The writing team of Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi had written several well-regarded scripts before tackling Aeon Flux, an adaptation of the popular MTV animated series.
While the finished product garnered mixed reviews, a talk with the affable writers gives on a new appreciation for the process of creating a big budget adaptation, as well as the hard road to becoming a working screenwriter.
Their earlier work is almost from a different world - Crazy/Beautiful and on an even smaller scale, the underrated indie comedy Bug - while they're now about to see their adaptation of the Japanese manga Parasyte for the screen to be directed by Takashi Shimizu (Marebito, Ju-On). Although both writers have individual talents and ideas, they work so fluently as a team - even in interviews - that I'm for the most part citing their responses here as if they were one entity.
Q: How did you two come to be the writers for the Aeon Flux film? Were you fans of the series before?
A: We were definitely big fans of the series. We were approached by MTV Films originally - they'd known our work and we'd been in touch with them about other projects. And then [producer] Gale Anne Hurd was the next step, and so we all kind of got together for our take on the movie. They wanted us to come up with something? they were looking to go in a very different direction. Our whole idea, and of course things change and mutate as you go along, but our core idea always was to try make a science fiction movie with the values of something like Run Lola Run, for example. Trying to make something propulsive and fast moving but with a kind of aggressive take on storytelling, which at least in spirit goes along with what the show was trying to do.
So as fans of the series, what did you change from the series for the script adaptation? I know she doesn't die a hundred times, for one thing...
Right, and we did consider that, actually. The series is so non-linear and almost anti-narrative at times - in trying to write what is going to be a mainstream Hollywood movie for an audience that may not be familiar with Aeon Flux, the job was to be as true to it, find a story within the recurring themes and characters - those were the kinds of things we tried to mine from Aeon Flux. Really be true to the characters in it.
Did you feel any pressure - or put any pressure on yourselves - to remain true to the original when working on the script?
I think we definitely felt self-generated pressure. It's a very tricky adaptation, obviously. We'd sit there and watch all the shows back to back dozens of times, and some tremendously interesting dream logic appears where you start to see some narrative possibilities in this anti-narrative. Our hope was that we'd be able to evoke a linear compelling story that you can kind of hang some of these philosophical notions or thematic notions on, to try to create a companion piece. We didn't ever want to create a direct copy of what the show was. We didn't want to be in the continuity of that - it was more like they were two separate entities that hopefully communicate with each other. I always thought of it as if the characters in the show could be dreaming of our world, or vice versa.
Were there fans who came out of the woodwork to give you advice about this or were you relatively cloistered from it all?
We read some of the discussion boards [online] and there was more than advice - there was either excitement about the project on one side and on the other dire warnings. [laughs] The one thing you learn from that kind of discussion is that you're not going to please everyone. The people who read and participate in those boards are pretty savvy and everyone knows that Aeon Flux the series was a cartoon for a very specific reason. And an adaptation of it has to be just that - an adaptation. It has to stand beside it rather than just replace it.
Speaking of adaptations, I heard you guys are working on a Parasyte script, too?
We actually worked on that a few years back. And it's now in development with Takashi Shimizu attached. But we haven't really been involved in that for awhile so I'm not exactly sure what direction it's taking, but with him attached it will probably go more into the J-horror realm. Our take was still horror, but more horror-comedy - like House, or The Frighteners. Parasyte is a really cool manga, tremendously violent and wild and hardcore. The concept is so out there that it's funny in and of itself, and also really scary and violent. So it's a fun thing to work on and imagine as a movie. It could go a lot of ways. So we don't know where it's at. That was actually our very first writing gig.
Is that what landed you the Aeon Flux gig, too, then?
I think MTV knew our work from various spec scripts and maybe they'd read Parasyte... And Crazy/Beautiful had come out, which is obviously not sci-fi. But it gave us enough cache to get us in the room and a realistic shot at the job. And then we ended up getting hired out of a discussion we had agreeing on a novel way to do the movie.
Besides the series itself, where there any other sci-fi or futuristic movies that you thought of or referenced while working on the Aeon Flux script?
[Phil:] That's a really interesting question. I don't think any one specific title comes to mind, except to say we're really steeped in science fiction movies. That's the core of what brought me to watch movies in the first place. In a weird way we thought of movies that are not considered science fiction, like Run Lola Run or - this isn't a direct reference but movies like Pi or Memento are movies that are in a weird way sci-fi movies. Those kinds of things strike us on that level. With Aeon Flux, once we saw what the designs were going to be, to us it was nice flashback to those weird 70s Euro sci-fi movies. A return to those truly designed and really beautiful-looking science fiction movies. The tone was influenced by movies like Alien and Blade Runner - obviously it's much different than those but the one thing those movies have is that they're not afraid to be quiet and pensive. That was something we wanted to try to build into Aeon Flux.
"...to us it was nice flashback to those weird 70s Euro sci-fi movies. A return to those truly designed and really beautiful-looking science fiction movies."
And that obviously changed a lot by the time the movie came out, but that was certainly there as an initial intent.
I think we thought a lot about fantasy movies, too, because in a way it's science fiction but in a way it's fantasy, like Alice in Wonderland. And Samurai movies were an influence as well.
In the ideas, and the look, or...?
Well, yeah, and also in the quietness and stoicism of the lead character, and the fact that she's struggling with her own kind of belief system throughout the movie.
When you revisited the film again to do the commentary for the DVD, what went through your mind as far as any changes they'd made to your original intentions? I know in the commentary you referred to how some of the scenes were shortened down, for instance...
[Matt:] We knew what was coming in a way, we'd seen enough cuts so when we saw the final final cut it wasn't too much of a surprise. I think for me, some of that is where a lot was lost in some of those scenes that were shortened and therefore become more general rather than personal. And so you end up with, at times, things that seem a little more stock than they were intended to be.
[Phil:] For my part, I think you can see when you watch the movie in the cut that it is you can definitely intuitively look at it and see what we were trying to get at, and what Karyn [Kusama] was trying to get at. Again, I think there's a director's cut that's about 25 minutes longer out there somewhere that really is a very different feel of a movie. Less the particulars of the plot, which definitely remains the same, although there were some giant beats that were lost or changed, but the tone of what it was trying to be: an ambitious epic science fiction romance. There are definitely elements of that in the film as it is, but it now plays much more like an action movie set in the future.
And there are some very good reasons that people want that kind of thing versus the other. But to answer your original question, in watching it again, doing the commentary we try to point out to people information, saying look you can watch this movie and maybe with this extra information it will answer some questions for you.
So there might be a director's cut out at some point?
It depends on how this release does, but we would love to see it out there. This cut definitely has merit and we're very proud of it but we'd be psyched to see the original intent of what Karyn was trying to do. People who already love the movie will still love it and people who have more problems with it might have their questions answered a little bit.
In that commentary, you both talked about the voice-over at the beginning of the film. I know as a screenwriter myself how much debate there is about using VO, mostly to avoid it when possible, but there are also times when it's useful. Can you talk about that debate?
It was always going to be included in some form or another. The goal was just to keep it as brief as possible. We did have an entirely different set of images that were going to accompany it, that would hopefully take away from the need for direct explanation. As the movie evolved, there were a lot of notes focusing on "clarity, clarity, clarity." So you're asked to make things a little more literal.
Originally, the opening voice-over was both to give information and to set a tone. The idea of actual title cards came in very late. That was never the idea. The idea was Charlize would do voice-over that allowed you to get inside the head of her character and at the same time learn about this society. And that did change quite a bit.
When you write an action script, do you consciously think of how long each scene is - as in, "Okay it's two pages now, that's too long" - while you're writing it?
Structurally, there are some rules that come organically out of good storytelling. Usually when we write stuff, we try to ballpark in our head how long scenes are going to be, and try to hit that mark so the script reads quickly and isn't too bloated in some spots and two quick in others. We learned a lot writing this script because we were pretty involved in the production and involved in trying to solve problems. Sometimes you realize that you've written a ton of action scenes but what the movie needs at a certain moment is to rest from the action scene that just came, and not go right into the next one. And you can only sometimes know that by the time the film is being storyboarded.
In this movie we had the interesting challenge of trying sometimes to rewrite action to fit into budget, and specific spaces and locations in Berlin. That was really fun, actually, to be involved and try to solve specific production problems.
[Matt:] It also is a challenge in terms of actually physically writing down the action of an action scene, because if you try to write out the choreography of every hit or punch or gunshot, it can get so long. There's a balance between trying to be clear, to write an exciting action scene, and also trying to trust the director to take it his or her own way.