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Countdown to Hulk: Screenwriter John Turman talks about a fan’s dream job

by  in Movie News, TV News Comment

Screenwriter John Turman may be a kind of unsung hero of the comics-to-film
movement. He’s been writing and pitching comic-based fare for Hollywood well
ahead of the boom of the last five years. He’s written screenplays for
“Iron Fist,” “Silver Surfer,” “Prime,” and
“Buck Rogers.” He was a consultant on the syndicated TV series
“The Crow: Stairway to Heaven.” 

Before all that he landed his first big screenwriting job on what may prove
to be one of this summer’s biggest blockbusters: “The Hulk.” Turman’s
involvement has largely been underreported until recently, when the Writers
Guild of America determined that he, along with Michael France and James
Schamus, contributed significantly to the finished script for the film. 

“It’s very funny because ‘The Hulk’ was actually the first major studio project
that I did and it’s only now getting made,” Turman told Comics2Film/CBR
News in a recent interview. “It should be a real lesson to people
who think that writing for film is this romantic pursuit.”

DREAM JOB

Turman was the very first screenwriter to take a crack at the material,
following a pitch meeting in 1995. He was working with then-Universal executive
Carr D’Angelo (“The Hot Chick”), and after a debate over the physics
of time travel, they realized that they were both fans of comics. D’Angelo told
Turman that Universal was trying to do “The Hulk.”

Even though Universal was looking for a big-name writer to work the project,
D’Angelo got the newcomer in the door to pitch his ideas to Stan Lee and
producer Gale Anne Hurd.

“I felt I knew how to do it and I wrote up a few pages thinking that they would
just buy the pages for a grand and tell me to get lost,” Turman said. 

As a first-time writer he had no delusions that he was in the running for the
job. He even brought along his of Hulk #1, which he’d gotten autographed by Jack
Kirby at a previous convention. “[After the pitch] I was so sure that I wasn’t going
to get the job that I took out my beat up copy of Hulk #1 and said to Stan, ‘I’ll never
see you again, so could you please sign this?'”

Turman said that not really feeling like he was a serious contender freed him
up to just speak from his enthusiasm about the character and the project, rather
than worrying about the presentation itself.

“I think it helped that I was such a legitimate fan, that I
could really talk comics with Stan Lee,” Turman said. “I knew the difference between a comic
and a film and I could talk movies with the producers and the studio. I focused on the difference between a popular comic series that’s
run 400
issues and a self-contained story that makes or breaks a film.”

Shortly the fledgling writer got the call that the producers wanted him to
work n the project. The longtime Hulk fan landed his first big studio job
working on a passion project. “It was a dream come true.”

CREATIVE DECISIONS

Turman worked on the script for nearly two years, turning in about ten
drafts. His takes were heavily influenced by the “Tales to Astonish”
issues, which pitted the Hulk against General Ross and the military.

“The idea of setting it on a military installation, the
idea of making Ross and Talbot and Betty a big part of Banner’s life and the
Hulk’s life hadn’t been done in the series on television,” Turman said.
“I saw it as Jekyll and
Hyde at Los Alamos or Lawrence Livermore.”

Turman said he also tried to incorporate one element from scribe Peter
David’s acclaimed run on the comic.

“I tried to work in the Hulk’s father. I always felt that the human
element of the Hulk is the most interesting element,” Turman said. “What is the source of this guy’s
pain and anger?”

The studio was not so taken with the idea. Although Turman pushed
to have the father figure in the story, eventually he was ordered to eliminate it. 

“I was not able to sell
them on making that a bigger part of the film,” Turman said. However all
was not lost for Banner’s father. “I had completed my work by
the time Ang Lee came on, but when I heard that that was an important part of it
to him, I was very encouraged. I was thrilled as a fan of these characters, more
than I was thrilled as a screenwriter.”

Ultimately Banner’s father, played actor Nick Nolte in the film, has a
significant role in the story.

LETTING GO

By 1997, Turman was off the project. He would be followed by
almost a dozen additional writers, each trying to shape the Hulk into a
big-screen hero. For a fan, working on something you’re so invested in is a
mixed blessing.

“There’s the old saw about ‘be careful
what you wish for.’ When I was starting out I could not have imagined a more
dream job than the chance to adapt the Hulk for a movie,” Turman told us.
“But doing it was very painful because it meant a lot to me as a kid and you
become attached. You soon realize that it’s a group effort, that it’s not yours.
The attachment can break your heart.”

Although he was no longer actively involved, Turman kept an eye on the project, wondering if
his work would make it into a final film. “At different times I gave up hope because
there were other drafts by other writers that went very far a field of what I’d
done.”

But when cameras rolled, many of the characters and concepts that the
screenwriter brought into the first drafts remained in the movie. “When I read the final
draft I was surprised by how much of my work was still there, sometimes in a
different form than I had chosen, but there were the same tone, characters,
relationships, key scenes, even some dialogue. As the arbitration process bore
out, it was enough to reflect that I was one of the three primary writers.

“That confirmed that a lot of my choices were good choices, similar to the
choices that were made by other people whose work I respect. It was great to see
that Ang Lee and James Schamus had chosen to return to the concepts and
characters that I had focused on. Ang Lee ultimately rejected screenplay drafts
that took the character far afield from his roots and returned to what I feel
makes the Hulk such an enduring modern myth. It’s a validation, but like
everything else in the film industry, it’s never without some bittersweetness.
Films are a collaboration and I’ve had to accept that even though credited
first, I perhaps won’t get the same recognition for my work that writers or
producers who came after, and saw the film through production, will. Those are
the realities of the business. Thankfully in this case, I’m a big fan of the
work Schamus did on the script, and ultimately for the fans, it’s about whether
the film is any good, not who gets the credit.” 

Turman likens the collaboration of many writers and artisans on a movie to
that of the comics over the years. “The early ones were Lee and Kirby,
later Peter David and others. When all is said and done the Hulk has passed
through a lot of talented authors and artists and the Hulk we know is a result
of all their efforts”

During the WGA arbitration process, Turman had a chance to
read every script that had been written for the movie. He told us that, although
they had never met, he became a fan of Michael France during that process.

“We have a similar sensibility, it turns out. I was pleased that his contribution was also recognized in the final
credits. You can trace a clear progression and through-line from my work through
his work to the final script. Although a lot of people worked on it and there
were probably different pieces that were put in along the way, I would say that
the three who are most responsible for the finished film are recognized in the
credits.”

Click here to read part two of our
interview with John Turman.