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Interview with “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” Screenwriters Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick

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Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have been kicking around Hollywood for several years, having created the faux-reality series The Joe Schmo Show and the short-lived William Shatner sitcom, Invasion Iowa. In 2009, they struck a chord with audiences with their smart horror-comedy script, Zombieland, which has a TV spinoff in the works. They’ve both been tapped to write the scripts for Venom and Deadpool as well; they’re white hot. They also have a movie in theaters right now. You may have heard of it. It’s called G.I. Joe: Retaliation.

Reese and Wernick were nice enough to talk to our own Brian Walton about working on G.I. Joe, writing for the big-name stars, and about the future of the land of zombies.

NERDIST: What initially drew you to want to take on G.I. Joe: Retaliation?

RHETT REESE: Because I was a huge G.I. Joe fan as a child, had all the toys, read the comics, and just immediately, when I heard that the job was available, thought that it would be something I would really adore doing. And the first movie-making I did as a young kid was with my little G.I. Joe figures. I tried to do a stop motion G.I. Joe movie with a video camera. That was a mistake. (laughing) But in any case, that’s what appealed in it to me and then Paul kind of had some different reasons…

PAUL WERNICK: Yeah, for me it was (that) I have a seven- and a nine-year-old and it was the opportunity to make a movie that they could get excited about and see. They haven’t seen Zombieland; they won’t until they are about 13, and it’s just the excitement that’s buzzing around our house right now over the movie and the premiere and all the toys that are out and my son and daughter are playing with their action figures – their Roadblock and Snake-Eyes action figures. It’s just… it’s awesome for me to experience it through their eyes. So, that is most of what appealed to me about it.

N: One of the best things about the movie is that you injected a very natural sense of humor, whereas in the first movie, the humor came from the characters trying to be cocky and just kind of silly. But you let the personalities of these characters shine through and let them be human beings; how did you go about infusing the characters with that?

PW: Yeah, I think tone is such a hard thing to find and to translate from brain to page to screen and Jon [Chu, the director] did it brilliantly, I think, and for us it’s just, I think we have a particular voice. Comedy is part of that voice – the ability to bring lightness to, at times, a dire situation. We always think it heightens the laughs and all the emotions when you’re laughing at the same time that you’re also fearful and concerned and on the edge of your seat. So more than anything it was just, I think, from the writers of Zombieland, I think that that’s what people expect, and we are pleased when it actually works.

RR: I think also we tried not to have the humor come from cockiness and quips and things like that, and tried to have a little bit more come from character. Every one of the characters has their own point of view. Firefly likes to blow stuff up, so we wanted his comic sensibility to be more just about the destruction. We viewed Zartan as like a teenager who’s given the keys to the Lamborghini, the Lamborghini being the United States of America; like that guy who’s really enjoying being a bad president, and then someone like Walt Goggins brings a real sadistic kind of snarky, sarcastic sense of humor to the character of the prison warden, so we just tried to write humor that matched the characters.

N: I’m so glad you brought up Walton Goggins because he was such a highlight in the movie, and it came as such a surprise. You secretly wished that he survived the whole thing for a sequel.

PW: Well Storm Shadow survived the first. You thought Storm Shadow would be dead after the first one, right?

N: Yeah, exactly.

PW: Walt may – the prison warden may be back.

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N: But, that leads to my next question: How excited did you get as writers being able to, seeing some of the people that were getting named and things liked that that you were going to be able to go through and revise specifically for these talented people?

PW: Oh, it was just awesome. Again, you have the opportunity to put words in Dwayne Johnson’s mouth and Bruce Willis’ mouth and Jonathan Pryce and Walt Goggins. I mean, those are great iconic actors of our generation, and it’s just thrilling, it’s just absolutely thrilling to see the words come to life.

RR: Yeah, I mean, we went to visit Bruce Willis in his hotel suite in Beverly Hills when we were trying to convince him to do the movie, and we walked out, he invited us out onto the balcony to look at the view and I could spy my skyscraper across Beverly Hills where I live and I said… I pointed it out said, “Hey, Bruce, that’s where I live right there” and I said “Right in that building” and he said, “Which building?” and right next to my building is Fox Plaza, which is better known as the Nakatomi building in Die Hard. It was literally right next to my building, so I said, “Well,” I said, “Bruce, do you see the Die Hard building? I’m right next to it.” And he turned to me and he smirked. He gave me one of those great Bruce Willis smirks and he said, “You mean Nakatomi Plaza?,” and I just got chills from the top of my head to the soles of my feet and I thought, “What an opportunity to get here and think about writing lines and scenes and a character for someone who is as iconic as Bruce is.” It was really, really just thrilling.

N: You had to have been aware that, to a certain degree, a lot of people were holding their breath about what the movie was going to be like. How does that feel, to have seen the completed movie and know that it’s something people are responding well to?

RR: It felt great. We suffered a ton of indignity as the rumor mill started churning after the last-minute push. What we knew and what everyone will learn to know is that there was not a frame of film shot from the decision to push until now; it was entirely to convert to 3-D and perhaps to get it out of the way a little bit of the summer marketplace. But internationally, 3-D means so, so much, and that grew over the course, from the time we shot until the time we released, so 3-D was a no-brainer. And I know that it was against the grain to push at such a late date and again all the rumors surfaced because of it, but, the good thing is, the movie is now out and we’re proud of it, and hopefully it does well and it’s a decision that we all look back on and realize was the right one.

N: You’ve made names for yourself in Hollywood as go-to script doctors and as guys who will take on scripts others might shy away from; what do you say to writers who get stalled in that Hollywood process where they know what they’ve created is decent and good, but it’s getting held up?

PW: Well, it’s so hard to get movies made. This day and age, studios are making fewer movies. They’re taking much fewer risks and I think… what do you say? You buckle down and push harder. I mean, you write the best script you can write, and your job is to convince the folks that make the decisions to trust you and trust your instincts and their instincts and go make the movie.

RR: You have to have an extraordinary amount of stamina and willingness to endure near-misses and heartache and just have faith that, sooner or later, if you have enough irons in the fire, one of the irons will pay off for you. It’s extraordinarily difficult, and I think anyone who’s been through it knows. Anyone who hasn’t been through it probably will learn if they dive in that not everything goes and it’s not always for reasons you can control.

N: Finally, you guys remained very dedicated to Zombieland and to getting it made, and you’ve got an amazing movie because of it. Now with the property moving to series at Amazon, what can we expect?

PW: Well, I think you can expect much of what you saw in the movie. Tonally, it’s the exact same. It’s launching from about two weeks where the movie left off. They’re still in Los Angeles, just outside Pacific Playland. You’re going to get all the thrills and chills and laughs we hope that you got in the movie. It’s been recast with wonderful actors in the same vein that Friday Night Lights going from movie to the small screen was recast, and M*A*S*H and Buffy. Amazon is a fantastic creative partner. They’ve got deep, deep pockets and are allowing us to do things we wouldn’t otherwise be able to do on network television. We just couldn’t be more thrilled. All of Amazon’s pilots will air in mid-April and then a decision to go to series partly based on viewer response and clicks will be made sometime in early summer, and hopefully (there’ll be) a network launch in fall of next year, or this upcoming year, fall of this year, 2013. And we shot the pilot in Atlanta, where we shot the movie, about three weeks ago. We’re putting it together now. We’re going to run the show, should we be so lucky to go to series.

RR: Well, it also bears mentioning that the audience will determine whether this becomes a series because Amazon’s going to air all their pilots in America and the U.K. and Germany; those three places are going to decide just by virtue of clicking and streaming on the show which shows will move forward and which won’t, so we really need to energize our Zombieland fan base and tell them that if they want more Zombieland, now’s the time. We’re going to give you something and I hope you enjoy it and if you do click on it and keep clicking on it. [laugh] Just keep clicking on it is all I’m trying to say. We’re really excited about what we’ve got. We think we’ve assembled a really fun new cast. We had a wonderful director shoot it and we’re more than ready to carry Zombieland onto a weekly entertainment experience.

N: Will this permanently put the kibosh on a Zombieland 2?

PW: Well, I don’t think it permanently stops it; it definitely hits the pause button as we go to explore different stories on a different medium. Perhaps it rebuilds excitement for the feature. Perhaps it continues as a TV show for seven years or a show on Amazon for seven years. The good thing is, we’re telling the stories now that we want to tell and have always wanted to tell since 2005, and that’s our focus right now and we couldn’t be more thrilled.

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