Man of Action Figures
Screenwriter Justin Marks spills all on his triumphs, his disappointments, and the Street Fighter “train wreck.” Did three years spent inhabiting the minds of our favorite comic-book characters mess with his head?
By virtue of his trade, Justin Marks is a man of many worlds: Eternia, Captain Nemo’s Nautilus, a maximum-security prison for superheroes, you name it. As the one-time proprietor of at least a half-dozen of the galaxies, fantasias, and subterranean hellholes that have occupied the hearts and minds of sci-fi fans for decades, it’s Marks’ charge to inhabit those places, scope them out for adventure and report back onto the blank page. Sometimes he never wants to leave; other times he can’t wait to escape. Every time, there are two realities that await him on the other side: Hollywood, and the online community’s approximation of Hollywood. The two couldn’t be more different.
“We live in such a cynical world—that is, the Internet—and it’s created a culture that’s very risk-averse,” says 30-year-old Marks, speaking comprehensively for the first time about a screenwriting career that’s still in its infancy yet has set the blog world abuzz. “If you do something and you fail, it lives on in infamy for a very long time. Not to say that people should be taking risks all the time, but sometimes you want to see [something] other than dried-out, cookie-cutter movies that are dead on arrival. Sometimes a train wreck is more interesting.”
It’s the “train wreck” part that drove Marks to therapy, and defines the unreality (“the Internet,” a term he comes back to over and over) that he’s had to learn to come to terms with. In mid-2007, comic-book-to-screen master David S. Goyer (Dark City, Batman Begins) mentioned his involvement with a Green Arrow movie entitled Super Max and said that the script would be written not by him but by a newbie called Justin Marks, at which point fan sites everywhere began clamoring to hold Marks’ credibility to the harsh light of geekdom. Surveying his IMDb page, blogs called him “the most gainfully employed professional fanboy on the planet.” “Who the hell is Justin Marks?” asked another.
Meanwhile, in what Marks considers the real-world Hollywood—though some would argue that net-points, first-dollar world might be described as an alternate dimension at best—young Justin Marks quietly, perhaps too quietly, amassed a project slate that would be the envy of any upcoming screenwriter. Within a year and a half, Marks submitted screenplay drafts to various producers of Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, Super Max, Voltron, and Grayskull, a larger-than-life update of the He-Man property. That was only the beginning: Marks’ script for Street Fighter had been widely circulated between production companies and studios, along with Grayskull, a leaked draft of which had been deemed a “fanboy masterpiece” by well-known script-review site Latino Review. Marks’ reputation—and mystique—grew exponentially.
“I’m definitely not media-averse or anything like that,” says Marks. “I talk when I’m spoken to. I’m just not spoken to that much.”
Still, Marks could feel the heat of his increasing buzz and the dizzying swirl of expectations getting out of control. “There are many other writers with many more credits who’ve been very successful, so I hope to be one of those guys. I do think, because of the types of jobs I was booking several years ago, they tend to be the kinds of projects that get my friends excited—which is to say the Internet.”
Marks grew up in New York with the same kind of lonely, movie-obsessed childhood that’s defined so many of cinema’s epic storytellers. When it came time for college, however, he “was bitten by another bug”—architecture—which he pursued at Columbia University. There he worked on weekend doodles, like a design for a super-maximum security prison, and larger projects, like what he calls “hack-assembled architecture”—“where you pull together separate component parts of buildings or objects and put it together into something else and reappropriate it,” says Marks. (Parts, like, say, mechanical lions?)
“Being an assistant
is the best film school
you can ever have.”
But the Hollywood bug never fully left him. He spent summers on “fact-finding missions” to Los Angeles, crashing on friends’ couches and interning wherever he could. “I can literally trace a straight line between one person I interned for, who recommended me to another person, and then on up to where I am now,” says Marks. “It was, you know, one step at a time.”
Upon graduation, Marks moved to Los Angeles to work as an assistant at Single Cell Pictures, run by Sandy Stern and R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe. “They did Being John Malkovich, and when I worked for them they were in the middle of production on a movie called Saved! with Mandy Moore and Macaulay Culkin.” A typical assistant, Marks did tasks ranging from reading scripts to finding projects to develop, “the whole kit and kaboodle.”
“I couldn’t recommend it any higher to any aspiring writer or producer. I really feel like getting out there and not existing in a vacuum, being on a desk and meeting with other assistants and getting to know everyone, that’s what the career is,” says Marks, who came home from that job and wrote for about five hours every night.
When Marks made enough inroads with producers, he took the next step of showing one of his screenplays to his boss, Stern, who passed it along to an agent. “It was kind of a modern-day Field of Dreams. Kind of It’s a Wonderful Life set in New York City, with this big, big world and giant mythology about a limo driver who gets involved with the ghosts of history’s most famous figures, who live in this secret society where they affect modern events,” remembers Marks. “It was ambitious. I think at the time I was very proud of it, but you grow out of it.”
It would be a couple of years before Marks landed his first real screenwriting assignment, one that he worked on for over a year before word really got out: “My first script was called Voltron,” he says matter-of-factly. Of course, very few writers’ first jobs are mega-budget, highly coveted properties based on popular toys. Then again, in those pre-Transformers days of 2005-2006, it wasn’t a coveted project at all.
“Nobody wanted that job! Transformers was still milling about—they couldn’t get that movie made—and nobody wanted to do a giant robot movie,” says Marks. “We actually got the money for me to write it independently. It wasn’t even done at a studio yet because we wanted to develop the script and see what we had first. It feels like a thousand years ago. We’re about to see Transformers 3 now. But at the time, the vocabulary for those kinds of movies just didn’t exist.”
Part of that development was figuring out the tone. The final Voltron script, a bleak, post-apocalyptic tale in which giant “robeats” that emit sonic screams pick off survivors of a man-versus-machine war, describes itself as “a cross between Escape From New York and a Vonnegut apocalypse fantasy.” But there are also moments of geeky humor and nodding references that feel like infusions of lightness from an earlier, more Spielbergian draft. (In one of the “a-ha!” moments, ’80s leftovers like Speak & Spells and Simon game boards are used as “intermediary devices” in Voltron’s assembly.)
“We tried many versions of that story,” says Marks. “It was a feeling where I didn’t want to screw it up. I really wanted to feel like you could just constantly step away and think to yourself, ‘If I were a kid watching this, would I have the same thrill that I had for the original property?’ It started with the Spielbergian incarnation, and then once people started to get a sense of what Transformers was gonna be about, we said, ‘Oh my god, we can’t do that. They’re already doing that movie.’ The last thing you want to do is be the second thing out in the marketplace in the summer that movie came out.”
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