It's a strange thing being in the presence of royalty.
They may not be related to our fair Queen (the one in Buckingham Palace, not Graham Norton) and they may not have been invited to THAT wedding, but by scripting two of this year's biggest and most successful comic book adaptations, Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz have emerged as the 2011 Kings of comic-based blockbusters.
Having recieved international acclaim for their writing on TV shows The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Fringe, it's perhaps unsurprising that the pair were sought to script Thor – in which the titular warrior is cast from the fantastic realm of Asgard and sent to live amongst humans on Earth – and X-Men: First Class, a prequel to the much-loved Bryan Singer films that shows how Charles Xavier and Erik Leshner (AKA Magneto) became the frienemies we know and love.
But as I sit down with the pair at this year's London MCM Expo, it becomes obvious that while the X-Men films already have a dedicated and loyal fanbase, bringing Thor to the big screen in a serious – and believable – way was a far more challenging prospect.
“There were many, many different ways to do a bad Thor and very few ways of making a good Thor movie but a couple of things helped'", laughs Ashley. "Number one is that we're both fanboys and I am particularly a Thor fanboy. I cut my teeth on the original stories and I can talk to you chapter and verse about that stuff, so what helps with that is you come into the process with opinions on the material".
“Having had an actual emotional experience with the material and having an understanding of it helps immensely. Zack kind of came into it with a very deep knowledge of Norse mythology and so there's a bit of that in the final film".
“The second thing is we said from day one, and I think this very much carries through in the film, that it has to be as much Loki's story as Thor's story. It has to be a story about these two boys who love each other very much and what they want is for their father to recognise them for who they are and by the end of this story they both realise that they're very different people from who they ever imagined they were. And so we set it up as that emotional dynamic between the two of them where they were both equally important. You could have called this film Thor and Loki. Or you could've just called it Loki in some versions of it.”
“We like to say that in some versions of it, if you interviewed Loki, he would tell you that he was the hero of that movie", agrees Zack. "it's a family drama and it's a family drama like any other. Strip away all those fantastical elements and it could be a Mike Lee movie.”
With family themes and emotional resonance providing the heart of Thor's story, it would have been easy for the film to drown beneath a tide of melodrama. And let's face it, if two hours of moping emo angst is your thing, the latest Twilight will be with us soon.
Thankfully, the writers kept the simmering man love down to three very important scenes.
“The first scene is where Thor confronts Odin and says, 'you've lost it, you've just completely lost it, you're not fit to be King any more, make me King and I'll take care of the problem that you left behind'", explains Ashley. "The second difficult scene is where Loki says to his father Odin, 'who am I?' and Odin replies, 'you're my son'.'"
“Then the third difficult scene is the climactic scene with Thor and Loki, where these two boys have it out."
“That's what the movie is pinned on – if you just did those scenes, you would understand what the movie is emotionally.”
Compared to such big hitters as Spider Man and Iron Man, Thor is a relatively unknown fish among Marvel's ocean of attention-hungry sharks. And those sharks don't come much bigger than X-Men. But while writing for a less known hero had its own set of challenges, scripting the latest X-Men sensation was much more stressful.
“The X-Men is pretty much the crown jewel of Marvel's superhero franchise, so they knew they wanted an X-Men film to come out for early summer 2011 and it needed a script that worked" sighs Ashley. "That intense time of writing feels like it was just yesterday, although it felt at the time like it would never end because it was 20 hours a day each for the time that we were working and another 20 hours a day each when we took the notes from Fox, from Lauren Schuller Donner, and said OK, let's go back into this thing, so we just did it. I think we were literally crazy by the time it was done.”
Hectic as their schedule was, the pair's time in television had already helped prepare them for the task.
“In TV, there are times when you have to turn around a complete 50 or 60 page rewrite overnight and you know what? What you find is that the overall quality of that isn't much different than if you took two or three weeks because you're using the same muscles and you're taking the same decision making process.”
And did they ever suffer from writer's block?
“There's no such thing", Ashley laughs. “Writers like to tell themselves they have writers' block, but you know what? You don't have writers' block, you're just afraid to make a decision. That's all writing is, you make a decision, you go with it and you don't look back.”
Hesitation has never been a problem for Ashley and Zach. And while their skill for bringing fantasical worlds to life has so far seen them taking on spin-offs or adaptations of other people's work, such as The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Fringe, getting to build and explore the unseen parts of worlds they themselves became fans of is incredibly rewarding.
“We came to Hollywood to write our own stuff and one of the reasons why we've gotten these movies and even these TV shows is because people have seen our scripts and they see us as world builders", enthuses Zach. “And so we're well matched to these worlds that in some ways are already built but because they're these huge universes with all of these unexplored corners to them, we feel that there are still so many things to say about them".
“With the Terminator franchise there's so much that's hinted at and never seen of that universe, so with The Sarah Connor Chronicles it was so much fun filling it in and imagining parts of it ourselves.”
“For us it always comes back to the characters", explains Ashley. “We love big worlds but we also love finding these people who are in the middle of it, whether it's the whole Thor and Loki story or Erik Leshner and Charles Xavier who are young men becoming very important men".
But with so many adaptations and takes on existing material to their name, are the pair now looking to script their own, unrestricted material?
“It's very much on our radar to do that and that's the next step, but by that same token, we've been honoured to do the things we've been working on”, admits Ashley.
And what are they up to next?
“We're working on a movie with Payton Reed. We can't really talk about the specifics of it but there's a project that he's very excited about that we've been working with him on for the past two months or so. It's an adventure movie with genre elements that takes place in the '50s. That's all we can say.”
If it's a well realised, believable and fascinating world he wants then Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz are the ones to watch.
No wonder he's excited.
X-Men: First Class and Thor are showing now at a cinema near you.