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'Veronica Mars' Rob Thomas Returns to the Scene of the Crime

The 'Mars' movie's director opens up about Kickstarter, the film's 'Party Down' in-joke and his next project

Rob Thomas
Jason Merritt/Getty Images
March 14, 2014 11:10 AM ET

When we last saw Veronica Mars, the titular spunky teen heroine of the cult TV show had burned bridges, alienated both her romantic interests, and had become a social leper at her Southern California college. (The final shot of the series finale is Mars walking through the rain, which is the least SoCal-flavored goodbye you could imagine for a sunny beachtown show.) Melancholy doesn't begin to describe how showrunner Rob Thomas left things hanging, in what turned out to be his gambit to save the show from cancellation: If I leave everything unresolved, they'll have to let me do another season! The CW Network called his bluff, and Veronica trudged out of our lives.

Life on 'Mars': What You Need to Know Before Seeing the 'Veronica Mars' Movie

Thomas and the show's star, Kristen Bell, went off to do other projects: He created other small-screen gems, including the beloved ode to the catering world's pink-bowtie grunts, Party Down; she nabbed a few plum movie parts (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and had a recurring role on NBC's superheroes serial Heroes. But Mars fans — known as "Marshmallows" — kept asking if a movie was in the works. They wanted closure; so did Thomas, who regretted leaving his heroine in such a bad headspace. He wrote a script, Bell signed on, and Warner Brothers balked at his suggested budget. Eventually, Thomas turned to Kickstarter in the hopes of crowdsourcing some funds from the fans. The resulting $5.7 million he raised in record time was quickly seen as a revolutionary way forward for film financing.

And now, ten years after Mars trod down a sodden street in the fictional Neptune, California, she's back and on the big screen. The Veronica Mars movie finds Bell's former teen sleuth living in New York and trying to get a job at a prestigious law firm. A former-classmate-turned-pop-star's murder and a frantic call from the prime suspect — her old boyfriend Logan (Jason Dohring) — inspires a reluctant trip back to her old stomping grounds. Just when she thought she was out….

For Thomas, the fact that he's not only been able to return to the scene of the crime but craft a whole new ending (and possible new beginning) for his character and bask in the attention of a beyond-successful financing campaign has been both gratifying and surreal. Rolling Stone talked to Thomas about the Kickstarter experience, his responsibility to the fans and the fact that you actually can go home again.

At what point did you seriously start thinking that a movie might be in the cards? I know there was the issue of the unresolved Season 3…
Well, keep in mind that I didn't leave Season 3 resolved in the hopes that there would be a movie…

It was in the hope that you could avoid being cancelled, right?
Right. The CW had come to me and said, "You know, you might want to wrap this up in a bow, because you may not be back." I did not want to make it easy for them, so I purposefully wrote and open ending. That, obviously, did not work. [Laughs] The irony is that the lack of resolution is actually a big part of the reason I think we got to make a movie. I think if I'd left her in a happier place, I don't think fans would have rallied to the cause they way they did.

'Veronica Mars' Kickstarter Sets Pledging Record

Did the fans' response that you did get surprise you? It was a beloved cult TV show, but a cult TV show nonetheless.
It's such a tricky question to answer. I had to believe that there would be a big response in order to spend a year and a half convincing Warner Brothers to let us make the film. And yet at the same time, I was really shocked by the speed at which we got there. I became the Pied Piper of Kickstarter, convincing the company that yes, the fans will show up and we'll make our goal of $2 million.  

And the next thing you know, you set a Kickstarter record.
It went beyond our expectations, yes. There was one moment the night before we launched the campaign where Kristen and I sent out tweets, saying some big news was on the way. I mean, she has a million followers, so I thought it'd be equivalent of throwing a boulder into a puddle. And…nothing. No reaction at all. I spent a sleepless night thinking, maybe I've just been listening to the same twenty fans for the last seven years and there really is no groundswell for a Veronica Mars movie. We are going to look pretty stupid.

So we launched, and suddenly, the money just started pouring in. It happened so fast. We debated beforehand whether saying that someone who gave a $10,000 donation could have a speaking part was a ridiculous move or not. No one is going to pay that kind of money for this! And then that went in the first hour. Once that happened, I thought, okay. People are in now. 

When you and Kristen started talking about what story you wanted to tell with the film, were either of you setting ground rules? You know, "Veronica can't show up ten years later covered in prison tattoos, or go to outer space…"?
Luckily, Kristen has always trusted me to not lead the characters down some crazy path that doesn't make any sense. She's really not the kind of person who's going to go, "Hey, let's go do some brainstorming! Yay!" But once I had a few ideas of where I thought we could take this, I showed Kristen and the studio a two-page treatment that detailed the exact movie I wanted to make. Everyone loved it. In a way, it was the easiest greenlighting of a movie ever. [Pause] Except for the millions of dollars I had to get permission to raise on my own. 

'Veronica Mars' Digital Spin-Off in the Works

How many story ideas ended up getting explored and discarded before you got to what ended up onscreen?
What got left on the script's version of the cutting-room floor was character-based stuff. I'd write a scene and say, well, this should have more Mac in it, or more Weevil, or more Dick Casablancas, because people want to see these characters. Eventually, what started getting shore shrift was the murder case itself, and that was a problem. So I had to scale a lot of that back. 

My one big regret would probably be cutting out this whole storyline involving Julie Gonzolo's character, Parker, and how she was living this sort of Housewives of Beverly Hills lifestyle. We just ran out of money at the end. I wished we could have included that. 

Did you find yourself feeling torn between giving the fans what they want and trying to tell the story you wanted to tell?
Well, I'm really, really happy with the movie we made. But look, it was a fan-funded movie, and I felt the need to bring back old characters, cross-reference the old show and throw in some Easter eggs. It doesn't take away from the film if you've never seen the show, but if you have, we've included a lot of special stuff for you. Keep in mind that when we started, we weren't sure whether we'd get a theatrical release or not. We hoped that we could get the film out to the people who'd enjoy it. Honestly, it wasn't until the Kickstarter campaign got us so much attention that we sat down and said, right, let's start thinking about how we can make this work for a larger audience as well. 

That's where the two-minute intro comes in.
Exactly. It quickly gets everyone up to speed. You don't want to make a Spider-Man origin-story movie? Then tell the origin story in the opening credit sequence and it's out of the way. If I get the chance to make a second one, I would approach it a slightly different way. It would be: What's the best nourish mystery story I can tell here? What characters in the Veronica Mars world would fit into that? Okay, these ones can stay in, but everybody else is out. The next one will be all about the case. But yes, the first film was really a love letter to the fans. 

Speaking of rabid TV-show fans who've been asking for a movie, you should have had Ryan Hansen come out in his last scene wearing a pink bowtie.
[Laughs] That would have been good. There's actually a very subtle Party Down joke in the movie.

Really? Where?
When Veronica goes to her high school reunion, she gets hit on by Kyle Bornheimer, who offers to take from heliskiing. He plays a very similar heliskiing-obsessed asshole in Party Down. He's found his niche.

'Veronica Mars' and 60 Other Reasons to Love 2014

How did it feel going back to these characters and this world after so long?
It felt like going back home. You know, showbiz people live like gypsies: You work on a job, for five, maybe six years and then you move on to the next one. But if you're lucky, you get a project where you work with amazing people and you take real pride in your what you did. If that hadn't been the case, we would not have wanted to come back and do this again. But we all did. [Pause] I mean, I was still nervous. For the very first scene on the very first day we shot, I yelled action before the cameras were even set up, much less running. That cracked Kristen up. 

You've talked before about wanting closure in regards to not ending the story the way you wanted to when that last season ended early. Do you feel like you've got closure now?
I do, actually. If we never saw Veronica again, and I never got the chance to tell another story involving her, I'm totally comfortable with where we left here this time. It was much harder leaving her as a pariah the way we did at the end of the show.

What can you tell us about iZombie?
I can tell you that CW is interested in having a kick-ass female heroine on TV again, and that they came to me and said "We want the next Buffy, we want the next Veronica Mars…will you take a stab at this?" They handed me a copy of the Vertigo comic book, and that was that. We just found our lead, this New Zealand actress named Rose McIver, about a week ago. It's a procedural about a young zombie  who works in a police morgue and solves crimes. [Pause] It sounds goofy, I know.

So did "a cheerleader who kills vampires in her spare time."
So did "an adolescent private eye solves crimes in a fictional, class-divided Southern California town." And look how that turned out.

If anyone is going to bring the notion of a young, strong female heroine back to TV, it's going to be you or Joss Whedon. And he's busy playing with superheroes, so it looks like the responsibility falls on you.
If Joss needs someone to take one of those superhero franchises off his hands, I'd be happy to oblige. [Laughs]

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