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Incredible Hulk: Let's Set Record Straight

by Anne Thompson
June 13, 2008 1:31 AM
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Thompson on Hollywood

The real question when looking at The Incredible Hulk--given all the sturm-and-drang in the media about Edward Norton--is what did he contribute to this movie?

Here's the real deal:

Zak Penn wrote the original script, which includes two pivotal scenes from his 16-year-old first screenplay for the Hulk, which was not used on the Ang Lee movie written by James Schamus. Marvel came back to Penn and wanted the two scenes in the movie: Bruce Banner jumping out of a helicopter to the earth below, not knowing whether or not he would morph into Hulk, and a lovemaking scene in a motel where Banner's rising heart rate becomes an issue. Both are among the best scenes in the final movie.

When Marvel approached Norton to do The Incredible Hulk, he initially declined. They asked him to meet with director Louis Leterrier (Transporter) to discuss his objections to doing the movie; there Norton offered some ideas as to where he'd want it to go. Marvel agreed to hire a screenwriter to work with him. This is totally normal. At this point Penn was off the movie.

Marvel realized they didn't have time to hire a new writer and asked Norton to do it, offering him an uncredited producer credit as well. With about two months to go before the movie started filming, Norton did a page one rewrite--knowing that he couldn't do anything radical, because sets were being built, locations found, etc. The entire Brazil sequence was already story-boarded.

So Norton mostly changed dialogue, filled in gaps of motivation and developed character. For example, the scenes in Brazil about finding a serum in the Amazon to cure him, and Banner's emails with Tim Blake Nelson, were Norton adds. Marvel agreed to shoot Norton's script.

The Incredible Hulk filming was well under way in Toronto when the team flew to San Diego to do a Comic-Con panel last July. When the panel moderator asked Norton to address his enhanced role on the film--which was supposed to be revealed on the panel, but not by him--both Norton and producer Gale Ann Hurd recognized that his announcing his own role as screenwriter would play badly. And so it did.

In post-production, when it came time to edit the movie, Marvel wanted a streamlined cut. Norton wanted more of his stuff, some 20 minutes worth. Norton is a serious actor who wants to be cool. Marvel convinced him to star in a movie on which he would have considerable input as writer-co-producer-star. A collision was inevitable. Their heated debate was leaked to Deadline Hollywood. Marvel had final cut, not Norton. He did not get his way. Some 50 minutes of outtakes will turn up on the DVD.

Post-Ang Lee, Marvel wanted the most commercial version of the movie, while Norton wanted something more nuanced.

As for the script, Marvel submitted both Penn and Norton (under his pseudonym, Edward Harrison) to the Writers' Guild; Penn (who had substantial economic incentives to want to win the arbitration) wrote an impassioned argument that Norton had not considerably changed his screenplay. The Guild tends to favor plot, structure and pre-exisiting characters over dialogue. Given the final version of the movie, they gave the sole credit to Penn. (Another early writer was seeking story by credit and didn't get anywhere.)

Interestingly, the reviews have been mixed, 61 on metacritic; some have criticized the movie for being light on character. Here's Todd McCarthy's review and a funny one in The Guardian.

When it came to marketing the pic, Universal's Adam Fogleson talked with Norton about his schedule and what PR they wanted him to do. The studio wanted to sell the Hulk, not Norton, finally--they avoided the traditional print junket in favor of a more superficial Adam Sandler TV-friendly media sell (not opening up to lots of questions about what Norton wanted the movie to be). Norton did Access Hollywood, Jimmy Kimmel (see below), lots of Internet stuff and attended the L.A. premiere. Then, as planned, he went off to Africa for his own purposes--and will do Japan PAs later this month.

This LAT Norton story addresses his image problems, which are substantial. He is seen as a gifted writer and actor, but opinionated and persnickety.

This Jimmy Kimmel spoof heads in the right direction.

Finally, my sense is that Norton's issues were with Marvel, which misled him into believing that he would have more control over the picture than in fact he did. Norton didn't take his issues to the press. When told about Deadline Hollywood, he had never heard of the blog. He's fine with Universal. Here's EW, with Norton's statement. Whether Norton will play Hulk again remains to be seen.

It's probably time for Norton to take charge via directing. (He debuted with the 2000 relationship comedy Keeping the Faith and has been developing Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn as a directing vehicle.) The smartest movie stars--Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, Mel Gibson, Robert Redford, George Clooney and others--have figured out how to take control of their careers. Instead of fighting with studios over final cut, they earn it.

UPDATE: Norton is already producing: 2005's Down in the Valley and 2006's Painted Veil, plus Tim Blake Nelson's upcoming comedy thriller Leaves of Grass and a doc about Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama.

Here's: my previous Hulk story and Norton vs. China and Warners on Painted Veil.

What Gamma Rays can really do.

Variety's Hulk blockbuster page.

Originally posted on Variety.com

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