Interview: Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (DEADPOOL)
The surprise awards-darling this year is DEADPOOL (Twentieth Century Fox Film), which expanded the Marvel franchise to include a foul-mouthed, pop-culture obsessed, comic book action anti-hero.
The film, written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, and based on the X-Men Comic Books, has been nominated for a Writers Guild Award for Adapted Screenplay, along with nods from the Golden Globes, the Directors Guild and the Producers Guild.
OnWriting spoke with Rhett and Paul about their collaborative writing process, how they got their start in the industry and the decade they put into writing DEADPOOL.
Congratulations on your Writers Guild Award nomination.
Paul: Thank you very much. We were as excited as we were shocked by it. An R-rated superhero movie amongst prestige projects is unusual. It’s also refreshing, gratifying and absolutely thrilling for us. We had no idea. We didn’t expect it.
We set out in 2009 to write a movie that people thought would be a fanboy movie. It seemed to strike a chord with audiences and also amongst our peers, which is especially gratifying to be recognized by our peers.
What do you think it is about the script that caught so many people’s attention and expanded the film’s audience beyond only fanboys?
Rhett: We owe a lot to the character of Deadpool, which pre-existed us by a long time. That character is unique. He is a fourth wall breaker. He references pop culture. He is irreverent and self-loathing and unlike any other superhero who has come before him. We tried to imbue the script with very similar qualities; an irreverence, a silliness, a pathos, an underdog quality. I think it worked out. We were lucky enough to have the tone stay the same from comic to screenplay to movie and then to marketing campaign. I really think it struck a chord.
Paul: I also think that the character of Deadpool is a rule breaker. We set out to write a script that broke a lot of rules. It was non-linear. Again, a ton of pop culture references. It was an apple among oranges. I do think that resonated with audiences and amongst our peers as well.
Can you take me back to how this project first came to you?
Rhett: We auditioned for this job like any other. They were looking to reboot the character after the near disastrous appearance in the Wolverine movie. They came to a few different writers and we pitched our take to Ryan Reynolds. Interestingly, our first pitch was not an origin story. We thought it might be fun to dispense altogether with Deadpool’s origin and get right into the present day. Ryan’s reaction was that he felt we did really need to start from square one, so we didn’t get hired. Thanks to the perseverance of our agent, Phil D’Amecourt, who put another script of ours, a pilot we wrote for HBO, a dark drama called WATCH, underneath Ryan’s nose and said, “Look at this. I think this script may indicate what the guys are capable of in terms of Deadpool’s origin story, which is a dark story about his acquiring cancer and having to go into this horrifying treatment program to fix it or to cure it.
Ryan read that script and thought it was a great match. He invited us out and over the course of a two-hour lunch, we talked about what the movie could be and how it might combine an origin story with a present-day story. It was kind of like his chocolate met our peanut butter. That was the day that he called Fox and said, “These are the guys.” Ryan’s a producer on the project, so he and Dirk Revello, the Fox executive, essentially hired us.
Paul: We had never heard of Deadpool when our agent came to us and said, “Do you want to audition for this job?” That was in 2009. We were comic book guys, but Deadpool was a ’90s comic and it had passed us by a little bit. We spent a good part of our weekend devouring Deadpool comics and getting tone and texture and feel of the character. Then we set those aside and brought our own take to it.
Outside of just the comic books, were there other source materials that you guys worked with?
Rhett: That was it. Just the comics.
Paul: The comic and Ryan’s voice. Ryan is very much Deadpool. He’s irreverent and self-deprecating and funny. We had the benefit of not only the comics but also of Ryan’s voice in our head as we wrote. That was such a gift because Ryan is a genius. It’s very rare that you’ll have the privilege of writing a character with such a distinctive voice, with an actor with that same distinctive voice.
What was your writing process for DEADPOOL? How do you two collaborate on scripts?
Rhett: We break story together and, in this case, Ryan helped us break it. That means sitting in a room with index cards and coming up with the structure and the scenes. Then we write separately. Paul and I each work at our respective homes and we trade scenes. We’ll leapfrog each other. Like, “You take scenes one and two, I’ll take three and four.” Then we swap scenes and we revise each other’s work, and then we re-revise each other’s work, until, slowly but surely, each scene melds into a finished product. Then we move chronologically through the script front to back until we have a screenplay.
Paul: What’s interesting on this one is that DEADPOOL is such a non-linear story. It bounces around in time and space. That was always the plan from the time we laid it out on the board. The structure of the movie stayed the same from original conception all the way to the screen. That was a fun puzzle that we were piecing together, because what we wanted to do was tell a story of both, again, the origin story and then the story in the present, and have them meet up in the third act and come together as one.
That allowed us to bounce around in different tones. Early on, before Wade becomes Deadpool, Wade Wilson’s a dark mercenary who has cancer and is down on his luck. It’s very dark and he enters a program, The Workshop, and becomes Deadpool and gets tortured and so forth. What the non-linear structure allowed us to do was tell these two different stories and interweave them so that the tone of the movie bounced in and out of darkness and lightness, versus if we were to have told the story linearly, it would have started very dark and continued very dark and then he becomes Deadpool and then he’s this crazy, outrageous, funny motormouth. It would’ve felt like two different movies had we done it that way. I think it worked effectively and elegantly to bounce back and forth in time to allow us to basically stay consistent with tone.
Do you each have a scene that you felt really translated well from the page to the screen?
Rhett: Oh, gosh. It’s a great credit to Ryan and to our director, Tim Miller, that the movie really does translate wonderfully from page to screen. The scenes really only got better in the movie.
One of the things that we were a little nervous about that worked out really well was the scene on the bridge with Colossus. Colossus, being a CGI character, and us having to rely so greatly on the vision of our visual effects coordinator, Jonathan Rothbart. You wonder, “Is it going to come together?” You’re out on this bridge. There’s a man standing in what looks like a suit of pajamas with a big tennis ball on his head where Colossus’s face will be. Even our tall actor wasn’t as tall as Colossus would be and you think to yourself, “This is never going to work. How is Ryan’s acting opposite a tennis ball?”
And yet, when you get the voice in there and you get Colossus looking the way he does, all the heft of him and then the square personality comes out, suddenly the scene really sings. It’s usually the lead character is the straight man and the people around him are the lunatics. In our case, our lead character was the lunatic and the people around him are straight men. Colossus proved to be a really wonderful foil for Wade.
Were you on-set during the shoot? How do you feel a screenwriter on set works to the benefit of the film?
Paul: We were on set every day. Again, it was a project we were involved with since 2009, so there was a core creative team of us and Ryan and Tim, our director. No one was threatened by one another. We were all in this together. We were in editing and post and writing lines. He’s a man in a mask, so you can, much like an animated movie, you can put words into his mouth all the way up until lock of the picture.
I think it’s always beneficial for the writer to be on set. I know the director is king on features. There’s oftentimes a little bit of worry that with the writers there and a director there, there’s too many voices guiding the creative process. In the case of ZOMBIELAND, where we were on set every day, and also in the case of DEADPOOL, where we were on set every day, I think it really does benefit the entire process. As long as you’ve got a director and actors and producers who aren’t threatened by having another voice in your ear. I think it’s hugely beneficial.
How much has your writing style changed or developed since your earlier work?
Rhett: I would say we’ve just gotten better over time. I believe the Malcolm Gladwell “10,000 hour” idea that you need to put in a lot of seat time to get better and better. There’s a little bit of a common thread that we use throughout our work. I shouldn’t say all our work, because we certainly write all kinds of different things, but if we had a calling card, it tends to be, to be able to come into a genre and make fun of it while still being it. We did that with our show, THE JOE SCHMO SHOW. We did that with ZOMBIELAND and we did that with DEADPOOL.
We like to have a lot of fun when we write. I think we’ve learned to embrace that over the years. We know that if we’re having fun at the keyboard, if we’re pleasing each other with our pages, that likely we’ll end up in a pretty good place.
What’s a line from the DEADPOOL script that you think really stands out to illuminate the character, or the story?
Paul: My favorite is a line Rhett wrote at the end of the movie, act three, when Wade and Vanessa are reconciling out in the scrapyard. The movie’s a love story and it ultimately culminates in this reunion. She says the line, “It’s a face I’d be happy to sit on.” It’s my favorite line of the movie. It’s also the one I was most terrified by because when I read it, I thought to myself, “Oh, my God, Fox is never, ever, ever going to make this movie.” Here’s a Marvel superhero movie where you have the female love interest saying, “It’s a face I’d be happy to sit on.” I think it sums up Deadpool. It sums up its irreverence and its rule breaking. I thought it was brilliant.
Rhett: I would reference a line of Paul’s, which was Deadpool’s reference on the bridge to not knowing which Professor X he was going to meet, McAvoy or Stewart. There’s something so refreshing about a character who can reference the fact that he’s in a movie and reference the other superhero movies. Both Paul and Ryan had a great eye for looking for moments to exploit that wink at the audience. Lines that remind them that they’re in a movie and that our character knows that he’s in a movie. I really think that helped set the script apart.
When you’re creating this universe around Deadpool, do you feel that you need to be faithful to the legacy of the comics?
Paul: Absolutely. We were given a great gift, which is such a great character that was created by Rob and Fabian. Writers like Joe Kelly and Gerry Duggan brought it to life.
I do think there needs to be an authenticity to the character, despite the fact that not every member of our audience has read the comics or knew who the character was going in. I do think that you need to have that authenticity. Breaking the fourth wall, for example, which Deadpool famously does in the comics. The obscure pop culture references. I do think an audience will, even if they don’t know about the character, be able to feel that authenticity come across on the screen. Colossus is faithful to the character that appeared in the comics. We used that to our advantage throughout as a way to tap into that authenticity. We would push it even a little bit further and bring it to life.
What kind of environment do you guys like to be in when you’re working? You both said you work from home. Do you have a home office? Do you like music playing? Do you surround yourself with notes?
Rhett: Paul has the perfect system. He doesn’t leave his bed. He is the man who has found a way to work from his bed.
Paul: Yeah, that’s embarrassing but true.
Rhett: I just outed you.
Paul: You really did. My bedroom is my home office. It’s where I do my best work.
Rhett: He has the best commute in the world. It’s from under his sheets to on top of his sheets.
Paul: Yeah. I don’t even have to get out of bed to get my computer.
I’m not one who sticks to a tight schedule, writes from 7am to 2pm and takes a break. I write when I’m inspired to write. Sometimes that’s two hours a day, sometimes that’s six hours a day. More times than not it’s two hours a day.
Quiet is always helpful, though sometimes I like ambient noise. Stuff going on in the background. I usually bounce in and out of the internet while I’m writing, too, as I get distracted and procrastinate as I’m on shoe websites. I’m a Nike guy and shop for shoes.
Rhett: You just outed yourself way worse than I did with the bed thing, with shoe shopping.
Paul: I think I really did, but that is my process.
Rhett: I don’t have anything strict either. I think when I’m doing my best writing, I really disappear into the screen and, consequently, I’ve found the ability to write basically anywhere. I write sometimes in restaurants and hotels. I write at home. I can write outside, inside, people talking around me, people not talking around me. I really just disappear into the work. In fact, probably my favorite place to work is on a plane because it allows me to really dive into it. Then, six hours later, if I’m crossing the country, I can look out and go, “Oh, my God. I was writing that whole time.” That’s a good place to write.
I think it varies from writer to writer. You have to be your own psychologist and get into your own brain to figure out where’s the place I’m most motivated and where’s the place I do my best work. It’s different for everyone.
Paul: I’m not sure what that says about me.
Rhett: In bed.
Paul: In bed.
Rhett: Shoe shopping.
How did you guys first came together as a team?
Paul: We went to high school together in Phoenix, Arizona. That’s where we met and we both ended up here in Los Angeles, many years later. Rhett was a screenwriter and I was a local TV news producer. I jumped into reality TV, and this was in 2000. I got Rhett hooked on a show that I was co-producing called BIG BROTHER 2. We were sitting around one evening watching the show, and we said, “We should come up with a reality show.” That evening we came up with THE JOE SCHMO SHOW, which was an idea that combined Rhett’s scripted background and my, at the time, non-scripted background.
The rest has been bliss for 17 plus years. He’s the greatest partner anyone could ask for. He’s the kindest and the smartest person. I find myself very fortunate to have teamed up with Rhett.
Rhett: I’m not so lucky. No, I’m just kidding. I feel the same way about Paul. I do think that there’s a little bit of a hive mind thing that starts happening when you’ve worked together as long as we have, where we can finish each other’s sentences and we can predict, oftentimes, what the other person is going to think of something. It’s cool. We’re like an old married couple in probably all of the best ways and none of the worst ways.
What kind of shows were you raised on and what kind of shows are you watching now?
Rhett: We’re the Amblin generation. I think the movies that sparked our imagination tended to come from Lucas and Spielberg and James Cameron. I think you have a very fertile imagination as a young person and those guys blasted right into that imagination. They showed us what was possible.
As an adult, I like all kinds of movies. Woody Allen’s probably my favorite filmmaker overall. BREAKING BAD is my favorite television show. I love television. I love the longer form almost even more than movies now and that’s something we might explore at some point. We’ve done it before and we’d like maybe someday to get back to it.
I really do believe that the most important thing to do as a writer is to read a lot and watch a lot of good, quality stuff. You end up having it seep into you and you end up learning so much and you’re inspired. Sometimes you’re jealous and angry that somebody else did something so well, and that motivates you. Sometimes you think someone didn’t do something so well, and that motivates you because you think you can do better. I think that relationship with film and television is a very important one for writers.
Paul: I would also add to that that a lot of what inspired us as kids was the R-rated action movie, like the DIE HARDS of the world and BEVERLY HILLS COPS. It’s partly what brought about DEADPOOL. Since corporations and stock holders started buying movie studios, there’s this push to make everything a return back to our childhood. DEADPOOL is that kind of R-rated action comedy. I think that was inspired by our youth and some of those great movies that raised us.
Is there some piece of advice that you would give to other writers?
Rhett: I’ll give you my inspirational speech. If you’ve seen TERMINATOR 2, you know what the T-1000 is. It’s a robot made of liquid metal that can be destroyed, dispersed, cracked into a million pieces, but the liquid metal always reforms and comes rushing at its adversary. I think that writers need to be like the T-1000. They need to be able to suffer a million indignities, a million disappointments, a million near-misses, a million ‘no’s, and pick themselves back up and charge into battle again. I think success is at the confluence between talent and perseverance and hard work. Talent is something you can’t control; you have it or you don’t, and if you don’t, you probably aren’t going to make it. That said, I think those conditions are really necessary to succeed.
Psychologically, you need to be just relentless in pursuit of your dreams.
Paul: I would add on to that passion. You need to be passionate. DEADPOOL was a passion project of ours for a very long time. We’d written a draft of DEADPOOL in every consecutive calendar year since 2009. That’s 7 consecutive calendar years that we’ve written in some form a draft of DEADPOOL. I would say that passion really bleeds onto the page and then consequently onto the screen.
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- September 11, 2018: Episode 2: Alec Berg & Bill Hader, "Barry"
- September 4, 2018: Episode 1: Michael Arndt, "Endings"
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- Issue 1: A Conversation with Terry George and Tony Gilroy
- Issue 2: Reflections on Adaptation: Israel Horovitz, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Doug McGrath, Richard Wesley, Richard Vetere
- Issue 3: The Writers Room: Robert Carlock, John Markus, Meredith Scardino
- Issue 4: From Broadway to the Back Lot: John Guare, David Lindsay-Abaire, Donald Margulies