The odds are stacked against our good guys in Marvel’s new movie Ant-Man, where thief Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) gets recruited to wear a shrinking super-suit by inventor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) in order to foil Hank’s power-mad former partner, Aaron Cross (Corey Stoll). For director Peyton Reed, who was brought on at the last minute after original helmer Edgar Wright parted ways with Marvel, the stakes were nearly as daunting. Reed sat down with Vulture to explain how he brought his intimidating project down to size.
Beyond the fact that you came on after Edgar Wright left, what is it like to board a Marvel movie where so many of the effects-heavy sequences had already been storyboarded and pre-visualized?
It’s tricky. Coming onto any movie is stressful. Ant-Man was a speeding Thomas the Tank Engine that was going down the track, and my biggest hope was to make my own version of Ant-Man while retaining the stuff that was amazing about Edgar and [co-writer] Joe [Cornish]’s conception of the story. But there were giant scenes that were boarded and vizzed up the wazoo that we threw out. There were other scenes that were boarded and vizzed that we still augmented heavily.
There’s an early scene where Cross is talking about the legend of the Ant-Man, and on monitors behind him you see brief glimpses of Hank Pym’s adventures. Were those moments taken from a pre-visualized scene that you cut?
That was from another scene, yeah. We shot this opening sequence with Hank Pym that took place in Panama, and I think it was in Joe and Edgar’s original draft. It was beautiful and it was fantastic, but the more we started cutting the movie, the more it felt tonally different and disconnected from everything else. There are maybe four or five shots that remain from that sequence — it felt like a vestige from this other thing. There was also this giant car-chase sequence that went away, I suspect because there’d been such an amazing car chase in Winter Soldier. So those things were cut, and those were pretty elaborate sequences that had been totally boarded by Edgar.
There’s a line that’s been the button in a lot of the trailers and commercials where Hank Pym says, “I need you to be the Ant-Man,” and Scott replies, “Is it too late to change the name?” I noticed that line is gone. Why?
That was in my director’s cut, and a lot of the cuts we tested and, of course, it was all over the place in the marketing. I cut it for two reasons. One, I felt like the joke had been played out. It was everywhere. Secondly, I didn’t like the idea that Scott Lang would make fun of the name. The better version of it is the scene later where he’s asked, “Who are you?” and Scott says, “I’m Ant-Man. What, you’ve never heard of me?” He’s owning it while at the same time he’s realizing it’s absurd.
Which is the tonal tightrope you walk as a director, right? I figured you had cut it because by the time it happens in the movie, the audience should be invested in the notion of Ant-Man. You’re past the point of winking at it.
Exactly. That’s actually a weird similarity between Ant-Man and Bring It On. When I told people I was making a competitive cheerleader comedy 15 years ago, they were like, “What? That’s ridiculous.” And with Ant-Man, they’d say, “He shrinks and controls ants? What?” But once people see the movie, hopefully they get what makes it fun and see that you can get invested in this thing.
Ants are gross, but I actually liked looking at the ones in the film. Did you have a discussion about how real the ants should look?
I’m glad you said this! During visual-effects and character design, we really were trying to give them enough recognizable characteristics while de-emphasizing other things, like the fact that real ants have a lot of hair and a lot of spikes. It was something we talked about a lot, de-grossing them and making them palatable. In the first conversation I had with [Marvel Studios head] Kevin Feige, he said, “Listen, I’ll level with you: Ants gross me out. I can’t stand them, they’re disgusting.” And I went, “But you’re making a movie about ants! What are you doing?”
I’ve heard that you beefed up Evangeline’s character, Hope Van Dyne. In your movie, she argues quite convincingly that she ought to get her father’s supersuit instead of Scott.
That was something that was important to me for a number of reasons. One was that we had Evangeline, and she and I talked a lot about what we wanted to see in that character. And two, having really strong female characters has always been important to me. Bring It On is really sort of about female empowerment, and Down With Love — that’s its whole reason for being! There’s so much stuff that’s being written in the geek press asking where the female heroes are, and it’s a legitimate question, although I can’t say this was a reaction to what was being written. Something Evangeline and I talked a lot about, and that Marvel was totally supportive of, is that Hope’s arc is every bit as important as Scott’s arc. I love that Hank Pym has this problem to solve so he recruits Scott for it, but the answer has been under his nose the whole time, and it’s Hope.
It was regarded as kind of a coup that Marvel landed Michael Douglas to play Hank Pym, but he seems to be having a blast in this film.
Michael is absolutely a star, and a Hollywood legend. The fact that he wanted to do this kind of movie and embraced it without looking down on it was amazing. For me, as a kid reading Marvel comics, Hank Pym was one of the major guys in that world, and he had been missing from the Marvel Cinematic Universe for a long time. To be able to introduce him and also set him in the context of Howard Stark and S.H.I.E.L.D. was great. Michael’s also an Oscar-winning producer, and I think it was cool for him to immerse himself in this process. It’s a process I wasn’t really sure about when I came on, to be honest. I wanted it to be fluid and I wanted Marvel to be open to weird things, but I didn’t know if they would [be] because these are gigantic, expensive movies. I was thrilled to find out that they crave weird and different. Their biggest fear is repeating themselves.
Guardians of the Galaxy should be proof that weird and different can work for Marvel.
There’s a talking raccoon and a tree in that! It’s mental, a swing for the fences that could have been a disaster, and the fact that it worked is a testament to Marvel and the way that [Guardians director] James Gunn thinks. I think Guardians gave them this extra level of confidence that they can be eccentric, and that their movies can be absolutely comedic but still deliver on the stakes and the action and the stuff that these movies require.
How did it feel when Gunn wrote a gushing post that called Ant-Man his “favorite Marvel film since Jon Favreau’s Iron Man“?
So, I have to tell you … we had the premiere the other night, and I saw James at the after-party and he said, “Oh my God!” — but I don’t always trust what people say at those parties. They’ll say, “Oh yeah, it was great,” but it’s a completely untrustworthy environment! Then when he tweeted and he wrote his Facebook post, I almost started crying. I’m such a huge fan of James and of Guardians, so to read that was so incredibly nice and meaningful to me. It’s rare in Hollywood that directors actually get to interact with each other, and that’s one of the coolest things about Marvel, to walk down the hall and it’s like, “Oh, there’s Scott Derrickson, going off to do Doctor Strange! Let’s talk about it.”
How does it feel now that Paul has gone on to reprise Ant-Man in the upcoming Captain America: Civil War?
It’s like your girlfriend broke up with you and now she’s going out with this very high-profile guy. Paul called me the day he started shooting Civil War, and he was like, “I love that we did Ant-Man, this self-contained thing, but now that I’m doing these scenes with people like Captain America, it’s really like I’m in the Marvel Universe!” He was like a kid, man. I told him, “That’s awesome,” and when I got off the phone I was like, “Dammit.”