Set Visit: X-Men: Days of Future Past - Part One
As director Matthew Vaughn and writer/producer Simon Kinberg were developing a sequel to the surprisingly great X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, they knew two things right off the bat:
1) They wanted to set it 10 years later in the 1970s; and
2) They wanted to have Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen—just the two of them—bookend the film.
"And then we started saying, 'Wouldn't this be interesting if it was kind of like GODFATHER II' where you're intercutting and seeing backstory and future story," Kinberg recalls. "And then one day I was with Matthew and I said, 'Have you read Days of Future Past?"'
Little did they realize what they were about to pull off with one of the biggest franchises of all time.
"It's the biggest Fox movie ever outside of AVATAR. It's a massive movie." – Hugh Jackman
The most important thing you should know going in to this movie—X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is definitely a FIRST CLASS sequel, first and foremost. Though the "greatest hits" cast of actors from previous films may have you salivating, the five main performers that carry the story are James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult and "newcomer" Hugh Jackman. It's a continuation of the characters and story started in the 2011 prequel, woven in to the fabric of one of the property's most iconic comic arcs.
For those not familiar with Chris Claremont's "Days of Future Past" storyline, it follows two timelines: a dystopian future (2013, ironically enough), where giant Sentinels are on the verge of exterminating the last remaining mutants; and the "present," where the future X-Men send Kitty Prdye's consciousness back in time in an attempt to alter the course of history. The film seems to be sticking to this plot fairly faithfully, with one exception—instead of Kitty Pryde, it's Wolverine who psychically returns to the past. And there's a logical reason for that, besides the fact that Jackman is arguably the franchise's biggest star. "Because he doesn't really age, he'd look the same as an actor in 1973 as he would in the future," says Kinberg. "And to send somebody back this far would be really destructive to the body and he's the only person that heals." Producer Hutch Parker also sees it as an opportunity for the popular character: "It's significant not only because of his mutant power, because he's so ill-suited to the role he has to play as this ambassador to the past… It's ironic that he plays a peacemaker, a broker of sane rationality in a somewhat insane context." (Claremont himself was supportive of the change and even has a cameo in the film.)
"There's a part of me that says I can right some of the wrongs we might have done in X3." – writer Simon Kinberg
Not surprisingly, the result is a film that's absolutely epic in both in scope and budget. "It's the biggest Fox movie ever outside of AVATAR," claimed Jackman. And with this choice of storyline also came another bonus: the opportunity to bring all the other actors back.
Granted, with the billion dollar success of the X-MEN franchise, it was kind of a no-brainer for Fox to greenlight a film like this, especially facing THE AVENGERS and the continuing Marvel Cinematic Universe. But scheduling a movie with what Parker called "the best cast I've ever seen in any film ever" was a different beast altogether. (Pun intended.) Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen had long-term stage commitments in New York. Anna Paquin and Peter Dinklage both had shows on HBO. And Halle Berry had just found out she was pregnant. Much like their mutant counterparts, the odds were against them.
The solution? Divide and conquer. Filming was split into two parts: old cast vs. new cast. The production shot all the future scenes first, with availability ranging from three weeks for Stewart, McKellen and Ellen Page, to two days for the expecting Berry. There was only one day and one scene which featured any overlap—the very literal Charles Xavier face-off between Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy that's featured in the trailer. After that, the FIRST CLASS cast came on board to shoot the majority of the movie, with Hugh Jackman being the only actor present for the entire shoot.
"Bryan has a much darker, more serious kind of approach, whereas Matthew was looking to dress Michael Fassbender up as a tranny." - James McAvoy
Eventually Matthew Vaughn left the project to direct Mark Millar's THE SECRET SERVICE, leaving original X-MEN and X2 director Bryan Singer to return to the franchise and genre he helped start almost 15 years ago. With him, he brought along his team from the first movie—Oscar-winning production designer John Myhre, director of photography Thomas Sigel and costume designer Louise Mingenbach. And they weren't the only familiar elements at play.
"It takes me back to USUAL SUSPECTS more than any other film ever has," said Singer. "I shot an interrogation scene in the first five days and then Kevin Spacey stayed on and we did the rest of the movie. With this it's very similar, in the beginning we shot the scenes in the future with the original cast. It's not a majority of the picture, but it does interweave through the picture, much like USUAL SUSPECTS."
Singer was in his element the day we visited the set, proud and excited about how things were shaping up as they wrapped production, but he admitted that he wasn't entirely itching to return to the mutant world at first. The big hold-up? Time travel. "There was a structure, but there was no concept of time travel or how it worked. So until I figured that out I had some misgivings about doing the movie. Once I figured that out I was very hooked."
While Singer was excited by the experimental physics of it all (using terms like "the traveler" and "the observer" to explain his concept), writer Simon Kinberg looked at things in terms of the story. He cited BACK TO THE FUTURE and THE TERMINATOR as two influences, saying "those franchises are built around character and that's what I wanted to focus on is to use time travel to tell character stories not to just do it for science fiction purposes." (Both men also mentioned sharing their concepts with temporal expert James Cameron, who offered Kinberg one piece of sage advice: "Don't f*ck it up.")
"I'm never going to be the kind of director that has action ad nauseum. I don’t think it's in me unless it's motivated by the story or the characters. If it is, then I'll destroy planets." - Bryan Singer
However, besides the time travel, the original cast, and the classic comic story, there's one element of DAYS OF FUTURE PAST that everyone is most excited about: the Sentinels. By now you've heard that there are both past and future versions of the giant mutant-hunting robots and that WETA will be handling the visual effects. However, everyone we spoke to had their own hints as to what we can expect... and it doesn't sound like we'll be disappointed:
Bryan Singer: "There are movies like TRANSFORMERS and IRON MAN and PACIFIC RIM that have already explored robots of all different sizes and shapes and scope and caliber. We tried to make the ones from 1973, the Sentinels of the past, a little fun and stylish but also a little retro. The key is they're not made of metal. That's very important to our story because we've got a very powerful mutant. So that was a challenge to, to make them look like they could be made of polymer or some other material, plastic or something, but still have them be formidable when flying around."
Lauren Shuler-Donner: "They’re nasty! I can’t say too much. They evolve into very threatening enemies, destroyers. That’s all I can say. They’re cool-looking. They’re almost omnipotent."
Simon Kinberg: "Bryan spent a lot of time working on them to make them feel period specific but also cool and what a kid would fantasize about."
Hugh Jackman: "All I can tell you is that in the future, the Sentinels are formidable. They're formidable in the past, but in the future—it's a very dire situation for the X-Men. And it's exciting after doing two Wolverine movies in a row to see how the X-Men work together. I'm trying to give you a little something without giving you much, but they need to work together in order to bring down the Sentinels."
John Myhre: "What I can tell you as a designer is that again I really wanted to embrace the 70's. I looked at a lot of car design and futuristic concepts from the 70's on a high end. Brian was immediately very excited for our concept of the future. The 70's was a bit more complicated that you really want to be faithful for the fans in the books so there a lot of elements that needed to be a humanoid shape to have a head arms and needed to be purple. There were a lot of things we had to do to give them a different look."
Nicholas Hoult: "The size of it was something quite remarkable, but then just seeing all of the little details, the eyes, and the weapons they've got and everything. The scenes with those are going to be pretty epic. My favorite moment was we had a big scene where they were unveiling the Sentinels and one person in the crowd, just as they were unveiled said, 'It's not as impressive as Optimus Prime.'"
"You've got this generation of established actors that are just the best in the world. If you went to people and said, 'Who are the best actors in Hollywood?'—We have them." - production designer John Myhre
When we visited the Montreal set of the film in mid-August of 2013, the production was a week away from wrapping after a fast-paced and complicated four-month shoot. While the original source material mainly took place in the United States, Singer's DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is a globe-hopping adventure. The film opens in Moscow, before visiting Washington DC, New York City, China and 1970s Paris (where the Beast-Magneto fountain fight takes place)—most of which was doubled in the versatile Old Montreal area of the city. However, 60% of the film was shot on sound stages, with 39 different sets being built.
The first one we walked through was the "Inner Sanctum" set, the location for many of the future scenes. It's the last remaining stronghold for the mutants, set in a Chinese monastery hidden on the side of a cliff and based on a real-life structure carved entirely out of a single stone, according to production designer John Myhre. At 120 by 300 feet, it was a massive set, made to look like old stone surrounded by beautiful stained glass. We saw reference photos of Wolverine laying down in the middle of it, suggesting this as the location where his unconscious body is stored while he's in the past. Next, we got to hang out in Charles Xavier's mansion, which was definitely decked out for 1973 with old stereos and turntables set amongst marble pillars and a very familiar chess table in the corner. The staircase even formed an X (of which Myhre assured us there are many more hidden throughout the film).
However, this day they were filming a climactic scene on Xavier's jet, which featured an intense showdown between Charles and Erik. (Hank is flying the plane, while Logan was standing behind Magneto trying to hold him back.) The production had built a full-size plane hull attached to a two-story tall computerized gimble that could rock the aircraft back and forth. Giant floodlights simulated daylight inside. Singer said the rig could technically do a full 180, but they were just using it for moderate dips and twists. No stuntmen required.
Though we couldn't listen to the dialogue for fear of third-act spoilers, the scene played out like this: Charles and Erik begin to argue and as their fight grows louder and more intense (we could hear them outside at ground level), the plane starts to shake. Charles stands up and grabs Erik by the collar and the two threaten each other before Magneto clearly uses his powers to take control of the plane, causing it to dive and sending Charles to fall back on to the couch as plates, whiskey glasses and other things falls around him. After Magneto has made his point, Xavier goes to join Beast in the cockpit. One cool thing to note: Fassbender was standing in a cleverly concealed metal body frame, so while everything and everyone else was falling around him, he was still standing firmly. It's a subtle, yet cool effect on camera.
"I'm not defensive though [on social media]. If someone says, 'I hate this idea!' I'm not gonna be like, 'Retweet: F*ck you!'" - Bryan Singer
There's one question you might be asking yourself: did you just say Charles stands up? [SPOILERS AHEAD] Yep. In the ten years since FIRST CLASS, Xavier is a completely different person, both in terms of personality and physicality. Producer Hutch Parker teased us by saying that Charles "discovered a way to help him walk, but at the cost of other things." Nicholas Hoult also told us that "between the time of the last movie and this movie, my character has created a serum which basically controls his mutation so his appearance is normal as long as he doesn’t get worked up." We'll let you put two and two together. [END SPOILER]
As we watched a few takes from different angles, Singer would check the 2D monitors for the actor's performances, then peek at the 3D monitors to make sure he achieved the stereo effect he was looking for. He made adjustments to the camera to accentuate the fact that the plane was dropping and also asked the technical team to tilt the plane a little more violently. The next take looked even more intense, with performances to match. Even so, we caught McAvoy and Fassbender goofing off between takes, joking around and taking turns singing "Blinded by the Light" and the Flash Gordon theme song. It's a strange, awesome day when you see Professor X and Magneto rocking out to Queen.
Hugh Jackman would come down from the rig every time Singer yelled "cut," a big smile on his face as well. We later asked him about playing Wolverine for the seventh time in this movie and he had this to say: "I'm fully aware that people will hear the idea and think, 'Ah, they've just come up with a way to bring everybody together,' right? And the great thing is, I don't have to sell it because I know the storyline is phenomenal. Any of the cynics out there, it's going to exceed their expectations by a million miles."
Stay tuned for more from our X-MEN DAYS OF FUTURE PAST set visit:
Part Two: Our extensive chats with James McAvoy, Nicholas Hoult and "Hugo Boss" himself, Hugh Jackman!
Part Three: We discuss the future of the X-MEN franchise with Bryan Singer, Simon Kinberg, Lauren Shuler-Donner and more!
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