- Film & TV
- 17 Feb 23
Ant-Man director Peyton Reed sat down with Hot Press to discuss all things ‘70s sci-fi, the rise of Marvel’s genocidal new villain Kang the Conqueror - played thrillingly by Jonathan Majors - roping in Bill Murray for the third outing and the ‘auteur’ criticism of superhero blockbusters.
On June 7th 2014, Marvel announced that Peyton Reed would direct the first Ant-Man, with writer Adam McKay contributing to the film's script. It was a move that would change the Raleigh, North Carolina director's career trajectory entirely, having entered (and disrupted) the industry a few years previously with iconic cheerleader flick Bring It On.
Later helming fellow comedies Down with Love, The Break-Up, and Yes Man, the 58-year-old steadily built up a reputation for off-kilter comic touches that would become pivotal to the success of the first Ant-Man film, starring Paul Rudd as Scott Lang.
Development of an Ant-Man film began as early as the late 1980s, when Ant-Man co-creator Stan Lee pitched the idea to New World Pictures, Marvel Comics' parent company at the time. However, Walt Disney Pictures was developing a film based on a similar concept, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and although Ant-Man went into development, nothing came to fruition. Until the later 2000s, that is.
Evangeline Lilly was cast as Hope "The Wasp" Van Dyne in the franchise and Michael Douglas joined the cast as Hank Pym, where Lang must help defend Pym's Ant-Man shrinking technology and plot a heist with worldwide ramifications. It became a huge box office hit, spawning a 2018 sequel, Ant-Man and the Wasp. Now in its third outing, Paul Rudd’s latest Marvel adventure is expected to bring in $95 million to $100 million domestically in its opening weekend.
In the film's beginning, Rudd is just Scott Lang again, "a divorced-dad ex-con" who once helped save the world from Thanos and now has written an upbeat memoir about his version of events, Look Out for the Little Guy. He still has his faithful longtime partner Hope (Evangeline Lilly), aka the Wasp, and a now-teenage daughter, Cassie (The Society's Kathyrn Newton); even his would-be in-laws, the mad scientists Hank and Janet (Douglas and Michelle Pfeiffer) have settled into calm domesticity.
Hot Press was lucky to join the press junket for the blockbuster, speaking to director Peyton Reed, who is as positive and amiable as a motivational Scout Leader. It's easy to see why his relaxed presence makes for perfect comedy directing, and it utter adoration for cinema and sci-fi is palpable.
“It was a thrill getting the crew back together," Reed beams. "We were all excited that we got to make a third Ant-Man movie. In 2014, when we started shooting the first one, our concern was whether the audience would accept a hero who shrinks and talks to ants? That seemed crazy. It’s really gratifying now to take these heroes, who were at that point operating in the margins of the MCU, and now put them in front and say that they’re the first, unlikely Avengers to be facing Kang the Conqueror. It was really gratifying.”
“We wanted to do something a little different for the third one," Peyton adds. "Taking it to San Francisco, we felt we owed the audience some answers as to what’s actually going on in the Quantum Realm and what Janet Van Dyne had been doing down there for 30 years. Quantumania got the opportunity with a much larger canvas to paint this subatomic world.”
When I spoke to Kathryn Newton - who took over the role of Cassie Lang from Emma Fuhrmann (Avengers: Endgame) and Abby Ryder Fortson (Ant-Man, Ant-Man and the Wasp) - earlier in the day, she heaped praise on the "positive" presence of Peyton Reed ["He's just the best!"].
“First of all, she’s paid to say that!” the director grins, in jest. “Kathryn is given money to say nice things about her director. That said, I think I’ve always been an optimistic person and that’s maybe because I work in the comedy world with a lot of comedic actors. I like to create an environment on set that is as relaxed as possible because I feel that will yield the best results. It allows the actors to try things they may not normally be comfortable doing. It’s about setting that kind of tone on the set, so that people will have that opportunity. They have the freedom to fuck-up and step outside of the box and I like that. That’s what keeps everything alive and fresh.”
“We inherited this idea of, after the blip in Endgame, Scott Lang has lost five more years with Cassie," Peyton offers of Newton's socially conscious, stubborn character. "She’s now 18. We had to figure out how that worked. That was a gift that we had inherited because in this trilogy of movies, Scott’s still relating to his daughter as a little girl and she’s not. She’s a young woman with ideas of her own. That this was a great progression to that dynamic. She wants to be a hero; she’s an idealist; but generationally she has very different ideas of what that means and what injustice in the world is. She can be quite critical of her dad."
Scott’s teenage daughter, Cassie, creates a device that can send signals down to the Quantum Realm, unaware of the danger it poses until Scott and the extended Ant-Man family—Cassie, Evangeline Lilly’s Wasp, Michael Douglas’s Hank Pym, and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Janet van Dyne—get sucked into the world against their will.
"One of the biggest, single challenges we faced in creating this film was figuring out a way to create the Quantum Realm," Peyton tells me, passionately. As with all MCU films, green screen is the norm. "Obviously, it’s not something that you can go on location and shoot.
"As we started to write the story and in working with Jeff Loveness, the Rick and Morty writer, and plotting out this sort of Wizard of Oz-esque adventure where our heroes are thrust down there - eventually, they split up and have to traverse this Quantum Realm. We had to come up with everything. Not just the looks of the realm but the eternal logic; the loss of physics down there; what sort of creatures inhabit it; and it wasn’t just creating one planet, it was creating what Janet Van Dyne describes as ‘worlds within worlds’.”
“My approach to that was working with our production stylist and a team of artists from all over the world," he continues, descriptively. "We had them look at the script and go through all their art that they’ve created over the years and show me some of the most insane concepts they’ve ever created. We had to tell the story of this vast, subatomic world from all these different ecosystems and inhabitants so that we could then tell the story of this group of freedom fighters who were the survivors of their various groups of civilisations having been destroyed by Kang the Conqueror. It embraced a lot of different aesthetics.”
“There’s some characters that feel like they’re photoreal versions of an old Hanna Barbara cartoon, or a Roberty Howard paperback," Reed notes of his influences. "We needed that to show this vast universe. When it came time for shooting, some of them were more traditional sets like the ones we used in Pinewood, London, and for a handful of environments I had reused some of the sound effects [Volume technology] that I had used for season two of The Mandalorian, and then we also used some traditional green screen. It was really just a matter of using all the tools in the tool kit to try and create these varied looks.”
Reed's initial interest in The Mandalorian (he later directed two episodes of the second season) was in part because of the state-of-the-art technology used in the production. He visited Jon Favreau on the set of Season 1 because everyone was talking about the Volume technology - Industrial Light and Magic's inventive 360-degree sound stage that first came into play with Season 1 of the series, and uses seamless LED screens to digitally alter the background in real-time while filming through Stagecraft.
“We had free range of design for Ant-Man 3," Reed explains. "I suppose there is a Star Wars aspect to it, but there’s also a Flash Gordan, Alien, and a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy aspect, too. All these things that had an influence on me as a kid and now as an adult. I wanted it to be this grab bag of visual reference points. There’s also electron microscope photography in there because we studied a lot of that, wanting to know how energy moved down there; how it calcified, and what that could potentially look like. You’ll see tropes in there from science fiction, but also I think we used a lot of the same things that influenced George Lucas."
Bill Murray is notoriously hard to get in touch with, how was Peyton's experience of working with him?
“It was amazing!" he laughs. "There was this role of Lord Krylar and he really was a character that represented Janet’s separate life down there. We had her very deliberately serving pizza to the family in a very domestic environment. It was an interesting and sort of disappointing twist to see that this is what this super hero was doing now. As we find ourselves in the quantum realm we realise that she has been down there 30 years and we start to see the place come alive. She knows how this custom works and what this place does and this character. Bill Murray represented this past.”
“My first exposure to Bill Murray was before he was a cast member on Saturday Night Live," Peyton adds, smiling at the recollection. "In 1975 when I was a kid, there was a Fantastic Four radio show in America that Stan Lee narrated. Bill Murray who at the time was doing national anthem radio played the human torch in the Fantastic Four. I brought this up to Bill and reminded him of this, we hit it off, and he loved the idea of playing this character. We loved the idea of Michelle Pfieffer, Bill Murray, and Michael Douglas all together—having this battle of alphas play out. It was a delight to have everyone on set. Getting in touch with him in the first place was difficult because the legend of there’s no agent - there’s some phone you have to leave a message on - it’s all true!
"We had a deadline in which we were like if we don’t hear from Bill, we’ve got to move on. My cell phone rang the night before that cut off point and he was like, ‘Hey, it’s Bill Murray. I find myself driving on Sunset Boulevard near UCLA. Are you free for dinner?’ I was like, ‘Yeah! I’m free for dinner’.”
Filmmaking legend Martin Scorsese famously shared his thoughts on Marvel movies in a 2019 interview with Empire Magazine, where he described them as “theme parks,” saying, “honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing their best under the circumstances, is theme parks.”
“Who actually thinks that 80-year-old Martin Scorsese would want to rush out and see a marvel movie? That’s insane to me," Reed shakes his head, laughing. "I love Martin Scorsese and all his movies; I grew up with him. I worship the director, but I also know that he’s not waiting in line to see the latest Marvel movie. He’s also from a very different generation that uses the word auteur in a very specific way.”
“When the French critics were writing for Cahier du Cinéma, they took Howard Hawks and these journeyman directors who were given scripts and told to direct a movie—and they discovered the common themes behind these director’s works," he continues. "That was what the auteur theory originally was. It’s been sort of bent now after a couple of generations to mean that if you’re a director that uses a lot of whip pans and moves your camera like a video game, then you’re an auteur. Martin Scorsese is an auteur. He doesn’t write his movies, but he has a common theme. He’s obsessed with Italian gang mentality and religion, Catholicism. A journalist who is committed to doing the work of discovering those movies, you would see that there are common tropes. I don’t understand why anyone would expect Martin Scorsese to be excited about a Marvel movie.”
Is there a pretentiousness to the criticism of superhero blockbusters like Marvel?
“It’s ridiculous," Peyton responds immediately. "We’re all film makers that have grown up with movies and influences. I made a bunch of different movies before working in the MCU - mostly comedies. Marvel has given me an opportunity to make comedies in a time where film studios are making fewer and fewer of them. Most of them are streaming now. What that’s allowed me to do is continue the type of comedy I like, which is character comedy, and work with someone like Paul Rudd, who is a genius at that.
“The Ant-Man movies are more comedic in tone than others in the MCU. That’s been a great thing. It’s very hard for me to fathom not thinking of these movies cinematically. That criticism comes from the idea of the way the MCU system is structured—there’s an architecture of an overwriting story theme. Within the trilogy of the Ant-Man movies, there's a progression and character arcs. They’ve always been about family to me, so I don’t really put any credence in that criticism.”
Quantumania is our first taste of Kang in true conqueror mode, as this version of the villain lords over the Quantum Realm—the subatomic world where all constructs of space and time don’t exist—until the opportunity arises to escape. How was it directing Jonathan Majors, the Yale-educated actor who burst onto the scene with standout parts in Lovecraft County, Creed III and The Last Black Man in San Francisco?
“Jonathan is someone who I had seen first in Scott Cooper’s movie, Hostiles," Reed answers, smiling. "There’s a scene where he’s lying in bed dying and his friend, Christian Bale, is having his last conversation with him. I found myself not being able to take my eyes off the guy lying in the bed, which was Jonathan. He had this thing. He’s such a commanding performer and he’s kind of a chameleon. He plays all of these different characters but always finds the truth in those moments, and he felt like the perfect guy to play this role. He was absolutely my first choice. Not only is he physically trained, but he’s also classically trained, being a North Carolina School of the Arts and Yale Drama School graduate. He’s the real deal.
"In addition to all that technique and training he just has that thing that actors either have or they don’t have—this star quality—and he has it," Reed emphasises, assuredly. "When we were developing this character, we talked a lot about what it would be like to live in the presence of someone who didn’t live life in a linear fashion—past, present, and future—but lived in endless loops. Maybe this character who is also in the Marvel comics, called a Nexus being, are variants of him in the multiverse. What’s it like conversing with someone like that? How do they process time? I had known Kang from the comics when I was a kid and loved the idea of introducing him.”
“There’s a stillness about Kang. There’s a slow, deliberate, choice of words. Every word matters, which is a great opposition to Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang, who is going to try and joke his way out of every situation," the director analyses. "I loved the idea of this collision of energies. It seemed exciting to me. We also talked about the traumas we experience within our lives. What if you have a character who has experienced multiple traumas over and over again? We liked the idea of Kang as a kind of broken man—a man out of time. In the movie, the Ant-Man movies are all about family and connections. That’s something that he doesn’t have. If you live life in the way that he does over time, what would be the value of attachments and connections?”
Janet continues to be haunted by her time in the Quantum Realm, the subatomic dimension in which she was stranded for three decades, though she hates to speak about it. As it turns out, she had a special connection at. one stage to Kang the Conqueror.
“They were marooned in the Quantum Realm at one point for this common purpose and forged this bond; then she discovered his true nature and felt betrayed," Reed nods. "He also felt betrayed because he had made a promise to her; he was going to get her out. We liked the idea that maybe after all the lives that Kang had lived, this bond with Janet Van Dyne might be the closest he had ever come to having an actual intimate relationship with someone. Introducing him in a human way and a way that you weirdly feel empathy in a lot of ways, was definitely our intention behind his character...despite his horrible, genocidal plans for the multiverse. It seemed to use a good opportunity to delineate him from a lot of the villains that had come before.”
Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is in cinemas now.
- Film & TV
- 25 Apr 23