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‘Fantastic’s’ fifth

Special to The Times

Tim STORY’s phone started ringing on Friday -- the first call came from the president of 20th Century Fox, Hutch Parker. Despite some scathing reviews, the director’s new film, “Fantastic Four,” was showing signs that it just might take the weekend box office. By Friday evening, he’d heard from his agents, other studio execs and an ecstatic Avi Arad, the head of Marvel Studios. Saturday morning, more Fox execs were calling.

“The big guys,” as Story put it. “Hutch, Tom, Jim, I heard from all of them.” Tom and Jim would be Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopolus, co-chairmen of Fox Filmed Entertainment.

The agents, Ramses Ishak and Charles King over at William Morris, were staying close, naturally. By Sunday, with the film on track to gross $56 million in its opening weekend, the conversation between Story and everyone else had turned to sequels.

“We made it for the audience. We didn’t make it for the critics,” Story said Sunday. “And to have it turn out like this is great. I said all along I just wanted it to make enough to do a sequel. There has definitely been more talk this weekend about that.”

“Fantastic Four’s” success has turned Story into an A-list director, one of the few African Americans to attain that status.

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For Arad, chairman and chief executive of Marvel Studios, it was an “I-told-you-so” moment. Arad had pushed to have the relatively untested director at the helm of a major mainstream movie. Someone who could reinvigorate the superhero genre and breathe life into Marvel Comics’ first family, the Fantastic Four.

Arad had found Story in a most unlikely place, a relatively low-budget black-genre movie, “Barbershop,” that was released to critical acclaim in 2002. The 35-year-old Story also directed the 2004 film “Taxi,” starring Queen Latifah. Other than a couple of independent projects now available on video, that’s basically where his film credentials ended. But Arad hadn’t forgotten that Bryan Singer had directed just three smaller-scale features before his successful run on Marvel’s big-budget “X-Men” movies.

As it did with “X-Men,” Arad’s gamble paid off.

“We needed the ‘Fantastic Four’ to be the feel good movie of the summer,” Arad said. “As it turned out, the movie is fun, funny and touching -- Tim did a spectacular job.”

On the surface, there didn’t appear to be much similarity between “Barbershop” and “Fantastic Four.” After all, the former was a low-budget situational drama-comedy set primarily within the confines of a local shop; the latter was a $100-million-plus special-effects-laden action-drama with sets that included the outer reaches of space as well as the top of the Brooklyn Bridge.

That said, Story is quick to note that at their core both films are about families, albeit dysfunctional ones. And instead of orchestrating a group of opinionated barbers, this time around he got to mediate among uber-intellect Mr. Fantastic (Ioan Gruffudd), his ex-girlfriend Invisible Woman (Jessica Alba), the hotheaded Human Torch (Chris Evans) and the monstrous the Thing (Michael Chiklis).

“I love people being in arguments when they have to work together to get something right,” said Story. “It’s kind of like the family you put in a car and tell them to get to Texas from California, and everybody has their own opinions on how they should get there. Those arguments are the most fun, and that’s what I was able to bring to the “Fantastic Four” from “Barbershop” -- people having to work together who don’t necessarily like each other, but they love each other.”

It was that sensibility that caught the attention of Arad. “There was this one room with all these characters in it, and Tim showed me the ability to let a movie breathe and be fun,” Arad said of “Barbershop.” I was looking for a director who had a sense of comedy, who could handle four or five people in a room and, at the same time, follow their stories and interrelationships.”

While Story was very comfortable with the relationship aspect of the film, he admits that there was a very steep learning curve when it came to dealing with special effects. Arad wasn’t as concerned. “When someone directs our kind of movies, he doesn’t have to be proficient in how to make a CGI shot -- he just needs to know what he wants to see,” Arad said. “It was more important for Tim to understand the moment when Ben Grimm becomes the Thing and runs off to see his fiancee, and that he direct it in such a way that you’re going to have your heart broken.”

Though Story, who grew up in L.A. and graduated from USC’s film school, worked closely with special-effects advisors, it took a while before he was able to bridge concepts like a yet-to-be-created multi-vehicle crash with getting the appropriate reaction shots.

“Working with special effects is totally the opposite way of making movies,” Story said. “When you make a movie like ‘Barbershop,’ everything has to be in camera, but with a movie like the ‘Fantastic Four,’ you need the actors to respond to special effects that won’t be made for another five, six months. At times, I really had to guess what the actors’ reactions might be to the point where I sometimes had the actors do five different versions of a scene.”

Julian McMahon, who plays the “Four’s” arch-nemesis Dr. Doom, says he always felt comfortable with Story’s ability to shoot around the effects. “You felt like Tim had done these kinds of movies all his life,” said McMahon. “He was surrounded by a bunch of [special-effects] guys, and to his credit, he was continually learning and listening, and you could watch him manipulate things in his mind until he got the point where he could make the movie right.”

Ultimately, the trickier element was making sure he was able to capture the spirit of the source material. Like most long-running comic books, the Fantastic Four has a loyal, and vocal, fan base, and as such, Story says Marvel made it a point to tell him to stay off the Internet to avoid the potentially negative fan chatter.

“I’ve been a very big enemy to a lot of comic-book fans, and I know it,” Story says. “They’re mad because certain details have been changed -- this is an origin film, and I can’t fit 40 years of comic books into two hours -- but then there are the other details that I think we hit right on.”

One of those was the adversarial yet brotherly relationship between Johnny Storm, the Human Torch and the orange-skinned Ben Grimm, a relationship Story remembered from his days reading the Fantastic Four as a kid.

“I knew this film in my body, knew the characters, knew what was going to happen, knew the origin and all the little nuances that make the Fantastic Four the Fantastic Four,” Story said. “At some point, you just had to go for it knowing that people are going to complain no matter what. You can’t win, so you have to just build your ship, and if that ship goes down, at least it was your ship.”

Times staff writer R. Kinsey Lowe contributed to this report.


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