When Peyton Reed signed on to take over and direct Ant-Man in 2014, he had put in more years in Hollywood than almost any of the other filmmakers working within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And yet Reed, now 54 years old, wasn't exactly a household name to geek audiences — a fact that was more feature than bug in a 25-year career that has spanned behind-the-scenes documentaries, beloved theme park rides, TV movies, cult classics and hit comedies, and, to that point, just a brush with superheroes.
"Howard Hawks fascinated me because he did all these things. To me, Hawks was a Stanley Kubrick before Kubrick, because he worked in so many different genres and in a lot of those genres did the defining movies in those genres at the time," Reed recently told SYFY WIRE. "I like the idea of Howard Hawks' career, where you can do the definitive romantic comedy and the definitive science fiction movie and the definitive western. I liked how versatile he was."
Between writing the iconic Back to the Future ride at Universal Studios (and directing all the live-action scenes in the BTTF TV show), directing the classic teen comedy Bring It On, and working with major stars like Jennifer Aniston and Jim Carrey in hot comedies like The Breakup and The Yes Man, Reed had already found success in a number of disparate genres. And once he rescued Ant-Man from turmoil and turned it into a big hit, he has no problem with nerd name recognition, either.
What was the first script you ever wrote?
The first full screenplay that I ever wrote was in the early '90s. I was working as an editor at a company called ZM Productions, and I used to edit and eventually direct "making of" documentaries. I worked on The Making of Back to the Future Part II and III and Forrest Gump and stuff like that. I was hired by Hollywood Pictures, which at the time was an offshoot of Disney, and they were looking at remaking some of the live-action movies in the Disney catalog.
They wanted to remake The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. I wrote a screenplay called Mr. Know It All for Hollywood Pictures. I did two or three drafts on that. It was my first professional screenwriting job. After the second draft, this movie called Encino Man with Pauly Shore came out. It was a big hit for Hollywood Pictures.
Then Hollywood Pictures decided they were going to take a handful of their projects and turn them into Pauly Shore vehicles. My last draft of that script was basically Pauly-izing that screenplay. Taking the characters that I had written, worked on, then make them say, "Heeeeey buddy" and "Wheezer," and all that stuff. Obviously, needless to say, it never got made, the movie, but that was my first foray into professional screenwriting.
I was immediately being introduced to studio politics, just from the get-go. Weirdly, my first full-length [directing job] was directing a TV movie adaptation of The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes a year later, but not with Pauly Shore.
Were they at all connected?
No, only in that this company ZM had made a deal with Disney. Disney decided to revive the Wonderful World of Disney, the Sunday night thing, so they had these things half-baked. I didn't want to write it anymore, but I wanted to direct it, because by the time that came around I had directed a few more things. It weirdly worked out well.
What was the first short you ever made?
I wrote and directed a 12-minute short called Almost Beat. I started working on all these various movies, low-budget movies, in various positions. I'd been working as a van driver on Bull Durham. I was saving my money from that job to hopefully finance a 16mm short film. I wrote this thing called Almost Beat, which is basically about these two guys who were just out of college and were gonna go on the road Jack Kerouac-style and see the country. Of course, they knew nothing about what they were doing. They'd never read the book, and it's this ridiculous comedy duo thing.
I shot it, I cut it together and then entered it in some festivals and it won some prizes. The company I was working for at the time as an editor, it really did sort of show them, "Oh, wow. You can direct stuff," and it really led to me to directing a lot more things.
A big lesson, too, is that half the time you come to L.A. to work, you're working to pay your rent. This was a thing where it was really work not only to pay rent, but people will only hire you to direct something if they see proof that you can do it. I know it was a huge, huge lesson for me.
Early on you wrote the Back to the Future ride at Universal Studios — how'd that opportunity come up?
Well, it was all connected through this company, ZM Productions, which doesn't exist anymore, but it was started by this guy George Zaloom and Les Mayfield. They'd gone to USC Film School. They got their start making documentaries for Amblin, for Spielberg's company. I started with them as an assistant editor and then an editor and then worked my way up as a writer and director. In addition to Behind the Scenes, they were doing stuff for the Universal tour because they were located on the Universal backlot and doing a lot of Spielberg-related things.
I worked there on staff and got paid, literally I started at $200 a week. They paid you nothing, but the tradeoff was that you got to work on these projects that were really high-profile and watch really high-profile filmmakers work. They were putting together this Back to the Future ride and they needed someone to write this whole 45-minute pre-show script and do stuff for the ride itself. My writing partner at the time and I got assigned to this thing — we lobbied for it, obviously — and we were huge Back to the Future fans.
We'd worked on Back to the Future Part II and III. We were working with Gale and Zemeckis. Doug Trumbull did the visual effects for the thing. I'm still in my 20s, it was just a thrill to be working on something like that. I loved that ride. I miss that ride. For its time, it was really, really groundbreaking.
Did they give you a lot of guidelines and requirements?
There's a whole structure to that, where it's people are waiting in line for a long time, so there's this pre-show thing where you have to tell this story that lasts. It has to keep people entertained throughout the line and also set up the story of the ride itself. When we came on, it was designed where the antagonist was going to be Doc Brown's evil twin brother, and Chris Lloyd was going to play both characters.
It seemed really dumb to us. It's like, "You have a great antagonist. You have Biff Tannen. It should be Biff, he steals the DeLorean and goes through time." They said yeah, so that's what we did.
We had Christopher Lloyd playing Doc Brown, and we had Tom Wilson playing Biff Tannen, so that was great. Les Mayfield, the M of ZM, he directed that material and I wrote it and then, weirdly, also picture-edited that stuff as well. That was a weird and very unique experience.
There was a lot Back to the Future stuff for me that happened all at once. I'd worked on Back to the Future Part II and III, and then that ride, and when Back to the Future Part II came out there was this whole NBC Back to the Future night where there was this stuff with Leslie Nielsen, and I wrote that with my partner. Then there was a Back to the Future Saturday morning show and I directed all the live-action stuff for that, so for about a two- or three-year period, I was the go-to Back to the Future ancillary guy, which was weird.
Who is your artistic hero?
I have a lot of them. Really, as a kid growing up, Spielberg was the one. I'm just part of that generation that just grew up with the Spielberg stuff that was really new and fresh and interesting and unlike anything else going on in movies.
Then I started reaching back and I got way into Frank Capra and Howard Hawks for different reasons. I like Capra, this whole idea of these sets of issues that Capra was into, whether it was his romantic comedies or just the politics of America fascinated me. Then Howard Hawks fascinated me because he did all these things. This is a weird thing, but to me Hawks was a Stanley Kubrick before Kubrick, because he worked in so many different genres and in lot of those genres did the defining movies in those genres at the time. I like the idea of Howard Hawks' career where you can do the definitive romantic comedy and the definitive science fiction movie and the definitive western. I liked how versatile he was.
What's the hardest scene you've ever had to shoot or write?
One of the hardest things I ever had to shoot was in The Break-Up, the dinner table scene. It's a scene in The Break-Up where Jennifer Aniston's family is meeting Vince Vaughn's family for the first time, and it's a lot of characters and a lot of actors, and structurally it's a really long scene at this point in the movie. Servicing all these characters, I think, it took like three days to shoot this one dinner table scene.
That's a weird thing, because it's not a car chase or something really technically complicated, but by the time you're on day three of a dinner table scene that's comedic, keeping everybody's energy fresh and in the moment — because they've done the scene over and over, because you have to shoot it for each character — that was one of the big ones.
Was it difficult and time-consuming because of the number of people? Or the number of angles you had to shoot?
It's just the amount of coverage you have to get, because it's not just like doing singles on everybody else. There's specific moments in the way that scene progresses and lays out. Some you want to play in singles, some you want to play in these wide shots, and some in two-shots. Some are very specific angles between two characters. On any given character you've got four or five different angles.
Then you've got Jennifer Aniston, who has to be lit properly and look great, and you've got Ann-Margret, who's got to be lit properly. Then you also want the immediacy of Vince Vaughn's comedy not to go away, because it's very spontaneous. Then there's a music component where there's click back and playback for this thing that Michael Higgins is doing, so it's all those elements combined — and then just making sure the performances are there. Yeah, that was a tough one.
I'd have thought it would be one of the Ant-Man shrinking scenes or something.
The technical stuff is one thing, and that can obviously be extremely difficult, but it's something that almost is almost, I don't want to say it's mathematical, but my job is getting the technical stuff as great as can be, but just to keep the life in the performance. This thing was just the sheer volume of people around that table and keeping the life in the scene. They are really similar exercises in a way. You'd never know by looking at that scene that it was technically challenging.
What's been your best day on a film or TV set?
Man, when I think about my absolute best day on a film set. I'd have to say on Down With Love, my second movie. Coming into this Andrew Laws was the production designer on that thing. We made that movie, it was 2002 when we shot it, we made that movie for $35 million, and it looks like it cost a lot more. We built 50 practical sets for this movie. One of the sets was this amazing oversized New York apartment that Renee Zellweger's character, Barbara Novak, has. The day I walked in on the set, we were shooting on that set, that set is incredible. So shooting that first day, that really felt like, "Okay. This is our movie. This is our over-the-top romantic sex comedy that we're doing." That was exciting to me.
Bring It On was a hit, but this felt like you'd arrived.
They were all studio movies, but Down With Love felt like the scale of the things we were building and the fact it aggressively hearkens back to this other era of Hollywood studio filmmaking. For some reason, that just felt like, "Oh wow. This is a huge f***ing set."
Howard Hawks made a lot of iconic romantic comedies in the '50s.
It felt tied into all that stuff for me. We didn't have trailers, we had dressing rooms. We did everything on that movie to make it feel like we were in the '60s as we were making it. It had a fun vibe to it.
What's been your worst day on a set?
The worst day on set, ah, where to begin? How to tell this one without outing specific personalities… The worst days I've ever felt on a movie — I'm going to be vague in general here — the worst days you've ever had is if there's some element or some person on the set that is wresting control of the vibe on the set. Hollywood is made up of all types of personalities. For me — and Paul Rudd will second this — having a relaxing and fun vibe on the set, whether you're doing a comedy or drama, is crucial, because people have to be relaxed in order to bring their best performances.
As a director, when you lose that, if you ever lose that or something takes it over, that's the worst day on the set. It's happened to me only a couple of times, and it's no good.
What's the best creative advice you've ever received?
I went to a screening at The Egyptian, it was a series of screenings, and they screened the original Poseidon Adventure and Scrooge. It was a retrospective of this British director, Ronald Neame. He worked with Alec Guinness a number of times. He was telling a story about Alec Guinness and the first time he worked with him. He had always admired and respected him, and now he was directing him. He was loving his performance, and he saw Alec Guinness over there and he had a weird look on his face.
He came up to him and said, "What's wrong?" And Guinness was like, "You know, you're not praising me enough." He said, "Are you serious? You're Alec Guinness, I didn't feel like I had to praise you. You clearly know what you're doing." Guinness said, "My boy, if you expect to have a career making movies there's one thing you have to remember: All actors are 12-year-olds at heart, and they have to be praised." Then he walked away.
That was the best piece of advice I ever got. It was amazing, because at the time Ronald Neame, he was in his 90s when he was doing this thing. I was like, "Huh. I'm going to remember that." I think it's true.
Have you found that to be true?
Actors can be very insecure.
In the same way anybody in the artistic endeavors are insecure. It was also this reminder that if any actor is any good, they're making themselves vulnerable on film sets. They have to have the ability to try something that's ridiculous and fail and not be ridiculed. There's a certain amount of positive reinforcement that should be a part of that process. It made sense to me.
If you could change one thing in your career, what would it be?
With any and every project, by the time you're done with it, you're better at what you do than when you started the project. There are things you're always going to see that you would have come at from a different angle or something. I feel that on everything I've ever done. By the time you finish it, you now know how to do it.
In terms of the overall trajectory of my career… One of the weird things about the movie business that I like is the random nature of how it works. You can plan and do all this stuff, but there's always this X-factor, and it applies to career trajectory as well. There are things that, in hindsight, there are things in my life and in my trajectory that led to other things that in the moment there's just no possible way you could see how this one weird thing leads to that other weird thing that could lead to this awesome thing.
It's unlike if you want to be a doctor you gotta go to med school and do a residency, or if you're gonna be a lawyer you go to law school. But the film business there are a million different paths to becoming an actor or director or writer. I like that random X-factor of the movie business.
What's your dream project, if your trajectory brings you there?
I have a science fiction project I've been developing for some time now, and it now feels like, particularly after having done these two movies, because it's a bigger, more effects type of thing, it finally feels like the time might be right to do it. I can't say too much about it, but it is a science fiction project that has been a dream project of mine for a long time, and I'm hoping to get that going some time really soon.
Is it something you thought of yourself or an adaptation of some kind?
It's a project that is has its roots in a real-life person and a real-life series of events. That's all I can say about it, but yes, it's really cool.
What are you working on now?
It's really that one thing and then trying to sleep more hours of the day. That's the first project I'm going to take on after Ant-Man and the Wasp: trying to get back to maybe seven hours of sleep. That would be good.