The Venom films are all about unlikely symbiosis: Between man and the gooey alien being that gives him superpowers but wants to eat brains, between romantic comedy and horror, and as it turns out, between screenwriter and movie star. The first film, starring Tom Hardy as both Eddie Brock and the growling voice of the symbiote Venom, was written by a coterie of writers, but much of its signature humor came from the collaboration between him and screenwriter Kelly Marcel. She’s best known for writing Saving Mr. Banks, though she’s had a career working on a variety of studio projects (including, famously, a version of the Fifty Shades script), and has long been friends with Hardy; he got a tattoo of the word “skribe” in honor of her re-write work on his film Bronson. For the sequel, Let There Be Carnage, Marcel gets sole credit for the screenplay, and splits credit for the story with Hardy himself, since they worked together through hours and hours of video calls hashing out their ideas for the project. With the movie out in theaters, Marcel spoke with Vulture over the phone about her and Hardy’s unique collaboration, how the movie functions as an odd couple story, and that sequence in the credits.
I’ve read that you started collaborating on the script for the sequel over FaceTime with Tom. What was that process like?
We started talking about it on the set of Venom, just if there was a second movie, what would that movie look like. As soon as we knew we were definitely making Venom 2, we started working together on FaceTime. He was in London, I was in L.A., and we spent many hours discussing what the various storylines could be. We were obviously bringing Carnage into the movie, because we had put Woody Harrelson into the coda at the end of Venom. But we kept landing on The Odd Couple, because we had landed on the idea that Venom and Eddie had been living together for awhile, but they’re very different people. What does it look like when you’re forced to live with somebody who literally rents a room in your body? That was what would make us giggle.
Tom has an amazingly creatively agile brain, so he can spitball ideas for hours. There was a lot of that, a lot of laughing. Then we whittled it down to what we thought it was, and then we spent in-person time in London with our producer Hutch Parker, holed up in a hotel room stress-testing the storylines we loved most.
Speaking of the Odd Couple dynamic, it feels like the movie has an almost classic Hollywood comedy of divorce structure, where it’s about two people who are together, break up and then get back together having learned something. Was that an intentional reference?
It’s like The Seven Year Itch. They realize they’re better together. They drive each other crazy, as roommates often do. I think that probably happens a lot in the pandemic as well, so it’s quite timely. They’re locked inside and they can’t go out. So I guess it does follow that rom-com model.
When you’re spitballing, do you talk in terms of specific films you want to reference?
It runs the gamut of every film ever made. We knew that the tone that had worked for the first movie was comedy mixed with horror. We knew the Venom-Eddie relationship would be our light point, because obviously the dark would come from Carnage and Cletus. So you’re spitballing horror ideas at the same time you’re talking about rom-com ideas. So it’s very much on purpose.
Cletus also has this relationship with Shriek, played by Naomie Harris. You knew you were introducing him at the end of the first movie, but when did you decide to have her character as well?
Tom went through the canon of Marvel characters that we are able to work with at Sony and found Shriek. She was the first character we landed on before we knew what the story was going to be, because we thought she was a fascinating female supervillain, and she is connected to Cletus in the comics. So we brought her in first and then built the world around that love story. The movie is a love story, in a lot of different ways, with Cletus and Shriek and also Eddie and Venom. You think that Cletus and Shriek and Carnage are symbiotic because they want the same thing and Eddie and Venom are not because they want different things, but you learn by the end of the movie that symbiosis doesn’t look the way you think it should. In actuality, Venom and Eddie work much better than that threesome.
How did you decide on the rules of how Eddie and Venom’s symbiosis would work? For instance, in this movie they’ve settled on Venom surviving through eating chicken brains and chocolate.
In the comics, brains and chocolate both contain phenethylamine — which takes take after take to say — which Venom needs to live on. The chocolate and all of that was just fabulous, because it introduces Mrs. Chen [the shop owner played by Peggy Lu] and we loved Mrs. Chen and wanted to bring her back. So it was just very handy that we had her and had a supply of chocolate.
It’s great when she gets to be Venom.
She was so excited! She was excited to come back for the second movie and then found out she gets to be Venom, too.
The movies will occasionally reference the dynamics of symbiote existence off in space. For instance, in the first one, Venom says he’s a loser on his home world and in this one, when he sees Carnage, he goes, “Oh no, it’s a red one” and references billions of light-years of knowledge. How much do you get involved in the world-building and imagining what that existence is like?
We have to adhere to the rules somewhat, because we know that certain things can harm them, like fire and sound. The billions of light years of knowledge is also true. But in the way we play Venom, we carefully said that he’s basically a janitor on his planet. He doesn’t necessarily have the billions of light years of knowledge. We can have him behave the way he behaves, which is like a pouting toddler. We tend to stick to the rules of the comics as they are laid out, but I don’t think there’s any place in the comics where they’re like, “Oh my god, a red one is the shit.” We just thought it would be funny if Venom was like, “Oh no, we have to go now.”
How do you approach writing the dialogue between Eddie and Venom? I’ve heard there is a lot of improvisation involved.
It goes in stages. We hash out the idea together and outline the film. Then the dialogue is me. I take the script and go away and write all the words. Then, once the script’s written I come back to Tom and he will then perform the scenes for me as Eddie and Venom and I can see what’s working.
Then, there’s also this other part, which is that when we are on set, we often change lines also. It works pretty well for us, because Tom has to wear an earpiece to hear Venom talking to him in a scene. He comes in in the morning and records all the Venom lines, they get Venom-ized, and then he gets an earpiece, goes onto the set, and reacts to the Venom he’s hearing in his head. What that earpiece also does is gives me and [director] Andy Serkis a microphone in our respective video villages. I can see if a line isn’t working, or I’ve thought of something that might work better, I can throw that line into Tom’s earpiece and he’ll react to it live in camera. He’s brilliant. He’ll just keep going through the scene.
Were there particular lines or scenes that were particularly influenced by that?
There’s probably lines in every single scene, to be honest. When Eddie’s saying, “Come out, I’ll let you eat everyone,” the improvisation was him pointing at the priest and being like “except that guy.” Because now Reece Shearsmith is visibly in the room so you’re like, We’ve got to refer to the priest, which we didn’t do on the page. Then, afterwards, the priest gets his head bitten off and there’s a line we threw in that was like, “He’s with God now,” though that got cut. We throw lines in that could be fun to keep in but sometimes don’t make it.
When Eddie and Venom split up, there’s a scene where Venom goes off to a rave and he refers to it as his “coming out” party. He’s talking about how he wants love and obviously it’s in San Francisco so it feels like there’s a queer element. But what were you thinking about approaching that scene?
Everybody needs love — all sentient creatures. For that particular moment, it was borne out of needing to be able to get Venom into the world as himself without the whole [place] going, “Oh God, it’s an alien!” We thought, pre-pandemic, that the movie would probably come out at Halloween, so wanted to do a carnival of the dead, a big Halloween-y celebration so we could put Venom in that environment and people would assume it’s a costume. We wanted him in a celebration so we could see him be free. Obviously, he takes it too far because he gets onstage and addresses an entire audience about the cruel treatment of aliens. Look, there’s always lines that have secondary meanings in these movies. We wanted to address some stuff in a fun way in that scene. But ultimately, Venom is all love, so it’s just true to his character that he would say that out loud. Those words felt like the right words for Venom at that time.
Speaking of his loving nature, there’s the tension of the fact that Venom still wants Eddie to get back with Michelle Williams’s Anne while Eddie wants to give up on that relationship. How did you think about how that dynamic would play in relation to the other romantic arcs in the movie?
We’ve always said it’s actually Venom that’s completely obsessed with Anne. Eddie knows it can’t work. How would they all be together with an alien in his body? It’s not to say that he doesn’t love Anne, but he loves himself more. He’s a selfish dude who just wants to write his novel and win a prize. But Venom genuinely cares for Anne.
There was a moment where we thought about putting Venom and Anne back together, but she very clearly wants a safer life and stability. She has that in Dan [Reid Scott], who I really do love. He’s so funny. We love messing with Reid. So the realistic way to go was to have Anne go with Dan but again get dragged into the chaos of Eddie’s life. We knew we wanted to see She-Venom again, albeit briefly, and we knew it was important to have some resolution to Anne and Eddie’s relationship, particularly as it relates to Venom.
There’s a line at the end of the first movie where Anne goes, “I’m sorry about Venom,” and I just had to ask where that came from in the writing process, because it’s such a funny way of switching back into a rom-com, “sorry about your ex” moment.
We were always walking that strange tonal line between rom-com and also out and out scary stuff. Literally people didn’t know what to make of that. It was like, what are they doing? But I think because we’ve doubled down in the second movie they’re like, “oh, they are trying to do this weird hybrid and trying to make a batshit movie.” Which is what we are doing! That “I’m sorry about Venom” does take from the sweeter rom-com side of the coin. It’s like a cop buddies and the partner being killed in the line of duty and the guy being like “I’m sorry about Rick, man.” But she knows! Anne knows! She’s not stupid.
Well in this one, I love when she leans in and is like, “Can I talk to Venom?” It’s like she’s on Inside the Actors Studio.
Yeah, exactly, and when she’s talking to Mrs. Chen in the shop like, “You get out there.” She always knows he’s there!
In the mid-credits sequence of the film, Venom and Eddie seemingly get shifted into the Marvel Cinematic Universe through the multiverse for the next Spider-Man movie. How much did you have to coordinate with the people running that whole enterprise in writing the scene?
I’m not allowed to go on the record as saying anything about the scene that happens in the credits, but I will say that I did write it. Because it’s still a Venom and Eddie scene, and so yes that gets coordinated with all the people who work on that scene. I’ll write it, everybody will read it, they will have their notes, and I’ll rewrite it. But the scene and the writing came from the Venom-verse. It’s really bonkers, trying to do all that stuff and keep it secret.