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When it comes to blockbuster superhero movies, spontaneity is hardly the first word that comes to mind, given how laborious the production process of these spectacle-heavy movies tend to be. Filmmakers always talk about precise storyboarding, meticulous blocking and choreography of action scenes, and the massive logistics of planning every shot. However, directors Henry Joost and Rel Schulman tell SYFY WIRE that they made sure to keep things as loose as possible while making their Paramount+ original, the superhero adventure Secret Headquarters.
Starring Owen Wilson as The Guard and Michael Pena as tech entrepreneur/nemesis Ansel Argon, the directors admit they knew that casting two actors so adept with improv comedy would only open up the screenplay to welcome changes along the way. "We're lucky to have Owen and Michael, two really talented, funny guys who are good writers. Because when you make a movie, there's always extra fabric like with a good suit," Schulman explains. "Your client comes in for a fitting and you tailor it. And a lot of that [here] was letting these guys find new scenes, find moments, find the other 20 percent of the screenplay that we purposely left open."
For actor Jesse Williams (Grey's Anatomy), who plays Sean Irons, an Air Force pilot who collides with an alien ship, the unknown space for his character came from his research into actual pilots around the world who have witnessed UFOs and then not been believed by their superiors or the U.S. government. "I watched a ton of documentaries and YouTube videos about encounters and real testimony from people having real encounters with unidentified objects," Williams shares. And then I talked to our directors, Henry and Rel, who were both really into it. They had cool references for me to dive into."
That research then turned into the film's epilogue sequence where Irons is revealed to now be The Guard's "man in the chair" and an internationally known podcaster regarding UFO sightings. "We built out this additional story that if I believe in this passionately, and I'm trying to get the word out there, I'd have a podcast and I'd be on YouTube," Williams details. "I'd be using current technology to express myself, so we expanded on that, which was a lot of fun. And it's interesting around the time we [were shooting], the government acknowledged UFOs and released all this footage, so I feel really validated."
Perhaps the most impressive, and memorable piece of scene improv for Secret Headquarters came during the planning of The Guard and Argon's big battle at Charlie's (Walker Scobell) middle school during the big dance. After throwing one another around down the hallways, Argon and The Guard both end up needing a moment to catch a second wind since they're not exactly the youngest superheroes out there.
Director Henry Joost says the sequence was born out of conversations with Owen Wilson and Michael Pena. "When we first talked to [Michael], he was like, "Wouldn't it be funny if there's a moment where we're fighting and I get really out of breath? Like, does that fit in this movie?"
Pena says when he did his first pass of the script, it immediately dawned on him that, "Owen and I are playing these guys, so I'm sure they're exhausted," he says with a laugh. "I pitched the idea and that's what's so great about working with these guys, Rel and Henry, they immediately took to it. The next draft, it was in there."
"It turned into a scene that wasn't in the original script that really makes that fight sequence so funny," Joost continues. "People never get tired in superhero movies. And those suits are heavy and hot."
Wilson says on the day of the shoot, the "swagger" of the moment ended up growing into another added element in the scene that took on a life of its own. "I was on the ground having been decimated, but I was watching him and the guy had so much swagger in the suit that it kind of led to me saying that he doesn't have [swagger]. Clearly, he had so much swagger, and then with the dancing, so "swagger" became a thing. It's always exciting on a movie when you feel like you come up with something on the spot, sometimes that gives kind of an energy to the scene and to the crew."
And the cherry on that scene is when Pena's Argon takes extra time at the water fountain, stalling for just a little extra time before going at it again with The Guard. "I was thinking about it a lot," the actor laughs. "I thought, 'Okay, he's taking a sip of water, but he would want to defend himself and be careful.' And so there are a couple of things that I planned out. Listen, you write alternates and imagine the situation, and once you look at the location, it gives you ideas as well."
Now, the cast is looking forward to the possibility of reuniting to riff again together for a Secret Headquarters sequel. Williams says they haven't had full-fledged story conversations yet, but everyone is open to coming back. "You have all the ingredients there for the meal," he says. "They assembled a great group, both in front and behind the camera, so I think it's possible."
And, with Argon off in an alternative universe, Pena has already been doing some thinking about how his baddie can get a second round. "What if he's in that realm, and then he meets somebody else who The Guard put in that realm?" he poses. "Then, we get together and we bust out of there and then there's two of us against The Guard!"
Secret Headquarters is available now exclusively on Paramount+.
Looking for more superhero action? Stream Heroes on Peacock.