‘X-Men’ producers Donner and Kinberg on the past, present, and future of the series

One of the most impressive things about “X-Men: Days Of Future Past” is how it feels like they've reset the entire series to a point, and they can now tell any story they want again with any of the characters they've used so far without worrying about continuity issues.

It is amazing to realize that they've been working with the same cast and many of the same people behind the camera for fourteen years now. Not many series can pull off that sort of longevity without having to shake everything up completely, and yet it looks like Hugh Jackman is signing another deal to keep playing Wolverine and now the series has a second wind with some of the hottest new stars in Hollywood including Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence.

I reached out to Lauren Shuler-Donner and Simon Kinberg and asked them if we could sit down and discuss the series, the choices they made about this film, and what they see as the future of the franchise, and so the day after Memorial Day, we all hopped on the phone and dug right in.

Last Monday morning, I took my two sons to see “Days Of Future Past,” and they flipped completely for it. One of the things I've noticed is that they're less concerned about what story each film tells and more interested in simply seeing as many mutants as possible in each movie.  I asked Lauren and Simon how they make decisions about which characters get used in each film, particularly when they're introducing new characters we haven't seen before.

Lauren answered first, saying “You mean in terms of bringing back the old cast and our new cast from 'X-Men First Class?' That”s what we wanted… a blended cast. We wanted to bring them all together. Or in terms of the newer cast from the future, do you mean? Part of it is for their look. Part of it is for their power. Part of it is to make them represent the audience so it”s more diverse and global. Anything else Simon?”

Simon continued, “Yeah, all of that. Specifically one of the mutants that I think people are clearly responding to very positively is Quicksilver, and that was actually… when we developed the script initially, that was gonna be a young Juggernaut.”

I'd read that draft of the script, and it was interesting seeing how they approached the same goal as in the finished film, but with a very different approach. In that draft, they dropped Juggernaut from a plane over the Pentagon, and he picked up enough speed that when he hit the ground, he went right through to the cell where Magneto was being held. Then they dropped Wolverine in after Juggernaut, so even though he was pulverized completely by the fall, he was able to heal quickly to help Magneto get out of the building. It seems obvious that they made the right choice going to Quicksilver instead, though, based on how much people love that scene.

Simon explained, “That was really Bryan. I think Bryan was excited about using Quicksilver, and he had a very clear sense in his mind of what that sequence was gonna be visually.”

Lauren added, “He also had a really clear vision that he wanted Evan Peters to do it.”

“Yeah, Lauren had to figure out how to make that work.”

Lauren laughed at the thought of all the negotiating that had to take place. “We moved heaven and earth to do it, but everybody cooperated. Ryan Murphy helped us and Fox Broadcasting [Chairman and CEO] Dana Walden helped us, you know. But it was very difficult to bring him from the show. But Bryan clearly wanted him and he was such a good choice.”

I asked them if part of the motivation in doing “Days Of Future Past” was to hit a reset button on the series. Simon explained, “Well, Lauren, you”ve always wanted to do 'Days Of Future Past' since you started these movies. When Lauren and I worked on 'First Class' together, at least for me… when we were working on 'First Class,' I wasn”t conscious of the fact that we were kind of setting it up for 'Days of Future Past.' But certainly we were. And when we started talking about the sequel, the first thoughts that it would be 'Days of Future Past' floated to the top very quickly.”

One of the things that has been true throughout the series is that they don't do straight line-for-line adaptations of anything. They've always taken ideas or themes and then built their own stories, and “Days Of Future Past” is the same way, so I asked how they chose what was important to adapt and how they decided what they could discard.

Simon laughed at the memory. “It was really tricky. I mean, you know, the two trickiest things from a screenwriter”s standpoint were getting the time travel logic right. So there couldn't be any paradoxes. And then obviously balancing eight to twelve major characters, of which, five or six were the main characters of the movie, like young Charles and Eric and Wolverine and Raven and Hank. In terms of how it would impact the continuity of the movies, very early on we talked about… you know, when Matthew Vaughn was originally gonna direct the movie… in the first conversation, we all talked about wanting to bring back Scott and Jean and even the very first outlines two and a half years ago now, they were at the very end of the movie.  So there was a sense, I think, for all of us of maybe not righting a wrong, but shifting the history of what we did in 'The Last Stand.'”

I asked them how hard it was to keep the secret about Marsden and Janssen appearing in that final scene, and if it was emotional for them to see everyone show up in costume after all this time. Lauren replied, “We went to great lengths to keep it a secret. We went to great lengths to not have them fly in to Montreal, but have them drive up. And then we had to ask everybody who saw it not to reveal it. I believe it was up on one website, Simon. We immediately had them take it down. And, yes, you know, I mean it”s emotional in a very wonderful way because as we both have said, we”re a family, and it”s really great to bring back the rest of the family. When I saw Jimmy [Marsden] the other day it was like… you just want to look at each other and smile. I can”t explain it. You”ve been through the trenches with these people, and we”ve all come out very fond of each other and very positive at the end of it. Yeah, it”s a thrill. It”s a thrill to see them back in the movie.”

They've got to be feeling good these days about hiring Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, and Jennifer Lawrence, considering how they're blowing up as they make other films around their time in the world of “X-Men,” and I asked if they are excited about writing for this cast as they move forward now.

“Yeah, certainly as a writer it is,” Simon answered. “I mean, you know, ordinarily on a movie, you”d be excited if you get one of these people to star in your film.  And, you know, I think the series has been pretty fresh from the beginning. Like, for example, Lauren finding Hugh Jackman when he was an unknown stage actor, you know, and now, fifteen years later, he is one of the biggest movie stars in the world. I think the legacy of these movies is that from the start, the mission was to find people who either aren”t known or are known as great actors but aren”t, you know, big movie stars yet. I mean, even someone like Ian McKellen obviously is like one of the great actors of his generation. But when you guys put him in 'X-1,' it was sort of the first time he”d done a bigger Hollywood style movie. As a writer, it”s amazing, because I know that I can write any level of drama or depth and they will actually elevate it.”

Lauren added, “It”s funny, because with Jennifer, we had one casting director for a certain point of time and then another casting director took over. Our London casting director took over. And this woman brought Jennifer in. She read for me first, and she had just completed 'Winter”s Bone,' and she was just, you know, there”s just something about her. I mean, she had to do like auditions and all that, but the thing is that it”s sort of… you see this talent and you go, 'Oh my God, a wonderful talent.' She and Fassbender and McAvoy have become so big because they”re so very talented. We were just lucky that we found them when we did.”

One of the best moments in the entire new film is between McAvoy and Fassbender on a plane, and the intensity of feeling between them is amazing. There's so much going on in that scene, and I love that these new films are able to explore Charles and Erik at a time when they were still grappling with the ways their beliefs align and the ways in which they conflict. Lauren said, “That is a real tribute to Simon, too, because he really worked on that scene and reworked it.”

In the early days of the franchise, the filmmakers were dealing with Tom Rothman at the studio, and he resisted a number of things that were part of the comics. When Singer left “The Last Stand” in a very public huff, it was a sign of just how difficult things were between the producers and the studio. I asked if things are better now for them, and how the studio is as a creative partner these days.

Simon said, “Lauren was there from the beginning.  I jumped in on 'X3.'”

Lauren said, “Well, the difference between one and two was… you know, nobody knew what we were doing so we kind of had free reign at first. I think particularly on this last one, everybody”s on the same page. It”s been… it was really conducive, Simon, wasn”t it? Very, very supportive. Very creative. I don”t think we could have asked for anything more.”

Simon picked back up with, “Yeah, I agree. This is the biggest movie I”ve ever worked on but I think it”s probably the most collaborative movie. I didn”t feel like there was any interference and I think part of that is because of what you said. Lauren”s been on how many of these movies? This is your eighth X-Men movie? For Bryan, it was his third or fourth X-Men movie if you count him producing 'The Last Stand.' Collectively we”ve made a lot of these movies and for the most part we”ve made them well. They really did just let us make the movie we wanted to make.”

I told them that it feels like you can see how the entire approach to comic book movies has changed just by watching the “X-Men” movies in order, and if they feel like they're able to take more risks in terms of how they approach things like the tag at the end of this movie, which doesn't really explain things to the uninitiated.

Lauren considered it for a moment, then said, “Yes, yeah. We”ve always wanted to do this. We”ve always wanted to line up our future and know where we”re going. We wanted to develop a script while we were shooting the other one. There never was support for that. Now studios embrace the franchise, and there”s a lot of support, and now we can figure out our path and which way we”re going.”

I asked if they felt like audiences in 1999 or 2000 would have been ready to jump right in with stories about time travel and giant robots, or if they needed to take these steps to get to that point, and Simon replied, “You know, I wasn”t making these movies back then, but as a fan I remember seeing 'X-Men' for the first time out in Marina Del Ray, and my mind was pretty blown by it. And not just the sort of respect and love for the comics, but because the approach was completely different than any other superhero movie in that it was dramatic, completely character driven… I mean, starting a superhero movie in the Holocaust, it”s pretty radical. I do think there”s a sort of modern template for the superhero movies for the last decade and a half that was created from 'X-Men.' But I don”t think audiences were completely ready. They certainly weren”t as well versed in these movies or stories, not like audiences as they are now. The biggest movies now are comic movies, the biggest movies that are being made and they are the most watched films, so you can give it a little bit more of that comic book reality than there was 15 years ago.”

One of the things that stood out about “Days Of Future Past” to me was that it feels like the scenes where everyone is in action made better use of the combination of powers and abilities than any of the films so far, and I asked Kinberg if that's just because they've had so much time to figure out that process and figure out what they'd like to see each of the characters do. “For me action sequences are about characters, so I usually tend to write the action in terms of being structured around the character”s perspectives. The actual use of the powers and a lot of the details of the action, there is an incredible team of people that work on that, from Bryan on down. There”s a second unit director that will help with things. Our visual effects supervisor, Richard Stammers, was incredible. And they would all build it together.”

I asked if there is anything in the final finished “Days Of Future Past” that Simon or Lauren look at and think came out better than they had originally planned. “Well, the Sentinels were sort of even better rendered than I had anticipated, and when I wrote the script, you know, partly because it wasn”t Quicksilver, but I never could have visualized that kitchen sequence in the way that Bryan imagined it and then the way that everybody executed it. There are a ton of little details in the movie that are fabulous because so many people put so much care and time into all the details. For me, the kitchen sequence is the one where… you know, I wrote it one way but I couldn”t have imagined all the little things, like when he”s tasting the sou, or when he takes the hat. There are a lot of lovely flourishes, little texture moments that make that sequence work, that I hadn”t imagined.”

I asked them if they're going to continue looking for characters who they can spin off from the main series to hopefully carry films of their own, something that seems like it's hard to do unless your series is really dense, like with this one or with “Star Wars,” which Kinberg also has a hand in shaping right now. “That”s what we hope to do. We were able to do it with Wolverine, and we hope to do another one with him. There were a few characters that we would like to break out and put them in their own movies and in their own series,” Lauren said.

I'm a big fan of “The New Mutants,” and the original run of that series, especially when Sienkiewicz was doing the artwork, is some of my favorite Marvel stuff ever. I asked if there's a chance we'll ever see those characters in the movie universe, and Lauren said, “We love 'The New Mutants,' and we've definitely talked about it. There”s always a possibility.”

I asked how far down the road they're trying to plan now, or if they just focus on the next thing up, and Simon said, “As Lauren was saying, there is an interest now in thinking through the overall tapestry, having some sense of the future of the main X-Men and other characters.  Certainly, you know, the main focus is on what”s right in front of us like 'X-Men: Apocalypse' or the next 'Wolverine.' Certainly my first priority with 'Apocalypse' is getting that script right. I think because of what Marvel”s done, and… you”re right, 'Star Wars' could be similar…. if you go back to the original 'Star Wars' movies, there was always a sense of something more. The first movie was chapter four, so there was a sense of a larger story being told and that you were watching just one chapter or like, you know, reading just one issue of a comic. There is a sense of a larger story, too.  Certainly the day to day life is getting each one of these as good as we can. We put a lot of work into 'Days of Future Past.'”

My final question for them was whether they each had characters that they are desperate to see onscreen who they haven't been able to find a place for yet. There was a long silence, and then they both just started laughing, as if I'd asked them something they'd just been discussing. Finally, Lauren simply said, “Yes.”

Still laughing, Simon added, “Same here.”

Fine. Keep your secrets. I'm just glad the films feel like they are back on track these days, and I'm excited to see which combination of onscreen and off-screen talent ends up in the next few films.

“X-Men: Days Of Future Past” is in theaters now.