Getting Fantastic (Four) with Avi Arad & Tim Story

Sat, July 9th, 2005 at 12:00am PDT

TV/Film
Kendall Smith, Guest Contributor

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If you're going to get off work to go talk with the filmmakers and cast of the Fantastic Four, you honestly might as well complete the experience by having it happen at the Ritz-Carlton in New York City. My previous visits to this chain of luxury hotels were always irrationally accompanied by the feeling that I was about two seconds away from being quietly asked to leave -- but not this time. It was a nice change.

It was humid and disgusting outside, but the Fox Hospitaltiy Suite was crisp and inviting, with an entire room dedicated to baskets and platters of expensive looking food and drink. A woman in a smart looking uniform was constructing some manner of intricate dessert, and I asked her what was good. Disconnecting from her construction, she said with a smile, "The Ruebens are good...but that's a sin.". I thanked her, grabbed one of the maybe fifteen Ruebens, and ate it while talking Willy Wonka with some serious geeks. It was a damn good Reuben.

We eventually ended up in a medium sized conference room with the standard panel table at the front, and maybe 50 chairs for reporters. First out were Avi Arad, head of Marvel Studios, and Tim Story, the director of the Fantastic Four.

I noticed of course that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's names appeared in the credits. Did any money end up going to the Kirby estate or his relatives?

Arad: No, there is no money going to the Kirby estate. Jack Kirby was a hand for hire like all the Marvel artists. He got credit, but not money.

This movie is opening against war of the worlds, how do you guys feel about that? Are you happy about that?

Story: I'm just happy about the movie coming out. (laughing) When it comes to thinking about the competition, it's a crowded summer and I don't think you can really guess what's going to happen. I'm just happy about the job that Fox has done, and I think we have a family movie that is light and fun, and I think this summer has been looking forward to our kind of movie.

I feel that this is quite different from early this summer, more of the movies were focusing on the dark side - Fantastic Four traditionally is no secret identities, and more of a dysfunctional family, kind of an action comedy adventure. I think our audiences are going to be similar on the top end - young men, young women. On the low end we have a hidden treasure, which is the younger kids. Really this movie was designed for everyone, and I think Tim put in a lot of fun, comedy and heart and really made it true in the way the Fantastic Four is meant to be - loving and like sibling rivalry. If you saw the movie, you should know it's there.

What was the journey like from being a rapper to this? Avi, what qualities did Tim have that made him right for the job?

Arad: You're asking me? I have no idea! (laughter) Well, my Tim Story journey started by my wife and I going to see "Barbershop." If you remember, it was ten characters in one room for two hours, and it was a lot of story, and a lot of terrific acting. For "Fantastic Four," we needed someone with a good heart, a light head and a sense of comedy that could handle a group. You can follow one character, but this one is pretty much mayhem. We have six characters in a way, and in a very short period of time we had to introduce them to the world. Then we met with Tim, and we really believe that directors put themselves on the screen in many ways, and this movie is about the good heart and you have to be light with the problems and you have to accept you destiny. And then he did one more thing that was the perfect ending to the story - he had to go home and talk to his wife about it! He was actually expecting a baby and he had to figure out - on one hand it's an opportunity of a lifetime, especially for someone who always loved the Fantastic Four, but at the same time, it's about family. When he left and said he had to talk to his wife, we just looked around and knew we got the right guy.

Story: In answer to your other question, coming from music and this and that, I started with film early, like at age twelve. In my neighborhood in high school, you either rapped or you danced, and so I was a rapper for a while. At the end of high school, it kind of came down to picking one or the other, and film was the only medium where you could use everything - you use music, you use art, drama, you use all that. So I knew from early on that I wanted to do this and at some point just drifted back to it and fell in love with it, and got an opportunity to do a film.

Tim, you were reported as saying the younger generation will say you're just doing what "The Incredibles" did, but it's the other way around. How would you explain this to the younger generation?

Story: I would just explain to them their origin. I'd say let me show you a comic book that was started about forty plus years ago, and check this out. "The Incredibles" was made in the last five years. I have a niece and nephew, and I let them read these comic books and they're into them - they almost know more than I do now. They loved "The Incredibles." At the time I was doing the movie, they didn't really know what I was doing - it was just "Oh, Uncle Tim is doing another movie." But when I explained to them what this was, they got it, and I think it's as simple as that. This is the origin of pretty much modern comic books and it's as simple as that. I tell the young people, "let me show you something" and they get into it.

What kind of pressures did you feel directing a film based on one of Marvel's most successful comics? How was the pressure different?

Story: You know, you're already walking in with an audience that expects a certain thing, and knowing that, I think with all films there's a certain pressure. The pressure really came from myself, and Avi was quick to educate me as to what I was getting into. I was able to talk to a couple of directors who have been through this history of being booed and being talked about on the Internet. Avi told me immediately, "Do not read the Internet." They told me they picked me for certain things - they picked me for story and character and this and that, and we'll support you when it comes to the FX and action, so just go out and do your thing. With that kind of support, the pressure just comes down to getting through the rainy days of Vancouver and that's where the real pressure comes through because when you're out there shooting, everybody supports you. The pressure was big, but I dealt with it.

Tell me about the action sequences. Obviously that can get really hairy - can you tell me about any casualties that happened on the set, anything that might have gone wrong?

Story: Luckily, we didn't have a lot of casualties. The casualties were probably just us being rained out and trying to - we'd come up with ideas and during things, and you're out there putting an 11 ton truck on 300 feet of the Brooklyn Bridge, and it's raining so you've got big screens over head. So yeah, the casualties were mainly us and our feelings. (laughter) Not every day was the perfect day. As far as people working on the movie, we did pretty well for ourselves.

Arad: We have great stunt teams. We take great care with it. We've been doing this for a long time with these big action movies, and we understand the pitfalls and most important - there is nothing worse that can happen on a set than someone getting injured because of careless planning.

Tim, if "Fantastic Four 2" was to happen, Avi has mentioned he'd like to see you direct it, would you be prepared to do it? Also, a few months back, you mentioned the Silver Surfer would be something you'd like to toy with. Do you still have an interest in the Silver Surfer?

Story: Well I would definitely want to come back for the second one because if you're familiar with this comic book, we've just scratched the surface. There are so many characters and so much that we have to get to like the Fantasticar. Now you can see that these guys are kind of comfortable with their powers, there's a whole other attitude coming on. To see Ben Grimm in the movie, Ben Grimm is not wanting to be what he is, but after he becomes comfortable with who he is, he's a funny character-- he's just walking around town like a superstar. So, I would love to be back. Working with Avi and the whole group was just incred-I won't say "incredible", but you know, it was fantastic. (chuckles and groans) When it comes to the Silver Surfer, we argue all the time...

Arad: ...and he loses...

Story: ...and I lose all the time. I want Silver Surfer for the third movie...

Arad: ...No. The good news is that with "Fantastic Four" and "Silver Surfer," it's always Fox. Once we tell the Silver Surfer story, there's no reason that sometime in the future not to have guest appearances and maybe connect the story, but right now we have so many Fantastic Four stories to tell, and we're just getting going with the Surfer, it's all good stuff to anticipate.

Avi, obviously the "Fantastic Four" and a lot of the movies you're producing are based on comic books, what correlation have you seen between the films and comic books? Are more comic books selling as a result of the movies? Are younger audiences discovering comic books?

Arad: That is a good question. After "Spider-Man" was actually the first time that we saw the resurgence of comics to kids. What we did this year with Marvel - we are now selling our comics in 7-11 and Walgreen's - places where a kid can get to them. One of the issues with the business was that kids couldn't get to the store. With "Fantastic Four," we actually went a step further and developed a program with the schools called "Do the Right Thing" with lesson plans, and we brought the comic books right to the kids and their reaction was fantastic. So if you go out to major chains, you will see comics designed to get younger kids to read anything. The philosophy is "read anything," but if you can read comics and have fun with it, it's even better. So when we put out movies like "Fantastic Four" that is positive, has wish fulfillment, empowerment and is on the soft end of what's right, we support it with comics written for that.

Can you talk a little bit about the casting, especially with Jessica and her being blond - I haven't seen the comics, I don't know, maybe Sue Storm is blond in the comics. But can you talk about casting of the five main roles?

Story: What's cool about movies like this, and Fox has been a champion of this, they're just looking for the best cast. Whoever is best for the role, they'll pay for them if they cost a lot of money. So in this case, we were just looking for the best cast. Luckily, we were able to find the six people who were best for the parts.

When it comes to people like Jessica, she just came in and she was right. She is blond because of the character in the comic, but we just really look for the best cast. With all of these guys, they were all just such a find. I don't know who else could play these parts better than they could. They were so good that they just blew us away.

In making the decision about the focus of the film, how much did you feel you could vary from the comic, and how did you decide on striking a balance between the four characters?

Arad: First, the movie is very true to the comics. When you talk about comic origins, when you publish a book since 1961, trust me, there is no scenario that wasn't written by someone at some time. What works very well in our movies historically is to connect the villain to the heroes. The only thing I keep hearing about and getting hate mail about is "Victor was on the spaceship"! Firstly, it was a huge spaceship - we needed more people on it. I'm kidding. The idea was to let us get to know Victor as a man first - he's human, he has human flaws, he's connected to the team and therefore the conflict between the hero and villain becomes personal. The whole reason Tim is directing this movie is relationships. It's very true to the comic. Eventually Doom looked exactly like Doom. It was most important to connect him to the team up front. All the rest comes out of the story. So, for how much time each one gets - you need Ben to drive the idea that being a hero is sometimes not the best thing that can happen to you. You need Johnny to interact with all of them. You need Sue to be the glue of the team. The script ends up determining screen time. It's not like we sit around saying "Jessi needs another scene." The story tells you who is going to be at the forefront of a certain story within the movie.

"Fantastic Four" Director Tim Story
The fan base is huge, fans have been waiting for decades to finally have this kind of movie. How much of the fan base influenced you at all - did you preview it for some of the fans, did you make any changes afterwards? One other question. Being a New Yorker, we love to see New York, but you went to Vancouver for a lot of the film!

Story: Originally, the fan base wasn't too happy with me, so obviously I don't listen to them. My true gauge for what I was doing was my knowledge of the comic book and growing up on it, I felt pretty good about my position, and really Avi and Kevin over at Marvel. We really discussed what we needed to do what was best for the fan base, meaning the fanboys. Avi and Kevin have done so many of these movies that they get it, they know every nuance that I need to know in terms of that.

At the same time, what's cool about all the guys I worked with was that we all started to realize we were doing a movie for a mass audience, and you have to realize there are people out there who don't know who Sue Storm is, and they're astronauts? They did what? They don't really care. They just want to see a good movie, and if you can draw them in, I think you'll be okay. We always respected the fan base, but at the same time, we just wanted to make the best movie we could.

And Vancouver?

Story: It's just expensive to shoot in New York.

We've gotten better now!

Story: We were blowing up stuff. We wanted to shut down the Brooklyn Bridge - you can't do that. Avi probably knows more about that than I do.

Avi: Well, if you look at the movie, it is in New York. That's why it's a movie. The whole idea behind this industry is to create a reality for the imagination and vice versa. If I were to tell you where certain scenes were shot that you were certain were filmed in New York, you would be absolutely shocked.

I have to say one more thing about the fan base. I have to remind all of you because many of these places I know by now - if you remember the first week when we announced Bryan Singer for "X-Men," not only was it negative, it was actually despicable. It was exactly the whole idea and philosophy behind the X-Men was desecrated by the fan base. That's why I was telling Tim, "don't read it, don't pay attention to it." There is a constituency of ours that pride themselves on building on the negative. I can give you some names, but I have no reason to make them think they are more famous than they think they are. (laughter) The point is, we have to pick up the talent in what we believe is good for the movie. The only place where we do listen to the fan base is in the characters themselves. If you go to the movie and say "Chris Evans is Johnny Storm" then that means Tim Story is a great director and Chris is a great actor, and the fact that Jessica Alba was not born blond, it doesn't mean anything. Time goes by, things change - let's change with them. At the same time, poor Jessica had to wear blue contact lenses because it was such a big deal about Sue Storm having blue eyes. Who cares? But you know what, alright, we tip our hat to it. But this is where the fan base - their anxiety and love of the characters gets them overboard, sometimes bordering on militant. So, I start my day reading all of these sites and using all sorts of hexes to fight off these guys, I use Dr. Strange for that, he helps me. As far as the talent, they should concentrate on making a good movie, and they made a fun movie.

After the prompter ended the official question time, Tim and Avi stayed in their seats for another minute of pictures and autographs. When asked about "Spider-Man 3," Avi replied that we'll be seeing that in May of 2007. After their handlers escorted them away, a few minutes later Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, Michael Chiklis, and Julian McMahon took the stage...more on that in the coming days.

 
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