With films like THE CELL (2000), POSEIDON (2006), I AM LEGEND (2007), THOR (2011) and the OLDBOY remake (2013) to his name, Mark Protosevich is one of the busiest and most sought-after screenwriters in the business. I spoke to Mark about his early, formative filmgoing experiences, getting his start in the film business and working on those five screenplays. In part two we spoke about POSEIDON, THOR and the 2013 OLDBOY.
Read Part One.
How did you get involved with POSEIDON?
Jeff Robinov, who was President of Production at Warner Bros. at the time, had been my agent when I first established myself a screenwriter and we were very close. Jeff called me up one day and asked me if I was interested in writing the remake of THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972). I confess my initial gut reaction was ''no'', but after some thought, I decided to do it. It had been a few years since THE CELL was released and in the time following I had seen three projects come very close to getting made, but they all fell apart, which was extremely disappointing. One was a military/political thriller called 'World War Three'. The producers were committed to making it and were actively searching for a director when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred and everyone agreed – including myself – it would be grossly inappropriate and morally offensive to go forward with a project that dealt with a similar incident. The second was an adaptation of 'A Princess of Mars', when it was set up at Paramount, that Robert Rodriguez was going to direct. I met with Robert in Austin and he had his art department working on designs and the whole thing was very thrilling – but it never came to fruition. The third was I AM LEGEND, which of course did eventually get made, but this was when Will Smith first came on board. So at this time, I had spent years on projects that I was really proud of, only to see them go nowhere. When Jeff offered me POSEIDON, I thought, ''This movie is going to get made, no matter what'', and that’s what propelled me to say ''yes''. I was so frustrated and desperate to see something actually filmed, that I wanted to do it. Also, it was a very sought-after assignment at the time and to be offered it was incredibly flattering and a bit of a coup.
Were you a huge fan of the original film?
I was eleven years old when I saw it for the first time – in its initial release – and I absolutely loved it. I remember watching a 'making of' documentary on TV at the time and seeing the upside-down sets and thinking the whole production was just the coolest thing ever. That said, it didn’t really linger with me into adulthood as other films of the time did, films like THE EXORCIST (1973) or THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971). I think my feelings about it are more affectionately sentimental and nostalgic more than anything else.
What were your priorities and goals in writing the remake?
When I agreed to write the remake, I watched the original for the first time in years and very quickly realized that the project was going to be much more difficult than I had at first thought. The original film is very much of its time. I believed that simply re-creating characters based on those played by Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, and the others would be a mistake, as would duplicating the key theme of 'Man v. God'. I strongly felt that it wouldn’t play for a contemporary audience and advocated creating an entirely new set of characters. My goal was to approach it like John Ford’s STAGECOACH (1939), one of my favorite films. I wanted to take a very disparate group of characters, keep them in a confined space, introduce a serious threat, and then see what happens when they interact with one another under extreme duress. I wanted characters of different classes, different races, and different backgrounds. In my drafts the Kurt Russell character was as an ambitious and wealthy African-American man about to mount a campaign to become governor of Georgia. Needless to say, a lot changed. For research, I took a transatlantic cruise on a luxury liner and based a lot of my script on my experiences. But, for example, when I wanted to include an elderly character – because there are a lot of elderly people on cruises - the studio told me that an 'old' character was unacceptable. I had a teenage boy who is wounded in the disaster and needs to be carried by stretcher by the others, but I was told that no teenage male actor of any significance would agree to be portrayed as weak and ineffectual. The most interesting part of my script, for me, was presenting a real moral question… If you are in a group of people trying to survive a disaster, what do you do with those who slow you down because they are old, wounded, or traumatized? Do you take them along or do you leave them behind? Such human dilemmas are what attracted me to the project, and I tried hard to include them, but they were not greeted with much support.
How happy are you with the finished film?
I’m very grateful for the opportunity to have worked on the film, but ultimately, what I learned from my experience with POSEIDON was that just because a movie will most likely be made, or that other writers are clamoring to do it, or that it might be very lucrative, I should listen to my gut. Since then I have tried – if possible - to only take on projects that mean something to me personally, that strike a creative chord, or because the project offers an opportunity to work with an actor or producer or director that I greatly admire. Even though I treasured the chance to work with Wolfgang Petersen – he’s an absolutely terrific person, I admire him a great deal and we still stay in touch – POSEIDON was not a great experience for me. I confess the material never truly resonated with me. I had my own challenges with it, but more than that, I felt creatively stifled during the development process. I felt like every idea I had was challenged, questioned, and scrutinized. Never in my life have I felt more like someone was standing over my shoulder – literally, in some cases - reading what I’m writing, and saying, ''Why are you doing that?'' My first draft was met with disappointment by the studio – rightfully so - and I was quickly informed that they would be hiring two teams of other writers who were going to do their own drafts. When offered the opportunity, out of sheer pride I wrote another draft myself, the version of the story I had always wanted to write if I had had complete freedom – a draft I called my ''fuck you'' draft – and THAT ended up being the draft that was green-lit by the studio! Jeff Robinov called me up and said, ''Thank you.'' I’ll be the first to admit that taken as a whole the draft was flawed and far from perfect, but it was interesting – at least to me. I did one more pass, but after that Warner Bros. just started throwing other writers at the movie. I swear, I think there were at least a dozen other writers involved over the course of the film’s development and shooting. What I’ll never forget is that when I finally saw the film at a test screening, I felt like a Mack truck had hit me. Yes, what was onscreen resembled what I wrote, but in so many other ways, it was like looking at something utterly alien. If it were a person I had created, the skeleton was there, but the flesh, the hair, the personality? I didn’t recognize it. The absolutely wildest thing is that there’s not a single line of dialogue in the film that was written by me, yet I got sole credit! Not one of the other writers on the movie even sought credit. I don’t want to sound too disparaging of the film, though. I think the visual effects are terrific and I think the movie works in a weird way as a horror film, with the ship and the sea trying to kill a cast of characters. But it’s certainly not the movie I imagined it could be and I don’t feel personally connected to it.
What was the biggest challenge of writing THOR (2011)?
When I was growing up, Thor was my favorite comic book character. In fact, I was obsessed with him. I remember that before I moved out to L.A., I sold most of my comic book collection, but I kept all my Thor comics, and I still have them. When I heard that Marvel was thinking of doing a THOR movie, I had my agent contact them. I developed a very detailed pitch for the film and they really liked it. I was greatly enthused about doing it and it was tremendous fun writing the script. At the time, though, Marvel was in a state of flux. They were just starting to set up an approach to the different properties they had, and had only recently begun acting as a full-fledged production entity. When I was hired, the film was going to be a stand-alone movie entirely set during Viking times. When Thor was cast out of Asgard, he found himself in a world in which people believed in Thor, Odin, Loki, etc, as their gods. When I handed in my script, however, Marvel's business plan had changed because of the success of IRON MAN (2008), and everything became directed toward an AVENGERS (2012) movie. It was decided to approach Thor in a more conventional, contemporary way, and the whole Viking aspect was jettisoned. Other writers were brought in with the idea of bringing Thor into the modern world. In my initial meetings with Marvel, they had been hesitant about that. In fact I recall one executive in a meeting commenting that, ''The last thing we want to do is HERCULES IN NEW YORK (1969).'' The version that was made is a lot of fun, but it's a different vision than mine. Mine was much more about Norse mythology and Viking life and how they intertwined. Most of all, it was a story about an Old Testament god becoming a New Testament god. I think what Marvel is doing now is very smart, admirable, and obviously successful. If there is an auteur behind the Marvel films it is Kevin Feige, the head of production. I can see his influence in all the movies.
What aspects of your script were retained in the final film?
The Thor-Loki-Odin dynamic, Thor's arrogance getting him cast out of Asgard and Loki having a hand in Thor getting cast out were all from my script. In my version, when Thor was cast out he went from being a god to being a slave in the Viking world. He had to attempt to prove his value and get his hammer back. The story dealt a lot with Nordic mythology and was an epic quest more akin to LORD OF THE RINGS (2001-03) than what you would expect from a superhero film.
How did you get involved with writing the OLDBOY (2013) remake?
From the first meeting to the film's release, it took five years to get the film made. I became involved because of Will Smith. I got a phone call out of the blue from his assistant, asking if I could hang around to accept Will's call in five minutes. When I spoke to him, Will said ''Mark, I want you to write my next movie. It's a remake of OLDBOY (2003). Have you seen it?'' I told him that I loved the original film. He then said, ''We've got lots of ideas, but what you need to do is come out to L.A. and meet the director. It's Steven Spielberg.'' Not a call you get every day!
A few days later I was sitting down with Steven and Stacey Snyder in their office at Dreamworks. We got along well and talked about what the film could be over a series of meetings. I was hired to write a very detailed treatment. I re-watched the original film a number of times and other films with similarly strange plot reveals, like VERTIGO (1958), DIABOLIQUE (1955) and OBSESSION (1976). Revenge thrillers like POINT BLANK (1967) and GET CARTER (1971) too. What I had here was a great opportunity, not only to work with Will again and Steven for the first time, but to write in a genre that I hadn’t before, but greatly love. I thrilled to the challenge of getting inside the mind of the lead character and I became obsessed with the project. When you write a treatment, that's when you really begin to see a film in your head. In a lot of ways, it's the most difficult part of the process because you really have to have a very concrete idea of the structure of the scenes and the motivations of the characters. When I finished writing, I was tremendously excited about the project.
How do you think a Spielberg OLDBOY might have been different from the Spike Lee OLDBOY?
You know, I have never really thought about that. But the one thing I will say is that in the meetings with Spielberg, he was always bringing up that we couldn't go soft on the material, and that if we were going to do the movie, then the final revelations in the original had to be similar or even more troubling in our version. Steven's son is a big fan of the original film and Steven said in a meeting, ''He told me that if we don't do the ending he's not going to speak to me again!'' That's where his head was at at the time, but it's all conjecture because Steven was out of the picture before the actual script was even written.
How crushing was it when the Smith/ Spielberg OLDBOY fell apart?
There were many complicated deal issues that arose while I was writing the treatment, but right before I handed it in it looked like everything was moving forward. After I submitted it, I got a call about three hours later from one of the Dreamworks executives. My initial thought was, ''Wow! He's already read it and is so excited about it that he had to call me right away!'' But he said,''Mark, I'm so sorry. Everything's fallen apart. Steven's pulling out of the project, and because of that, Will's pulling out too.'' I've had a few soul-crushing days as a screenwriter but this was a very bad one. I was incredibly dispirited because I had been so passionate and excited about the project.
How did you end up returning to the project?
What happened was that the producers still wanted to go forward. At that point they had no one attached, but I had become so invested in the project that I wanted to go forward too. The treatment that I had written had gotten a terrific reaction, and I felt very strongly that I had a vision of the film in my head – it’s hard to turn back when you’re really seeing the movie in your head. I worked with the producers on about three different drafts of the screenplay, and after sending it out to actors and directors, Josh Brolin and Spike Lee expressed interest. Spike was looking for more of a studio-based film, something that he could just direct, and he really liked the script. He and Josh had also wanted to work with each other too.
Were you at all intimidated at the prospect of remaking such a cult classic?
If my agent had called me up and said ''Are you interested in writing a remake of OLDBOY?'', I would've turned it down, because the original was so powerful and unique and has such a devoted following. The reason I got involved was because Will Smith and Steven Spielberg were involved and wanted me to write it. The interesting question that arises though is, ''When they pulled out, why didn't I pull out too?'' The answer is that on a creative and emotional level, I had simply become too invested in the material. I was obsessed and felt I could write something really special and personal. I wasn't thinking about how the Internet film community would react. I'm very proud of the script that I wrote and I stand by my work. The critical response to the film was all over the place, but there were a few reviews that I’ll always treasure, especially Richard Brody’s in the New Yorker. The box-office was incredibly disappointing and I really didn't see that coming. I don't think I fully realised how revered the original film is, and how it would affect the response to the remake. When I was going into this, my templates were THE DEPARTED (2006) and TRAFFIC (2000). If you look at the source material of those films (the Hong Kong INFERNAL AFFAIRS trilogy, 2002-03, and the UK TV mini-series 'Traffik', 1989), the story, the plot material and the characters are all virtually identical, and specific scenes are identical. But the approach is different from the originals. The fans of those originals are not as rabid as the fans of the original OLDBOY, and so those remakes never suffered any backlash and weren't compared unfavourably to the originals. Of course there are things I could've done better, but I think the remake is a good film, and no matter what, I’m very proud of my screenplay.
I spoke to Mark by telephone on 18th December 2013, and would like to thank him for his time.