David S. Goyer interview: ‘Foundation,’ ‘Dark Knight,’ ‘Tomorrow War’
David S. Goyer’s home office in the Hancock Park area of Los Angeles is lined with totems of personal significance from his childhood and global travels. There’s a wall of hardcover comic books (which he incredulously points at when asked his reaction to actor Stephen Dorff’s recent viral comment slamming Marvel movies as not legitimate art). There’s a framed Zen proverb (“First tea, last tea,” which he’s taken to mean: Try to approach everything like it’s the first time you’re doing it — or the very last time). And then there’s perhaps the screenwriter’s most prized possession: A 1908 Philippines silver dollar peso.
As a 6-year-old in Michigan, Goyer found the coin while digging in a mound of dirt and was stunned to learn it was then valued at $400 — he literally found buried treasure. “It sounds corny, but to me this represents possibility,” the screenwriter says, holding the coin. “I grew up with a single mom in Ann Arbor. I shoveled snow, mowed lawns and didn’t know anybody from Hollywood or comic books. So the idea I could leave Michigan and one day work on the superhero movies of comics I’ve read as a kid is just amazing.”
Goyer’s early career was spent writing scripts for a variety of genre titles (Death Warrant, The Puppet Masters). But it was his 1998 smash Blade that established him as a go-to talent who could translate comic book stories for a mass audience. Since, Goyer has worked on all three of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies and two of Zack Snyder’s DC films, too. His other credits include Terminator: Dark Fate, Constantine, Krypton, Da Vinci’s Demons, Godzilla and The Tomorrow War.
Now the 55-year-old father of three is taking a break from capes and cowls by adapting two iconic — and notoriously creatively complex — titles for streaming: Neil Gaiman’s metaphysical graphic novel Sandman for Netflix, and Isaac Asimov’s epic Foundation trilogy for Apple. Also, Goyer’s production company, Phantom Four, is producing the Sundance-acclaimed horror thriller The Night House, “a ghost story about grief,” which is being released into theaters next month.
DC has had some ups and downs in recent years, especially compared to Marvel. If you were running DC—
Which I’d never want to do.
But let’s say you were. What moves would you make next?
I think one of the issues is that Marvel’s had consistent leadership for the last 15 years or more, whereas DC hasn’t. There have been all of these changes in terms of who is running DC. That is fundamentally very hard. It’s hard to make any headway when leadership is changing. One of the other things that’s made Marvel incredibly successful is all of their adaptations are true to the source material. Ant-Man feels like Ant-Man. The Hulk feels like the Hulk. They don’t try to change things up. I would say, try to hew closer to what was the original intent. So, it’s having a consistent universe, having consistent leadership and staying true to the source material.
You’ve been involved in a lot of projects where there were many big egos on board and a ton of studio pressure. How do you handle a situation where you believe strongly something is the right move and others believe differently?
I hope I’ve developed a reputation now for speaking with candor, for being honest. My go-to is always “what works for the story.” And if I’m adapting an IP, like a comic book, I don’t try to turn it into something it’s not. Because if you do, no matter what, even if you have the best of intentions, it will definitely not work out. So there were times when I’ve been involved in projects when I’ve actually advocated that the studio not make it. I’ve said, “It’s going to fail. It’s not worth the money.” I’ve talked myself out of movies and TV shows being made before.
Well, I have to ask: What’s an example of that?
I will say one was a previous iteration of Sandman. It was a feature.
Was this the script that Neil Gaiman famously declared was “not only the worst Sandman script I’ve ever seen, but quite easily the worst script I’ve ever read”?
Fortunately, no. I was trying to get Warner Bros. to do a streaming serialized show and they wanted to do it as a feature instead. So Neil and I worked on a feature, and through the various iterations, it just kept subtly getting more and more deformed, and shifting more and more away from the true north. Finally, we just said, “Guys, please let’s stop, please kill it, let’s do it as a streaming show.” Eventually, they did.
I can tell you my top four. The Dark Knight, Logan, Captain America: The Winter Solider and Thor: Ragnarok.
When I watch its sequel, The Dark Knight Rises, I always think that if Heath Ledger hadn’t passed away his Joker would have been one of the characters released from Arkham Asylum by Bane’s (Tom Hardy) plan. I realize Rises wasn’t written until after the second film was released (and Ledger’s death), but I’ve always wanted to ask: What role would you ideally have had the Joker play in a third film?
Wow. Obviously, that would have completely changed the polarity of the third film. And it’s true we didn’t discuss the third film until two or three months after The Dark Knight had come out. Chris wasn’t interested [in discussing] what might happen in the next film. He always wanted to focus on the film in hand. He didn’t want to lay any groundwork for something that may or may not happen. But it’s a logical assumption that the Joker would have been released, and it’s certainly interesting to think of what would have happened if we had done that.
Zack Snyder recently claimed that it wasn’t off the table to set Man of Steel in the Nolan-verse, which is tough to imagine. Was that ever discussed?
Not amongst us when I was doing Man of Steel, or among Nolan and myself. Chris always wanted to keep the Dark Knight films as a separate entity and [the studio] kept wanting, understandably, to pull him into a whole DC expanded universe. Chris obviously was a producer on Man of Steel, and it’s tempting to think they were linked, but they really weren’t. I mean, I’m sure one could retroactively do it.
We heard Bridgerton breakout Regé-Jean Page was up for the role of Superman’s grandfather in your Krypton series, but that [DC president] Geoff Johns nixed it, saying Superman couldn’t have a Black grandfather. Also, that a proposal for Adam Strange being gay or bisexual was rejected. True?
All I will say on this is that I was the one who wanted to cast Page. I thought he was amazing. I thought his audition was amazing. I advocated very hard to cast him in that role. I thought he was a fantastic actor back then and he continues to be a fantastic actor. I wanted him to play Superman’s grandfather.
What’s one comic book character you’ve always wanted to adapt but haven’t?
There are things I’ve written that never made it to screen. I did an early draft of Doctor Strange about 18 years ago. I would love to write The Hulk — he was my favorite character as a kid.
The Hulk has been considered a tough one to crack. What is a take on the character that you feel hasn’t really been done in recent years?
I love the Jekyll and Hyde aspects that [comic creators] Peter David and Bruce Jones have done. The current run right now, The Immortal Hulk, I think is fantastic. I think it’d be better on TV. I like leaning into the psychological horror and Hulk’s rage as an expression of Banner, his suppressed id.
Comics beta test all these ideas. When you have characters that have been around for 30, 40, 50 or 60 years, and you’ve seen certain storylines bubble to the top again and again — that should tell you something. I call it Story Darwinism. Those are ideas or themes that are sticky, that are consistent because for whatever reason, from decade to decade to decade, they keep working — even though some of the elements around them change. So anytime I adapt something, I always say, “Can we identify the 10 core elements that make Superman, Superman? Or make Blade, Blade?” Before we even come up with a story, let’s just sit down and come up what 10 things we can all agree on. Then let’s make sure that we don’t break those commandments.
Similarly, what one comic character would you never want to take on?
I don’t think I’d be the right guy to do Wonder Woman. I don’t think I would’ve been the right guy to do Thor — even though I love what they’ve done. I appreciate those, but I just don’t think I’d be the right guy to do them.
Which script that was produced would you most want to take another pass at?
The tricky thing with writers, particularly in film, less so in television, is you have to have written roughly one-third of a film in order to get credit — but someone else could have written 25 percent, someone else could have written 20 percent and someone else could have written 15 percent. So you can end up being the only credited writer, but 70 percent of the script isn’t yours. So I definitely have projects that I’ve worked on where I’m the sole credited writer, yet I’ve been taken to task for elements in the film that I actively did not write, for scenes that I fought against and I was fired. So that’s frustrating.
I’ll ask a different way: What’s the most painful specific change that somebody else made to one of your scripts?
The films I thought reflected my work accurately were the Dark Knight films. I think Foundation does, the first seven episodes of FlashForward, the first couple of seasons of Da Vinci’s Demons, the first two Blade films. But I had ideas I wish I could have put in [Terminator: Dark Fate].
Producer James Cameron and director Tim Miller have both been pretty candid that Dark Fate was a “bloodbath” fight between them editing that film. What did you want to see in the final edit?
I had a very good experience with Jim on that film. Jim and I developed a remake of Fantastic Voyage that has yet to be filmed. We have a very similar story sense. I think the movie is a good movie. The thing that I’m most proud of is we got Linda Hamilton back into the franchise because her character in the film is amazing. I was part of the group that advocated for her to rejoin, and it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that she would. To me, the best part of the film is seeing her come back and seeing this incredibly badass woman at her age. So whatever happened with the reception of the film, I was just really proud of the fact that I had a small part in coaxing her back into it.
Speaking of fights, I must ask this because the internet needs to know: Is Patton Oswalt’s story true that Wesley Snipes tried to strangle you on the set of Blade: Trinity (which Snipes has denied). If so, what prompted that?
Let’s just say I have tremendous respect for Wesley as an actor. He used to be a friend. We’re not friends anymore. I am friends with Patton, and I worked with Patton since, so … I don’t think anyone involved in that film had a good experience on that film. Certainly, I didn’t. I don’t think anybody involved with that film is happy with the results. It was a very tortured production.
Henry Cavill and others have advocated for a direct sequel to Man of Steel. I’ve heard rumors a sequel may be in the works with Cavill on board (Warner Bros. says none is in development). Does it feel like there is still unfinished business with that story?
I think so. I’m not involved in it right now. I’ve heard the same rumors you’ve heard, but I’m not plugged into it. I’ve stepped away almost entirely from comic book-related projects other than Sandman, which I don’t really categorize as part of the normal DC universe. And I’m doing a Batman podcast. I’ve actually done so many adaptations of comics that I needed a break. I didn’t want to get into a rut. That’s why I’m doing Foundation and some other films, like The Night House and Antlers (which are being released by Searchlight).
The Foundation trailer looks incredible. Haven’t the big challenges of that story been that it’s concept-driven rather than character-driven, plus it spans so many years?
(Pulling his thick Foundation trilogy paperback off the shelf behind him that his father gave him, Goyer shows that it’s full of yellow highlights and Post-It notes.) There are three tricky aspects to Foundation that I think have tripped up all the other adaptations. The first is that the story is supposed to span 1,000 years with all these massive time jumps — that’s hard to tell. It’s certainly hard to capsulize in a two- or three-hour film. The second aspect is the books are kind of anthological. You’ll have a couple of short stories in the first book with main character Salvor Hardin, then you’ll jump forward a hundred years and there’ll be a different character. The third thing is that they’re not particularly emotional; they’re books about ideas, about concepts. So a lot of the action happens off-screen. In the books, the Empire, which is on 10,000 worlds, literally falls off-screen — like, it happens in between chapters. Obviously, that wasn’t going to work for a television show.
So without giving too much away, I figured out a way to have some of the characters extend their lifespans. About six characters will continue from season to season, from century to century. That way it becomes a half anthological, half continuing story. When Apple asked me if I could pitch it in one sentence —
Apple actually asked you to pitch Foundation in single sentence?
They sort of asked it laughingly. I said: “It’s a 1,000-year chess game between Hari Seldon and the Empire, and all the characters in between are the pawns, but some of the pawns over the course of this saga end up becoming kings and queens.” It’s a generational saga. But the anthological time element didn’t take me too long to figure out. What was [harder] to figure out was: How do I make the show emotional? Because the books aren’t particularly emotional and, in general with television, people watch for emotion. They want to fall in love with these characters. So I had to figure out ways of using Asimov’s themes and ideas, but internalizing them into the characters.
How does the Apple series compare to when you were prepping Foundation as a feature film?
If I were to do it as features, even if it were a trilogy of large features, that would be about nine hours. I pitched this as eight seasons, so if it works out, I get 80 hours.
I’ve read you suggesting that number before. What is Apple’s reaction to it?
No one knows if it will work, but I can say there’s definitely never been a show like it on TV before. It takes some big-ass swings. And Apple, by and large, went for it. We do very unusual things in the show. We use unusual structural things. They had some trepidation about the science of it all. [Apple TV+ chiefs] Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg had come from Sony, so they had done The Crown and Breaking Bad, and I remember what I said to them was: “Don’t note me on the science-fiction. I can handle the science fiction. Note me on the drama, note me on the characters, note me on their relationships. I’ll take care of the other crap.”
How does its budget compare to some of the big features you’ve worked on?
It’s pretty up there. It was an ample budget. I will say this: On an average per hour, if you were to take two episodes and put them together, the budget is bigger than some of the movies I’ve done.
There are many Foundation elements that inspired George Lucas for Star Wars. I was wondering if there was anything you changed because it would seem, to the uninitiated, like the show was ripping off Star Wars even though it wasn’t — like the term “Galactic Empire” or whatnot?
A little bit. One of the aspects that I added was this idea of the genetic dynasty. Because in the books, there are different emperors but they’re largely faceless. You jumped forward a couple of hundred years and there’s a different emperor. I wanted there to be consistent faces, even if they’re different characters. So, I came up with this idea that the Empire is a series of clones of one man that they keep recycling over and over again. But, at any one time, there are three of them on the throne — Brother Dawn, Brother Day, and Brother Dusk. And so, even though we’ll jump forward sometimes between seasons and these will technically be different characters, these three guys have the same face. I felt that would give the audience a foothold. And since the Empire doesn’t want to change, what’s the cleanest expression of being resistant to change or wanting to impose your will across millennia? It’s, “What if I can be the same person over and over again?”
What’s been the toughest part of the Sandman adaptation?
Part of it was that we had to wait for streaming as a medium to catch up to Sandman. What’s amazing about Sandman is that it doesn’t fit in any one box. It’s not easily categorized. [The graphic novel’s protagonist Morpheus/Dream] won’t be in stretches of issues. It bops all around. It’s horror. It’s scary. It’s fanciful. It was ahead of its time in terms of gender issues. All the previous attempts — and I know this personally because of my relationship with Neil — were trying to sort of hammer it into kind of a nice, easily digestible category.
Also, one thing no one else ever attempted to do with Sandman was something that I insisted with Warner Bros.: that Neil become a producer and write the pilot with me. It seems obvious, but Neil was never a producer on any of the other Sandman [efforts]. It was critical because it’s so personal. We wanted to keep it strange and, God bless Netflix, it’s strange and funky and weird. If you like the comics, I think it’s a fairly accurate depiction.
How did the Warners regime change impact things?
It didn’t at all. We had already set it up. It was already going, and Channing Dungey was the main executive on the Sandman show at Netflix. So with her coming over to Warner Bros, there was no change whatsoever. And they’ve completely embraced how idiosyncratic it is.
Sandman and Foundation are both from source material that has been long considered highly difficult to adapt, if not utterly impossible. And you’re doing them at the same time. Obviously, studios decide green-light timing. But does this represent, after all your years and success in the business, at least some desire to play the game of screenwriting on “ultra-hard mode”?
That’s true, to a certain extent. I relished the challenge of a hard adaptation. And I also had the benefit of more years under my belt — more writing experience, more life experience. I’m a father of three now; I’ve lost both parents. All of that helped me find an emotional throughline into these adaptations.
But the other thing that made these adaptations possible was the evolution of streaming itself. There’s an audience now for big, novelistic shows that take chances. People have the patience, the preference, even. They crave more ambitious storytelling. Game of Thrones really paved the way for us in that regard.
Shifting gears a bit, what’s your work schedule like? And what do you attribute your productivity to?
I’ve always been pretty organized. When I started writing, I had a mentor named Nelson Gidding, who wrote a lot of films for [West Side Story director] Robert Wise. I was his teaching assistant in college. One of the things that he always said is that you need to treat writing like a job and not an art. You need to set hours, you need to set a schedule. You should write in a place that’s not your home, if you can help it, or at least not your bedroom, but a place you physically go to. He also said you should never call yourself a writer — you “write for a living.” Which is not to say that he didn’t believed in honing your craft, but he likened it to, like, being a woodworker. That works for me.
Nelson also said if you really want to be a successful writer, you should travel a lot. You should go out in the world, you should experience a lot of stress. That’s something I really took to heart. I’ve been to about 50 or 60 countries, and had experiences that got me out of my bubble. Like I trekked in Tibet for six weeks and that experience fed into stuff.
The first act of Batman Begins.
Exactly! You never know what those experiencing are going to translate into. So, I approach writing like working out, like it’s a muscle, where I do it at a certain time. I usually get up around 6:30 in the morning, have breakfast, my wife and I get my kids off to school, and then I usually work out and then I’m in the office by 9 a.m. From like 9 to 10 a.m., I do emails and crap like that. I meditate for 15 minutes and have matcha tea. From 10 to 2 p.m. is when I write — whether by myself or if I’ve got a writers room going. I don’t edit when I [write a first pass], I just do what I call a “vomit draft,” and not try to judge it. Then I do meetings after that. I’m usually done by 7 p.m.
What’s the smartest or best studio note you’ve ever received?
I actually received some pretty good notes from [Apple TV development head] Matt Cherniss — and I’m not just saying that because Foundation is a pending project. Early on in the process, I used to talk about how time is a character on the show. And we were twisting ourselves around the axle of trying to figure out, how do we deal with these complicated time jumps and slightly left-of-center story structures? And he just said, “Fuck it, just lean into it.” So we broke with traditional story structures in various ways. The structure changes from episode to episode. Most of the time, studio executives say, “How do you make it more normal? How do you make it fall in line with what the audience would expect?” He encouraged me to not do that, which was unusual.
And, of course, what was the worst note — besides being told to put “less magic” in your Doctor Strange script, which is great, but you’ve told that one before.
One note I got was on Man of Steel, where the ending involves Superman utilizing the pod that he arrived in as a child in order to bring down General Zod’s ship. The note we got from the studio said, “You have to change that.” We asked why. They said, “Because if Superman uses that pod and it’s destroyed while saving the city, how is he ever going to get back home to Krypton?” There was just this long pause and we said, “Krypton blew up. You saw 30 minutes of it!”
There’s a fan letter that’s made the rounds online in a 1986 Captain America comic book that’s signed “Dave Goyer” that pointed out the inherent philosophical problems caused by Cap embracing unquestioning patriotism — it’s basically pitching the central conflict of Captain America: Civil War decades in advance. Please tell me this was really you when you were a young man.
That’s real. I think it was during the Mark Gruenwald run. I wrote about six or seven letters to comics and they were all published. I also have a letter in one of Alan Moore’s Swamp Things.
What’s the biggest writer’s block moment you ever had on a project and how did you crack it?
When Chris and I were beating out The Dark Knight Rises, we ran into some issues in the middle of the film. It was a number of things: How Bruce was going to defeat Bane, how he was going to escape the Pit and the switch reveal — that the child was actually Talia. Chris and I just hit a wall, and Chris suggested we take a break for a week and put our pencils down. It’s counterintuitive, because you think you have to keep at it. But often when you have writer’s block, it’s best to just walk away, do something completely different and just hope that your subconscious will come to the rescue.
What happened during that week is I ended up rereading the first few years of Action Comics and writing down a two-pager for a Superman movie. So when we came back, Chris said, “Well, have any ideas?” And I said, “I’ve got this Superman movie that has nothing to do with The Dark Knight Rises.” That’s how Man of Steel happened. We ended up pitching it to Warner Bros. and getting that going.
What’s one franchise you haven’t worked on before that you’d want to be a part of?
Dune was on my bucket list. I think Denis Villeneuve is an amazing filmmaker, so I’m very excited to see it. But that would have been up there. Maybe The Eternal Champion as well.
Netflix is releasing its Masters of the Universe animated series. You did a script for a live-action version that wasn’t made. What was your version like?
I legitimately liked the script that we did. We were going to do it as a feature at Sony. What I liked the most about it was that it was mostly about a friendship between He-Man and Battle Cat. The idea was there had always been He-Men and different recipients of the Sword of Power and that Battle Cat had always served at their side. And this was a new He-Man that Battle Cat and many people didn’t think was worthy of the sword. So it was a story of the character earning the sword, but, more importantly, earning the friendship of Battle Cat, who just thought this guy was a lightweight. I really liked it. I thought it was a fun story. There was a lot of humor in it and it creeps up on you because Battle Cat sort of grudgingly accepts him, and it’s Battle Cat’s acceptance of He-Man that gave this version of the story heart.
The Tomorrow War left a bunch of lingering White Spikes questions, such as, what was the deal with the aliens who were transporting them?
Hopefully [fans will] get that answer. I thought that was one of the more clever twists that [writer] Zach Dean had come up with — the White Spikes weren’t the civilization that built the ships that arrived here. They were the cattle, they were the game that they were going to hunt. I don’t want to give away too much but one question is: Why would a civilization breed something like that? Fortunately, the film was successful enough that those [sequel] conversations are happening right now.
Your company is producing The Night House, which has earned very positive reviews. It feels like horror films are the last genre that can get a major studio to greenlight relatively easily without pre-existing IP or huge stars attached. Is that accurate? And what made that script special to you?
It is an accurate statement. We also made that film for $6 million. Since there’s not as much cash outlay, it didn’t have to be based on a pre-existing IP and you don’t have to go to one of the top 10 or 20 [actors] who are considered “box office guarantees” — even though that doesn’t really exist anymore. People can take more chances. I’ve got this company, Phantom Four, they’re producers on Foundation, but then there are these projects like Night House and Antlers — which is another film I have coming out. We like to develop — it’s a cliche to say “smart or elevated genre films,” but that’s what we do.
So I say to Keith Levine and my other employees, “When we take on a project, it’s gotta be something that’s good enough to merit me being late to dinner with my kids.” It has to have merit. The Night House was a really fantastic script that we developed with Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, and we got [director] David Bruckner on board, who is an amazing filmmaker.
As a writer, I worked with some fantastic producers, and I worked with a lot of producers who I felt were just phoning it in, or would do whatever note the studio gave and would just sell you down the river in a heartbeat. I was just determined that when we produce something that we really advocate for the filmmaker. So we were there with David every step of the way. And it’s a really uncompromising film. It’s a ghost story about grief. And it was all built around this incredible, show-stopper performance that Rebecca Hall gave. We took it to Sundance and had 10 different people bidding on it. I’m excited for people to see it because it’s a scary movie, but it’s also a movie that has something to say.
Anything else you would like to share?
I was shooting Blade II with Guillermo del Toro in Prague in 2001. We were the first big movie to shoot in Prague and built these massive sets because the dollar stretched so far there. The sets were so big that in these warehouses you could take a golf cart from, like, one warehouse to the other. One day we were shooting and Guillermo threw his arm around me and he was like, “Can you believe they let us do this? Do this — for free? I’d do this for a quarter of what they pay me!” I think that it’s easy to get carried away and say, “I deserve this.” I love Foundation. I love Batman and Superman and Terminator. I loved them as a kid and I still love them. So I always try to keep it in my head that it is amazing that we get to do this for a living. That’s what that silver peso does for me.
Here are some of the objects Goyer keeps in his office, and the stories behind them:
A version of this story first appeared in the July 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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July 22, 2021 at 04:46PM