Werewolf By Night’s Screenwriter on the Jack/Elsa Dynamic & Man-Thing

Following its Disney+ premiere, Werewolf By Night is being hailed as one of Marvel Studios’ best films, garnering high praise and critical acclaim among critics and fans alike who are thrilled with its one-of-a-kind styling and refreshing venture into black-and-white horror. Designed as an “event film” which clocks in at under an hour, Werewolf By Night stars Gael García Bernal as the titular werewolf, Jack Russell, who forges an unexpected team-up with Elsa Bloodstone (Laura Donnelly) over the course of one chaotic evening.


Werewolf By Night marks esteemed composer Michael Giacchino‘s directorial debut, which sees him bring to life Heather Quinn‘s spectacular screenplay. Quinn is no stranger to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, having worked on the Disney+ Hawkeye, and it’s clear that she knows how to craft stories that fans want to fall in love with.

COLLIDER VIDEO OF THE DAY

In this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, Quinn spoke about her collaboration with Michael Giacchino, how he kept her looped into aspects of the project that he didn’t necessarily need to, how Gael García Bernal was their first pick for Jack Russell, how Man-Thing was brought into the MCU, the connection between Jack and Elsa Bloodstone, and what it is like being one of only a handful of women writing for Marvel right now.

COLLIDER: First of all, I just have to say congratulations on Werewolf By Night.

HEATHER QUINN: Thank you.

I have long said that I am a werewolf girlie. I love werewolves, so it was such a joy to watch.

QUINN: Oh good. Thank you so much. I’m glad you liked it.

I want to go back to when you got the call that you were going to write the script for Werewolf By Night. I know you worked on Hawkeye. Was that around the time when you found out? Was it a pitch? How did it come to be?

QUINN: Yeah, actually I was on set, so I was the only writer on set for all of Hawkeye principal, so I was there for 90 days or something. So I was on set when they asked me to pitch which was thrilling and also a little chaotic because, literally, I ran out of the toy store scenes into someone’s trailer to just pitch quickly over Zoom and then ran back in.

So yeah, I was on Hawkeye, and then I remember exactly where I was when Brad Winderbaum called me and told me that I got it. We were shooting one of the epic ice rink scenes, and I was walking out. It was night shoots, it was just endless night shoots. So time is weird. And I was walking out around the side of the set to go grab something, and he called and was like, “Hey, want to do this?” I was like, “Yeah.” I was so excited. Oh, and also I had to be quiet because I was walking off set, and so I was quietly squealing too, like whisper scream. Yeah. So I got it all around the same time, and then I got back from Hawkeye and basically caught my breath for a day and then jumped in with Michael [Giacchino] right away. So it was a whirlwind but a super dream scenario for sure.

So when you initially got that call, and you knew that you were going to be doing Werewolf By Night, did you know how long it was going to be? Because I was kind of curious to know if the event film aspect of this, the length of it, was maybe something because COVID was happening. How did that come to be?

QUINN: That was always the idea for it, that it was just going to be a one-hour holiday special. We knew it would come out around Halloween so that was always the parameter that we were working with. When we were thinking of story, it was always within that. So I’m not sure exactly. Those conversations were probably earlier between Kevin [Feige] and Michael. I’m not sure exactly kind of why it was always seen as that, but that was already there through the pitch process and everything else.

With your writing process, are you the kind of person that’s like, “I need to go in a cabin and hole myself up and away from everyone when I’m writing,” or are you somebody that writes at Starbucks? What is your process like? What is it like when you sat down to write Werewolf By Night?

QUINN: I love that question because I’m thinking there are so many answers and there’s a few jokes. I mean one thing is you can’t write Marvel stuff at Starbucks because people, the fans … You really can’t write in public because of the level of secrecy around it. So I don’t go work at coffee shops when I’m writing Marvel stuff. Sometimes I do if I’m writing my own. Fun fact.

The other thing is I do like space when I’m writing at times. The process at Marvel is extremely collaborative, and this one was definitely so because Michael and I were breaking the story from the very start together. So there was really not any period where it was just kind of me on my own. It was more kind of me going away for maybe a day or two days and coming back and going back and forth. But he was very involved with us in creating the story.

That said, I do think with film in general, certainly with Marvel, the process of … I think part of what you’re asking about is kind of the insular writing space and contemplative state of finding story and character and emotion and then what you’re doing with other people. And I think it’s definitely a balance because people are involved the entire time, more like a television kind of format I would say. But at the same time, when I’m wrestling with things, I definitely go in and do a lot of that kind of quietly, especially when you’re trying to find really specific emotions or really specific lines of those emotions. To state what maybe is the obvious, to have 53 minutes to do everything we did, you have to be extremely efficient. So the process is partly doing too much and then figuring out what you can take away and distilling and distilling and distilling. So definitely when I would be thinking or trying to fix things or trying to re-pitch ideas, I’d kind of go do that and then come back to them and say, “Okay, what about this? What about this?”

That leads so perfectly to my next question. I’ve done some screenwriting. I know that the hardest part is killing your darlings. Was there anything in the early versions that you’re like, “I don’t want to let go of this,” but in the end it was like, “Okay, this actually definitely helps bring the story together,” and get that perfect ending that we got with the script.

QUINN: Oh, thanks. I love the last scene so much. It’s my favorite. Yeah. I think through Hawkeye and this, I would say that I’m pretty good at killing darlings. I feel like I walk around with a huge selection of weapons to kill the darlings. I’m trying to think if there’s something specific that I really liked. What’s interesting is that there’s a lot of things that… I can’t think of a moment that I’m really sad isn’t in there now. There’s a lot of things that we cut, or [that] fell out of earlier drafts, but the essence or emotion is still there. Michael and I would have lots of conversations through music obviously because he’s a brilliant composer, so there was this intro scene of Jack at one point where there was this really beautiful Mexican guitar playing over him arriving to this event, and that fell out and that scene fell out. But then in the final credits, what comes on but this beautiful kind of Mexican guitar. So there’s these essence things that are still there and … Yeah, God, I’m trying to think of if there’s anything there.

I know there’s probably only so much you can say.

QUINN: No, I’m just trying to think honestly. But the other thing is one of the good lessons about getting good. This format is so collaborative, and we made this very quickly. We broke the story, wrote it, shot it, and it came out in less than 18 months which is extremely fast. So you’re collaborating so much that you kind of have to leave space for everyone else to do their jobs because you’re not writing a book. You know what I mean?

It’s not just mine. It’s definitely Michael’s. It’s going to be the editors. Of course, you want it to be the actors. So I think I learned a lot about it, but I kind of want to continue to learn more, that you have to keep a loose grip on certain things so that the story really becomes as synergistic as possible, which is what you want. You want everyone to feel like … Even when you’re alone writing at 5:00 a.m. in your house in a sweatshirt, it’s never just yours in film and television. So I try to write with that mentality of killing something and maybe using it in something else down the road.

You talk about how collaborative the process is, and I can’t remember how early on Gael was signed on to be Jack, but once he was cast, did that change anything with how you were writing Jack? Did you start writing focus towards him, or how did that evolve?

QUINN: Gael is … I love his performance so much, and he’s such a special person and performer. We were always writing for him in mind before we knew we had him, because Michael was transfixed on the idea. We kept joking that if he says no, we don’t have a movie, because that was just who he wanted. It’s always who he had thought of. Gael did come on pretty early, but I would say the biggest changes with him were on set, working with both him and Laura Donnelly to make sure that things were in his voice as much as possible. [It’s] also kind of common [to work] with actors to make sure that those things feel true to them and to the way that they’re trying to embody the story. So there were a lot of things and point of views, or his point of view brought about a lot of really beautiful sweet moments in the dynamics of the relationship and in how he really approached the character, which I think is really sweet and maybe surprising and fresh.

A good moment that comes to mind is when we were shooting the moment where Man-Thing’s hand reaches out through the bush and pulls him in. It’s a jump moment and then there’s a pause, and he laughs, and he falls back and grabs his hand and kind of hugs it. When we shot that, behind the monitors we all just kind of swooned because we were like, “Oh, that’s like the love between these two.” And that’s just him being really in his character and knowing that and, to some degree, can’t even be on the page. But that was some of the things of collaborating with him to really bring out that kind of truth of who he was finding I think.

I’m a shipper at heart so Jack and Elsa, instantly I was like, “Oh, I like this dynamic between them a lot.” Several of us at Collider have been squealing about them. I was wondering how much of that, was that all in the script to have that dynamic in the cage, the sniffing, the hand touch later when he’s transformed? Or was that just Gael and Laura’s chemistry that just came to life on the day?

QUINN: No, a lot of that was in the script. I mean I think we knew. I’m a little surprised but pleasantly surprised that people are responding, that they’re saying that there’s romance or that the chemistry has charge to it. And that pleases me because I think we were playing with the various degrees of these two. Those were the two pieces that we knew we had from the start is like, okay, Jack Russell and Elsa Bloodstone are going to make an unlikely team-up, which also happens in the comic, so not terribly surprising there. So there’s varying degrees of, okay, but what does this feel like between them? We knew that we needed the tension of it being argumentative and judgmental and the ideas of they’re judging each other at the top for stereotypes of what they would assume about each other. He’s judging her. This is the family that you’re from, I assume you’re this way. And she’s not judging him from the offset for being a monster because she doesn’t know, but then later on kind of … But she does still come in with heavy judgments about them.

So we knew that the tension was going to be there. We knew we wanted friction, but then how far to go with that, especially in the time, was kind of an ongoing conversation. To believe that these two people would unite, you got to sell that. If these two people decide to just suddenly team up, and you don’t buy it, the audience is just going to be annoyed. They’re not going to be charmed by it. It’s going to be like they’re calling BS about that’s not real because these people’s goals have to feel real. So it was a balance and then the moment where she puts his hand on his cheek, that moment was really in the script and outlines from the very start. We knew we wanted to get there and that was in Michael’s mind from the very start.

Again, some of it was “How far do we go? Are there words spoken here? How much do you push?” I think that it continued to get more distilled when we were shooting for sure. I think Gael finding what state of mind he was in with that look of his eyes and Laura especially finding what her balance of, I guess, terror and care is there, which it was incredible watching her do those moments. We kept looking at each other and being like, “This is really special.”

I loved it. I honestly was like this is some of the best romantically charged but not quite there all-the-way moments that we’ve gotten in Marvel in a while. I was like, “Marvel, this is so perfect.”

QUINN: Thank you. That’s so kind.

And there’s so many fun monsters in the MonsterVerse of the Marvel Comics. What led to the decision for Ted to be the monster that Jack was trying to save?

QUINN: Oh, Ted.

Ted is so great.

QUINN: Love him, love him. I kept calling him my best friend on set and all the guys were like, “Okay, you can tone it down with that.” I was like, “He’s my best friend.” Let’s see. What led to that? I mean, to be honest, it was kind of a Marvel decision as far as you don’t always just get to tell Marvel who you want from their incredible encyclopedia of characters and then do whatever you want. It’s not exactly how it goes, but we knew. Yeah, I got it. It’s such a process of how he came in. Yeah, I guess it was it became a Marvel thing.

I actually can’t even totally remember. There was so much around that. But I think Marvel gave us the option of doing it, and as soon as we knew it was an option, we were thrilled. And then you kind of run with it to earn it. You know what I mean? If you get to be the person that introduces a character like Man-Thing to the MCU, you’re kind of earning that the story is good enough, that it warrants that. You know what I mean? I think one of the things that they do well is you’re not just throwing in cool characters just to shock or just to intrigue. It should feel emotional. You don’t just want to see … You want to care, you want to be attached, you want to be all of those things. But once we knew that we could, we were thrilled and excited.

The other thing is we loved the comic and there’s so much there, but I think, once we started to find this idea of this friendship between them and then the hunt going on around that, it gave a kind of automatic, cool secret friction. And then it also gave us more room to talk thematically about we’re not just introducing monsters to the MCU. Well, not completely, but we’re bringing in monsters to the MCU but also, at the same time, we’re kind of playing with the question of, yeah, but who are good and evil here? And really it’s the people in the room are the ones that are evil. Right?

So we’re playing with right away from the maybe assumptions or maybe kind of old black-and-white definitions of good and evil. So to have a friendship there at the heart of it that you care about automatically makes you not, I don’t know, it flips some of the definitions from the start which we kind of needed.

Were there any Jack Russell comics that became the backbone that you kept revisiting when you were working on the script?

QUINN: Yeah, definitely. I mean we read a lot of comics and thankfully Michael and I have a very similar sensibility with story. There was two that sort of haunted us, which was, oh goodness, what are they? The first one was Carnival of Fear. They’re both from around the same time. Carnival of Fear is basically about Jack getting captured by this kind of magic man who works at a circus and throwing him in a cage and transforming him in front of people, charging people money to watch him get transformed as part of a freak show. That was so haunting to us. It was written in the ’70s, but it felt so dark, and it felt very human in a lot of ways. It felt like let’s throw someone in a cage and exploit their shame to make money off of it and let you all watch. Like that, we were both … And it also felt modern in a haunting way, so we thought that there was a lot to play with there.

Especially, because when does Jack transform is of course going to be a central question to introducing a werewolf or a werewolf movie. So we liked the idea of how do you make the transformation emotional rather than about spectacle. Because so many movies have done it well before. And so yeah, we want it to look cool, but really what we want is you to feel something while it’s happening. And so that comic was good for that because it’s like you’re not thinking, “Oh, that looks so weird.” You’re thinking, “Whoa, these people are gross and this is dark.” So that was intriguing.

And the other one was The Danger Game, and that one’s about this really weird big game hunter named Joshua Kane, which is actually Kirk Thatcher’s character like loosely based on him or I guess inspired by him, but basically this guy’s gotten bored hunting all the biggest animals in the world, and so he brings Jack to this old movie lot and just wants to hunt him. And that, again, was just so weird and dark and haunting. I guess the emotion of those kinds of villains, someone that’s like, “I want to just turn you for spectacle’s sake and I want to turn you into a werewolf, so we can all watch what a freak you are,” that’s intriguing. Then also, “I want to turn you into a werewolf to hunt you because you’re a monster. You’re that far below me.” So that was also kind of one that we loved, and I think maybe helped us realize that we would bring in this idea of a hunt happening.

Those are very good comics.

QUINN: Yes, I agree.

For my last question, it was something I was thinking about when I was watching it. Marvel has been around for almost 15 years and there’s still such a small pool of women who have gotten to write the movie, the television shows. It’s starting to get better. There’s starting to be so much more. But when you were signed on to do this, did you feel any sort of pressure to be like, “I have to get this right?” Or was it just like, “I know I’m going to do this to my best ability?”

QUINN: Yeah, I mean there are few women. There are starting to be more. I’m good friends with Jac Schaeffer who’s an incredible help and mentor to me, what she’s doing in the same space. For the most part, I’m not thinking about that as far as a certain amount of pressure. I think the places that it more comes into play is, especially when I’m maybe the only female voice in a conversation that’s specifically about women, like about Elsa’s character, about how female characters are portrayed specifically, then I feel like, I don’t know, maybe this sounds dumb, but I feel a responsibility to voice that presence, partly because I feel protected. There’s more and more female characters in Marvel, but there’s still not that many. And so getting to introduce one is thrilling and such a privilege. And I love Laura Donnelly as a human and I love her performance so much.

But I think I’m definitely taking a certain amount of, what’s the word, ownership specifically over what it means to get to introduce a woman into this space and to feel okay voicing what might be a different perspective based on that. That said, I have had really good experiences working at Marvel, but especially with this one, Michael was so empowering of me from the very start and really wanted me in that space with him and wanted me to collaborate on decisions that frankly he didn’t have to ask my opinion on. I felt really honored that he did. But it was great to get to do that, because then I think, overall, you just end up having a better product with more voices in the room.

Definitely. And I feel like Werewolf By Night got that much better product. It was fantastic.

QUINN: Oh, thank you. Thank you.

Werewolf By Night is streaming now on Disney+. Check out our interview with the film’s director below:

https://collider.com/werewolf-by-night-heather-quinn-interview-jack-russell-elsa-bloodstone/ Werewolf By Night’s Screenwriter on the Jack/Elsa Dynamic & Man-Thing

Sarah Ridley

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