Every story has to start somewhere, and for Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” it began with writer Nicole Perlman.
Upon joining Marvel Studios’ writers program in 2009, Perlman picked the Guardians of the Galaxy out of a list of teams and characters to envision for the big screen, instantly taking to the quirky, space-operatic nature of writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s 2008 series.
For the next two years, Perlman helped shape the makeup of the team audiences met in the film, and we had the chance to chat with the co-writer of “Guardians of the Galaxy” about her experiences with the writers program, what drew her to the Guardians, and why she was so excited when she learned she could include Rocket in the script.
Read on to learn how Perlman navigated the spaceways with our ragtag band of heroes, and see “Guardians of the Galaxy" in theaters now!
Nicole Perlman: I guess my entryway was that I had been doing a lot of screenplay projects that involved sci-fi and technology and aviation and history. I loved all of these subjects a lot, but I wanted to get into a larger, more fun, more colorful space. It was kind of hard to convince people that this was something that I could transition into because of my background, which had been a lot more smaller scale things. So I was going to just write a spec in this genre, but I had a meeting with the Marvel guys, [just] a general meeting because they liked my writing, and they mentioned they were going to do this experimental program [with] five or six screenwriters who had been working in Hollywood that hadn’t had anything produced yet. They would get an office on the campus, they would get access to everything in the vault and the ability to choose a project off the list that Marvel had of projects they were thinking of developing but [weren’t] really super-high priority projects.
I told them that I was interested, and they were excited about it. They had me come in, and when I saw the list there were a lot of better known properties on than Guardians, but Guardians was the one that was most science-fiction in tone. Almost more like a space opera, and a very funny, sarcastic and tongue-in-cheek version of this kind of genre, because it was the 2008 Dan Abnett/Andy Lanning reboot [I was looking at]. They had that out there, and they weren’t sure if they wanted to do the original Guardians or the reboot version. They just said, “Take a whack at it and see what you think.”
I’m glad that I chose it but I remember some of my friends were surprised that I had chosen that particular comic, because nobody had heard of it and it was so out there. Basically I worked on it for two years, because the program was one year and if they like you they brought you back for a second year if you wanted to come back. So I did two years working primarily on Guardians, trying all sorts of different versions of it with different combinations of team members and different MacGuffins until deciding what was the best version. That was really fun. I also did a little uncredited work on “Thor,” which was really a great experience. It was pretty great. While I was working for Marvel, I couldn’t work for anybody else, so I was sort off the market for a while and when the program ended they actually had me come back and do some more work on [“Guardians of the Galaxy”]. They brought me in to do another pass of the draft. I think I counted up, [and] I had some 40-odd things that I wrote in regards to Guardians before figuring out the right combination for everything.
Nicole Perlman: I did my research. I hadn’t read the comics. I was completely coming to it new. I didn’t know any of the backstory of the characters, and so it was a little overwhelming at first, but I was really drawn to the tone of the comics and to the fact that it was in space. And there weren’t a lot of preconceptions about what this could be, the way some of the other characters had such a canon to them, [with] a lot of history behind [them]. And there’s a lot of history behind the Guardians as well, just not as well known. I haven’t heard a single complaint from anyone about the things that we changed about the Guardians backstory. Quill, especially, was very, very different from the character in the original [1970s] comics. I think the fans were just happy to see this quirky story brought to the screen. I don’t think anybody ever thought that it would be!
Marvel.com: I remember back in 2011 or 2012 when this first started really taking off, and I thought, “I mean, I like that! I want to see that movie! But are you going to be able to sell anyone else on a talking raccoon and a talking tree?”
Nicole Perlman: I didn’t let myself believe that it was actually going to happen until I saw Thanos at the end of “Marvel’s The Avengers.” And even then, I still didn’t believe it. Even after I had gone to the set, after everything, I couldn’t really believe it until I saw a billboard on the side of a building. And then I said, “Okay. I guess this is actually happening!” [laughs] That’s when it actually hit me.
Marvel.com: So over the course of those two years you were in the program, what was your work process like? Would you just go off and do a draft and bring it back and get some notes and do another draft?
One of the luxuries of being in that program, unlike what I had been used to and what is the norm for screenwriters, is you’re [not] stacking projects. You always have four or five things that are going on at the same time in various stages of development, [but with] the Marvel program you just were focusing, for the most part, 90% of your energy on one project. Even though you had five projects that you would work on, they were only for when you were waiting on notes from the executives. So I basically got to try every possible version of the story, and try it out [with] lots of outlines, lots of treatments.
The very first four of five months, it was Stephen Broussard [overseeing the program], and then he got pulled off to [“Captain America: The First Avenger”], so they brought Nate Moore in to oversee the program just before he started producing for Marvel. He was really the day-to-day [contact], handing projects in, getting notes, having it returned, executing the notes, brainstorming the ideas around. Then every so often Kevin [Feige] would read what we’d done and weigh in. That was the first year and a half or so, and then when it started to get serious and they were really considering Guardians for production, Jeremy [Latcham] came on board and I did notes with him and would have back and forth with him and Kevin. It was really just go off and write treatments, write outlines, discuss various plot points, go back, rework things…it was kind of creative gymnastics in a way, and really good. It builds certain muscles in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily have the time to do if you were just doing regular studio work.
Nicole Perlman: We wanted to have an origin story not just of a single person but of a team, and so a big part of that is the idea that these Guardians are all people who are damaged or criminals and have made bad choices, and they need to learn how to work together and come together. So Quill kind of needed to encompass all of those traits. Someone who is selfish at the beginning, and then understands the importance of teamwork and how it’s important to have something to fight for.
Everyone [on the team] is an orphan in some sense of the word. Either they’re the last of their kind, or their parents were killed, or [they] have families that are toxic and not good for them, so they find each other and create their own family. We needed Quill to be a character that wasn’t heroic from the start, and basically somebody that you liked a lot. Very relatable. Everybody knows somebody like Quill, [who’s] really charming but just has really poor judgment and [is] just sort of selfish. Doesn’t really think about others, and you still like him a lot, but you kind of facepalm all the time with what they do with their lives. And that’s not really the case with Peter Quill in the source material. So that was a big part [of it], figuring out how to make Quill into this guy who’s the smuggler, relic-hunter and a very “every man for himself” [kind] of guy. But he actually does need people, he just doesn’t really know it yet.
So rebooting Quill’s backstory was a really big part of that process. And then the idea of having Gamora is just the coolest. She’s such a kick-ass female character in Guardians. I really love her backstory with Thanos, and tying her into the larger villain plot was really important, I thought.
When it comes to Drax, Drax as a character has a very tragic backstory as well but he’s also--even more than Gamora, I think--the one who feels like an out of control murderer. But he’s also loveable, and he’s wounded and has these great qualities, but this is a group of dangerous people and I really wanted to have a character who felt like he really could be a bad guy if you looked at him from a different set of eyes. I liked how menacing he was, and then we find out that he’s a really noble and good-hearted character. I think that that group is a really important one for what everybody brings to the table, but they all have things in common like Rocket having sort of a tortured past. Everybody has a similar flavor of pain that bonds them together, but they also have their own sets of skills. That’s not to say there won’t be more Guardians in the future. I’m sure they will come and join the team, but it just seemed like those ones were the key individuals.
Marvel.com: That makes sense. I’m also curious, what do you think were some of the biggest things you learned from the writer’s program and that entire process?
Nicole Perlman: I think it’s important to love the work that you do but not get stuck in a narrow vision of what is possible. I think it’s really important to keep your mind open in regards to story. Sometimes you think something is the best way to do it, and if you’re forced to reconsider it from different options, from different angles, you’ll find something much better. I would say that I’ve always been good at taking notes, I’ve always been really open to them, but in a way I think [the program] made me even more collaborative in the sense that I am very excited to be challenged, to think of something even better than I had thought of the first time.
It was a really great experience to be a part of the Marvel family because Marvel works differently than most Hollywood studios, and it was nice to a part of that for that time period. It felt really good after the program ended to be brought back. It’s almost like an alumni type of thing where you were there for a program and they wanted you to come back as a full-fledged writer and continue to work for them, and it felt really good. The experiences of going on set and seeing the world created was one of the most memorable times of my entire life. It was [a] great experience. I’m really, really grateful for it, [and] I’m really thrilled with what James Gunn brought to it. He made it his own in an incredible way. It was great. A very positive experience overall.
Get your tickets for Marvel's "Guardians of the Galaxy," now in theaters!