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Countdown to ‘Hulk’: Screenwriter Michael France’s big, green vision

by  in Movies News, TV News
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Comic book movies are big business in Hollywood these days. Michael France is
one of a handful of screenwriters that has carved a niche for himself in the burgeoning
superhero genre. He wrote a draft of “The Fantastic Four” and more
recently penned a script for “The Punisher.” He’ll even admit to
writing a TV pilot script for “Green Arrow.” (“That one’s almost like jury
duty for action screenwriters,” France said. “I think they’ve done about twenty different
pilots for that.”)

However, his first comic-to-film effort to make it to
the silver screen is Friday’s “Hulk.” France was hired onto the
project at two different times and he, along with John Turman and James Schamus,
is credited with the screenplay.

Comics2Film/CBR News talked to France about
his interest in comics and his work on “Hulk.”

ORIGINS















France
broke into the industry with his spec script “Cliffhanger,” which he
sold in 1991. “When I was writing the thing I thought it was so
expensive it would never get made. I thought it would just turn into a writing sample so I
could get assignment work,” France told C2F. “It sold and it went into production almost
immediately, and it was very expensive to make, but it turned out alright.”

Indeed,
“Cliffhanger” turned out to be one of Sylvester Stallone’s better
action movies and a box-office success as well. From there he took on another
big-screen hero, penning the James Bond installment “GoldenEye.” Soon
Marvel and Fox had him writing the script for “Fantastic Four”

“Everyone at Marvel like the way
‘Fantastic Four’ turned out so that led to my being offered ‘Hulk,'” France
said.

Then, in 1997, Marvel brought France in to do a rewrite of
“Hulk,” although his time on the project turned out to be short-lived.
Jonathan Hensleigh (“The Punisher”) was hired to make his directorial
debut on the movie and wanted to go in a completely different direction than the
previous efforts. France was fired from the project before he had written a
single page.

RETURN OF THE MONSTER

France says
he has no hard feelings over the situation, though. “They wound up
bringing me back in a couple of years later when the Hensleigh version did not
get made,” France said.

In 1999 the comic fan and screenwriter
began his proper tour on the project, turning in work that would ultimately be
part of the final film. His plan was to put more focus on Banner and the
psychology of the character.

“I wanted to go back to the real roots of the comics. There was
something else that I wanted to try, that I knew hadn’t been tried in the recent
development of it and I didn’t know that it had been tried at all,” France
told C2F/CBR News. “That was, I
knew about the comic material that had been done in the eighties when Peter
David wrote storylines that involved Banner’s family past, that he had an
abusive father and that really impacted on his psychology. That background made
him afraid of the anger that he’s buried inside himself. I wanted to make him
afraid of his own anger even before he developed his little Hulk problem — so
that when the Hulk does appear, it’s that much more devastating. It’s his
nightmare of who he really is, blown up ten feet wide and fifteen feet high..

“I wanted to get into that. I knew that the key of doing this thing would be
to get into Banner’s character, instead of just the spectacle of it.. I wanted to look for ways of dealing with the human character aspects of it so I
brought in the family background from the comics.”

This same element had appeared in the earliest drafts penned by John Turman,
although France didn’t know that at the time. While the studio had not been
receptive to the inclusion of Banner’s father (played by Nick Nolte in the
movie) during those first drafts, they were now willing to reconsider.

“That’s just something that happens in development. For whatever reason
they weren’t ready to hear it when Turman started his screenplay, and I think maybe
because they’d gone down a couple of blind alleys very recently, everybody was ready for that
approach when I came on.”

DA BOMB?

France
also knew that the origin of the character would have to be tweaked. Most modern
audiences know well that getting exposed to massive doses of radiation typically
doesn’t lead to beneficial side effects, so the gamma bomb story from the comic
books had to be reworked.

“A larger concern that I had was that Banner was basically building the bomb
to end all bombs and it seemed to me that a guy who had the background that he
had, who faced cruelty as a child, that he would want to use his skills and
intelligence to make the world a better place instead of just trying to build
better bomb craters,” France told C2F.

“So I changed his background and made him a civilian scientist who was
looking at peaceful, beneficial uses for gamma rays.”

France’s research on the subject revealed that there are actually serious
scientific endeavors afoot to harness gamma rays for beneficial purposes, such
as medical treatments.

“So I thought it would make sense for him to be a guy working in the San
Francisco scientific community. I had him invent a gamma generator called the
Gammasphere — and I also had Banner looking into gamma assisted ways of
changing cells from the inside out, as a way of developing a cancer cure. Those were some of the mechanics of changing the origin that I
brought to it,” France said.

HUMANS AND VILLAINS

Another France
contribution that ended up in the final film was one of the super villains.
While the Leader, who appeared in many early drafts, isn’t in the movie, another
character from the comics does make an appearance, though in different form.
Without giving too much away, France brought in this character and he appears in
a substantial role, albeit in altered form, in the movie. “If you know the
comic, you’ll recognize the character but I think you’ll be surprised how he’s
used.

While the fan
in him wanted super villains and a story that was true to Hulk’s “Tales to
Astonish” run, France began to realize that the human components were more
interesting.

“At a certain point when I was doing the script I suggested to Marvel that we
make the movie half as expensive and twice as good by just forgetting the super
villain stuff and dealing with that. It would be the Hulk versus the military
and basically the Hulk versus Banner. He’s gotta deal with these problems.”

Just as the decision to include the father was rejected and later accepted,
the studio dismissed France’s suggestion to discard the super villain plot.

“For whatever reasons they didn’t want to hear it when I said it, and again,
this is just something that happens in development, they did want to hear it
when James Schamus and Ang Lee came on.”

At the time of the interview, France had only seen trailers and TV
commercials but had not yet seen the movie.

“I’m completely blown away by how well they’ve been able to render the action
sequences. The whole scene where he breaks out of the black ops base, in the
desert and he fights the helicopters, a lot of that stuff is taken from my draft
and it just blows me away to see it on the screen,” France enthused.

Again, it’s the character work in the film that France is most excited
about.

“It’s funny, because when I started writing the script…at
first, as a comic fan, you get excited saying, ‘Wow! I could have the Hulk
throw tanks in the desert,’ but once I started writing it I got more interested
in the character material with Banner, and the tragic aspects of his romance
with Betty and the fact that Banner is desperately trying to push down his
anger. I got much more interested in the battle between Hulk and Banner than any
external fight — and I’m very happy that that part of my work carried through
to the final film.

“That
anger — that dark side of Banner — is very literally his secret identity. It’s
part of him that he’s trying to hide. Usually when you talk about a comic book
character, the secret identity is the costume he puts on at night, but this is
something that’s a part of him that he’s burying.”

Click here to read part two of C2F/CBR News’ exclusive interview with Michael France!