The Symbiote Inside Me: Ruben Fleischer guides Tom Hardy’s split personalities in Marvel’s 'Venom'

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No one can accuse filmmaker Ruben Fleischer of repeating himself—his directorial credits include the post-apocalyptic horror comedy Zombieland, action crime drama Gangster Squad and superhero film Venom. The genre may change from project to project, but there is a consistent objective. “I have hopefully learned something along the way from each one and have evolved as a filmmaker. But at my core it’s always about character, performance, casting the best actors for each role and providing a space where they can do their best work.”

Much has been made about Columbia Pictures producing an entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe based around the rogues’ gallery of Spider-Man—but without the famous young wall-crawler. “We decided with this film to make it all about the relationship between Eddie Brock and Venom, who is trying to come to terms with his new reality on our planet. This is an original version of the story that we think is compelling, exciting and satisfying on its own two feet.”

Venom chronicles disgraced journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) investigating a sophisticated corporate survivalist group, which leads him to encounter and bond with a volatile alien symbiote. Extensive digital augmentation was needed to bring to life the parasite inhabiting the body of the protagonist. “I had never done an entirely CG character before and have been wanting to do a more expansive visual-effects movie for a while,” Fleischer says. “It’s a whole new set of skills in my toolbox as a filmmaker and is such a huge part of modern filmmaking. We’ve embraced visual effects to create the most dynamic version of the character that we can possibly could in terms of elevating his look, effect and bearing; he’s as photorealistic and true to the comics as we could make him. Because Tom Hardy provides the voice and attitude of Venom, there was a lot to build from.”

In many ways, Venom can be seen as a buddy movie. “We talked a lot about 48 Hrs. and Midnight Run, where there are these two opposing characters that come together on a journey, forge a relationship and each leave a little changed by the other,” Fleischer recalls. “An American Werewolf in London was a big influence in terms of the horror aspects, being entertaining and having funny moments. Our movie has all of those elements.”

A real joy for Fleischer was watching Hardy play opposite himself. “The fun of the movie is seeing Eddie Brock react to this voice in his head that belongs to a crazy alien who wants to eat people’s brains and having to navigate our world knowing that he has an 8,000-pound gorilla inside of him.” Rather than being R-rated, Venom is aiming for PG-13. “We made the movie we intended to and the rating was never a consideration. It was more ‘Let’s make the best version for as broad an audience that we can. Whatever the rating board decides it to be is what it will be.’ It hasn’t affected any of our processes in any way.”

As with Iron Man in 2008, Venom is viewed as the first of a series of interconnected comic-book franchise movies. “My focus is purely on this film,” Fleischer explains. “What evolves out of this or what evolves beyond this is somebody else’s responsibility. It has been fun featuring characters who are familiar to the fans of the comics and creating this world of Eddie Brock and Venom that includes the Life Foundation, Riot and Carlton Drake [Riz Ahmed].” The alien symbiote antagonists Riot and Carnage were chosen carefully. “In regards to the villains, we’re definitely thinking beyond Venom. There is a lot to draw from the comics. Riot is a personal favorite of mine and is a real badass as well as a worthy adversary for Venom. He’s bigger and more menacing. I liked his color and attitude. Riot felt like he would be a great foe for this movie.”

Every sequence was storyboarded. “You have to on big action movies, especially when there’s an entirely CG character involved,” notes Fleischer. “Everything was deliberate. Not to say we couldn’t take liberties on the day or inspiration in the moment, but we tried to always be as prepared as possible. I’ve tried to have iconic poses and moments that take place in the comics. We even have a line in the trailer that is directly taken from the comics: ‘Eyes, lungs, pancreas, so many snacks so little time.’” Horror movies from the 1980s and the work of John Carpenter (Halloween) served as visual references.

“Matthew Libatique, who was the cinematographer, is a genius. Among other things he has shot are the first Iron Man, Black Swan and every other Darren Aronofsky movie. Matthew has a real aptitude for doing huge action comic-book movies but also gritty, cool indie films. It was the perfect balance. I wanted to have a grittier, textured quality that felt appropriate to the comics and reminiscent of classic horror films as well as deliver large-scale action and visual effects, which are expected of a superhero movie of this kind.”

Despite the story being set in San Francisco, 95 percent of the principal photography took place in Atlanta. “In terms of locations, the challenge was trying to find San Francisco in Atlanta,” Fleischer confides. “I wanted to make sure to get as much of San Francisco in the film as we could. We tried to shoot all of our exteriors there and get as much production value crammed into every single frame so as to showcase the city. A lot of our stuff in Atlanta was done on stages.”

The cast was kept small—the principal actors are Hardy, Ahmed and Michelle Williams. “It’s their stories and there are some supporting characters who play throughout. With Tom, there was no question as to who should play the role of Eddie Brock/Venom. As soon as he got involved, that’s when the movie took off. Riz is someone I’ve been a huge fan of forever and he was my first choice to play Carlton Drake. Michelle [who portrays Brock’s girlfriend, Anne Weying] is one of the greatest actors of her generation, so to convince her to be in a comic-book movie like this was quite a feat. But she’s so good and excels in the film. The casting process was fun. I’m proud of the cast that we’ve put together.”

Fleischer notes, “This is my second film working with composer Ludwig Göransson and he’s one of the most talented people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. Ludwig has come up with music that is edgy, cool, distinctive, contemporary, has the appropriate big blockbuster sound and pays homage to classic horror scores. As far as the sound, our team has been top-notch in creating the atmosphere in the environments, the sound effects for the aliens, the goo, and everything else that is a big part of what makes Venom who he is and what the symbiote is. It has been fun playing with those sounds to build the world out and make it an appropriately huge movie.”

The biggest challenge has been trying to satisfy the expectations of comic-book fans. “I want to deliver a movie in which people feel it’s the Venom that they were hoping to see,” Fleischer says. “Primarily that’s in the look of the character and the way he acts in these action sequences and in the way he’s true to the comics.” A lot of effort went into maximizing the theatrical experience. “We worked hard to deliver a movie that even though it comes out in October feels like a huge summer popcorn blockbuster in every aspect, whether it be the action sequences, visual effects, performances, the all-star cast, incredible sound design or the beautiful score. I am hoping that this will open up a whole new timeframe for superhero movies.”