Nothing About Netflix’s Dark Sci-Fi Drama spider head immediately, obviously announcing it as “writers of dead Pool and Deadpool 2.” The film, based on the grim 2010 short story by George Saunders Escape from Spiderheadstars Chris Hemsworth (the MCU Thor) as Steve Abnesti, a pharmaceutical rep who tests exotic new drugs on semi-volunteer convicts in the high-tech Spiderhead prison. Jeff (Miles Teller) and Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett) are prisoners who each have their regrets, but stick to the program because Spiderhead feels more like a gracious resort town than a conventional prison, other than they’re guinea pigs in a series of twisted experiments. . There’s not a lot of Deadpool-esque banter, laughter, or violence.
But for screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, longtime writing partners on projects like the two Zombielands movies, 6 Underground, Life, GI Joe: Retaliationand the two Deadpool movies (with a third on the way), spider head was an exciting project. “The New Yorker and Condé Nast were looking to exploit their magazine’s content so they wouldn’t go the way of the dinosaurs,” Wernick told Polygon. “We immediately fell in love with it.” Top Gun: Maverick director Joe Kosinski was eventually brought on to direct, and Netflix picked up the project, which is available to stream now.
We spoke to the editorial team about where spider head and dead Pool meet, why writing a sci-fi drama was only slightly different from writing a comedy action movie, and what Chris Hemsworth does every night in Wernick’s dreams.
This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
Polygon: One of the two little details that really stood out to me about this movie was Chris Hemsworth’s little solo dance in his bedroom. Was it scripted?
Paul Wernick: Dance came out of our wildest dreams. When we close our eyes at night and put a smile on our face, we see Chris Hemsworth dancing seductively by himself.
Rhet Reese: [laughs] OK, speak for yourself. I don’t necessarily dream of this every night. But Chris brought that. We made the choice to go with this yacht-rock soundtrack, where Steve has this ridiculous taste in music. The scene was just [written] As, Oh yeah, he’s chilling out while he’s on his dope, listening to his music. Chris really improvised the whole thing, and we think it’s going to be a total meme-slash-gif, him dancing, because it’s a great little dance. It’s so funny. He’s really good. And yet, he just isn’t good enough. You could buy it in character – it’s not too good.
Wernik: Oh stop. He is very good.
The other standout detail was the Etch A Sketch that Jeff uses to create and destroy art. Where did this idea come from?
Reese: The Etch A Sketch had been in the script for a long time. I loved my Etch A Sketch as a kid. We liked the themed nature of something where you could make choices and then [whisking noises] just buy it back, start over with a clean slate, which you can’t do in life. So we liked it. Jeff would love to turn his life upside down and start from scratch, and yet he can’t, so he does through this Etch A Sketch. We just thought that was very cool.
After writing the Deadpool and Zombieland scripts, does writing something more dramatic like this feel like a different discipline?
Reese: To use a bad metaphor, it feels a bit like doing a different exercise at the gym, but on the same muscles, hitting them in a different way. So it’s not that different, it’s kind of a half-step different. These are just nuances, right? I mean, our tone is still a little murky. Often we will have violence and comedy mixed together, and yet heart and love. I feel like it falls into this general area. There is a love story, there are real emotions. Sometimes it’s funny, it’s just a bit darker. So I guess it’s really up to the audience whether we’ve captured a new and interesting tone. We’re not interested in making the same movie over and over again.
How did you approach the adaptation?
Reese: The most important thing was that we captured the George news. We really tried to preserve every piece we could, to make it appear on screen. The first half to two thirds of the movie is pretty much the short story.
Wernik: We used every bit of this turkey, because it’s George, and he’s so brilliant.
Reese: So the challenge became the invention. We had to jump past that and find a plot. What is Steve really looking for more than anything else? We thought, Well, maybe it could be obedience. And if it’s obedience, how does he get there? Well, maybe you can do that by convincing someone to hurt someone they love. Then we need a love interest.
And so those things start to pile on top of each other, and you start to see the shape of the rest of your plot. You start to see a protagonist who is trying to redeem himself, you start to see an antagonist who has a real purpose that is now being conveyed. We wanted to see him meet a fate that was the consequence of his actions. So a lot of invention on the back-end, a lot of loyalty and fidelity on the front-end.
One of the biggest things you cut was the drug of verbosity that allows people to express themselves poetically. Did you find it didn’t work as well in the dialog?
Reese: In fact, it came out a bit in the edit. We had written silly stuff where Miles gets poetic about Victorian society and stuff like that, taken from the short story. I think there was a slight absurd quality to it that probably cost it. And then we was wasting time here and there, and sometimes like these little babies and darlings go. If you go back and watch our original script, we definitely got a bit more of him suddenly speaking like a humanities professor locked in the ivory tower.
Wernik: Miles also ran into it. [That dialogue was] difficult to spit out. Also, we wanted Miles to play the Everyman. We wanted Jeff to be the audience’s path in the film, and when he became a philosopher, he felt he was making himself a bit unapproachable.
Reese: There was also a bit of logic, you know: If my character doesn’t know Victorian society, doesn’t know these vocabulary words, why would he say them? In general, if it was not in the [movie]it’s because it came out after our first draft, because we just threw up everything from this novella to the first draft, to be honest.
Was this project born of you or were you brought to it? Whose baby was it?
Wernik: Condé Nast came to us. The short story was in The New Yorker about 10 years ago, just before it was in George’s compilation ten december.
Reese: We wrote it on spec. We weren’t paid to write the script. We got wrapped up in directing it for a while. This didn’t materialize for various reasons – we had to go and do dead Pool. And so Joe Kosinski eventually arrived. We created this package and sold it to Netflix. They bought it, they believed it. And so we finally got paid several years later. I mean, it’s been a 10-year process, but there have been many times in our career where we love something so much that we’re like, Look, we don’t care about getting paid, we’re just gonna write it. If we get paid on the back-end, that’s gravy, we just have to write this script.
Given that timeline, I’m guessing you weren’t thinking of those actors when you wrote it. Was anything else along the way revamped specifically for them?
Wernik: When they were officially cast, we had conversations with them about character, story and motivation, and just the general style of play and what they bring to it. It’s a brilliant group of actors who came together to bring this to life. [Steve’s] story and why he is the way he is, that was a big thing, we sat down with Chris and played for a really long time. Each actor brings such a unique perspective to the role, so it allows us to dig a little deeper. They ask the tough questions about why, how and how. It always makes the script better, always.
Where it seems to come most specifically from the writers of Deadpool and Zombieland is in the darker, more flippant things Chris Hemsworth’s character says, his little beards to people. Did you talk about whether to lean more into humor or call it back?
Wernik: One in particular was interesting: “She’s not that good,” or what was it?
Reese: It comes from the news. “She’s not the best.”
Wernik: There was quite a debate about that particular line, whether it was too flippant, too silly in such a dark time. And Chris really fought for it. He felt it revealed a really screwed up side of Abnesti that he wanted to explore. You are not dealing with a normal person experiencing normal emotions. It was a debate that we started for a little while about whether it was inappropriate. But we still bring in an element of darkness and humor and undermining what the audience might expect, simply because it keeps the audience on the edge of their seat. Or at least that’s our intention.
Reese: Yeah, and I think his inappropriateness, we thought it came from a place where he’s a guy who’s not used to facing a lot of consequences for things that come out of his mouth. He can kind of get away with saying anything, and he has a twisted worldview. These inappropriate characters can be the most fun. Deadpool is very inappropriate throughout, and people love the transgressive nature of it. He’s someone who pushes the boundaries of saying things where you think, I wouldn’t have said that at the time. It may be funny, it may surprise you a little. So we love writing characters like that, for sure.
Wernik: I think people think a lot about what our characters say, but they’re afraid to say it. Saying it just makes it a little juicier for the audience to think Oh man, yeah, I would think that, but I wouldn’t have the stones to say it.
spider head is streaming on Netflix now.