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‘Uncharted’: How Making ‘Venom’ Helped Director Ruben Fleischer Tackle Another Beloved Adaptation

Dealing with fan expectations while making something for a wide audience? That's something Fleischer knows how to do.

Director Ruben Fleischer and Tom Holland on the set of Columbi Pictures UNCHARTED.  Photo by: Clay Enos

Director Ruben Fleischer and Tom Holland on the set of “Uncharted”

Clay Enos

It’s safe to say that “Uncharted” has plenty of fans. Over the course of four main games, a novel, comic books, and even a board game, the Naughty Dog video game franchise has evolved to become one of the best-selling series of all-time. Of course it would inspire a film, right? After a long and winding road to the big screen that included the hiring of directors like David O. Russell, Neil Burger, Seth Gordon, Shawn Levy, Dan Trachtenberg, and Travis Knight, the casting and then re-casting of Mark Wahlberg in two different roles, and a fan-bolstered campaign to hire Nathan Fillion for the lead role, the film finally arrives in theaters this week. Tom Holland stars as the treasure-hunter Nathan Drake with Wahlberg as his partner and mentor Victor “Sully” Sullivan (in early versions of the film adaptation, Wahlberg was set to star as Drake — that’s how long this thing has been in the works).

Fan expectations? Yes, they’re pretty high, but for director Ruben Fleischer, they’re nothing to be feared. After all, he’s faced them before.

“Probably the experience that related the most to this experience of adapting ‘Uncharted’ was making ‘Venom,’ where we had this beloved comic book character who had a certain identity within the Marvel universe, but then in making the movie version of the Venom character, we had to make it our own,” Fleischer told IndieWire during a recent interview.

Fleischer signed on to direct “Uncharted” in early 2020, hot off the success of both “Venom” and “Zombieland: Double Tap.” The Tom Hardy–starring “Venom” marked Fleischer’s first foray into superhero movies, a wild spin-off that focused on a Spider-Man villain making his own way in the world (read: a weird one, but highly entertaining).

Reviews weren’t great, but the fans turned out en masse: It became the seventh-highest-grossing film of 2018, making over $856 million worldwide, setting several box office records for an October release, and spawning a similarly wacky (and very successful) sequel. In a world gone mad for superhero films that need to fit alongside sprawling, complicated franchises, it was an outlier, one that could have gone topside had it hewed closer to the general expectations of what (and who) Venom was.

Venom (2018)

“Venom”

Sony Pictures

“I think that’s always the challenge with an adaptation, is that there’s a lot of fans who have attachments to what they love about the characters from the source material, whether it be a video game or a comic book,” Fleischer said. “But ultimately, it has to work as a movie, and it has to work for people who have heard of the character or who have never heard of it.”

Fleischer eventually brought that same viewpoint to “Uncharted,” an attempt to marry fan expectations with wider appeal. The director said he looked at movies with the same “classic buddy dynamic” he wanted to bring to the big screen, including “Midnight Run” and “48 Hours,” plus other large-scale adventure outings, like the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series, the Indiana Jones franchise, and even James Bond films.

“I love this treasure-hunting, globe-trotting, adventure genre, and they just don’t make a lot of those movies,” he said. “So I approached it as a fan of that genre and then also as a fan of the video games and wanting to provide a really satisfying experience for audiences, whether or not they’ve heard of the source material, but at the same time making sure fans felt like we were respecting everything that they love about it. I just really wanted it to be entertaining and filled with action and great characters and comedy, because those are the touchstones of the video game, but I also think those are the touchstones of any great movie.”

Asked if he had any interest in returning to the superhero fray, Fleischer said he’d “be thrilled” to direct another superhero movie. “It just depends on the character and having the opportunity to do something fresh,” he said. “I think you can say what you want about [‘Venom’], but it’s not like other superhero films and I’m really proud of that fact. And so if I were given the opportunity to forge my own path a little bit, I think that’d be really exciting.”

Victor "Sully" Sullivan (Mark Wahlberg) and Nathan Drake (Tom Holland) look to make their move in Columbia Pictures' UNCHARTED. photo by: Clay Enos

“Uncharted”

Clay Enos

Fleischer said he’s been enthused about the growth of the genre lately, pointing to James Gunn’s recent “Peacemaker” series as something that’s really excited him. “That’s just so distinctive and fun and original. It’s cool to just take the characters and go on these paths,” he said of the HBO Max series, which spun off Gunn’s “Suicide Squad” feature. “I can say honestly, I’d never heard of that character before, but I think the show’s really great.”

And while Fleischer didn’t direct “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” (Andy Serkis took over directing duties, though Fleischer was an executive producer), he’s certainly not opposed to sequels. Before “Uncharted,” he returned to his debut hit “Zombieland” ten years after the film launched his career, for the sequel “Zombieland: Double Tap.” More might be in his future.

“Well, we’ll see what happens,” Fleischer said when asked about the possibility of a third “Zombieland.” “We always joke that we should do it every ten years. So come 2029, if there’s a desire on anyone’s part, whether that be the cast or the audiences for another ‘Zombieland,’ I know I’d be thrilled to do it, because I’ve never had more fun than working on those movies, but it’s just a question of what people are up to.”

For now, Fleischer is enthused about the possibility of “Uncharted” and other big-ticket blockbuster films to get audiences back into theaters. “Please, God willing, go to the theater,” he said. “That’s what’s exciting, is that it really feels like we’re headed back in that direction. One thing [the success of] ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ can attest to is that if there’s something worth seeing, people are eager to go see it in the theater. Hopefully, they’ll have that feeling about ‘Uncharted.'”

Sony releases “Uncharted” in theaters on Friday, February 18.

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