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Fantastic Four's long trip

Comedy thriller? Action flick? The Marvel Comics story has taken more forms than its superheroes.

July 06, 2005|Chris Lee | Special to The Times

"It's the strangest deal I ever made in my life," Corman said, "the most profitable film I ever made that did not get released."

Change of direction

In 1995, Marvel again tried to adapt the Fantastic Four. Writer-director Chris Columbus of "Home Alone" and "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" fame was enlisted to adapt it. He brought his own team of writers, which included Sam Hamm ("Monkeybone"), Philip Morton ("Fire Down Below") and Michael France ("The Punisher," "Hulk"), and Columbus spent two years working on the project before leaving the director's seat; he worried in the press that the movie's budget might reach $280 million.

Columbus took a producing role while Peter Segal ("The Longest Yard") was considered as an alternative director. Ultimately, Raja Gosnell, the director of "Big Momma's House," took over in 2000 and set about adapting the material with yet another team of writers. Gosnell, however, outraged Fantastic Four fans by announcing plans to adapt the comic as a "sitcom." And although the comic publisher had initially supported Gosnell's comedic take -- and Marvel's Arad trumpeted the director's plans in the press -- he and Marvel soon parted ways.

"I called it a 'comedy-adventure,' " Arad said. "The Fantastic Four are funny because the way they use their powers is quite whimsical." Gosnell did not respond to calls seeking comment.

After Gosnell, "A Knight's Tale" director Brian Helgeland was among the considered replacements. But in 2001, Peyton Reed, director of the cheerleading hit "Bring It On," signed on. He began working on a script first with Tristan Patterson and later, Doug Petrie, writer for TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

But capturing the right mix of action, humor and pathos for the characters that creator Lee described as "heroes with hang-ups," continued to defy filmmakers. Internet chat rooms again lit up with the news the Reed-Petrie collaboration would recast "Fantastic Four" as a meta-narrative examination of the heroes' fame as in the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night." In a 2002 interview with MTV, Petrie elaborated on his conception of the Fantastic Four as "the biggest celebrities in New York City." Plot points included scenes of the superheroes ordering pizza and fighting about which of them had the best costume.

"There was an iteration that took the approach of a reality show," Arad said. "A camera inside the Baxter Building" -- the Fantastic Four's headquarters -- "and the whole world could see what they're doing all the time."

Reed left the project in 2003, citing "creative differences."

Superhero screenplay specialists Dan Harris and Mike Dougherty ("X-Men," "Superman Returns") and Zak Penn ("Elektra," "The Punisher") were hired to polish the script. But the final version began to take shape when France returned to the project. The writer concentrated on the screenplay's tone and Mark Frost, the co-creator and writer of "Twin Peaks," was hired to shift the action back to the Four's dysfunctional family origins.

"I had read the other drafts -- Mark's draft had more of the Fantastic Four as public heroes and celebrities. I toned that down," said Simon Kinberg, writer of "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," who was hired after Frost to do final uncredited rewrites during production on "Fantastic Four." "I wanted to make it an origin story of superheroes who didn't accept themselves as superheroes until the final sequence of the film."

He added that he didn't find it unusual that the project had employed so many screenwriters. "These superhero movies that are long in development -- you end up with a lot of writers. If you count all the writers on [Bryan Singer's upcoming] 'Superman' movie, you probably have 15 to 20 A-list writers."

Heartened by the screenplay's progress, in late 2003, Fox gave the film a June 29, 2005 release date. And Marvel Studios had to scramble to find a director.

'Can I do this'

Music video ace Tim Story hadn't finished his second feature, "Taxi," when Arad began courting him for the "Fantastic Four" job. Exhausted after an arduous shoot and with his wife six months pregnant, Story wasn't sure he was up to handling a potentially gigantic franchise.

"I knew it had gotten up and gone down, that it had gone through Chris Columbus and Raja Gosnell and Peyton Reed," Story, 35, said. "When I was getting in on it, they had a date. It was a matter of, 'We're finding a director and we're going.' It was never a question of if we're going to make it. It was a question of: Can I do this?"

To hear Arad tell it, however, Marvel and Fox were sure they had their man -- even if Story's resume didn't seem like a perfect fit for an effects-driven action film and the increasingly restless fan community was opposed to him. The plan was to surround Story with many of the same experts Marvel employed for Singer's "X-Men" films and let the director concentrate his attention on working with primary cast members Jessica Alba, Michael Chiklis, Ioan Gruffudd, Julian McMahon and Chris Evans.

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