Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz have written two of the summer's biggest movies, Thor and X-Men: First Class. They're fast becoming the go-to writers for revitalizing beloved science-fiction characters. We talked to them about what they've learned so far.
Miller and Stentz made their bones writing for Andromeda and Twilight Zone, then went on to write for Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. (Including the nuclear sub two-parter.) And then they wrote four of the strongest, most mythology-heavy episodes of Fringe. (Including "strawberry-flavored death.")
How did writing for John Connor and Walter Bishop prepare them to tackle Charles Xavier and Loki? And will we ever see their Richard Feynman adventure movie? Find out below.
You guys had some pretty divergent careers before you got into writing for television and movies. Schoolteacher, consultant to the Navy, journalist... what made you both want to be writers instead? What did you learn from those other jobs that you're able to apply in your writing gigs?
Miller: I've always wanted to be a writer. My mother tells me I used to wander around the kitchen when I was three years old, dictating stories to her. I was evidently the subject of her doctoral thesis on teaching reading and writing, so she actually sat and took the dictation. It was a little like having an assistant who also made me PB&J and changed my diapers. That costs you extra in today's workplace environment.
As for the need to tell stories... it's always been with me. Always. As a child, it was largely regurgitation of stories I loved. Now, with THOR and X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, it's largely regurgitation of stories I loved as a child. Make of that what you will.
My early and very eclectic work experiences had an enormous influence on who I am as a writer. Certainly the technical knowledge can be circumstantially useful — the T:SCC 2-parter is a great example, and in some sense so are all of the episodes with a foot in the future ala "Goodbye to All That" — but the real importance is a little more subtle than that.
First, we feel blessed to have had real life experiences. I think the great weakness of many young writers is that they come to LA, graduate from USC or wherever, and immediately jump into TV and features. They don't have anything to say, generally, because they don't have anything to talk about except that thing they've all done. The dragon swallows it's own tail, to some degree. Maybe it's better to say the ice cream cone licks itself. That's a real problem. For me, I like to think that I'm accessing genuine emotions and personal history when I write almost anything. Whether it's ANDROMEDA'S Dylan Hunt coldly engaging an enemy starship in our very first produced credit, "D Minus Zero" or Agent Coulson watching in something akin to wonder and anger as Thor kicks the shit out of his agents, I feel as though I know those guys. I've met them. I'm not pulling that stuff out of my ass. I'm not saying no one else could write that, but I can say no one else would write it quite the same way we did because our characters are coming from someplace real.
That's the emotional piece. The intellectual pieces are smaller but add up. Being a teacher taught me how to manage my time, how to manage other people's time, how to keep a group of people on target and how to impart information to an audience who'd rather be doing anything else. Teaching English and Creative Writing meant I spent a lot of time deconstructing and reconstructing my own ideas of how an audience experiences text (text can also mean visual storytelling) and how writers convey ideas through text. The transitive power of imagery and ideas hit home for me in a big way.
For example, I taught Jonathan Livingston Seagull to my 8th graders. One day toward the end of the school year, I was having an argument with one of the other teachers in my department as to whether or not we should buy a class set and include it in the curriculum. Her position — and she is a GREAT teacher, by the way — was that the book was too complex for the kids to really access it. As we were talking, one of my kids passed the room so I called him in. The exchange went something like this:
ME: "Michael, what is happiness?"
MICHAEL: "Happiness is perfect speed, Mr. Miller."
ME: "And what is perfect speed?"
MICHAEL: "Perfect speed is being there, Mr. Miller."
ME: "Okay. Michael. If that's true... what is happiness?"
MICHAEL: "Mr. Miller... Happiness is being there."
As a teacher, I was insufferably pleased with myself. As a writer, I realized how the audience by its nature will connect what is presented to them. My job as a writer is to give them what they need to make the connections that matter. It's all experiential. You can't argue an audience into believing your story — they will read it, hear it, or see it and they will decide what it means. It's something I come back to a lot when talking to execs, producers or other writers — what's the audience's experience of this film? How does what they've seen inform what they're seeing now? Context is king.
My work for the Navy had another interesting effect. In much the same way that the creative side of my brain helped me solve problems by identifying new approaches, building analytical muscles really helped me with revision and thinking through the impact of story or script changes. Sometimes the hardest part of addressing a note or breaking a story is mentally playing out the "what happens next" of it, or seeing how a change here has an unexpected impact (for good or ill) elsewhere. It also gave me an insight into production, in that I can do breakdowns in my head and look at making television as a business process. Early on in our ANDROMEDA careers, I actually used my business analysis experience to break down an episode we'd written and save it from the line producer's axe. The line producer was pissed, but fuck it. I had darlings to protect.
Stentz: Unlike Ash, I didn't always know I wanted to be a screenwriter. I always wanted to do something creative with my life, but I can't draw, paint or sculpt, I'm nearly tone deaf (unlike my brother who's a brilliant musician), and I have two left feet. But I always seemed to be okay at writing, so that's what I focused my energies on and draw satisfaction from. I've always loved movies, and screenwriting attracted me because it forced me out of my comfort zone of writing prose stories that were long on atmosphere and internal monologues and short on story and dialogue. I took a course in it in college from the great novelist Ron Hansen (The Assassination of Jesse James) and then was lucky to be mentored through my early 20s by a great writer named Terrence McNally— not the playwright, but the guy who co-wrote Earth Girls Are Easy, which actually impressed me more!
And just to pick up on what Ash said, I think it's invaluable to have actually been out in the world and lived a life for a bit before beginning one's professional writing career. Nearly all of the writers I admire had done other things with their lives that informed their writing, from Dashiell Hammett's time as a Pinkerton agent to Gene Roddenberry's experience as a pilot and an LAPD officer. In my case, I was trying to crack the screenwriting thing even while I was doing other things in my life, from being an Earth First! activist in the northern California redwood forests to bumming around the world trying to figure out my life to working as a journalist for a variety of publications, from The Economist and Entertainment Weekly to Meat and Poultry (don't laugh, trade journalism pays the bills for many a writer!).
In particular, the experience in journalism of diving into a subject and intensively researching it until you become if not an expert at least someone who can hold an intelligent conversation with the expert carried over into screenwriting. So did getting out in the world and talking to people from all walks of life and getting a feel for their voices, the cadences of their dialogue. I'm by nature a very shy person, so journalism really forced me to come out of my shell and engage with the world in a way that provided fuel for my creative engine.
I've always been curious about the "writing partner" thing. How do you decide on a long-term collaboration like that? Were you just assigned to work on "D Minus Zero" together, or did you decide to work together on it?
Miller: You decide to collaborate as partners in the short-term. The long-term happens through success. By that I don't mean (necessarily) career or financial success, but creative success. My experience with Zack has been great and rewarding since the first Voyager pitch we put together. That keeps the partnership alive.
Stentz: We met on the Internet — Usenet! — back in the 1990s, arguing about Star Trek during the great Deep Space Nine/Babylon Five wars of the mid-90s. (For the record, we're both Niners through and through) We started an email correspondence, discovered we were both aspiring screenwriters, D&D players, and all around nerds, and decided to give the collaboration thing a whirl. We wrote two and a half feature screenplays together and pitched Star Trek: Voyager three or four times before ever meeting in person or even seeing a photograph of each other. Only when Robert offered us a job on Andromeda and Ash flew out and lived in our guest room for a month while his wife moved them out from Virginia did we spend any time together in the same room.
Miller: "D Minus Zero" was a story we pitched together. In fact, we originally pitched seven stories to Robert. He essentially bought five in the room, and assigned us that one. Over the course of the show, we got to write everything we pitched to him in our very first session.
How do you formalize the "writing partner" relationship? How does it work in practice?
Miller: In a technical sense, it's formalized by contract every time we accept a new gig. Both of our names are on the same piece of paper. The partnership itself isn't formalized other than the rules we set down for ourselves very early on. There are two: first, the story is boss. Period. That's the master we serve. Second, nothing is precious. One writer proposes, the other disposes. Those rules have worked for a decade now and over time have helped us become better writers and better collaborators.
How was the Andromeda writers room different from Fringe or T:SCC? What did you learn from working with an experienced hand like Robert Hewitt Wolfe? How did you both get to be on board Andromeda from so early on in the series?
Miller: We've worked on four shows, for five different showrunners or showrunner teams. In order, Robert Wolfe, Bob Engels, Ira Behr (The Twilight Zone), Josh Friedman and John Wirth, and Jeff Pinkner and Joel Wyman. Each of those rooms has been different.
Robert had an enormous influence on us as writers in general and as television writer/producers. I'd say he probably had the biggest influence overall. To some degree, he cheated because we walked onto that show with an encyclopedic knowledge of everything he'd ever written, broken down such that we knew a priori how he understood this strange thing we call "story". As writers, Robert really shaped our sense of structure. That's probably his great strength — he understands story structure as well or better than any writer I've ever met. It was really the perfect first job for us in that sense.
Robert also ran a very egalitarian room, which is not always the case but should be. We were staff writers with no credits under our belts, but Robert treated us no differently than he treated the "senior" writer/producers on that show. We were given a real voice on the show, and a real place at the table. He fought up and protected down. He didn't hide us from Tribune, he put us out there. He invited our opinions on dailies and cuts. He was generous to a fault, and In his mind, ANDROMEDA was our film school.
Bob Engels (who came from SEAQUEST DSV and TWIN PEAKS) was a totally different cat. Totally different management style. When we met Bob, we were two seasons in and we knew that show better than anyone alive. We'd written something on the order of 12-14 episodes depending on how you were keeping score. That was nearly a third of the episodes. He didn't run the same kind of room as Robert, but in retrospect it was really effective too. We learned a lot of great shit from Bob. For example, "the love bomb" is when you deluge your execs with paper — story ideas, treatments, drafts, etc. So much they can't keep up. He also taught us the best, most passive-aggressive showrunner trick in the world, which is to address a note in one draft and slowly change it back to the way you like it as you get toward actual production. Bob used to say, "Do you hate it yet?" and when the answer was "yes", you knew you were done addressing notes and it was time to push back. He also liked to have happy hour on Fridays, so that kind of ruled.
Ira ran his room very similarly to Robert, which is to be expected given that Robert was Ira's writing partner on DS9 and cut his teeth as a writer/producer in that room. That said, the TWILIGHT ZONE room often had to run itself because production on that show was insane. Four days of prep, four days to shoot, a different show every eight days. The discipline Robert taught us early on was very useful there.
The T:SCC experience was different and amazing. It was another instance where we happened on to a show at exactly the right moment in our lives and careers. Josh Friedman had never run a show before, or worked on a staff. He had no clue how it worked. But he knows writers, and he respects writers. He would only hire writers he believed had a real voice, which is an incredibly egoless thing for him to do. It speaks to his confidence as a creator, and also probably his secret agenda just to have people to shoot the shit with all day. If we learned structure from Robert, Josh really taught us the power of film. On ANDROMEDA, we compressed as much plot as we could into the smallest space available; Josh was Mr. Low Incident. I suddenly realized how much could be conveyed in absolute silence, by the right actor or the right image. I learned to love that silence and the stillness that informed that show, like standing in a breeze on a summer's day with your eyes closed and your arms out. That's what writing T:SCC was like. The actual breaking of story involved lots of dust-ups with writers I adore, and copious amounts of sushi and cheese plates. But the writing of it? The experience of it? Like being a child in the best possible way.
For his part, John Wirth took everyone to school on how to keep the train moving. The man was asked to herd cats, and he did. It was an incredible managerial feat. He was also generous in the way Robert was generous, both personally and professionally. When you screwed up, he let you know and he gave you room to fix it. When you did well, he let you know. When we got the THOR gig during the back half of 2nd season, no one was more supportive than JW (which is what everyone calls him). He's just been enormously supportive of us, period. I'd run through a brick wall for that man - any writer who's worked with him who tells you different is, by definition, a fucking idiot. JW turns his writers into the best writers they can be as long as they let him.
As for FRINGE, it was yet another completely different experience. It was the first show we worked on where the entire staff didn't break story together. Largely, we worked out our episodes in detail on our own — once we knew what our marching orders were — then we went through it very methodically with Jeff and Joel. Sometimes, we were called in to help them break their episodes or break story with staff writers and freelancers. We did a lot of work on that show, everyone did. But there was no real room — you just helped everywhere you could help, whenever you could help. We learned a lot from those guys, too. Jeff has an amazing way of breaking down a scene or a sequence into a core idea and asking how everything within it serves that idea. Joel has this wonderful, childlike ability to bring out the wonder in the mundane. We loved both of them. They're a great team.
Stentz: An interesting thing about writers' rooms is that room cultures vary greatly and tend to be passed down from show to show. The Andromeda room was one that Robert had adapted from his work with Ira Behr, which in turn was influenced by the late, great Michael Piller on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Josh Friedman and John Wirth had their own styles that they fused together, but it in turn was influenced by a lot of the lessons John had learned working with Carlton Cuse on Brisco County Jr. and Nash Bridges. And Jeff Pinkner and Joel Wyman had a room running style was uniquely their own yet drew elements from the J.J. Abrams method Jeff was exposed on Alias and Felicity. So we feel like the creative grandchildren of these great writers, some of whom we've never even met.
How did you make the jump from working on Andromeda to scripting Agent Cody Banks? If you were sitting on someone's couch while they were watching Agent Cody Banks, what would you be telling them to watch out for? What did you learn about screenwriting from that experience?
Miller: We were good friends with one of the producers of the film, Rob Burnett. He had read a spec feature of ours that he loved (it's called NIGHT, a pseudo-post apocalyptic vampire story). He thought we were the guys to rewrite Jeff Jurgensen's original screenplay based on our writing. Plus he knew we had some TV under our belt and could turn the script around quickly.
The big thing we learned from that experience was just how quickly we could turn a script around. It was 9 days from start to finish, all to accommodate Frankie Muniz's available window. We knew it was possible — that kind of schedule isn't unheard of in television on a page-by-page basis. Television is the great teacher of screenwriters in that it grants you focus and discipline, if you're so inclined to accept either. But people were pretty blown away by just how fast we gave them a page-one rewrite. The movie was greenlit off of that draft.
The other thing we learned is that Hollywood runs on fear. The start of production was nine weeks after MGM bought the script. In the feature world, that's a terrifying schedule. The studio probably kept us aboard for no other reason than we were always the guys in the room saying "we'll be fine. This can be accomplished." We were saying that from experience. In TV, nine weeks is a lifetime.
Watch for the scene where Angie Harmon tells Cody to "go home. Be a kid." That was the heart of the movie for us when we wrote it — the moment of epiphany that comes when you're a boy, when you realize you are not yet a man. The moment you understand the difference. To us, that was the moment Cody was ready to take the next step and become an adult. Our original draft was tonally much more like that scene than anything else in the final film. It was still a fun, James Bond meets teenage rom/com mash-up, but it had a lot more on its mind.
With T:SCC, you were part of helping to expand a beloved universe that people were already really familiar with, adding a lot of elements that opened up the familiar mythos, including Derek Reese and John Henry, without leaving behind the familiar Skynet/killer robots from the future storyline. How does an experience like that prepare you to tackle huge franchises like the X-Men and Thor?
Miller: T:SCC helped us get our heads around the idea that no matter how large the canvas, you're writing about the characters first. We like to think of ourselves as character-focused regardless, but there is a temptation to go crazy with plot when you're playing with these massive, sprawling properties. If T:SCC proved anything, it's that small, real character moves take on epic sweep when set in the proper context. It's the most dramatically satisfying experience, even if it doesn't always please the mythology-porn and action-porn fetishists — and bear in mind, we probably wrote the most action-porn and mythology-porn heavy episodes.
Were there storylines or ideas that you really wanted to do in T:SCC that were too way-out, or that you didn't get to do because the show was cancelled?
Stentz: We had a whole list of stories on the board in the TSCC room of stories to do in seasons three and four, from the serious to the facetious to the inexplicable (I still am scratching my head over "Sarah helps a wedding cake.") The one I was always waving the flag for was labeled "Pope Brazen Head." I was obsessed with the legend of Pope Sylvester the Second and his magical talking metal head (seriously, look it up) and liked to imagine that it was a Terminator head that had been thrown back in time and spent 1000 years secretly influencing the course of western civilization. Josh was actually intrigued by the notion, but alas, the cancellation monster claimed us first. But really, when we got to do stories about Jazz Age Terminators and a Terminator on nuclear submarine, I feel that we really got to fly our freak flags on that show.
Miller: We were blessed with the T:SCC experience in that we were granted the opportunity to tell all sorts of stories that we wanted to tell. If I had to name one thing we left on the table, it would be the story of John sending Kyle back to save Sarah, knowing he was sending his father to his death. That's obviously the core story of the franchise, but what interested us was John's POV. We got to some of the emotions we associate with that story a few times, but we never quite got to that beat. Probably with good reason. Josh would never sign off on something like that unless it was a perfect moment, in the vein of Sarah's meeting with Ellison in "Mr. Ferguson is Ill Today". He vigilantly guarded the show against indulgences, and that very easily could have been one.
Other than that, there was a story we all wanted to do that eventually became the Ellison/John Henry story. That's all that needs to be said (because Josh would murder us if we said more) but there were a few, small moments from the original conception that we miss. On the whole, we landed on something much better.
Josh also had an idea for a Cameron episode that would have been amazing. AMAZING. If you ask nicely and beg a little bit, I'm sure he will absolutely refuse to talk about it.
Oh, and there was that other thing. Josh won't speak of that either.
Are we ever going to see the Feynman Chronicles movie? Can you explain to us how Richard Feynman is basically the perfect Disney hero?
Stentz: My not-so-secret plot is to write enough giant Hollywood summer movies that we get enough clout to revisit The Feynman Chronicles and get it made. I deeply love that script and think that in the right hands, audiences could really respond to this offbeat love letter to one of the 20th Century's great minds disguised as a Spielbergian adventure romp.
Miller: You never want to say "never," because you always hear about scripts that kick around for years before becoming films, but the passage of time makes it seem increasingly and unfortunately unlikely. We haven't lost hope, but we've decided to let the universe happily surprise us on its own schedule.
That story began life as something of a bar bet. We were both reacting against a film portrayal of Feynman that took this vital, vibrant, volatile personality and turned him inward toward melancholy. I think it was Zack who said "That guy needs to be an action hero!". It was just one of those things you say. But then we looked at each other and said... holy shit. We married it to another idea, wrote the script thinking it would get us some really great meetings, and then Disney bought it pre-emptively.
Really, it worked because we let Feynman be Feynman and we never tried to turn him into something he was not. Zack's exclamation to the contrary, we didn't paint him as Indiana Jones. He was just a young man in over his head — a young man who happened to be one of the smartest people who ever lived. We teamed him up with Antoine St. Exupery, who we also allowed to be himself. Saint-Ex was the soul to Feynman's mind (though we should point out for the record that Saint-Ex wasn't some cheese eating, poetry writing wimp — he was a bad ass). The action was largely carried by a female British spy character we created. The three of them together were our perfect Disney action hero.
Throw in a mystery in the Congo, a giant zeppelin, Nazis, the Red Army and Werner Von Braun and what you've got is UNTAPPED BOX OFFICE GOLD. Not to mention cameos by Einstein, Oppenheimer and John Wheeler. Also, monkeys. That's just gravy.
During your time on Fringe, you wrote a few of the most important "arc" episodes where the mythology of the cross-universe war was developed. How much freedom did you have to get crazy with storylines like Walter's missing brain piece and his experiments on kids? Also, your episodes seemed to hint at the idea that Walter with an intact brain really was a scary psychopath — was that something you really wanted to push?
Miller: Any television show is a collaborative effort. We were given a tremendous amount of leeway in working through those stories, but you always have to bring it back to the show and remember that it belongs to the showrunners. You can't just go off half-cocked and invent mythology willy-nilly.
For our part, we were very interested in the person Walter used to be versus the person we know him to be. We felt (and still feel) the strongest version of Walter is the monster whose madness made him a man. We pushed hard on that front, sometimes very hard. I think we largely won out because that idea tracked with how others generally saw him.
That said, it's very easy for a writer to become too sympathetic to his or her characters. You start backing away from the things that make them difficult, because you just like them too damn much. Looking at him or her objectively and allowing the character to be all things — good and bad, without judgment — can be very hard. You have to be a cold son of a bitch sometimes, and not everyone can do that.
The good news is your characters will often assert themselves, and remind you who they really are. In "Grey Matters" there's a moment where pre-madness Walter wakes up in the chair — that beat emerged on the page. We had no idea it was going to be in the script until we were writing the scene. As a writer, you live for that.
On the other side of the coin, Walter's breakdown in "Northwest Passage" also came largely out of nowhere. It was a thought experiment that took on a life of its own.
At the time we were on the show, we really thought we were writing a bunch of Olivia episodes ("Northwest Passage" notwithstanding). In retrospect, we really wrote a four-part story about Walter, his relationship to children, and the struggle between Walter-who-was and Walter-who-is. If you look at it that way, his decision at the end of "Northwest Passage" becomes the moment where he reconciles those things. He doesn't resolve them, but he comes to grips with them. Once again in retrospect, I think that's what the supermarket breakdown was really about. This happens — you think a scene is about one thing when you're in the middle of it, and realize it's something else entirely when you look back. Characters can be sneaky motherfuckers that way.
Stentz: I'm not sure how we ended up writing so many of season two's mythology episodes, but it was deeply gratifying to get to dig into the character of Walter Bishop, one of the greatest characters in television history, played by one of our greatest living actors. I think we were filling in a lot of what had already been implied about Walter and his past, but I was always fascinated by the idea that this sad, sweet, broken man had once been this terrifying, Mengele-like figure. It reminded me a little of Ricky Lee Rector, the convict in Arkansas who had murdered a cop and then tried to kill himself with the same gun. He effectively lobotomized himself, to the extent that there was a debate over his execution— was he functionally the same human being who had done those awful things?
And of course, the Walter-Peter relationship was endlessly fascinating and fun to write for. Whenever I wrote scenes for them, I'd always listen to the Kate Bush song "Cloudbusting" because the story of Wilhelm and Peter Reich in the song reminded me so much of Walter and Peter Bishop...a relationship that Bob Orci later told me actually did play into the creation of those two characters.
Do you miss the relatively instant gratification of writing for television, and the give-and-take in a writers' room?
Miller: Absolutely on both counts. Aside from the pleasure of watching great actors say your words, and the feeling of control you have over your material as a writer on a TV show, watching performances and seeing cuts makes you better at your craft. Constantly breaking stories or building outlines or writing scripts makes you better. Dealing with studio and network notes, especially the difficult or frustrating ones, makes you better. If you let it, these experiences give you tools that you can apply to the feature world. Honestly, television writers have it all over feature writers. Most feature writers churn out one, maybe two scripts a year. They go through the process with a studio in a production setting even less than that on average. On television, it's another day at the office.
We also miss the room. It amuses me sometimes to read what people on the internet think about the fact that some shows have many writers, and how they buy into this silly idea of an auteur. There are no auteurs. There are only great leaders with vision who gather talented people and let them do their jobs. When you're a part of that, it's the best thing in the world. Those other talented people are generally fun to be with, they challenge you, they teach you and they improve you. Even Shakespeare had a fucking room.
Stentz: Oh, God yes. Spending the day in a room with smart people creating television is heaven itself, and we're actively looking to get back into television and do that again soon, hopefully with shows of our own.
How did you manage to score the gigs writing for both Thor and X-Men right after leaving Fringe? Did both gigs come around the same time, or is it just a weird fluke that both films are coming out the same summer?
Miller: It's a fluke. We wrote THOR in the winter of 2008-2009 while we were on T:SCC. We were offered X-MEN after we left Fringe, but in part because we already had a different script assignment from Fox. We left Fringe to pursue features, which seems to have worked out okay.
Thor is one of those characters that a lot of comics writers don't seem to know what to do with, ever since the awesome Walt Simonson run. How do you make this larger-than-life but also kind of silly character cool? How do you resist the temptation to make Thor "relevant" or emo? Were there any particular runs on Thor that you guys found helpful in getting a handle on the character?
Miller: Walt Simonson was a huge influence. So was Mark Millar, in terms of how Thor was presented in action in the Ultimates 1 and 2. I'm a huge fan of Thor, which I think is key. I believe in his emotional reality, so it's not hard to translate that into a script. That's the key with any of these movies — find the emotional reality and dramatize it. That gives your characters weight and your stories value. It's as true for Thor as it is for Derek Reese.
Stentz: What did they used to say in the 80s? "Let Reagan be Reagan?" We just tried to let Thor be Thor, because there's a really strong, defined core of that character that comes through loud and clear across the decades, whether it's in the space opera of Simonson, the epic hero of the Fraction one shots, or the more grounded version in the JMS run. And honestly, we also went straight back to the source when thinking about and writing Thor— the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturlson and various Norse myths, which are so vivid and memorable themselves. Those Norse storytellers knew what they were doing when they paired a strong man and a clever man as friends, brothers, and rivals.
The X-Men are often used as a metaphor for the Civil Rights movement, but X-Men: First Class actually takes place during the era of MLK. Given that this is a much more repressive culture, where difference of all sorts is less tolerated, how does that change the way you think about the mutant struggle for acceptance?
Miller: That sort of thing certainly runs through your mind, but you can't make the movie about that. You can't even make the movie about the Cuban Missile Crisis. It's layered into subtext - although oddly in this case, I think it's more explicit with respect to attitudes toward women. Even that is very small.
Stentz: I think the MLK-Malcolm X dichotomy has always been in the Singer X-Men films...he even has Magneto say "By any means necessary" at one point! But actually setting an X-Men film during the Civil Rights Era, which coincided with this wonderful, crazy period of technological optimism and possibility, opened up the storytelling in a lot of ways. Partway through the process, we realized that what we were writing in many ways had the vibe of a 1960s Connery Bond film, which was something Matthew Vaughn really responded to in the material and ran with. He just did a wonderful job of transplanting the X-Men into a whole jet age, swingin' London, Civil Rights, JFK New Frontier era.
Also, should we be calling that plane the Blackbird, or just the SR-71?
Miller: Call it whatever you prefer. In the script, the first X-jet is actually a modified XB-70. That appears to have changed on its way to the stage, although never in the pages.
Stentz: Yes, in our drafts, the original X-Jet was a prototype of the XB-70 Valkyrie, my favorite Cold War superjet of all time. It was changed to an SR-71 fairly late in the game, but I admit it would have been nice to see that crazy Mach 3 stainless steel bomber on the big screen.
Finally, what's going on with Damn Nation? You mentioned you were working on it the last time we interviewed you guys.
Miller: No idea what's happening with Damn Nation right now. Dark Horse has it, they love it. We'll see.
Stentz: We need to ask Keith Goldberg at Dark Horse about that! Even with the number of zombie/vampire/post apocalyptic features int he landscape, we feel like Damn Nation's combination of horror/men on a mission action/political thriller is pretty unique, and we'd love to see it made.
And is there anything else in the pipeline you can tell us about?
Miller: There is a lot of exciting stuff in the pipeline. Unfortunately, we seem to specialize in taking on projects that for one reason or another have to remain top secret. Sometimes it's obvious why these things are close hold, other times it seems unnecessary. But that's the job. We think of ourselves as the Green Berets of screenwriting - we get dropped into dangerous, highly classified situations, expected to win or die fighting.
We're also very close to finishing a young adult novel that is nothing like anything you've seen from us before. It's based on a spec pilot we wrote a few years ago (which caught the attention of Josh Friedman and got us our jobs on T:SCC) but it's in no way a genre piece. Not even a little bit. It's very close to our hearts.
Stentz: As Ash said, we're either actively writing or developing a number of projects we can't get into in detail, though we're thrilled that we suddenly seem to be in business with people we've long admired, from legendary superproducer Walter Parkes to genius director and all around nice guy Peyton Reed and many others who would murder us in our sleep if we revealed their names here.