Ten years later, director Brett Leonard finally goes on the record about Marvel’s green-headed horror stepchild.
The year was 2001, and to Hollywood, superhero movies were still a novelty. The success of films like X-MEN and BLADE had established that comic book adaptations had a place in the action movie firmament, but Sam Raimi’s first SPIDER-MAN – the crossover hit that changed the entire blockbuster landscape – wouldn’t be released for another year.
Studios were pushing for more comic adaptations, and even the strangest heroes were fair game. And so a film based on MAN-THING, a shambling – empathic swamp monster whose series Adventure into Fear was so bizarre that it introduced the world to Howard the Duck – was set into motion with director Brett Leonard (VIRTUOSITY, THE LAWNMOWER MAN) at the helm.
Shot in Australia and finished in 2004, the R-rated supernatural horror movie MAN-THING wound up foregoing theaters altogether except in foreign markets, and debuting straight to the SyFy Channel (then the Sci-Fi Channel) in 2005, to little fanfare and abysmal reviews. Reel Film Reviews praised Leonard’s “slick, comic book-like sense of style” but declared MAN-Thing “easily the worst comic book movie ever made,” decrying the film’s “dull storyline and less-than-enthralling characters.”
Those critics were right: the finished version of MAN-THING is a gorgeously photographed but impossibly dull motion picture, in which a heroic sheriff (Matthew Le Nevez) comes to the small bayou town of Bywater, and learns that a nature spirit called the Man-Thing is killing off environment-exploiting oil company employees (and also nubile teenagers, for no particular reason). The movie ends with an arbitrary explosion and an arbitrary kiss between Le Nevez and his co-star, Rachael Taylor (TRANSFORMERS), making her screen debut. None of the characters have a story arc, and the plot goes nowhere.
MAN-THING is, much like the Man-Thing itself, a shambling mess. And director Brett Leonard agrees. Speaking to the press on record for the very first time about the last minute studio rewrites and production difficulties that befell MAN-THING Leonard laughs, “The story of MAN-THING hasn’t really ever been told. And I think it’s a good time to tell it.”
A Man-Thing Happened on the Way to Australia…
“MAN-THING is a very strange comic book. It’s a cult comic book,” Brett Leonard reminds us. “So it’s not a straight-up superhero. It’s something different.” He describes his original take on MAN-THING as “basically superhero but with a darker edge, and with a supernatural edge and with a supernatural and kind of spiritual aspect to it. That would have been an interesting, sort of modern take on that material.”
“That’s what I was reaching for. All of that got ripped out. It got fully ripped out so it became a straight-up monster movie, where it was like there was a monster in the swamp, the sheriff goes in, tries to find it, and again, not much happens.”
Brett Leonard laughs as he considers what happened to the plot of his movie. He laughs a lot as we spoke on the phone about the events that turned his version of MAN-THING into the version fans know today (if they remember the movie at all).
“It was very exciting for me to do a Marvel picture at that time, and I wanted to do a film in Australia, and they approved that process. So I went to Australia and I developed the script with the producer and some writers that were involved for a number of months. And this is where the story of MAN-THING becomes a cautionary tale of independent film,” Leonard foreshadows.
“What happened was I was there, I developed a script in a very specific direction, and I cast that script with young Australian actors, many of whom went on to other careers. MAN-THING was their first film. It was the first film for Alex O’Loughlin (MOONLIGHT), who went on to do a number of things in television. He plays McGarrett on HAWAII FIVE-OH since then. MAN-THING was his first film, so I kind of discovered him. And Rachael Taylor, it was her first film. She was literally fresh off the boat from Tasmania.”
“And Matt Le Nevez, who played the lead sheriff in MAN-THING, he went on to do a number of great independent films in Australia. He’s won Australian film awards and so yeah, it was a cast that went on to do many good things, which is kind of part of my history. I’ve chosen people. Australia has been really good because before that it was Russell Crowe. I brought him to America to do VIRTUOSITY, which is one of the reasons why I wanted to do MAN-THING in Australia. I [found] Russell over here in Australia and I fell in love with the place. So that’s why MAN-THING ended up in Australia.”
But while Brett Leonard was busy trying to do the right MAN-THING, another green-skinned Marvel superhero was being unleashed upon the world. And according to Leonard, the critical response to that big budget blockbuster would have unexpected consequences for his low budget horror thriller.
The Hulk vs. Man-Thing
“So about a month before going into actual production, after I had cast the movie based upon the script I had been developing, the script was significantly changed, suddenly, by The Powers That Be,” Leonard says, refusing to name names. “The Powers That Be,” he says, will have to do.
The reason for the last-minute rewrites was, according to Leonard, the response to Ang Lee’s version of THE HULK, an ambitious and experimental retelling of the popular Marvel superhero, which met with mixed reviews and modest box office success in 2003. The $137 million adaptation failed to earn its money back domestically, and only grossed $245 million worldwide… a box office disappointment by summer blockbuster standards.
“After THE HULK opened, there was shock,” Leonard remembers. “It was literally like they were shocked, because I think they thought THE HULK – because it was Ang Lee – was going to be their Academy Award-winning film. And Ang Lee, one of the greatest directors on the planet, and some of the things didn’t come together in that movie like they wanted them to.”
“And that kind of sent a charge through the corridors of Marvel, and in the script that I had developed, I had developed a much more character-driven origin story that dealt with a father and son backstory. And because the father and son story in THE HULK was what critics slammed on so much […] suddenly the fax machines starting going, and a new script came over the fax machine, and I was told that this is the script that I would be shooting.”
“Critics really slammed on the backstory and the father/son thing, and so any father/son thing really was like anathema. That’s why the changes were made. But they made it into something extremely simple, and that simplicity does not work in something like MAN-THING. You’ve got to have some complexity.”
“I didn’t think it was similar,” Leonard recalls. “It was a completely different father/son backstory. But they got so kind of hit on that. I mean, I understand too. It’s not that I don’t see what happened or understand the psychology. It’s unfortunate for the movie because visually I had the [talent] to do something really good, but it’s hung on the clothesline of a story that doesn’t work.”
Every Man-Thing is Illuminated
The version of MAN-THING that Brett Leonard ultimately directed had no father and son characters at all, and told the story of a city sheriff who comes to a small bayou town and gets involved in a mystery and a revenge plot between local tribes and the oil baron, Schist (Jack Thompson, of STAR WARS: EPISODE II), who has manipulated them out of their land. But Leonard’s original story played very, very differently.
“The father/son origin story was much more about the young sheriff having this experience where his father was murdered in the swamp by the villain Schist, and he was buried out there and there was this whole backstory of the Dark Waters and these Indian spirits [which turned him into Man-Thing]. What we were doing is developing this backstory that related to indigenous nature spirits being what created the Man-Thing from this murder that happened, that was related as a backstory to the young sheriff’s character,” Leonard describes.
“So the young sheriff was returning to his hometown after having been gone because of the trauma of his childhood, and he was returning to the scene of the crime, and was very emotionally and spiritually connected to the Man-Thing origin.”
“[The father’s] corpse was imbued with these nature spirits and he essentially became the Man-Thing, although it was somewhat ambiguous. It was meant to be a very supernatural, indigenous spirit aspect and of course, the young boy who experienced this didn’t really know the truth and didn’t know if that was real or not. He had these memory flashes and nightmarish dreams of this place, the Dark Waters, where this all took place.”
“So it was very connected between the father and the son, the backstory connected to the supernatural underpinnings of creating the Man-Thing character. And we were developing that and it never got to a final draft, we [never finished] the final shooting script before that was completely thrown out.”
Man-Things Are Tough All Over
The changes to the MAN-THING script affected more than the plot of the film, they had a significant impact on the cast, some of whom were now forced to play completely different characters than the ones they had been developing, or that Leonard found them suited for.
“I had cast the film, especially the young sheriff character, Matt Le Nevez, who is a very sensitive, emotional young actor, because of the nature of that [father/son] aspect of the story,” Brett Leonard remembers. “And when the new script came through he was essentially kind of like just a hard sheriff dude who comes into town and deals with this stuff, so he really didn’t fit the new character.”
“Basically the entire thread of why the young sheriff comes to Bywater, the place where this is all happening, and why he’s there and his entire hero’s journey of going back to what happened to him as a child and what happened to his father, that coming full circle… all that was ripped out.”
“And Matt Le Nevez was most affected by his character because he was struggling to play this new version of the character. He was very upset by this because he’s trying to play a new version of the character that was totally different than what he auditioned for and why I cast him, and so he’s trying to be this hard guy, Clint Eastwood type sheriff who comes to town, and that’s just not who he is.”
“So that was frustrating for both him and me, and that was one of the unfortunate things I think, that the lead character doesn’t have any interest or any thrust that’s connected to the story. He just kind of comes into town and this shit happens, and he follows it and then at the end he watches it go down to the swamp. I mean, who cares? And the teacher that he has a semi-relationship with, they get to kiss at the end. I mean, it’s like exactly the things that a genre audience does not want to see.” Brett Leonard laughs at that point in our conversation, but it wasn’t very funny at the time…
CONTINUED TOMORROW IN PART 2…