Without a firmly-established brand or subject matter, creating a franchise can be a tough challenge. Marti Noxon, screenwriter of the new film I Am Number Four, was handed source material by author Pittacus Lore—before it was even published—and instructed to turn it into a blockbuster. Noxon, who previously worked on other mythology-heavy projects like the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series, recently spoke to Boxoffice via telephone, where she explained how she helped director D.J. Caruso (Disturbia) transform a promising but unproven book into what may turn out to be the next sci-fi sensation.
Just to get started, what was the distribution of labor on I Am Number Four? You're one of a couple of credited screenwriters, so when did you come in and how would you distinguish your contributions?
[Miles] Millar and [Alfred] Gough did the original adaptation of the book, and did all of the early drafts, and then there was another screenwriter in the middle, and then I came on prior to production. So I did the last however many drafts, and I never read the Millar and Gough versions, which is funny because we were all credited together, but until this last weekend we'd never even met. But that's Hollywood (laughs). But the draft I read was really structurally in great shape and had a lot of great stuff in it, but it had gotten a little dry and also very laden with exposition; there was a lot of explainey stuff going on, to the point where it wasn't moving the way they wanted it to. So I came in to do a bunch of character work, a lot of stuff on John and Henri and John and Sarah, and I ended up doing all the stuff up to production and through production.
How would you characterize the strengths that you have that they would bring you in to contribute?
I had just written Fright Night for Dreamworks, and had stayed with that script from beginning to end, and had just fortunately developed a really nice relationship with the guys there. And I feel like they felt like the strength of, and maybe to a degree, the surprise of what we did with Fright Night was that it was a very character-driven version of that story, and I think looking back at a lot of my television work, I've done a lot of sort of teen drama stuff, and there was an element of this that had that kind of high school world. It's a much more grounded world than Buffy, it's not as heightened and it's not as comedic - it's a much more sort of straightforward story. But if I have a reputation, it's that I'm eternally teenaged (laughs). I'm just really immature, and they count on that.
As screenwriter your job is to focus on what made the original novel successful and translate that to the screen. What sort of challenge was it to do that given the fact that you didn't know at the time whether or not it was going to be successful?
The book hadn't even been published, and in fact in the early drafts with Millar and Gough, they were in a conversation with the author and some of the elements of the book actually changed because of what the screenwriters suggested. So it was a really different process; this book was actually affected by the participation of the screenwriters, which is really cool - it was a unique opportunity. Though by the time I came in, the book was locked, and there were a couple of places where we thought about making some changes and we were told under no circumstances could we make certain kinds of changes. So I think that everybody recognized the strength of a classic coming of age story set against a genre background, regardless of how successful the book was going to be. We could all tell that there was a certain time-honored tale with John coming into his powers. And the romance aspect, I know they were looking for something that would appeal to women as well, and the book has a lot kind of great, robust action, which I think separates it from the original Twilight. It's very action-packed, so I think they were just looking to balance what they saw as two strong genres, a coming of age love triangle meets kind of "what if you were a teen alien?"
How hard is it to reduce all of these conventions and ideas to focus on the needs of the characters? You have a huge amount of mythology, all of these archetypes and formulas—does that come pretty naturally, the effort required to combine or condense all of that?
It's always a challenge; I mean, the training that I got on Buffy was so helpful, because for every story, we would literally write on the board "what does Buffy want?" We broke every story through the lens of that main character's desire or need or mission—and the same is true in movies, even moreso I think. It's technically a close-ended tale. But what should drive your structure, and to a degree, even how much mythology you need, is [finding out] what's that main character's throughline? So that certainly is my instinct and how I tend to break movies is it all comes from that character. And then you just really have to do that balancing act of how much is too much mythology. Audiences are pretty sophisticated and I tend to err on the side of mystery; I'd rather have things where I don't want people to be lost, but I want to have people hungering a bit more rather than if they've just been bludgeoned with some dude in a tunic telling them the whole story. In an exposition-laden screenplay, you end up cutting a lot of that anyway, and we actually did that kind of pre-emptively; we cut a lot of that out of the movie, and then we would sit back and see what we absolutely needed for people to be grounded and know what was going on.
Do you think it's the responsibility of the actor to breathe life into that sort of dialogue? Because in I Am Number Four, Timothy Olyphant shoulders a lot of that responsibility, but it never seems excessive.
At some point, somebody has to bear the expositional load (laughs). In a genre story, especially when it's one without familiar rules, somebody has to be the one; and hopefully you find an emotional reason for the explanation to come out, as opposed to having it just be a tutorial of some kind. And that's what we tried to do with Henri - the reasons that he tells John things at certain times is because emotionally he's forced to or he has to. But yeah, you absolutely need your actor to sell it, and he did a really good job, I think.
How much did you have the opportunity to work with D.J. in terms of conceiving the set pieces? Or as a screenwriter, how to do make space and then dramatic stakes for action scenes?
The big, giant set piece at the end evolved and went through many different hands. Millar and Gough were the ones who figured out that it should be set at the school because it wasn't originally. I did many passes on the character stuff throughout there, and in terms of the specific beats of the action, D.J. had lots of ideas—he brought a ton to that. So we were trading back and forth, what kind of character stuff is going on there, what kind of action stuff. In Fright Night, I wrote out the actual sequences meticulously—every beat, almost as if it was storyboarded, and a couple of those sequences, Craig Gillespie did an amazing job and brought stuff to it, of course, and amped them up and came up with great new elements. But those were meticulously written and appear much as they do in the script. In this case, there was stuff that was written, and then there was stuff that they worked up with their stunt guys and their storyboard artists and just went bananas. So it's different in every case.
Is there a core element in this story that even before the book was published had that quality that audiences would connect with, or which attracted everyone to this in the first place?
I think it's that universal young adult dilemma of both wanting to be seen and be normal. To both be exceptional and be like everybody else. You are I think so torn at that age between wanting to fit in but know what about you is extraordinary and what kind of person you're going to be, I think there's always that tension. That's also really shown in the character of Sarah, who has kind of rejected being popular because of a feeling inside of her that she wants to be different and she wants to be unique. She has this way of seeing that isn't like the other kids, and yet she's really paying a price for that. So I think thematically it's just a really resonant kind of story; we're all kind of constantly struggling with, "do you want to be a freak or do you want to go to the Prom?" Ultimately we end up firmly on the side of the freaks, and also as with Buffy, I think everybody feels like maybe inside there's a superhero lurking—something fantastic that you can do or be - and that's wish fulfillment.
Because there are multiple books, do you pour everything into one film with the presumption that there won't be another one, or is it important to introduce ideas in a first installment that theoretically could be used in future films?
I think we walked that line. There clearly in this film some stuff that was not explained, and there were elements of the original book that we didn't use, like there are some charms or magic in the Lorian world that affects us, and we basically excised that idea for the most part out of the movie. But you want it to feel fully satisfying—you want it to feel like a full meal and you didn't get gypped - but at the same time it's clear at the end of the movie that should it be a success, you'll get more. Because, yeah, don't you want more Number Six? Yeah! I think we obviously left the door wide open, but we obviously want people to feel like they've gotten their money's worth.