In the Marvel Universe, the Hulk is arguably the strongest one there is but that strength hardly translated into big box office revenues. A 2003 comic book flick based on the Green Goliath collected a hefty $62.1 million opening weekend before tumbling an astounding 70 per cent in its sophomore frame. Director Ang Lee’s vision never seemed to connect with moviegoers so now five years later, The Transporter’s Louis Leterrier is taking over the reigns with June’s The Incredible Hulk. As it turns out, this is a perfect project for Leterrier who has a longstanding fondness the character dating back to his childhood.
"I was a comic book fan and knew of the Hulk," recalled Leterrier, a native of France. "In France, you had the Marvel comic called Strange Magazine so I remember reading Hulk but they weren’t widely distributed. I grew up reading Tin Tin and all these Belgian comics but it was not so much the comic book I feel in love with. My first Hulk experience was the [American] TV show because I grew up in the 70’s, so I was 6-years-old or so which was the prime age to love these superheroes, and the Hulk TV show was the biggest one in France. I absolutely adored it."
Ironically, Leterrier originally had his sights set on a certain armor clad Avenger.
"I came in to see Marvel because I really love Iron Man with all the gadgets and he’s an anti hero," explained Leterrier. "I loved Hulk even more than Iron Man but I thought they would never do it again. When I came to see them and wanted Iron Man, they told me they already had a director which was too bad. I was walking out the door when they said ‘Well, what about the Hulk?’ I told them I wasn’t the right guy because I thought they wanted to do a sequel but they wanted to reboot it.
"I didn’t give my answer right away because I respected Ang Lee’s movie and the amount of cinema that is in it. The split screen, the comic book panels within the film, the drama, and where Ang puts his camera are tremendous, but it is not my cinema and something I couldn’t emulate. I thought I would be the wrong choice for a director to pick up Ang’s style which I told them. They were like ‘No, no, no! We want to start over with a new direction!’"
In reality, the Hulk movie franchise has underwent a complete makeover. This time around, The Incredible Hulk finds a tormented Bruce Banner [Edward Norton] on the run and desperately seeking a cure for the monster residing within. Unfortunately, in hot pursuit are General Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross [William Hurt] and Emil Blonsky [Tim Roth], a bitter soldier who eventually changes into the rampaging Abomination. Although the gamma radiated villain makes his film debut in this installment, Leterrier’s physical interpretation of the Hulk clashed with Lee’s version.
"I was looking for a more uber realistic feel," notes Leterrier. "As you see in the trailer, we go from Edward Norton all the way up to the Hulk and you see his body transforming. It was important that it was realistic. Ang’s creature looked interesting but he had a little bit too much fat, the proportions were a little off, and I was trying to get the perfect man.
"There is a great cover to one of the comic books, I think Dale Keown drew it, but it is Banner in the center of this thing with arms and legs stretched with the Hulk behind him bursting out of the mold. That is what I showed the designers; that is what I wanted. The Hulk is beyond perfect so there is zero grams of fat, all chiseled, and his muscle and strength defines this creature so he’s like a tank. Sometimes I would say ‘I want bodybuilders who want to get buff to show this to their trainers. I want the Hulk to be a bodybuilder’s wet dream.’"
Obviously, Leterrier has some experience with visual effects but nothing on the scale of a full computer animated character such as the Hulk.
"Doing the action and explosions with CG is fine but what is fairly new is a living, breathing emoting CG creature," agrees Leterrier. "Frankly, Peter Jackson’s movies have the best CG creatures ever with King Kong and Gollum who are so emotional. I was trying to understand and read as many articles as I could on him. I was crossing my fingers and hiring the best people for the job. I came in a student of the Spielbergs and Jacksons of the world and looking at how these geniuses did it."
On top of a new director, adversary, and movie title, the cast has now been filled with fresh faces. Liv Tyler has stepped in as Betty Ross, Hurt is General Ross, and Norton has replaced the fugitive Banner. As expected, finding a leading man that could pull off Banner’s vulnerability, anguish, and determination was a real challenge.
"Let’s start at the beginning," said Leterrier. "A couple of versions of the script had been written, another draft was being done by Zak Penn, and I was trying to find the cast. It was fun because every actor in town who met about this movie had the same reaction as me…. Hulk again? I had to personally meet everybody. I was getting phone calls from actors saying they loved the Hulk but everyone was scared we were either going to do a sequel without the same actors from the first movie or a reboot that would be the absolute opposite … a stupid, no brainer action ‘Hulk smash,’ from beginning to end!
"And it's not like The Transporter movies are the most actor oriented movies so they were like ‘Umm…that guy from the Transporter movies…’ They think I just do car chases and punches to the face. I had to meet with everyone and tell them about my story, how I became a director, and once the ice was broken, I was like ‘Okay, let me tell you about my vision of the Hulk.’ Eventually, a hundred per cent of the people I met were interested in our take on the Hulk."
"At one point, someone said ‘What about Edward Norton?’" continued Leterrier. "I am like ‘Edward Norton would never ever be interested in a superhero movie.’ They are like ‘He’s in New York. He is a great guy. Have a meeting.’
"Eventually, I have the coldest dinner of my life. Edward is very nice but he looks at you and is very analytical. He was looking at me while I was all stuttering and speaking Frenglish. I am 34 and when I meet actors of that caliber… We had a nice dinner but we didn’t talk about the movie at all so when the dessert was arriving, I was like ‘Dude, can I talk for five minutes about Hulk and can you tell me if you are interested or not.’ I gave him my five minute pitch, he is listening, I brought some drawings, and at the end, he just nods and says ‘Do you want something else? Coffee?’ ‘No, I am fine.’ ‘Okay, check please!’ and then he goes. I thought he hated me, that my pitch was horrible, and I was going to come back to Marvel with my tail between my legs. I walk in and they were like ‘Wow! What did you do? Edward loved you and the pitch! He is coming to L.A. on Monday! He is really interested. We had offered him Daredevil and Hulk and he always turned us down. What did you do?’ Edward was very enthusiastic. He took everything I had said, digested it over the weekend, and came back with some really great ideas."
Eventually, Norton took an even more active role in the Hulk film by polishing off the script.
"We needed one more draft for the screenplay and someone to keep rewriting while we were casting people/actors," recalled Leterrier. "We met other screenwriters and Edward said ‘I have actually done some of the movies I have been in like American History X. No strings attached. Can I try one draft?’ He tried and he was really good. It was very deep and very Hulk.
"In addition to being the actor/producer, he was becoming the writer as well. Some directors would have been afraid of that switch of power but he never ever challenged a single line of the screenplay without talking to me about it. He was fantastic and shooting was a blast. He is an amazing actor and you barely have to direct him. He understands everything and he is great with others."