Iron Man 3 Exclusive Interview: Screenwriter Drew Pearce Talks The Mandarin Controversy, Mission Impossible 5, Sherlock Holmes 3 & More!

Iron Man 3 is officially the biggest move of the summer- as at the time of writing, the fifth most…

Oscar Harding

Contributor

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Iron Man 3 is officially the biggest move of the summer- as at the time of writing, the fifth most successful movie of all time! It’s not hard to see why- as well as coming off the back of The Avengers, it has a stellar cast, masterful direction from Shane Black, big laughs and a bigger heart beating at its centre. But so much of that is down to its screenwriter.

Drew Pearce may not be a name you’d heard of before Iron Man 3 hits out screens, but the creator of cult hit sitcom No Heroics is now the hottest man in Hollywood. Pearce is currently writing the fifth film in the Mission: Impossible franchise, and has a slew of other projects on the go. Drew Pearce is here to stay, and Hollywood is all the better for it.

Our conversation went well beyond Iron Man, and even though we touch upon Mission: Impossible and Sherlock Holmes, the sequel to which he is developing with Robert Downey Jr, we went way past that and into our attitudes to terrorism, the definition of leading men, the greatness of Sir Ben Kingsley and why the 70’s was the best time for cinema.

So rather than limit this to a traditional interview format, this writer has given you the transcript to my conversation with Drew, edited only to keep it punchy, relevant and on-topic. Read on for not only an insight into comics and screenwriting, but the nature of the industry and the state of cinema….

 

You’ve had a hell of a Hollywood debut- to hit the billion dollar mark in less than a month…

Yeah, it’s one of those weird things where you go “No, I’m not going to get used to that”. I mean, there’s an odd kind of bittersweetness to it as well- there’s a part of you that when you get to the end of it… I’ve been working on this for two and a half years, and we finished the film four weeks before it was released- we when right over the picture lock time, [so it was] very exciting but edge-of-the-seat stuff. You emerge, blinking, from the series of small rooms and sound stages you’ve been on [for such a long time] into a world where there’s a ton of posters for your movie.

So it’s only in the last week or so that it’s [died] down that there’s the realisation of “Oh- there’s a very [good] chance that I never work on a movie as big as this again”. Even if I go on to have a long and fruitful career, which in and of itself is a roll of the dice, you may never work on [something ] that gets people so excited [to see].

One of my favourite lines in the film, amongst so many other great ones, is when Tony turns to the glasses-wearing little brother of the girl asking him for an autograph and says “I loved you in ‘A Christmas Story’”…

That one was [improvised by] Downey. What’s weird about that [line] is… going from the British premiere [of the film], and then the American premiere a couple of days later, you realise there’s a lot of British [references] in there as well as American. At the UK premiere and subsequent screenings, the line “his Hamlet was the toast of Croydon” gets a big laugh, but in America it gets a snigger and that’s mostly down to Guy [Pearce]’s delivery of it.

Similarly, in the UK I don’t think [A Christmas Story] is that well-known. But in America, it’s a [regular fixture] on Christmas Day television- it’s of that kind of culture significance over there. So every member of the American audience gets that joke. As a British writer working in the states, it’s kind of [unnerving] that there’s some cultural reference points that you haven’t got covered.

The kid who played [Ralphie Parker] in A Christmas Story, Peter Billingsley, was actually in the original Iron Man and was one of the executive producers- he played one of the technicians that [Obadiah] Stane shouts at. He’s part of the [Jon] Favreau gang. There’s an even deeper connection with that gag!

A while ago it was circulating around the internet that J. J. Abrams had consulted on an early draft of the film, but of course it turned out that had happened with the first film.  Out of interest, do you have any idea what his level of involvement was?

Yeah, it’s weird! I’m now working with J.J. and it was something I asked him about- my new job is the next Mission: Impossible movie.

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Actually, I was going to bring that up. Congratulations, obviously- that’s a hell of a franchise to be a part of. I appreciate that you’ve literally just come on board, and if you have any ideas yet you can’t reveal anything, but could you discuss your attitude to the franchise so far? It’s pretty unique, in that Tom always gets a different director with a specific vision for each instalment so it never gets stale.

[The Mission: Impossible franchise] has been doing for a while what Marvel is now doing, particularly for Phase Two, which is trying to bring a different flavour to each of the movies. To be honest, we’ve really only been working on it a week or so. J.J’s very involved, despite the fact he’s got Star Wars. I believe a Director’s about to be announced very soon. Tom is very hands-on, as is Robert [Downey Jr.] in the Iron Man franchise, but in a very different way, as you would expect as per their personalities.

There’s nothing really to talk about yet, but it’s interesting when you look back at the other four movies because there’s a fairly intimidating roster of talent- from De Palma, [Steve] Zallian… Robert Towne (Screenwriter of Chinatown) co-wrote the first film, and obviously J.J.  as well. I almost hadn’t considered the lineage when I took on the job.

I’ll hold my hands up and say that I was a little bit reticent to take [on] another sequel, because I’ve got a lot of my own original projects and I want to get them out there and kick in with directing, but the bare-faced truth of it is that I’m very much just starting out and this could all just disappear tomorrow, and I do need to get a couple of movies on the score sheet. The trouble with most things these days is that they’re just very unlikely to happen. So ‘Mission’ felt like a way of working on a franchise that I really love, plus also working on a movie that is virtually guaranteed a greenlight.

So are there any influences you’re looking to draw from to construct the story- the original TV show? Any novels? Films from the same genre? Is there anything at all you’re revisiting to prep yourself for writing?

We’re just getting into that [stage], so even telling you the movies that I want to start screening for the gang would be giving too much away.

I think my approach is actually kind of similar to Iron Man- what comes first is as true and genuine as possible an emotional journey for the central character. Everything else- the villain, the action sequences- has to come off of that. Like with Iron Man 3, what we tried to do with the villain was [to have him] reflect or antagonise the areas of emotional difficulty that Tony’s going through at that moment [in time].

It’s not that hard to keep secrets about Mission: Impossible 5 because I don’t have any yet!

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I’d like to briefly discuss Sherlock Holmes 3…

To be honest, right now it’s all about ‘Mission’, and Robert has just moved to Massachusetts to shoot his next movie, which has a brilliant script, called The Judge (David Dobkin’s drama about a successful lawyer who returns to his hometown for his mother’s funeral only to discover that his estranged father is a murder suspect, due to be released sometime next year), so right now my involvement is paused for the moment because of all that.

Anyone can adapt Sherlock Holmes- he’s the second most filmed character of all time behind Dracula- but perhaps because you’re British it’s something that’s closer to home. Do you have any relationship with the books or interpretations we’ve seen onscreen? Or is it more a case of you’re looking to collaborate with Robert again?

I’m a huge Sherlock fan! When Robert and I started talking about it, I actually managed to find my complete Sherlock Holmes Compendium that I’ve had since I was 12 in a box we’d shipped over to the States. But it’s all up in the air right now, so I have to keep a lid on everything to do with it.

Are you a fan of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have done with the character?

Honestly, what they’ve done is brilliant. It’s obviously very different to what Warners do with the character in their movies, but I think there’s room for all the adaptations- and that’s testament to Arthur Conan Doyle’s genius character. But I truly love Moffat and Gatiss’ version.

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What initially inspired you, at whatever age, to get into writing? Where there any inspirations from certain people, books, music, films…?

You meet a lot of people from the British and American industries who have a link to the Entertainment business, or have [had] a leg up [to get] there.

But my Mum’s a teacher and my Dad was an engineer and I grew up in Suburban England, so I grew up without even a sense that I would be allowed to work in TV or Film, let alone that I would get to play with the characters that I was reading in W H Smith’s every week- the terrible Marvel reprints you had in the 80’s, and of course 2000AD. So I really hoped to do it and I always loved writing.

First of all I became a musician, partly because my Dad was a musician and I felt it was in the blood. But it was only in my early 20’s, when I got to meet people who were doing the same sort of thing that I am now, that I thought I could do it well. It’s just a case of doing your s****y job during the day, not going to the Pub and staying up ‘til One in the morning trying to write.

I’d love to say I’m this beautiful and precious snowflake that is a creative genius, but I [think] that hard work and luck, boring as it sounds, are the key things. Having said all that, I find that even today at the age of 37, I still tap into the ideas and stories that I was writing when I was 14. There’s always a kind of Well you go back to- your relationships, your experiences, your insecurities, or even just silly ideas inspired by a choose-your-own adventure game. Bits and bobs like that just stick around.

Do you find you have a particular method for writing, and has that changed over time? There’s a difference to writing on spec as a student, and then working with some of the biggest people in Hollywood…

I’m pretty brutal with myself [when it comes to writing]. But it’s interesting, Shane [Black] grew up in a very different era and came through a very different [route to me]- he wrote Lethal Weapon when he was 24, and only wrote specs from there on in, selling them for gargantuan amounts of money and wrote one every four years.

That’s not the way I got in, partly because I joined the film industry later on, and the shape of it is very different to me. I spend a lot of my time pushing my own projects and ideas… but the industry seems to break into massive tentpoles and indie movies now.

There’s very little middle ground- whether that middle ground be the adult movies of the 60’s and 70’s- The Graduate, Carnal Knowledge- or Miramax Pictures in the 90’s.

For me, the 70’s is the greatest era of cinema- and whilst that was the era where independent cinema started to come to prominence, the 80’s seems like the greatest time for mainstream cinema. Everything Spielberg produced and directed, the stuff Shane came out with…

What happened was that the brilliant movie brats of the 70’s who made some of most grown-up, audacious, fringe mainstream pictures then graduated in the 80’s to make full-blown mainstream pictures and brought their talents and fantastic skills with them- I was that [sensibility] was still bred [among filmmakers]. I think it’s still important, even when you’re writing franchise pictures, to constantly fight for the same things you know your heroes from the 70’s were doing. That’s [something that] I stand by.

You know, Iron Man 3 is not a perfect movie- it’s a wild ride with some crazy tonal shifts. Shane and I sat in a room and talked through themes and images and ideas for a very long time before we started writing. Whether even 0.1% of all that stuff comes through in the movie, I think something grows in the bones of a project, through its DNA, that means that even if they’re weird ideas they still lie in the body of the film. But I don’t think one should ever talk that all up with any grandiosity, because at the end of the day it’s a sequel to a superhero movie. [However], I am proud of the stuff we’ve managed to [bring into] it.

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Something that affected me as an audience member were the viral clips the Mandarin transmitted everywhere.  As soon as I saw those initial cutaways, it really stuck with me. It’s not something you really see in a big summer blockbuster.

We did a lot of the Mandarin footage in additional photography. Part of the criticism we’ve had for the Mandarin twist is that people wanted to see The Mandarin that we created in the first hour [for the rest of the movie]. That makes me oddly proud, because it means we did our job properly for that first hour.

In the first few cuts of the film, The Mandarin didn’t feel real enough- there wasn’t a sense of him being [part of] the real world, mostly because he was just looking down a lens and threatening the world.

Shane and I always meant him to be, as well as an analogue for real life, a riff on Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now- and we both realised what we needed was a sense of the reality of what that character might be.

But it’s almost like there’s this second layer too- those images purposely connect with images from the last 15 years of terrorism we’ve been shown. It’s interesting to note how quickly you can find those hot-button images go straight to a place of fear for us, and I think that that also relates to how the last 15 years have played out in news coverage.

Here’s the thing with [our version of ]The Mandarin- over commentary and satire and everything else, it was just the most entertaining and surprising version we could find. But the evolution of [both personas of the character] and how they ended up on screen is interesting.

I think the problem with the heroes that Marvel Studios have brought to the screen so far is generally, for the public, none of them have a particularly memorable Rogue’s Gallery. If you think of the Hulk, there’s really only a few interesting villains and they’ve been covered. Nobody really knows any Iron Man villains apart from maybe the Mandarin…

I honestly don’t sympathise with the fans [in that respect], and I’m sorry [our version of The Mandarin] didn’t work for a really tiny, but vocal, minority of them. But there isn’t a version of The Mandarin, for me, that would’ve worked in the Iron Man franchise.

None of the heroes so far really have a timeless villain. Perhaps with someone like Captain America or Thor, for example, you have Red Skull and Loki- but that’s it. There’s not many there who could be as great a cinematic villain for the general public as The Joker or Green Goblin.

I think it goes back to what Jon Favreau and Kevin Feige set with the first Iron Man, which is [that] they set out a very clear, real-world context for who Tony Stark is. Sure, he’s builds a suit that can fly and that is fantastical, [but] everything else in that movie feels like it could exist in a real world, however heightened.

I have a feeling if you look at that compared with the other characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that may be the reason Tony hits harder- it could also be because Robert is just so brilliant in that role, that’s a huge part of [Tony Stark’s appeal] too, [but] I can’t help but think that one factor is what Favreau put into the first movie was a sense of real life.

There’s no Magic and no Space in Iron Man 3- those two things don’t exist in an Iron Man movie (not including the Avengers, which is an ensemble piece). What we wanted was a techno-thriller set in a more real world than even [the world portrayed in]The Avengers.

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When you were offered the job of screenwriter for Iron Man 3, what was your approach? Did you come to it with reverence and respect  of both the comics and the previous films? Or did you come to it with almost an arrogance? With the mind-set that you were going to revolutionise what Jon had done before and make this a sequel worth doing?

Iron Man was beyond a passion project for me- I hold Iron Man as probably my favourite Superhero movie of the modern epoch. Because for me personally, what connected was the ability to [have a] real world dynamic but also not lose some of the colour and the literal vibrancy that Marvel Comics have- Iron Man managed to do all that, plus it had the kind of danger and swing that you don’t normally get from your Hero in other Superhero movies. The second one didn’t do that for me. It didn’t connect as well- it was a trickier production and that was part of it.

So when I took it upon myself to write a ridiculous, late-night ‘Jerry Maguire’-style document about what I would do with the third movie- which I hadn’t been asked to do and was roundly ignored by Marvel when I first gave it to them- it all came down to a lot of things I loved about the first film, but also a sense of “where does Tony go next?”. I hadn’t read any version of an Avengers script because there wasn’t one around at that time! A lot of the feel of that initial document made it through.

In it, I talked a lot about the American James Bond that is Tony Stark- it’s not a direct analogy because they’re such different characters, not least because Tony is a free agent, both of the World and of Capitalism, whereas Bond is essentially a ruthless authority figure.

I see where you’re coming from. I’m sure most people would agree that the two major characters that have made it into the public collective conscious in the last decade would be Jack Sparrow and Tony Stark.

Yeah, I think so too. And I what’s interesting about them, and also Daniel Craig’s portrayal of James Bond, is that all of them are heroes with a sense of danger to them, and unpredictability. That’s definitely something people respond to- and if you look back to 70’s movies, the idiosyncrasies of the heroes is what made them exciting.

Even [Robert] Redford, who was the kind of straightest arrow of 70’s heroes- if you look at his roles now, there are some brilliant and peculiar choices there. I also think that the leading men that we have today are the ones inspired by those characters in the 70’s, and I hope that our leading men of tomorrow dig deep into that history, too.

Nowadays you’ve got great leading men like Downey and Cruise, but I personally connect more with them, or someone Redford or Gene Hackman, than what we seem to be getting now- studios get fresh-faced young actors in now to head up a tentpole franchise. They may be honing their craft, but they don’t bring as much life experience to the screen- as an audience member it’s not as easy to relate to them.

I think that’s absolutely true- it’s a personal thing, but that’s true for me as well. I think that’s what’s interesting about Downey. He grew up a showbiz brat and he did it in public- his tribulations came in his 20’s and 30’s, so now what he brings to the screen is a version of that kind of damaged brilliance that the 70’s guys had, it’s just that his came through a life in the industry, rather than through a post-World War Two, working-class existence which is what [someone like] Hackman was [part of].

But even then, he was an anomaly. I just read William Friedkin’s autobiography , and even back then it was hard to convince the studio to have Hackman as the lead in The French Connection.

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And you had that with Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, as well.

Yeah, absolutely. The interesting thing was that the reason Friedkin was allowed to push Hackman into the picture was because [Roy] Schneider was deemed enough of a leading man to kind of ‘tick the boxes’. And The Graduate was a very small movie when it was put together, and even then Mike Nichols had to fight [for Hoffman as well].

I think it’s always a fight- what I hope is that there’s a [sort of] weirdness allowed to sneak through in our leading men today. I think part of the problem is that in order to make it in your 20’s or 30’s, you have to been working in the industry for many years, and it’s harder for people to steal in [through] the back door.

I love James Badge Dale in Iron Man 3, I think he’s brilliant. And he really reminds me of those character actors from the 70’s, who would turn up in the sixth-on-the-bill role, and just steal their scenes. There’s something to him that feels really authentic. In real life, Badge keeps himself to himself- he brought his dog down to North Carolina, and spent most of his time jogging on the beach with it. Just solitary and kind of awesome, to be honest.

Authenticity is a funny old word, particularly in the Entertainment industry, but I think when someone brings some rougher or quirkier edges from their real life to what you’re doing, it can’t help but make it more interesting.

I was talking to someone about this the other day- about what defines a leading man. What defines a star, opposed to an actor? I think there’s an argument that an actor bends themselves towards a role, and a star bends the role towards them.

What makes it all so exciting, as well as difficult to predict, is [the question of] “What is that chemistry with the camera and the audience that makes a person feel like a leading man, rather than just having the role that’s top of the call sheet?”. It fluctuates and I don’t think people manage to stay there as long as they want. A lot of the people coming through… aren’t as old yet as our 70’s heroes were when they were in their heyday.

One of the things I’m proud of is… with Sir Ben- I love Sir Ben, I think Sexy Beast is one of the best performances of the last 15 years for my money- you can’t look at his resume and say that every one of those movies is a classic. And I feel genuinely proud that we gave Sir Ben a forum to play, technically, two characters, and be the best that he can be. He’s loving it, he is f***ing loving it! He’s been massively complimentary about the material, and what I love about that is that Sir Ben is always offered great roles, but people will see our movie and are reminded of how good he is. As a screenwriter, it’s a reminder of your responsibility to service your actors with as distinctive a character as possible.

That’s the reason that every actor in the world adores Quentin Tarantino. There is no character, big or small in any of his movie, whether you like them or not, that doesn’t feel fresh. There’s no trope character in a single one of his movies.

Coming back to Iron Man 3- If the opportunity arose to work on a fourth film, Would you be interested?  Or do you feel you’ve given all you can to the mythos of that particular superhero?

It would involve me sitting down with Robert and Kevin, and working out whether I felt there was a story we could do that could top Iron Man 3, and I know that Robert will feel the same. And by the way, there’s every chance I won’t necessarily get invited to that table- because there’s a chance that what works for Iron Man is what works for Mission: Impossible- a fresh team each time.

But who knows? I adore the character- the more I work in this industry, the most I realise the importance of a genuinely magnetic leading man.

So, it’s a discussion I’d love to have, but if there is a fourth movie  and I’m not involved, I’ll be proud of what we did with the third one.

The Other F Word

Is there anything you can tell us about your other upcoming projects? I notice that you seem to be involved with The Other F Word, Secretaries Day and The Mighty…

The Mighty is something I boarded very briefly a couple of years ago- I’ve not been a part of that for a long time, so I’m not entirely sure what the status of it is, but it’s a brilliant comic book and if they can get it made, it’d be great.

Secretaries Day is an original idea of mine that Will Gluck is directing. I’ve done a draft, but I can’t work on the next draft of it because I’ve got Mission: Impossible [to write], so we found a couple of brilliant writers who are going to do the next draft, and hopefully at a certain point that’ll go into production.

The movie that I’m writing and producing with Jason Segel (The Other F Word), is the most gentle thing I’ve ever made, and I’m loving it because of that. It’s very loosely based on a really good little documentary that got made a couple of years ago about aging musician fathers. There’s a draft written and we’re just pushing forward with that and it might actually shoot next year. It’s all in the hands of the movie gods.

Directing is something I’d love to do, but I want to take baby steps into it- I’m working on a spec package I’d like to direct with a producer called Mary Parent who is producing Godzilla and Noah.

 

Iron Man 3 is out now in Cinemas.