The thing about comic books is that a lot of them are comic in nature. Marvel Comics as overseen by Stan Lee offered a razor-sharp editorial attitude that stressed laughs nearly as much as rocket-fueled hovercrafts colliding in sky-fights. Although the Marvel Cinematic Universe has its humorous moments–recall the Hulk-punch at the end of Avengers or nearly everything Chris Pratt says in Guardians–its specialty is spectacular setpieces. In assembling Ant-Man, the studio had to find a director capable of changing the ratio, and that’s exactly what they found in Peyton Reed.
Ant-Man is perhaps the studio’s strangest superhero property (outside of Dr. Strange), what with its hero, portrayed by Paul Rudd, donning a supersuit to shrink down in size and control ants with his mind. It’s only fitting that the director of this weirdness once sat at the helm of The Weird Al Show. After original director, Edgar Wright, famously walked away from the project over creative differences, the Marvel team quickly arrived at Reed, another filmmaker with a comedic touch and visual flair. Although Reed’s filmography possesses nary a single fireball, it’s easy to see how he won the gig. Look at the intricate choreography of his cheerleader romp Bring It On or ’60s sex comedy throwback Down With Love, and the evidence is right there. This is someone who can create tight, fast-paced scenes with an emphasis on movement, and slather them with style and comedy. He’s a perfect fit for what amounts to a superhero heist movie starring Paul Rudd–and considering the film’s opening weekend box office haul of $58 million, one we’ll likely be seeing more from in the future.
Recently, Co.Create caught up with Reed to talk about how his career has made him uniquely suited to pull up a director’s chair in Marvel Studios.
When Reed first moved to LA in the ’80s, he worked for a production company as an editor and ended up becoming the go-to guy for ancillary Back to The Future projects like the TV cartoon and the Universal Studios ride. As a bonus, he matriculated at directing school in the process.
“I was doing these ‘making of’ documentaries. One of the first jobs I ever had was editing the behind-the-scenes stuff on Uncle Buck,” he says. “I worked at that company for several years and to me it was like a paid internship because I got to stand around and watch these major directors direct. And I really did just soak it up. I did three movies with Zemeckis. Spielberg was always around. I was briefly on the set of Jurassic Park and Hook. We were like kids in a candy store. It was insane.”
After years of shadowing directors, Reed got to direct a couple of Disney TV movies, followed by a stint on The Weird Al Show. These experiences went a long way toward cultivating the qualities that helped him establish a reputation as a director with whom actors love working.
“Early on, it was interesting to watch directors who maybe did not know how to speak to actors, or kind of hadn’t done prep work and then would suddenly throw temper tantrums because they weren’t prepared,” Reed says. “I had done some minor acting in high school and college and stuff and I think it helped to have done a little bit of acting just to see how terrifying it can be. I think that has always been in my mind as a director is to create a really relaxed environment.”
He continues, “I remember my first day on my first Disney movie, it was a remake of The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. I just remember walking to set, and seeing all these trucks and things and just thinking ‘Oh my God, I’m in charge of all this,’ and this panic setting in. But then by like halfway through the first day when you’re actually working and doing the thing the panic eases up. those movies were probably two and a half, three million dollar movies, and they were basically my Roger Corman time where it’s like ‘Okay man, you have this budget, you have twenty days.’ It was twenty days prep, twenty days shoot, twenty days editing—bang, you’re done.”
Before jumping into feature films with Bring It On, Reed burnished his comedy credentials by directing episodes of two of the most acclaimed sketch shows of the 1990s, Mr. Show and Upright Citizens Brigade.
“I had always been a comedy fan, I mean I just grew up loving comedy and that’s what I really wanted to do,” Reed says. “After doing those two Disney movies, it was a conscious choice for me to do some different kind of stuff. I wanted to do sketch comedy. But it was my production experience on those TV movies that had them interested in me in the first place. When I met with David Cross and Bob Odenkirk, I had a reel at that time which consisted of some indie rock music videos for bands like Superchunk and my Weird Al stuff, and even though they saw I had enough production experience, it was mostly the fact that I directed Superchunk videos that appealed to David Cross. He was like ‘Okay, if you’re cool enough for Superchunk maybe you can work on Mr. Show.'”
The script Reed’s agent sent him was called Cheer Fever and Reed was nonplussed about the idea of making a cheerleader comedy. But then he read it and was sucked in right away. Thus began a one-two punch of fast-moving non-musicals, Bring It On and Down With Love, that established Reed as a choreography-minded directorial virtuoso.
“I had done music video work and I always loved musicals,” Reed says. “Both Bring It On and Down With Love are musicals without actually being musicals. They are heavily choreographed movies and that was something that I really love doing. I never wanted to do comedy where it was just like setting up a camera and recording someone being funny. I always liked movies where the camera is complicit in the comedy and that there is a funnier place to put the camera than another place and that the way the camera moves is part of the joke and part of the storytelling. It’s all about kinetics. There is probably a little bit of OCD to my filmmaking process.”
When Universal began setting up what they billed as an anti-romantic comedy, Peyton Reed wanted onboard. Perhaps the reason why he was able to achieve his vision for The Break-Up, however, is because the material hit a little close to home.
“I was getting divorced at the time so it really was very cathartic for me,” Reed says, “as well as for Jennifer Aniston, who, I think, had the much more publicized break up in her life. But emotionally I was absolutely there too. The first act is more comedic but it gives way to a more dramatic movie and it can be a rough ride. I’m really pleased that the studio allowed us to make it the way we wanted. There was pressure from certain camps to have [Aniston and Vince Vaughn] get back together at the end. It’s like, ‘Well no, the movie is called The Break Up, and it’s about a couple breaking up but also hopefully individually each of them having grown and become enlightened about what not to do next time.’ I’m glad we won that one.”
After making some highly polished studio comedies, Reed was ready for what he decided was the logical next step: a big-budget superhero movie. The studio he’d made Down With Love under, Fox, was setting up Fantastic Four, which Reed considered the crown jewel of the Marvel Comics realm. He went in and pitched hard and ended up getting the job. He never ended up actually making a superhero movie until this year’s Ant-Man.
“I developed Fantastic Four for the better part of a year,” Reed says. “This would’ve been 2003 and the superhero landscape was very different then. Marvel was not its own freestanding studio as it is now. I worked with three different writers and Fox had a very firm release date in mind. I came to find out that they had their own very specific ideas about what that movie was gonna be. We were in development and working on the scripts but we needed to do effects R&D. For weeks they just wouldn’t release visual effects money. And I got to a point where, given the time restrictions and the environment there and they were asking me to commit without a workable script and barely a workable outline, it just didn’t make sense for me. I didn’t feel like I could make the movie I wanted to make at that point.
He continues, “I really was so primed to do a superhero movie and I was so into Fantastic Four, I think a part of that has just been bottled up in me for, what is it now, 12 years? I’ve been so primed to make a movie like this. I came into Marvel years ago and pitched on Guardians of the Galaxy. I’ve been so hungry to do a movie like this. So when the opportunity to do Ant-Man came around I really did just jump at the chance, particularly because it was at Marvel, because it was that character and because they are doing this kind of movie in ways that other people just haven’t been able to.”