Wolverine: Two Writers, One Character
Mark Bomback and Scott Frank on exploring the vulnerability of Marvel’s indestructible mutant
by Christopher McKittrick
As with many big-budget blockbusters of today’s multiplex-ready “summer tentpole” movies, The Wolverine—the sixth film in 20th Century Fox’s Marvel Comics X-Men franchise—went through a lengthy preproduction period and a number of creative directions. Originally announced a few days prior to the opening of the first Wolverine spinoff film, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, by late 2010 Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) had written the screenplay and Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) was set to direct. However, in March 2011 Aronofsky left the film and he was replaced by James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma). In part, prompted by star Hugh Jackman, The Wolverine places the immortal mutant Logan in Japan and is inspired by the 1982 Wolverine comic book mini-series written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by Frank Miller. Mangold sought a new draft of the script and Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard, Unstoppable) was hired to rewrite the screenplay. Later, veteran screenwriter Scott Frank (Get Shorty, Minority Report) did another rewrite. Bomback, and later Frank, had to face the challenge of writing the familiar character into a situation that had not been done in previous X-Men films, including removing Logan’s immortality.
A superhero film like The Wolverine seems suited for Bomback’s franchise film experience. After writing two genre films early in his career, The Night Caller and Godsend, his next credited screenplay was 2007’s Live Free or Die Hard, which brought Bruce Willis’ John McClane character back to theaters after a twelve-year hiatus. After that success, much of Bomback’s credited work has been franchise films and remakes, including Race to Witch Mountain, the Total Recall remake, and the upcoming sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Bomback also did some uncredited work on the script for Rise). Between those he wrote a pair of original screenplays, Deception and Unstoppable, the latter of which fits among the high-energy, explosive films he has become known for. In an industry that has become increasingly dependent on franchise movies, Bomback has proven to be one of the most sought-after screenwriters to breathe creativity into sequels and remakes. Not satisfied with simply retelling stories, Bomback writes his screenplays to place familiar concepts in unfamiliar territory which challenge expectations of audiences.
In contrast, Frank’s most recent credits include a political thriller (The Interpreter), a crime thriller (The Lookout) and a family film (Marley & Me). However, his varied credits demonstrate his versatility as a screenwriter throughout his career. His first credited work was a 1988 episode of the popular nostalgic television series The Wonder Years. In the ensuing two and a half decades, Frank has written comedies (Plain Clothes, Get Shorty), dramas (Little Man Tate), thrillers (Dead Again, Malice), science fiction (Minority Report), and the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Out of Sight. One thing he had not done prior to The Wolverine is write a screenplay for a comic book superhero movie. Yet one of the reasons why Frank remains a successful screenwriter is his willingness to step into unfamiliar territory in order to work with top filmmakers—his screenplays have been filmed by Oscar-winning directors Steve Spielberg, Sydney Pollack, and Steven Soderbergh. Frank has also directed films himself, including the upcoming A Walk Among the Tombstones, which he adapted from the Lawrence Block novel.
Despite their different influences and approaches, Bomback and Frank’s visions for the screenplay were united by the specific Wolverine story director James Mangold wanted to tell. Creative Screenwriting interviewed Bomback and Frank separately about the challenges of rewriting the screenplay of a franchise film, revitalizing the Wolverine character, the films that influence them on this project and throughout their careers, and how The Wolverine was influenced by a Clint Eastwood Western.
CHRISTOPHER MCKITTRICK: How do you normally approach working on a script you didn’t originate?
MARK BOMBACK: The nature of being a screenwriter, particularly on films of this size, is more than one person is going to work on the script. I’ve been rewritten and I have rewritten other writers who I respect tremendously. It’s like a race where you pass the baton to the next runner. When I approach it, I desperately try to preserve those elements of the script that are doing justice to the idea, and I try to be as respectful as I possibly can. However, ultimately your duty is to the finished film, and if you find yourself going in a direction that is making some elements of the screenplay you originally read no longer viable, there’s danger in trying to keep things alive that are going to feel inorganic in the final script. So I try to start a dialogue with the writer who I’m taking over for. Again, I’ve been rewritten and have had the next writer give me a call and talk through the issues they were grappling with or I was grappling with. At the end of the day, you’re coming up with the blueprint for the house. You can design an amazing bathroom, but if it’s on the wrong side of the house you have to move the bathroom. A lot of this is simply working up the best instructions on how to make the film and not get hung up on any one particular element within it. You have to keep what’s best for the movie as your only guide.
SCOTT FRANK: Usually other people are involved—actors, directors and so on. The first approach is to have a conversation about what work needs to be done. Maybe the script needs to go in a different direction because they’ve cast a different type of actor, and they want to change it. Maybe another movie came out that already traveled that territory and they need to change a certain aspect of the plot. Maybe there isn’t a good enough love story. It depends on what the issue is with any given screenplay. The approach is to always have that conversation and make sure that everybody sees the same issues and is game for the same solution. Also, you’re trying not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. You’re trying to preserve what works about the script that you’ve read.
You have to look at this differently than my adaptations or my original scripts in that my work on Wolverine was a rewrite. I’ve rewritten forty movies, sometimes for credit, sometimes not. I came onto this movie just to rewrite the script, which is very different from starting from scratch from a book or on an original. I was the third writer, so it’s a very different approach. There was a director attached to the material, as is usual in this case, and so the director has a very specific vision, and I came on to help the director realize that vision. When you’re adapting something from scratch, you’re doing it for yourself at least initially.
MCKITTRICK: Were there any challenges in working within an established franchise?
BOMBACK: The challenge is a lot of people have a vested interest in the franchise and have ownership of the franchise, whether they’re such huge fans of the franchise that they don’t want to see it marred in any way or they literally own the franchise and don’t want it to fall apart. There’s a lot more anxiety that you’re going to make a misstep and you’re going to be the one responsible for destroying something that everybody has been keeping alive and audiences have been looking forward to. Some franchises—the Chris Nolan ones, the Peter Jackson ones—remain with one person at the helm, but with something like the X-Men universe and Wolverine in particular, new people work on each movie and there is a lot of anxiety. “Did we hire the right people? Are they going to stay true to what it is that we already loved about this?” That’s probably the biggest challenge, but the biggest reward is that if there is something that pre-exists that you’re a fan of, you get to write in the voice of a character you’ve already grown to love. It’s such a huge honor and it’s so much fun as a screenwriter. Especially with Live Free or Die Hard, where I grew up with the character of John McClain and I got to decide what that character was going to do or say. It’s tremendous, but it’s a lot of responsibility so you take it very seriously.
FRANK: I didn’t think about it. I just tried to focus on the story that Jim Mangold wanted to tell, and I how I could help him realize it. Jim was really intrigued by the idea of Wolverine losing his powers. I thought the studio might give us a problem, but they also seemed to embrace it. So I was focused on making the script work. I was aware of certain rules that Jim would keep me informed about, and we weren’t going to have a lot of mutant characters in it so that didn’t matter. We were really focused on what he wanted to use me for, which was the personal story.
MCKITTRICK: This is the sixth time Wolverine has appeared in a movie—and the sixth time he’s been portrayed by Hugh Jackman. How did you confront the challenge of keeping the character familiar but also doing something on screen that hadn’t been seen in the other films?
BOMBACK: On a purely dialogue level, you have the huge advantage of being able to hear the actual actor and the actual character voice the line that you’re working up. You have a much better sense of how a line would play than you would if you didn’t know who was going to play the character or if you were inventing the character as you were going along. That certainly informs how you go about writing certain dialogue. With The Wolverine we were very interested in what we could do with his character that hasn’t been done in the other films either because Wolverine was part of a larger ensemble, or, as in the first Wolverine film, there was such a burden of back story and trying to establish where he came from that to an extent superseded the ability to delve into what it means to be him and live as him. I worked with Jim on another project and his pitch to me was that we’re really making a character-driven story in a sincere way. He said, “We’re really, truly going to explore the character and what it means to be Wolverine.” Not what it means to become Wolverine, but what does it mean to be Wolverine indefinitely. You couldn’t really do it without the films that preceded it to inform what he’s gone through, but you also need to make a film that will stand alone. If someone in the theater has never seen those films, you need to craft the story in a way that she or he can still get invested and not feel like they’re missing out.
FRANK: To be honest, I haven’t seen all those movies, and I didn’t feel like I had to. I sort of felt like “Okay, I get it.” [Laughs] I was really focused on working with Jim [Mangold], trying to figure out how we could tell a somewhat complex story and make it more personal this time. It was more about that than any sort of awareness of what came before. Obviously there are things involving Jean Grey and we were using pieces of that to a degree, but for the most part I have to say that I was really just thinking about this story—and probably foolishly—as its own story. I just kept thinking of him as a character and the dilemma he faces as a character, and that he lives it every day. That is far more interesting to me than the action sequences. He’s a sadder, more brooding character, and I tend to respond to that more.
MCKITTRICK: Were there any original X-Men or Wolverine comics that influenced you?
BOMBACK: I had this Wolverine omnibus that I was working off of called Inside the World of the Living Weapon. It’s a compendium of all the highlights of Wolverine, which I found really useful. Of course, the Chris Claremont and Frank Miller material really was incredibly helpful. It’s almost like having an early set of storyboards that weren’t beholden to anything other than their own artistry. Anytime I was looking for inspiration I would just look through the Claremont/Miller comic. Jim is a huge fan of the art and the set pieces in the comic and in the film there are definitely some visual references to those. While we do a lot of things with Logan’s character that’s in the Claremont/Miller comic, there’s a loneliness to him in that storyline that I found really helpful. Obviously he was always a loner in the other films and distrustful and struggled in connecting to others, so I’m not going to pretend we were mining brand new territory. But there’s a maturity and a resignation he seems to feel in the Claremont/Miller comic that proved really useful in thinking about him for this. There’s a bit of a “lion in winter” thing going on that isn’t happening in the other stories.
FRANK: As a rule, I don’t like superhero movies—you get sick of the person who’s invincible, and it gets boring after a while if nothing can hurt them. I was never really interested in the genre before, but Jim did two things: One, he said that he wanted to do the movie in the tone of The Outlaw Josey Wales, which I
thought was interesting. Two, the only comic book I read was Old Man Logan, which I just loved. I loved the attitude of the character, I loved the look of the comic, I loved everything. A third influence was the script I read—I read Mark Bomback’s rewrite of Chris McQuarrie’s script—and I liked the idea of a man who starts off isolated and is a loner and has intentionally removed himself from society. I thought that was a really interesting way to start. For me, the other thing that intrigued me in the script I read was that in the last five minutes of the movie, Wolverine lost his super powers, though he quickly got them back in time to defeat the antagonist. But I thought, what if he lost his super powers on page twenty?
The movie I kept thinking about more than Josey Wales was Witness, where you have this guy in a weakened condition who has to hide in a culture that he’s not necessarily that familiar with, but at the same time, he’s there with a woman and there can be a quiet part of the story. There are real characters in terms of the family, and in terms of what’s happening in Japan, you can have an interesting plot that doesn’t involve saving the world. It became a much more personal story where a man whose immortality has become a curse is now confronted with his wish coming true and how that affects him. There are all kinds of stories and character possibilities that have nothing to do with being a superhero that are interesting to me. That was the only way I could get into it because the genre itself wasn’t appealing to me. It’s not that I don’t like superheroes, I just never got into it. Some of the comic books I looked at are extraordinary, and I’m always amazed by what’s being done in the world of comics and graphic novels. I just can’t say that I’m a fan or that I read them to any great degree. But in my own career, one reason I love to rewrite is it enables me to work in all sorts of genres and do things that I might not normally do for myself. I learn a lot doing it, and I get to work with other filmmakers.
Part of what was so attractive of doing The Wolverine, outside of working with Jim, was the idea that I’ve never done a movie like this before. I’m rewriting Assassin’s Creed right now, and what I love about it is that I’ve never adapted a video game before and it has its own set of challenges. Especially in the world of rewrites, I love trying to do something completely different if I can. That’s how Marley & Me happened. It was a challenge and I loved every minute of it because it was sort of about my own family and I did it for my oldest daughter. We used to walk our dog every night and talk about it, and she read the book and so when it came my way I was intrigued. I realized it wasn’t about the dog, it was about how messy marriage is. I could completely relate to that because I have three kids and the history of our family is told through our dogs, and I love that. It was so different than anything I’ve ever done before that it was really quite a lot of fun for me.
MCKITTRICK: Where there characters or concepts you wanted to use but were unable to, whether because of studio decree or because they just didn’t work in the story?
BOMBACK: I love Rogue and I just think that there’s something about this idea that Rogue is tremendously empathetic but incapable of safe human contact. That always moved me and I thought that’s what really got to the heart of what makes the X-Men franchise so unique. So I was trying to do something with Rogue in the script. I even had a set of ideas that the old man possessed a version of Rogue’s power and that was going to be indicated by a white stripe in his hair. Eventually it became very goofy, and I threw it out because I started realizing throughout the script that it became more problematic than cool. It’s no accident to me that in the first X-Men film the first two mutants that you really see who have a connection are Wolverine and Rogue. There’s something special between them, so I was trying to bring Rogue into it, but it just didn’t get there. I regretted there wasn’t a way to figure it out, but when I look at the film now, it would have stuck out if we tried to shoehorn her in there just because it was another character from the universe.
MCKITTRICK: Are there any films or scripts you find especially inspirational for your writing, either for The Wolverine or your writing overall?
BOMBACK: I started working with Matt Reeves on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and in the way that sports fans are able to talk about team stats we’re able to do that about a few iconic films—the tried and true ones like The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas—that we can both quote without any effort whatsoever. I don’t even realize when these films are informing what I’m doing. Then there are more obscure films that struck a chord with me. There’s this André De Toth film, Pitfall, that really impacted me a lot. I’m one of these people who is a Woody Allen obsessive, and I really learned more about how to tell a story from him more than maybe anyone else. La Dolce Vita is the one film I’m waiting for my son to be old enough to appreciate, because it’s also a film that I really worship. None of them have anything to do with the kind of stuff I write, but they’re films that are so well-told. What I respond to most are stories that could only be movies. The Godfather is a great book, but it’s one of those exceptional movies that is just truly better as a movie. Goodfellas is based on a book, but not to discount Nick Pileggi’s book, because it’s a great book, it’s a much better film. They’re being told on a cinematic level that’s the only the way that story can be told to give you that exact sensation. For The Wolverine in particular, The Searchers was really useful. I know Jim was really into The Outlaw Josey Wales, so we thought about that script a lot.
FRANK: It’s hard to say what influences my writing because it depends on the movie I’m writing. I love movies from the ’70s. I love Sidney Lumet, Don Siegel and Alan Pakula. I love old Clint Eastwood movies, I love Unforgiven and Dirty Harry, but I also love Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Serpico, Klute and The Parallax View—these are all sort of films that I sometimes reference in my own mind. I love the vibe of those movies, and I’m constantly trying to make movies that probably would’ve looked better in 1973 than now.
I don’t know how those movies connect to a superhero movie per se, but I know how it connects with the character of Wolverine. He’s a man who’s a loner, extremely competent at what he does, but isn’t necessarily proud of it. I think that is universal. I think really good genre movies are about more than the genre. I remember the first time I saw Gladiator—what I really admired about it was that it wasn’t a gladiator movie. It rose above the genre. It was ultimately a very, very personal story. What they do sometimes with superhero movies is that they say, “Who can be the villain? What are the stakes?” They talk that way instead of creating a story from character.
MCKITTRICK: Why is it that Westerns seems to relate to the Wolverine character and this movie?
BOMBACK: It’s a particular kind of Western involving someone who has reached a point in his life that he is exhausted by the violence he’s seen, and yet is such a product of that violence that it’s hard to untether him from it. To an extent they’re both films that involve someone trying to reclaim their sense of purpose and trying to right a situation into which they wandered. It’s the iconic narrative of when the stranger wanders into town, finds something is amiss, and tries to rectify it. The towns themselves have a desolate quality and seem to be harboring lots of secrets that the stranger has to uncover over time. That’s a bit of a crossover between Noir and Westerns.
The other film I should mention that I’m a massive fan of is Chinatown. That film is a huge influence on me and one of the reasons why I take pride in calling myself a screenwriter. Chinatown has that same element of scratching the surface of something and then uncovering something much darker underneath which ultimately seems to mirror what the character himself is going through. There’s a fantasy involved with that storyline that something is broken in us we’re longing to have fixed and we hope that one day we’ll stumble into some situation that will test our mettle and through repairing that situation, we will have unwittingly repaired ourselves. That to me is what we were trying to do with The Wolverine.