Producer Stephen Broussard has had an amazing career with Marvel, assisting Kevin Feige and Avid Arad on Ghost Rider and Spider-Man respectively and getting his first Associate Producer credit on The Incredible Hulk. Now chatting to Den Of Geek at the Corinthia Hotel in London, ahead of the release of his next Marvel production Ant-Man and the Wasp, and it’s clearly been a long and rewarding journey.
We chatted about how the Marvelverse has evolved and change and what’s next for the franchise both in front of, and behind the camera.
You have an amazing CV of Marvel movies, could you tell us a bit about your background and how you got into the industry.
I went to film and moved out to Los Angeles. My first job in LA was working at an agency, The William Morris Agency which does exist any more it’s now merged into the William Morris Endeavour Agency and i was told that that’s a great place to start and you can learn a lot about the business but that it would also be difficult and all of that was true! It’s a very intense work environment and I put about a solid year into their which is a solid gold star for your resume if you can survive in the high pressure environment of that world.
I knew I wanted to produce. I came out of film school knowing I wanted to produce and at that time, and I’m sure now, it was a great place to hear about opportunities because there’s a connected group of assistants who looked out for each other and forwarded each other jobs and stuff like that. I heard about an opportunity to go work for Marvel and I thought ‘that sounds really fun’. I like comic books and I like big summer movies. I grew up on Jurassic Park and Terminator 2. In addition to my arthouse leanings I’ve always loved big summer movies. And so I went and applied – I was told I was part of a second round of 20 after the first round of 20 had come up short with respect of finding someone they were interested in.
And I got the job. And they said ‘welcome to Marvel, you’ll never be promoted here!’ and that was 15 years ago [laughs].
They said that because they just wanted someone to do a good job they didn’t want someone who was hungry for the next thing they wanted to make sure the phones were answered and the calendars were booked.
And then about, literally at the end of my first day I was taking the elevator down with one of my colleagues Jeremy Latcham who worked for Marvel for many years and made many great movies and has since gone on to produce movies outside of Marvel, he told me about how Marvel Entertainment was negotiating to essentially take out a big loan to produce their own movies, the first of which would be Iron Man in 2008. And I remember thinking ‘that sounds cool maybe there’s some opportunities there’ – that was 2004. It’s been a journey since then.
They been acquired by the Disney company and watching the whole MCU grow to what it is today has been incredible to have a ring-side seat for.
You were assistant to Kevin Feige for several projects…
I was assistant to Kevin Feige and also Ari Arad who is no longer at the company. Marvel was and remains a frugal place where it needs to be so I assisted two people at once.
What were your first impressions of Kevin Feige?
Kevin has always been a great boss and has become a great friend. Always fair and honest with me. The job of assisting him now is very different than the job of assisting him then. It was a lot easier then, we weren’t quite as busy. The scope of his work has grown a lot.
But it was great. But he was always and remains, to the people coming up in the company today, and a lot of people who are in that position now, he has always been someone who invites creative input and jumping in on projects and writing notes on scripts and not waiting to be asked to contribute, in a way that is similar to how he came up in the business and how he was allowed to spread his creative wings. He’s been great about allowing myself to do that all those years ago and people to this day.
The Incredible Hulk was the first movies that you were Associate Producer on. What was that like in the early days of the MCU?
Marvel Studios as a self-production entity was very new and we didn’t have a lot of people working there and the people that we did have there wanted to make it great and wanted to make good movies. So it was a little bit of sink or swim. I went from one day being assistant, to essentially being the on the ground creative producer on that film which is essentially what I still do to this day, with the benefit of experience. It was just like ‘ok you own this movie now. Move to Toronto and see it through.’
One of my favourite somewhat corny aphorisms is “luck is where preparation meets opportunity”. I’d gone to film school, I wanted to produce and suddenly I had this opportunity and I just really wanted to get it right and jump in and do the best I could and luckily it was a place where that was needed.
Where we are now in the MCU The Incredible Hulk feels like a little bit of anomaly. It doesn’t feel as MCU as some of the other early ones. Were there any lessons or obstacles with that?
I think we were a new studio, we were figuring it out, we were figuring out how to do it right, we were figuring out the tone of the MCU, we were figuring out how to pull all these big films together and I think you can see that evolution continue, hopefully so, you want to see it evolve and change, you don’t ever want to feel like it’s arrived in any one film. The whole notion with Ant-man and the Wasp which is our 20th film is the notion that there’s surprise.
They’re all learning experiences. If you don’t come away with ideas and fire in your belly about what to do differently next time… every single one of them, you think ‘I want to do this differently’, even the ones that work, people really like, there’s always with filmmakers ‘I want to do this different next time’ so that’s kind of inherent to the restlessness of the process.
With Captain America: The First Avenger you brought this incredibly iconic character to the big screen. What were the challenges that came with that character?
Captain America was a unique challenge. We were very aware of how a film at that time – Bush era, Jingoism – would be received and received globally. These movies cost so much that they need to work globally. So we were really careful about – we were worried about it, we were worried about what it might mean to have a character called Captain America, who stands for certain idealisms of the American ideal.
We were worried about how that would be received but we also didn’t want to be untrue to the roots of that character. I’m glad we stuck to our guns and there’s an earnestness and there’s not a cynicism to that character that you see in Steve Rogers to this day. We didn’t know how that would be received but ultimately it was received positively, the idea of a morally good person, a person who is in it for the right reason, and is that person at the beginning of the film and is that person at the end of the film was kind of a challenging road to walk and to see if it would be received.
And also just the notion of a period superhero film, there were a lot of early conversations about should we just shorthand the origin story in World War Two and shortcut to the modern day Cap that you get in Avengers, so the challenge was sticking with our guns to do that and then executing it really well which Joe Johnston and his creative team did amazingly well.
I’m very proud of that film, it’s aging well, I think. There’s a story of timelessness to that film which I really enjoy.
You worked on Iron Man 3 which seemed like the first time in the MCU where spoilers became a really big deal, because of the amazing reveal [Iron Man 3 Spoilers to follow]. Did you have to change your working practices because of the big secret?
We did, we were terrified of that getting out. The whole crux of the movie hinged on that so we had to be careful about scripts, and redacting and blank pages and no one being on set. And we were also just terrified about whether or not it was going to work, it’s such a big things, of pulling the rug out from the movie at that stage.
With any movie there should be something that scares you, some sort of big idea. If you’re lucky enough for it to work that’s probably going to be the thing that’s most memorable about it. We’ve learned that lesson early and been lucky enough to be rewarded for it.
The casting of Robert Downey Jr which was at the time viewed as – he wasn’t viewed as an action star and it kind of felt like an out of leftfield choice. But we knew in our bones that he was Tony and it could work and it would be amazing. But that trepidation and that fear, if you can pull it off, is usually what makes the films work. Whether it’s a casting choice or a big bold narrative swing like changing who the actual Mandarine is in the middle of the movie.
Or indeed, when you worked on Doctor Strange that was technically and visually completely different, bringing in all these Inception-style effects…
The big idea there, the scary thing there was just the notion of magic and making what Scott Derrickson nailed it when he called ‘a mind-trip action film’. And just the notion of wacky magic in the MCU and trying to define magic in a movie that – and I say this with affection because i love the Harry Potter movies – we were never going be Harry Potter, that particular kind of magic.
So we had to define magic based on the great work in the comics of course but define magic cinematically for this film. Again is that going to work? Is the audience going to accept it? At every turn it’s like you’ve gone from Iron Man in a technological suit to the God of Thunder, are they going to co-exist? It always feels like you’re adding to the puzzle in a way that, it’s getting easier as the films go on and there’s a trust with the audience that we’ve built but will they accept? This has always been the question at the heart of a lot of the decisions we make.
With Ant-Man and the Wasp what was the thing that scared you?
Oh my goodness, that’s a good question! You know, some of the comedic tonal big swings. It’s a weird movie in a lot of ways with some weird comedy and things like the truth serum montage is out there that people really enjoy. That was a big comedic swings that could fall on its face.
One of the weirdest ones which we referred to internally as the ‘All of Me’ sequence, which was referring to the Steve Martin, Lily Tomlin film where they’re sharing a body where Scott channels the voice of Michelle Pfeiffer’s character, we called that ‘All of Me’. That’s a big swing too because it’s kind of emotional but also funny and weird and it’s got to be all of these things at once.
It’s also informative because he’s telling them where they need to go, that was one that could have fallen on its face. And just the notion of the whole film investing in a character that you haven’t really met other than a bit in the prologue which is the character Michelle played. Hoping that the character would be invested in enough to go on this journey for someone they’ve only met briefly, but hopefully because it’s Michelle that would carry through it all.
Ant-Man and the Wasp is a collection of wacky ideas held together by sincerity and that was such a tricky line to walk. I don’t know if I could point to a single thing in the way it did with the other ones but looking back on it now as it’s still fresh in my mind that would be the answer.
It’s the first movie in the MCU that has a female character in the title, but also villain Ghost is a woman, where she’s not in the comics, and Hope is massively kick-ass and brilliant. Is that a conscious and deliberate move within the MCU to diversify things?
Absolutely, the movie is not called Ant-Man 2 it’s called Ant-Man and The Wasp and we knew we had to deliver on a capable strong co-titled hero in that. And moving the needle towards that is absolutely something that’s at the forefront of our minds.
You see it in this film in some of the characters you mention and in Michelle Pfeiffer and in Cassie Lang – i’m really proud of the amazing work the female characters have done in the movie and bringing that to life.
It think it’s exciting and the notion of taking the MCU there – it is the future, it’s where we’re heading and you’re going to see that more and more for sure.
I’m gunning for a standalone for Cassie…
It happens in the comics!
What do you think the future of comic book movies is, to avoid comics fatigue from setting in?
Sure, comic book fatigue as an idea and as a question has existed – it pre-dates the MCU, it was a question that was asked before Iron Man and it’s a perfectly legitimate question. I think the onus is on each on of these movies to have a reason to exist.
We’ve always approached them like that. And the answer moving forward is the same approach we’ve done up until now which is make the movies unique and individual and fresh and have a different point of view and have a reason to exist which can come in many forms. In the form of characters, in the form of tone, in the form of genres that are explored and that’s the reasons.
To never feel like you’re returning to an idea and constantly trying to challenge yourself in each one. Infinity War was essentially the story of a villain, it’s Thanos’ hero arc which is an incredibly fresh way into one of these films.
The Ant-Man universe kind of exists in crime movies. The first movie was a heist movie, this one was inspired by, I’m sure other people have better names for the genre, but I call them ‘One bad night’ movies, where there’s a contained period of time where characters have a very clear and usually simple goal and a million things kept going wrong. We talked a lot about Midnight Run, we talked about After Hours, Quick Change, the Bill Murray movie that I really love and those that have seen it really love – if you haven’t seen it check it out.
I’ve never seen that in a superhero movie before, so the idea was to do that, to do some of the big comedy swings, with a really emotional heart to it. It’s sincere. With all the ridiculous comedy to it it’s never not genuine, it wears its heart on its sleeve, which I like.
Are there other genres and subgenres superhero movies haven’t tapped into that you’d really love to see Marvel tackle?
Oh for sure. It’s all theory until we sit down to figure out what it is but I think they’re all ripe for re-invention. There’s an idea, there’s a way into pretty much anything. Usually the process is getting some smart people together and talk about what we want to see first and then developing it out of that.
It’s very important for us to partner up with creative voices, to put writers and directors at the forefront, that’s another way to keep the movies fresh when you talk about comic book movie fatigue setting in – point of view! Central to all that is the point of view of the filmmaker on screen will feel different and will feel individual.
Marvel has become more progressive in terms of diversity in front of the camera recently but not so much behind the camera. Is that something you are aware of that’s becoming a priority, in terms of female directors for example?
You’re starting to see it more and more with some of the films we’ve announced and some of the films we haven’t announced, and it’s a huge priority. Everyone should be really excited by that because the greater variety of point of view behind the camera, the greater variety of stories in front of the camera.
If you want to be selfish about it, and not do it because it’s the right thing to do, do it for movies! The notion of movies as a two hour art form could go away as culture changes, as viewing habits change, its existence can only be guaranteed by the stories that are being told and the audiences are wanting to revisit and through circumstances we’ve kept so many talented people on the bench. Let those people off to come tell these stories for the good of everyone, for the good of cinema. That’s not the only reason to do it obviously, but if you’re not for that, then you’re against movies. I want to see those stories and I want to help tell them as well.
Marvel is also short of LGBTQ characters – is that a thing it wants to tackle going forward?
For sure, you will see that. I know it can be frustrating if you’re part of a group that wants to see more representation and the answer is always ‘stay tuned’ – I can imagine that that’s frustrating – but that is happening behind the scenes, you’re going to be seeing that more and more. Representation across individual groups in the years ahead.
Are there any Marvel characters you’re hoping will get an outing?
If you’d asked me that question a few years ago the answer would have been Doctor Strange, I was really excited to bring that. I’m going to be a little coy and say I can’t really say anything yet, because by design we haven’t really announced too much beyond the next film.
OK, but is there a good character who you like that’s coming up?
There is! There’s going to be some surprises, there’s going to be a healthy mix of people you know and people you’ve yet to meet in way that I think that are exciting for the MCU.
Ant-Man And The Wasp is in UK cinemas on Thursday August 2