Spend a day around writers at Marvel Studios, and you might hear what sounds like a discussion about nearby delicatessens, but is in actual fact indispensable storytelling advice. “That’s a long way to go for salami,” laughs Black Widow screenwriter Eric Pearson, reciting the mantra on my podcast Script Apart. “It just means, are you spending a lot of convoluted energy for something that’s just okay? Is what you’re going to huge lengths to add in actually worth all the trouble?”
In Eric’s first draft for Black Widow, there was one scene that didn’t pass the salami test, he recalls. Originally, the New Yorker planned to make the location of the villainous General Dreykov’s lair a surprise, revealed only when super-spy Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johannson) breaks out of it. “But it just wasn’t working. It changed so much of the dialogue, what the characters could and couldn’t say,” he recalls. “All for a reveal that was kinda mediocre.” Instead, the finished movie dispenses with the information in a more linear way. The result? A third act that’s more an exquisite cut of sirloin than so-so salami, to use the Marvel metaphor.
Want to know some other screenwriting tricks and tips that Eric and his Marvel peers swear by? Here are a few that we learned during his appearance on Script Apart, supported by Screencraft…
Make Everything a Choice for Your Characters
Any Black Widow prequel movie was inevitably going to reveal the character’s dark past. In past movies, she’s alluded to the “red in my ledger” – something that haunts her, that now motivates her in her exploits with the Avengers. Eric didn’t want to cop out when it came to that reveal.
“For me, the thing that mattered, the thing that I pushed hard for, was that it couldn’t just be: “I was doing something and people got hurt by accident.” I wanted her dark past to be really gnarly.” The fact that Natasha made a conscious decision to hurt someone in a moment of selfishness taps into a key lesson in storytelling: great characters are flawed and active, making decisions that catch up with them and ripple through the rest of the story. “I wanted her to have made a decision that keeps her up at night,” says Eric. Black Widow is a better movie because of it.
Comedy Comes from Character
It’s not gags and quips that make audiences laugh, Eric insists. “It’s character dynamics. Natasha is a completely closed-off person in Black Widow. The funniest person to put her up against in the movie is a younger version of [herself] who’s emotionally volcanic. Yelena’s not afraid to say what she feels and the way she sees things.”
The clash that comes from those opposing viewpoints and personality types cultivates humor more organically than trying to insert jokes into your script – especially when you add in a third party with an even more opposed view. In Black Widow’s case, that’s Alexei (Stranger Things’ David Harbour) who Eric describes as an oafish father who’s so preoccupied with how great he is… together, all those things are just funny to me.”
What was your big takeaway from the episode? Listen to the episode in full above, then leave a comment below.
Al Horner is a London-based journalist, screenwriter and presenter. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Empire Magazine, GQ, BBC, Little White Lies, TIME Magazine and more.