard Stark, "Welcome to the World of Tomorrow" stuff, which is just what would have happened if he had had one of those Expos. There is no relation to Walt Disney and Disney buying Marvel. It was written long before but there is definitely a connection in that we watched Walt Disney doing that "World Of Tomorrow" stuff as source material.
Can you discuss creating the character that Mickey Rourke plays in the film and how the choice to combine two of Iron Man's comic book villains, Whiplash and the Crimson Dynamo, into one character gave you more freedom with writing the role?
Justin Theroux: The way we created him came out of a storyline between Howard Stark and Anton Vanko, Ivan's father, and that during the Cold War they would have worked together as scientists in developing the arc reactor. We wanted to give our bad guy a history and a real reason to why he wants to kill Tony. So we thought, what if there is another guy? Sort of a son story where Tony is the son of one guy and Ivan the son of the other, but what if one guy has been given everything? Millions of dollars, an amazing education and a successful company and what's the other version of that guy who was just as smart as Tony but was raised at the end of a whipping stick, just sort of wore a dog collar his whole life and who also has a major beef with Tony because of his circumstances? He sees Tony as the guy who is singularly responsible for his circumstances. So it's s guy who is probably as smart as Tony but is just more of an ingrown hair version of Tony. So what would he create? What kind of weaponry would he create? When we saw the Whiplash character we thought Whiplash would be a great guy to sort of embody that and create these energized whips that are just down, dirty, nasty cutting things. What is sort of the most barbaric thing that it could be? It could be a chainsaw but we thought these whips would perfectly represent that.
Was there ever any talk of trying to fit the Mandarin, who was probably Iron Man's most famous villain from the comics, into this film?
Justin Theroux: Yeah, we tip our hat to that but that's a tough one to get in because it's such a big storyline. So that, I don't know, and I don't dare say it but it might feature in Iron Man 3, I don't know?
Everyone involved with the film seems to be very happy with your work on the screenplay, has there been any talk about you returning for "Iron Man 3," yet?
Justin Theroux: Yeah they seem very stoked. I think they are super focused on The Avengers, which I'm not available for and who knows when Iron Man 3 comes around what I'll be doing, if I'll be around? But I'd love to do it.
Finally, as an actor, is there any character in the Marvel Universe that you would like to play yourself?
Justin Theroux: I don't know? Hawkeye would be great. No, I don't know? Yeah that would be fun. We'll have to see because I've never even thought of that. We'll see.
Iron Man 2 was released May 7th, 2010 and stars Robert Downey Jr., Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, Samuel L. Jackson, Clark Gregg. The film is directed by Jon Favreau.