6 Filmmaking Tips from Stan Lee

More like superhero storytelling tips, but… Excelsior!

Stan Lee Agents Of Shield

More like superhero storytelling tips, but… Excelsior!

He’s never directed a movie, but Stan Lee is responsible for so many of them. We wouldn’t have the MCU or the X-Men franchise or maybe the modern age of superhero cinema if it wasn’t for his work at Marvel. Is he a “filmmaker”? No. Still, he has given advice on creativity and storytelling and other elements that go into any artistic endeavor, including filmmaking. And actually, he has offered tips to filmmakers on writing and even directing.

Considering superheroes and comic book movies (and television) in general continue to be the big thing in Hollywood and likely will be for a while, Lee’s lessons and advice are worth following in order to make it in show business. And if you’re not interested in that particular genre, most of his tips are applicable or can be easily translated to all kinds of filmmaking. Oh, and sorry, none are just “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Do Something New

As in comics, a lot of what’s going on in movies these days is unoriginal. Writers and directors keep working on material that already exists in some fashion. That isn’t to say none of it is good, but you’re more likely to make a mark with something fresh. And feel more satisfied, too. Lee has often told the story of how he turned things around at Marvel when he started creating all his new characters. Here’s one such telling to Inc. in 2009:

After about 20 years on the job, I said to my wife, “I don’t think I’m getting anywhere. I think I’d like to quit.” She gave me the best piece of advice in the world. She said, “Why not write one book the way you’d like to, instead of the way [publisher Martin Goodman] wants you to? Get it out of your system. The worst thing that will happen is he’ll fire you — but you want to quit anyway.” At the time, DC Comics had a book called The Justice League, about a group of superheroes, that was selling very well. So in 1961 we did The Fantastic Four. I tried to make the characters different in the sense that they had real emotions and problems. And it caught on. After that, Martin asked me to come up with some other superheroes. That’s when I did the X-Men and The Hulk. And we stopped being a company that imitated.

Lee has inspired some significant people with this idea, including writer Mark Millar, who went from working for DC and Marvel to developing his own line of original titles, including Kick-Ass and The Secret Service (adapted as the Kingsman movies). Millar revealed to Business Insider in 2015:

[Stan Lee] gave me the best advice ever. I was feeling pretty pleased with myself, this was about 11 years ago or so and I had four books in the top five at the time but they were all Marvel books. He said to me, “That’s great, but you should do your own characters instead of doing mine. I didn’t do Superman and Batman and Tarzan and Sherlock Holmes, I went off and did the X-Men.”

It was like a lightbulb going on. I just thought, “Oh my God, you’re right.” He said, “Financially now it’s so much better for you guys than it ever was for me. You could own the rights to your own movies and books. You could licence this stuff to people, like toys. If I had the opportunity you’ve had, I’d have killed for it.” I put down the phone and started working on my own stuff. I’d been at Marvel for a few years and I did both side by side, and then once the movies started coming out I was making more from my own company than I was from Marvel.

It’s Easy to Write For Yourself

But what kind of new thing do you create, right? Well, Lee has no clue exactly how he came up with all the characters he conceived and has no formula to share. He does recommend making comics or movies or whatever that you’d want to read/see/etc. He wrote about things that interested him and figured he couldn’t possibly be alone in that interest, and he wasn’t. In the video below for SeagateCreative from 2014, he says:

You can only do your best if you’re doing what you like to do…It’s hard to write for someone else. It’s easy to write for yourself. But you have to write well.

Make Relatable Characters

Another person who has shared advice they received from Lee is The Amazing Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 director Marc Webb. We even included it in our list of tips from Webb. Lee told him (originally quoted in a 2012 Huffington Post interview):

Put yourself in Peter Parker’s shoes — and whatever you would do, he would do. It’s all about relatability.

He has addressed that idea in some form or another many times over the years, especially when discussing his creation of Spider-Man. Here’s one nice succinct elaboration from a free special edition 2015 Chakra the Invisible comic book answering what advice he gives to wannabe comic book writers:

First off, the powers mean nothing if you don’t care about the person. I think my characters have withstood the changing times probably because I concentrated just as much on the characters’ private lives as we did on them fighting the bad guys. I try and keep my superheroes completely realistic except for that one element of a superpower which they possess. While you have to believe a guy could climb a sheer wall or burst into flame or that he was a green-skinned monster. But except for that, we tried to do everything as realistically as possible.

If a hero had a superpower that doesn’t mean he’s lucky at love or has all the money in the world. I try to show that nothing really brings total success, and just because you have big muscles doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to have big triumphs. If you’re writing about a character, especially if he’s a powerful character, unless you give him vulnerability I don’t think he’ll be interesting to the reader.

Give Characters Distinct Voices

It’s much easier to create distinctly new and interesting characters than it is to give them unique things to say. But it is important for your characters to speak differently from each other and not just all in your own voice. The following piece of advice Lee shared with BuzzFeed in 2015 (along with four other tips) is as suited for movies as it is for comic books. Just replace “dialogue balloon” with “line in a script.”

[Characters have to be] to be colorful, interesting, unusual and sympathetic. If there’s one important trait it has to be ‘interesting’…The best way to do that is through their dialogue. Each character should have his or her own individual method of speaking, so that if you read a dialogue balloon (without seeing the illustration) you would know who it was who said that dialogue just by the style in which it was spoken.

Take Risks

We already saw how Lee took a chance on trying new things back when he was ready to quite Marvel. There’s also the story of how he took a risk in publishing the first Spider-Man story after his publisher rejected the idea of such a character. Hear him tell it in the following video compiling Lee’s “10 rules for success,” which later also specifically includes “take risks” as one of those rules. Some of this list’s other tips are repeated in the video, too.

Give Actors Freedom

Finally, here’s some advice that specifically applies to the movies. In Lloyd Kaufman’s book “Direct Your Own Damn Movie!” the author, head of Troma and director of many of their movies, interviews Lee, who is his good pal. But Kaufman doesn’t ask Lee about his career at Marvel. He asks him about his experience and advice from what his work in movies. Here’s Lee’s response to Kaufman’s request for “the principles of film directing”:

I’m no great authority on directing, but I’ve been lucky because most of the people who’ve done Marvel movies have been great directors and, well, I wasn’t always on set. I was on the set for a few hours doing my cameo in each movie. What I’ve found is that the one thing they had in common was the great relationship they had with the actors, as well as a great way of expressing themselves in order to help the actor really understand the essence of the scene. Then they have the ability, after they’ve explained it and have confidence in their cast and crew, to get out of the way and let it just happen normally and naturally. I have never been with a good director who lost his temper or shouted or screamed at people or did any of the things they let directors do in movie comedies, or films where they show how temperamental directors are.

And specifically about working with Jon Favreau, whom he recognizes as his favorite director he’s worked with:

It was a happy set. He has a great sense of humor. He was kidding with the actors, giving them a lot of freedom.

What We’ve Learned

It makes sense that Lee’s catchphrase is “Excelsior!” since a lot of his tips are about aiming ever upward. You should strive to be always better than what’s come before, to be more original and more distinct. To be bolder. Half of what is successful about Marvel-based movies is his doing and what others have similarly done in effort to keep making his creations even greater. Lee has also been in more Marvel movies than anyone and can see the consistencies, that have made them special, so his observation of what it takes to direct them is key.

Excelsior!

Christopher began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called 'Read,' back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials.