Disney’s new Hollywood superhero blockbuster “Ant-Man” has lots of the sort of cameo appearances you’d expect of the latest film set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But its coolest Easter egg of all is an obscure one, a don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it cameo by 1970s-vintage “Saturday Night Live” actor Garrett Morris.
Peyton Reed, the Raleigh-born director of “Ant-Man,” wanted Morris there for one very specific reason: a long-ago “SNL” sketch about a superhero cocktail party in which Bill Murray’s Superman, Dan Aykroyd’s Flash and John Belushi’s Incredible Hulk all try to one-up each other.
“It’s a great sketch, especially when Garrett shows up as Ant-Man and they all make fun of him,” Reed said during a phone interview from Los Angeles. “ ‘Your super power is what? You shrink? Um, wow.’ So technically, that makes Garrett Morris the first onscreen Ant-Man.”
Quite an inside joke.
“Yeah, that’s a pretty deep cut,” Reed admitted with a laugh. “I wasn’t sure Garrett would be able to do it. But as soon as he heard ‘Ant-Man,’ he said, ‘I know exactly why you’re calling!’ He was thrilled, and so was I.”
Like most directors, Reed hustled his way into Hollywood after spending years toiling anywhere he could – from serving as a gofer on the set of “Bull Durham” to directing “making-of” documentaries about “Forrest Gump” and other films. But he’s a certifiable big deal now.
“Ant-Man” is Reed’s fifth full-length feature in a filmography that started with 2000’s “Bring It On,” a modest little cheerleader film that proved to be an unexpected left-field hit. But little is being left to chance about “Ant-Man.” Even though its micro-sized titular hero is one of Marvel’s more obscure characters, Disney is still rolling out the heavy marketing artillery.
It’s probable that “Ant-Man” will surpass 2008’s “Yes Man” as Reed’s biggest hit to date, and possible that it will take his cumulative career box-office gross past the $1 billion milestone. Yet as shown by the Morris cameo, Reed is still the same cineastic geek as when he was hanging around Chapel Hill and making videos for local bands including the Connells and Superchunk.
“Those days were so fun, getting everybody together and pooling resources to do things,” Reed said. “I’m still proud of all that stuff I did back then. Not only do I love the music, the whole scene was so positive for whatever creative thing you put your energy into.”
Reed’s movie-nerd tendencies were on full display on Supechunk’s 1994 video for “Driveway to Driveway,” which was retro-styled and based on the 1940 Cary Grant-Katharine Hepburn-James Stewart romantic comedy “The Philadelphia Story.” With members of Squirrel Nut Zippers and other local bands in cameo roles, it’s a perfect black-and-white snapshot of an era of local music.
Another Superchunk video, 1993’s “Package Thief,” featured puppet likenesses of the band members made by Reed. It cost all of $500 to make, a figure that is less than .0004 percent of “Ant-Man”’s $130 million budget.
"Ant-Man" is Reed's first directing credit since "Yes Man," which starred Jim Carrey. Over the past seven years, Reed married and started a family, played music when he could with his old Chapel Hill pal Norwood Cheek in Cardinal Family Singers (they’ve just released a new album) and worked on developing a number of movies.
Coming off two very successful comedies in a row, “Yes Man” and its 2006 predecessor “The Break-Up” (which starred Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Anniston), Reed could have had his pick of comedy projects. But he wanted to do a comic-book movie instead, tapping into one of his lifelong enthusiasms.
“Comic books have been Peyton’s life forever,” Cheek said. “He’s been going to Comic-Con since the early ’90s and he’s not one of these guys who has just read a few comic books and been to a couple of Marvel movies. He knows this world.”
Reed had a disappointing near-miss when he said he “came in second to James Gunn” for directing 2014’s “Guardians of the Galaxy.” But he finally got his chance with “Ant-Man” when original director Edgar Wright bowed out last year over creative differences with the producers.
After Reed was hired as Wright’s replacement, he stepped into a situation with lots of pros and cons. On the one hand it was on opportunity for Reed to make his highest-profile movie to date, on a subject near and dear to his heart.
“If you’d told the 10-year-old me that I’d someday get to direct an ‘Ant-Man’ movie,” Reed said, “my head would’ve exploded.”
On the other hand, however, Reed was set up to take the blame if things didn’t go well. Whatever expectations his past movies have had, they’re nothing like the pressure of directing a tent-pole blockbuster on this scale.
“There’s pressure with every movie, although this one is bigger all the way around,” Reed said. “The scale, technical concerns, budget, everything. But there’s a certain energy that gives you. It seems kinda weird to reference Duke Ellington, but he once said, ‘I don’t need time, what I need is a deadline.’ We had a compressed preparation schedule, with rewriting going on as we started shooting, and you do get a certain energy from a tight deadline. But yeah, part of it was the fear-of-God factor.”
Even after Wright’s departure, “Ant-Man” was still made with the script he co-wrote – retooled, however, by star Paul Rudd with Adam McKay (who directed Rudd in the Will Ferrell “Anchorman” comedies). They added abundant comedic banter, and stretches of “Ant-Man” feel less like a conventional superhero film than a smartly paced burglary caper like “Oceans 11.” Michael Pena steals almost every scene he’s in as Rudd’s partner in crime.
“From the original draft of the script, the general idea of ‘Ant-Man’ was always a heist movie,” Reed said. “The tone was always wisecracking, and with Paul and Adam we worked to increase the comedy – and also, I hope, the emotionality. McKay’s a real Marvel nerd like me, and there were things from the comics that weren’t in the script. So we added a lot of those, especially the third-act part about the quantum realm. And Michael Pena was so important in bolstering the crime-caper motif. At first, he only had three scenes but he was just so good, we had to get him in more.”
Reeds maintains a whimsical touch throughout the action sequences, using large-to-small-to-large perspective and size-shifting to good advantage. The climactic showdown happens on the train table in a child’s bedroom, with Thomas the Tank Engine playing a key part after being transformed into a projectile the size of a wrecking ball.
So far, reviews of “Ant-Man” have been mostly positive. Hollywood pundit Paul Dergarabedian calls it “the ultimate popcorn experience.”
“It’s very different from a lot of other superhero movies,” said Dergarabedian, senior analyst with the media research company Rentrak. “’Guardians of the Galaxy’ was steeped in the other-worldly environment of outer space, but ‘Ant-Man’ is grounded in modern-day reality. Even with the over-the-top preposterousness of the whole scenario, it still kind of feels like it could really happen.”
To no one’s surprise, “Ant-Man” debuted at No. 1 on the box-office list, grossing an estimated $58 million in its opening-weekend-run. That gives it something in common with Reed’s 2000 debut “Bring It On,” which was a low-budget film starring a then-unknown Kirsten Dunst – and improbably topped the box-office chart in its opening week.
“The Marvel franchise is huge, of course, but ‘Ant-Man’ is a lesser-known character,” Reed said. “So there’s some nervousness, and that never changes. You work on a movie for a while – and I’m as much a control freak as anyone else – then toss it into the world and see what happens. That’s scary. I remember making ‘Bring It On’ and wondering, ‘Will anyone show up for this? Is anybody gonna connect with competitive cheerleading?’ It wound up doing really well. Next thing I made was ‘Down With Love,’ which I was convinced everybody would just love, and no one went.
“You just never know.”