Today is a good day to be Tim Miller. Deadpool, which he directed, gleefully annihilated the box office, breaking all-time records for an R-rated film, as well as becoming the highest grossing movie ever by a first-time filmmaker. But five years ago, Miller had one of his crappier days — when execs at 20th Century Fox (the eventual distributor of Deadpool) informed him that the foul-mouthed superhero didn’t quite turn their cranks.
“Fox told me a number,” Miller recalled while talking about Deadpool with EW last year. He was armed with a commitment from star Ryan Reynolds and a finished, if raucous, script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. “They said, ‘Here’s where the budget needs to be if we’re gonna do this as an R-rated film.’ The number had to start with a four. And then it was up to the point where the senior execs at Fox were looking at it. [Fox chairman] Tom Rothman just said, ‘No. We don’t get it.’ Tom told me, ‘Love your passion but I just don’t care for the script. Don’t get it.’”
[Rothman, who now runs Sony, declined comment on the film’s development.]
Miller was crushed, while also admitting, “To be fair, some things had changed from between the time when we first started talking and when we proposed the budget. Green Lantern had come out and that hadn’t helped Ryan’s career. Plus, I was a first-time director. It’s a particular confluence of momentum and money and talent that leads to any movie getting made.”
But even though the project was comatose, he persisted: “I wrote an email once a month or so to the Fox executives, saying ‘Please tell me who I have to f— to get this going?’ And the answer was, ‘It’s not the right time, we appreciate your passion.’ I wrote a lot of emails and I’m sure I annoyed the s— out of them.”
Miller even offered to sacrifice the R-rating if it meant getting the movie made. “At one point I asked if a PG-13 would move the needle and then they let me do a more sanitized version of the script,” he said. “We lost a few ‘f—s’ and we lost a few sexual references. But we didn’t have to adjust the violence at all. Wolverine is stabbing people with swords on his hands and that’s happily PG-13.”
Dirtier minds prevailed: Deadpool’s eventual screenplay, Miller insists, is nearly identical to the one that Fox turned down in 2011.
Rothman, who was responsible for shepherding three Best Picture Oscar winners and the two highest grossing movies of all time during his tenure at Fox, left the studio in 2012. (He now runs Sony Pictures.) In the Deadpool test footage that Fox commissioned in 2011, Reynolds’ masked mercenary can be heard to quip at the end, in a genial voice, “Hi Tom!” (The test footage also includes Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning” on the radio of the SUV that flips over a dozen times — later to be the anthem of Deadpool’s opening credits.)
And it was that test footage, of course, which mysteriously leaked on the last day of San Diego Comic Con.
“I had just gotten home from the train station from San Diego,” Miller remembered, “and my phone blows up with Google alerts about Deadpool and I see the test had leaked. And I was horrified. I immediately wrote Fox an email and said ‘I swear on my daughter’s life I didn’t leak this test.’”
“But,” he added, “within two months we were greenlit.” The rest is history — box office and otherwise.