Don Payne on Writing "Fantastic Four 2"

Talking to Don Payne, screenwriter of "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer," one wants to believe that the property is in good hands. A self-professed "Marvel Kid," Payne says he always liked the realism of Marvel Comics because they were set in New York and Los Angeles, and it didn't hurt that characters like Peter Parker were easy to identify with for a nerdy young boy. "I have been a Marvel Comics fan since I was very, very little, and so it kind of fit my career path, my career goal to work on a Marvel Comics film."

Writer/ Co-Executive Producer of "The Simpsons," Payne mentions having worked with Stan Lee on an episode in which Stan Lee insists that he can turn into the Hulk, "It didn't make it in, but I actually pitched at the end that he says, 'Oh great, well, Flame on,' and he flies away." Payne also teases, "There may be one reference to a Simpsons joke from a long time ago. See if you can find it."

Payne describes himself as a geek who hates spoilers, so he tries to keep things light. He even confesses his trepidation at visiting the set of "Battlestar Galactica" later that afternoon where they would be filming the season finale, "I want to see it, but I don't want to see it." The words, "I don't want to say too much" are frequent as Payne tells us, "I think everyone has heard that Frankie Ray is in there, and there are some other references, but I hate spoilers … so I don't want to say anything."

CBR News and Comics2Film spoke with Payne at length about the film and what you can expect upon its release June 15th.

So, going back to that original assignment, how long did it take you to write the screenplay for this film?

It seemed to be an ongoing process. I met with them [the producers of the film, I wrote it, maybe 6 weeks, 8 weeks, something like that. But I had met with them before shooting ideas back and forth.

Were there specific comic arcs that they knew they wanted to use?

They knew they wanted to use Silver Surfer. They knew they wanted to use Dr. Doom. And they had some ideas about where they wanted the characters to be at this moment in their lives and in their career, so I just took that and went with it. There are little surprises in there that I don't want to spoil that they had a couple of ideas for. Where are the characters now? Well, Reed and Sue are engaged, going to be married; Ben is at a pretty good place right now because of his relationship with Alicia, he's more confident in his own skin; and Johnny's Johnny - he's got his own issues in this that we don't want to spoil or get into, but he's pretty consistent.

Are you going back to the comics?

Well, you always have to go back to the comics, that's the source material, certainly because we're doing the Silver Surfer story we're pulling from #48-50, right? And we're also doing 57-60, I believe it's a Dr. Doom/ Silver Surfer story, and we're also using moments from "Ultimate Extinction" as well, a couple of things, and some new stuff that I've thrown in.

Talk about what was the biggest challenge in writing for the franchise.

Well, it's always a challenge to come on board a franchise that's up and running, especially one that's so important to me personally and so important to so many people out there. You want to get it right. You want to make it fun. You want to be true to the comic, but be able to please a general audience as well and make it entertaining for them. When you write a spec, before you sell it, it's a little universe you created and you're playing God and you can do whatever you want and you can get it exactly the way you want it, at some point. Eventually you have to turn it over, it becomes this collaborative process, but at some point you get to play God and make things exactly the way you want it. But with a franchise film like this, especially one based on pre-existing characters, you can never do that. It's got a history and there are a lot of people involved, there's the studio, there's Marvel, the Producers, Tim Story, the director and you're trying to reconcile people's visions and your own and make it coherent, first of all, and entertaining and fun for everyone.

When tackling this script, how did you approach it and what have you brought to it that sets it apart from and improves upon the first film?

There were certain things I wanted to do. It's easy to be a Monday morning quarterback and see what went right, what went wrong. I think what I wanted to do in this was make Reed more of a leader. I thought as leader of the Fantastic Four Ioan did a great job, but I thought the character could be a little tougher, a little more assertive, especially when dealing with such strong personalities. So, that's the first thing I wanted to do. What else? I wanted to make Dr. Doom more evil, like he is in the comics, push him away from the corrupt billionaire and turn him into somebody more threatening and more intimidating.

Does Doom have his own country in this film?

I think that is subtly alluded to. The one thing I'll say about Doom in this is he's certainly progressing toward the Dr. Doom that people know in the comics, much more than the first film.

So, no possible chants of "All Hail Latveria!" Gotcha. Now, had you written the first film, how dramatically different do you think the story would have been?

I think it was a real challenge writing the first film because everyone was trying to find their footing, ya know. I think it would have been a challenge for any writer in that situation. It would have been easier to make Doom the level of evil that everyone knows and loves had he not been a billionaire in the first one, but we're getting there.

Within comics history it's well known that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had very different takes on the Silver Surfer. What is your take on the Surfer?

I think it's more traditional, along the lines of the Silver Surfer that actually appears in comics, sort of a Stan Lee/Jack Kirby hybrid. I just saw a documentary online, on YouTube where Jack Kirby refers to the Silver Surfer as a fallen angel and I think that's a good analogy. I think he's one of the most complicated characters in comic book history, maybe the most complicated. He's done this amazing selfless act by saving his own planet and giving up the woman he loves to save her life and yet he's become a part of this horrible genocide on a cosmic scale and there's a moral ambiguity there. He's a noble character who has this zen-like detachment from his actions and ultimately starts to become human again, although he's not human.

You touched on some of the Surfer's history – how much of his backstory do we get to see in "Rise of the Silver Surfer?"

It does touch upon his backstory. I think it could be more fully explored in a Silver Surfer movie. I think Silver Surfer in this, is for a lot of the film, a mysterious force of incredible power and the Fantastic Four are trying to understand what he is and what his presence on the planet means.

You said you were a Marvel kid and love the Marvel characters. When you were given this assignment, what were the juicier roles to write for you - Silver Surfer or the members of the family?

I liked it all, man, I gotta say. I loved writing for the four characters because I know them, they were like family to me when I was growing up as a kid. And the Silver Surfer was great - he's a challenge, you have to maintain him as this serious presence, but also very noble and intelligent and passionate. That's a challenging thing. I think he's going to look really cool from what I hear. He's going to look very faithful to the comics.

When you're writing the Silver Surfer, are you thinking about how they'll bring this character to life on the big screen, or do you not think about that part at all?

That's not my problem! [laughs] I'll write it the best I can and see how they do it. I think it's going to be awesome, I really do. I think the Silver Surfer is going to draw in a lot of people for good reasons. I think he's going to be great eye candy. It's going to be amazing, fingers crossed.

It sounds like there will be a lot of action in this film, but do you spend much time examining the structure of the family?

There is, there's a lot of the structural family from the first issue, I think that's how they were conceived, but there is a lot of action in this. We're hitting the ground running. The challenge of the first film is to set up the origins and find the right tone. I think we have that.

How is the relationship between Reed and Sue progressing?

I think that they are trying to figure out exactly how to make a superhero marriage work. How is this going to play out? Can they have a normal life and be superheroes? Can they raise a family and be superheroes? That's the big issue, I think.

I tried to stay as true to the comics as I possibly can, but you can't do a literal transition from comics to the screen, otherwise, in the first one we would have talked about beating those pinkos into space, ya know, so there are changes you have to make.

Thanks, Don. See you at the movies on June 15th.

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