The reason to get involved in this was not simply to play the part… It was because as a filmmaker, it became a unique opportunity.” When Edward Norton spoke with Total Film in January – in what, until now, was his only interview about The Incredible Hulk – he was enthused and frank about his vision for reduxing Marvel’s emerald icon.
In a lengthy conversation he talked of his admiration for the film’s director Louis Leterrier (The Transporter, Unleashed), his long-standing love for the Hulk, and the new-found experience of wrestling with extensive visual effects work. “It’s a challenge,” he said, of the lengthy post-production process. “But we have a really good story, we feel really good about the characters and there’s a tale here about a person you can invest in and care about…”
It sounded hugely exciting – drawing its soul and style from the much-loved Bill Bixby-starring TV series, rooted in humanity but with a wham-bam action quotient sure to play to a multiplex crowd. But, as legendary studio mogul Samuel Goldwyn once observed, “We’ve all passed a lot of water since then.”
On 11 March, a Hollywood blogger popped up suggesting Norton and Marvel had fallen out over the final cut, with the star and his director favouring a more organic, character-driven version and the studio wanting a leaner, meaner runtime. Of course, Hulk isn’t the only thing that’s green about this production; Marvel Studios is a fledgling outfit, with The Incredible Hulk only its second solo-financed gig after Iron Man. There’s a lot of scrutiny on the company and plenty of industry-watchers ready to pounce on the slightest chink in their, previously virtually impervious, blockbuster armour (the X-Men franchise with Fox, the Spider-Man series with Sony). Marvel Studios President of Production Kevin Feige may cheerily say, “It feels good. It’s nice to be able to shape and mould the future of the Marvel Universe the way we believe it should be done,” but the pressure is on…
Director Leterrier – the man who provided the exclusive concept art and storyboards accompanying this feature – finds all the speculation over a ‘feud’ a distraction. “It’s frustrating,” he says, talking to Total Film from a cramped mixing stage, where he’s locking down the sound. “Even now, even you, an integral movie magazine, are asking about it, so it becomes the Edward Norton Vs Marvel Incredible Hulk, like the first movie was Ang Lee’s Incredible Hulk. There’s no movie that says, ‘OK, here’s The Hulk! We all put our guts into this movie – and that’s what it is!”
Norton, meanwhile, has been keeping a low profile. Any quotes that have appeared online or in magazines have been taken from his July 2007 Q&A at Comic-Con, with his only fresh comment an emailed statement to US magazine Entertainment Weekly (the wording agreed between him, Marvel and Universal – the movie’s distributor) reiterating his love for the character, expressing disappointment that the “healthy process” of creative collaboration had been “misrepresented publicly as a ‘dispute’” and declaring, “All of us believe The Incredible Hulk will excite old fans, create new ones and be a huge hit… Our focus has always been to deliver the Hulk people have been waiting for and keep the worldwide love affair with the big green guy going strong…”
When Total Film catches up with Norton in April, he’s sanguine about the whole business: the ‘controversy’, the net-blather and the general experience of making The Incredible Hulk...
“I just said what I actually believe,” he says. “That I genuinely don’t think the process of how things get made – and the inevitable debates that occur over making a movie – are important to the people who just want to go and see it!” He pauses, choosing his words thoughtfully. “I actually think it’s a kind of arrogance to imagine that the things you go through making a movie are more important than the people you are making it for. They don’t want to know about that; they just want to see a good movie!”
So, Norton is remaining tight-lipped about what exactly went down in post-production: what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. But for those of us paid to dissect the movie business, there are signs that The Incredible Hulk hasn’t exactly had the smoothest of transitions from page to celluloid for this, its second big screen outing. The script, originally drafted by X-Men: The Last Stand writer Zak Penn, went through significant revisions from Norton when he came aboard – Feige calls it a “polish rewrite”; Leterrier says “Zak and Edward wrote it” – yet Norton isn’t credited as co-writer on the promotional posters, with Penn listed alongside one ‘Edward Harrison’ (Harrison is Norton’s middle name). This suggests that however enthused Norton is about the production process and the skills of Leterrier – “he’s a great shooter, a fantastic visualist” – the final version may differ significantly from what he had in mind.
Feige doesn’t go into specifics on the post-production fall-out: “The exact same discussions that we had in the Hulk editing room were had in the Iron Man editing room, X-Men 1, X-Men 2, X-Men 3, Spider-Man 1, 2 and 3, both Fantastic Fours, every film we’ve ever made. Only one time have those discussions involved a movie star and that’s when it jumped to the gossip pages…”
But if Norton has felt sidelined in the editing process, it does beg the question as to why he was hired in the first place. Why bring aboard an actor/writer with a track record for fierce performances and forthright creative opinions, if you’re not going to exploit them? Lee’s Hulk was criticised for being overly serious and, despite Norton’s genuine passion for the comic books and TV series, the star of Fight Club is hardly going to turn in a frothy, flyweight blockbuster. What was the appeal?
“Well, Bruce Banner [Hulk’s non-raging alter ego] is not a lot of yuks, right?” says Feige. “Bruce Banner as a character is not Tony Stark [aka Iron Man], he is not Spider-Man throwing quips around – that’s not who Bill Bixby was and it’s not who Bruce Banner should be – so the fact that Edward Norton isn’t, um, you know, a laugh-riot, is perfectly appropriate for the role. What he is is a spectacular actor and he can evoke – and I believe he has in his performance – pathos; that lonely man pathos, yet never going into self-pity. It’s exactly the same sense that Bill Bixby brought to the role and the reason I think so many people remember the TV series so fondly.”
Like the series, The Incredible Hulk focuses on Banner as a figure on the run, seeking to escape the military authorities who want to use him as a weapon – characterised by William Hurt’s nutzoid General Thunderbolt Ross and Tim Roth’s Emil Blonsky, the embittered veteran who eventually becomes Hulk’s gamma-irradiated nemesis Abomination – while also seeking a cure for his condition. Though it’s not billed as a sequel, The Incredible Hulk follows Hulk chronologically, starting with Banner hiding out in Brazil, before he heads back Stateside to be reunited with lost-love Betty (Liv Tyler).
“It has to ultimately be Bruce Banner’s story,” says Norton. “It’s like Hulk is a manifestation of his story…” Not that The Incredible Hulk will be shy of action. “It’s not called The Incredible Bruce Banner,” laughs Leterrier, “It’s The Incredible Hulk… The last fight is absolutely enormous – Hulk and Abomination are destroying a good part of New York!”
Norton and Leterrier spent months with visual effects supervisor Kurt Williams (no stranger to the Marvel world after his work on Fantastic Four), “hammering out” the sequences. “I’m looking forward to seeing it with all the effects on it,” says Norton. “I’m excited to see how these images that we worked on – both in writing and in filming and in editing and in post-production – came out; these incredible sequences. To me, a huge part of the learning experience on this was how much work it takes to download what’s in your head into other peoples’ heads and through their fingers and craft out into something that looks like what you imagined…”
Norton has fond memories of working with Leterrier, shut into an LA editing suite until the early hours, acting out each part so they could time the effects shots correctly. “At one point a friend of mine stopped by,” the actor laughs, “And we showed him something. He was like, ‘I have no idea what I’m looking at!’. We both realised we’d been there so long, cutting together empty plates that have nothing happening in them – and in our heads it’s this huge battle! I’m standing next to the monitor and acting out the Hulk…”
Leterrier laughs at the memory, too. “If you are self-conscious you cannot direct a movie like this! You have to be like, ‘OK, I’m going to look ridiculous, here is what I want Hulk to do: ‘RAAAGGH!’ [On the set...] I remember acting Hulk fighting Abomination for William Hurt and Liv Tyler, so that they would have something to react off. They loved it and I got very embarrassed and they made fun of it, so it was all good!”
So, how will this behind-the-scenes pantomime play out on screen? After muted buzz, word on The Incredible Hulk has picked up. A preview of scenes at New York Comic- Con was met with a rapturous reception. “It was really great, especially for Louis,” says Feige. “I think he’d had it up to his eyeballs with all our great Iron Man buzz! And now he finally has something of his own. The footage was spectacular. It was exactly what The Incredible Hulk needs to be.”
Leterrier – an immensely likeable French chap, whose action-rammed CV has always displayed a cute sense of humour – confirms the NY result. “You know what is great about this movie?” he asks. “Low expectations! No one thinks we have a good movie – and I love it! At Comic-Con we attracted a crowd of hardcore fans who wanted to see the train-wreck happen. We played a clip and I was tense… We got a four minute standing ovation! They weren’t expecting that! I was saying, ‘I’ve made a career – or life – on low expectations!’”
Feige is certainly confident this Hulk reboot will kick-start the franchise and that Marvel’s second most popular character (behind Spidey) will grow and grow because of his enduring appeal. “I think people really love the idea of somebody who is that strong and that powerful who also – somewhere, deep within, despite the rage, despite the unbelievable destructive power – has a moral centre.
“I remember, when I was a kid, watching Bill Bixby get picked on and beat around and he couldn’t necessarily fight back himself but when that transformation occurred, when he turned into the Hulk, look out! And you just love that – Edward had a great term for it, he had terms for a lot of things, but this term I really, really liked, which was ‘a righteous biteback’. Because Bruce warns you, ‘Please stop being a jerk…’ It’s instant karma!”
How karma treats The Incredible Hulk on 13 June remains to be seen, but for all the backstage gossip, everyone is pleased the big green guy is back. “I know this sounds gooey,” says Norton, “But I don’t think for people who like movies, are excited about movies, who want escapism, it’s important [to talk about the behind-the-scenes events]. It’s a big popcorn movie and there’s no need to saddle it with the pretension of a big creative debate.”
Norton’s right, so we’ll leave it at that. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry…