When Nicole Perlman was an imaginative, nerdy kid growing up in Boulder, Colo., in the 1990s, her childhood hero was Ray Bradbury. She even met the science-fiction legend once, as a special present for her 12th birthday; he signed her copy of Dandelion Wine. With Bradbury's inspiration and her father's encouragement, Perlman entered some writing contests for aspiring sci-fi authors. "I think when I was in sixth or seventh grade, I won," she told BuzzFeed earlier this month at the bustling Los Angeles coffee shop Shaky Alibi. "The prize was going to Space Camp. I didn't get to because I had to have jaw surgery that summer." Laughing to herself, she shook her fist to the sky: "Still, to this day, I'm like, 'Spaaaaace Caaaaaamp!'"
Last summer, Perlman finally got to go to outer space — or, at least, pretend to — when she visited the set of Marvel Studios' Guardians of the Galaxy, which opens in theaters on Friday. She was instantly transported to a sci-fi world in a far-flung corner of the cosmos. "There was 600 people on set, making alien prosthetics, and … the alien swords and the ray guns and all that," she said. "That was pretty cool."
What made it even cooler: Before James Gunn (Slither, Super) signed on to direct and co-write the movie, and certainly before Chris Pratt (Zero Dark Thirty), Zoe Saldana (Avatar), and WWE fighter Dave Bautista signed up to be its live-action stars, Perlman was toiling away for two and a half years, trying to figure out how to assemble the Guardians onto the big screen.
If it weren't for her, the movie may not have existed at all.
In 2009, Perlman — a budding screenwriter with a great deal of buzz behind her but no produced movies yet to her name — joined the Marvel Writing Program, an unusual, two-year, salaried conclave of up-and-coming screenwriters tasked with diving into Marvel's back catalogue of comic titles to see which ones might work as feature films.
"We got to choose from a list of half a dozen properties that they had that were lesser Marvel properties," said Perlman, now 33. "There was no guarantee that these projects would ever get made. And there were properties on that list that were much better known, things that people had heard of. But I saw Guardians of the Galaxy. … I took it."
Her friends thought she was crazy, and for good reason. First appearing in 1969, the Marvel comic books that Guardians of the Galaxy is based on seesawed in and out of print, first in the 1970s, then the 1990s, and then in the late 2000s. Each new cycle rotated through a slightly to completely different set of characters who form the eponymous cadre of roughhouse misfits tasked with, well, guarding the galaxy. "It's not a very well-known title," Perlman admitted. "Super obscure." Basically, you have to be a deep-dish Marvel geek to call yourself a true Guardians fan — let alone know much of anything about the title's story and characters. The idea that Marvel Studios, which in 2009 had produced only two movies, would devote the hefty budget needed for a big space sci-fi summer movie based on a comic book that even many Marvel Comics readers barely knew seemed, to many, like a long shot at best. "I knew there was only really one slot any time in the near future to do a movie from the writing program," said Perlman. "So I thought the chances were slim."
Perlman, however, had a very specific reason for choosing Guardians. She'd risen to prominence after Challenger — a script she wrote while at NYU, about the investigation into the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion — landed on the inaugural 2005 edition of the Black List, an annual survey of the best unproduced screenplays circulating through Hollywood. From there, Perlman landed a gig adapting the biography First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong. It was an auspicious beginning for any young writer, but Perlman still had Ray Bradbury's grand sci-fi adventures bouncing through her head.
"I had been doing all these very specific, science-y, historical pictures," she said. "But I wanted to get into this larger realm of science fiction and more fun, action-packed movies." Unfortunately, no one in Hollywood seemed to want her to do it. "There was a little of this, like, 'You're a cute a lovely girl! How are you going to write a'" — she affected a deep, macho voice here — "'big action masculine movie?!'" Perlman, her hair in tight, close-cropped curls and her demeanor bright and upbeat, is not a naturally intimidating presence. "I think the undercurrent was very much like, 'We're just not sure you could handle it,' even if they really loved my take or my pitch."
When she looked at the titles on Marvel's list, however, Perlman realized this was finally her chance to take a big swing at writing a big sci-fi movie. "There was, like, no question for me what I was going to do," she said. And unlike so many other Hollywood gatekeepers who turned her away, Marvel didn't flinch. "They might have been a little surprised when I chose Guardians as opposed to one of the other projects," said Perlman. "But I didn't get any pushback about being [a woman]. They kind of loved it." (She declined, by the way, to name those other projects on the record.)
Perlman also understood enough about Marvel Studios' long game that she had an inkling that going with Guardians might be a smart play. "I also knew Marvel wanted to go into that cosmic universe eventually, so it made sense to position myself that way," she said with a smile. "I would not describe myself as a savvy business person. But yeah, I think, in retrospect, it was a good call."
Of course, Perlman still needed to get familiar with what, precisely, Guardians of the Galaxy was as a comic book narrative. So for the first six weeks of the program, pretty much her only task was reading through reams of back issues. "I was getting these huge binders filled with color printouts from their library of just, like, everything," she said with a laugh. "All the Guardians backstory, but also all the people that they interacted with, and anything that I needed to know to understand the world. I would bring home every weekend just, like, stacks and stacks of comic books to read. My husband was like, 'I hate you! You have the best job ever!'"
From the outside, it would seem that by entering into the Marvel Studios' machine, Perlman had wedded herself to a series of ironclad prerequisites so her movie would fit into the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. But Perlman's experience was quite the opposite. "It's kind of amazing, looking back on it, how much freedom I was given," she said. "Maybe because it was kind of far-fetched, this idea that this project would actually get chosen to be produced, that I really was given an enormous amount of creative freedom, in the way that I don't think you get a lot from studios. They said, basically, 'Here are the comics. Come up with a good story. Choose the characters you like, and we'll just keep playing with it.'"
So that's what she did, for two years. She hit upon the characters from the 2008 comic book version of Guardians of the Galaxy as the main source of her characters: Peter Quill (Pratt), Gamora (Saldana), Drax (Bautista), Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel).
"I think if I was doing a sequel or if we'd been writing one of the Avengers characters, it would be a little more fraught. What's nice about Guardians is that it's that first foray into cosmic Marvel, so we had a lot of leeway. I chose the characters that I liked the best," she said. "Nobody guided me. No one said, 'You can't do this character, you have to do this character.'" (Perlman said she worked in three other characters as possible members of the core group into early drafts, but, again, declined to say which ones, in case Marvel has plans for them in the future. For those of you wondering, however, she said she did not ever consider Adam Warlock or Quasar.)
But rather than stick to the comic source material, Perlman was given free rein to reinterpret major elements to make them work in Marvel's more (relatively) grounded cinematic universe. For one, she "completely rebooted" the backstory of the lead character, Peter Quill, aka Star Lord. "In the comics, Peter Quill's story is that he's an astronaut who is up in space when he has an encounter with this otherworldly celestial being," said Perlman, "and we don't have any of that." And she crafted the central story — the Guardians are ne'er-do-well outlaws thrown together into a partnership of convenience — based less on the comics than what would make the most sense on screen.
There were two major creative decisions Perlman made that drew upon two of the most seminal elements of the Marvel Comics universe — and proved to be among the trickiest elements of her script. The first: Her MacGuffin was one of the Infinity Gems — or, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Infinity Stones — objects of immense power that, when brought together, form the all-powerful Infinity Gauntlet. "That was a big question," she said. "Are we going to be setting this up for Infinity Gauntlet? So there was a lot of back and forth about that."
And with the Infinity Gauntlet comes the person who wears it: Thanos, arguably the biggest, baddest, most formidable villain Marvel has — this is the guy who shows up in the end credits of 2012's The Avengers and had Marvel comics' fans losing their minds. And Perlman wanted him as her antagonist. "He's a super-fantastic cosmic villain," said Perlman. "Thanos was the antagonist was for my drafts all the way through. … But after I had handed in my draft, I think they wanted to keep him for later movies." Ultimately, Thanos receded into the background of Guardians, after Perlman had left the project, and Ronan the Accuser, played by Lee Pace, replaced Thanos as the script's main villain. Or, to put it in the context of another cosmic franchise: "[Thanos] is more like the Emperor, instead of Darth Vader," said Perlman.
Before her time with the Marvel Writing Program was over, however, Perlman did take one break from writing Guardians to do an uncredited rewrite of 2011's Thor. "They wanted a woman to work on some of Natalie Portman's stuff," she said, "especially because I have a real interest in science and a lot of experience writing science [dialogue]." The experience brought her into contact with another childhood idol: director Kenneth Branagh. "I was in [the] Kenneth Branagh fan club when I was in high school — I had a T-shirt," she said with an enormous grin. "I didn't tell him this when I was working with him, but everybody knew. So I'd be sitting at this conference table and he'd be giving me notes, and, like, behind him, people would be grinning, and making funny faces, and I'd be blushing, and Kenneth Branagh would be like, 'What's wrong?' I'm like, 'Nothing, nothing! Keep going!'"
After leaving the Marvel Writing Program in 2011, Perlman was invited back by Marvel Studios to do another six-month stint rewriting Guardians of the Galaxy as a freelancer. "That's when I started to realize that they were serious about it and that it was going up to the creative committee to be voted on about whether or not have it be for the August 2014 slate," she said. "I always saw it as a movie. I think when you're writing a script, you have to see it and get excited about the visuals, and what it would actually be like to be in the theater watching that movie."
But Perlman also understood that her time with the project was almost certainly finite. "It wasn't a question of if, it was a question of when," she said. "I always knew they were going to bring in a writer-director. That was always sort of the plan. I'm not primarily a comedy writer, but it needed to be a comedic project. Like, this is a project that has always been irreverent. It's always been tongue-in-cheek. And so that was always the question."
After her six-month freelance contract was up, Perlman moved on, and shortly after, Gunn — a filmmaker known for his outré sensibility — was officially hired to direct the film and rewrite Perlman's script. "In a way that was really a blessing," said Perlman. "It wasn't a script that was done by committee, in the way that I think a lot of large action superhero movies are. … James definitely put his stamp on it for sure. He added a lot."
Beyond swapping in Ronan for Thanos and reshaping the dialogue to fit his own offbeat style, Perlman said Gunn added the character of Nebula — one of Thanos' daughters, played by Karen Gillan (Doctor Who) — as a secondary villain and antagonist for Saldana's Gamora, and reconceived the character of Yondu (Michael Rooker) as a smuggler and Quill's outlaw father figure.
As is the case with so many feature films, Marvel publicly defers to Gunn as the primary author of the movie. And Guardians clearly bears his signature, from its smorgasbord casting and its highly irreverent sense of humor to its go-for-broke visual panache. The official production notes for Guardians of the Galaxy refer to Perlman with just a single clause of a single sentence, after establishing Gunn's involvement with the project: "With the director on board and busy reworking the original script written by Nicole Perlman, a Marvel Writing Program alumnus, the filmmakers turned their attention to casting." (Gunn has already been hired to write and direct the Guardians sequel, which is slated for July 2017.)
Throughout the production process, however, Marvel treated Perlman with respect, flying her out to London for that aforementioned set visit. "I could stay as long as I wanted," she said. "I got to be in the director's tent and watch the filming and give my thoughts, and that was pretty amazing." And Gunn was OK with her presence there? "I think he was concerned as to what I thought of his draft," said Perlman, choosing her words carefully. (Navigating the politics of movie-writing credits can sometimes feel as thorny as high-stakes global diplomacy.) "Maybe I'm just projecting here. But I think he was very relieved when I told him I liked what he had done. Not to say that he was particularly hanging on my opinion of it. But I think that that went a long way to showing that I really respected the work that he did and thought he brought a lot of great stuff to the project."
Perhaps not surprisingly, Gunn downplayed Perlman's involvement when asked about it by BuzzFeed during a brief interview at the Guardians press junket. "She definitely got the ball rolling," he said. "The original concept was there, that was sort of like what's in the movie, and then there's the story and the characters — those were pretty much re-created by me."
With Guardians behind her, Perlman's not exactly hurting for work. She's busy adapting the upcoming YA novel The Fire Sermon for DreamWorks. She's writing a "dark fantasy pilot" for Skydance Television and executive producer Neil Burger (Divergent). She's developing a "Labyrinth-type movie" for Cirque du Soleil's film production company that's a modern-day retelling of the Pandora's Box myth. And just a few weeks ago, Challenger, her very first screenplay that launched her career, was re-optioned by producer Joel Newton (The Kids Are All Right) and his coincidentally titled production company, Hydra Entertainment. (No, really, that's its name.)
If Guardians is a hit, Perlman's plate is bound to get even more crowded, but it's unclear whether it will be with another big comic book movie. Of all the 33 movies based on Marvel's comics since 1998 — either produced in-house by Marvel Studios, or licensed to another studio — she is one of two women ever credited as a screenwriter. (The other is Jane Goldman, who co-wrote X-Men: First Class and has a story credit on X-Men: Days of Future Past.) Perlman herself is more keen on trying her hand at one of Marvel's upcoming TV projects than another one of its movies. But she is well aware of what her success could mean for any other woman hoping to help usher another superhero to the multiplex.
"I think it goes a long way to show that you can do something like this," she said. "Because there aren't many female Marvel superhero movie screenwriters out there."