I AM (writing) IRON MAN: The Screenwriters

With “Iron Man” in cinemas now, the writers, actors, and director responsible for Marvel’s latest big-screen adventure met with members of the press for a series of roundtable interviews in which CBR took part. We published earlier our latest interviews with director Jon Favreau and star Robert Downey, Jr., followed by conversations with co-stars Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeff Bridges.

In two roundtable interviews Sunday afternoon, the writing teams behind the film met with CBR News and other members of the press to discuss the unusual process of scripting the hotly anticipated movie, as well as their thoughts on the original comic books on which it is based. Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby talked about their experiences with “Iron Man,” which included keeping up the actors’ ceaseless impromptu rewrites, and Art Marcum & Matt Holloway explored the hero’s origin and the choice of Obadiah Stane as villain in the first Iron Man film.

While Hollywood scriptwriting almost always involves multiple writers tinkering with the screenplay throughout the process, “Iron Man” came with the added challenge of keeping up with the actors’ frequent on-the-fly revisions. “It was a weird process,” Hawk Ostby said. “When Marvel started off, they had hired Art and Matt, and later on when Jon [Favreau] came on he brought us on. We wrote two scripts in parallel, we never worked with each other or knew what the other guy was doing. Then at the end, Jon sort of cherry-picked and built a script out of the two versions and that became the interim version. Right before preproduction started, he hired us back on and we just scoured through and made one movie out of it, so it becomes one voice.

“Really when it got shaped and focused was on set, he kept us around for that so we could really kind of infuse the actors into the script and their specific way of talking and acting. Marvel's worked that way before, it was really cool for us because, you know, you can come back and say, oh, this is a really cool idea, we wouldn't have thought of it, and at the end of the day you get to make one script out of it. So it wasn't as chaotic as it might have sounded.”

Though Fergus and Ostby were impressed by the stars’ ability to enhance the script with improvisation, they did note that it made their jobs harder, especially because unscripted actions in one scene might necessitate changes elsewhere in the story. “If Robert and Gwyneth do a scene and find something great in it, and you look at it and say wow, that just accomplished what that scene was with Terence three scenes ago, now that scene feels redundant. So now we want to give something new,” Mark Fergus explained. “But it's worth it. If you feel precious about, 'oh, the script, the script,' you're going to go crazy.”

Fergus continued by talking about why Downey’s improv worked so well. “Somebody called Robert a jazz musician. I thought that was a great metaphor for him, it was for something he had done in 'Zodiac,' where someone had compare him to a jazz musician, where you're going to get amazing, great stuff but you don't know where he's going at any given moment. So you get to watch good material kind of go over the line, to take it somewhere really special, he has the ability to that. So we'll take credit for every great moment that he comes up with. What we'll take credit for is giving him a springboard to do his Robert thing and just be great. It was really a joy to work with people who are going to push you to be better than you think you can be.”

In our earlier conversation with Jon Favreau, the director said a decadent party sequence was cut from the final version of the film. Fergus explained both how the scene came to be and why it had to go: “We had this whole elaborate thing. We're not really saying Iron Man can fly around the world, so how does he get [to Afghanistan]? He takes his boat to Dubai and he has a party there, and then he distracts so he can go launch off on this mission,” the writer said. “And we had rappers and a big party, dancing girls. Good stuff. But then you realize, it's the most hot part of the movie in terms of his anger and his emotion, and now you have to stop the movie for seven or eight minutes and have this cool, fantastic, expensive sequence. And by the time you get to the heart of the matter the tension is gone.

“You realize no one cares how he got there, just get him there. You have a lot of cool scenes that ultimately go in the bin because they function on paper but when you watch the cut it's all about the rhythm.”

Tasked with translating the adventures of the Golden Gladiator from comics to film, Fergus explained the intent in updating Iron Man’s origin while hewing closely to the source material. “From the original comic, you have this kind of idea that America with strength and good intentions goes out and gets itself into a very cyclical thing, and I think that's about as much as [Iron Man co-creator] Stan Lee was trying to make in the [comic books],” Fergus said. “So we just kind of feel like it's a different day and it's a different arena but it's still the kind of flaw that got us here and it's the same flaw that this character has. Tony's the guy with the blinders on, that has no real idea that he's one of the bad guys. He thinks he's promoting peace and freedom and strength, and he has no idea, or doesn't want to have an idea, that what he sells is destroying the world.”

Matt Holloway elaborated on the finer points of the origin. “What’s really important here is the relationship Tony develops with Yinsen,” he said, “Here is somebody that by all rights should hate his guts, because it’s Stark technology that has destroyed his village and has fallen into the hands of the people who have made Yinsen’s life a living hell. And we had to really sell that relationship, because this is the birth of the hero. I love that part of the movie.”

Holloway also remarked on the need to make the film accessible. “There’s always a challenge to bring people in who don’t know anything about [Iron Man], and having them enjoy the story. But then also, there’s a reason this character has been successful and loved for forty years, and that’s because there’s a fan base of people who made it so. You want to also really make sure that you reward those people. And I think this movie does that. It appeals to both.”

Holloway’s writing partner, Art Marcum, said his own measured affection for the 'Iron Man’ comic series informed his vision for the movie. “I loved comic books growing up,” he said. “I spent time in Europe as a kid so I was more into 'Asterix’ and 'Tintin’ and things like that, I wasn’t as much into superhero comics. But I think that it was kind of a benefit for me. Like, for example, in 'Iron Man’ I was not a diehard Iron Man fan. I was a fan, I knew about him, but I didn’t have the sort of boyhood laundry list of things I needed to put in the first movie. So for me it was easier, to experience it with fresher eyes and say, if I was an audience member and I didn’t know who Iron Man was, this is what I would like to see. This is how I would be able to relate to him.”

Asked about the Mandarin, who was an early favorite to be the villain in the first Iron Man film but is only hinted at in the final version, Holloway explained the character’s removal was a normal part of the creative process. “I think there was too much story, at first, and that’s what the development process is like,” he said. “The Mandarin had played a bigger role at first, but Obadiah Stane was always something that we said we could include in the movie as one of the great villains from the comic. So we said that maybe it was better to should put him with Tony, and give them a kind of father/son relationship. I think it’s a juicier character dynamic to see this guy, Obadiah, who really cares about Tony like a son but also feels that maybe he hasn’t been appreciated for everything that he’s done.”

Marcum agreed, saying, “When there’s real personal enmity between a good guy and a bad guy, it’s a lot more satisfying. So ultimately, Obadiah from the beginning was always the most satisfying choice for the opener.”

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