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

Comic book movies are big business in Hollywood these days. Michael France isone of a handful of screenwriters that has carved a niche for himself in the burgeoningsuperhero genre. He wrote a draft of "The Fantastic Four" and morerecently penned a script for "The Punisher." He'll even admit towriting a TV pilot script for "Green Arrow." ("That one's almost like juryduty for action screenwriters," France said. "I think they've done about twenty differentpilots for that.")

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

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Comics2Film/CBR News talked to France abouthis interest in comics and his work on "Hulk."

ORIGINS

Francebroke into the industry with his spec script "Cliffhanger," which hesold in 1991. "When I was writing the thing I thought it was soexpensive it would never get made. I thought it would just turn into a writing sample so Icould get assignment work," France told C2F. "It sold and it went into production almostimmediately, and it was very expensive to make, but it turned out alright."

Indeed,"Cliffhanger" turned out to be one of Sylvester Stallone's betteraction movies and a box-office success as well. From there he took on anotherbig-screen hero, penning the James Bond installment "GoldenEye." SoonMarvel and Fox had him writing the script for "Fantastic Four"

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"Everyone at Marvel like the way'Fantastic Four' turned out so that led to my being offered 'Hulk,'" Francesaid.

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 directorialdebut on the movie and wanted to go in a completely different direction than theprevious efforts. France was fired from the project before he had written asingle page.

RETURN OF THE MONSTER

France sayshe has no hard feelings over the situation, though. "They wound upbringing me back in a couple of years later when the Hensleigh version did notget made," France said.

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In 1999 the comic fan and screenwriterbegan his proper tour on the project, turning in work that would ultimately bepart of the final film. His plan was to put more focus on Banner and thepsychology of the character.

"I wanted to go back to the real roots of the comics. There wassomething else that I wanted to try, that I knew hadn't been tried in the recentdevelopment of it and I didn't know that it had been tried at all," Francetold C2F/CBR News. "That was, Iknew about the comic material that had been done in the eighties when PeterDavid wrote storylines that involved Banner's family past, that he had anabusive father and that really impacted on his psychology. That background madehim afraid of the anger that he's buried inside himself. I wanted to make himafraid of his own anger even before he developed his little Hulk problem -- sothat when the Hulk does appear, it's that much more devastating. It's hisnightmare 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 beto 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 Ibrought 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 beenreceptive to the inclusion of Banner's father (played by Nick Nolte in themovie) during those first drafts, they were now willing to reconsider.

"That's just something that happens in development. For whatever reasonthey weren't ready to hear it when Turman started his screenplay, and I think maybebecause they'd gone down a couple of blind alleys very recently, everybody was ready for thatapproach when I came on."

DA BOMB?

Francealso knew that the origin of the character would have to be tweaked. Most modernaudiences know well that getting exposed to massive doses of radiation typicallydoesn't lead to beneficial side effects, so the gamma bomb story from the comicbooks had to be reworked.

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

"So I changed his background and made him a civilian scientist who waslooking at peaceful, beneficial uses for gamma rays."

France's research on the subject revealed that there are actually seriousscientific endeavors afoot to harness gamma rays for beneficial purposes, suchas medical treatments.

"So I thought it would make sense for him to be a guy working in the SanFrancisco scientific community. I had him invent a gamma generator called theGammasphere -- and I also had Banner looking into gamma assisted ways ofchanging cells from the inside out, as a way of developing a cancer cure. Those were some of the mechanics of changing the origin that Ibrought to it," France said.

HUMANS AND VILLAINS

Another Francecontribution 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, anothercharacter from the comics does make an appearance, though in different form.Without giving too much away, France brought in this character and he appears ina substantial role, albeit in altered form, in the movie. "If you know thecomic, you'll recognize the character but I think you'll be surprised how he'sused.

While the fanin him wanted super villains and a story that was true to Hulk's "Tales toAstonish" run, France began to realize that the human components were moreinteresting.

"At a certain point when I was doing the script I suggested to Marvel that wemake the movie half as expensive and twice as good by just forgetting the supervillain stuff and dealing with that. It would be the Hulk versus the militaryand 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 itwhen James Schamus and Ang Lee came on."

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

"I'm completely blown away by how well they've been able to render the actionsequences. The whole scene where he breaks out of the black ops base, in thedesert and he fights the helicopters, a lot of that stuff is taken from my draftand 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 excitedabout.

"It's funny, because when I started writing the script...atfirst, as a comic fan, you get excited saying, 'Wow! I could have the Hulkthrow tanks in the desert,' but once I started writing it I got more interestedin the character material with Banner, and the tragic aspects of his romancewith Betty and the fact that Banner is desperately trying to push down hisanger. I got much more interested in the battle between Hulk and Banner than anyexternal fight -- and I'm very happy that that part of my work carried throughto the final film.

"Thatanger -- that dark side of Banner -- is very literally his secret identity. It'spart of him that he's trying to hide. Usually when you talk about a comic bookcharacter, the secret identity is the costume he puts on at night, but this issomething that's a part of him that he's burying."

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