/Film Interview: Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick Talk ‘G.I. Joe: Retaliation’ Rewrites and Protagonist Shuffles
Posted on Wednesday, March 27th, 2013 by Germain Lussier
In the months between its first planned release date and now, G.I. Joe: Retaliation has been surrounded by a ton of questions. What was the fate of Channing Tatum‘s character, Duke? Was the film delayed for reasons other than a 3D conversion? How would director Jon M. Chu handle his first massive, effects-filled blockbuster? Most of those questions get answered the second you sit down to see the movie. For the rest, we turned to the guys who had all the ideas first: writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick.
Reese and Wernick, best known for Zombieland and definitely not pictured above, first pitched Paramount their take on a G.I. Joe sequel several years ago and have since had to rewrite the film to feature multiple different main characters and incorporate whole new storylines. We talked all about that, as well as what it’s like to jump into an existing franchise, that amazing mountain ninja scene, how Michael Bay changed the movie as well as Destro’s fate. Plus, we talked Deadpool, Zombieland, Cowboy Ninja Viking, and Micronauts which they’re developing with J.J. Abrams.
It’s a revealing interview, which you can read below.
Beware, there are is a major spoiler for G.I Joe Retaliation below. However, it’s just the spoiler that’s been rumored for months so I’m leaving it in with a big, bold warning.
/Film: You guys come into this franchise after the first movie, which you had nothing to do with, and I’m really curious about what guidelines you were given. Are you told “These are the characters you can use. These are the characters you can’t use. We need so and so to die. We need you to end up here”? Take me through a little bit of that process.
Rhett Reese: Well, we were largely given a blank slate, because when we came in we were auditioned against a bunch of other writers and I think they just wanted to hear everybody’s take without any previous preconceptions, so we came in and decided to use the Zartan posing as The United States President as our leaping off point. Beyond that, we just went from there. We decided what characters we thought would be most integral to a sequel and which characters we thought we had seen enough of and some new characters we hadn’t seen at all and we pitched them our vision and we ultimately ended up getting hired. So there were very few restrictions early on. Certainly the brand brings with it certain restrictions, like we were clearly not going to not include Snake Eyes and Strom Shadow and Cobra Commander, some of the key characters, but beyond that we were free to do what we wanted.
/Film: When Jon came on board, what kind of input did he have on your script? How much did it change? I’m thinking obviously with your pitch you’d want Duke in there and we know what happens to Duke - it’s sort of out there anyway – but that wouldn’t be something like “I have a great idea, let’s do this to our biggest star,” so where did that come in?
Paul Wernick: Well I think Channing [Tatum] ultimately wanted a limited role in the sequel and we thought “Great, let’s just kill him. Could we kill him?” Everyone was like “Yeah, let’s do it.” We talked to Channing and he was kind of excited about it. He had never had a death scene before in a movie. You know, you don’t kill a major superstar. So I think it was exciting for him as well.
Reese: It also allowed us to establish a revenge plot. We thought we needed to kill someone important in order to raise the stakes and make sure you really wanted the GI JOES to get their revenge on the Cobras.
/Film: And Jon’s input, once he comes on with your script?
Wernick: Well he was very integral in Joe Colton, the Bruce Willis of it all. He was really pushing that hard and that was a great call on his part, because Bruce is such an icon and there’s no better person to play Joe Colton than Bruce Willis. Then just in terms of development, I think ultimately there were some budget restraints just in terms of us trying to trim a little bit out of the budget. The third act originally played out in New York at the UN and we ended up in New Orleans and so we had to retool it a little bit, but that was more the setting than it was the actual set piece. What else would you say?
Reese: Jon just brought it to life essentially and wonderfully. I mean he has a real connection to the toys and to the characters and it clearly shows.
Wernick: As do you.
Reese: Yeah, as do I. My very first home movies I made were of GI JOE, my GI JOE characters all battling each other.
/Film: The small GI JOES?
Reese: Yeah, the small ones and you know I was in love with the comic at the time. We decided to pitch Paramount the idea of bringing an old issue of the comic called SILENT INTERLUDE to life and SILENT INTERLUDE was one issue of the GI JOE comic that contained no dialog and it was essentially a scene up in a monastery where Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow do battle in this Himalayan monastery. We decided “What better way to pay tribute to that than to just carve out a chunk of the movie right in the middle of the movie about ten minutes or so and not have a single line of dialog?” That became our monastery scene.
Wernick: But that’s difficult to write. I mean that was… You think like “How do writers write action?” You write it like you would any dialog scene. It’s all step by step written out and kind of choreographed over the course of a scene and a scene with no dialog, that was probably 13 pages.
Reese: Yeah, and we originally intended to have, or we pitched Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow jumping off the mountains and using squirrel suits to fly down the mountainside and when we pitched it, Lorenzo [Di Bonaventura] was working on…
Wernick: It was about three years ago…
Reese: Yeah, he was working on TRANSFORMERS and he said, “It’s too bad, but it’s in TRANSFORMERS,” so we went back to the drawing board and back to the internet and we discovered this guy named Dan Osmen, who was a rock climber who invented something called Rope Jumping and basically what he does is he climbs a cliff face or a mountain and he fixes ropes on the way up and then he jumps off and uses those ropes to arrest his fall. It’s almost like he is swinging off the side of the mountain like Tarzan. He ended up dying doing this exact thing, like his rope broke and he died, but before he died he made all of these videos of himself doing it and we looked at it and we thought “That’s the way they are going to get down the mountain. They are going to fix ropes on the way up and then use them to swing down and we will do a real fun Tarzan and Jane sequence against the mountainside.”
Wernick: And I remember when Lorenzo said “Oh no, we are using those squirrel suits in TRANSFROMERS,” we were so depressed. We were like “Oh my god…” They hadn’t been tapped in movies yet and we were watching all of the videos and it was just awesome and then about three days later Rhett was scouring the internet and he’s like “Check out this YouTube video with this Don Osmen guy” and I’m like “Oh my god, that’s phenomenal.”
Reese: It was a blessing in disguise.
/Film: Yeah, that scene is freaking great. Was Roadblock always the main character?
Reese: No. The very first draft had Duke as the main character and then we had a draft with Flint as the main character and then we had a draft with Roadblock as the main character.
Wernick: Then we have a third draft with Joe Colton worked in. Joe Colton was, again a Jon thing, and that wasn’t worked in until later drafts.
Reese: So we really had four major drafts with three protagonists at different times and then Joe Colton, so you can imagine it took a long time and was really intricate.
/Film: And you talked about how you jumped off with the president and that’s where the first movie leaves you, but the first movie also takes the two most interesting Cobra Villains and says, “You can’t use these.” They have them captured. That must have been something that was a little frustrating. How did you guys deal with that?
Reese: Because the first movie ends with the Cobras getting vanquished, it was a little bit like STAR WARS to THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK where we wanted the second movie to be about the villains striking back and so that began with them in prison, at least Cobra Cammander and Destro and so we just thought “We have to stage a prison break, so what’s the most entertaining prison we can think of? What would be the greatest super max prison we could think of?” So we devised this prison that was really far underground and used chemicals to keep prisoners in stasis and then we figured it would be really fun to break them out and how do you do that? Well you use Storm Shadow in disguise and then you use Firefly.
Wernick: And interestingly, Destro stayed in prison, because of a budget… you have to CG his mask the whole time and that was a budget constraint. Then we said, “Well what are we going to do with Destro?” It was like “Leave him down there.” (Laughs) “Too expensive.”
/Film: Now you guys have tons of other stuff on your plate. One thing we keep reading about is how awesome your DEADPOOL script is, but that it’s so awesome we might never see it. How would you guys describe the script that’s out there right now that’s so R rated that we can’t…
Reese: The way I would describe it is to say it’s the best script we’ve ever written and probably ever can write. To us it’s the pinnacle of what we are capable of and we are super proud of it. It will definitely pose a risk, just because it’s an R rated DEADPOOL and most comic book movies aren’t, but we just think it’s a phenomenal opportunity and we’ve got a wonderful star in Ryan Reynolds and a wonderful director in Tim Miller and we’ve got some wonderful test footage that he did for it. The script is sitting there, we just want it.
Wernick: We really tapped into the character. They say, “write what you know.” It’s ultimately a self hating….
Reese: (Laughs) Exactly. “Irreverent, vile lunatic.”
/Film: Have you talked to Mark Millar at all about it? I know he’s running this sort of…
Reese: We’ve been in touch with Mark, because he’s come on as a consultant for Fox, so we are talking to him and we are….
Wernick: We are beating that drum. It’s the one project that we are so passionate to get made and we are doing everything we can. We have a few tricks up our sleeves still.
Reese: We are living a game of thrones or trying to.
Wernick: You can find the script online actually. It leaked and there are downloads that you can read it yourself.
/Film: And you guys are fine with that, because you’re happy with it?
Wernick: As fine with that as we could be.
Reese: We really couldn’t be. I mean we didn’t have a choice, like it leaked and we couldn’t’ do anything about it and for a minute we were appalled and then the reaction was great, so we were excited and now I guess it doesn’t really matter.
Wernick: Wait until you’ve seen Tim’s test. It’s brilliant.
/Film: I guess once it gets the green light we will see it at Comic Con or something like that.
/Film: What’s your involvement with the ZOMBIELAND TV show and how will its success make or break a sequel?
Wernick: Well, we are running it. We wrote the pilot. We shot it in Atlanta about three weeks ago, and we are cutting it together now and we will see it to series on Amazon.
Reese: We hope. I mean they have to approve it.
Wernick: Knock on wood. It airs online soon with all of their other pilots and so…
Reese: Amazon is doing something unprecedented. They are taking all of their pilots and they are airing them all simultaneously on the same day and they are going to use the next month or so as a litmus test to decided which ones to move forward on and they are going to know exactly how many people stream each one. It’s not as though there will be only one winner or whatever, they are going to green light as many as they see fit, but it really is a chance for the fans to come out and support ZOMBIE LAND and check it out. If they like it, they can sort of vote with their computer mouse.
Wernick: It’s pretty kickass.
/Film: Cool. I’m a huge fan of the movie and I’m excited to see that. The last two quick things on your other projects, I saw Mark Forster yesterday and he’s a little busy with his one movie, but is your movie going to be next for him?
Wernick: We hope so. COWBOY NINJA VIKING based on an Image comic about a guy with multiple personality disorder and I would say it’s at Universal. We are hoping it’s Mark’s next movie, and we are very excited about it.
Reese: Knock on wood.
/Film: Last thing, you’re developing MICRONAUTS with Bad Robot. Now that that Abrams guy is kind of busy, what kind of conversations have you had with JJ and the team there?
Reese: We developed the script pretty carefully with JJ before we wrote it. We’ve written it. Now we are just waiting to see it work its way though the system and see where it ends up. It’s cool, for lack of a better word.
Wernick: It’s not what you expect I guess is the best way to put it.
Reese: It’s different and it’s cool and we hope that gets made at some point. So we will see.
G.I. Joe Retaliation opens March 29.