This is amazing. One of the best modern superhero movies had no script, according to actor Jeff Bridges in this interview at InContention.com.
The 2008 hit Iron Man, starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Bridges apparently relied on the actors and director Jon Favreau improvising scenes out based on a plot outline.
“They had no script, man,” Bridges exclaims. “They had an outline. We would show up for big scenes every day and we wouldn’t know what we were going to say. We would have to go into our trailer and work on this scene and call up writers on the phone, ‘You got any ideas?’ Meanwhile the crew is tapping their foot on the stage waiting for us to come on.”
“You’ve got the suits from Marvel in the trailer with us saying, ‘No, you wouldn’t say that,’” Bridges remembers. “You would think with a $200 million movie you’d have the shit together, but it was just the opposite. And the reason for that is because they get ahead of themselves. They have a release date before the script, ‘Oh, we’ll have the script before that time,’ and they don’t have their shit together.
“Jon dealt with it so well,” Bridges continues. “It freaked me out. I was very anxious. I like to be prepared. I like to know my lines, man, that’s my school. Very prepared. That was very irritating, and then I just made this adjustment. It happens in movies a lot where something’s rubbing against your fur and it’s not feeling right, but it’s just the way it is. You can spend a lot of energy bitching about that or you can figure out how you’re going to do it, how you’re going to play this hand you’ve been dealt. What you can control is how you perceive things and your thinking about it. So I said, ‘Oh, what we’re doing here, we’re making a $200 million student film. We’re all just fuckin’ around! We’re playin’. Oh, great!’ That took all the pressure off. ‘Oh, just jam, man, just play.’ And it turned out great!”
Bridges says those “suits” keep telling him, “It’s just a comic book. Maybe we’ll bring you back.”
He also talked about it on his own site in his Making Iron Man photography book, which includes some great images of one of the “script sessions”.
As I said, we were lucky to have Jon as our director. His skill as a writer/improvisor was welcomed, indeed. While the story of Iron Man was pretty much in place, the actual scenes often had to be written on the day we shot them. Once the panic subsided, it was kind of fun, really – sort of like making a multi-million dollar student film. After all was said and done, I think we came up with some good stuff.
Yay! Improv saves the day! (Sorry for the not-so-stealthy plug.)
Now Hollywood, that doesn’t mean fire all of your screenwriters. This worked because fantastic actors and improvisers were able to pull it off by collaborating with a uniquely talented director who also had a knack for improvising. So, cool trick, but use with discretion.
What’s interesting is that this method of movie-making is eerily similar to the mythic “Marvel Method” of making comics in the 1960s. Marvel Comics’ primary writer and editor then was Stan Lee, who became so overwhelmed writing nearly every book put out by the publisher that he started to similarly jam with his better artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. According to legend (some of it still hotly debated today), Stan and the artist would talk out a story idea for an issue over the phone or in person. Stan would then write up a 1 to 2-page plot outline, which would be fleshed out and expanded into a full 23-page (sometimes more) comic book. Stan would then go back and fill in dialogue and narration captions. Eventually Stan got so overworked, and the process became so reliable, that Stan let his best artists turn in full issues of their own stories with plot cues written in to help Stan script. While this resulted in the wildly successful heyday of the Fantastic Four and Amazing Spider-Man comic books of the ’60s, this process led to a lot of intense debate and resentment over who should be credited (and receive royalties) for what.
Now looking back to today, IMDb lists Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway as the screenwriters for Iron Man. Did they just write the outline? I’d be curious to hear their version of this story.
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