When Peyton Reed stepped in to direct 2015’s Marvel Cinematic Universe movie Ant-Man, he was joining a project that was already in motion. Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz writer-director Edgar Wright had spent years developing the project and co-writing a script with Joe Cornish before leaving in 2014 over the oft-cited “creative differences.” Like Wright, Reed had a career making comedies, including the Jim Carrey vehicle Yes Man, teen comedy Bring It On, and episodes of Mr. Show with Bob and David. His sense of humor and comedic timing paid off, and the movie became a pint-sized hit, grossing more than half a billion dollars worldwide.
When it came time for the sequel, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Reed was the go-to filmmaker from the beginning, and he had plenty of narrative runway to work with. After being introduced in Ant-Man, the character of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) appeared in Captain America: Civil War, where he took part in the film’s massive airport battle. But when it came to Avengers: Infinity War, Lang was nowhere to be seen, leaving audiences to wonder exactly what he was up to and how Ant-Man and the Wasp would fit into the franchise, given Infinity War’s grim ending. There was also the question of Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), who received the Wasp costume in the first film’s post-credits scene.
A few days before Ant-Man and the Wasp opened in theaters, I jumped on the phone with Reed to discuss his ambitions for the sequel, how the different filmmakers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe collaborate, and what it takes to make a visual effects sequence that’s both photoreal and hilarious.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
For the first film, you jumped into a version of the movie in progress. This time, it was yours from the get-go. What were you most intent on tackling in the second installment?
It was a few things. Chief among them was really, “Okay, now we get to finally show the Wasp.” We’ve spent time with Hope van Dyne in the first movie. We know she was really better prepared to take on Hank Pym’s problem. He just couldn’t see it. So to finally have her coming-out party and show her in the suit and help create that character with Evangeline from the ground up, that was the single most exciting thing.
Also just the idea of creating this partnership [between Scott and Hope]. It was a very different kind of partnership from any of the other heroes in the MCU. After the events of Ant-Man, and certainly after the events of Captain America: Civil War, it was really fun to explore. I remember going to see an early screening of Civil War and talking to [directors Anthony and Joseph Russo] and to [screenwriters Christopher] Markus and [Stephen] McFeely — who I don’t know had completely thought this through or really even cared. But it was like, “Wow, this is amazing! Scott Lang went off, took the suit, fought with the Avengers, exposed the technology to Tony Stark, got put in prison, and the suit was confiscated!” It gave us such fertile ground in terms of where to start our movie. And it made sense that Scott’s going to be on house arrest, and Hank and Hope are going to be pissed at Scott Lang, and also pissed off because the enforcers of the Sokovia Accord are now onto them. So it gave us a really organic jumping-off point. I don’t know that we would’ve come to it as quickly and clearly if Scott had not been in Civil War.
So really, it was those things, and it was also just doubling down on the tone of the first movie — like with the Pym particle technology, not limiting it to people, and getting into shrinking and growing vehicles and buildings. It’s not a heist movie, but we wanted to stay in the crime genre in terms of structure and looking to stuff like Elmore Leonard novels and movies like Midnight Run and After Hours. We just wanted to go nuts with this movie.
This is the third Marvel movie this year, and it’s coming after the serious-minded Black Panther and a pretty upsetting Infinity War. Did knowing audiences would be walking in with that context affect anything you were doing in terms of tone or approach?
I don’t know that it impacted us because we really were keying off the tone of the first movie, but it definitely felt right to us. We always knew we were coming out after Panther and Infinity War, and it just felt right in the context of Marvel releasing three movies in 2018. We all felt like, “Okay, yeah. I like where we sit tonally. This feels organic to what we were already doing, but it’ll also be a stark contrast to what came before.” And I always think that’s important. I like that.
You said last year during a tour of Marvel’s offices that the early development stage is when you and the other directors can kick around ideas and collaborate. Apart from talking to Markus and McFeely, were there other areas of collaboration in that development stage on this one?
In terms of talking to the other directors, it is the basic information that we all want to be consistent about the characters. If Scott Lang’s going to appear in another movie, or Hope, or something, you want it to be tonally consistent with what you’ve established in your movies. So there was always that. But there is also that thing of — for me, anyway — being a director and knowing the vibe or the tone of the other movie. As I read stuff and looked at stuff from Infinity War, it just felt like, “Okay, this is good. [Infinity War and Ant-Man and the Wasp are] both very, very different, and they both have different narrative ambitions.” I think that’s what has become really intriguing to me about the MCU. It’s all under this umbrella, but the stories can be radically different and can be very much their own thing and very much the voices of the different filmmakers. That’s an exciting thing to be part of, creatively.
It seems that’s one way Marvel is able to avoid superhero fatigue. If somebody loves Ant-Man, they may see Scott in another film, but they don’t get a proper sequel for two to three years. That’s a pretty traditional cadence, even if other Marvel movies are coming every six months.
Yeah, definitely. I mean, it’s narratively intriguing. And then also for me, having done comedies and different types of comedies, it was important to me from the very beginning to be able to do visual comedy. To do stuff that was not just the camera being locked down, and recording people telling jokes and being funny — but being complicit visually in the comedy. Those are the movies I grew up loving.
And for that alone, it’s exciting to work at Marvel because it’s being able to do comedy on a grand scale and with the best people out there. I mean, Rudd is an unstoppable comedic force, but being able to put other elements — Michael Peña and now Randall Park — in this movie, who are amazing comedic actors. That alone is something I think that’s worth talking about. In the world of feature comedies, for a director like me, it’s a huge opportunity because we get to do character comedy, and we also get to do these set pieces that we’ve designed from the ground up as comedic and character set pieces.
It’s an interesting time, too. There’s been some recent conversation about the disappearance of the midbudget comedy, and here you’re able to do some of that kind of filmmaking, but with these huge budgetary resources.
Yeah, and that to me is real exciting because we came up with some pretty whacked-out visual concepts in this movie, and we actually have the resources to be able to pull them off. If it’s a verbal joke, you can kind of road-test it. You write it, you shoot it, you think it’s funny, you put it before an audience, and they either laugh or they don’t. With a visual gag, and particularly a visual effects gag, you may not know if that gag is funny. And the difference between it being funny and not funny might be how well that effect is rendered. That’s the thing Marvel gives you access to: the top visual effects people. So that is also exciting, that it can be a part of the comedy.
What’s the process of putting together big visual gags like the one in the trailer, with Scott using a truck like a scooter?
I mean, it really does start similarly to the way they wrote silent movies back in the day with Buster Keaton or whatever, in that they were gag-writers. We would sit around in the room with the writers and talk about, “Ah, what can we do with Giant-Man? If Giant-Man has got this flatbed truck, and is using it like a scooter… ” You just think: it’s a giant Paul Rudd in a suit, using a truck as a scooter through real downtown San Francisco. That felt like, “Okay, this seems funny to me. This seems like it could be visually exhilarating, if it’s done in a way that feels photorealistic.” So we do some storyboards, and then we work with our pre-viz department, and I work really closely with all of them, and we start designing what those shots would look like, and when you see even a remedial, almost 3D cartoon version of it, it’s funny.
So then we go out, and we shoot the [background] plate in San Francisco, the crane shot as it goes down the hill, all the various shots. Then we shoot an element with an actual truck that’s fitted hydraulically so it’s lower on one side, and you can feel the weight of where Giant-Man will be on that thing. Then we shoot some motion-capture stuff with Rudd, and then we give it to our visual effects house, and they create these digital characters based on Paul and his face and his suit and stuff. They’re incredibly complicated shots, but hopefully an audience won’t think about that. They’ll just think, “Oh, wow. I’m buying this. This feels like a gigantic guy riding in the middle of San Francisco.”
You’ve said you wanted to give Hope more time in the spotlight with this movie. If you take a step back, and look at the first film — which ended with Hank giving her the Wasp suit and acknowledging her as a hero-to-be — the series starts to look like the first two installments in a Wasp trilogy. Are you eager to tell more of the story with these characters?
I think there’s a lot more story to tell with all those characters. I mean, I think their partnership really only gels toward the end of the movie, right? And I think it’s like, “Okay, what becomes of them now?” And particularly after the end of the movie, I think there’s a lot more story to tell with all those characters.
Sometimes you can watch these movies, and it does feel squarely like Scott’s story. And then sometimes it does feel more like Hope’s story. And I like that. It was important in constructing the second movie that we really tell both their stories and really convey both their points of view throughout the movie. There’s a touch of Lebowski in Scott, right? Not only literally because he’s in a bathrobe for a few scenes, but the idea we played around a little bit with is… I think it’s probably impossible to have a passive hero in a Marvel movie, but we definitely give Scott his moments where he is like, “Listen, man, I just want to get back to house arrest. I’m not screwing this up.” So that was fun to play around with in terms of points of view, trying to really make sure we dealt with both their points of view, and they’re both very, very valid.