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

Screenwriter John Turman may be a kind of unsung hero of the comics-to-filmmovement. He's been writing and pitching comic-based fare for Hollywood wellahead 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 proveto be one of this summer's biggest blockbusters: "The Hulk." Turman'sinvolvement has largely been underreported until recently, when the WritersGuild of America determined that he, along with Michael France and JamesSchamus, contributed significantly to the finished script for the film. 

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"It's very funny because 'The Hulk' was actually the first major studio projectthat I did and it's only now getting made," Turman told Comics2Film/CBRNews in a recent interview. "It should be a real lesson to peoplewho 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 executiveCarr D'Angelo ("The Hot Chick"), and after a debate over the physicsof time travel, they realized that they were both fans of comics. D'Angelo toldTurman that Universal was trying to do "The Hulk."

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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 andproducer Gale Anne Hurd.

"I felt I knew how to do it and I wrote up a few pages thinking that they wouldjust 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 thejob. He even brought along his of Hulk #1, which he'd gotten autographed by JackKirby at a previous convention. "[After the pitch] I was so sure that I wasn't goingto get the job that I took out my beat up copy of Hulk #1 and said to Stan, 'I'll neversee you again, so could you please sign this?'"

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

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

Shortly the fledgling writer got the call that the producers wanted him towork n the project. The longtime Hulk fan landed his first big studio jobworking on a passion project. "It was a dream come true."

CREATIVE DECISIONS

Turman worked on the script for nearly two years, turning in about tendrafts. 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, theidea of making Ross and Talbot and Betty a big part of Banner's life and theHulk's life hadn't been done in the series on television," Turman said."I saw it as Jekyll andHyde at Los Alamos or Lawrence Livermore."

Turman said he also tried to incorporate one element from scribe PeterDavid's acclaimed run on the comic.

"I tried to work in the Hulk's father. I always felt that the humanelement of the Hulk is the most interesting element," Turman said. "What is the source of this guy'spain and anger?"

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

"I was not able to sellthem on making that a bigger part of the film," Turman said. However allwas not lost for Banner's father. "I had completed my work bythe time Ang Lee came on, but when I heard that that was an important part of itto him, I was very encouraged. I was thrilled as a fan of these characters, morethan I was thrilled as a screenwriter."

Ultimately Banner's father, played actor Nick Nolte in the film, has asignificant role in the story.

LETTING GO

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

"There's the old saw about 'be carefulwhat you wish for.' When I was starting out I could not have imagined a moredream 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 youbecome 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 ifhis work would make it into a final film. "At different times I gave up hope becausethere were other drafts by other writers that went very far a field of what I'ddone."

But when cameras rolled, many of the characters and concepts that thescreenwriter brought into the first drafts remained in the movie. "When I read the finaldraft I was surprised by how much of my work was still there, sometimes in adifferent form than I had chosen, but there were the same tone, characters,relationships, key scenes, even some dialogue. As the arbitration process boreout, 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 thechoices that were made by other people whose work I respect. It was great to seethat Ang Lee and James Schamus had chosen to return to the concepts andcharacters that I had focused on. Ang Lee ultimately rejected screenplay draftsthat took the character far afield from his roots and returned to what I feelmakes the Hulk such an enduring modern myth. It's a validation, but likeeverything else in the film industry, it's never without some bittersweetness.Films are a collaboration and I've had to accept that even though creditedfirst, I perhaps won't get the same recognition for my work that writers orproducers who came after, and saw the film through production, will. Those arethe realities of the business. Thankfully in this case, I'm a big fan of thework Schamus did on the script, and ultimately for the fans, it's about whetherthe film is any good, not who gets the credit." 

Turman likens the collaboration of many writers and artisans on a movie tothat 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 passedthrough a lot of talented authors and artists and the Hulk we know is a resultof all their efforts"

During the WGA arbitration process, Turman had a chance toread every script that had been written for the movie. He told us that, althoughthey 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 finalcredits. You can trace a clear progression and through-line from my work throughhis work to the final script. Although a lot of people worked on it and therewere probably different pieces that were put in along the way, I would say thatthe three who are most responsible for the finished film are recognized in thecredits."

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