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Marvel Screenwriter Nicole Perlman Shatters the Glass Ceiling for Women in Sci-Fi

We spoke to Nicole Perlman about what she recommends reading, watching, and listening to.
Nicole Perlman.

Creating stories that propel characters into space and onto strange and marvelous planets, Nicole Perlman has shattered the glass ceiling for women in the superhero and sci-fi genres. Fresh out of a Marvel program for upcoming screenwriters, Perlman became the first-ever woman to write a screenplay for the comics house with the 2014 box-office hit Guardians of the Galaxy, which she co-wrote with director James Gunn. Perlman then helped write Marvel's first female-centered superhero film, the upcoming Captain Marvel starring Brie Larson. Perlman has also won a grant from the Tribeca Film Institute Sloan Filmmaker Fund—which supports science- and technology-based movies made by those traditionally underrepresented in the film industry—for her screenplay Challenger, which tells the story of Richard Feynman's investigation of the Challenger space shuttle disaster. And she has been tapped to write a sci-fi television drama for Amazon Studios. Next up: directing. After winning a Cinereach Director's Fellowship, Perlman is currently in post-production on a sci-fi short film that she helmed.



Tender Mercies
The 1983 film that won Robert Duvall his first, and so far only, Oscar follows a washed-up country star who attempts to start a new life by wooing a young mother. Tender Mercies was released with little marketing effort from distributor Universal Studios but later won two Oscars for acting and writing and landed on Roger Ebert's "Great Movies" list.

"I've never seen a movie quite like Tender Mercies, which is so simple and quiet that it seems like there is no way it could possibly be dramatic—yet it absolutely is. The tension comes simply from the audience witnessing the simple life [Duvall has] managed to create, and being constantly reminded of how fragile and vulnerable happiness is."

The Century of the Self
In this four-part 2002 BBC documentary series, British documentarian Adam Curtis (HyperNormalisation) traces how 20th-century marketing gurus and political strategists manipulated Sigmund Freud's revolutionary ideas about the unconscious mind to create consumer demand. Curtis argues that our modern obsession with individuality—and products that reflect it—resulted from this mass dissemination of Freud's ideas about desire.

"Americans' shift from partaking in the kinds of activist movements that can change history, to instead choosing to 'work on themselves' and hone their individualism through their consumer choices, did not happen by accident. This documentary has stuck with me for years, and the concepts discussed seem more relevant now than ever before."


Before director David Lowery made newspaper critics' year-end lists with his films Ain't Them Bodies Saints (2013) and A Ghost Story (2017), both starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, he caught the attention of festival-goers with his 2011 short film Pioneer. Portraying a father telling his son a semi-fictional tale about how he met the boy's mother, the 15-minute short won acclaim for channeling the childhood magic of bedtime stories.

"In Pioneer, scope isn't dictated by set pieces and explosions; it is suggested by clever sound design and lighting. Best of all, the fact that we never learn how much of the story is true turns out to be completely irrelevant—because the emotional truth behind the father-son bond is so real."


The League of Gentlemen
Like Saturday Night Live for the "cozy mystery" set, The League of Gentlemen, a BBC series that ran from 1999 to 2002, was acted almost entirely by its writers: Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton, Jeremy Dyson, and Reece Shearsmith. Consisting of a series of sketches about Royston Vasey's townspeople—who include serial killers, a toad breeder, and a butcher who alludes to selling human meat—the notoriously odd show also became deeply beloved, inspiring a 2005 film and 2017 miniseries revival.

"It's like if someone watched Village of the Damned and said, 'Hey, this would make for a hilarious television series.' What knocked me over was how, in the third season, the laugh tracks are suddenly gone, and the show becomes far more dramatic, following the intersection of all these outlandish characters in a way that actually honors their core humanity. I've never seen anything like it."


The Pillowman
Americans who don't keep up with theater may know Martin McDonagh best as the director and writer behind violent, near-absurdist films including In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. But before McDonagh stepped behind the camera, he was one of Britain's best-known playwrights, writing The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lonesome West, and The Banshees of Inisheer. His first play set outside of Ireland, The Pillowman, follows a short-story writer who is accused of murder after children are found killed in a manner similar to that of characters in his stories.

"I caught an outstanding 2005 production of this in New York, starring Billy Crudup and Jeff Goldblum. This metaphysical horror story has a storyteller who both creates reality and disposes of it, leaving the consequences to his audience. You're presented with alternative and contrasting truths, all of which serve to peel back the layers of the onion until you're weeping at its dark core."


Written and first staged by London-based theater company Complicité, this experimental title weaves together several separate stories that resonate with one another, but never coalesce into a single narrative. The director of the play kicks it off with a speech about memories, and asks audience members to recall their own; he then becomes a character whose girlfriend left him when she decided to learn the identity of her long-lost father; in a separate storyline, explorers find a 5,000-year-old iceman and piece together his life from the remnants of his existence that remain.

"I saw Complicité's production in New York City almost 20 years ago, and it has stayed with me ever since. The play made me more aware of both the experience of memory and the science behind it, [and] taught me that complexity can be a feature, not a bug."

Visual Artists

Sarah SzeAt the United States Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2013, artist Sarah Sze's Triple Point filled the pavilion's rooms with found objects—many from Venice itself—that would remind viewers of objects with meaning in their own lives. The evolving exhibition, which changed substantially over its three-month tenure in Italy, sought to create spaces filled with objects that "measured" the universe. Housed within the installation are tools including tape measures and gaffer's tape, and less obvious means of making sense of the world's scale: sleeping bags, stools, wires, and espresso cups.

"I first saw Sarah Sze's work at the 2013 Venice Biennale, where her installation had taken over the American Pavilion. It looked like I had walked into the middle of a science experiment undertaken by an eccentric, obsessive-compulsive poet. Intricate and disorienting collections of everyday objects were arranged in such a way as to point to some mystical meaning that was just beyond your grasp; there was a precision and an intention to it that really resonated with me. It was about finding equilibrium in a disordered universe, which to me feels similar to the way in which we organize our lives into something that makes sense via narrative."


Walton Ford
New York-based artist Walton Ford embeds critiques, jokes, and commentary into expansive paintings of animals that imitate the style of naturalist history illustrators. In one piece, Ford parodies California's origin myths with an image of the MGM lion lounging poolside at a Bel Air mansion; in another, he comically exaggerates the bloodlust of extinct Tasmanian tigers by imagining them eating sheep and each other. "My work reacts to the history of natural history and the history of people's interactions with animals and other cultures," Ford has said of his work, "and our way of remembering natural-history events and creatures that are now extinct."

"These paintings are rabbit holes you can fall into: The more you observe them, the more you discover about them, and the more you realize the joke he's telling. For example, his Monkey Banquet references the 19th-century explorer Sir Richard Burton's social experiments on monkeys, and the chaos that ensued. Much of Ford's work pokes fun at the folly and hypocrisy of man in his attempt to dominate the natural world. His paintings are many things all at once."


Museum of Jurassic Technology
The Culver City-based brainchild of artist, designer, and MacArthur "genius" grant recipient David Wilson, the Museum of Jurassic Technology exhibits both real and imagined cultural artifacts in a setting that feels at once like a museum, a cabinet of curiosities, and a mausoleum. Exhibits include a collection of paintings of the cosmonaut dogs that were sent into space by the Soviet Union in the 1950s and early '60s; the history of mobile-home disasters in Los Angeles; and an explanation of how ant eggs can cure love.

"To my mind, this museum is the most magical place in Los Angeles. Go to this museum with an open mind, and you will leave feeling like you have gained some secret knowledge about the universe."

A version of this story originally appeared in the June/July 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.