Most people, including the writers and producers of Deadpool, have been surprised at its incredible level of success. It set a new box office record for an R-rated film, and has had gotten positive reviews from critics and the audience.
Let’s take a look at what, other than basic good writing, acting, and directing, might have accounted for this success.
Pushing The Envelope
Let’s face it, there’s been a glut of superhero movies the past few years. The superheroes have saved cities, countries, continents, planets and universes…it’s hard to ramp up the stakes any more. Which means you have to push the envelope some other way. In this case, with the character. Deadpool, who was already established in the comic books, is ruder and cruder, gorier, and generally more excessive than the protagonists of previous movies in its genre. The script also fools around stylistically, for example by having the character talk directly to the audience.
It must have been tempting for the producers and studio types to tone down the language and the cruder moments of Deadpool. If it had gone out as a PG-13, it could have attracted a larger audience.
The writers credit producer Simon Kinberg with convincing the studio to be brave and go for the R rating. At the time, Ryan Reynolds told Yahoo!.com, “We don’t get to make it with the budget of most superhero movies, but we get to make it the way we want to make it.”
There’s no doubt that producers feel more comfortable taking a chance when a character already has a life in some other format.
The Backing of a Name Actor
Ryan Reynolds was cast in an attempt to make the film back in 2004 with writer/director David S. Goyer. Reynolds played the role in X-Men Origins, but wanted a stand-alone film with the character closer to his comic book persona. In the intervening years, Reynolds became better known and garnered more clout. He worked with the writers in developing the character and the script.
Blur Studio leaked the visual effects footage they shot for the film in 2012, with Reynolds using motion capture. Reynolds said that this footage is what convinced Fox to greenlight the film. Producers and studios are happier when they have something tangible to look at.
The writers, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, didn’t want to do an origin story because we’ve had a lot of those lately. However, Ryan Reynolds insisted, so they found a solution.
As Joe Berkowitz writes on Fastcreate.com, “They went structurally non-linear, jumping back and forth between a fully-forged ass-kicking Merc with a mouth and he pre-transformation Wade Wilson.”
In other words, they ditched the typical three-act origins structure. Sure, the story has a beginning, middle, and end, but it’s not presented in that order.
The studio took advantage of fandom’s enthusiasm for the character and the film. The director, Tim Miller, and several cast members showed a trailer at 2015’s San Diego Comic-Con. Fox created a “12 Days of Deadpool” campaign, which released new information every day to a different popular website, ending with the release of a new trailer on Christmas Day.
Comics fans, who have often been disappointed in Hollywood’s treatment of their favourite characters, enthusiastically spread the word about Deadpool. Fans can’t necessarily make a film a success, but months of snarky comments on popular social media sites can help sink one.
A Dash of Luck
Many of the elements mentioned above, like the fact that the film went through a very long development process, could equally have led to disaster. With any success, there’s an element of luck, but the more talent and trust is involved, the less need there is to depend on luck.
What Can Writer’s Learn From Deadpool?
There are several possible lessons for filmmakers from Deadpool’s success, but what about writers, since that’s my emphasis?
1: Find an element to set your script apart from the usual. It could be the character, the setting, the situation, the conflict, and/or the style.
2: Don’t censor yourself because you assume producers or others up the line won’t accept your more extreme ideas. They may not, but you never know.
3: If you can’t avoid an obstacle, figure out a way around it, like the Deadpool writers navigated their way around the insistence on providing an origin story.
4: Find allies. This can be an actor, a director, a producer, even a special effects person or company (as proved to be the case for Deadpool). Make contacts in the business before you need them. Easier said than done, but it underlines the important of networking. Go to film festivals, talks, and industry events whenever you can. If you’re a typical introvert writer (like me), force yourself to talk to people.
5: If possible, create something tangible to represent the screenplay. This could be a comic book, a short film, a play, a web series, or anything else you can think of. Pick a format that you can do well—a poorly made short film isn’t going to help you sell a well-written script. You’ll get better results by teaming up with others eager to prove their complementary abilities. Raindance classes and events are a great way to do this.
6: Find fans and make them happy. If you do create something tangible, get it out there and build a fan base for it using social media. These are the people who will get behind your efforts to set up the film, too.
7: Be lucky. The only advice I have on this point is the old quote, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”
Jurgen Wolff’s Script Coach series starts on Monday, 10 July and runs for five Monday evenings. You can still sign up for the series or for individual sessions here.