Zak Penn is easily the most prolific superhero scribe for the big screen. Along with working on non-comic book genre screenplays like Last Action Hero, PCU, and Behind Enemy Lines, Penn has enjoyed a long collaboration with Marvel Studios, bringing their iconic characters into film and introducing them to a new generation of fans. His superhero filmography includes X2 and X-Men: The Last Stand, Elektra, The Incredible Hulk and perhaps his biggest assignment of all, next summer’s The Avengers.
Penn also has a new TV series set to premiere on Syfy that he co-created with Michael Karnow (with “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s” Ira Steven Behr as executive producer/showrunner and “Lost” helmer Jack Bender directing the pilot): Alphas, which features a group of characters who possess enhanced abilities based on real-world phenomenon who team up under a government handler.
Penn gives SuperHeroHype all the info he’s able (thanks to a non-disclosure agreement) about The Avengers, as well as a tantalizing peek at “Alphas.”
SuperHeroHype: Last time we spoke you were hard at work on "The Avengers" script. How do you feel about the way that project developed?
Zak Penn: Do you believe in Joss Whedon? Do you believe in him? I believe in him! That's my comment. If you believe in Joss you should be excited. Actually Joss and I went to the same college so we have a long history. I'm very excited. I can't wait to see what happens with it, you know. And it's weird because “Alphas” is kind of almost the inverse. If you know the comic book world, this is kind of the flipside of something like "The Avengers," so it will be weird next year to have "Avengers" coming out while I'm working on this show.
SHH: We got the sense from Mark Ruffalo the other week that the actors have had a lot of input as to their characters and dialogue and that sort of thing. Can you speak to that?
Penn: I can't! I can't speak very much…I had to sign a nondisclosure agreement for “Avengers,” so I can't really speak about it too much. I'm pretty limited. I just can't answer any of it because I'm not allowed to. I have a big mouth, too, but they made me sign a contract.
SHH: What were the beginnings of your interests in the superhero genre? Were you reading a lot of comic books?
Penn: I grew up reading “X-Men.” When I first got to Hollywood when I sold my first script, the first thing I said was, "Can I write the 'X-Men' movie?" At the time Marvel was... I don't know if I remember if they were owned by foreign nationals or what was going on, but I've always been into comic books, and I've always really been into science fiction. But I grew up on [James] Cameron and [Steven] Spielberg and a very naturalistic sense of science fiction, and even the comic books I liked were the ones that were the most real. You know, the ones that bled over into reality the most, so that's kind of where my heart lies. I always point out to people "Avengers" is the first superhero movie I've ever written, because “X-Men," "The Incredible Hulk," even “Elektra," none of those are really superhero characters. They're all either science fiction premise, or something like the Hulk is not a superhero at all, and Elektra is an assassin. So "The Avengers" is the first legitimate superhero movie I ever wrote, ironically.
SHH: Did you hit Hollywood at just the right time to be able to get all of these dream gigs?
Penn: Well, actually, no, because I got here before that. That was '91. And it took until about '97, '98 before they really started- I mean, it wasn't until “X-Men” that people really started making comic book movies the way I wanted to see them. The more real, more naturalistic comic book movies as opposed to the kind of sillier films – you know what I'm talking about.
SHH: So you were planning to be a screenwriter anyway and it just sort of happened that the comic book movie boom hit.
Penn: Yeah, I already was. I had already sold... I had already wrote "Last Action Hero," (that) was my first script.
SHH: And you were fantasizing about, "I'm going to do the 'Spider-Man' movie"?
Penn: Yeah. Actually "Spider-Man" was one of the only ones I didn't want to do because I thought it was a little too cheesy. I mean, I thought they did a great job with the movies, but I didn't see how to do it without making it silly.
SHH: You've had a long association with Marvel. Do you see that moving forward in the future?
Penn: I do. I hope it will go forward in the future. Obviously they're now owned by Disney. I don't know what that means [for me] – I mean I've done a lot of movies for them, so I wouldn't be surprised if… I don't know what's left for me to do. I mean "Avengers," really, was the last “big” job, but I hope so. I mean, I love Marvel, and I love all those people over there. And I've worked on…God, I can't even count anymore how many movies I've done with them.
SHH: Are you interested at all in DC properties?
Penn: I am. But partly, because if you know the comics, DC tends to be more larger than life, more mythological. The characters are less based in a human [experience]. "Superman" is something out of fantasy, not out of science fiction, in my mind. And so I've always been more drawn to Marvel, even when I was a kid. By the way, I did read both of them. I mean, the movies are harder for me to imagine, honestly.
SHH: Your new series “Alphas” has fallen on the heels of things like "Heroes" and other shows where you've had ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, with superhuman abilities emerging. Were there any sort of pitfalls that you saw from those other shows you really wanted to avoid?
Penn: Well, I mean the first thing is I really did try to start from a totally different paradigm. I mean I was saying to them before, the show is probably closer to "The Mentalist" or "The X-Files" in its pitch. Seriously, that's where we started from. And then I kind of got in some of the stuff I always wanted to do in superhero genre. I managed to find the real world equivalent of it. So as opposed to "Heroes" which is completely serialized--I haven't watched the whole series but it is a lot like “X-Men." We purposely started from the totally other direction in terms of what the show is actually like. In the same way that "Law & Order" is nothing like "Heat." They're two opposite ends of the genre. I think for me I was less worried about that than I was about other procedural type shows that had some overlap with us. But luckily they all got cancelled.
SHH: Who are the five characters and each of their powers in the core group?
Penn: The group is: Hark, who can initiate his fight-or-flight instinct, which gives him enhanced strength. Rachel is a synestheet – her various senses are crossed, so she has enhanced senses. It's hearing, seeing, smell, et cetera, but only one at a time and the others shut down; Hicks has something called hyperkinesis, which is perfect synchrony between his thought and muscles, so that he can throw a quarter through a coin slot 20 yards away. He can balance on anything. Gary is autistic but he has the ability to perceive all electromagnetic wavelengths and interpret them. And Nina has the ability, what's called instant induction. That she can basically override your willpower for a brief period of time.
SHH: And in theory, these can all be explained.
Penn: These are all based on real people. They're all based on actual research. I mean, they're a little bit heightened, obviously, but one or two of them are pretty close to reality actually. No flying. No laser beams coming out of eyes. No capes. That's kind of the rule.
SHH: As a Syfy series is this something that – even though it's a very different show from “Battlestar Galactica”– you're hoping for that level of production value, quality, everything all throughout?
Penn: I hope people like it as much as "Battlestar." As much as I like "Battlestar," that's a pretty high bar. But that's what we're shooting for. We're trying to make something that's on that [level].
SHH: Has Syfy given you the necessary resources to get there?
Penn: Yeah, you'll see when you see the pilot. They gave us a lot. And so far it's been awesome.
SHH: How have you enjoyed the process of developing a long-term TV series versus the movie screenplays you've done?
Penn: It's really different. It's really fun. It's a lot more work, I've got to tell you. It's a LOT more work! But it's really cool being able to kind of flesh out the universe of it. That's something that-I kind of had to do writing sequels to the “X-Men” movies, but it's new for me.
SHH: How did you pitch this to Syfy?
Penn: It's a pretty complicated process, the pitch process. You go in for a bunch of meetings. We had a lot of visual aids. We actually did a bunch of things. We actually did a video of a guy – we did a fake video, which we released on the Internet that got all these hits, and that was part of our presentation, so I don't know. It was actually a fairly complicated and involved presentation.
SHH: We saw a lot of funny banter, chemistry and improvisational energy among your actors earlier today – is that going to be part of the series as well.
Penn: It is, yeah. Look, I've directed two entirely improvised movies. That's one of my side projects, and I really wanted to bring some of that to the show, so I hired actors who were good on their feet and who, even if we give them a scene where they've got to carry some exposition, can still fill in the blanks and be themselves. That's exactly what I wanted. I feel like that's what you don’t see on a Syfy show, two people bantering in kind of a real way or not having an answer at the tip of their tongue. Or stumbling on something or simply sitting there and being bored occasionally. Those things interest me.
Alphas premieres on Syfy on July 11 at 10 PM Eastern.