Nothing about Netflix’s dark science fiction drama Spiderhead immediately, obviously advertises it as “from the writers of Deadpool and Deadpool 2.” The film, based on George Saunders’ grim 2010 short story Escape from Spiderhead, stars Chris Hemsworth (the MCU’s Thor) as Steve Abnesti, a pharmaceutical rep testing exotic new drugs on semi-willing convicts in the high-tech Spiderhead prison. Jeff (Miles Teller) and Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett) are prisoners who each have their regrets, but stick with the program because Spiderhead is more like a gracious island resort than a conventional jail, apart from them being guinea pigs in a series of twisted experiments. There isn’t a lot of Deadpool-style banter, laughs, or violence.
But for screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, longtime writing partners on projects like the two Zombieland movies, 6 Underground, Life, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, and both Deadpool movies (with a third on the way), Spiderhead was a passion project. “The New Yorker and Condé Nast were looking to exploit the material in their magazine so that they don’t go the way of the dinosaurs,” Wernick tells 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 writing team about where Spiderhead and Deadpool meet, why writing a sci-fi drama was only slightly different from writing a comic action movie, and what Chris Hemsworth does every night in Wernick’s dreams.
This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
Polygon: One of the two little details that really stood out to me in this movie was Chris Hemsworth’s little solo dance in his room. Was that scripted?
Paul Wernick: The dancing came from 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.
Rhett Reese: [laughs] OK, speak for yourself. I don’t necessarily dream about that every night. But Chris brought that in. We made the choice to go with this yacht-rock soundtrack, where Steve has this ridiculous taste in music. The scene was just [written] like, Oh yeah, he unwinds while he’s on his drug, listening to his music. Chris really ad-libbed that 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’s just not good enough. You could buy it in the character — it’s not too good.
Wernick: Oh, stop it. He’s plenty good.
The other standout detail was the Etch A Sketch Jeff uses to create and destroy art. Where did that idea come in?
Reese: The Etch A Sketch was in the script from way back when. I just used to love my Etch A Sketch as a kid. We liked the thematic nature of something where you could make choices and then [whisking noises] just redeem it, start over with a blank slate, which you can’t do in life. So we liked that. Jeff would very much like to shake up his life and start with a blank slate, and yet he can’t, so he does it through this Etch A Sketch. We just thought it was very cool.
After writing Deadpool and Zombieland scripts, does scripting something more dramatic like this feel like a different discipline?
Reese: To use a bad metaphor, it kind of feels like we’re doing a different exercise at the gym, but on the same muscles, to hit them from a different way. So it’s not that different, it’s sort of a half-step different. It’s just shades, right? I mean, our tone is always a little murky. Oftentimes we’ll have violence and comedy mixed together, and yet heart and love. I feel like this falls into that general area. It’s got a love story, it’s got real emotions. At times, it is funny, it’s just a little darker. So I guess it’s really up to the audience to decide whether we captured a new and interesting tone. We’re not interested in just making the same movie over and over.
How did you approach the adaptation?
Reese: The most important thing was that we captured George’s short story. We really tried to preserve every piece that we could, to get it up on the screen. The first half to two-thirds of the movie is pretty much the short story.
Wernick: We used every bit of that turkey, because it’s George, and he’s so brilliant.
Reese: So the challenge became the invention. We had to leap past that and figure out a plot. What is Steve really after more than anything else? We thought, Well, maybe that could be obedience. And if it’s obedience, how does he get there? Well, maybe you get there by convincing someone to hurt someone they love. So then we need a love interest.
And so these 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’s trying to redeem himself, you start to see an antagonist who has a real goal that’s now being forwarded. We wanted to see him meet a fate that was a consequence of his actions. So a lot of invention on the back end, a lot of loyalty and faithfulness on the front end.
One of the bigger things you cut was the verbosity drug that lets people express themselves poetically. Did you find that didn’t work as well in dialogue?
Reese: It actually came out a little bit in the edit. We had written some silly stuff where Miles is waxing poetic about Victorian society and stuff like that, lifted from the short story. I think there was a slight absurd quality to it that probably cost it. And then we were trimming for time here and there, and sometimes like those little babies and darlings go away. If you go back and look at our original screenplay, we definitely had a little bit more of him suddenly talking like a humanities professor who’s locked in the ivory tower.
Wernick: Miles bumped on that as well. [That dialogue was] hard to spit out. Also, we wanted Miles to play the Everyman. We wanted Jeff to be the audience’s way into the movie, and when he was waxing philosophical, he felt he was making himself a little bit inaccessible.
Reese: There was also a little bit of logic, you know: If my character doesn’t know about Victorian society, doesn’t know these vocabulary words, why would he be saying them? In general, if it wasn’t in the [movie], that’s because it came out after our first draft, because we just vomited everything from that short story into the first draft, to be honest.
Did this project originate with you, or were you brought in? Whose baby was it?
Wernick: Condé Nast came to us. The short story was in The New Yorker about 10 years ago, right before it was in George’s compilation Tenth of December.
Reese: We wrote it on spec. We were not paid to write the screenplay. We packaged ourselves onto it to direct it for a while. That didn’t come together for various reasons — we had to go do Deadpool. And so Joe Kosinski ended up coming on. We created this package and sold it to Netflix. They bought it, they had faith in it. And so we finally got paid many years later. I mean, it’s been a 10-year process, but there have been a few times in our career where we love something so much that we’re like, Look, we don’t care if we get 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 assuming you weren’t thinking of these actors when you wrote it. Was anything else along the way retooled specifically for them?
Wernick: When they were officially cast, we had conversations with them about character and backstory and motivation, and just general style of acting and what they bring to it. It’s a brilliant group of actors who have come together to bring this to life. [Steve’s] backstory and why he is the way he is, that was an important thing we sat with Chris and kicked around for a very long time. Each actor brings such a unique perspective to the role, so it allows us to dig in a little bit deeper. They ask the tough questions about why and how and how come. It always makes the script better, always.
The place where this seems most like it’s coming specifically from the writers of Deadpool and Zombieland is in the darker, more flippantly callous things Chris Hemsworth’s character says, his little barbs at people. Did you talk about whether to lean harder on humor, or dial it back?
Wernick: One particular one was interesting: “She’s not that good,” or what was it?
Reese: That did come from the short story. “She’s not the best.”
Wernick: There was a whole debate about that particular line, whether it was too flippant, too silly in such a dark moment. And Chris really fought for it. He felt it exposed a really fucked-up side of Abnesti that he wanted to explore. You’re not dealing with a normal person who experiences normal emotions. That was a debate we kicked around for a little bit, whether it was inappropriate. But we always bring an element of darkness and humor and undercutting what the audience might expect, just 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 this is a guy who’s not used to facing a lot of consequences for the things that come out of his mouth. He can kind of get away with saying anything, and he has a twisted worldview. Those inappropriate characters can be the most fun. Deadpool is very inappropriate all over the place, and people love the transgressive nature of that. He’s someone who’s pushing the boundaries of saying things where you think, I wouldn’t have said that in that moment. It can be funny, it can make you be taken aback a little bit. So we enjoy writing characters like that, for sure.
Wernick: I think people think a lot of what our characters say, but they’re afraid to say it. By us saying it, it just makes it a little bit juicier for the audience to think Oh man, yeah, I would be thinking that, but I wouldn’t have the stones to say it.
Spiderhead is streaming on Netflix now.