A few weeks ago, a minor controversy sprung out of Marvel's "Incredible Hulk" panel at Comic-Con that had a lot of fans both scratching their heads and pointing their fingers. And no, it wasn't griping about Liv Tyler being cast as Betty Ross or fears that the Hulk was going to CGI-fly again. As with most mini-scandals, it turns out to have been both more and less than it first appeared to be.
When it was revealed that Edward Norton, who had been cast as the scientist-gone-green Bruce Banner, had also written the script, it surprised and confused a lot of folks who thought that Zak Penn had written the screenplay. Penn, who has worked on half a dozen Marvel movies, including the last two "X-Men" installments, "Elektra" and, as one of his first Marvel assignments a dozen years ago, what eventually became the first, Ang Lee-directed "Hulk," had actually spent a year writing the screenplay before Norton became involved.
At first blush, it looked like just another case of a screenwriter getting disrespected while a movie star with a reputation for aggressive involvement in scripts had bullied his way into writing this one.
"Both panels were excellent for Marvel Studios," says Marvel Studios president of production Kevin Feige, who was also there presenting "Iron Man." "I think the only bit of bungling on my part was not clarifying Zak's role up there in front of 7,000 people, which I then tried to clarify in some round tables I did 20 minutes later after the 'Iron Man' panel."
Of course, nothing prevented Norton from speaking up about Penn, and it didn't help that the actor, by many accounts a very smart guy (and a closet comic book geek), had long since acquired a reputation for stepping on writers' toes when it came to script revisions.
Widely credited with doing substantial uncredited work on "Frida" for then-girlfriend Salma Hayek (who was the film's producer and star), Norton had also shown up on the set of "Red Dragon," for example, with new script pages not only for his character but for Dr. Hannibal Lecter as well. Other people on the film describe director Brett Ratner fighting with Norton over the issue, and Anthony Hopkins reportedly expressed his comfort with speaking the original lines written by Ted Tally, an Oscar winner for his adaptation of "Silence of the Lambs." (Norton's publicist maintains that Ratner asked him to write new pages.)
In the case of "Hulk," after another writer's treatment was declined in early 2006, Marvel hired Penn, who wrote three drafts over a year. By spring 2007, Penn was about to go off to promote his movie "The Grand," but the studio and the director, Louis Leterrier ("The Transporter"), still felt that the screenplay needed work.
When Norton came in to meet about starring as Banner in April, the film had already been greenlighted and there were just three months before shooting was scheduled to begin, just after Independence Day. But Norton had well-established (if underground) writing experience and strong ideas about how to separate the film from any confusion over its connection to the 2003 Ang Lee version by casting it in a more distinct, starting-over vein like "Batman Begins" or "Casino Royale."
So Norton's initial deal included payment not just for his acting services but for his writing talents too, with his draft contractually stipulated to be turned around in less than a month. As it turned out, Norton delayed work on another screenplay job to do "Hulk," and he continues to tweak the script as principal photography hits its halfway point outside Toronto.
Meanwhile, Penn is writing a big-budget version of "The Avengers" and yet another potential "X-Men" spinoff.
As for Norton's writing services, now that he's finally gone "legit" as a paid double threat, other filmmakers may come calling. "Yes, he is that good a writer that I would definitely work with him on another movie that he wasn't starring in," says Feige.