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Alex Convery on using the pandemic to rework an old script about Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and the birth of Marvel Comics.
By Danny Munso
Like the rest of us, Alex Convery was looking for something to occupy his time during the COVID-19 pandemic. With Hollywood on pause, the up-and-coming writer decided to dust off a spec of his that chronicled the history of Marvel Comics and two of the company’s most vital figures: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. And the solitude and passage of time was precisely what was needed, as Convery was able to rework a script he freely admits wasn’t working into a highly entertaining one. The tale plays out the complicated dynamic between Lee and Kirby and the still ongoing fight for who created what when it comes to Marvel’s now billion-dollar stable of superheroes including the Avengers, Fantastic Four and X-Men. Besides the alluring subject matter, the story of how Excelsior! came to land on the 2020 Black List is one any aspiring writer needs to hear.
Convery’s path to screenwriting got off to a slow start, as most do. After graduating from USC’s film school in 2014, he took a couple assistant jobs in the industry that paid little and left him with scant time to work on his own scripts. “Honestly, it was probably the roughest 16 months of my life,” he says. “There are a million working screenwriters who started as an assistant, but for me it just wasn’t working. I wasn’t writing much, and it felt like I was back at square one. I decided to step away and told myself I had to find a real 9-to-5 job that’s going to let me write. I had to trust that writing was the most important thing.” As luck would have it, two friends from USC had just started the online tutoring company TutorMe and offered Convery a job, where he remained for five years. “It was hard because I felt so removed from the industry even though I was still in L.A., but I was really productive and I was able to treat writing as the most important thing.”
Looking back, Convery recalls thinking what most screenwriters feel but won’t admit out loud. “I thought I had to find a way to get on the Black List,” he says of the revered annual compendium of worthy unproduced screenplays. “It’s a dangerous way to write, but I was desperate.” This was in 2016, when the Black List was disproportionally featuring a lot of biopics, so Convery came up with two real-life stories that meant a lot to him personally but he hadn’t seen them onscreen. One was a biopic of Stephen King via an adaptation of the author’s classic memoir On Writing. The other was the history of Marvel Comics. “I thought one of these will be a good enough sample that hopefully I could get reps off them and maybe even make the Black List. Both scripts just turned out okay. They were better loglines than they were scripts.” He didn’t get any bites from agents or managers either, often an outgrowth of making the list. Though Convery says “on paper, it was an outright failure,” it wasn’t all bad. The Marvel script — the Stan Lee–centric Excelsior! — ended up placing in the Austin Film Festival’s screenplay contest in 2017. He decided to travel to Austin and enjoy the festival, and while there he met a writer named Henry Jones and shared his frustration at his biopics’ lack of success. “He told me, ‘Dude, forget about the Black List. Just write a movie you want to see. If you were going to die next year, what story would you want to tell?’ Well, I’m a big sports fan and I always wanted to do a college football movie with a crime element tied into it.” So Convery spent the next year and a half penning a script titled Bag Man, and his time was rewarded. Not only did he sign with UTA and Grandview to represent him, but the script made the 2018 Black List. “I really for the first time [was starting to think], Man, this writing thing might not work. Bag Man was my last gasp, and I told myself I was just going to write this script for me. I sent it to every contact I had, and it just caught like wildfire and unlocked the door for me. You can try to write toward the industry, but that stuff is so fickle.”
UTA and Grandview read some of Convery’s past work, but when it came to Excelsior! because of the subject matter — namely, a company that is now owned by Disney — they were clear there was little to no chance it would ever get made. Besides, Convery wasn’t exactly thrilled with the finished product. “The script was just okay,” he reiterates. “It was more of an outright Stan Lee cradle-to-grave biopic. The writing wasn’t strong, and I just moved on to other projects.” Once the pandemic hit, the projects he was hired to work on, including a new version of Bag Man that will hopefully soon be moving toward production, ground to a halt. “Suddenly I went from having all these balls in the air to things going to pause for a little bit. I had a chat with my reps, and they said I had a month or so of free time to work on whatever I wanted. Something told me I should go back to Excelsior!” While his people made sure to note there still wasn’t much they could do in terms of selling the script because of the high-profile parties involved, he felt compelled to take another crack at the material. “It would just kill me inside if someone else did this story and I never tried.”
The first thing Convery realized after reading the script for the first time in over two years was that his take on the story was all wrong. While the initial version was focused on Stan Lee, he saw the more compelling story was the Lee-Kirby partnership and fallout. “Reading through that draft with fresh eyes helped me realize the movie was all wrong,” he says. “I had to look at it as a relationship movie to get to the heart of the conflict and drama. Stan is still the protagonist, I would say, but it very much now is a Stan-and-Jack movie. Once I had that driving conflict, the whole new structure snapped into place and the pages were just flowing.” The Lee-Kirby relationship has been debated among comic-book fans for decades and likely will continue for decades to come. While Lee became the face of Marvel Comics—and remained so long after he left the company, thanks to his beloved onscreen cameos in all of the Marvel movies—Kirby’s contributions went under-appreciated for years. And because he passed away in 1994, he never got to take the victory lap Lee reveled in with the rise of the MCU over the past 15 years. Though Lee was credited as the writer on their comics and Kirby the artist, the truth was more nebulous. Lee conceived what became known as the “Marvel method,” in which he would pen the vaguest outline of an issue and pass that to Kirby, who would then do all the art and lay out the pages as he saw fit, leaving open dialogue boxes where he thought they should go. From there, Lee—or sometimes another person entirely—would fill in the boxes. When it came to who created their iconic characters, the two sometimes would work together to craft them, but other times Kirby would do the majority of the work. The script also explores a similar dynamic between Lee and Spider-Man and Doctor Strange co-creator Steve Ditko.
The brilliance of Convery’s script is he doesn’t demonize any of the individuals. Everyone’s point of view gets equal time, and readers are left to make up their own minds about the results. “What’s interesting is that after Jack left, they both went on to do solo work, but there was something missing when they weren’t working together,” he says. “There’s something about the collaboration that was the magic of it. Did Stan screw those guys over in some aspects? I wouldn’t go that far, but he does get more credit than he’s due, for sure.” He cites a post by renowned author Michael Chabon after Lee’s death in 2018 to be sure Lee is still given the proper due for his own contributions. “Stan Lee’s creative and artistic contribution to the Marvel pantheon has been debated endlessly,” Chabon wrote, “but one only has to look at Jack Kirby’s solo work to see what Stan brought to the partnership: an unshakable humanism, a faith in our human capacity for altruism and self-sacrifice, and in the eventual triumph of the rational over the irrational, of love over hate, that was a perfect counterbalance to Kirby’s dark, hard-earned quasi-nihilism.”
“It is that myth I wanted to unpack,” Convery says of the partnership. “Both guys made mistakes. They were both just trying to pay the bills and keep working.” Though the two were longtime friends, the relationship eventually did become contentious, culminating in Convery’s script with a famous radio interview, when Kirby did a lengthy sit-down with radio hosts Warren Reece and Max Schmid to commemorate his 70th birthday in 1987. While in New York on Marvel business, Lee accidently came across the interview while driving. He decided to call in and surprise Kirby, to whom he hadn’t spoken in a while. While each started out very complimentary of the other, it soon devolved into a debate over who did what and made for an awkward listen—or in Convery’s case, read—to say the least. While penning the scene, Convery briefly considered not actually writing anything but rather simply linking to a YouTube clip that plays the whole interview so readers could hear it for themselves. He decided otherwise and Excelsior! captures the uncomfortable exchange perfectly, making it one of the script’s standout scenes. Convery likens the breakup of the legends to that of the Beatles, who not coincidentally make up most of the music cues in the screenplay. “We could have gotten another 30 years of Stan and Jack, so it’s a tragedy in a way. They got everything they wanted but also lost everything they had. It’s Shakespearean.”
Convery made a brilliant decision as well with his closing scene. In the initial Stan-centric version, he always wanted to end with Lee on set of 2002’s Spider-Man, the film that helped kickstart the superhero craze in the film industry. But that was when the final 40 pages of that script were all about Lee and his post-Marvel endeavors and failures. Some of that is explored in this new version — including Lee’s Spider-Man cameo — but the final scene is, fittingly, the moment Lee and Kirby meet for the first time. “I could not figure out what I wanted the ending to be for a long time,” he says. “I first thought maybe something about Jack’s death but that didn’t feel quite right. The first and last scene of a movie are so important. That’s what sits with you after you’re done reading. Then it hit me: their first meeting.” This solved another problem the writer was trying to tackle. Lee and Kirby met in 1941 after Lee was hired as an assistant editor, yet the events of the script start almost 20 years after, so the scene of them meeting never fit into the story chronologically. “Seeing how far Stan comes from that scene where he asks Jack if he can empty his ashtray—there’s something so poetic about it. It was one of those ideas that came in a flash, and once that was there, it had to be the ending. It almost couldn’t be anything else.”
One aspect of the script that didn’t change after Convery tackled his rewrite last year was the chances it had to be made, despite the new version of Excelsior! being named to the 2020 Black List. Yet his willingness to put the time in to write it says volumes about the drive he has as a storyteller, and it’s a good lesson for writers just trying to follow their passions. “I want to note that this is coming from a place of privilege, where I had sold some things so I had the time and money to spend six weeks doing free spec work,” Convery says. “But whatever sale I was going to get from a different script wouldn’t have been as gratifying as saying to myself that I did the Stan Lee–Jack Kirby movie. If I had opened the Black List and writer X did the Stan Lee–Jack Kirby story, I would feel a pain in my stomach. It really means so much to me. To me, it’s one of the great American stories.”
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