Nicole Perlman, the writer who first took on the Guardians, tells SFX about the movie's journey to the big screen

When did you get involved with Guardians Of The Galaxy ?
I got involved from the very beginning. I chose it off a list of properties that Marvel was thinking of developing. There was about a dozen properties on there and it was the only one that felt really science fictiony, so I was drawn to that and I chose it to develop it. I developed it exclusively for two years and then they brought me back in to do another draft on it in 2012. That was the last time I touched it, and then James Gunn came in to direct and rewrite.

It was a relatively obscure Marvel comic. What was the appeal?
I thought that the 2008 Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning reboot had a really interesting tone to it. It was very fun and sarcastic, and it just felt like a big potential space epic that also had a sense of humour to it. And I liked cosmic Marvel, I liked the idea of exploring this world and playing in this playground, and I think that of the properties I had a choice of, that was the most exciting to me.

Is space your big thing, then?
I love space. I come from a family that's gigantic space and science fiction fans and I wrote many of my earlier projects about space and NASA aviation and technology and I love those topics. But I wanted to get into a place with a larger scope to tell stories, so Marvel kind of seemed like a good idea for me – there are not a lot of women writing the kind of movie that I like to see, and I thought that by working with Marvel and being part of their writers' programme I would be able to convince people that this is something that shouldn't be unusual.

Can you tell us a bit about the Marvel writers' programme?
They don't do it anymore. I think they realised they had more properties than they knew what to do with, with all the sequels and everything, they don't make that many movies a year, maybe two, eventually three movies a year. One of the things that I like about Marvel is that it's not about quantity, it's about quality, so they need to keep relatively small, and that's why, I think, that the Marvel writer's programme isn't in existence any more. But it was only around for a few years, and I got in right at the beginning which was great. There were four or five of us, we each had our own office, and we each got to choose one project that we would get to work on primarily for one year while we were there. If they wanted us to come back they'd invite us to come back for a second year, so I did two years in the programme and then they brought me back as a freelancer to do another draft. So I originated the story, I originated all the relationships in the movie, and anything that wasn't in the comic. I had full rein to do whatever I wanted which was really cool.

How many of the Guardians Of The Galaxy comics did you go back and read?
I read all of them. I wanted to make sure I was using all the characters I wanted to use. I could have pulled any of the Guardians characters so I went back to the 1969 comics and in the first seven or eight weeks I was at Marvel, all I was doing was reading comic books, just so I was as caught up in it as possible, because their stories are long and they’re interwoven and they have a lot of different incarnations. I still ended up rebooting Peter Quill’s backstory to be something that was a little bit more relatable. That worked a bit better with the story we were trying to tell, with the character I wanted him to be, but for the most part it’s very well informed by what came before.

Did you have to think about the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe when you were writing?
I think partially because it was such a longshot when I was writing it, I was writing out of the love of the story and hoping it would get made. It didn't have a big following and it was very much its own unique thing in terms of the tone that they told me to make it a standalone movie, that it should be very much its own thing and I shouldn't worry about making it overlap with other movies being developed at the same time. I think that really works in a way because so much of it takes place off planet Earth, and yet it's grounded very much on Earth in the sense that Peter Quill [Star-Lord] brings a lot of his childhood relics, his favourite toys, his favourite music – he has a little bit of a tie to planet Earth, so it feels like it takes place in our world. It's not really interweaving with other Marvel properties just yet. I think it will be something that maybe happens later on, but not right now.

Was writing for characters as unconventional as a talking raccoon and a tree man part of the appeal?
I think it was. It just didn’t feel like anything else that had been done and Rocket wasn’t even originally part of the story, it was always a question of whether he would come across as cartoony or not. I really wanted him in there, [Marvel movie boss] Kevin Feige really wanted him in there so he allowed us to put him into the drafts about halfway through my time there, and it made it so much better. He’s a great character, he’s got a lot of heart and I actually think he’s my favourite character in the same project.

Groot must be a unique challenge with his limited "I am Groot" dialogue...
It’s kind of fun. It’s kind of like you write the subtext of what he’s saying when he says "I am Groot", and Rocket can understand him. Rocket and Groot’s relationship is so intense and in-depth that Rocket knows exactly what he’s saying, so he’s able to be a translator. But even if Rocket wasn’t there you’d probably be able to tell what Groot is trying to imply because the CGI is so fantastic and Vin Diesel’s voicing of him is very expressive.

With the movies and many of the choices Marvel have made they seem to be one of the most adventurous studios around – much like Pixar were in the ’00s. Is that your experience?
I think that Marvel has earned a lot of capital, not just literally, but with audiences in that they trust Marvel’s tastes, they trust the brand, so I think they’re willing to see a movie and keep an open mind about a movie that Marvel’s making because Marvel’s got a great record of taking risks – having Kenneth Branagh direct Thor was a pretty big risk and doing Iron Man in the first place was a pretty big risk, as he was actually not that well known a character outside comic book fans. They’ve been rewarded genuinely for taking risks. I think Guardians Of The Galaxy is a giant risk for them, but I think they will find it’s one that is rewarded as well. What’s great is it shows the studios that if you take smart risks and you really put a lot of thought into things that it can really pay off, and hopefully that will lead to some more boundary pushing fun action movies being made.

You're the first female scriptwriter on a Marvel movie. Do you think you had to work harder to get the job than male counterparts?
I didn’t have that problem at Marvel, but I had that problem a little bit before I came to Marvel. I think some of the impetus for me joining Marvel was that there’s a little bit of a preconceived notion that women don’t write these kinds of movies and it’s true, there’s not a lot, unfortunately. I think there’s a lot more women working in science fiction on the television side, which I think says that there’s a desire for women to do this, and also plenty of women who want to do this. It’s really all about opportunity, and part of this is the fact that science fiction films are very expensive – you can take more risks in television, the budget is less expensive and if something doesn’t work out it’s not going to ruin a studio. Unfortunately I think studios still see women directing science fiction as a bit of an unknown, and I don’t think they like unknowns when it comes to spending millions and millions and millions of dollars, and I hope that that changes. It should be as normal as anything else and I think we’re getting there, but it is interesting to be the first female writing a Marvel superhero movie.

What are you writing next?
I’ve got a few things I’m working on. I’ve got a project with Cirque du Soleil, an original fantasy. They have an original development fund there developing projects that are unique and cool, and my project’s Labyrinth -like, a bit like Alice In Wonderland , so they're just lending their visual aesthetic to that. And I’ve got an adaptation with DreamWorks of a book that comes out next year called T he Fire Sermon and that’s sort of a dark science fiction tale. Then I’ve got a TV pilot at Skydance with Neil Burger set to executive produce and adapt, and that’s an adaptation of a British book series called The Matthew Swift series and the first book is The Madness Of Angels. Those are the three big ones that I’m handling right now.
Richard Edwards

Guardians Of The Galaxy is in UK cinemas from today.

Richard is a freelancer journalist and editor, and was once a physicist. Rich is the former editor of SFX Magazine, but has since gone freelance, writing for websites and publications including GamesRadar+, SFX, Total Film, and more. He also co-hosts the podcast, Robby the Robot's Waiting, which is focused on sci-fi and fantasy.