Hitting theaters today, I Am Number Four brings to the big screen last year’s teen-oriented science fiction novel. Behind the camera is director D.J. Caruso (Eagle Eye, Disturbia), working from a script by “Smallville” creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar as well as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” writer (and later showrunner) Marti Noxon.
Noxon, whose other credits include co-creating “Point Pleasant” and scripting duties for a wide range of shows (“Grey’s Anatomy” and “Mad Men” among them), will also have her work on the big screen later this year, writing Craig Gillespie’s Fright Night remake.
Noxon spoke exclusively with ComingSoon.net about her writing career, both big 2011 projects and where she hopes to be headed in the future, including to directing her own, smaller-scale original screenplay.
CS: Where did “I Am Number Four” start for you?
Marti Noxon: It was a project that had been in the works for a little while at DreamWorks for many drafts before me. Millar and Gough did the first adaptation and then the first of many drafts. Then, as they were getting closer to production, they brought me on. I had just done “Fright Night” for DreamWorks. They said, “Hey, you want to do a couple of weeks on this?” and then it ended up being a lot more than a couple weeks.
CS: Is it a big difference for you working with a film as opposed to a tv series?
Noxon: Oh my gosh, yes. Film versus TV is interesting because the projects that I’ve done with DreamWorks have been a bit more like doing TV because there’s a fairly good piece to those projects and they’ve actually gotten made. Generally, the experience for me in writing movies is putting down words and then throwing them into a void from which they would never return. Some other writer would go onto the project and nothing that I had written had actually been produced aside from one movie that I’d rather forget. I’ve been so fortunate this past year that the stuff I’ve been doing has been a little like TV at its best. You’re writing fast and things are happening. It’s getting shot and it’s actually going to be on the screen. But yeah, there’s a lot of differences. I assumed that, because I had gotten to know writing for television, that I could easily make the transfer over to film and that I’d also know how to write film without too much difficulty. But it’s a different set of muscles. It took me a long time, I think, to develop the tools to write a film that’s working.
CS: “I Am Number Four” is also a film that, while it’s based on a book, the book was released well into production.
Noxon: Oh, absolutely.
CS: Was there a chance for you to affect the outcome of the book at all?
Noxon: No, but Millar and Gough actually talked to James Frey a lot and parts of the book did change because of stuff they pitched to him. DreamWorks also has some thoughts, so it was an unusual symbiotic relationship. But that’s not typical.
CS: James Frey?! Surely you mean Pittacus Lore.
Noxon: (laughs) Pittacus Lore! Exactly. I think it’s pretty well known now that he and Jobie [Hughes] were the writers.
CS: This is something that is being set up for a franchise, both in the books and the films. Do you have to have an awareness of where things are ultimately going as to what elements wind up staying? It seems like something innocuous may wind up playing a major element later.
Noxon: Yeah, the film is different from the book in some ways. It makes some departures from the book. But in all the important ways that might effect the sequel, we had to not blow anything up. We couldn’t kill anybody that was going to appear in a later book. At one point, we changed the ending a little bit and were asked to put a couple elements back in because they play so heavily in the next book. We definitely had to tow the line a little bit.
CS: One of the elements from the book that felt like it was downplayed in the film was the idea that these nine Loriens can only be killed in their numerical order.
Noxon: By the time that I read the draft that I worked from the most, that had already been really downplayed. Because I was the last writer on and they moving into production, I didn’t have time to read the whole book. I read parts of the book, obviously. I didn’t even fully understand why that was a rule. It was explained to me. The choice was made mostly because it contributed to the exposition and necessitated showing more of Lorien and, since none of the action in the movie takes place on Lorien, it would have sort of stopped the movie every time we tried to explain it. If there is another movie, we will probably get more in to the idea of the charms and the way that things work on Lorien. For the purposes of this movie, it tended to confuse. We had it in and out and in and in and out a few times.
CS: Tell me a little about what’s involved in a late stage rewrite. Do they specifically tell you, “make it funnier!” or “add more action!” or is it more of a, “Give us your take as to what should change and we’ll work from there”?
Noxon: It tends to be pretty surgical. At the stage that I came in, they were pretty cognitive of what they wanted. They wanted a fresh read and someone to say what they thought was working. There was a lot of it that, structurally, was really, really sound. The character stuff was mostly there. I think it had just been through so many hands at that point that it really had to go back to some of the earlier drafts. For the audience that we were going through, essentially a teen audience, it was a little dry and needed to play more like a thriller. But it didn’t have the kind of girl appeal in some places. They wanted to be able to hit both boys and girls, so there was that element of teen girl characters that I had done before. And some of it, again, was about figuring out what information was essential and what was sort of dragging the movie down.
CS: Can you talk about writing these characters through the lens of what you’ve done before? Teresa Palmer’s character, Six, especially, feels like she could have easily been a “Buffy” character.
Noxon: Right, definitely! There were similarities, but stylistically, things were very different. Buffy lives in a much more stylized, overtly comic world. I think this movie aims to feel like it’s more lived-in. More like it’s happening in the real world. There’s not a mayor who turns into a giant snake. But certainly there’s some other parallels. You’re always trying to play up the angle of epic love because the John/Sarah relationship is really key to the first book. Then it continues to be a big part of the story. So that was really drawing on the old Buffy/Angel stuff. They were both supernatural. Sarah doesn’t
have powers… yet!
CS: I.ve heard D.J. Caruso mention that, while it’s not really a comic book world, the film does play in many ways as a superhero origin story.
Noxon: Right. And that’s just sort of a classic tale. You dress them up a lot of different ways, but I think there’s just a great appetite for a character who feels grounded and that you can relate to who finds out that he or she is extraordinary. That’s just something that is every teenager’s fantasy. That there’s something inside that’s special and unique and can’t be contained.
CS: Is it more freeing for you to come into something with the setup already established, or do you enjoy putting these pieces in motion?
Noxon: Well, it has an ending that promises that something more is going to happen. But even from the beginning, you certainly are given the opportunity to be inventive. I think it’s always fun when you have stuff that you’re working with that you know you have to work with or around. You just end up having to be more creative because the whole goal is to make everything feel as fresh as possible. It’s always great to have good source material. It’s such a gift.
CS: What’s a dream project for you?
Noxon: It’s such a cliché, but I would love to work on a musical. There’s something that I can’t really talk about because we aren’t sure if we have the rights yet, but there’s a film that I really want to adapt into a stage musical. So that’s a good dream. I would love to do that. Someday, too, I’d really like to direct a film. I have a script that I wrote that is there for me to direct, but it’s really hard to get the money for a little movie about people without powers.
CS: Is there music in that one?
Noxon: Not in that one, no.
CS: It does feel like people are very open to the idea of musicals these days.
Noxon: Yeah, theyre having a little renaissance. Thank you, “Glee,” for bringing it to television because every network is developing one, too.
CS: Well, “Glee,” yes, but it’s a big thanks to “Buffy” as well.
Noxon: Well, I know that that the thing that Joss [Whedon] aimed for was that, while a lot of shows do a musical episode, I don’t think many of them did a show where the music really moved the story forward and where it was actually constructed as a musical, not “and now the actions over and people sing your praises.”
CS: Can you talk a little about what your role has been with “Fright Night”?
Noxon: Yeah, they came to me a while ago about a year ago now saying they wanted to do a remake of the original film. It was funny because I remember the original so fondly. Although I had not been keen to do another vampire project, I said, “That is interesting to me!” I think part of the reason I found it so interesting was because I remember really liking the characters. I remember loving Charlie and Evil Ed. The original movie certainly holds up, though it does have some campiness to it which, honestly, I love. And a lot of boobs! A lot of boobs! One of my first questions was, “Are we going to get boobs?!” and they said, “No, we’re not.” But I saw an opportunity to go some places that were not in the original movie. I went in and pitched my take on it and they were jazzed about it. I had a really rare and amazing experience and stayed on the project from beginning to end. They really responded to the script and they cast this amazing cast and brought in a wonderful director. So far, it’s really been one of the most positive experiences Ive had.
CS: Do you think the film world is something that you’re actively trying to move towards as opposed to tv?
Noxon: It suits my lifestyle better right now. I’m a single mom with two kids, so it’s really great to not be in an office 80 hours a week. TV is really exciting because it happens fast. You get to see things actually be produced and you actually have a lot more control as a writer in television over the finished project. At the same time, though, my dream was always to see a movie with my name on it. So if I get to keep doing it with such great people and working on such interesting projects, I would gladly stay on the film side.
CS: We saw the end of Buffy’s comic book season eight recently. Any chance of coming on board for season nine?
Noxon: You know, it’s funny. I’ve not really been involved in any of that. But never say never!
I Am Number Four is in regular theaters and IMAX now.