Unsung Auteurs: Kelly Marcel

August 3, 2023
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: screenwriter Kelly Marcel, who penned Saving Mr. Banks and Venom.

With the writers’ strike currently raging in the US, we’re showing solidarity by focusing on screenwriters in the Unsung Auteurs column. Comic book movies have been a surprising boon when it comes to female screenwriters. When The Marvel Cinematic Universe was eventually put on the rack for being a little too white and a little too male, the powers-that-be (read: Kevin Feige) responded with admirable gusto, reshaping its fantastical world in a far more diverse manner courtesy of films like Eternals, Shang-Chi, Black Panther, and TV series such as Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk and more, which featured both characters and behind-the-scenes talent of all cultural backgrounds and genders.

Other comic book film producers and studios followed suit, and one of the happy by-products of that has been the number of women brought on board to make the creative calls, with figures like Jane Goldman, Meg LeFauve, Jessica Gao, Bisha K. Ali, Patty Jenkins, Nia Da Costa, Megan McDonnell and many more rising to prominence in the previously male-driven world of superheroes. Another major player in the hotly heightened cinematic universe of superheroes is Kelly Marcel, one of the key names in Sony Pictures’ highly successful Venom franchise.

Kelly Marcel

The daughter of director Terry Marcel (who helmed the truly excellent 1980 swords-and-sorcery flick Hawk The Slayer), Kelly Marcel was born in 1974 in London, England, and began her film career as an actress with roles on the popular TV series The Bill, Holby City and Casualty. Marcel, however, decided that acting wasn’t for her, and made a decision that would end up having a major effect on her eventual career. While focusing on writing, Marcel worked in a video store in London, which just happened to be around the corner from a pub where future superstar Tom Hardy was running an acting workshop. The pair eventually became friends, and when Hardy’s 2008 film Bronson – the highly stylised and utterly mind-blowing prison film directed by Nicolas Winding Refn – hit a few creative snags, he brought Marcel in to assist with some rewrites.

Hardy would later do the same on Mad Max Fury Road. “I don’t rewrite scripts often,” Marcel said of the experience. “I really don’t do it often. And most of the time I’ll do it because it’s a friend of mine or something, so the two movies I helped out on, Bronson and Mad Max Fury Road, I did because Tom Hardy is a friend of mine and I know how to work with him. And, also, who doesn’t want to work George Miller? I mean, that’s just amazing.”

A scene from Saving Mr. Banks

After a couple of intended projects failed to get off the ground (a sci-fi film with her father entitled Gondwanaland Highway, and a piece about Death Row called Westbridge), Marcel co-created the ambitious sci-fi television series Terra Nova, produced by Steven Spielberg. Though an expansive, involving and entertaining show (involving time travel and various other high-concept ideas), Terra Nova was cancelled after just one season, leaving Marcel somewhat adrift.

That setback, however, would signal another major turning point for Marcel, who was eventually brought on to heavily rework a screenplay by veteran Aussie scribe Sue Smith, which would eventually become 2013’s Saving Mr. Banks. Directed by John Lee Hancock, this truly superb and inexplicably under-celebrated film follows the story of Queensland-born author P.L Travers (brilliantly played by Emma Thompson), who warred with Walt Disney (the equally impressive Tom Hanks) over his adaptation of her classic novel Mary Poppins. Marcel’s screenplay is witty, funny, pithy, perceptive and wonderfully in tune with both the peculiarities of P.L Travers and the near-mythical status of Walt Disney. A modest success at the box office, Saving Mr. Banks instantly placed Marcel in the mix as a screenwriter with a decidedly commercial sensibility.

A scene from Fifty Shades Of Grey.

Marcel was drafted to script the big screen adaptation of the incendiary novel Fifty Shades Of Grey, but was left shattered by the experience, after being bulldozed (along with director Sam Taylor-Johnson) by the novel’s author, E.L James, whose power on the project meant that many of Marcel’s ideas (including a daring non-linear narrative) were jettisoned. “My heart really was broken by that process, I really mean it,” Marcel told renowned author Bret Easton Ellis on his podcast. “I don’t say it out of any kind of bitterness or anger or anything like that. I just don’t feel like I can watch it without feeling some pain about how different it is to what I initially wrote.” The film was, of course, however, a major hit.

A far happier experience came in the form of Sony Pictures’ 2018 hit Venom, the studio’s opening gambit in its highly unconventional approach to one of its premium pieces of owned Intellectual Property. After teaming with Marvel Studios on the hugely successful Spider-Man films with Tom Holland, Sony (who have held the rights to Spider-Man for years, and effectively “shared” the character with Marvel) lit out on its own by plundering the rogue’s gallery of bad guys that they also owned under the Spider-Man banner, setting up a series of “Spider-Man adjacent” films that ironically didn’t feature the webslinger himself.

A scene from Venom: Let There Be Carnage.

The first character lifted from the comic book pages was Spider-Man’s chief contemporary nemesis Venom, with Tom Hardy cast in the title role. The star/producer eventually brought in his old friend Kelly Marcel (the pair had also formed a theatre company together) to polish an original script by Scott Rosenberg and Jeff Pinkner, and the combined result was a wildly snarky and occasionally deliriously weird superhero/horror hybrid that fore-fronted black humour and unusual character dynamics. Marcel’s role was expanded for the 2021 sequel Venom: Let There Be Carnage, with the scribe teaming with Tom Hardy to pen the screenplay from scratch. Another hit for Sony, the success of the film (combined with Marcel’s initial involvement in the story process for Disney’s 2021 hit Cruella) has seen Marcel’s cache increase once again, with the writer in line to not just pen the screenplay, but also to make her directorial debut with the intended 2024 third entry in the series.

It’s another well-deserved step up the ladder for a Kelly Marcel, a screenwriter whose edginess is sorely needed in Hollywood right now.

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Alan Sharp, Leslie DixonJeremy PodeswaFerd & Beverly SebastianAnthony PageJulie GavrasTed PostSarah JacobsonAnton CorbijnGillian RobespierreBrandon CronenbergLaszlo NemesAyelat MenahemiIvan TorsAmanda King & Fabio CavadiniCathy HenkelColin HigginsPaul McGuiganRose BoschDan GilroyTanya WexlerClio BarnardRobert AldrichMaya ForbesSteven KastrissiosTalya LavieMichael RoweRebecca CremonaStephen HopkinsTony BillSarah GavronMartin DavidsonFran Rubel KuzuiElliot SilversteinLiz GarbusVictor FlemingBarbara PeetersRobert BentonLynn Shelton,Tom GriesRanda HainesLeslie H. Martinson, Nancy Kelly,Paul NewmanBrett HaleyLynne RamsayVernon ZimmermanLisa CholodenkoRobert GreenwaldPhyllida LloydMilton KatselasKaryn KusamaSeijun SuzukiAlbert PyunCherie NowlanSteve BinderJack CardiffAnne Fletcher,Bobcat GoldthwaitDonna DeitchFrank PiersonAnn TurnerJerry SchatzbergAntonia BirdJack SmightMarielle HellerJames GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. NortonLarysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara KoppleJohn D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.