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Kevin Feige - Cover Story: Meet The Guy Who Runs The Universe

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Some of us collected marvel comics as a kid. Some of us read those stories and wondered why there couldn’t be movies about those characters that were as big and bold and fun as the franchises that created the tentpole template in the 1970s and 80s… Star Wars, Star Trek, Indiana Jones, James Bond. The popularity of Christopher Reeve’s Superman showed that comic-book superheroes could deliver on the big screen. So it felt like a weird and cruel injustice, to some of us, that obscure grownup legal wrangling seemed to consign our marvel heroes to live only through ink and newsprint, and maybe the occasional action figure.

Some of us only wish we could go back to tell our younger selves: hang in there, kid. They’re coming. It’s only taking so long ‘cause they want to do it right.

We are now eight years and 14 films into arguably the most ambitious undertaking in the history of popular filmmaking, an attempt to breathe life into not simply a single iconic character or story, but to animate an entire ecosystem of costumed heroes—all of them, from the household names to the “B-side” cult favorites. The 14-film track record, each title distinct in its own right, is already considerable testament to its success. The Marvel Cinematic Universe today is a day-glo, double-wide bus, packed with a good-sized riot’s worth of outsize heroes and villains flying down the freeway of global pop culture. And the guy behind the wheel is Kevin Feige.

For a fellow whose job it is to keep an entire slate of billion-dollar franchises spinning in the same direction, Feige brings zero pretense to a conversation. Almost aggressively accessible, he talks about the massive apparatus of Marvel filmmaking with the unforced directness you usually get from your workout buddy or your old friend from camp. Though Feige (like many who have graced our cover) voices profound admiration for his films’ writers, directors and stars, his deepest affinities, we think, are elsewhere—he loves and reveres no one like he does the audience. His success as the MCU’s architect and pilot are a strong argument for the producer as, essentially, fan-in-chief.

Running a cinematic universe is, he readily admits, too big a job for one person, and so it comes as no surprise that Marvel utilizes a “creative brain trust” model similar to those that have guided companies like Pixar and J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot. Feige is quick to credit the wider Marvel team with providing the essential infrastructure and feedback for each of Marvel’s distinct properties, and we’re happy to salute them—all, like Feige, proud PGA members—and their contributions within. Their success embodies the animating spirit of their studio: that the real story is not, in the end, about Spider-Man, or Iron Man, or Kevin Feige, but about the entire family tree, the push and pull between equally unlikely patchwork teams of superheroes and storytellers, the crossovers and synchronicities and reflections, the feeling that at any given moment, you’re focused on just one corner of a world that’s bigger than any of us.

They did it right, in other words. It was worth the wait.

I CAN REMEMBER IN THE EARLY ‘80S WHEN “THE MARVEL UNIVERSE” BECAME A THING, WHEN THEY GOT BEHIND THAT AS A TERM. AND I BET YOU CAN REMEMBER THAT TOO.
Sure.

WHAT DID THE IDEA OF THE MARVEL UNIVERSE MEAN TO YOU, AS A KID?
Honestly, the Star Trek universe and the Star Wars universe meant much more to me as a kid. Those were the universes that I was most immersed in, in my fandom. But I learned that it was a sprawling world. I will tell you in the very first Marvel offices that I ever worked at, 16 years ago, a very small office off of Little Santa Monica in West LA, we shared space with the kite company that Marvel owned. That should give you an idea of where movies ranked for Marvel at that point. Avi Arad, who was running Marvel Studios at the time and who hired me after working on the first X-Men film, said he was going to move out to LA full-time to focus on turning these comics into movies. The space that Marvel Corporate gave us was a couple of offices off of this literal kite factory. Every day, people would walk past going, “See you guys later. We’re going to the beach to test these.” [laughs]

Feige (center) chats with direct Kenneth Branagh (right)
on the set of Thor, alongside (from left) co-producer Craig
Kyle and executive producer Victoria Alonso.

But in the conference room of that office, we had a giant poster that said “Marvel Universe” across the top, and it had hundreds of characters drawn on it. All of these characters were in a shared universe. I would stare at that poster, and try to find the smallest character. Spider-Man and Captain America were pretty large, and then other characters were tiny. People who would come into meetings, we’d ask “What’s the smallest character on there you can identify?” That poster in that office was a window into how a shared universe in publishing and storytelling worked.

SO, LET’S TALK ABOUT THE DONNERS AT LEAST A ‘LITTLE BIT. WHAT WAS YOUR APPRENTICESHIP LIKE WITH THEM?
Well, I owe my entire career to it. I was just starting film school at USC in the fall of ’94 and a couple of months in, I realized that the smart kids were getting these internships where you go and work for no money, but you got college credit and feet-on-the-ground experience. I thought, “Well, if I’m going to go work somewhere for free, wouldn’t it be fun to do it for somebody that I admired?”

They had the internship postings up on the walls. And if you were doing the Richard Attenborough version of that moment, you would have the golden light shining down onto the card that said, Donner/Shuler-Donner Productions. Of course I knew about Richard Donner because of Goonies, because of Lethal Weapon and primarily because of Superman, which is, I still think to this day, the model which we all follow, the most perfect superhero movie.

I went home. I filled out my very first resume, sent it in and got a call just a few days later. I interviewed with Lauren and ended up working there as an intern. Over the years, I worked there in a few different roles. One summer I was a receptionist and even got paid. I learned to enjoy the adrenaline rush of phones ringing, schedules shifting. There was something fun about juggling it all.

Feige (center) on location in San Francisco for Ant-Man with executive 
producer Brad Winderbaum (L of center) and director Peyton Reed (beanie)

During my final semester of film school, they were gracious enough to ask me to stay around as a paid PA. So I would go to class and then go there on the time off to be a PA. Right around that time they said, “Okay, you’re going to graduate. Dick needs an assistant. Lauren needs an assistant.” I’m not sure exactly if they offered me my choice, but I remember somebody saying, “Think about who you would rather work with.”

If I had been asked that question on my first day two years earlier I would’ve said, “[gasp] Richard Donner! He’s a director! I want to be a director! It’s Richard Donner.”

Having been there for a couple of years, I realized that when Dick wasn’t working, he would relax between projects and work from home. Lauren on the other hand was in the office every day, developing multiple projects and producing multiple movies. Noticing that the people who were higher up in the company used to be her assistants, I considered myself very lucky that Lauren brought me on in that role.

WATCHING HER WORK AS A PRODUCER, WHAT DID YOU GET TO SEE THAT YOU WERE ABLE TO APPLY LATER, IN YOUR OWN CAREER?
Well, sort of everything. Soon after I started working for her, she got hired to produce a film for Fox 2000 called Volcano. It was a very sudden thing. I ended up working on Volcano from start to finish and watched her navigate those politics, which were very tricky. Another producer had set it up—it was actually one of Neal Moritz’s very early movies. Lauren had been brought in as a more senior producer because she’d had that experience. But I got to see how she worked, how she did the job the studio wanted her to do, keeping it all on track, but also deferring to Neal in certain moments. Through that experience, I also met Laura Ziskin, who was running Fox 2000 at the time. She would end up being another important mentor for me on the Spider-Man films.

The next one was a project that Lauren had developed in-house at Warner Bros., a remake of The Shop Around the Corner which became You’ve Got Mail. That was another amazing experience for me, having more responsibility and taking care of things like product placement and additional duties on the lower end of the producer totem pole. On any movie, there are conversations that other people don’t want to have—somebody’s hairdo is not quite right, or so-and-so is starting to gain a little weight over the course of the production. Every awkward conversation falls onto the producer. I’d think, “I wouldn’t want to have that conversation.” And I’d watch Lauren say, “Yeah, I’ll take it.” And she’d achieve the desired goal, and they didn’t hate her for it! I thought, “Oh, there’s an art form to that.”

During that time there was a script that Scott Nimerfro had brought to Lauren. It had been through various drafts over the years. I started reading it because it was really interesting to me, and so I started doing a thing that I learned from watching other people, which was simply doing story notes. Nobody asked me. I just started doing notes. And because Lauren is so gracious and such an amazing mentor, she would read the notes and go, “All right, this note is good. That one’s not so good.” And she asked me to come to the next story meeting.

So suddenly I’m sitting in a story meeting with Bryan Singer and Lauren and Tom DeSanto on what would become, three years later, the first X-Men film. That was the career path. It was extraordinary, watching Lauren work with the filmmakers, balancing what the studio wanted versus what the filmmakers wanted, versus most importantly, what the movie needed. And I always say to our actors and filmmakers, “I’m on one side. I’m on the movie’s side. That’s it.” Which is also saying I’m on the audience’s side. I learned that from Lauren.

SO NOT TO JUMP TOO FAR FORWARD, BUT IRON MAN WAS A PIVOTAL MOVIE IN THE MARVEL STORY. WHAT DID YOU LEARN IN THE MOVIES PRE-IRON MAN THAT YOU WERE ABLE TO APPLY ON IRON MAN AND GOING FORWARD?
That time was an amazing learning period. At the time I thought, “This is what Marvel will do. We’ll license the movies out and then Avi Arad and I will go to studios and give as much input as we can.” We didn’t have a lot of contractual approvals, honestly. There were some. But as long as they weren’t putting Spider-Man in a purple flight suit, there wasn’t a whole lot we could say. So I watched Avi, and saw how he would gain their trust beyond just being “the IP holder.” It helped that I had come from a filmmaking background and had the experience on X-Men. That gave a little tiny bit of street cred instead of just being …

A COUPLE OF COMIC GUYS.
A couple of comic-guy IP holders, exactly. Avi got us into the position that led to where we are now by being a cheerleader for all these projects and understanding and inherently seeing the promise of what all of this could become … convincing Fox to make X-Men, convincing Sony to make Spider-Man, and then The Fantastic Four movies, again at Fox. We had a front row seat to three, maybe four different studios, each demonstrating different operating methods. And we took all of the lessons we learned from our Spider-Man films, Fantastic Four films, Daredevil, Elektra, and Ang Lee’s Hulk—amazing experiences across the board—and everything we had learned up to that point, good and bad, from all those other experiences and put them into what became Iron Man. David Maisel brought in the financing, and Avi got a deal at Paramount to distribute those movies. Suddenly we were in a position to do it by ourselves. I remember very distinctly the head of the company in New York asking, “Kevin, can you make these two movies in two years?” and I said, “Yeah! [beat] Yes. [half-beat] Yes.” [laughs] Then we just had to figure out how to do it.

Producer Kevin Feige on the set of Doctor Strange with cast member Benedict Cumberbatch.

WHAT WERE SOME OF THE CHOICES THAT YOU SAW STUDIOS MAKE THAT MADE AN IMPACT ON YOU?
Well, there were casting choices that were perfect and there were casting choices that didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Usually, it turned out the audience would feel the same way. For instance, today Hugh Jackman embodies Wolverine. He is that character. But at the time of the first X-Men we were trying to solidify who that character was, and on the first day his hair was just not “Wolverine hair.” I told Avi, “I don’t know about this …” and he flew up to Toronto. Hugh wanted it to be right and Bryan wanted it to be right. So we went in, and with the hair and makeup department, just started getting that hair up higher, higher, higher. Because that was Wolverine at the time. So I learned to be audacious in translating the comics, being open to changing things, but not changing them out of a fear that something might not work.

MOST PRODUCERS HAVE A SORT OF CYCLICAL EXISTENCE WHERE THEY’RE RAISING MONEY FOR A PROJECT AND THEN THEY MAKE THE PROJECT AND THEN IT STARTS OVER AGAIN. YOUR JOB SEEMS MAYBE NOT SO MUCH LIKE THAT.
To a large extent that’s true, but people forget that the first Iron Man film was very much an independent film. We had to presell territories to get all of the money. Fortunately, we don’t have to do that anymore. But that was a skill I learned, to go in and pitch the movie to the exhibitors from the different territories. My first reaction was, “Why do I have to do this? I’d just rather be in the room working with writers on the movie.”

But I soon realized that it was an amazing opportunity to tell the story to a group of people who are folding their arms asking, “Okay, what is this? What do you have here?” I could see where they would lean forward, where they would get interested. So then in the next pitch, I would adapt it a little to focus more on those aspects. And then I’d repeat the process. I’d go back to the room where we were developing the movie and say, “You know what? I think we should focus on ‘x, y or z’ because these people are responding to that.”

That’s not to say we made changes because we’d have an easier chance to sell it. But I looked at it like this was our first audience. So that was a good experience. Even though we don’t presell anymore, we’ve brought that into our process. We have an internal brain trust here at Marvel, and we’ll pitch them a project they’re not actively working on and see how they react. “Isn’t this a great thing? No? Well we’ll keep working on it.”

HOW HAS THE RATIO OF BIG STUFF TO SMALL STUFF SHIFTED AS THE MARVEL EXPERIENCE HAS EVOLVED? YOU’RE NOT STILL FLYING UP TO SET TO FINE-TUNE SOMEBODY’S HAIR NOW? OR ARE YOU?
Sometimes, yeah! Absolutely. I love to be on set as much as possible. The entire producorial team we have here is amazing, and we always have an executive producer on the ground the whole time on each of the films. They’re all incredibly accomplished, with most having at least one billion-dollar success under their belt, in some cases two. That makes up the heart and soul of the studio. When you have trusted producers there that you’re in touch with all the time it doesn’t mean you have to go running over there all the time. But a lot of it is big picture stuff. One of the things that we’re lucky about is that our ratio of developing a movie and making a movie is about one to one, which we don’t take for granted. And it opens us up to criticism like, “Oh, people are making release dates now, not movies.” “They had a release date before they had a script.” Honestly? That’s every movie we’ve ever made. I don’t know if I would be good at doing it the other way. It really is an amazing motivator. It’s kept us going for 14 films and counting.

MARVEL IS UNUSUAL IN TERMS OF BEING PRETTY MUCH A ONE-GENRE STUDIO. AFTER 14 FILMS, TO WHAT DEGREE DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOU’RE BUMPING UP AGAINST THE LIMITATIONS OF THAT GENRE?
Yeah, people ask, “How much longer can this last? How many of these movies will audiences accept?” I remember getting asked that in 2003, when there were three Marvel movies coming out that year. And like I said then, comic books are not all the same. Yes, they all have colorful covers because they want to sell issues. And, yes, they’re all are drawn within panels, so the medium is the same. But the stories and the characters are drastically different. I’ve always said, there’s no such thing as the “superhero genre” or the “comic book genre.” We take these stories from the comics and they lend themselves to other genres: techno-thriller in Iron Man, a political thriller in The Winter Soldier, a heist movie in Ant Man, a space opera in Guardians of the Galaxy, a psychedelic mind trip in Doctor Strange. So being able to continue to surprise audiences with a depth of what a Marvel Studios film can be has been my focus since the very, very early days. Because that’s what the material is.

That’s what’s fun about The Avengers comics, is that it’s a genius billionaire philanthropist and this super soldier who’d been in ice for 70 years, and this Norse god from another planet and this spy from Russia. Couldn’t be more different from each other and now they’ve come together. How the heck is that going to work? That’s always what was most fun about The Avengers.

I REMEMBER WATCHING THE AVENGERS, AND DURING THAT FINAL BATTLE, I HAD, YOU KNOW, THE “RATATOUILLE MOMENT.” YOU KNOW, WHEN THE FOOD CRITIC TASTES THAT DISH FROM HIS CHILDHOOD…
Wow. I know exactly what you’re talking about.

I WAS SITTING THERE IN THE THEATER, AND YET FOR THIS INSTANT I WAS NINE YEARS OLD, READING AN AVENGERS COMIC IN THE LIVING ROOM.
That’s one of the best compliments I’ve ever gotten. Because that moment in Ratatouille, I think it’s one of the greatest moments in the history of film. That’s awesome. We’ve always said we’re replicating the experience of reading the comics on a big stage, and it has to work for people who read those comics and know what that experience is like, but it also needs to work for people who never opened a comic in their lives. That we know the sensation we’re going to try to evoke in the audience gives us an advantage. Obviously with humor it’s easiest, right? People have said, “Oh, humor is one of the keys to your movies.” And while that’s true, we didn’t set out and go, “We have to make sure all of our movies are funny.” But we realized that all of our favorite movies, whether they were dramas, science fiction movies, other superhero movies … they all had moments of levity. I believe that when the audience laughs, they open themselves up to the movie. And then you can get them, and maybe they’ll cry. Or maybe they’ll be shocked at something. But it’s that laughter that opens them up to say, “Okay, let me see what this movie has got.”

Kevin Feige discusses a scene with cast member Samuel L. Jackson
on the set of The Avengers.

But it really always comes down to that sensation of reading a comic book. When there’s a setup, and then a character does something decisive, and then you turn the page and you have a double-page spread splash panel. Internally we referred to the airport battle in Civil War as “the splash panel” because that was what we wanted to go for in that movie. Certainly you could say the same thing about the finale of Avengers.

Another one of the great things that we’re copying from the comic books is when there would be some big, world-changing event, and then as the characters went back into their own books they would be changed from that experience. So Iron Man 3 is very much about Tony suffering that PTSD from the events of The Avengers. You don’t want to take for granted that he was fighting aliens and the Earth almost got destroyed. It affected him.

As we got into 2014, we started to coalesce into our “phase two” rhythm, where we introduced a new storyline for an existing character, Captain America The Winter Soldier, arguably taking a chance by having it be tonally very different from the first Captain America film. That’s what excited us about it. And then something new, Guardians of the Galaxy. And then 2015, the same pattern Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man. Now this year, Civil War, and Doctor Strange, a continuation of an existing franchise, and then something totally new and different. That’s actually our comfort zone. It’s nice when people are excited for a mega-giant movie, a big Iron Man sequel or Avengers sequel, “Oh, that’s gonna be huge.” I actually don’t like that as much as the “how does that work?” reaction. “Oh, so you’re doing a space movie? And one character is a raccoon and another is a tree? How is that supposed to work?” “Paul Rudd gets really small? What?” “Benedict, what? He’s a magician? How does that work?” I like confronting that skepticism and then surprising them and winning them over with the final movie.

People were saying, when we started our studio, “It’s too bad that you’re making your own movies now but you don’t have access to your biggest characters, the X-Men, Spider-Man and Fantastic Four.”

And I would always say, “What are you talking about? We have everything else!” Those early movies were about proving Iron Man is not a B-list character. We never believed in B-list characters, anyway. Guardians, people wouldn’t even call them B-list … C-list, D-list, who are these guys? That was exciting to us, to show it doesn’t matter the number of fans or the amount of copies sold. All that matters is, is it a cool idea that we think would make a great movie?


MEET THE TEAM
As we always say, producing is a team sport. During our interview, Kevin Feige made sure we knew that the success of Marvel Studios didn’t rest on one person’s shoulders, but on the collective skill and passion of the studio’s circle of executive producers who both manage the productions on set and provide essential contributions to story development. We asked them about some of their favorite Marvel moments and their experiences working in the studio’s unique creative environment.

VICTORIA ALONSO 
There’s a trust and a shorthand that we have as a team at Marvel—and that’s probably because we’ve worked together for over 10 years and 14 films! Since we’ve been through the trenches together, we know each other very well and I think we have complimentary skill sets and personalities. There is an effectiveness to the way we interact, problem solve and ultimately, just get on with the work at hand. I think that if we didn’t have that kind of efficiency, we wouldn’t be able to make so many films a year. 
STEPHEN BROUSSARD
What I really treasure about working at Marvel Studios is that we operate as “on the ground” creative producers, embedded with the filmmaking team at every step of the process. Making movies is incredibly hard, even when everything goes right. So we try to be in the trenches, working the problems together with our filmmaking partners. In that way, it helps to build trust that we all share the same goal: tell the best story. 
LOUIS D’ESPOSITO
The scene that keeps coming back to me is from Iron Man, where Tony Stark is working in his garage, and in walks Pepper Potts and Tony asks for her help. What made this scene so special besides it obviously being such a tender moment between the two characters was its evolution. Originally Tony was alone in the garage working with this elaborate machine. When the final budget came in, we had to cut a lot and this scene was on the chopping block. I remember sitting with Jon [Favreau], Kevin, Jeremy Latcham and Victoria Alonso, trying to save the scene. Jon starting riffing on how we could add Pepper to help, even ad-libbing the dialogue, and all of us knew we had something special. Not only did we remove the biggest costs, but we added a great character moment. If the limitation had not been placed on us, the audience would have seen a very competent sequence, but instead it got a seminal moment between two beloved characters.
JEREMY LATCHAM
Black Widow’s introductory scene in The Avengers is one of those scenes that really captures the tone of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to me–it has real stakes but it is still genuinely funny. It gets to the heart of a great character relationship that will build over the course of the film and it gives the audience a great sense of the kind of movie that they are going to be watching. As the first scene after the title card, it has to really kick the movie off with a bang, and I think it does just that. 

NATE MOORE
Winter Soldier’s attack on Steve, Natasha and Sam in Captain America: The Winter Soldier was an incredibly intricate piece of action that required total cooperation between all of the departments on 1st and 2nd Unit, and was an amazing example of the Russo Brothers’ creative instincts when it comes to action. And because it’s Steve’s first realization that Winter Soldier is actually Bucky Barnes, his best friend from WWII, it culminated in an emotionally loaded moment that redefined the character and catapulted Captain America into the forefront of the Marvel Universe. 

JONATHAN SCHWARTZ
The “12 percent of a plan/jackasses standing in a circle” scene from Guardians of the Galaxy feels 100% like James Gunn’s voice–you can detect his personality and sense of humor in every frame. It was a favorite scene in the script that was executed perfectly and ends up representing the whole movie in microcosm, with some of the film’s best comedy and most heartfelt emotion. That scene represented every decision we’d made along the way coming together to create something truly special, which I think is the platonic ideal of producing.


BRAD WINDERBAUM
One of the most fun scenes I’ve produced has to be Luis’ “tip montage” in Ant-Man, where we got to go into the character’s imagination and see all those characters speaking with Michael Peña’s voice. It was a brilliantly entertaining way to deliver some crucial story points, playing off a cool heist-movie motif while keeping with Peyton Reed’s comedic tone.

 

- Photography by Kremer Johnson Photography

- This article originally appears in the December/January 2017 issue of Produced By magazine.

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