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Nicole Perlman Q&A: How 'Guardians of the Galaxy' Went From a Writers Program Project to Record-Breaking Film

Script Magazine caught up with Nicole Perlman just before the San Diego Comic-Con to discuss how she broke into the business, her time with the Marvel Studios writers program, and her role in shaping this summer's biggest blockbuster.
Thanos first appeared in the Marvel Cinematic Universe when Perlman chose him as the villain in the first drafts of the 'Guardians of the Galaxy' script. (photo: Marvel Studios)

The villain Thanos (voiced by Josh Brolin) in 'Guardians of the Galaxy.' (photo: Marvel Studios)

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With a $94 million opening weekend, Marvel Studios' Guardians of the Galaxy firmly cemented itself as a worthy franchise to continue the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe. The success of Guardians, while not unexpected, certainly surprised those who thought a Marvel film with a group of unknown characters, not to mention a talking raccoon and a tree that only says one phrase, would open so strong, setting a new August opening record with plans for a sequel already in motion.

Nicole Perlman

Nicole Perlman

While director and co-writer James Gunn certainly deserves all the accolades and praise for helming the film that broke open the Marvel Cosmic Universe and making Chris Pratt, who plays Peter Quill, a household name, many people are unaware of the story behind how Guardians of the Galaxy became a film in the first place.

In 2009, up-and-coming scribe Nicole Perlman joined Marvel Studios' writers program, a short-lived, paid internship of sorts that had five writers take on various Marvel properties with the hope that one or some of them could be developed into feature film or television projects. Perlman, an avid science fiction fan with a love for anything space-related, chose the Guardians of the Galaxy, a little-known super hero team that floated throughout the Marvel Universe in various incarnations since their inception in 1969.

Marvel Studios, thinking they may have found a way to expand their cinematic universe outside of The Avengers, moved forward on Perlman's Guardians project, making her the first female screenwriter with a credit on a Marvel Studio film. She would go through multiple drafts, various team lineups, and different antagonists until they found the right fit. In fact, it was Perlman's early inclusion of the villain Thanos that sparked the studio to include the Mad Titan in the end credits scene of Joss Whedon's The Avengers, while also setting him up as the main villain throughout the rest of Marvel's film slate through 2019.

Script Magazine caught up with Perlman just before the San Diego Comic-Con to discuss how she broke into the business, her time with the Marvel Studios writers program, and her role in shaping this summer's biggest blockbuster.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Script: How did you get into screenwriting to begin with? Did you always want to be a writer?

Nicole Perlman: Yeah. I came from a family of writers. We're a very science fictiony, nerdy family, and my father encouraged my brother and I to go into writing as much as possible. So I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I went to New York University for dramatic writing and I ended up double majoring in film production because I realized that screenwriting was the best medium for me to tell the kinds of stories I wanted to tell. I think there was a time where I was just playwriting more, but I do think there are some incredible possibilities with screenwriting, in terms of telling a story in a visual way, that kind of drew me away from the theatre.

You hit on the topic of science fiction and your early screenplays had space themes. Your first screenplay that got you some attention, Challenger (2006 Black List), focused on Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman's investigation of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, and you were also involved in a Neil Armstrong biopic at one point, correct?

Perlman: Yes. At Universal Studios. I wrote a screenplay for a Neil Armstrong biopic, which is based on a book called First Man [by James R. Hansen], and I actually got to go meet Neil when he was still alive and spend time with him. It was so amazing. I got to talk to fascinating people at NASA and, you know, really get into that world. So it was kind of funny to have a project that was the shuttle disaster in the '80s at the same time as the project about the Apollo program, which is, you know, sort of a 180-degree difference in policy and attitude. So I was doing two very NASA-heavy projects at the same time.

Your work on Challenger also garnered you a Sloan Grant for Science in Film from the Tribeca Film Festival. What is it about science fiction and space travel that inspires you?

Perlman: Well, it's interesting. I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and my father had a science fiction book club that would meet at our house pretty regularly. There's a lot of aerospace in Colorado, so we had rocket scientists and physicists and all these fascinating scientific people at our house all the time. So growing up, I heard a lot of interesting stories and information being bandied about and that was how I first heard about Richard Feynman. I was always a big science fiction fan. Ray Bradbury was my favorite writer when I was a kid. For my 12th birthday, my father took me to meet Bradbury at a signing, which was like the best day of my life. So science fiction was always a big element growing up.

I love stories about people who are really passionate about things that are a little bit beyond the layman's understanding of the world. I was doing NASA projects and aviation projects and a Wright Brothers project for National Geographic, and I noticed that when I would go in to pitch on projects that were a little bit more popcorn or action/adventure, I got some pushback. Not only was my résumé kind of pigeonholed in this one area, but there was also a feeling of being a girl and these were "masculine" projects. I was getting this undercurrent a lot.

So when I had a general meeting at Marvel Studios in 2009, I said that I was interested in getting into science fiction. They told me that they were starting this writers program and if I wanted to, I could be a part of it. So that was how that turned out.

Let's talk about the now defunct Marvel Studios writers program. How was the program set up and what was your experience there like?

Perlman: Well, within the writers program at Marvel they had half a dozen properties that were by no means guaranteed that they were going to make it into a movie, but they were considering them. So they brought in five writers to be on campus. We each had an office and we were allowed to choose what projects we wanted, and even though they knew that science was my bent, I think there was a little bit of surprise when I chose Guardians of the Galaxy, which was such an unheard of property, and also because there were other titles on that sheet that were more family-friendly. So I was like no, I'm going for the one with Rocket Raccoon. That was how that came to be.

Why did the program shut down?

Perlman: I think the reason behind that is because they're already making two movies a year right now and they'll be making three eventually. They just don't have a lot of room for some of these lesser-known properties. I think they'll definitely start exploring those as time goes by, but having five scripts a year, projects that they're really not going to have time to develop, I think they realized that they had too much to work with.

Let's jump into Guardians of the Galaxy. You chose this property to work on. It was something that was completely unfamiliar to you. Did you have any knowledge of any of the Marvel Comics characters before going into this?

Perlman: I wasn’t really familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe or any of the comic books. So I was coming to it very fresh, which, in a way, I think I underestimated when I first started working there. I underestimated how much you really need to start developing in order to understand the history of all these characters. The first eight weeks I was there, all I was doing was reading comic books and binders and binders of color printouts that I was taking home and leafing through and reading. I had a lot of catching up to do because the stories have a huge history and all these characters have been around for decades. So it was important to get to know where they were coming from. Even though I did end up rebooting Peter Quill's backstory a fair amount, it was good to know the original origin story for him.

The Guardians of the Galaxy lineup has gone through various incarnations in the comic books through the years. How did you end up breaking the story for this particular screenplay? Marvel seems to have this very long-term plan on where all the stories are going. They just announced their slate thru 2019. Was there a freedom for you to take a universe and make this your own or did you have to work within the parameters of what they were setting?

Perlman: Well, it was funny. I think in a sense because it was such a long shot that this would be the project that got chosen out of the writers program to be made, I was given enormous freedom. I chose Thanos as the bad guy. I chose the members of the team. I came up with the storyline and everything. They let me choose all of that. So that was completely unaided. We did go through a lot of different versions. One of the upsides of being hired on this writing program where you're not working for anybody else, you're not allowed to go pitch around town, you're only working for Marvel, was that we had the luxury of time. They had me for two years and then they brought me back freelance for another draft. So I got to try out different combinations of characters, different relationships. There were versions where Quill and Gamora were romantically involved, versions where they weren't romantically involved. There were a whole lot of variations that you don't usually get when you're hired to do a big blockbuster. On this one, I was able to try out a bunch of different things until we had the right combination. But I'm really happy that, you know, as we were getting closer and they realized that this was something that they were actually going to make, Thanos became more of the overarching bad guy instead of the direct antagonist. Ronan the Accuser was written in as the direct antagonist so that they could save Thanos for future movies. That was probably the only major concession that had to be made in regards to setting up the slate for future films and how it fits within the MCU.

This film is a first in itself because with The Avengers, all those characters were setup in earlier films. The audience was very familiar with them going into the team picture. But with Guardians of the Galaxy, unless you're a fan of the comic books, you have zero backstory on these characters. How challenging was it for you as the screenwriter to introduce this brand new group of characters?

NICOLE: I think with Guardians, [the film itself] is more of an origin story of a team. So it's still in some sense an origin story because it's about how the team came together and started to trust each other and go from being enemies to family by the end of the movie. It's nice in a way because you're sort of free from the trope of having to establish everyone, you know, who they are before they get bitten by the radioactive spider.

Yeah, I mean, how many times have we seen origin stories repeated in various reboots? It gets monotonous.

Perlman: Yeah. It was nice. It freed you up to do some things that are a little bit different and a little bit more fun. I think what was important too was establishing the scope of the universe. This is the first movie that is taking us into the Marvel Cosmic Universe. So I don't think it would have been beneficial to really go in depth with one or two characters. I think we wanted to give a sense of all the different conflicts and races and the broad scope of what the potential of this place is. What this could be.

So your work on the screenplay is finished and Marvel greenlights the film and hires James Gunn in 2012 to direct and also take a spin on the script. Did you two do any collaborating at all or did he just do a page one rewrite on it?

Perlman: James wrote the last draft. Marvel always knew they were going to hire a writer/director for the film. They had such a good experience with Joss Whedon [on The Avengers]. They are very pro writer/director. And James is a friend of Joss', as well. We always knew that the tone of the movie was going to be sort of irreverent, sassy and funny. And there was a lot of comedy that Marvel definitely wanted to bring somebody on who would bring a very specific visual style and a lot of humor. James definitely did that for sure. He added a couple characters and just really brought his particular stamp to it. We didn't collaborate, but I'm very happy with what he did.

So when you picked Thanos as the villain, this was way back in 2009-10. Did Marvel take that idea and that's how he ended up in The Avengers?

Perlman: Yes, it was off of my script. That was when I really knew that they were serious when they put Thanos in the end credits scene at the end of The Avengers. I was like, 'Okay, this is happening,' which was cool. One thing that was also pretty cool was that I rebooted Peter Quill's backstory and there are some things with the other characters' backstories that I either brought to light or changed in some ways. It was interesting to see the comic books - the 2010 and onwards Guardians comic books - reflecting those changes. That was kind of a neat thing. Everything affects everything else, which I think is pretty cool.

Aside from, as you mentioned, the tone and the comedy that James added, and a couple of new characters, is it safe to say that the core story is what you came up with?

Perlman: Yeah, the core story is definitely the same. All the major set pieces and how the team comes together and the relationships between the characters, these are all things that were very painstakingly worked out in advance by many, many, many versions until we found the right ones that worked the best. You know, there are dozens of Guardians of the Galaxy characters. So the five team members that are in the movie were the five that I liked the best. So it's nice to see they're in the film.

From the writer's standpoint, is there a particular character or particular moment in the script that you're incredibly proud of that made it into the film?

Perlman: I think the moment that I first got the shivers of seeing something that had come out of my mind actually be on the screen was seeing the first off-Earth scene with Quill on this drained planet while he's going into the temple and he's looking for a relic that he's heard about. And the reason that that one's kind of a favorite of mine is that when I was a kid, I was at Disneyland and I went to the Submarine Voyage ride, but it was closed for renovation, and I remember peering through the boards and seeing this drained, empty, underwater landscape and thinking that would make such a cool, airy planet. So it was neat for me to connect that to when I wrote the scene and see it built. I got to go to London and visit the set and seeing all the various strange things I came up with be there was just an incredible experience.

Guardians is your first produced screenplay, so I assume this is opening up a few doors for you in terms of new projects. What other projects are you working on?

Perlman: Let's see, I've got an adaptation of a science fiction book that comes out next year called The Fire Sermon, which is setup at Dreamworks. And right now I'm working on a TV pilot for Skydance Productions called A Madness of Angels, an adaptation of the Matthew Swift series, which is sort of a dark fantasy. Then I've got an original fantasy film project that Cirque du Soleil is developing. I'm developing it with them because they have a film development fund. So those are the three big ones. Then I've got some side projects that I'm working on just for myself. We'll see what happens with those.

Before our interview started, you mentioned you were a reader of Script Magazine when it was in print, when you were going to school.

Perlman: Oh absolutely, yeah.

How did it help you? What was it like from a budding writer's standpoint? Was it a helpful publication for you?

Perlman: Oh, it was so helpful. That was the first piece of press I ever had on me. It was 2004, I think, or maybe 2005. Even though it was just a little tiny sidebar, my grandmother cut it out and put it in a scrapbook, but it was the first time that ever happened to me. [The issue] came out and then a couple weeks later I got a call to do some writing on another space project called Capture the Flag. That was my first paid writers job, and I completely got it because of Script Magazine.

That's awesome. I love hearing stories like that.

Perlman: Actually, that's how I got my first agent, too! It was because I got a writing job and the director of development said I should probably have an agent. The subtext being so you don't get screwed over again next time. (laughs) That was when I got my first agent and it was extremely helpful.

I have one final question regarding your education. You received a formal education in dramatic writing at NYU. How did that help or hinder you?

Perlman: Oh man, anything I say is going to really piss off NYU. But actually, my playwriting classes were amazing. I had fantastic playwriting teachers and I think that NYU has a great film program, too. The thing about NYU, and this is an example of the problem that I had with NYU, is that… (pause) we had a film program in the same building as the screenwriting program and at no point did they ever mix the two programs together. Maybe this has changed since I was there, I graduated in 2003, but it seemed a little counter-intuitive. At no point did they ever put screenwriters with directors to see what happens, which was, I think, very shortsighted. Hopefully they've changed that in the interim 11 years since I've been there. That was something that I thought was unrealistic. So much of actual filmmaking in Hollywood is extremely collaborative and it's all about whom you know and all about networking and I think that at NYU it was a little bit more of this auteur mindset. You're going to be a director, you're going to do all of it yourself and nobody else really matters. I think that other schools like USC, I know a lot of people who went to USC's film school, it's all about collaboration, all about networking and all about forming those connections. Those are the people that you end up working with in real life. So I would say that I don't regret by any means going to NYU, but I think, when I was there, there was a blind spot in terms of how we actually worked.

That's one of the reasons why I ask that question of screenwriters who had formal college training because I get different answers every time. You either get the people who had the greatest experience ever or you get the people, such as yourself, who had issues with it. And so yeah, there you go.

Perlman: Yeah. The thing is people in general, not just in the film industry, but I think people generally think you go to school to learn a craft. But really, the most important part of going to school is the people that you meet who are also learning the same craft because those are the people you're going to be working with. It's really about the people that you meet in school more than it is about what classes you take.

Guardians of the Galaxy is in theaters now.

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