For part one, please click here:
And now for part 2:
Yesterday, Brett Leonard finally broke his ten-year silence about the troubles that befell his Marvel superhero movie, MAN-THING. Based on the shambling, horrific comic book character – a swamp monster with ambiguous motives – Leonard envisioned the feature film as a horror movie with a personal side.
But when Ang Lee’s THE HULK premiered to lackluster box office and critical drubbing, Leonard says that “The Powers That Be” (as he calls them) presented him with a hasty rewrite that turned an ambitious horror thriller into a conventional monster movie that, in the end, pleased nobody… including Brett Leonard.
Today, Brett Leonard continues his story, explaining how much creative control was suddenly taken away from him during the production, what he learned from the whole experience, and his original vision for the film’s ending. The version of MAN-THING we all know (presuming of course that we’ve all seen it) concludes with a kiss. It was supposed to end in terror.
Let’s pick up where we left off, with Brett Leonard struggling to turn lemons into lemonade.
Some Man-Thing’s Gotta Give
Brett Leonard is quick to point out that The Powers That Be were initially very supportive of his creative vision for MAN-THING, “There was definitely initial support,” he remembers. “I had a lot of support from them and suddenly that changed, it literally changed the weekend THE HULK opened.”
“While I was shooting the film I got great feedback from them,” he adds later. “They loved the rushes, they loved the visual look of the film, they loved how we were shooting it, but I knew at the end of the day when you edited it together that the script was not going to stand up. And ultimately if you don’t have a good script, you’re screwed. That’s what, for me, what I’ve learned was if you can’t shoot the vision of the movie you need to shoot in terms of script, then you shouldn’t do it. That’s what I learned.’
Brett Leonard also learned that whatever problems the new script may have posed for the production, it was set in stone. “I tried along the way to reason with The Powers That Be, to change it in certain places. I tried to improvise during some scenes and they [The Powers That Be] never came to Australia, only the producer was there with me, so I would get these communiques: ‘Don’t improvise on my script.’ So I couldn’t.”
“The bottom line is at that point I’m a veteran in the business and I knew that because the script had been diluted so much, and really there’s nothing I could do… I mean, I tried to add things in but every time I did they saw them in the rushes and they said ‘no,’” he laughs. “It was literally that experience.”
All Good Man-Things Come to an End
But what Brett Leonard calls “the worst aspect of the whole thing” was the film’s conclusion. In the final film, the Man-Thing is defeated after killing the evil oil baron Schist, and ultimately disappears back into the waters of the swamp when the offending oil rig explodes. The sheriff and the school teacher kiss, and walk away, and the credits roll.
“I mean I had everyone die except the Man-Thing,” Leonard says. “Nature, the spirit of nature, having been corrupted and violated by man, by this petrol king Schist trying to bring oil out of the swamp,” he considers, pointing out that some of the more surreal montages in the final film do suggest his original ideas.
“The Powers That Be insisted that the sheriff and the schoolteacher, the sheriff played by Matt Le Nevez and the schoolteacher played by Rachael Taylor, end up with a kiss at the end of the movie as we pull back. That, I just was so opposed to. I wanted literally them, everyone, to be sucked into the maw of the swamp and the Man-Thing is there, screaming in triumph,” he adds, describing the much darker, original finale. “So literally the Man-Thing is the hero or anti-hero and humankind is the problem. I thought that was a much stronger way to go for the genre. I think the fans of the genre would enjoy that more, and instead it turned into this kind of happy ending with a school teacher and a sheriff.”
“Some of the visuals of the Man-Thing screaming in the swamp before that happen kind of are indications of what I wanted to do, visually, but it didn’t carry through with the story structure, and I was not allowed to make the story I wanted to make. That is the honest truth.”
But the honest truth is also that, despite his objections, Brett Leonard shot the revised script. “I shot it. I made it. It still is a job, but the cautionary tale after this – and I think one of the things that is interesting for fans to look at – is that the way in which films are made varies greatly from film to film, in terms of the where the control is.”
“Directors obviously have a tremendous amount of responsibility for the story and the character, and I absolutely developed something that I believed in much stronger… in fact some of those indigenous elements are still there in the film. The gentleman who played the Indian chief [Steve Baroni], he does certain rituals. There’s some visuals that indicate this stuff, again, in the film but are never followed through on in relation to the main character or the main story at all, because that got ripped out.”
“You’ve got basically a hardass sheriff comes into town, the Man-Thing kills people, and he goes after him, and then basically nothing really happens!” Brett Leonard chuckles again that point, because ten years later, the changes seem kind of funny. At the time, however, he was hoping his film would be scary.
Neither One Man-Thing Nor The Other
“I thought that if Man-Thing won [at the end of the film] it would satisfy both the superhero fans of the genre and the horror fans,” Brett Leonard theorizes. “Because it was a dark ending but also very anti-hero based on who actually survives. So it was kind of everyone who was fans of the genre, and the way it went was it satisfied none of those fans of the genre, for very good reason,” Leonard chuckles again. “Including myself!”
In the comics, Man-Thing was never a costumed do-gooder. His horrific appearance and violent nature was perhaps always more ideally suited for a horror film, and Leonard believes that horror films don’t always benefit from a traditionally happy ending. “I wanted to make everything more horrific, make the Man-Thing – representing the spirits of nature – the hero, or anti-hero, and showing the folly of man. And have it be a very dark ending where even the sheriff who comes back is destroyed by his journey of trying to recognize what happened with his father in the past.”
“So there are little bits and pieces of that still in there, which again, almost make it worse because it’s not followed through on. The key is that, as you say in the theater, ‘If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.’ That is very true. The films that I am most proud of – THE LAWNMOWER MAN, that I wrote, I feel very proud of that film – [are the] films that I had more control of the story on. When I was a director for hire making other people’s films, sometimes this is what would happen, and MAN-THING is one of the big examples of that. If you go back and you see some of the visual style in it, in the execution of the creature, there’s some great stuff in there. It just it’s not in a wrapper of story that makes any sense or is very satisfying at all.”
“I wanted to make something much stronger and edgier, and supernatural and spiritual. There are spiritual elements to the story, and the Man-Thing to me represented nature going “fuck you,” you know? Basically killing everyone. I mean everyone was sucked into the maw at the end. I begged, I begged The Powers That Be that that be the end, and they said, ‘No, I want the kiss to be the end. It needs to be a happy ending.’ I just knew that was the death of the movie.”
Every Man-Thing Must Go
MAN-THING concluded its principle photography in 2003, and then it seemed to disappear. Audiences awaiting release of Brett Leonard’s film wound up waiting over two years to see the finished product, which ultimately went straight to television. Leonard was not surprised.
‘We were editing it together and I was editing it with notes from The Powers That Be, and I was in Australia editing it. They never came so it was all sort of long distance. And I know as I was editing it, the sequences I was proud of were the visual sequences. But the story was what it was and I knew… I knew as soon as I saw it all cut together that it didn’t really work organically as a whole in a satisfying way. There were elements that worked but not as a whole. And so I didn’t really know what would happen but after the test screenings, which basically slammed story… literally, ‘The look is great, creature’s great, story sucked.’”
“They loved the look of the film and so I think we achieved that,” says Leonard, considers the photography, art direction and creature design of MAN-THING to be the film’s highlights. “I am proud of the visual work that I did on the film, and I’m proud of the Man-Thing creature work that we did… he was a giant prosthetic that was also a hybrid effect, because it was added to [with] computer graphic effects. Some of the people who did the effects for THE LORD OF THE RINGS did that, they’re fantastic… and the people that made the prosthetic suit were the ones who did the prosthetics for the MATRIX films… so that work was very good.”
“We got the tallest guy, the biggest guy we could find in Australia to be in this hellish suit! It was literally a hellish suit. It was giant extended arm and hands that were animatronic, and we added things, the tentacles all that to it from the standpoint of computer graphics with a hybrid effect approach. But the suit worked very well. It’s not easy to make a man suit work but I always wanted to try, and so that was my [chance] to that and I think that aspect of the film works very well.”
If You Want a Man-Thing Done Right…
MAN-THING came and went, and despite the enormous and increasing popularity of Marvel superhero movies, it remains one of the most obscure motion pictures ever adapted from the pages of their comics. Few, if any, seemed to notice that 2015 marked the ten year anniversary of the release of Brett Leonard’s film, but those who do rediscover the film seem to share the director’s opinion of the finished product.
“People go, ‘Hey man, there’s some really interesting, cool visuals in that movie, and there’s a cool creature in that movie. What happened to the story?’ That’s what I get. So the story I tell… I never told it, this is the first time I’ve told it to the press. But that’s what I tell them, I tell them the story,” Leonard reveals.
“I’m mentoring a lot of young filmmakers these days, I use my experience on MAN-THING as a cautionary tale. As an example of how the elements that go into making a film can sometimes conspire against you as a director to make the film you really want to make, and that it’s important to stand up for what you really want the film to be, even though that might be very, very difficult.”
“I guess when I look back on it my regret is that I didn’t just go, ‘I can’t do this version of the movie.’ It felt at the time like that was impossible for personal reasons, for the reasons of all the people I was working with, I had bonded with, all the people there in Australia. I had a great experience working with people in the Australian film industry. So that’s the reason I went forward with it. But at the end of the day I was left with a film that doesn’t really quite work. It has elements that are very cool but it doesn’t really work as a whole, and ultimately films have to work as a whole.”
But it wasn’t entirely a bad experience for Brett Leonard, who may not have been able to make the film he wanted to make, but who did come away from the experience with a little piece of immortality…
“One of my favorite parts of MAN-THING is that they actually did a three-part comic book, Marvel comic book, of the movie,” Leonard cheerfully adds. “I played Mayerick, the coroner in the film, that’s me, and so I’m in that comic book! I’m a comic book character! That was sort of the only consolation prize of the movie for me, is that I got to actually be a character in a Marvel comic book.”