Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick are used to movies taking a long time to get made. After all, they were hired to write Deadpool in 2010 and didn’t see the finished film onscreen until 2016. But in the case of their passion project, the new Netflix movie Spiderhead, even the process of getting the Merc with a Mouth into movie theaters was left in the dust.
“This was about a 10-year process,” Reese tells Den of Geek on a Zoom chat witth Wernick by his side. “It took almost 10 years to get when that thing was brought to us until the movie was on the screen.”
That thing is “Escape from Spiderhead,” a short story penned by acclaimed literary fiction writer and essayist George Saunders. The original story, published by The New Yorker in 2010, is about a man named Jeff who is sent to an experimental prison after he kills someone. There he becomes one of the subjects of a scientist named Ray Abnesti, who has developed a series of drugs that can control the emotions and behavior of whoever has the drugs in their system. Jeff begins to worry about what he’s gotten himself into as Abnesti’s trials take a sinister turn.
Reese says that the story was offered to him and Wernick by Jeremy Steckler, who at the time was in charge of motion picture development for Conde Nast, the publishing giant that owns The New Yorker and other outlets.
“It was a short story that had appeared in The New Yorker that they wanted to exploit as a feature film,” explains Reese. “And we fell in love with it. We fell in love with it so hard that we told them we would be willing to write a spec script based on the material, without getting paid, with the intent to direct it ourselves.”
Then, as Reese puts it, “Life got in the way a little bit.”
The pair tried to get the movie up and running with them attached as directors, but then Deadpool became an active concern, with the first movie and 2018’s Deadpool 2 eating up a lot of the writers’ time over the next few years (they also worked on Life and Zombieland: Double Tap in the interim).
“We ultimately had to decide to step away as directors and go find a director and that became the great Joe Kosinski,” says Reese. “Thank God we didn’t direct it, it would have been like watching a hand puppet show or something. It would have been terrible. But in any case, we wrote it on spec and then ultimately sold it to Netflix. Once Joe was attached, and we started to get a path toward a cast, that’s when Netflix finally bought the script.”
The cast includes Miles Teller (in his third collaboration with Kosinski following Only the Brave and Top Gun: Maverick) as Jeff, an inmate who’s riddled with guilt over his crime yet increasingly suspicious of the drug experiments that he has agreed to in exchange for a much higher standard of incarceration. Controlling those experiments as Steve Abnesti (renamed slightly from the story) is Chris Hemsworth, who brings an unsettlingly superficial good cheer, a suffocating self-regard, and the threat of a monstrous ego at work to the role.
“Chris is brilliant in the movie,” says Paul Wernick about the MCU star, whose Thor: Love and Thunder arrives next month. “We feel he took what could have been a very mustache-twirling, villainous part and made himself the hero of his own piece. He doesn’t think he’s the villain. Actors, and Chris in particular, really want to dig into the backstory—why is he like this?—so we got into [Abnesti’s] father and childhood, and Chris was super collaborative through the process. The audience hasn’t seen Chris play a part like this, I don’t believe, and I think they’re going to be pleasantly surprised.”
Even though the original story itself is more than a decade old, and both the story and the movie seem to take place a few minutes into the future, Wernick and Reese say that the themes of controlling and manipulating behavior through drugs are very much relevant to today.
“It was surely in the background of our writing of it, thematically, how society is so dependent on pharmaceuticals, legal or illegal,” says Wernick. “It feels like everyone is on something. This wasn’t necessarily an anti-Big Pharma hit job, but it did feel topical in that sense, that we all rely on it in some form or fashion.”
“There’s a line in the in the movie, and I forget whether it’s also in the short story, ‘Can I get you something for how you’re feeling?’ I feel like society is constantly asking us that,” adds Reese. “When we go into the grocery store, it’s like, ‘Can I get you something for how you’re feeling? How about this sugar cereal? How about this? How about this alcohol?’ We all have different psychologies, but a lot of time our actions are to reduce the negative feelings that we’re feeling. We’re escaping something or we’re seeking pleasure where we don’t have it. So we just thought it’s an interesting, fertile area to explore.”
Spiderhead premieres on Netflix this Friday, June 17.