Zack Stentz and Ashley Edward Miller made their genre bones in TV, as writer-producers on Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Fringe. Now they're shifting to movies with Thor and X-Men: First Class under their utility belts.
How did you guys end up on Fox's radar for First Class?
Zack Stentz: We had one of those great general meetings you have where the executive says "I have to find something for you guys". And you expect to never hear from him again
Ashley Edward Miller: We were standing around in the commissary one day. They saw us and they were like. "You there, shiftless writers. We have a task."
ZS: There are just a small number of writers in Hollywood who know comic books backwards and forwards and are not daunted by skipping all of the usual feature writing "screwing around."
AEM: They knew we worked on Thor, knew we knew the universe, they liked our writing, and thought we could bring something to it that was compatible with Bryan Singer's vision.
What is Bryan's vision?
ZS: Pretty good, I think — did he have laser surgery at some point?
AEM: You see it in X-Men and X2: Character first.
Like the USA Network.
AEM: Exactly. This is basically a big episode of Burn Notice with mutants. Bruce Campbell should play every role. He would make an amazing X-jet. Who doesn't want to see the X-Men fly to the rescue atop Bruce Campbell at mach 3?
"You know mutants: a bunch of bitchy little girls." Had either of you read Jeff Parker's First Class comic before landing the assignment? Did you lean on it at all, or was the idea of "X-Men: Freshman Year" enough to run with?
AEM: Nope. all we had to hear was Bryan's take.
ZS: That sold us immediately. It felt so of a piece with the emotionalism and drama of the first two films.
What were your first meetings with Bryan Singer like?
AEM: Bryan is a great collaborator. He's very smart, he knows what he wants and he's great with the back-and-forth of designing cool scenes and moments. And when you get into the superheroics, he wants to understand how and why things work.
ZS: In TV terms, it was like meeting with a great showrunner — he absolutely knows what he wants, but is interested in your opinion and enjoys means-testing all of the ideas that come out.
How difficult was it to settle on the story to tell? There are so many firsts the X-Men had...how do you choose just one?
AEM: Step One: You can't think of it that way. You have to let go of all of that.
ZS: Yeah, that way lies checking boxes on a list instead of just finding a great story.
AEM: So you ask the same questions you'd ask on any other script: Who are these characters? What do they want? What's in their way?
True. but with so much to choose from, are there conscious decisions of the things you know you want in there?
AEM: Sure, but it has to feel organic. If it doesn't emerge naturally, you should never ever force it. (And yes, that's what she said.)
Did you feel any pressure/desire/necessity to "reintroduce" us to the X-Men?
ZS: In some sense you should be reintroducing your characters in every film.
AEM: The thing is, we've been here before. We did it on Terminator for two seasons. We did it on Thor. You learn how to approach the material as something you can live in and not just nod at.
ZS: Well, look at Star Trek (2009) — that's a film that did a great job of acknowledging that its characters are part of the culture, yet treating them as fresh and new to the audience.
AEM: I would also argue that if you're telling a story where your characters can no longer surprise the audience, you're telling the wrong story. These characters surprised us at every turn, sometimes in really wonderful and emotional ways. Those moments are what make movies great.
How accelerated was the process? It all seems like it's moving pretty fast from here on the sidelines...
AEM: It's a very accelerated process. I don't think that's a secret.
ZS: They've eliminated the usual screwing around and waiting two to four weeks when you turn in a draft. It's amazing how much fat there is in the feature development process. And how quickly you can make it happen if you cut it out. TV proves that.
What's it been like working with Matthew Vaughn?
AEM: Honestly, we haven't spoken to him yet.
Are you guys done with your First Class responsibilities?
ZS: Oh, no....
AEM: Of course, there's a complete script. But these things are never done until they're shot and edited. All we know is we throw ink where we need to throw ink and we do it until they say stop.
Where do you go from here? What's next?
AEM: We're still in the middle of working on Damn Nation. We turned our first draft into Dark Horse and Paramount, and everyone seems to love it. We were very pleased with how it came out.
It feels a bit like you're Marvel's go-to writers. Not a bad position to be in.
AEM: That's an interesting way to look at it. I think there are three Marvel comic book adaptations coming out next summer. And we wrote two of them. That blows my little fanboy mind.
How much are you guys still plugged in to what's happening on Thor?
ZS: We talk fairly regularly with the guys.
AEM: I went to the set just last week.
Did you get to...hold it?
AEM: Dude. Mjolnir is awesome. I got to hold it. I was so stoked. I brutally beat the script supervisor with it.