The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is best known for the Oscars, its annual award ceremony celebrating the best in film. It does so much more though. Throughout the year it has great programming for film lovers, students and workshops for people in the industry. One such presentation the Academy recently sponsored was “The Science of Super Heroes,” an informative look at the how physics would need to be applied if the heroes in some of our favorite movies were real. One of the speakers was Zack Stentz, screenwriter on Thor, X-Men: First Class, and the upcoming reboot of Starship Troopers. We cornered Zack to find out how he approaches balancing his fantastic vision for super heroes and the real world science that should technically bring them down to Earth.
Nerdist: As you’re researching and writing the story, does the science of what you’re writing come up, or is that something you go back to once you’ve laid the groundwork?
Zack Stentz: My partner and I, when we write, like to look into the science in advance. We like to think like science fiction writers and think that the science imposes limits on the characters. Limits on the characters is where drama comes from. You need to know how much weight that character can lift, for example, so you can have him in a situation where he has to lift something that’s heavier than he’s ever lifted before. That’s a banal example, but we like to think out the science because it helps shapes the storytelling.
Nerdist: With Thor, what was interesting is you guys tied up, not just the comic-lore and mythology in there, but actual Norse folklore into this idea of the science being something people don’t understand yet. Was that something that was there from Day One, or did you just go snap and say, “Oh, this is how we explain it?”
ZS: There were different conceptions of the screenplay at different times. The big challenge was how you integrate a flying Viking with a magic hammer into the world of Iron Man and Captain America, who for all of their whimsy are much more scientifically-grounded. We approach it from the principle from the famous Arthur C. Clarke [law], “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. What we’re seeing isn’t magical; it’s just science that mere mortals don’t understand. The Norse mythology, which I love very much, and — Oh, my God, you should’ve seen the first draft where we had all of these in-references to the original Norse myths even more so than appear in the final version. The Marvel version of the Thor universe diverges more and more until you end up having essentially Genghis Khan, Errol Flynn, and a space horse.
Nerdist: With X-Men: First Class, there’s a lot of genetics and questions of “Where are we going?” X-Men: First Class got into that more than in other films, especially with Charles’ time at Oxford. How much of that did you really want to imbue into the film?
ZS: Big time. Again, in an earlier draft of the script which was cut for time, when Charles goes to defend his dissertation — because it’s only five years after Watson and Crick discover the double helix — we actually have Watson and Crick as two of the faculty members that he had to defend it against. We were very much trying to integrate the world of X-Men into the fact that, in the early 1960s, it was the dawn of the age of understanding genetics.
Nerdist: Was there anything in any of the films where you wanted it in there but realized there’s no way that can be pulled off, that it wouldn’t be reasonably possible even with genetic mutation or science explaining it?
ZS: I don’t know. We’re actually very good at coming up with really “out there” things that do feel grounded. I will say that we did have a sequence that we’re really happy with, where we had Magneto using the electromagnetism of an atomic explosion to turn it into a magnetic bottle to contain the atomic explosion. I think other members of the production thought that was a little too over-the-top. We were like, “No, it’s just as plausible as lifting a submarine.” That was one of the flights of fancy that we had along the way.
Nerdist: What are you working on now?
ZS: We are working on many things. We are working on a show for the SyFy channel called The Magicians. We’re waiting to find out whether it’s going to go to pilot or not. We are working on the reboot of Starship Troopers for Sony. It’s not a continuation of the Verhoeven films. It’s actually going back to the Robert Heinlein novel and to being much more a straight ahead, World War II movie in space. We like to say, “it’s From Here to Eternity in power armor.”
Nerdist: Inside me is a guy screaming “ROUGHNECKS!”
ZS: Exactly. It’s all about getting Johnny Rico in the power armor.
Nerdist: As a fan of the book, Verhoeven’s movies were great, but there’s still a completely different movie to be made.
ZS: That’s the movie we’re making. I love the Verhoeven movie too. But the Verhoeven movie’s essentially a satire of the book and of the first Gulf War and the kind of media culture around it. What we’re doing is not an exact adaptation of the book, because there would be about 2 minutes of action and 115 minutes of philosophical lectures if it was exactly that. It’s a little bit like the Peter Jackson version of Lord of the Rings. The book you remember in your mind is there, but the action is kind of blown up. We still try and have a lot of the same philosophical points, but hopefully illustrate them through doing rather than lecturing.
Nerdist: Will the science in that be accurate?
ZS: As accurate as we can make it. Let’s just say the bugs will have spaceships. The bugs will be Heinlein’s bugs and not shooting asteroids across the galaxy from plasma out of their butts.