For years, screenwriting duo Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese were best known as the twisted minds behind the hilarious horror-comedy “Zombieland.” But this weekend they’re poised to become nerd culture legends as their long-awaited labor of love, the wickedly funny and unapologetically violent “Deadpool” finally hits theaters.
Starring Ryan Reynolds as Marvel Comics’ Merc with a Mouth, “Deadpool” tells the story of Wade Wilson, a former Special Forces operative who undergoes an experiment that gives him superhuman abilities and horribly disfigures him in the process. And while the film has been in development since 2009, with Wernick & Rheese there pretty much from the beginning, the film almost died more than once until leaked test footage ultimately put the film back on track at 20th Century Fox. Following a marketing onslaught and an already greenlit sequel, everything seems to be working out for Deadpool.
Riding a wave of good reviews ahead of the 20th Century Fox film’s opening weekend, CBR News spoke with Wernick and Reese over the phone to discuss the path that led to “Deadpool,” its arguably feminist content, the value of political correctness, and why taking kids to see this R-rated superhero flick is ultimately better than any sex talk.
CBR News: I was surprised to find out you guys created “The Joe Schmo Show.” I’m curious — how do you go from masterminding a faux-reality TV show to penning “Deadpool”?
Rhett Reese: Well, you know it’s interesting. I think in a way, a few of our things have the same DNA. “The Joe Schmo Show” was parodying a genre, reality TV. It’s not necessarily full on parodying it, but definitely having fun with it. “Zombieland” was having fun with the zombie genre, which often takes itself too seriously. And now “Deadpool” is poking fun at the superhero genre. So, I think there may be a bit of a trend that’s gone on. “Joe Shmo Show” and “Deadpool” aren’t as far apart as you think. They also both trade in really raunchy humor, which we love. I think if you are a fan of “Deadpool” you should go back in time and watch “Joe Schmo.” You’ll find that we were definitely from the same comedic fountain before we made that show.
You guys have been working on “Deadpool” for years. How has the script evolved over that time?
Paul Wernick: I mean in many ways and in very few ways if that makes sense. We wrote a draft. We were hired in 2009, and have written a draft in every calendar year since. It’s interesting, you go back and read the original draft and then watch the movie, and I’d say it’s about 70% of what was written on the page well back when however many years ago. It’s really what you see up on that screen, totally entirely the same. There’ve been iterations. We wrote a PG-13 draft along the way to try to re-energize the project and see if Fox would take the leap with us on a PG-13 version. Characters have come and gone. But really the core of what you see on screen appeared in that first draft a long long time ago.
You mention the PG-13 draft, what were your thoughts on the petition to create a PG-13 cut for younger audiences?
Reese: That was so well after the fact, the horse had left the barn. I understand why she [Grace Randolph] began that because a lot of kids have been clamoring to see it. But there will be an airplane version at some point — I would assume — that would be more tame–
Wernick: And a TV version!
Reese: Maybe the kids will get their wish [that way]. But it’s just a little naÃ¯ve to think that a studio would [consider that petition]. That’s not how the ratings board works. You can’t release a movie with two different ratings at the exact same time. You have to pull one down and put the other one up because they think there’s a problem with confusion with the audience not knowing which is which. As a result a child can end up in the wrong movie. It just doesn’t work that way.
Wernick: She would have had better luck starting a petition to have her mother or father take her to the R-rated version.
[Laughs] Do you recommend parents take their kids to see the R-rated “Deadpool”?
Wernick: Absolutely! [Reese laughs.] As young as 6 or 7 years-old. Here’s the thing, the jokes they don’t get will just go over their head, which is perfect. And it’s stuff they’re gonna’ learn anyway.
Reese: Wouldn’t you want your child learning it at your side as opposed to say on the internet or from their friends? You can answer all their questions! It’s definitely tongue-in-cheek that we’re saying this–
You can totally skip the sex talk and just show then “Deadpool.”
Wernick: Exactly! I mean, who better to teach you about sex than Deadpool?
You guys talked about the tone of this movie. It does jump from body horror to superhero adventure to raunchy rom-com. But it works. Writing the script, can you feel when a risk will work on screen?
Wernick: Tone is very hard to capture and to do it right. Often times, when you mix tones it’s dangerous because when done wrong it can feel inconsistent. But we somehow have managed between our movies — “Zombieland” being another chief example — to be able to bounce in and out of tones effectively and make the audience go on the ride with you. What we say is “Life isn’t one tone.” You do have moments of sadness. You do have moments of tragedy. You do have moments of comedy. So it feels real. The important thing to do is to ground the movie in that reality so when you do take those shifts in tone, it doesn’t feel extreme and it doesn’t feel like you’re taking someone out of the movie. Again, it’s a high wire act. It’s one we’ve somehow managed to cross from one end to the other on tall buildings, several times now. Knock on wood that we have.
How do you balance writing a movie that’ll appease Deadpool’s hardcore comic book fans and excite those new to the character?
Reese: It’s tough because a lot of Deadpool’s appeal is the knowledge that he’s in a movie, and that he is poking fun at other movies. If you have an audience member who’s never seen “Green Lantern” or “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” who doesn’t know who the X-Men are or who Professor X is, who Colossus is, you do run the risk of losing them. I think we had to run the risk of trying to find that balance that makes the story grounded enough to work in its own right that we were able to drop in those inside baseball jokes that would really appeal to the fans, and yet not alienate the general audience. We had a lot of questions amongst ourselves about that as we did it. Is this going to be too far? Not too far in terms of pushing it too far, but rather too niche and not broad enough. In some cases, we went super niche to appeal to [fans] and in other cases we kept it broad to appeal to everybody. Hopefully we struck the right balance.
You guys brought in a character not a lot of people knew. I’d never heard of Negasonic Teenage Warhead before, but really enjoyed her in “Deadpool.” How did you come to choose her to join the fray?
Reese: Well, we loved her name more than anything. We saw her name on a list of Fox characters [that could be used in X-Men movies]. We’d never heard of it. We just saw the name and thought, “Oh my god, it’s perfect!” Just the fact that “teenage” was in the name. We just thought, “Oh my god, a teenage girl who’s above it all and wants to be anywhere else but here would be a pretty fun foil to Deadpool, who is a jackass anyway.” And you don’t really know until you put the two characters in a scene together, but the minute we did sparks started to fly and we just thought, this is going to work. She’s going to be fun. And Brianna [Hildebrand] did a great job with it.
Wernick: Both she and Colossus are fun foils to Deadpool in different ways. Because the movie really is about a lunatic among straight men, they become the straight men to his ridiculousness.
Gerry Duggan, the current writer of Marvel’s “Deadpool” comics, said he considers his incarnation of the character as feminist. Your film has a couple of great jokes about International Women’s Day and sexism. Do you consider your Deadpool feminist?
Reese: That’s a really good question. That’s one that if you asked Deadpool, he’d probably go, “HA!” And then he’d say some crazy stuff. He would not consider himself a feminist. I think what we tried to do is make the women in his life really good, three-dimensional characters who give as good as they get, and who are good foils for him and good matches for him. If people feel there’s a slightly feminist vibe, I think that’s awesome. If they’re worried that it’s a damsel in distress story, that’s true. But I also feel like Vanessa is a really strong character. Just because she’s physically grabbed by the villain at one point, doesn’t mean that she’s ever mentally bested in the field. She totally tops Wade in every battle of the wits they have, so it’s a tough question to answer. I wish I had an easier answer than that.
Well, it’s also a very sex positive film, like there’s no shame put toward the sex shown in the film or toward the sexual desires of the characters, or even toward Vanessa for being a sex worker.
Reese: You’re so right. Deadpool is a fascinating, complex character. His sexual desires and Vanessa’s probably run to what some people might think of as “deviant,” but we just think human sexuality is a very complex thing. It takes all different facets, all different kinds of desires both in the act and in the person you’re desiring. Deadpool in the comics has displayed all those, so we thought let’s see if we can capture some of that on the screen.
I noticed both in “Deadpool” and “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” there is some equal opportunity for eye candy for men and women. Is this something you two purposefully work into the scripts, or was it something the directors brought in?
Reese: I would say the directors more than us. I mean, mercenarily there was some thought to hey, Morena Baccarin and Ryan Reynolds are not bad looking people. Let’s see them in all their glory. But usually that’s a little less on the page and more the vision of the director.
Rhett, you recently retweeted John Cleese’s comments on political correctness. What are your thoughts on political correctness in the context of comedy?
Reese: It’s dangerous political territory, but I agree with John Cleese. I really do. I went to college in a time in the early ’90s when things were very, very politically correct. Or at least there was a pretty stifling atmosphere of political correctness where if you said something people thought was offensive you could be very quickly labeled as either a racist or a misogynist or a right-winger or whatever. You could very quickly acquire a label. Which in itself I thought was kind of unfair, and also created a chilling effect in terms of what people would be willing to say or not say on a college campus. That political correctness trend faded, and now it’s back. I think it always comes from a good place and I’m really torn about it. I always think it’s with good intentions that people fall back on political correctness. But I do think sometimes it can have its own boomerang effect and a negative effect coming back. And I do think John Cleese makes a really good point about comedy and about challenging people when they offend you, but not needing to be protected by those offenses in some sort of institutional way.
There’s been talk about the “Deadpool” sequel. Is that something you’d be game to write?
Wernick: Absolutely. The fans have brought this movie to life by coming out and supporting the test footage. And they will bring the sequel to life by going out and supporting the movie. We’ve lived in the world a long, long time now. Us and Ryan are chomping at the bit to dive back in. And hopefully come February 12 we’re off to the races. The movie comes out, and hopefully the fans will support it.
So basically it’s all on us.
Wernick: It’s on you! If you guys want to see a sequel, go see the movie. I think that’s the answer. But yeah, we’d love to write it and will write it if there is one.
“Deadpool” opens Friday in theaters.