Thor screenwriter, Don Payne

Don Payne on the evolution of the Thor script.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

Don Payne may be the master of Thor from now on. After working on the screenplay to Thor, he is now working on a possible Thor 2. He is also a writer and producer on The Simpsons. At the Thor press junket on Sunday, Payne sat down with me to discuss his work on Thor, and share some Easter eggs for the Marvel universe.


CraveOnline: What background was laid out by Straczynski and Protosevich, by Stentz and Miller by the time you got to the project?

Don Payne: The film had been through many, many permutations along the way. It’s a long development process. Protosevich had written a draft that was set in ancient Norway, but he introduced the concept of Thor being banished to Earth without his powers. J. Michael Straczynski did a draft that was very much different from the movie that we have now, but then did an outline that was very, very similar to the structure that we have. It was set in contemporary Earth, Thor being banished for battling the frost giants against his father’s will. So I believe the order of events is that after that, Ken came aboard. Ken and Marvel sat down with everything that they had so far. Ken brought his own ideas to the table. Marvel had their own ideas and they broke out a very specific structure and storyline which they then presented to Ashley and Zack. Ash and Zack wrote that. They did a lot of work over a short period of time and when they left the project, I was passed the torch and stayed on through the end, about a year and a half. So I was rewriting for eight months prior to production starting, bringing in new characters and new scenes, rewriting every scene, some more extensively than others, working with the actors during rehearsals here and in London, integrating their notes. Then I was on the set every day writing as well.


CraveOnline: Was any of the rewriting coming as The Avengers was developing and certain things needed to happen in Thor?

Don Payne: It was but the little Easter eggs that they put in, a lot of them were already in place when I was there. In writing our own unique standalone Thor story, that was always the most important thing. It was a piece of the larger puzzle, but I don’t think anyone wanted to make it feel as if it was just servicing some future movie. They really wanted a great introduction to the character.


CraveOnline: In your mind, could a Thor movie exist without taking place on Earth?

Don Payne: I think it could. Certainly there are six other realms that we haven’t scene. You could do a whole big cosmic Lord of the Rings style adventure elsewhere, but I think part of it should take place on Earth because I think that you want a touchstone of what’s familiar. You want a touchstone of human characters and the fun of being on Earth. I think you could do that story but I think Thor has always been a character that is of two worlds, of Asgard and of Midgard which is Earth. That’s who he is in the comics and that’s who he is in the cinematic universe that Marvel has created.


CraveOnline: How much tinkering did you have to do to get the Thor-speak right?

Don Payne: I think people early on decided that they couldn’t do it exactly like they’d done the faux Shakespearean language that was introduced by Stan Lee and Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby way back when. So they really wanted to make it feel as if it was a regal way of speaking without being goofya and over the top. You just kind of get it in your head. You get a voice in your head and it’s not super difficult at that point. You start to hear the voice of the characters. You just put that down. Writing is a great thing. A lot of writers may disagree with me but I feel like Bryan Singer said, “A movie is never finished. It’s just abandoned.” I feel the same way about a screenplay.


CraveOnline: And Singer’s quoting George Lucas there.

Don Payne: Oh, he’s attributed to it. The same is true I think of a screenplay. I think that any writer before production starts who goes, “Here it is. Don’t change a word. It’s going to be perfect.” is either delusional or doesn’t know the realities of production that are going to require changes. Things are on their feet sometimes. You’ve got to change an interior to an exterior. An actor can’t come in and suddenly you’ve got to adapt the scene. More importantly, if someone comes up with a better idea, whether it’s the director, the actor, the studio or the writer, you want to be able to implement that. Even if it makes the film just that much better, it adds up at the end. So it’s a living thing and I think it’s great that we had a writer on set. Now certainly there are catastrophic stories where they start to shoot something and they don’t have an act 2 or an act 3. That’s not the kind of thing I’m talking about. That’s just crazy but we did have a script in place and we did make it better as we went along. We were always a few weeks ahead of the scenes we were shooting.


CraveOnline: Did the comedy scenes take a few tries to find the best way to make that work?

Don Payne: Yeah, the comedy scenes were a little difficult because if you get too broad or too goofy, it’s just going to turn off a lot of people. You want to find the right tone. One thing we agreed on, we didn’t want to fall into a bunch of clichéd fish out of water moments. We didn’t want Thor to come to Earth and suddenly become an idiot because this character is used to traveling to different worlds, he’s used to thinking on his feet, he’s a cunning warrior. We didn’t want moments of him coming to Earth and seeing a TV set and going, “What is yon magic box with phantoms that move and speak inside it?” That was not what we were going for so the comedy I think really came from his attitude and his arrogance. He is not the idiot. He believes himself to have come down on a planet of idiots that are just in his way. They are inferior beings and he’s used to being obeyed in his world and he’s not going to let these people get in his way. I think that was the root of a lot of the comedy.


CraveOnline: At what point did you write the final tag with Nick Fury?

Don Payne: I wrote a version of that but it was all something that Marvel said, “Oh, this is what we want to do.” It altered and changed and I don’t know who ultimately put that together. You’d have to ask Kevin Feige. I don’t know if it was Joss or what, but usually the tags on these Marvel movies are written internally or by the people of the next franchise. Even though Marvel said, “This is what we want to do for the tag,” I wrote up the tag for the end of Iron Man 2. Those are kind of special.


CraveOnline: Yeah, because for a while Nick Fury wasn’t even going to be in Thor.

Don Payne: I know, I know. It was crazy to me because I saw things online where he was going to appear and I was like, “No, he’s not. He’s not going to be in it.” Then finally he goes on television and goes, “I’m shooting my Thor cameo next week.” I immediately called Marvel and said, “What’s going on? Is he in the movie?” And I think one of the executives said, “No, no, I don’t think so.” Then he checks and goes, “Yeah, he is.” I’m glad. I think it’s fun to see him tie everything together. The bad thing now is it’s not a surprise anymore. People expect it and if you didn’t do it, people would be disappointed. It’s like the encore at a concert now. You’ve got to do something. You’ve got to find a new way to surprise people.


CraveOnline: What exactly were the rules for how much you could include references to Tony Stark and other Marvel characters?

Don Payne: I think people wanted to do Easter eggs just to remind people it’s all part of one giant cinematic universe, but we just didn’t want to overdo it. The Hawkeye/Clint Barton thing was in there before I came on board but the reference to Banner wasn’t there when I came on board.


CraveOnline: I didn’t catch that one!

Don Payne: Remember when they were on the rooftop talking about SHIELD and [Selvig] goes, “I was working with a scientist at my university. He was a pioneer in gamma radiation. SHIELD showed up and we never heard from him again.” That’s Bruce Banner.


CraveOnline: What else are you working on writing?

Don Payne: I am in the early stages of coming up with some ideas for Thor 2 actually. I’m hoping to explore some of the characters in some of the old stories that we weren’t able to use in the first film.


CraveOnline: So Marvel has you and they want to keep you in the family.

Don Payne: They do. They generally do that. It’s a small group and they tend to use the same writers if they have a good relationship with them. It’s worked out pretty well.


CraveOnline: Do you have any thoughts about going back into the Norse period?

Don Payne: Everything’s on the table at this point. We’re still very early on, I think as it should be. I think everyone wants to see how the film does. Hopefully, knock wood, it does really well and warrants a sequel. I think it’s not too early to start thinking about it just in case. I’ve seen some things online saying, “Thor 2? You’re really putting the cart before the horse.” But it’s a very cheap investment to start worrying about the story. It’s not like you’re going to a $150 million production. You’re just coming up with ideas for a story. Hopefully it’ll work out and you can use it.


CraveOnline: Then you have to factor in The Avengers.

Don Payne: You do, you do. I have The Avengers sitting in my house under lock and key. I’m reading it this weekend. I get to read it this weekend just to find out where Thor winds up at the end of that, where the world winds up at the end of that. Who knows where it’s going to be? I’m really excited about seeing it. Part of me is disappointed in reading the script because I want to be surprised too. I’ve been looking forward to that movie since I was a kid.


CraveOnline: But you’ve put it off until Sunday night.

Don Payne: Duty calls. I’ve got to read it. It’ll be cool to see.


CraveOnline: On The Simpsons, you’ve done some of my favorite recent episodes like “Coming to Homerica.”

Don Payne: That’s really funny. I don’t have a writing credit, I have a producer credit on that.


CraveOnline: But as a writer you did “The Bart Wants What it Wants.” I also know the way the show works, everyone contributes.

Don Payne: It’s very collaborative and that’s what a lot of people don’t understand. They go, “This guy’s episode sucks. This guy’s a genius.” It’s so funny to me because a lot of the scripts get rewritten by everybody and there’s not a word left from the original writer. Everyone is a very talented writer, everyone contributes but after you’ve turned in that first draft, it’s rewritten like 15-20 times by the writer’s room. Everyone has a hand in everything for better or for worse, and I think everyone will cop to that at the end of the day.


CraveOnline: I got to tell Al Jean that I’ve actually never missed an episode in 22 years.

Don Payne: Wow, that’s great. We had our 499th table read the other day so we’re about to hit 500.


CraveOnline: People talk about The Golden Age but I don’t think it stops there. I think they had a New Renaissance and now they’re in a Postmodern Period.

Don Payne: Thank you very much. I appreciate that. So many times you fear that The Simpsons is now a show your dad likes. It’s not Family Guy, it’s not South Park but we still crank out some good episodes. 23 years, 500 episodes, it’s hard to do.


CraveOnline: It will be very hard for me when they stop making new ones.

Don Payne: Hard for me too, I’ll be out of a job.