Theres’s an old cliché that college graduates often hear: “May you avocation become your vocation.” For many young people, life gets in the way. But for screenwriter Ashley Edward Miller ’94, his dreams truly have become reality.
Two of his films — Thor and X-Men: First Class — debuted within a month of each other this summer and are box-office blockbusters. Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Richard Roeper called Thor “the most entertaining superhero debut since the original Spider-Man.”
Miller’s experience is an example of how an education at the College of William and Mary can change a person, allowing them to point their career and life in any direction. For Miller, his direction is quite literally with the stars.
“I graduated in 1994 with a degree in English and government,” says Miller “I had kind of a winding road into screenwriting.” Miller’s first job out of school was a middle-school English teacher for a year. Then for the next seven years, he worked for a defense contractor. All the while he spent his free time fine-tuning his writing skills. He met his wilting partner, Zack Stentz, back in 1997, and thanks to a twist of fate, met a producer of the television series Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda, who bought five scripts from the duo in 2000.
Later Miller and Stentz worked on the revival of The Twilight Zone. In this time, they had been working on a few spec scripts that eventually got them the job with the new television show Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.
“We were the first writers who were hired for that show and we were there for its entire run,” says Miller “It was one of the best professional and creative experiences that I’ve ever had.”
Though Sarah Connor was well-liked by many and critically acclaimed, the show was canceled after two seasons. The parent network of the show, sensing that they could lose a talented writing team, immediately transitioned Miller and Stoltz to the show Fringe. It was just before the end of Sarah Connor and at the start of their run with Fringe that a new opportunity struck them like a bolt of lightning.
“Thor happened while we were in the middle of writing a two-part episode in Sarah Connor. We had just realized that it would need to be a two-parter and we were heavily re-writing an episode of the show which basically didn’t work,” says Miller.
“We were in the middle of post [production] for another episode. There were a ton of things that were happening on the show that would have made it nearly impossible to function.
“I was particularly excited, because Thor was always one of my very favorite characters and was one of the first comic characters that I truly collected. I could speak chapter and verse about Thor.”
As fate would have it, Miller was working closely on the Thor project with the film’s director, Kenneth Branagh. It was this man who helped refocus Miller’s life while he was a student at the College.
“I was a government major initially because when I showed up to the College, I thought that I’d want to do something with that,” says Miller “But I was always a writer; I was always a reader. I resisted becoming an English major. I had it in my head that I did not want to be told what to read, or what to think about what I read.
“But one night, I sat down with some of my friends, and I watched Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V. I was blown away. After that, I started taking English classes. I took basically every Renaissance literature class that Professor Peter Wiggins taught. And what I realized taking those classes was that Shakespeare wrote for the cheap seats. He wrote action and he wrote passionately. You realize that Shakespeare’s first objective, his primary goal was to entertain his audience — and he was funny, exciting and insightful. Shakespeare opens up your mind.”
Miller and his partner worked through five drafts of the Thor script, all of them revisions based on that first version. He feels that the studio looked to his team because they had a reputation for working collaboratively with others, and they were able to get quality work done in a hurry.
“Marvel needed writers who had worked in the genre before, understood comics — and maybe, just maybe, understood something about Thor;” says Miller.
“I can tell you that the intersection of all of those sets on the Venn diagram, who meet those conditions, is very small. So we just happened to be in the right place in the exact right time.”
After they completed Thor, Miller and Stentz went back to work on Fringe, as well as working on a few new projects for Disney. Then in April 2010, the team got a call from Fox, who called them in to give their opinion on another comic-book franchise that was headed back to the big screen.
“Out of the blue, we got a call saying that they want us to look at something” says Miller. “We read the draft that they had of X-Men: First Class. They said that it needed to be re-worked, and asked us what we could do. We didn’t realize that we had 10 days to make X-Men work.”
Much like when they tackled the Thor project, Miller and Stentz pushed into the world of mutant heroes, working 20-hour days until they had completed the script. “We turned in [the script] and got the green light, probably the fastest turnaround from not having a script to green light in studio history,” says Miller.
“We did a second draft over a period of another 10 days. We did a little work here and there as required over the summer: And then magic happened and they finished shooting the movie, and it was out 28 days after Thor.”
Miller laughs at how two projects started and worked on so far apart hit the screen so close together. But due to the difference in the studio schedules, post-production and a writers’ strike all thrown in, the two films that Miller and Stentz wrote two years apart debuted almost back-to-back this summer: Thor opened on May 6, followed by X-Men: First Class, which opened on June 3.
Even through all of his successes, Miller often stops to take a look at what he’s accomplished thus far. He and his wife, Jennifer Munro ’96, along with their son Caden, who is just under 2-years-old, make a point to enjoy all that they have been through together on their way to Hollywood.
Miller will point to an exact moment where the thought actually crystallized in his mind. “I was in the middle of Agent Cody Banks’ pre-production in 2002,” says Miller.
“The studio and the director and the producers and everyone were talking about a change to the script, a major story point. And I was not too happy. I got in my car and I was driving and thinking about these things.
“Then I had this moment of self-awareness — I said, ‘You know what, dude? There are tens of thousands of people in this town alone who would kill to have the bad day that you’re having. And you are having this bad day because you are doing what you’ve always wanted to do since you were a child. So do yourself a favor and shut up. Do your job, enjoy it and have fun.’”
For some, the amazing résumé that Miller has compiled thus far would be enough subject matter for a memoir. But Miller confides that there is far more ahead.
“In the last year, we’ve written a project for Paramount and something else for Disney,” says Miller. “We did X-Men for Fox. And we started work on a project for DreamWorks, which has turned out to be an amazingly awesome experience. This movie is going to surprise people.”
Miller also says that at some point in the future, he’d love to work on a Batman, James Bond or Star Trek film. And that he and Stentz are currently transforming a script idea into a novel for young adults, which will be a real departure from the world of Thor and the X-Men.
“There are other things, but I kind of hesitate to talk about them, because in a way, if I talk about them that makes them less real, until they are going forward,” says Miller. “We are working on all sorts of ideas. We are just getting started.”
This was originally written for The College of William & Mary.