Peyton Reed has a reputation for smart and savvy directing, delivering witty, frothy fun in films like Bring It On, Down With Love, and that movie where Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston break up, The Break-Up. It seemed like a thankless task when he was brought on by Marvel in 2014 to take over directing duties on Ant-Man after Edgar Wright left the project (or was not-so-subtly pushed away, depending on how you want to read it), but after managing to deliver a decent origin story for Paul Rudd’s tiny hero, Reed is getting much more positive notices for the follow-up, Ant-Man And The Wasp, which opened last week. When The A.V. Club reached Reed by phone, he was happy to chat about expectations for his little corner of the MCU, dealing with the weight of following Infinity War, and whether all those glowing public statements about working for Marvel are actually true.
[Note: This interview doesn’t reveal anything about Ant-Man And The Wasp, but it does discuss the plot of Avengers: Infinity War.]
The A.V. Club: One of the most noticeable things about Ant-Man And The Wasp is how much freer and more unburdened by franchise obligations it feels than the first film. Was it liberating, not having to tell the origin story?
Peyton Reed: Yeah, no doubt about it. I mean, we were free to hit the ground running with these characters and not have to set up who they are and just start telling the story. That was hugely liberating. And also because at this point, between the first Ant-Man and Scott Lang’s appearance in Captain America: Civil War, we knew that audiences accepted and embraced this character. Part of the thing in the first movie, in addition to telling the origin story, was not knowing necessarily if the audience can accept Paul Rudd as an action hero. So I think in particular in the first half of the first movie, you know, he’s a bit more of the straight man and really has a more laconic performance. Whereas in this one we were free to kind of let him loose a little more—and also just the overall tone of the movie in terms of how we use the Pym particle technology to kind of go nuts and blow it out and find different ways to use that shrinking and growing technology.
At some point it occurred to us, like, let’s not just use it on people. Let’s do vehicles and buildings and go nuts. Because thinking back on the first Ant-Man, it wasn’t just Scott’s origin, it was setting up Scott’s origin and the powers and the original Ant-Man, Hank Pym, and the background with Janet and Hope Van Dyne and Pym Technologies and different species of ants... [Laughs.] Oh my god, there was so much stuff to set up and that really became a huge part of the narrative challenge on the first movie.
AVC: And also I assume every debut Marvel director has to be worrying, “Oh no, am I going to be the person that delivers the first Marvel bomb?”
PR: [Laughs.] Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. It fuels everyone working at Marvel, in a great way.
AVC: This movie feels very in line with your directorial style—there are scenes with Scott and Hank Pym, or with Scott and Hope, where there’s echoes of the pacing and zip of scenes from Down With Love or The Break-Up. Do you notice continuities with your previous work now when you’re doing the Ant-Man films?
PR: I don’t know if I notice them. I direct how I direct, and I know that one of the things that I really love about Ant-Man And The Wasp is that, unlike something like Avengers: Infinity War where you have to service 20, 30 characters, we have our core group. And of course the new characters we introduced, but it still feels manageable and intimate in terms of the basic story that we’re telling. So it does allow us to slow down and have a few more of those intimate moments, and also really focus on these specific dynamics between these main characters because it really is about this generational hero story. So it’s something that I’m not too conscious of. I just sort of do it the way I do it, if that makes sense. But I know what I want to see as an audience member in these movies, so I’m committing to the thing, but also trying to subvert it and mix it up for the audience as much as we can.
AVC: Since you mentioned Infinity War, there was the sense among a lot of people after seeing it that was sort of like, “How am I supposed to care about anything else happening after just seeing 50 percent of the universe’s heroes crumble into ash?” Was the plan always to just basically ignore the events of Infinity War as much as possible?
PR: Yeah. I mean, it really was that. We always knew we were coming after Infinity War and that we knew how Infinity War ended, but we also knew that there were a very specific set of concerns that our characters had in relation to Ant-Man, and we knew after Civil War what our jumping-off point was going to be in its core. It was really the story of Scott and Hope, and their partnership, and are they going to be able to come together and work together on this specific mission to rescue Janet. So that would feel pretty self-contained, and it was only late in the process that we knew at some point we were going to have to nod to it [Infinity War], but we also knew we didn’t really want to reveal too specifically what our timeline was, compared to Infinity War, until late in the game.
Because that’s such a huge dramatic event that happens at the end of Infinity War. If you deal with it early on in this movie, it really threatens to hijack the whole movie, and I think we knew—particularly after seeing Infinity War—I think we knew audiences would come to this movie looking for clues and looking for ways it tied in, and when we don’t give them anything for a long while, they just sort of settle back and start to experienced this story and get involved in this story so that by the time we actually get around to dealing with it, you know, in our very specific Ant-Man and Wasp way, hopefully it has some impact, but a very different kind of impact from the end of Infinity War.
AVC: You’ve been very clear that Marvel hasn’t handed down mandates, but that they’re collaborators. You’ve mentioned that Kevin Feige suggested you go to the quantum realm, for example. It’s hard to define creative freedom, but do you feel like part of the reason you’ve had these successful films come from this is because you’re good at working within that sort of give-and-take framework with a studio like Marvel?
PR: I think I’ve always just realized that politics are a huge part of it, as they are a huge part of everything in life. And you know, certain people can kind of navigate it. But I have to be honest with you, and I really mean this because I didn’t come from indie film. I did television, and I did studio films, and to me what they have set up at Marvel—I can only speak from my experience there as a director, but also knowing the other directors who worked there—it really is like an ideal thing where you do have an incredible amount of freedom and also such a clear level of access to the head of the studio, creatively.
And thank god, the head of the studio happens to be—you know, people talk about Kevin Feige a lot about [having] this sort of master plan and how he knows all the Marvel characters in this whole universe, and creating that idea of a shared universe, which is all true, but for me, I’ve predominantly been a comedy director and it was fun to realize that Kevin is incredibly well-versed in comedy—and, like, obscure comedy. Again, I’ve talked about how in the first movie, when we cast Gregg Turkington, and then Tim Heidecker in this movie, you don’t have to explain to the studio head why it’s going to be good and why those guys are amazing. Feige knows—verbatim!—every episode of On Cinema or Decker or the stuff that those guys have done. And that’s exceedingly rare and really refreshing for me, particularly coming from comedy. So I think there’s a trust level that he gives to directors. And also the fact that we’re the 20th Marvel movie and they know more than anybody else. Like, you know, you got to mix it up. We can’t all be the same. They want to be different.
AVC: In some ways the Marvel film that this movie shares DNA with is Doctor Strange, in that both you and Scott Derrickson had to come up with these new visual aesthetics to depict the quantum realm for your film and the astral plane for his. How much you did you look not only to other films outside of Marvel for inspiration, but also check in with other Marvel films to ensure that you’re making a strong contrast from anything else they’ve done?
PR: Well, for me it helped that we set up at least a bit of the quantum realm in the first Ant-Man. And it also helped that our visual effects supervisor on Ant-Man And The Wasp is Stef Ceretti, who had been in that position on Doctor Strange. So I think he was very motivated to make it very different from Doctor Strange visually. For the first movie, I brought in all this visual reference stuff of this electron microscope photography that I had been into and actually have some giant prints in my home of this stuff. I’m just obsessed with it because it’s electron microscope photography, but they look like landscapes. They have these weird terrestrial cues. They look real, but they’re also very otherworldly. And it’s all science. It’s all based in reality.
So working with a quantum technical consultant, we just talked about what could happen down there, in theory. And one of the big things that I talked to Stef about from the beginning was, what if we designed to key off what we did in the first movie, but that the sort of faux-visual mandate is, “Oh, what if the makers of Ant-Man And The Wasp designed special quantum camera equipment and got it down there and were able to shoot in the quantum realm?” And what I really meant by that was, let’s see the limitations of photography as we present the quantum realm. It should be a little too grainy and it should have maybe a little jitter to it like a lot of microscopic photography that we’re used to seeing. And maybe it’s hard to focus down there—you know, the depth of field in the focal plane can be very shallow, but it can also shift—putting in all these photographic cues that help sell the scale. And that immediately made it different from Doctor Strange or cosmic stuff like Guardians Of The Galaxy.
AVC: The physicality of a tactile set is so important when you’re dealing with skewed perspective like that. You really do get a sense of tangible presence that you don’t always get when crazy cosmic stuff happens in Marvel films.
PR: Yeah. I’m happy to hear you say that, because it was something that was definitely talked about from the beginning, is the exhilaration of shrinking and growing. Again, we’re not in Asgard or outer space—everything around them is mundane, real-world San Francisco. And it should feel like what it would feel like to be sitting in a coffee shop and see Giant-Man coming down the street trying to stop a truck. Like, it has to be as photo-real as possible because that’s really where the exhilaration of doing a shrinking and growing movie would come from. So to me that was the mandate—let’s create really dynamic shots and do action stuff that’s more comedically based in terms of the way we choreograph it, and we cued off of a lot of Buster Keaton for that. [Laughs.]
AVC: Because the effects need to be planned so far in advance, did you ever get moments on set where somebody would have an idea, and you’d just think, “Ah, damn, if only we could travel back in time nine months and tell the effects team, ‘Hey, what if we did this instead?’”
PR: Well, it’s a really interesting thing, because I would have probably asked a similar question of a Marvel filmmaker. And what I discovered on the first Ant-Man was how shockingly fluid the process at Marvel is. So there were plenty of times where we were on set saying, “Oh man, we should do this instead,” and we’d get together with Stef Ceretti and say, “I know we talked about doing this and using a wide angle and shooting this way, but what if we used the longer length and shot this way and did it handheld this way,” or whatever. [In Ceretti’s voice:] “Yes, we can do this. This is perfect.” [Laughs.] He can make it happen because the technology has advanced so, so quickly and progressed so exponentially. It’s become so much more fluid. And I really wasn’t expecting that. I felt like these are giant, visually dense movies, and to just stop that machinery and shift course midway through or late in the game is going to be impossible. And it’s not. Weirdly, it’s encouraged because generally if you’re going to change something, you’ve come up with a better idea or a more compelling way to do it. And you want to be able to pursue that.
AVC: We’re waiting to see what Marvel is going to say about everything after Avengers 4, but do you already have ideas if you were asked to do a third Ant-Man?
PR: We do. Again, we were very superstitious, so we never presumed we’re going to get a chance to do another one, but certainly as you’re constructing the story, you’re seeding things into it that, you know, if we get a chance, we have really specific ideas of how to progress these characters in these situations. So there is a lot of that. But again, who knows. I get superstitious talking about it.
AVC: You’ve previously mentioned meeting up with Joss Whedon and saying that his first Avengers movie was similar to what you had in mind back when you almost tackled a Fantastic Four film. Could you share what you had in mind with your Fantastic Four?
PR: I mean, that was as far back as 2003, so it’s like 15 years ago. But the basic idea for that—which felt exciting to me at the time, and I think part of the reason I said that to Joss—was creating a set of superheroes with no secret identities. I mean, all these things are 15-year-old concepts, right? And everything has been done since then. But the idea of making, you know, you go to Manhattan and there’s the Empire State Building, and there’s the Statue Of Liberty, and there’s the Baxter Building, and the Fantastic Four are just a part of the fabric of New York and everyone knows them. These are things that really weren’t done quite as much in 2003 and now they’re kind of—they seem really passé.
But also just the idea of a structure. At one point we were toying with A Hard Day’s Night structure, where you skipped entirely over the origin stuff and just present them in full, Fantastic Four mode, but I have to say a lot of the stuff we talked about back then, you know, was Fantastic Four as dysfunctional family, and The Avengers did a great job of that. And there’s a lot of that DNA, I think, in the Ant-Man movies that really is about family, and heroes who have very intimate relationships with each other.
AVC: We actually ran a piece on The A.V. Club about Down With Love last week. Do you think it’s even possible to make a film like that anymore? A mid-budget romantic comedy with a retro style?
PR: It’s a really interesting question. I’m not even sure it was possible to make Down With Love 15 years ago. [Laughs.] It was such a weird thing. I honestly think the main reason we got to make that movie was, I had done a $10 million movie, Bring It On, that had done well, and was looking to do something that was a real specific visual comedy. And Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks, the producers, were coming off an Oscar with American Beauty. And I think all of that stuff helped get this really eccentric movie made. Fox at that time had zero idea of how to market that movie. And instead came up with the brilliant idea of putting us out as counter programming to The Matrix Reloaded. [Laughs.] Which was a movie at the time that you—I mean, we all loved The Matrix, and it was like, really, holy shit: The same weekend. It’s like, “Even I’m going to go see The Matrix Reloaded that weekend.” It’s insanity.
But I’m very proud of the movie. I don’t know—listen, I’m optimistic. I would like to think that, with the right ingredients, a movie like that could be made. Every once in a while some weird eccentric movies get through the studio system. More than even the style of that movie, to do a $35 million comedy at a studio now, with the costs of advertising and print and all this stuff—it’s really, really a tough thing to do.
AVC: Would you like to return to that smaller, mid-budget world in the future?
PR: Yeah. I think it’s very liberating. To me, I don’t feel like the trajectory should be like, “Bigger budget every time, bigger budget.” It really is like, “What do you need to tell the story at hand?” And I also think that there’s a certain energy that doing lower budget stuff gives you, and keeps you on your toes as a director. Also, to do a movie with far less technical considerations would be refreshing as well. I think it’s good to mix it up.
Wait until I announce a $400 million movie next week. You’re gonna be like, “That guy was so full of shit!”
AVC: Our headline will just be, “Peyton Reed is a liar.”
PR: [Laughs.] “My bullshit session with Peyton Reed.” I’ve got to find a $400 million movie to do just for that headline.