Ryan Reynolds may be one of the biggest stars in Hollywood at the moment, but at a special “Deadpool” screening and Q&A at Fox Studios in Los Angeles this weekend, moderator John Horn humorously introduced the former Sexiest Man Alive as “six-time Academy Award watcher Ryan Reynolds.” That’s a very on-brand description for an actor who, after being brought low by such mega-flops as 2011’s “Green Lantern” and 2013’s “R.I.P.D.,” met his career failures with an air of cheery self-deprecation that found its fullest expression (and greatest success) in his gleefully subversive performance as the so-called Merc with a Mouth.
If there’s one thing Reynolds doesn’t lack, it’s self-awareness of his place in the pop culture pantheon, a quality that in many ways made him the perfect performer to embody the most self-aware of all superheroes in “Deadpool,” which earlier this year blasted its way to over $750 million worldwide off a very underdog-style budget of just $58 million (which ranks as shoestring for the superhero genre). This is a pretty astonishing turnaround, particularly for an actor whose biggest career dud once made him a near-pariah among the fanboy demo that now embraces him.
It’s difficult to underestimate the sheer disaster that was “Green Lantern,” which – along with Reynolds’ largely-unsuccessful previous stab at Deadpool in 2009’s widely-loathed “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” – nearly ensured he would never again be afforded another leading role in a superhero vehicle. Given those flubs, it practically ranks as a miracle that Fox granted the Tim Miller-directed “Deadpool” even the relatively-measly amount they ponied up.
On the other hand, after “Deadpool” test footage leaked online in July 2014 (“total accident,” cracked Reynolds) to a massively-positive response from the fan community, greenlighting the film no doubt became a much easier decision for the studio. Still, they remained stingy on budget, cutting an additional $7 million shortly before filming commenced and forcing the production team to get creative. The gag in the film that sees Deadpool continually forgetting to bring his ammo bag, for example, was famously written into the script after the production fell short of the funds needed to purchase additional firepower.
“Necessity really is the mother of invention,” said Reynolds during the Q&A before a packed Sunday afternoon crowd. “That [budget limitation] created so many more opportunities for us, because we replaced intense action or large spectacle with character. And in doing that, we learned a pretty valuable lesson as well: that you can entertain an audience more so with character, which is much more memorable than humongous action set pieces.”
Joining Reynolds on stage was “Deadpool” co-screenwriter Paul Wernick, who along with partner Rhett Reese was forced to accommodate these financial limitations through multiple rewrites. In a stroke of imagination, the scribes wove those restrictions directly into the film’s fourth-wall-breaking narrative, frequently commenting on the film’s prohibitive budget through the mouth of their title character. One of the most successful gags in this vein is Deadpool’s quip (actually ad-libbed by Reynolds) that the relatively low budget precluded the appearance of more than two X-Men in the film, though Wernick maintains that isn’t an entirely accurate assertion.
“We didn’t want to populate his world with X-Men,” said the screenwriter, who along with Reese is also penning the sequel. “They’re two separate franchises, and I think had we done that, we would have been making a mistake. Even if we did have the budget.” Indeed, even with the presumably more generous budget they’ve been granted for the film’s sequel, Wernick asserts that audiences shouldn’t expect to see Storm, Cyclops and Professor X cycling through the narrative. “Going into the sequel, we are embracing this idea that it’s a small budget movie. And we’re not gonna populate it with the entire X-Men cast.”
As for the two X-Men who do appear in “Deadpool,” metal behemoth Colossus was chosen for fairly conventional narrative reasons (“he was the perfect foil,” Wernick stated), while the little-known Negasonic Teenage Warhead (or NTW) was picked for no other reason than that incredible moniker, itself taken from a song by the stoner-rock band Monster Magnet. “We were looking down the list of the 400 [‘X-Men’] characters that Fox owns, and NTW jumped out and we were like, ‘yes,’ ” said Wernick. ” ‘I don’t care what her powers are. She’s gonna be in the movie.’ ”
Owing to their superficial reasons for adding Negasonic Teenage Warhead to the “Deadpool” cast in the first place, Reese and Wernick elected to eschew essentially everything but the character’s name in the film script, even imbuing her with an entirely different set of powers (in the comics, she is psychic as opposed to literally explosive). For that, Fox was forced to get the okay from Marvel Studios, initiating a superhero swap between the studios whose results will next be seen in James Gunn‘s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2.” “Kurt Russell [‘s Ego the Living Planet] in the new ‘Guardians’ movie was the character that Fox swapped with Marvel to [change] Negasonic Teenage Warhead powers,” explained Wernick.
Despite script changes necessitated by factors including budget limitations, on-set improvisation (particularly by Reynolds and co-star T.J. Miller) and Fox’s own apprehensions over content, by Reynolds’ estimation the shooting script remained remarkably similar to the screenwriters’ original 2009 draft, which even included many of the songs that ended up in the finished film (though Gwen Stefani‘s “Hollaback Girl” proved too expensive for the production and was eventually swapped out for Salt-N-Pepa‘s “Shoop”). Many of the changes that were implemented in fact came during the post-production process, when Reese and Wernick took full advantage of Deadpool’s masked visage to amp up the dialogue uttered by the witty, foul-mouthed character.
“Rhett and I say we worked harder from the day the movie wrapped until the day the movie locked than we did all the five or six years leading up to that because again, he is in a mask,” said Wernick. “It’s a little bit like an animated movie. You can put words into his mouth at any point in the process.”
“There are paragraphs that you saw up there that were recorded on my iPhone,” Reynolds chimed in. “I’m not kidding.”
In many ways, the unconventional production process of “Deadpool” mirrored the devil-may-care attitude of its title character, and this extended to the studio’s no-holds-barred marketing campaign, which saw Reynolds suiting up again and again to appear in seemingly-endless advertisements and promos, including a meta commentary on his own Honest Trailer for Screen Junkies in the lead-up to the film’s DVD/Blu-ray release. For this reason, Reynolds half-jokingly claims that he did a good chunk of his work on the film after the actual film was in the can. “That was the thing that I think was particularly unusual about ‘Deadpool’ is that the marketing campaign was a direct extension of the film itself,” he said. “…I was in it I think more during the marketing than I was in the film.”
Of course, no “Deadpool” Q&A would be complete without mention of “Green Lantern,” whose monumental failure is (savvily) winked at more than once in the context of the film’s narrative. It’s a testament to Reynolds’ shrewd sense of his own celebrity that he actively participated in the roast of arguably his worst career choice, making a high-profile case that sometimes the best reaction to outside criticism is to take part in the mockery rather than fight against it. When Horn asked Reynolds late in the Q&A whether his experience on the 2011 dud taught him anything that proved valuable for “Deadpool,” the actor’s answer was direct but diplomatic.
“You just go back to script, script, script,” he said. “[On ‘Green Lantern’] we did not have a working script until we were halfway through shooting. That is a handicap, there’s nothing you can do about that. And that’s just the nature of this business oftentimes, it’s a poster and release date first, start shooting and we’ll figure out the rest as we go. And it’s just, it’s insane. It’s hard for everyone. Everyone that worked on that movie gave their last drop of blood.”
Nonetheless, Reynolds is too canny about his own self-deprecating brand to let himself off the hook for “Green Lantern,” not to mention the string of other less-than-surefooted career choices that mar his resume – an admittedly easier thing to do now that he’s racked up his most successful starring vehicle to date. Cracked the actor: “I have a 65×85 foot ‘what not to do’ wall at home.”