The Real Heroes: Reese and Wernick on Deadpool
Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick discuss the difficult process of getting Deadpool made, the jokes Fox let them get away with, and why they spend a lot of time thinking about funny ways to kill people.
By Christopher McKittrick.
When the fan-favorite comic book anti-hero Deadpool appeared in 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine portrayed by Ryan Reynolds, fans almost universally agreed that the character might have been called Deadpool, but it sure wasn’t the hilarious “Merc with a Mouth” from the comics.
Reynolds, a longtime fan of the character, knew that X-Men Origins: Wolverine did not do the character justice and pushed for an R-rated spinoff movie that could deliver the Deadpool that fans wanted to see on screen. Though Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick seemed like the perfect duo to write the script after their hilarious 2009 comedy Zombieland became a box office hit, 20th Century Fox, which owns the film rights for the X-Men characters, was not convinced that a Deadpool movie – especially one rated R – would be successful. It was not until test footage shot in 2012 leaked to the internet two years later to overwhelmingly positive reactions that Fox gave the project the green light. After years of development hell, Reese and Wernick finally saw their passion project realized.
Reese, Wernick, and Reynolds are not the only people passionate about Deadpool. Originally introduced in the comics in 1991 as a deadly mercenary, Deadpool gradually became a character with an irreverent attitude, a foul mouth, and ultra-violent tendencies. He also is one of the few comic book characters who is aware that he is in a comic book, and his fourth wall-breaking interactions with readers carries over to the film. All of this has contributed to Deadpool becoming one of the most popular superheroes among dedicated comic book fans.
Creative Screenwriting spoke to Reese and Wernick and the long, difficult process in getting Deadpool made, how surprised they were with the jokes Fox let them get away with, and why they spend a lot of time thinking about funny ways to kill people.
Rhett, on Twitter you called Deadpool “the toughest creative labor of your life.” Can you explain why?
Rhett: I think without question it’s the toughest. It was certainly chronologically the longest – it’s been six and a half years. I think the toughest part was the five years before we got greenlit and got rolling where we felt like we were running into the machine guns. We couldn’t convince the Powers-That-Be to trust us with this project.
We were hired in fall 2009 to write the script and it was not wildly different from what’s on the screen now – it’s probably about seventy percent the same. And yet we just couldn’t convince the regime at Fox at that time to make it. It just felt like we were crawling over broken glass.
We wrote a draft of the screenplay in pretty much every single calendar year between then and 2015, and we wrote a PG-13 version and we wrote a cheaper version. We just did everything in our power to convince them to trust us, and we just couldn’t make it happen. It was really grueling. Then during the movie itself we were on set every day and we worked in post a fair amount. It was just a really grueling labor of love, and hopefully now it will have a happy ending.
Paul: We wrote the script in 2009 and we were working on it for the last six and a half years, and it became a passion project of ours. For a lot of writers and filmmakers the little independent movie is their passion project – the one that they can’t seem to get made for whatever reason because it’s too small of a drama, or the budget doesn’t fit into some particular category. Here we were sitting with essentially a Marvel superhero comic that turned out to be our favorite script we’ve ever written and we couldn’t get it made.
It was so terribly frustrating. We kept trying to push the ball up the hill and the ball kept rolling back and crushing us. There was a point in time at our lowest – and we hit some fairly low lows on this project – where Rhett and I looked at each other and said, “You know, if we can’t get this movie made, we shouldn’t be screenwriting anymore. We shouldn’t be doing this because if we can’t get this made I don’t think we can get anything made!” [Laughs]
So when we did finally get the greenlight about a little less than a year ago when Simon Kinberg came aboard and really jammed it through the Powers-That-Be at Fox, all those blood, sweat, and tears that went into this thing finally, finally paid off.
While most comic book characters are popular, there are few characters that have the fan following that Deadpool has. What do you think makes the character so appealing?
Rhett: I think he’s a contradiction. In theory, he’s a superhero, but not really a superhero. He’s more of an anti-hero and he’s very, very fallible. He has a lot of immaturities and a lot of faults that I think we see in ourselves.
He’s a little bit of an underdog, he’s insecure, he’s self-loathing, he’s got tragedy in his life, and he masks that tragedy with comedy. He’s also very, very funny.
I think people have a soft spot for him. I think they see themselves in the character in certain fashions and he also has an irreverence that makes him fun to hang out with. We always want our characters to pass the “hang out test,” which is – whether they’re a villain or a hero – would you like to hang out with them? Are they interesting? Are they fun? Are they entertaining? Boy, would Deadpool be fun to hang out with! Maybe in short doses – maybe not for more than two hours at a time – but he would be a lot of fun to hang out with.
Paul: My guess is that guy would be giving us wet willies within five minutes. [Laughs]
One aspect I was surprised about was how much the movie focused on Deadpool’s origin, since the comics tend to keep his origin mysterious. Can you talk about writing those scenes?
Paul: Our original pitch did not involve an origin story. Deadpool had been introduced in X-Men Origins: Wolverine the year before we were hired and they wanted to spin him off from that.
While they admittedly didn’t properly do him as he deserved to be, we just felt that we should just move on from the origin story and get right into the present day. When we pitched that to Ryan he loved us and he loved our writing, but he felt that the origin story was so important to reinvent Deadpool to establish him as why he is the way he is.
It’s a tragic story of cancer and bad decisions. So we looked at the structure of the story and together the three of us sat down and we patterned out a present day story that cut between the present and the past so his origin could set up how he became who he became.
Colossus is a hilarious straight man to Deadpool in the movie. What inspired you to include him in the script?
Rhett: I think every lunatic needs a straight man for comedy to work, and Deadpool is so particular in his boundary-pushing and the unacceptable nature of the things that come out of his mouth. We thought it would be fun to provide him with a foil who’s more of a goody two-shoes and more of a prude and Colossus just seemed like that right guy.
He hadn’t really been developed in the X-Men movies so there was fertile territory there. He just seemed like the right guy to stick opposite Deadpool who is always shaking his head and thinking, “What am I doing around this lunatic?”
You both mentioned before the challenges you faced in getting this project made. What I find especially funny is that is reflected in the movie itself. There are a few jokes in the movie about the budget – particularly the one where Deadpool says you didn’t have the budget to include a third X-Men character.
Paul: A true story! [Laughs]
I thought so! Was it cathartic to be able to joke about the difficulties and challenges you went through trying to make this movie within the movie itself?
Paul: Absolutely. Deadpool being able to break that fourth wall and know that he’s in a movie – and know that he’s in a Fox movie and that Fox fucked up his character the first time and be able to make fun of that – it was absolutely awesome for us to do that.
When we wrote stuff like that we thought the studio would never let it see the light of day, but it was therapy for us so we put it in the script. But God bless Fox. The new regime of [Fox Filmed Entertainment Chairman and CEO] Jim Gianopulos, [20th Century Fox Co-Chair] Stacey Snider and [20th Century Fox President of Production] Emma Watts let us do what we wanted to do and what needed to be done to reinvent Deadpool on screen after X-Men Origins: Wolverine. When you think about it, it’s 20th Century Fox, which is a very traditional studio, and the kind of things they let us get away with is unimaginable.
I always quote the line that Rhett wrote that Vanessa says right at the end about Deadpool’s face: “It’s a face I’d be happy to sit on,” When Rhett wrote that and I read it, I loved it and it’s one of my favorite lines in the movie. But I thought to myself, “Fox is never, ever going to make this movie.” [Laughs] Again, God bless Fox for letting us do it right and letting us do it the way it really needed to be done. It was a very, very bold decision; one that took six years to make, but God bless them for making it because they let us make it right.
To ask a broader question about comedy, Fox let you make this movie at a time when many comedians and comedy writers have spoken out about people being too easily offended by humor that pushes the envelope. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Paul: The great thing about Deadpool is that he’s an equal-opportunity offender. No one is off-limits. What would otherwise be politically incorrect feels okay because everyone is a target. It’s just Deadpool being Deadpool. It really did free us up to delve into those spots that you wouldn’t otherwise do because someone would think, “Oh my gosh, how offensive!” It was freeing in that way.
One aspect of both Zombieland and Deadpool that is a highlight is that you two are so creative when it comes to the kills and action sequences in your movies. Do you guys just sit around all day and think of creative ways to kill people?
Paul: They say write what you know. [Laughs]
Rhett: I always feel like action is something that often just gets handed off to stunt coordinators and second unit directors. In the script it’s usually very vague and you hand it off to the people who know how to do it. That’s just not the way we operate. We tend to write action very specifically and try to inject personality into it.
If that means Tallahassee beating a zombie over the head with a banjo or if that means Deadpool having to take down a full army of bad guys with only twelve bullets, we do that. We describe every kill and almost down to every punch, kick, or shot in a screenplay. We do that because we just like to direct on the page.
Now oftentimes it doesn’t stay in. There will be a stunt coordinator who says “You can’t do that” or a director throws it out, but I think if you look at the action scenes that are the most memorable in our movies –whether that’s the amusement park in Zombieland, the cliffside joust in G.I. Joe: Retaliation between Snake Eyes and the ninjas, the twelve bullet sequence in Deadpool, or any number of other moments in the movie – I think all of those things are just a little bit of a staple of the way we do business when it comes to action.
Directors can either choose to use it or not, and oftentimes they’ll use a lot and add a lot of their own stuff. Tim Miller is wildly and wonderfully versed in action, so he had a bunch of his own wonderful ideas that are in there. But we do pride ourselves on sitting around and thinking about creative ways to blow things up.
The opening credits are hilarious, and it identifies the writers as “The Real Heroes Here.” Were you the ones who bestowed that title on yourselves?
Paul: We came up with that actually. We just figured that it was a fun nod to the heartache as we’ve had on this thing over the last six and a half years. Screenwriters aren’t at the top of the food chain in the feature world. They often should be, but sometimes they take second billing. It was a fun, fun way for us to poke fun at the hierarchy. We had heroic moments for sure on this movie.
Rhett: Also I feel like it was a way of being meta even in the credits. Deadpool knows he’s in a movie and we kind of wanted you as the audience to know right away that there is a writer behind this and they know they’re in a movie so they’re tooting their own horns in the credits. There was something kind of ironically funny about that to us.
Featured image by Joe Lederer.