Nicole Perlman’s filmmaking career started on a bigger scale than a lot of directors: Her first writing credit was on the screenplay for “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and she’ll have another one on the upcoming “Captain Marvel.” Even before Marvel snapped her up in 2009 for its fledgling screenwriting program, Perlman had garnered serious attention with her unproduced script “Challenger,” about the 1988 space shuttle disaster. But only now, with two blockbuster gigs behind her, has she made her directorial debut with “The Slows,” a short film making the rounds on the festival circuit.
Perlman has known for almost a decade that she wanted to turn Gail Hareven’s sci-fi-tinged short story into her first directing project. The story, which imagines a future world where humans have stopped raising children the traditional way, was published in The New Yorker in May of 2009 and Perlman was an instant fan. Still, she didn’t have many expectations that she could suddenly carve out the time to make it into a film.
“When I started being able to make a living as a screenwriter, the directing fell by the wayside,” she said. “I thought one day I’d love to get back to that, but I’d have to actually have a way to carve out space, and really devote myself to it. I didn’t want to do a half-assed version of it, I wanted to do it fully.”
It took her 13 years to get there. After a rush of good buzz around “Challenger,” Perlman joined Marvel’s screenwriting program; she described it as a job, not a fellowship or an internship. “We were all screenwriters who had been established and had sold projects, but the projects hadn’t been made yet,” she said. “We were kind of almost like a stable of writers that could be reached out to or used on specific things.”
Perlman and her compatriots, including “Black Panther” screenwriter Joe Cole and “Thor Ragnarok” screenwriter Christopher Yost, were tapped for various projects according to their interests (Perlman said she helped work on some of Dr. Jane Foster’s dialogue in “Thor,” for example) but they were all expected to work on a larger project as well.
“Marvel had us each go through their library of kind of C-level, at the time, properties and choose one to work on,” she said. “I loved that it was a science fiction film more than a superhero film, it was more of an origin of a story of a team coming together, and also because it seemed like they were never going to make it. I was allowed free rein to play with it.”
“Guardians of the Galaxy” was the first script to come out of that program, and Perlman ultimately shared screenwriting credit with director James Gunn. When nonprofit financier Cinereach reached out to Perlman in 2015 to discuss her filmmaking goals, she was surprised to find that her blockbuster history became irrelevant.
“It wasn’t long after ‘Guardians’ had come out, so I was surprised, because a lot of the companies that wanted to meet with me were doing superhero movies and things of that nature,” Perlman said. “They didn’t say anything about the superhero stuff, they just wanted to talk about story, and what kind of things appeal to me, and if I had ever thought about directing.”
A few months after that first meeting, Cinereach offered her a directing fellowship to help get the project moving. Perlman likens the fellowship, which counts alumni like Barry Jenkins and Terence Nance since its inception in 2013, to “a year of just pure inspiration.” By the time the fellowship wrapped, she was already in pre-production on “The Slows.” The intimate film was shot in Portland, Oregon over a period of days and with a tight-knit crew, and has recently started making festival rounds, with stops at Fantastic Fest and the New York Film Festival so far.
In the meantime, “Captain Marvel,” is set to open next March, over three years after Perlman was tapped to write it alongside “Inside Out” screenwriter Meg LeFauve. “I learned so much from working with Meg,” Perlman said. “She knows her way around the story. She’s like a story ninja.”
In August of 2017, LeFauve left “Captain Marvel” to direct “Gigantic” for Disney. Perlman — who was already busy working on a bevy of projects, including the upcoming “Detective Pikachu” film and the Cinereach fellowship — followed her writing partner out the door.
Geneva Robertson-Dworet then took over scripting duties on the project, and the final film is expected to come out with screenwriting credits for Perlman, LeFauve, Robertson-Dworet, Carly Mensch, Liz Flahive, and directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden.
Despite the later iterations of the project, Perlman said she treasured her time developing “Captain Marvel” with LeFauve. She celebrated “having someone, especially another woman, to toss ideas and really get into subjects about feminism and identity and power,” she said. “It’s a very iconic character and I think it’s really important to find her humanity.”
After Perlman and LeFauve left the project, Perlman took to Twitter to quell concerns that the project was in trouble. While Perlman declined to discuss the plot in detail, her intention behind the character speaks to a growing sentiment among both fans and stars (including “Guardians of the Galaxy” actress Karen Gillan) that the “strong female character” designation is no longer enough to build an entire film around.
“She shouldn’t just be strong, you know?,” Perlman said. “It has to be more than that. And what does it mean to be a powerful woman? I think that those early conversations were really, really important for getting ‘Captain Marvel’ on the right path.”
Beyond the imminent blitz of “Captain Marvel” commitments, Perlman just turned in a new pilot to Amazon for a “cyperpunk” series set in Bangkok. She’s working on an under-wraps “big sci-fi, family-friendly” film for Paramount and an even more secretive feature she deems a “gothic horror” feature. Perlman recently optioned Kate Moore’s “Radium Girls,” which she intends to adapt and direct for the big screen. She’s writing a live action adaptation of “Detective Pikachu.” And there’s always the possibility of exploring the wider world of “The Slows,” among other gestating ideas.
“I want to work with people I like,” she said, adding that her goals “are sort of strangely counterintuitive to some of the Hollywood culture, where I think it’s very helpful to be put into a category, like ‘This is a woman who does superhero movies.'”
“The Slows” screened at this year’s New York Film Festival as part of its “Genre Stories” short film selection.