The Netflix film Spiderhead is one of the more intriguing original films to premiere on the streaming service lately, with a high-profile creative team behind the camera and plenty of familiar faces in front of it.
The film casts Marvel Studios star Chris Hemsworth as the warden of a futuristic penitentiary where the inmates have volunteered to be test subjects in experiments with emotion-manipulating drugs in exchange for the ability to roam free in the facility. Based on George Saunders’ short story Escape From Spiderhead, the film is directed by Top Gun: Maverick‘s Joseph Kosinski from a script penned by Deadpool and Zombieland franchise writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick.
Digital Trends spoke to Reese and Wernick about adapting Saunders’ story for Spiderhead, working with Hemsworth, and the long list of projects the pair always seem to have in the works — including Deadpool 3 and a Twisted Metal series based on the game franchise of the same name.
Digital Trends: I confess I was surprised when I saw you two had written Spiderhead. It didn’t scream Deadpool or Zombieland. How did this story find its way to you?
Paul Wernick: Condé Nast and The New Yorker have all this material and were looking into how best to exploit some of it through adaptations and projects like this. They came to us with the short story and we fell in love with it. We loved it so much we offered to write it on spec, and were initially planning to direct it ourselves and make it our first directorial project.
Rhett Reese: It seemed like a good story to take on as directors, since it basically unfolded in just a few rooms. But we ended up not doing that, mostly due to our work on Deadpool. We were fortunate to bring Joe Kosinski on, and then Netflix bought it. They really had faith in it.
The really tense, dramatic moments in this film hit hard. Did it feel like you were flexing some different muscles writing this film?
Reese: Mixing violence and comedy together is something we’re comfortable with, sure, but I’d like to think we always have some heart and love in there, too. [Spiderhead] fits right in with that murky tone and it never felt like we were going too far outside the familiar. It’s dark, but it’s got a love story, and at times, it’s funny.
Wernick: George Saunders’ story is dramatic, but it’s also kind of twisted and dark, too. That tone really spoke to us from the start.
A lot of its humor comes from Chris Hemsworth’s performance. We know you have a great relationship with Ryan Reynolds, but what was the collaboration with Hemsworth like?
Reese: Chris is very collaborative. He brings an intense intelligence to his roles and likes to dig into backstory. I think for him, [Spiderhead] was a chance to flex some metaphorical muscles. He’s flexed his literal muscles a lot, and I think this was a chance to show the world he has about 10,000 other talents, some of which may have never been on display. He has a true talent for villainy and for deception and for sort of sly, smarmy dialogue, but also emotions.
[Hemsworth] can summon up any emotion onto his face and into his performance, and that’s what this role required. When he’s on these drugs, he needs to be intensely feeling different things and expressing them on his face. In the hands of a lesser actor, that would have been difficult, but he’s a great actor. He’s one of the best. Sometimes the role brings out the performance, because it shows an audience what the performer is capable of. I think he just crushed it.
Wernick: It really is a unique role. Within a single scene, he goes through so many emotions as the drugs are running through his system, from laughter to fear to obedience. It’s almost schizophrenic in what the page was asking him to do, and yet he pulled it off so wonderfully and believably. It really is a pleasure to watch him work.
Adaptations always go through so many edits over time. Is there a scene you’re particularly proud of that stayed pretty solid from early drafts to the final cut?
Reese: I think the death of Heather [played by Tess Haubrich] is sort of the touchstone of the movie. It takes a movie that’s reasonably light and feels like the consequences aren’t necessarily too great, and really deepens it in an instant. It’s a tense scene. It’s also a scene that turns the lead character, Jeff, played by Miles Teller, and pushes him to investigate the Spiderhead and figure out a little more of what’s going on and what’s being done to him.
So, it feels like the pivotal scene. And it’s one we wrote pretty quickly and it stayed pretty close to what ended up being in the movie. Sometimes those are the best scenes: The scenes that are almost unimpeachable. It’s in the short story, we adapted it, and it largely stayed the way it was because it was just so clear that it was the beating heart of the movie.
The last time I spoke with you was 10 years ago before Deadpool had been released. We talked about where you were at with films based on the Cowboy Ninja Viking and Micronauts comics, and a few other projects…
Reese: A couple of those have not come to fruition, sadly. But you try to get a lot of irons in fires, because it’s like a batter coming to the plate. And yes, I’m going to use every metaphor in the book here. You’re going to hit about .350 if you’re one of the top hitters in baseball, you’re not going to bat 1.000. And so we’re just trying to hit .350.
A lot has changed has since then, and now you have a Twisted Metal series in the works along with Deadpool 3, among other projects. Which one do you think we’ll see next?
Reese: Ghosted, maybe? It’s already been shot and is in the edit bay, so that will probably come out early next year. Twisted Metal may beat it, depending on things. So there are a couple that are vying for it. We never know until we’re told a release date when something’s going to come out, but those are probably the two nearest, I would say.
I know you can’t reveal anything about Deadpool 3, but how do you feel about Deadpool entering the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Are you excited? Nervous?
Wernick: Yes… and yes. We’re giddy and yet, also gnashing our teeth knowing the pressure that we face. But we’re excited, too. It’s always a pleasure to dive back into that world. And now that Deadpool is in the MCU, it’s just all the more toys in the sandbox.
Reese: Yeah, writing movies is ultimately about writing characters. And that’s why we love Spiderhead and Steve Abnesti [the character played by Hemsworth]. That’s why we love Deadpool. Writing Deadpool is one of the greatest blasts that a writer could ever experience, and I wish everybody could have that experience — but for us, it’s like mainlining joy.
Directed by Joseph Kosinski, Spiderhead is available now on Netflix.
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