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Meet the Reader: Celluloid Heroes

At the Second Annual Hero Complex Film Festival, Warren Beatty, John Favreau, Nicholas Meyer, Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mike Mignola, and Richard Donner gathered to celebrate filmic (Wrath of Khan), comic (Superman), and screenwriting (Tom Mankiewicz) heroes. Ray Morton was there.

This past weekend (June 9-12), I had the pleasure of attending the second annual Hero Complex Film Festival at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Hero Complex is a popular blog edited by Geoff Boucher for the Los Angeles Times website that celebrates science fiction, fantasy, and superheroes on film, television, and in comics, games, and other media. Hosted throughout by the engaging Boucher, the four-day film festival brought the blog to life through a lively combination of screenings and personal appearances.

Things got off to a colorful start on Thursday, June 9 with a screening of 1990’s Dick Tracy, followed by an extended Q & A with star-director Warren Beatty, who expressed his desire to one day do a sequel.

Friday was Star Trek day. After a screening of 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Boucher discussed the making of the film with its director and uncredited screenwriter Nicholas Meyer. In the course of the conversation, Meyer described how he came to the project having never seen the original television series upon which it was based, how he generated the picture’s script during a whirlwind 12 day writing session, and his tense relationship with Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. Boucher then moderated a discussion with three members of the creative team behind 2009’s Star Trek: screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman and co-producer Damon Lindelof, all three of whom are currently at work on the screenplay for that reboot’s sequel. Orci, Kurtzman, and Lindelof all cited Meyer’s film as the touchstone for their own work, as did Trek director J.J. Abrams, who appeared on tape to pay tribute to Meyer (who, he revealed, came to his Bar Mitzvah and gifted him with an annotated collection of the Sherlock Holmes stories), proclaiming that The Wrath of Khan was “the best Star Trek movie ever made.”

Saturday’s program began with an autograph session by Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, who designed the poster for this year’s Festival and signed copies for fans. The day’s main event was a screening of 1978’s Superman: The Movie, which was then followed by a lively appearance by the film’s director, Richard Donner, who told the audience how he first received the offer to direct the film while sitting on the john and that he accepted the job based on a desire to protect the Man of Steel from the film’s European producers, who he felt didn’t understand the character. The director also paid tribute to the film’s late star, Christopher Reeve, and its composer, John Williams. Donner was followed onstage by comic book creators Geoff Johns, who began his career as Donner’s assistant (and told a very funny story about the time he accidentally destroyed Donner’s car) and is now DC Comics' chief creative head, and Jim Lee, who is DC’s current co-publisher. The two discussed the company’s plan to revamp of its entire universe, a process that is set to kick off this September. The evening concluded with a screening of 2006’s Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut.

Sunday’s festivities kicked off with a screening of Pixar’s The Incredibles, followed by an extended preview of the studio’s upcoming Cars 2. Next up was the world premiere of the new trailer for the upcoming Captain America: The First Avenger, which led into screenings of Iron Man and Iron Man 2. Sandwiched in between the two features was a Q & A with the film's director Jon Favreau, who was joined (in a surprise appearance) by Iron Man himself, Robert Downey Jr. Favreau also brought along a 10-minute clip from his current project, the highly anticipated Cowboys & Aliens, starring Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford.

Peppered with a number of entertaining side events, including a William Shatner impression contest, the unveiling of a life-sized statue of Christopher Reeve as Superman (sculpted by British artist Mike Hill), and numerous prize giveaways, the festival was great fun throughout.

In addition to producing hours of enjoyment for the geek in all of us, the festival also provided much to engage all of the screenwriters in the audience:

  • Richard Donner paid tribute to Superman’s screenwriter, the late Tom Mankiewicz, making it clear that it was Mankiewicz’s reworking of the film’s original overlong and unfocused screenplay to transform it into the love story between Superman and Lois that made the movie possible.
  • Kurtzman, Orci, and Lindelof addressed an issue of great relevance to screenwriters in this era of endless remakes, reboots, and reimaginings when they described the challenge they faced crafting a concept and screenplay for Star Trek that allowed them to make ample use of all that has come before while also providing them the opportunity to take the property in new and original directions (a problem they solved by introducing an alternate timeline which allowed the original series and films to stand while also giving the team the chance to craft all new adventures as well).
  • As always, Nick Meyer provided some wonderful food for thought for his fellow screenwriters as he mused about the art and the craft. On what gets his creative juices flowing: “I live for a story.” A good story is one “that once I tell it to you, you understand why I wanted to tell it to you.” “The artist is not the best judge of his own work. We’re people who put messages in bottles. We hope someone will come across [the messages] and be able to decipher them.” On the tendency of today’s films to spell everything out: “[Modern] movies do more and more, but provide less and less … You should leave stuff out [and allow the audience’s] imagination [to complete] the work of art.”

The very energetic Damon Lindelof offered up what I thought was the most intriguing and inspiring line of the weekend. He was speaking specifically about the challenge of taking on Star Trek, but I think his sentiment lays out a worthy challenge to all of us that do creative work: “[It] wasn’t worth doing unless there was a chance of catastrophic failure.”

At a time when our favorite craft has lost so much of its daring and (true) innovation, I couldn’t agree more.

Live long and prosper!