After making his feature debut as a director with the popular “zom-com” Zombieland in 2009, then following that up with 30 Minutes or Less in 2011 and Gangster Squad in 2013, Ruben Fleischer’s fourth feature is Venom, which finds the Washington D.C.-born filmmaker stepping into the comic book genre for the first time.
Based on the popular Marvel Comics character who debuted in the pages of the comics 30 years ago as a Spider-Man antagonist (technically as a Spider-Man costume), the movie stars Tom Hardy as Eddie Brock, an investigative reporter who is accidentally fused with a liquid alien symbiote in a high-tech lab owned by mad genius Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). The intelligent symbiote gives Eddie enhanced powers, a grotesque appearance and an insatiable, murderous hunger, all of which Eddie cannot control — until he finds a way to co-exist with the alien inside him.
Venom made its first big-screen appearance in 2007’s Spider-Man 3 (with Topher Grace playing Eddie), and plans for a solo movie starring the anti-heroic monster have been in the works ever since. If Venom is a big enough hit, it will kickstart what’s being called “Sony’s Universe of Marvel Characters,” a potential series of movies starring Spider-Man villains — but not, at least at this juncture, Spider-Man himself, who’s busy in the separate Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Fleischer has tackled elements of darkness and humor before — in Zombieland and even his other films — but not quite the way they’re used in Venom and not with the extensive visual effects deployed in a movie like this. Den of Geek sat down with the director to talk about why he wanted to make Venom, working with Hardy, how he wanted the movie to look like the comics and more.
Den of Geek: You’ve done a horror comedy, a heist movie and a period crime drama. Was doing a comic book movie on your hit list?
Ruben Fleischer: Absolutely, yeah. I’m a huge fan of comic books movies and comics, and so for me it was a real dream to get to make a movie in this world, and certainly to get to make a movie with Venom as its titular character. To me, there’s not a cooler member of the Marvel canon, so the way that everything aligned for this, whether it’s getting to make a superhero movie, getting to make a Venom superhero movie, getting to make a Venom superhero movie with Tom Hardy, it just was all kind of a dream come true.
The character’s been around for 30 years now, give or take. What do you think has made him so enduring with fans?
To me, he’s this perfect balance of the most scary, intense, menacing figure, but he undercuts it with a sense of humor, these great lines in the comics, and he has that goofy tongue, so there’s this unexpected lightness to something really dark, and that’s what we tried to embrace with the film. We wanted to obviously make it dark and scary and a thriller, but also make it really entertaining, and fun for audiences. There’s an unexpected, I think, amount of humor in the movie, and I am really proud of just having made something for fans, and just general audiences, to just go to the theater and enjoy.
Do you think doing something like Zombieland kind of primed you for handling the different tones in this picture?
Absolutely. You know, the comedic and horror thing was the key to Zombieland, which is a comedy first. This movie, I think, is a superhero action movie first, and then we tried to infuse it with aspects of horror and aspects of, touches of comedy throughout. But at its core, I mean, it’s a big comic book movie. That was the main thing we were trying to do.
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Did you go back to any of the comics for inspiration?
Yeah, absolutely. I read pretty much every Venom comic that exists. We pulled iconic frames from the comics that are represented in the film throughout. Whether it’s Eddie on the Transamerica Pyramid, where Venom comes out and talks to him, that was taken directly from the comics. That was always our touchstone in creating the look of Venom, that was the most important thing, was honoring the comics. Trying to bring to life a character that felt like he just jumped off the pages. We weren’t trying to reinvent the wheel, we wanted to bring to life a version of Venom that fans could point to and say, “That’s the one that I always was excited to see on screen.” And so we worked really hard to make sure he looked as authentic as possible.
Are there hidden challenges that you only see when you actually create the screen image of something that we’ve only seen before on a printed page?
The trickiest thing is that a lot of times in Venom comics, they’ll reveal part of Eddie, and he’ll be like a Venom body with an Eddie head, or he’ll do that classic split frame face. In comics they can take a lot of creative liberty in terms of scale, because Venom’s stature is seven and a half feet tall, and Tom is not quite that. So when you put a human head, exposed, on a Venom body in a movie, if you do it to true scale, where you can’t take those same liberties, it just looks kind of silly to have this giant torso, and then a little human head. It looks like a little pinhead.
So while I really wanted to feature some iconic frames and panels from the comics, like that split face, it was trickier than we could’ve imagine, because we weren’t aware that you have to scale the head so much down, the Venom head, in order to make it fit with the Eddie head.
Did you experiment a lot with how the transformation into Venom would look?
That’s how it happens in the comics. It envelops him as it comes over the top, and originally, that’s not the approach that the visual effects house took, but it was really important to me that we do it as it is in the comics, and so we worked really hard to make sure it felt like what we’d seen in the comics forever. But I have to give credit to Double Negative, that once we decided upon that approach for the transformation, the first time I saw it, it kind of blew my mind, because the way that the teeth kind of manifest, or the eyes, it really feels like it’s not some mask that he’s just putting on, but that it’s evolving organically as he transforms.
What were your expectations going in to work with Tom, and what did he bring to the table?
There’s not a better actor working today, I don’t think. And everything he does, he’s so focused on just raising the bar, and making it the very best it can be, and he’s so committed to excellence. I think that’s why all of his performances are so stand out, and why I can say personally, I’m such a fan. But having worked with him, I see a little bit more of the behind the scenes, and he just really cares deeply about at all times, making it the best it can be. So whether it’s in the blocking in the scene, the way the dialogue is flowing, the physicality of the performance, finding unexpected humor in moments, he’s just always looking to elevate what we have, and he just brings so much to the table.
Especially in voicing both Venom and Eddie, he was really just acting opposite himself, and it was a joy to watch those scenes where Eddie and Venom are just alone, and Tom, in real time, was playing both characters, and he’s a master. And to be able to have worked with him, and watch this character that he created was, as a director, a joy, just ’cause he’s so singularly talented.
How did the idea come about, to have him do the two voices himself, and then have the Venom voice running in an earpiece when he’s doing the scene?
That was a technique I think he developed when he was making that movie Legend, where he played the Kray twins. In order to act opposite himself in that movie, he employed the earwig, and so it was a technique I actually wasn’t familiar with. I mean, we’ve used earwigs plenty in movies, but to pre-record all the lines as Venom, and to have them triggered, in real time in the scene, so he has his own voice as Venom to react to, in his actual head, that was all him.
So the voice is all Tom, just enhanced?
Yeah. At the beginning of the day, if we were going to do a scene that featured Venom, Tom would go record the whole scene. He would just read both parts. And then they would cut out all the Eddie parts, and he would record as Venom, and then we would quickly put filters, like we had a Venom filter that we would put on the Venom voice, to make it deeper, a little bit more alien sounding, and so then over the course of the scene, he would just trigger the lines as needed.
Tom Hardy is this super intense guy, but we see a different, more humorous side of him here.
That’s one the things I’m most proud about, is just how fun and entertaining he is in the movie, and I find him really, really funny. Whether it’s the physical comedy of having an alien almost puppeteer his body, or just these reactions that you wouldn’t expect, of somebody who thinks they’re losing their mind. Being occupied by an alien species, or you know, just Venom himself I find at times really, really funny. He has some great lines. Tom brought so much humor to the part, and I think audiences will be really pleased, ’cause it’s not expected, and it’s just a whole other side of Tom Hardy to appreciate.
You were quoted as saying you wanted to shoot this to sort of look like an ’80s John Carpenter horror movie.
The ’90s more is where the comic book takes place, and it’s pretty gritty, especially the later comics, where he gets away from Spider-Man. Matthew Libatique is an incredible DP who shot everything from Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan, to Iron Man 1 & 2, he’s just done it all, so in collaborating we decided upon an aesthetic that felt grounded of our world, but also really gritty. We wanted to distinguish it from the Marvel and DC films, and to feel really unique. And yeah, I mean, I can’t see an anamorphic flare in a movie and not think of those classic ’80s movies, whether it’s Spielberg or Carpenter, that I was influenced by as a kid growing up. I love classic Carpenter horror and action movies. That and John Landis’ American Werewolf in London were all heavy influences on this film.
What new tools did this put in your toolbox as a director?
I’d never done a fully CG character, I’d never done fight scenes with a character that wasn’t there, the amount of wire work and everything else, tossing people across rooms, or things like that, I’d never really done before. So for me, yeah, just shooting scenes with the character not there was all new to me. Luckily I got to work with this visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin, who’s a two time Academy Award winning visual effects supervisor who just taught me so much about that whole aspect of filmmaking, and I feel so much more capable as a director, because in modern filmmaking it’s just a reality of things, ways to approach scenes, where you can use visual effects as a tool in a really creative way. We’re about to go make Zombieland 2 in just a few months, and I feel like the wealth of knowledge I’ve garnered from this experience is already informing that film in a really exciting way.
Venom is out in theaters this Friday (October 5).
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye
Read and download the Den of Geek NYCC 2018 Special Edition Magazine right here!